Jenny Maas when not writing is an exceptional vet.
While not working at her 'day job" as a veterinarian, Jenny Maas runs a small farm where she cares for her rescued horses, dogs and cats and tends her organic garden. She has a special interest in the wild world and deep concern for its well being. Her stories, essays, poetry and drawings speak of the natural universe and the place that she, as a human, finds within it.
Regarding Jay's writing group and Spoken Voices, she writes:
"I sit in a rocking chair beside the old wood stove. In the fall, the rasp of the katydids through the open window, in the spring, the cacophony of peepers in a nearby marsh, in the summer the thrum of the bullfrogs in the little pond by the garden in the back. In the winter, the snap and pop of the wood in the warm stove at my side, and the scratching of pens across paper as my writing companions spin their magic."
I’m Sending You
I’m sending you a deep red cardinal’s feather
one of many found melting into the January snow.
Killed at the feeder by a cat.
Her mate waits for days in a blizzard.
He keeps watch over his broken love.
Does he think she will return?
That his cold vigil can
gather the blood spilled bright
on the white ground
and pour it
back into her lifeless form?
That the power
of sheer faith will cause
her hollow bones to spring together
and knit in precise symmetry
connect to sinews,
spin filaments as fine as
a wonderful assembly.
And last of all, the feathers.
First the down, warm
as a summer breeze
softly breathing chest,
stirs slightly in the midnight air.
Then the primaries,
the tail feathers spread like a fan.
As muscles’ corpuscles fill,
the olive, the muted red,
the vermillion flashes
alzarin crimson, ochre,
blossom on her form
-and flex. Extend.
as the sun’s first rays
come into focus,
turn the tops of the pines
the bright eyes,
of a world once lost.
The cocked head,
the sharp beak
I have a kombocha squash on my front step. One golden side blends into a warm orange, giving the impression that the autumn light is perenially shining on its glowing skin. The days are short, the sun is diving towards the horizon in a increasingly shallow arc. The afternoon shadows are long and sharp. There is an ominous, exciting, waiting feeling in the air.
In the 1980’s, the farm stands that lined Route 2 heading west of Boston had piles of squashes. I had never seen a blue hubbard squash before. Pale pastel blue. Gigantic, amoeboid in shape, they resembled pods from the movie “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” I fell instantly in love with this alien squash. I gave them to friends, lovers, family. I held one in my arms, cradled like a baby. Cool, smooth and blue. Bumpy and hard. Polished. Splitting them in half with a machete became a harvest ritual. Inside, the orange flesh shone against the blue skin. We painted pictures of them and stuffed with roast garlic and apples. A vegetarian’s centerpiece for an autumn feast. The blue god of Fall.
The blue hubbard squash have been replaced by pumpkins. I love pumpkins but I miss the hubbards. One should not replace the other. I grow hubbards now, along with my pumpkins. Several years ago, a hubbard vine escaped the garden. It jumped over the fence and ran across the field then climbed high into the hemlock tree where it thought I wouldn’t see. And I didn’t. Until gigantic blue fruit hung from the hemlock’s branches and dragged it close to the ground. Hubbards in hemlocks.
Once our pumpkins and our hubbards had a romance. The next summer, we had a bright orange pod, no trace of blue. Shaped just like a hubbard and tasted like a pumpkin. A Plumbbard! I planted its seeds and got no fruit. The end of the short but glorious Plumbbard Dynasty.
It is necessary to carve a pumpkin for Halloween. Orange squash with evil and delighted expressions, each with a candle inside. The cold near-November wind blows at the candles and causes them to flicker in a mysterious way. Before pumpkins there were turnips, ruttabaggas and potatoes to carve on All Saint’s Eve, and before this, the ancient Druids also carved root vegetables. To ward against unseen dangers. To call back the longer days. To slow the dying of the light. Little turnip faces with little peaky heads. A candle inside. A glowing turnip face.
Pumpkins, a New World fruit, are easier to carve than turnips or potatoes. In my house, as the afternoon gets dark on the last day of October, the pumpkin is placed on the dining table in the center of a sheet of old newspaper.
My father was in charge of the jack-o-lantern. On the wooden dining table in the fading autumn twilight, the pumpkin was carved. I stood watching as the top was cut out. I reached into the mysterious cavity. Cold seeds and slimey strings. Scrape, scrape, scrape with the big spoon. The pumpkin was ready. My father always drew a guide for his carving. With a pencil, he sketched a perfect, classic, pumpkin face. Two triangular eyes, each with a notch for a pupil, a simple triangular nose, and a big crescent grin, with pointy teeth, up and down. A friendly kind of evil. An evil kind of friendly.
He would guide my hand as we made the cuts together, until I grew tired and he would take over. A notch in the pumpkin’s hat for the smoke to escape, a divet in the bottom of the pumpkin’s stomach for the candle to sit. We would put our pumpkin out on the porch then set out down the road, visiting the few houses in our neighborhood. Generally, I was a ghost. A old sheet, two holes for my eyes and one for my mouth, and off we went, into the magic night. Our pumpkin lantern flickering behind on the dark porch, a bowl of candy at its side.
My first apartment was in Cambridge, the top of a three decker off of Central Square. I walked back from a market near the Charles River carrying a heavy pumpkin with a curly stem. I hollowed her out and roasted her seeds and carved her a face. Put a candle in her and set her on the porch railing. The three year old in the house across the alley took an interest in the pumpkin. She waved to it, she talked to it. The pumpkin and the little girl made friends.
As autumn progressed the pumpkin changed its expression. She became mad, then sad, then philosophic in old age. She lost her teeth. Her eyes became squinty and her nose less distinct. Eventually, she closed her eyes and fell asleep. The snow formed a little cap on the pumpkin’s head. My neighbor continued to check on her pumpkin friend. Out on the porch, in the cold, I chatted with her parents. What did the pumpkin say to their little girl? Could she hear it snoring? By the end of the winter, the pumpkin had collapsed into a pile of slime that was finally scooped up and moved into the garden where she could rest in peace.
I go to the dump in early November, and there they are. Sad, empty faces, caving inwards. Pumpkins that have worn out their welcome, outlived their usefulness. Unloved, no longer appreciated, they have been taken to the dump and cast upon the brush pile as soon as Halloween has passed. Lying helter skelter, they stare at one another with out of kilter, crazy, abandoned expressions.
My own pumpkin stays on the porch until it begins to sag a little. Then, it is taken to its new home in the vegetable garden. The mice have been waiting. They carry bits of field grass into the pumpkin mouth door and make a mouse bed for the winter in their pumpkin mouse house. The following spring I find that this is a particularly good place for planting turnips.
September By The Sea
the light passed from the dune grass leaves the evening chill
the crickets’ sighing song the sun sets sail
spreads the news of autumn wings that chatter
a summer almost gone dry grasses sweep the sand
the last sun leaves the dune top brush strokes of a summer
the moon rises in the East a summer nearly gone
gold light upon a golden fish the chorus then the one
from the water it leaps the one becomes the silence
the moon emerges from the sea
wet and shining like the fish
Horse Chestnuts 8/14/2011
Horse chestnuts, horse chestnuts and barefeet, blue lips shivering on a body with no fat. Shivering arms with pointy elbows, wrapped around a ribby chest in a useless attempt to keep warm. A loose, wet, cold bathing suit. Oh, but the water. The smooth, black water of that pond, the deepest of ponds on earth and the coldest quick silver water that held up her little body, legs peddling hard, swimming, swimming for all her might on this last almost hot day of summer as it slid into fall like the cold water, not liquid, not solid, but some magic fabric that wrapped her in ice cold blackness.
“Jenny! Let me see your lips. Blue again. Time to get out.” Her mother would make her leave the pond, wrapping her in the stiff line-dried terrycloth towel, bigger than her little body, pulled tight around with trembling hands, knees knocking, teeth chattering, no sun in this dark place in the horse chestnut grove. As soon as the required ten minutes (endless!) of drying time were up, she’d drop the towel, run around the ponds edge, tiptoeing around the pointy horse chestnuts...so velvety soft inside, so sharp and prickly outside, that lurked like hedgehogs in the brown crunchy leaves of the forest.
This was a magic pond. Where does it come from? it comes out of the ground as a spring, deep, deep in the ground, her mother said, that’s why it is so cold. But the center of the earth is hot. Yes, but the deep springs are cold in the rocks beneath the soil, hidden from the warmth of the sun, from the molten core of the earth. Mommy, why is the water so heavy? Because cold is heavy. And so slippery? Cold is very, very slippery.
Someone had loved this pond. Years ago, her mother told her, there was a little spring, pouring out of a crack between two rocks in an open field. A field without trees, without a forest of horse chestnut trees. Way before there were digging machines, this person dug and dug with a shovel. For years the hole was deepened and widened, the spring was followed towards its center, its birthplace. Why did they dig? Why the passionate urge to create this holy place? No one knew. A wall was built of cut stone at the far edge of the pond which acted as a dam, and the water spilled over it, clear and frigid, over the slab of smooth stone where you could lie or sit and dangle your legs over. Jenny loved to sit there and have the water pour around her bottom and her hands which rested upon the stone, strands of silver water pouring between her fingers.
Best of all, were the steps at the near side of the pond. You had to go down the steps to get in, tall, slippery steps which descended deeper than she could reach, far down under the water. That Someone had built these smooth, hard, sure steps out of giant-cut stone, going down, down, down, way over her head, and over her father’s head too, far down to the bottom of the deepest part. Not even Tona Wilson’s father had been able to dive to the bottom of these stairs, and he, her mother said, was a champion swimmer.
What was at the bottom of this bottomless pond? A mucky leaf rotten bottom with pointy horse chestnuts? A smooth stone floor with a pattern that could be touched but never seen? Or, more water and more, extending all the way to passages that connected with other ponds, or rivers, or, perhaps even the sea. Through which the likes of sea serpents swam, seeking a home in a pond such as this.
Their friends the Fromans lived by, in a converted chicken coop. Someday Jenny wanted to live in a converted chicken coop in the shade at the edge of a field where cows grazed. And to be able to walk barefoot down a dirt path to a pond such as this. Elizabeth Froman and Jenny’s mother would sit by the pond drinking gin and tonics while the little girl swam.
Before she could swim, maybe the summer that she was 2 or 3, her mother gave her a tube that she could wear around her waist and it would keep her up in the water. That was the summer when she discovered the love of water, the feeling like flying that allowed her to make her way across a place where she could not walk. The feeling of another element around her, the cold, the heaviness of water. She learned to speak early, and this was before she could speak. But she remembered the bathing suit because it had a little skirt and she loved it. Too young to walk down the stairs, her mother would put her into her tube and lower her down into the black liquid. She would spend all day there with breaks from the cold during which she tried to go back in again.
One day, when the grownups were chatting and laughing in the cool shade by the pond, they looked up to see, not the little blond head making its slow and spashy way around the water, but legs instead, kicking frantically. The tube had turned upside down, following the weight of the baby’s head. Joyce Harrington was the first in, clothes and all, watch and sandals. Not only the first but the only one because she rescued Jenny in the blink of an eye her mother said, hauling her sputtering onto the bank.
A bottomless black pond, deep in the shade of horse chestnut trees, a perfect setting for a toddler death. But I grew, instead, to be a young woman, then old, and to remember the place with deep love. This was where I learned to love water, where I played at being a nyad, a water sprite, underneath the horse chestnut trees in the bottomless pond of my childhood. Perhaps my near death experience made me love the place more deeply, like the pond itself. That will remain a mystery.
Years and years later, I was asked to give someone a lift to a friend’s house. She gave me directions to the place close to where I’d remembered the pond. Little by little I realized as I drove down unfamiliar new roads that the pond had been filled in, the spring choked with topsoil, the pond, the wall, the steps, the spring, the huge chestnut trees, the chicken coop house, the narrow path that led to the chicken coop house, the field stone walls that edged the woods, the cow pasture, all disappeared under a man made landscape. A network of newly paved roads, perfect lawns. Houses with safe, fenced in, backyard swimming pools that shone with bottoms you could see, shone crisp and new in the summer sun.
We got lost on Chestnut lane and turned onto Mill Pond Circle. Finally we found her friend’s house and I dropped her off then drove away in a daze without looking back.
This is a recent piece by Jenny Maas It was written in the moment at our group the spark for the evening was "Roots" June 2011
I Have Lost My Green Thumb
the moon makes my leaves shiver
my roots tingle and curl
the stars ring their little bells
in the night
She worried this year that she may have lost her green thumb. Ruth had never thought of herself as possessing such an unusual digit, but others had, and she had grown to believe them. At least believe them insofar as her modest and skeptical nature would allow. She had grown to take a bit of cautious pride in her gardens, accepting the mantle of, yes, a creator, or, even the creator, of an amazing garden. But as she thought back on her gardening history, she wondered whether the “sucesses” were actually accidents. Or, if not accidents, the plan of a power higher than herself. The year that the cucumbers grew into an inpenetrable wall. She had never been able to recreate that. And this extended beyond the garden. The Year of the Marvelous Beach Plum Jelly, the Year of the Fox Grapes, the Year of the Wild Strawberries. She sighed. The world was so undependable.All winter she had dreamed of the garden, through short days and long nights she plotted. Sitting on the old couch snuggling with her dogs, cats and guinea pig, she read seed catalogs by the light of a converted oil lamp, making seed lists, greedily listing 7 kinds of lima beans, 15 different kinds of tomatoes, heirloom potatoes and so forth. She searched Craig’s List for the freezer she would need it for the winter’s worth of kombocha squash and tan cheese pumpkin that existed as seeds lying dry in carefully marked envelopes in the darkness of her clothes closet. Seeds gleaned from last year’s fruit,. She closed her eyes and felt her hands running through the slimey strings, pulling off seeds to dry. And a root cellar, perhaps she could have someone build a large box in one of the rooms beneath the old barn then pile it around with hay. She imagined herself digging a cave into the steep stream bank. Walking into it in the dead of January to brose through baskets of potatoes and onions. Winter dreams.
A month after the winter solstice, Penelope, Ruth’s oldest sheep, gave birth to twin ewes, and a month later, a huge melting icicle crashed onto the porch and smashed through the pressure treated lumber, leaving a huge hole behind. The impact occurred at bedtime, the cats lept up as if on springs, the dogs took off barking, and Ruth lay in bed quietly, as if somehow she had anticipated the explosive sound. Actually it was relief in spite of the damage. The icicles had reached mammoth proportions this winter, descending 30 feet from the roof to form frozen bars outside of the windows. The snow this year, so deep that the narrow paths she dug had walls well above her head, remained a powder so that, if one fell backwards to, for instance, trace a snow angel, one’s body sank deep, deep into the snow and was immediately covered by white. It reminded Ruth of the Ivory Snow laundry detergent of her childhood. She decided that it was time to plant the tomatoes.
Spring always arrived too late and progressed too quickly for Ruth’s taste. She wanted late February to linger and March to take months to pass, the snowdrops to emerge without their wild abandon from underneath the cozy blanket of melting snow. Instead, to take their time and be a little more cautious and shy. And for them never, ever, to fade. The emerging green from the thawing ground caused a thrill persisting even into her old age. The first spring peeper. She was carrying buckets of water to the horse paddock (they stayed out on these breezy spring nights) when she heard it. Stopped. Listened. Yes, it was real. A tiny frog, cold and alone at pond’s edge. Just emerged from winter’s mud. In a week or two its ranks would swell, and it would be joined in wild, raucous glory by its companions, mates and rivals, to fill the night with sound. Firsts began to roll by. Too many firsts to count. The tiny waxy blossoms of the trailing arbutus filled the air with sweetness, the Spring Ephemerals, the Spring Beauties, the Wood Anemones; the return of the Wood Thrush, the Baltimore Oreoles. The wild dawn chorus.
This was sadly, her first spring without the bats. She had had a call from her daughter, who had counted two of them hunting mosquitoes in the evening sky. Cold comfort.
Ruth had always depended on the bats. And the swallows had not yet returned. She had taken care to keep the barn open every night, even in the pouring rain, so that, on the morning of their arrival, they could begin to reconstruct their mud nests. The June evenings above the field. The horses grazing and the last dragonflies of the afternoon, cruising the layers of warm air above the grass for midges and mosquitoes, grabbing them up in their little dragon arms, then perching on the fence posts to tear their miniature prey limb from limb. Then the swallows dipping and sweeping in the layer above, meeting, almost colliding, playing and dancing, whole families, generations of swallows that traveled together, all the way from the Southern Hemisphere, back to Ruth’s barn to tease her cats and hunt her mosquitoes. And above them, as the light began to fade, the bats, darting high and swinging low.
The dragonflies were here, but not in their usual resplendent numbers, as varied and bejeweled as the contents of any fantastic treasure chest. She would sit still at the edge of the pond, and a dragonfly, huge or tiny, iridescent or dusky blue, would land on a bare knee or a shoulder and then fly off, then return, again and again, to its human perch. She watched its tiny head cock this way and that, its multi faceted eyes sharp and alien, its abdomen expanding and contracting with each breath. And the swallows, where were they?
For the past 4 years or so, there had been reports that the bats, the little brown bats that lived in caves, old barns, tree cavities and other hibernacula during the fierce Northeast winters and emerged to dart through the starlit summer skies, the bats Ruth had so loved from childhood, the bats were sick with a strange illness. Three years ago she had seen a strange sight while sitting on a sunlit rock a warm day in March. A bat, it was far too early in the year. A bat flying during the day, how unusual. This bat was flying wildly up and down the little stream valley. A shiver ran up her back and prickled her scalp. This desperate animal had left its cave way too soon, and was hunting the empty air in a useless attempt to restore its depleted fat stores. The day was ruined. She had heard that early emergence from hibernation was a sign of the White Nose Syndrome.
Last year there had been a few bats. There was a day in September when one flew over the field and garden in early fall, darting after invisible insects. And then it was gone. She sent a silent message to the bat. You are likely the last one I will ever see. Good bye. I send you my broken heart. She stood quietly, hands at her side.
Then turned back to her garden. This year she was playing a shell game with the woodchuck that had, yet again, dug a passageway into her garden, snacking on the baby lettuce, the chard and emerging scarlet runner beans. Best laid plans of mice and men she thought as she replanted lettuce in the cold frame and settled new chard plants among the tomatoes by the pond. The next week all of the squash were gone, and the garden, left with clary sage, valerian, marshmallow, chamomile, asparagus and rabbit bitten strawberries, developed a different vision. This would become a huge herb, onion and potato garden. Ruth dug a new garden by the horse paddock, far from the woodchuck lair, and planted baby blue hubbards and zucchini. Meanwhile, the deer had visited the tomatoes and nibbled the tender tops. Ruth imagined them shaking their graceful heads and spitting out the bitter leaves.
So what, she thought. So what if I’ve lost my green thumb. It wasn’t really mine after all. A swallow dipped low over the pond. Ruth had to walk carefully, because the field was full of infinitesimal baby toads, perfect replicas of their adult selves, making their way from the water to their terrestrial homes. A good year for toads, she thought, as she moved one carefully from the path to the garden. Good luck, little one.