Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China.

My colleague, Dr. F., sent a photo to our Eco Club WeChat group. It was a picture of nothing—just an empty rectangle of dirt. “What happened to our compost?!” was his message.

A few days before, there was a brave pile of humus, cared for by our students, who collected kitchen scraps every day from the canteen, the fruit store, and the coffee shops, and shoveled it in with the leaves the gardeners leave for us in big bags. Their gentle stewardship yields fertile mulch.

This pile was ripe and rich and ready for somebody’s garden, maybe the campus farm. I answered his message: “Isn’t that what we want? For the compost to be used?” But he was indignant and said whoever took it should ask first.

Spring has come early to my Chinese campus. The plum trees have dropped their blossoms and are pushing out leaves, but no worries. The cherries are just beginning, so we won’t be without flowers.

I remember my first sight of the quad where my office sits. I had arrived in March on my first semester in time to see the cherries in full bloom. The entire quad is bordered with cherries and redbuds. Now the redbuds have been severely pruned, and the blossoms are pushing out from thick branches. I asked Michael whether my own freshly pruned redbuds in my corner meadow were pushing out red blooms.

I got a message a few minutes later. My good husband had gone out into the dark yard to check, but no. Not yet. Illinois is somewhat behind us. Here, the gardeners have planted tulips and pansies in diagonal stripes next to the lake. The islands in the flower quad are beginning to bloom too, crimson flowers surrounding manicured shrubs. I saw them in the distance. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike closer to find out what flowers they are.

At dinner the other night a colleague was telling me that our campus hosts an extraordinary number of rare birds because we have so much water. We have our little lake with the high footbridge joining the faculty club and the auditorium. We have brooks running through the campus from the larger lake in the big park outside our gates.

We have a “moat” of sorts, a little river almost encircling the school grounds. I see egrets and herons wading in the shallows, fishing—or flying, scooping air with their great wings. Now that the days are a little longer, and I don’t have to ride home from my office in the dark,

I take the long way home, following the riverside path in a big circuit. I try to stop my bike to get a picture when I see these water birds, but by the time I pull my camera out of my bag, they are on wing and getting smaller in the distance.

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Yesterday I heard so many fluting bird calls—a huge variety of song. Magpies abound, of course, but this was much more musical and fluid than the squawking calls of corvids. One day I’ll record some of these songs and see if my app can identify them.

It seems that every year I notice something new. A few days ago, I saw a big, messy nest high in a window of our clock tower. It seemed to occupy the whole, broad windowsill and looked like something an eagle would build. Then I saw another in a tree.

On closer inspection, I could tell that the nest was not built of twigs or grasses, but large sticks, maybe the diameter of my thumb. That same colleague at dinner told me he thought the nests were from Magpies, or maybe the crested Mynas that are also here. But when I went to look up pictures on the web, I found that the Kite nest looked more like what I saw.

For International Women’s Day I had a surprise, a long-stemmed rose, delivered to my office by a young woman. It had white petals outlined in red, like someone had edged it in scarlet paint.

The flower was wrapped prettily in tissue paper and ribbons, the stem stuck in a little vial of water to keep it fresh. An hour or so later, the same young woman was back with a little red shopping bag, and I jumped up to open the door for her. It couldn’t be another present, could it? But she was just collecting the red velvet door handle covers they put on our office doors for winter, another sure sign of the coming spring.

My phone chimed when Dr. F. sent another WeChat message. He had solved the mystery by contacting the building manager who wrote back: “Dear, we should apologize. Our gardeners took and used this compost in the new plants in the roof of the auditorium.”

They sent a picture of four beautiful shrubs in large, shiny pots, and now I want to visit this rooftop garden. Dr. F. asked them to please ask first next time. But I say, no hard feelings. Compost was made for planting.

Borrow Beauty; Appropriate Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in the News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small town newspaper. You can see photos of her travels on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.