Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Recent Education

Late for the Sky
The sky, on the long summer evening of the day before we bid farewell.

The next day, we said goodbye.
The days seemed empty after that…
…After some time, it got easier.
Your steps are straighter and lighter.
You are barefoot: without the weight or trouble
of people who love you – grabbing your gold plastic shoes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Grapevine, Moon Sprouts and Slumbering Giants

“The generic soul in each individual is a giant overcome with sleep which locks up almost all his senses, & only leaves him a little superficial animation Once in an age, at hearing some deeper voice, he lifts his iron lids, & his eyes pierce through all appearances… but quickly the lids fall, & sleep returns”
R. W. Emerson
This is the view from the Veggie Garden where I spend Tuesday mornings. The morning captured in this picture is the view I always see, but mostly don’t notice. The grapevines framing the distant misty mountain are often used to symbolize autumn and are attributed to Bacchus, the Greek God worshipped by all drinkers.

That morning, as I downed the last of my espresso and tied back my hear, the giant awoke and I looked through the arbor toward the mountain.

Emerson’s vision of the psychic potential of the soul is comparable to the potential energy that waits inside every tiny seed. Then again, seeds don’t require much to raise astonished to life as people.

On the day of the full moon, I discovered this white plastic bucket and the two flat pumpkin-like seeds – possibly zucchini – had been left in the basket in the shade and dry spot in the carport exactly one week earlier. Taken from overhead, looking down into the plastic bowl, I captured these leggy sprouts, eclipsing the plastic moon like a spare Chinese watercolor. I’ve planted them in a nearby planter, but I think they’re doomed by their early profligate ways. They powered this miraculous growth from potential energy within.

Whether or not you believe you have a soul and/or that it is immortal, I think Emerson’s words still resonate. He’s describing the “Universal Soul” that - regardless of where it goes after we die – is within us now.

Our souls are the invisible inner motivating energy which powers our lives, which like the physical seed may spring to life and may eventually die. If we can live with our eyes open, the giant of our soul will, from time to time, provide the visions and awaken us. Try not to miss the view.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Autumn Shower

“So Autumn’s not the end, not the last rung
Of any ladder in the yearly climb,
When that is deathly old which once was young,
Since time’s no ladder but a constant wheel…”
- Vita Sackville-West, The Garden (Autumn)

Vita wrote this season-long poem during World War II in England, so thoughts of death were never on her mind so much as this time of year. In trying to persuade herself (and other gardeners) that Autumn isn’t the end of the garden’s life, she is compelled to describe some of the life that seems to come most alive in this season. She goes on to observe:
“…those pure chalices that Kentish men
Call Naked boys, but by a lovelier name
Others call Naked Ladies, slender, bare,/Dressed only in their amethystine flame…”

Yesterday, it was so humid and still that Beloved Spouse predicted an earthquake. This morning, I awoke to the sound of thunder and the vaguely remembered sound of rain. We enjoyed a brief but intense thunder storm and downpour this muggy Sunday morning. Briefly, there were vast rivers in the gutters on each side of the steep street we live on.

Out the back window, the drain by my bedroom window was unable to keep up with the downpour and backed up to turn that corner of the patio into a tiny temporary lake. Pine needles were washed from the roof, dust was washed off the parched jade in the neglected east side of the yard. There was so much accumulated dust on all the trees and shrubs, and the downpour was so strong and sudden, that the water foamed up where it puddled, making miniature waterfalls on the stone steps, and whitewater rapids where small streams from my yard joined the larger streams racing downhill in the street.

Now everything looks shiny and new, as it dries. What the TV guy called a “cell” has moved on to someone else’s yard, leaving behind a sweet slight breeze and the smell of wet dirt. It’s already above 80F and muggy as hell. But the living plants look refreshed by their unexpected bath, and all are glowing with optimism as they drip themselves dry. Even the skeletal remains of my backyard naked ladies (at right in the picture above, taken a few days ago) seem happier. Just now, I walked through the yard, past the rocks steaming themselves dry. I could swear I heard the garden whispering, “Thanks, we needed that!”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Borrowed Time

“When I was younger
Full of ideas and broken dreams
When I was younger
Everything simple but not so clear.

“Living on borrowed time
Without a thought for tomorrow…

“Now I am older
The more that I see the less I know for sure
Now I am older
The future is brighter and now is the hour.”
- John Lennon, Borrowed Time

I like August, and the way you feel like now is the hour to spend outdoors in the evening. My garden is clearly living on borrowed time, and its days are numbered. While I have flowers, like this bleeding heart vine that received enough irrigation to bloom this year, they’re mostly tired and worn out from a long hot dry summer that shows no sign of abating soon. On these unusually humid early autumn nights, the moon shadow illuminates the garden with the chilly pale white light of approaching winter.

I’m trying to decode the seasonal mysteries. There’s not even the most self-defeating or seemingly contradictory sign to mark seasonal change. Like this unwise street sign in my neighborhood, some things are better hidden then others. At what exact moment does summer leak out and autumn creep in? It must be at night.

It’s as if the seasons are holding their breath for one last long summer night in my garden. What a imaginative folly, the concept of borrowing time. Are we taking a sort of time traveler’s holiday – borrowing hours to spend long late summer twilights today, against shorter colder nights to come?

As autumn begins, ancient Wiccans used to celebrate Lammas night when the sun enters his old age, but is not yet dead. On the eve of August, people would marry for one year and a day, as a way of acknowledging the impermanence of all seasons of our lives.

I prefer another interpretation of the phrase “borrowed time.” Instead of borrowing daylight in August from cold winter nights ahead, I am actually hoarding the present to spend in the future. Now is the hour to savor the summer’s bountiful harvest. The conceit of living on borrowed time is a reminder to take care now to enjoy the present without a thought for tomorrow.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Turn, turn, turn…

"And here is a place with its own seasons, and in it I can grow juniper and papyrus alike – the one on the higher slopes and the other along the banks of the stream... Here coriander, parsley. These are my charges, now that my only child is far away..."
Jane Rawlings, The Penelopeia

Hungry tomato plants and wilting squash vines. The high summer, and things are beginning to die. The garden is having that late middle age crisis and beginning to burn with doubt about Spring’s exuberant promises. Naked ladies bloom in autumn; ghostly whispers of spring amid ageing blooms, past their prime, but refusing to go quietly. Winston Churchill said it was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

The inevitable, seasonal aging thing is beginning in my backyard and in the nearby veggie garden. Today the gardens are undergoing a shock of enlightenment – as when we stop thinking of Age as something that happens to Old People. Somebody’s Mom said God said, we could take anything we liked, and we could pay for it. The bill for the wild parties of youthful growth and flowering is coming due. Soon, my pumpkins will roll into the seasonal spotlight, trying to scare me and the rest of the yard to death.

My blog began in September, 2006, when my only child began nine months in the Middle East. Studying refugees in Amman, Jordan, and recently returned home. Over this past year, we blogged to maintain some visual contact, though separated by the center of the planet. (I should note that while this blog is personal, the other was a cultural anthropologist doing graduate research). I talked about my garden, as a not-too-subtle allegory for a safe refuge from what I perceived as my child’s reckless endangerment. We have both grown considerably since then, and become reacquainted again in person, now proudly playing what our Hollywood cohort would pitch as “mature roles”.

What fun! After some manic joy, I am now relaxing and enjoying having “the kids” a mere 2-hour drive away; crossing over borders no more threatening than the border between San Diego and the Inland Empire: where the direst warnings are about transporting fruit potentially infested with pests to threaten neighboring harvests.

Now is the time, at the tail end of this summer that seems virtually endless, to bring this year to an end while our families are reunited in Southern California. I’m getting into the seasonal swing of life. I will continue to think and to garden and to pontificate about the pretensions of being rich, white, and Medicare-eligible in the world’s last great superpower. Which means I intend to continue blogging and continue growing, and musing about the ways parents and their grown children everywhere continue to navigate uncertain times – together or apart.

Thus, one season ends and another begins.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Long Lapse of Ages

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and invisibly working… We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages.”
- Chuck Darwin, The Origin of Species.

The grapes at the Veggie Garden have ripened since this photo was taken, and the sweet fruits have mostly been harvested by birds. They tend to make a mess when they eat, dropping at least as much as they eat, and staining the brick patio beneath the vines in lovely shades of green to purple grape. To make matters worse, we’ve deliberately avoided pruning the vine – and in the process, permitted it to produce too much fruit – so we can later harvest the grape vines to make baskets. The final insult was that the two canvas director’s chairs furnishing this once inviting and shady pergola beneath the vine have finally rotted through. Taken together, that corner of the Garden looks like the long lapse of ages – and the birds – have been the only gardeners.

Amid the shambolic end-of-season clutter, we noticed the small green fig tree with an even smaller branch that had been broken. The leaves and fruit were withering, so I salvaged a sprig to grace my garden gate with marjoram that’s gone to seed. Every time I pass through the gate, I benefit from the lovely fragrances.

This species of fig is edible and the fruit never turns the brownish purple of other types of fig. As we shared a tart green fig from the broken branch, MH informed me that the fruit is pollinated by a wasp that crawls inside where the flowers are, and then dies there. So, eating the fig means I probably ate the dead wasp. Mmmmm, protein.

If I take Chuck Darwin’s observation to heart, I begin to observe other changes silently and invisibly working in my yard and our Veggie Garden beyond the ones I can scrutinize and criticize daily and weekly. On the time scale measured by genetic selection, doomed wasps and hungry birds gorging on grapes make as much sense as sweating gardeners, clambering through the dying gourd vines to harvest the late tomatoes and zucchini.

One of the benefits of gardening year-round is glimpsing in these seasonal changes some of the slower and barely visible changes occurring over deep time. One of K’s undergrads wrote in a recent paper that the Bible “flat out” forbids polygamy. Although her theology may be as dubious as her phraseology, I love the expression. I flat out love vegetable gardening, particularly during this season of harvest and plenty.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hiding in Your Garden

"I’ve spent 10 months documenting misery now… My perspective on this is not fresh enough to know if the people who live in the misery we came to see can also see it. I’m sure they can’t always ignore it. Those kinds of living situations produce a collective misery. Once misery is transformed from an individual experience to a community experience, I think observers lose the individual in that sea."
Frances Goodman, Driving in Jordan

You can travel the wide world over and not understand what you see until you come home. Sometimes, you can hide in your garden while you try to understand. You can drive a Prius and pay a carbon tax on your airfare as you jet through the vanishing ozone to your next misery-tourist site. You can cry when you watch the evening news, and you can donate on line to the latest celebrity benefit concert using your Pay-pal account.

You can retreat to your garden, ignoring the bad things happening to good people, while you watch the globe-trotting birds pause in your shady birdbath for refuge from the seas of communal misery throughout the world.

You can over-indulge at happy hour and shout back at the opinionated commentators cross dressing as independent journalists and objective reporters. (Frances has been away for so long that after a recent morning in the living room, working on her laptop while CNN played in the background, she asked, “Isn’t there any news any more?” and there was not a trace of irony in her voice. That’s so cute!)

You can pray for peace – but silently, so as to not embolden the terrorists. You can plaster your SUV with multicolored magnetic support ribbons, speak clearly into the hidden microphones, smile up into the hidden cameras in the skies. You can shake your head sadly that the primitive people blowing each other up over there are so unenlightened and barbaric. You can lament the sad failures of the Last Great Superpower attempting to make the world safe for democracy, and still savor the delicious irony that in the attempt we actually accomplished the opposite.

You can philosophize and criticize, You can lob clichés and clever Latin phrases. You can muse tragically about the humanity. You can wipe those smug smiles off your faces.

And by you, (except for the part about the SUV support ribbons, and course, the hidden eyes and ears) I mean me.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Alas for the times and the manners

O tempora! O mores!

I have such a splitting headache.

At least you have a face. All I’ve got is a Styrofoam pumpkin with a mouth and one winking eye.

Just as well, if you looked at the Medusa head, you would turn to stone. Like me. And then, snails would park on your forehead. Most undignified.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Absurdity of Gourds

“Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand – that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”
Annie Dillard – Teaching a Stone to Talk

Sometimes we cultivate our gardens, hoeing orderly rows from chaos, and sometimes they cultivate us, giving us back the sublime peace we crave. Ornamental gourds are a lovely metaphor for the absurd in a vegetable garden. You don’t grow them to eat. You grow them to use.

This week at the Veggie Garden we harvested tons of tomatoes, eggplants, baseball-bat sized zucchini that we missed last week, and cut back the gourds again. I could write about being out of my gourd, but I’m actually back in my gourd, metaphorically speaking.

My kitchen floor is mostly done, my refrigerator is back home, my patio is swept and watered. What a relief order is. My sensory paths through this past week have trailed miserably through a cacophony of input that exhausted me.

From last Monday to the day before yesterday, I was unable to walk from the back yard to the kitchen, an assault on senses I didn’t even know I had. I couldn’t walk this way without choking on dust, tripping over tools, being assaulted by the stench emanating from the overflowing kitchen trash bin, hearing the buzz of flies indoors, seeing clutter and dirty dishes every place in between. I don’t know how to navigate the uncertain seas of the universe, but I do know I like a clean ship.

The gourds will make great bird houses, succulent planters and assorted painted creatures. I think they have to dry on the vine, then cure for a year first. The gourds I grew and harvested last September were recently opened and found fresh and moist. Now, with holes and cleaned out, they’re covered with mold. Charming.

Gardens, real and imagined, are for me, first and foremost, a sanctuary. My back yard isn’t exactly an enchanted medieval old-growth forest, with trees shaped like tortured Norse warriors. No magical forest creatures haunt the twilight like ghosts composed of blowing Spanish moss. My Spanish moss, imported from Savannah this past Spring, is enduring what must be a long nightmare of climatic apocalypse in its new home in my parched back yard. Even the gourds in the Veggie Garden are looking thirsty and tired. It’s a good thing that while I cultivate a garden, the garden cultivates me. No matter how tired and thirsty I return from outside, I also feel sublimely refreshed.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

R. I. P. Charlie

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
But if you go no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone
- Grateful Dead, Ripple

In the backyard, standing at my outdoor sink, I was borrowing scenery from the small pasture across the canyon that separates us from our backyard neighbors. This is where I often flee to escape from the clangor of the stressful world. This was a particularly welcome spot last week when my household routine was disrupted by some minor indoor renovation.

Early Friday afternoon, I saw Charlie the llama being attacked by two vigorous pit bulls. Charlie is the name my sister-in-law gave to the neighbor across the canyon. He’d actually trot down his hill toward me when I said good morning, and silently watch me. I’d heard Charlie talk and call out before, but I’d never heard such a gut-wrenching sound before. Me and my Trusty Spousal Companion hopped in our car so quickly he didn’t bring his wallet.

After pounding on the front door frantically, I dashed through the carport into the backyard only seen from my house before. I knew Charlie was in a fenced enclosure farthest down the canyon, separated from house by a backyard garden and orchard, and by a gated fence. I grabbed a loose piece of ½” white plastic irrigation pipe slightly more than a yard long, and slightly less potentially effective than a balsa wood shack in a Force 7 Blizzard.

By the time I made it to the gate, Charlie was on his feet and silent. He was being stalked in perfect terrier pack instinct: the dark brown terrier trash talking right in his bloody face, while its silent companion stalked the llama’s rear. I loudly rattled the gate and waved my white sword in what I hoped wasn’t a laughable imitation of heroism. No way was I going inside.

Faithful Spouse finally caught me there, breathless. He’d stopped to pick up rock-hard lemons in each hand with which to defend me if I’d have been stupid enough to open the gate. The police he’d called came: three cars eventually, with two of the three officers carrying long rifles. Then animal control came. From where we’d returned in the bleachers of my backyard, we saw the animal control officers having a friendly tail-wagging encounter with the dogs. The dogs were “impounded”. Later, we saw animal control gently harnessing Charlie to be lead away to the large animal vet ER. That was Friday.

I left a note on the front door with my name etc and said we wished the llama well. We never heard from the owners, but Sunday, I saw the owner cleaning up the llama’s place with new straw and hosing out the water bucket. No sign of Charlie.

Today’s Wednesday. The other shoe dropped. Charlie was put to sleep over the weekend. The owners had returned by Saturday and made the decision with the vet. The reason I know this is that Officer H from Animal Control called and asked me two questions. First, did I actually witness the attack? Yes. And second, would I be willing to participate as a witness in any legal proceedings resulting from their inquiry over Charlie’s death? Also, alas, yes.

I find it no comfort at all that as Jack’s kid I’m supposed to be hard-wired not to care about animals. They don’t have souls, you know. Without realizing it, I’ve somehow learned (from K and my cats) that animals are people too. Some are valuable members of their communities – a llama can be worth $20k. Others are not socialized by their parents and become delinquents and murderers. It seems inevitable to me that the dogs will be punished for their owners’ crime: letting their terriers do what terriers are hard-wired to do – kill. The scene of the crime being where and when it is, I presume an expensive lawsuit will follow; and consequently, that our homeowner’s liability insurance will be red-zoned. All that makes me sad.

But not having Charlie to say good morning to when I am meditating on sunny summer days: that makes me sadder. I often meditate about how our universe balances the continuous karmic “chain reaction of cause and effect.” Somebody must have done some bad stuff, some felony violation of some moral law, to balance the hurt to Charlie and his family and friends.

I guess I do have a fitting subject for future meditation overlooking Charlie’s empty home. Sometimes, our roads lead us through the shadow of the valley of death. But it’s not a one-way journey. Think of it as karmic balance on a much grander scale than a single lifetime. Charlie, I hope we meet again on some future round trip. Some fragrant Spring day, I’ll say good morning, and you’ll stare back, silently knowing.