Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Giant Cat Lady Action Figure Attacks Doll House!

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King.
- Emily Dickinson, No. 1333

I remember running three-legged races with Grandma, at my cousins’ house in the country, balancing eggs in teaspoons. I remember how Grandma wasn’t very good at it, and my twelve-year-old speed and balance kicked ass. These days, I can barely carry a full cup of coffee across the room without spilling some. I recently did the math, and realize that I’m older now than Grandma was when we last teamed up to race.

In recent years, my cover story about slowing down was that I’ve been stopping to smell the flowers. It was a good excuse for a while, but eventually, I’ve had to admit I’ve slowed down because I’m growing older.

As gardeners, we learn the seasons and the promise of renewal after winter’s slumber. The smell of the rich but not-quite-ready living compost reminds us that nothing is lost, and that everything comes back. But the fact is, that all these garden metaphors are yet another cover story for playing in the dirt. Gardens patiently remind us we don’t have to outgrow what we love, no matter how much we may slow down.

Spring arrives this month, and if you are impatient for Spring, here’s some good news, This year, we spring ahead earlier into Daylight Savings Time, changing our clocks on March 11, instead of waiting until the last Sunday of March. This means that we lose and hour BEFORE the equinox marking the first day of Spring (around March 20), instead of AFTER winter ends.

And this means that Spring will arrive an hour earlier this year than it did last year. Madness indeed.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

This is What I Do

If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

One thing I do is appreciate my climate. It’s been a week of rain and blustery cold. The thermometer on the north side porch read 45F yesterday when I made my morning coffee. Today it reads 50. For many, this is paradise, but for Southern Californians, this is winter.

Another thing I often do this time of year is spend a few minutes in the back yard with a camera, Although the slanting late afternoon winter light is inviting and photogenic, I’m no longer acclimated to the chill of what we call winter here. I prefer to work outdoors on sunny days, when I can feel the vitamin D soak into my skin as the warmth soaks into my bones.

This is a small cotoneaster that I bought last autumn, to console myself after my 20 year old ginkgo bonsai died of thirst last summer. The silhouette against the neighboring blue pot caught my eye. It seems to be weaving a pattern with its shadow. I have no pretensions of creating bonsai, but I enjoy trying. Problem is, I haven’t the heart to trim this beauty, because instead of politely dropping its leaves to display its bones for shaping, this plant dressed itself up in its very own Christmas decorations. It was telling me that this is simply what the cotoneaster does.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Disconcerting Garden History

“I was one day admiring one of the falls of the Clyde; and ruminating upon what descriptive term could be most fitly applied to it, I came to the conclusion that the epithet ‘majestic’ was the most appropriate. While I was still contemplating the scene, a gentleman and a lady came up, neither of whose faces bore much of the stamp of superior intelligence, and the first words the gentleman uttered were ‘It is very majestic.’ I was pleased to find such a confirmation of my opinion, and I complimented the spectator upon the choice of his epithet, saying that he had used the best word that could have been selected from our language ‘Yes, sir,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I say it is very majestic: it is sublime, It is beautiful, it is grand, it is picturesque.’ ‘Ay (added the lady), it is the prettiest thing I ever saw.’ I own that I was not a little disconcerted.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London and New York, 1960), II, 37.

Whoa, there Big Fella. Is Sam skewered with the irony of being caught in the act of being smug and self-congratulatory about the Lavaterish stamps of superior freakin’ intelligence on his own freakin’ face? Aspiring to pompous superiority over the great unwashed masses, his pretentious sense of the sublime was just upstaged by the real thing? And, but, he’s man enough to enjoy the irony? Have we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous? Or, is that just me?

I’m studying the history of gardens, which frequently leaves an unpleasant Eurocentric aftertaste of how England brought together the three sister arts thereby elevating formerly modest tilling of the soil into a sublime art. Sadly, once landscape gardening started hanging around with Landscape Painting and Poetry, the utilitarian vegetable garden was left behind like the kid that doesn’t get picked in a schoolyard game of dodge ball. Roses are beautiful. Radishes are functional.

Well, not in my backyard. By the end of this summer, if you come to my garden, I want you to say, without a trace of disconcertion, that it’s the prettiest thing you ever saw. Then, without apology to Sam, we’ll make a tasty fresh salad and sit in the afternoon sun admiring the waterfall while we marvel at our refined good taste.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Choosing the Ground

In olden days, book titles used to be informative, descriptive, and more flowery than a host of heavenly winged cherubs, tipping baskets of fragrant Valentine’s Day flowers, over the heads of naked pink, modestly entwined, Rubenesque lovers. This applied to books of fiction, e.g. “The Tragic Tale of the Kidnap, Violent Deflowering and Eventual Rescue of Rose Red: or, How Princess Red Learned to Close Her Eyes and Think of England”. This also applied to non-fiction.

In 1855, Kerby & Son, 190 Oxford St, London, published a book by MRS. LOUDON, AUTHOR OF: “THE LADIES’ COMPANION TO THE FLOWER GARDEN;” “GARDENING FOR LADIES,” ETC, with the descriptive title: “My Own Garden - THE YOUNG GARDENER’S YEARBOOK.”

Things seem to run on idyllically well at first:
“Almost all young people are fond of a garden; and as gardening is a fine healthy exercise, it is desirable to encourage a taste for it as much as possible: consequently there are few persons, I believe, who have a family, who, if they have any quantity of garden ground to themselves, do not set aside a small portion of it for their children….”

But very soon, it takes a darker turn. The author veers down into the exhaustively outlined ”, Book I: “January, February, and March.” Chapter 1: “Choosing the Ground; and Selecting Implements and Instruments” and her suddenly sinister voice regretfully informs us:
“The months of January and February count for very little in a garden. It is expecially (sic) quite impossible for any boy or girl to work in the open air when the ground is hard with frost, as it generally is in the month of January, or covered with snow as it often is in February.”

Now, it would be a relatively cheap shot to compare-and-contrast her distractingly exhaustive titles, and to conclude her message was an allegory-free fairy tale. But consider: she was intentionally sowing her moral lesson just short of too shallowly to germinate in her readers’ collective subconscious minds. Reread the sentence above and see it suddenly blossom into a metaphor of the trials and tribulations of the Young Gardeners’ coming lives as a brief metaphorical season.

But I believe Mrs. Loudon was much more crafty and subtle than one might credit her for. After all, she begins – rather than ends – with winter.

It’s almost as if those crafty titles are red herrings delicately pitched to fly beneath the radar of Victorian Manhood. Specifically: he that compelled her to sacrifice her given name, and sublimate it under her husband’s family name. All for the privilege of writing seemingly superficial gardening books to train her doomed successors.

In a book entitled rosily enough to deter even the gayest of their male contemporaries, Mrs. Loudon whispers this secret to the little girls – delivering it like a punch to the gut when they were expecting a gentle kiss:
"Philosophers say that there is no pleasure so great as that of conquering difficulties; but then the difficulties should be such as can be conquered without too great a waste of physical strength, or without bringing on that hopeless despondency which is the consequence of a constant struggle against difficulties which are too great to be surmounted”.

Be afraid, little girls. Perhaps you can cultivate a garden of sufficient interest to offset the torpor of life. Good luck with that. But, my lovelies, it’s a very dark ride. Kappy’s detachment might save you from the hopeless despondency. Women in my family who have inherited or cultivated detachment, seem able to stay on their feet, swaying and bending like young trees in a thunderstorm, but remaining upright. There’s nobility in the struggle.

Readers of today may find the parable hauntingly reminiscent of another oxymoronical rule: the one about trying not to dirty your soul with sin, while knowing it’s already incurably muddied by the sin committed by the Original Girl in the Original Garden. But if Mom and Mrs. Louden didn’t tell us, girls know that all gardeners get dirty. It’s some rule of the universe about how entropy corrupts every one and every thing. Grown Women don't just know about the dirt, we cultivate it.

Mrs. Loudon’s book at: http://books.google.com/books?vid=OCLC15181661&id=WFEDAAAAQAAJ&pg=RA1-PR4-IA1&lpg=RA1-PR4-IA1&dq=gardens+in+February#PPP11,M1 .

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kids These Days

I enjoy using my backyard garden as a metaphor for my life. Not only does this make me feel wise and clever (i.e. both sides of the “smart” coin), it lets me use pictures of my yard to illustrate my metaphor du jour. Lately however, current events have overtaken my horticultural pretensions and made me realize that despite what Voltaire said, we can’t always be about cultivating our own gardens and communing with Mother Nature. Sooner or later, we must venture forth to commune with our fellow man. At which point: yikes!

I am already suffering from a sort of culture shock with Kids-These-Days, that, truth be told, has reached proportions that make the generation gap of my own Nixonian youth seem quaintly, sweetly, naively, shallow. Where we had Elvis, and later his squalid death and post-death sightings, young people now have the Dead James Brown Traveling Road Show. While both have left this world, neither, sadly, has left the building. But somehow, the Godfather of Soul’s sorry and to-be-continued end has left the King of Rock and Roll’s post-death narrative in the dustbin of history.

A more recent celebrity death draws even more striking parallels and contrasts. Marilyn Monroe died alone in a sleazy hotel, under mysterious circumstances. By the standards of Marilyn’s mysterious death, Anna Nicole’s public departure from another sleazy hotel room, replete with fighting over the dead body and complicated by questions of paternity, maternity, and sanity make Marilyn’s one-note drug overdose seem disappointingly flat. We never had TMZ to show us pictures of Marilyn’s “death fridge” containing little more than canned diet drinks and methadone. And now, we never will.

As these celebrity death comparisons darkly portend, changes are afoot in our culture big enough to make a constant resident herein reel, not to mention their potential effect on somebody who has been away for a while.

By the standards of internet profiles of KTD’s, this modest blog is archaic and low tech. I will never publicly muse on whether my period is late, my sex partner has an STD, or my ex-BFF is a pathetic loser. I will never post an embarrassing phone video to the humiliation of friends and family. I will cling to a vanishing sense of privacy that KTDs already seem to know is only an illusion. KTSs don’t seem to shrink from the likelihood that their obsessive and public documentation of their lives may one day be a source of amusement to their own children. They have developed skins thick enough that they might not mind, someday, if their grandchildren ask them to explain why their youthful digital ghosts appear like lost waifs in a Girls Gone Wild video, documenting their unresolved Daddy Issues for all to see.

So, I’ll retreat to my garden while KTDs perform for a public audience. It is my hope that all the cleverness and wisdom I seek there will someday reconcile me to the cultural shock I experience when I try to understand Kids These Days.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Tom Robbins said when people tell you to shut up, they mean stop talking; and when they tell you to grow up, they mean stop growing. I want to be a growing person for my entire life. Working in my yard helps me embrace the constant state of change that a living garden embodies and that growth requires.

In my yard, I recently spent some time tending my compost piles. I emptied compost from one of the bottomless green trash cans into a similarly-sized wire basket (in the rear of this picture), layering the decaying compost with dead leaves and brush. Then I emptied the tumbler (in foreground) into the trash cans, layering older compost, dead leaves and fresher compost from the tumbler. Nothing is lost forever. That helps me to understand how to let go of past seasons.

When I finished my work with the compost, I planted some bulbs. To maintain my garden and to enjoy its rebirth each spring, I have to plant now. That helps me to understand how to invest in the garden’s future.

In the square blue pot, I planted one glory lily (Gloriosa Rothschildiana), two red and white spotted lilies (Tricyrtis Hirta) and three orange and black spotted tiger lilies (Triginum Splendens). I also added four Walla Walla onion sets left over from the vegetable garden. This is the closest I can get to sweet Vidalia onions. The black bamboo tripod is from my own black bamboo, and will be necessary to hold up the glory lily. It will be months before this investment pays off. That helps me learn patience.
The design concept, if I may be so presumptuous, is to have a pot brimming with odd flowers. Even the onions will produce fat round sprays of flowers in some shade of blue to purple, even though they probably won’t flower until the lilies are long gone. But one of the best parts of dreaming up fanciful arrangements is that I always am surprised at the difference between my dream and the eventual reality. That helps me learn to live with change and accept the unknown future.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Moments in Time

Pictures show what a piece of the world looks like at that moment in time. The world doesn’t care one way or the other. It’s not holding it’s breath taking in the wonders of being alive, and it’s not worrying about the certain future when everything alive in that snapshot will be dead.

Yesterday was the first day I’ve spent working in the backyard for months. Last week it was rainy and cool, and the rain washed away dry winter dust and uncovered the promise of spring. Yesterday was sunny and warm. I tossed around the compost piles to aerate them so I’ll have priceless “black gold” compost for my vegetable garden this spring. Because of our unusual and prolonged freezes last month, I had assumed all the worms had frozen to death. But yesterday, there, amid the rich and decaying garbage, I found worms by the pitchfork full. I should have more faith in the world.

The back yard is a good place to go when winter cooped indoors makes thoughts of dying and loss fill my head. The smell of the rich but not-quite-ready living compost reminded me that nothing is lost and that everything comes back.

The dead coleus in the large round pot, and the dead salvia in the blue pots all left seeds behind that I carefully tossed into the struggling herb garden. The dead plants went into the compost pile. The pots will be emptied, washed, filled with new compost, and replanted within a few months. It felt good to be part of the eternal cycle yesterday, working in the sunshine, smelling the warm compost and thinking about the way life goes on even though our lives may be no more than a snapshot of our moment in that cycle.