MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
The call to the post at Churchill Downs is one sound of spring. As a bird watcher, commentator Julie Zickefoose is keeping her ears open for another. The sound of the Brown Thrasher. She remembers one spring when the birds seemed to be sending her orders.
Ms. JULIE ZICKEFOOSE (Commentator, NPR News): I was tired, the kind of tired only the mother of a toddler and a five-month-old can be. And I was bummed out. The deer, woodchucks and rabbits had gotten into my vegetable garden and eaten everything into the ground. Here it was a balmy Saturday morning and I should've been turning the garden, but I was facing away from it toward the orchard.
A song drifted to me on the pungent spring breeze of notes and pears, seemingly distant yet curiously close. Pick it up, pick it up, drop it, drop it, cover it, cover it. The brown thrasher was back for the spring.
My father always told me he was the planting bird. He came when it was time to plant the peas and he told you how to do it. I picked up my binoculars and focused on the thrasher. He was fox red with an eye the color of egg yolk turning his mechanically as he sent out his command. And I felt my blood stir and begin to reach my wary brain. It was time to plant the peas.
I laughed aloud and hurdled down the stairs to find my work gloves. Tearing into last year's stalks, I pulled all the old plants out of the ground and piled them in the middle of the plot. In a ritual as old as time, I touched a match to them then stepped back to watch the flame flicker, catch then roar. The sweet, stinging smoke rolled up blue and thick and the flames sang as they reached for the sky. I poked and raked and watched until last year's failures were reduced to white ash.
Next, I loped to the garage for the little garden pile that had belonged to my German grandmother, Freda. My father dug the plow out of her garage when Freda got to where she could no longer use it. When the time came for dad to give up his garden, he told me to take it. And as much as I hated to think of his never using it again, I did.
Both gram and dad are gone now. I miss them so. When I'm working in the garden, I can hear them talking, see their hands working. I push the plow before me, mowing down weeks, working last year's ash into this year's fertile soil.
Two hours flew by under the warm spring sun. The paper dry peas rolled from my fingers into the new furl. Over the next two weeks they'd swell and soften and send out a root and finally raise green heads to the sky. A rumble of thunder sounded and I looked to see fine white thunderheads piling up in the blue. Huge raindrops sluiced down and I sprinted to the garage doorway to breathe in the fresh ozone smell and watch the soil darken.
Pick it up, pick it up, drop it, drop it, cover it, cover it, the planting bird sang through the rain. I had let a bird tell me how to spend a Saturday and that was just fine with me.
NORRIS: Commentator Julie Zickefoose's lives, gardens and paints in Whipple, Ohio. Her forthcoming collection of essays, Garden of Eden, will be published in October.
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