Thursday, April 26, 2007

Women and Stress

Newsflash: women respond to stress differently than men.

Prior to 1995, the preponderance of stress research was conducted on males (and male rats); and it was thus generally understood that the human stress response was “fight or flight”. This news that women have “a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight” is based on a stress study conducted by Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues. (Shelley E. Taylor, Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A. R. Gurung, and John A. Updegraff, University of Calikfornia, Los Angeles, "Biobehavioral responses to Stress in Felales: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight”, Psychological Review, 2000. Vol. 107, No. 3, 411-429).

The study, conducted by neuroscientists, focuses on neuroendocrine (brain chemical) and hormonal differences between females and males. The researchers theorized that “because females have typically borne a greater role in the care of young offspring, responses to threat that were successfully passed on (to future generations) would have been those that protected offspring as well as the self.” Further, because protecting self and offspring can be more complex than fighting or fleeing, researchers also theorized that evolution would select for mothers who “made effective use of the social group would have been more successful against many threats than those who did not”.

As reported in an article about this study, written by Gale Berkowitz:

"'Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible', explains Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study's authors. 'It's an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by sabre-toothed tigers'. Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight! 'In fact', says Dr. Klein, 'it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect'."

Berkowitz acknowledges that it may take some time and further research to understand these gender differences in stress responses. Meanwhile however, Berkowitz concludes that the “friend and befriend” thesis developed by the UCLA researchers may explain why women with friends “consistently outlive men'; why “the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life"; and “how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse… (and) were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality.”

Tell a friend.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Looking for a Changed World

“People here expect a revolution. There will be no revolution, none that that deserves to be called so. There may be a scramble for money. But as all the people we see want the things we now have, and not better things, it is very certain they will, under whatever change of forms, keep the old system. When I see changed men I shall look for a changed world. Whoever is skillful in heaping money now will be skillful in heaping money again.”
- Robert Frost, on his trip to England in 1848

Here’s what I learned sweating all day in vegetable gardens on a Spring day heavy with heat and the promise of more to come. Robert Frost explained something to me.

His message still works. It sounds like Reverend Bob thinks we should change ourselves before we try to change the world. It will take changed men to change the world. That’s an old familiar Theology 101 cliché.

But he adds a capitalist twist wherein it’s money that changes and revolutionizes men. If those other guys only want the same crap we want, well then, crap. I love the way Frost insults people as venial as me, while ostensibly disparaging the veniality of those other people.

While I garden, I become entirely responsible for new growth, for seeds to blossom, for perennials to reawaken from their winter’s sleep. By nurturing these fragile seedlings now, I change the world. They grow into nutritious sustenance in consideration for my careful attention.

Which brings me to what I learned from my garden as I contemplated Frost. I learned that gardening is a way for me to change myself for the better.

And as for capitalism, I make no pretense that my vegetable garden saves me grocery money. It’s simply that by wanting more than store-bought tomatoes this summer, I’ve become one of the people who want better food than we now have. I want a sweet tomato. I know that the tomatoes I harvest later – from the two inch seedlings I watered this morning – will taste better and feed me better. And as for capitalism, in my garden, I learn that it’s definitely better for me (and my tomatoes) to heap compost than to heap money.

Growth is change, and nowhere is this more evident than in a garden. As my garden grows, I grow.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Animals Who Eat Vegetables

“It happening to be a very rainy night, I made some common-place observations on the relaxation of nerves and depression of spirits which such weather occasioned; adding, however, that it was good for the vegetable creation. Johnson, who, as we have already seen, denied that the temperature of the air had any influence on the human frame, answered, with a smile of ridicule. 'Why yes, Sir, it is good for vegetables, and for the animals who eat those vegetables, and for the animals who eat those animals.' - Boswell's Life of Johnson by James Boswell,

Rain has been sparse this year. But it rained Friday and again overnight Sunday. The white blur at Dopey's feet is the splash of rain from the roof. By Monday morning, the rain had stopped, but the grateful plants looked clean and green even in the overcast chill. It may be too little, and too late for Southern California. MSNBC/Reuters reported on 4/17/07 “The water content in the Sierra Nevada mountains snowpack was at only 33 percent of normal Monday, down from 46 percent in March and the lowest level since 1988. The last big statewide drought in California was 1987-1992.”

The history of rainfall in San Diego is that our normal annual rainfall, measured in the year beginning 7/1 is only 9.90 inches. So far this year, we have received barely 4 inches.

We are probably at the beginning of another drought; which means drier vegetation; which means another dangerous fire season. A local expert explains in the April San Diego Earth Times what this means: “With one ignition and extreme Santa Ana winds, 380,000 acres of shrub lands and forests were burned in San Diego County in the Cedar, Otay, and Paradise Fires in 2003 – almost one-sixth of the entire county.”

Gardeners pay attention to these matters. Everyone should, particularly those who fall into Johnson’s category of animals who eat vegetables.

Before the rain, I managed to make one final backyard harvest of my cool-season vegetables. I scored a last khol rabi, some stunted turnips, a lovely green onion. and a small red beet. To that I added some nasturtiums and fresh thyme. Once shredded in the food processor and baked into a crust-less quiche with eggs and cheese, the final color was a mouth-watering pink. Anyone who has not nurtured their own vegetables from seed to food might be forgiven for not appreciating what this means.

The taste alone is amazing when compared to store- bought vegetables. Studies are beginning to show that the nutritional value of home-grown produce is superior to mass-produced items bred primarily to look pretty and survive shipping - sometimes from as far away as a different hemisphere. This time of year, all the berries I can buy locally are from Chile. We are just starting to see local strawberries. I know this not only because that’s what I see in the stores, but also because I see that local wildlife harvests my own small crop of strawberries - usually before I get to taste them.

These two surprises awaited me on my return from vacation recently. My succulents too, are taking steps to survive the coming drought. I have never before seen my black aeonium create flowers.

The striking contrast between the dark brown foliage and the lime green growth I assume to be flowers makes a beautiful design statement. Another bold combination is the fuchsia bloom of the calindrina, against the backdrop of the variegated bamboo.

Whatever the hot dry summer has in store for us, my backyard garden has much to offer today.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Savannah: City of Timeless Contrasts

Or: "What I did on my Vacation Sister Trip"

I went to Savannah, Georgia for the first time last week. There, I was reacquainted with my sisters and with Southern hospitality. The seductive smells of Savannah in the spring mingle memories of yesterday with hopes for tomorrow, in a way nothing in California can. It is virtual time travel.

We arrived to some lovely Spring weather. We strolled around the neighborhoods of the old city, where gorgeous townhouses and antebellum mansions were interspersed with park-like squares. The square-block parks have 100-year-old live oaks around their perimeters, and mossy military memorials in their middles.


The dappled afternoon sun added a touch of gold to everything, as we crunched through brown fallen oak leaves that smelled like autumn in the neighborhoods of my childhood.

The ever present memorial statues and signs stretch further into the past. These folks take their war history seriously, sometimes too seriously: as when they refer to the War of Northern Aggression during horse-and-buggy afternoon tours.

The past is always present, sloshing underfoot in revisionist flux.

Ghosts whisper of Sadness, Death, Remembrance. Sentimental images of loss and grief softly speaking the lost Victorian language of the flowers.

Strolling through the quiet streets, you spy secret gardens behind fanciful black iron gates. Ageless secrets seem to sleep here in peace.

People decay. and die, and their tombs and memorials do too. That was then.


This is now. Gardens are immortal.

Turn a corner in Savannah, and you are rewarded with new promise in the smell a fresh breeze. The future beckons seductively. Spring breezes murmur promises of Renewal, Resurrection, Immortality. Images evoke overwrought metaphorical Gardens.

Everywhere, vigorous new growth almost assaults you in a walk through the city. Appearing like rain forest jungle to my parched eyes – baby leaves and blades of grass insisted they would reincarnate into whatever challenging conditions they bloody well wanted.

Nostalgia and rebellion commingle. In Savannah, Spring promise is tinged with a generation gap of irony in the form of rebellious youth. These insistent ferns couldn’t wait to race out and embrace Spring from the doorsteps of a town house.

Gentle and not-so-gentle breezes tease with the new wet smell of grasses beginning to green, and musky fattening buds. Smells of radical change are as intense and as tangy as self-righteous as born-again Christians.


Savannah also reminds us that these are uncertain times for many things gardeners care about. As the past dances with present in Savannah, the weather too, is instantly changeable. Savannah provided a lovely setting for a visit among long-dispersed sisters. As we age, our future peeks over the shoulders of our past like the ugly Hilton looming above this old red brick art college.

After the warm promise of Spring, we were reminded of colder seasons past. The weather turned unseasonably cold toward the end of our visit, as Savannah was hit with the tail end of a major snow storm traveling through the northeast states. Now. In April.

We had some rain showers that lasted only a few hours, then things settled down to a blustery, chilly wind that knocked down heavy branches of live oaks, and pruned dead branches off royal palms. I literally stumbled upon this branch outside an old cemetery. Tangled in the dead fallen royal palm leaf, it’s claws sharp even in death, still cluched the Medusa of the epiphyte Spanish moss.

What does the picture illustrate about a climate temperate enough to grow palm trees, and wet enough to grow Spanish moss, if not uncertainty in all things? Change is the only constant. Nice message Savannah. Inconvenient - but still. It was snowing in Virginia that bloody morning I departed from Savannah, returning to my parched desert where Spring has already begun to pack its bags and move out for Summer...

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Early Morning

The moon on the one hand, the dawn on the other:
The moon is my sister, the dawn is my brother.
The moon on my left and the dawn on my right.
My brother, good morning: my sister, good night.

(Hilaire Belloc - The Early Morning

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sullen Easter

In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth. - Milton

Allowing for some eccentricities of Roman Emperor Constantine, and as amended later by ecclesiastical rules imposed by Pope Gregory XIII, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25. If Easter is confused, imagine how my garden feels. Our weather is warm one day, chilly the next.

Today is a chilly day: overcast and quiet. Sometimes, you can feel rain in the air. Not today. The rain, expected by me and my yard, has continued east and become snow, falling on the heads of people who have more right than I to be sullen in this vernal season.
The only constant here is the lack of rain. I planted warm-season seeds like beans and sunflowers too early. The eggplant didn’t even bother to poke their tiny heads above the thin layer pearlite covering the peat pots (to avoid damping-off). I replanted some tomato and eggplant seeds yesterday, and took cuttings of a few fuchsias. I organized my remaining seeds and reassured myself that it's still early. The warm sunny days make me impatient. The cool chilly ones do too. So, that's another constant: my impatience with nature.

On the other hand, pelargoniums don’t mind, nor do aeoniums. Nasturtiums seem to be blooming according to their own rules – operating more on the memory of rain than on any actual wetness. My re-blooming iris are sullen, the lilies stubborn, and even the sweet peas look bleak and forlorn – straggly stems and stingy flowers.

This April may not be exactly cruel – at least we’re not having a “White Easter” like some Midwestern and Northeastern states. But I think Milton would not be amused. Today, my yard seems to reflect Nature’s “injury and sullenness” toward me.

Earlier this week, we drove up to the mountains: Julian, California, famous for pies and lilacs – real lilacs in the Syringa family. Although less than an hour east, Julian is tucked into mountains several thousand feet higher than my desert valley. Sadly, real lilacs were not yet in flower. We were fooled by the signs in local flower shops “Lilacs are Here!”, which clearly referred to lilacs flown in from outside our area.

Here is a brave but fraudulent stand-in: the drought- tolerant “California lilac” that was in bloom. These Ceanothus can look like lilacs, and reportedly are fragrant, but they wouldn’t fool anyone familiar with the overly-sweet scent of lilacs my Mom used to grow.

We'll return to Julian in another week or two and buy bunches of real lilacs. The spring will return to my back yard too. All it takes is patience...

Friday, April 06, 2007

Ghost Flowers

When I look at old pictures of my garden, or when I look in my garden journal at plant labels from purchased flowers, I often see what I consider to be ghost plants: plants and flowers I once bought, or seeds I once sowed, but which have not survived in my garden. Many gardeners prefer not to remember our failures, the living things we have murdered through our own ignorance or lack of proper care. While this happens less frequently as I have learned more about what will and won’t work in my yard, it is precisely this experience that tells me some of the living things in my yard today will not survive the season, the climate change, their inevitable transformation into ghost flowers.

Driving in Jordan has a lovely picture of Jordan’s elegant and endangered flower, the Black Iris, which is enjoying it’s brief blooming season of April – May. Because they are increasingly rare, fragile, and reluctant to bloom when transplanted, the flowers are protected: in Jordan, it is illegal to pick them.

When I visited Petra, Jordan in December, 2005, I was able to recognize black iris plants from their rhizomes, which often were almost completely exposed, barely clinging to the dry, sandy, red soil. Although they were not in bloom, I saw a young Bedouin woman pick and offer them for sale to tourists like me. You might think that tourists would be more knowledgeable about things they shouldn’t buy, such as native flora, or lovely small chips of sandstone from Petra’s ancient carved stone facades, or shards of pottery that were fairly easy to identify as remnants of man-made objects. Sadly, no.

According to ecologist Maher Qishawi, who works with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), (quoted in an article (18April2005) in First Jordan), there are “about five types whose color shadings can be classified as black.” The two most likely candidates for visitors to see in Jordan today are described by Dawud M. H. AL-Eisawi, in his “Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Jordan and Neighboring Countries”.

The first is the Black Iris (Iris nigricans) Prof. Al-Eisawi describes as 20-30 cm long with underground rhizomes, and notes that the leaves are usually much shorter than the flower stalk. He describes the habitat as “Marginal land and mountains, Amman, Madaba and Karak” and the flowering season as April-May. Jordan Flora advises that this variety “is found roughly from Karak north and has smaller leaves and flowering stems than its southern cousin.”

The “southern cousin” is the closely related Petra Iris (Iris petrana) has longer leaves. Professor AL-Eisawi describes this plant as having leaves 30-50 cm long, and flowers 12-18 cm in diameter. This variety is found south of Kerak, in places like Petra.

You can see the Black Iris pictured on old Jordanian currency. The small picture in the lower right corner, on the obverse of the twenty dinar note (next to King Hussein) may someday be the best reminder of the black iris. A better place to find the real plants may be closer than Kerak or Petra. Jordan flora says that “Professor Dawud Al-Eisawi, has collected variants and has them growing on the University of Jordan campus.”

The Black Iris is threatened by many factors besides greedy tourists, including the deterioration of its natural habitat. My advice to locals: wherever you can find them, see the Black Iris now. Enjoy these endangered flowers in their vanishing native habitat before they become a ghost plants, visible only on old currency and the yellowing pages of botany books.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Japanese Maples are a vanity plant for gardens in the harsh Zone 9 waterless summers. As the warm weather sets in, the leaves cook slowly and desiccate, struggling even under heavy shade and with wastefully lavish mists to humidify their branches and cool their feet.

Just outside my back door, under shade cloth and watered as often as twice daily in the summer, the two small Japanese maples create a backdrop for the tsukubai or stone water basin that is cool and inviting spot on the hottest days. The basin sits on a reservoir covered with large river stones and housing a small pump that re-circulates the water. Although created to symbolize the Japanese garden concept of inviting guests to humble themselves by kneeling on the center stone, and to purify themselves by washing before entering my garden, the basin now serves the very practical purpose of a conveniently raised water bowl for our aging arthritic dog.

Because it is carefully designed to gather and recycle even irrigation water for the small garden in the middle of a stone-paved patio, the system requires surprisingly little refilling. An occasional capful of bleach keeps the algae from overwhelming and blocking the rubber tube slipped inside the bamboo outlet.

However, the inevitable creep of global warming is making my climate drier and more desert-like than it has been in my 30+ years gardening here. At some point, I will have to forgo the luxury of my Japanese maples, and to replace them with a suitably drought-tolerant small tree – perhaps a Ceanothus or a small Melaleuca with a weeping habit.

Meanwhile however, watching the newly emerged leaves before they shrivel in the coming summer heat and drought, I am enjoying the tsukubai garden. Pictured here, it still serves as a transition from the coarse, harsh dry climate of my back yard into the spiritual cool and verdant oasis of a small Japanese garden.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Curious Gardener

The Garden Bloggers’ Book Club , has invited posts this month about books that show how gardeners think, assuming optimistically that gardeners actually do think. It so happens I’ve recently finished this winter’s companion garden book – the one I take in small doses when I can’t afford to shop for any more seeds on line, and the weather outside is not yet warm enough for gardening.

The Curious Gardener, is by Jurgen Dahl (1929-2001) a German journalist and environmentalist, who was an eclectic and very curious gardener. He’s an old-fashioned, Old World European, whose well-written essays reflect not only his obvious love for gardening, but also his extensive horticultural and historical knowledge of his subjects. Many of the previously published essays in this volume were taken from his weekly gardening column. His advice to curious gardeners is more of a warning than an invitation: the curious gardener will, he promises, “find many more answers than questions when he says ‘good morning’ to the garden if he is curious and observant enough to perceive the many small changes that occur every hour.”

Dahl's powers of observation and description, and his quirky take on his own garden as a laboratory for endless wonder and experiment is as informative as it is entertaining. Reading Dahl provides a refreshing tonic to counter much of the predominately female-oriented garden writing – particularly in some of our own lovely pastel-hued blogs adorned with flower pictures (including mine).

The Curious Gardener's choice of subject is so eclectic that there is something for every gardener, regardless of gender. He can turn on his Old World charm for the gentle ladies who may prefer to enjoy their gardens wearing white gloves and sipping tea from china cups: “A bud symbolizes a secret and a promise”. Then, like a sudden seasonal change, he lectures us on the fascinating history of oaks.

In other essays, he can gush as exuberantly as a seven-year-old boy - talking about creepy crawly bugs and spiders, and about what plants to cultivate in a “Stinking Garden.” On a more serious note, he reminds us that a harvest is really a murder. “For every harvest, we also have to mutilate, destroy, get rid of, exterminate, or kill something. We just call it by other names so as not to disturb the image of the gardener at peace with nature.”

Because my particular interest is in edible gardening, I found his essays on growing and harvesting food to be especially fresh and new. He daringly eats just about anything that grows, from the “forgotten spice” of Baldmoney (Meum athamanticum) to chickweed, He’s as opinionated as my grandmother (both disliked eggplant) and yet he apparently never met a wild mustard he didn’t like.

Dahl offers some of the best thinking I’ve ever heard about introducing non-organic “things” into our gardens, a subject American gardeners may recognize – except that we use the more sophisticated term “garden whimsy." ”All objects that at first may seem strange in the garden," Dahl advises, "eventually become assimilated." The transience of objects introduced to decorate the garden not only stands "for disappearance, but also for a procedure in which every stage has its own form and its own charm.”

This is good news to me, because my whimsical tastes are a bit on the kitschy side, as these pictures of my yard reveal. I like to think this author would be "charmed" by my small plastic cobra, winding his way between some rocks on a shelf of potted plants.