Friday, November 30, 2007

From the Meticulous to the Sublime

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."
Philo of Alexandria

Ahhh, it’s raining. Just enough for a first rain on a thirsty ground – soft and fine and less than an inch. Enough to soak in and begin to awaken the soil, but not too much to cause runoff and flood. It’s been years since the ground was soaked beyond it’s ability to absorb. Then, we saw tiny rivers on every hill, racing to the bottom and swept away to join the watershed's march to the reservoirs.

The view outside is a mess. My vegetable starts remain unplanted, sitting forelornly in the wheelbarrow on the bags of potting soil. That’s a shame because the first seasonal rain would give them a jump-start to stretch their roots and grow. The last of the rusty mums bow down their spent blossoms in surrender to the season. In every flower pot, straggly stalks and naked stems bend over into an unkempt mess. My carefully tended dish gardens have lost their meticulously trimmed miniature scale and now sulk – sodden, neglected, and overgrown. My disheveled mood matches the untidy garden, nothing orderly or neat, just scraps of spent verdant energy, capitulating into compost.

The feral cat that lives in the crevices of the big rocks in the back yard is coping with rain for the first time this season. We watched him/her grow up this summer from a skinny kitten to a svelte hunter – tormenting the resident dog and front porch cat by parading across the front yard where they could only follow her with their eyes as she climbed the olive trees to snatch baby birds from their nests and patiently out-waited field mice in the scrub.

Mountain lions have been spotted in parks in the middle of suburbs. Displaced by the back country fires, and hungry and cross, they prowl city parks looking for dinner. We should be kind to the wildlife, whether they lost their homes in the fires, or whether they have always lived among us in our backyard gardens and wood piles. The mountain lions are tranquilized, treated as necessary, fed and released back in the unburned mountains.

As for our local wildlife, as is our usual Thanksgiving practice, I took the turkey carcass and distributed it in pieces in the back yard where the cat – we call it “the Black and White Cat” – prowls. The next morning, it was gone without a trace. I just hope BWC got some of it, even if I strongly suspect some was harvested by skunks, raccoons and possibly coyotes.

Meanwhile, my cat sleeps in my lap as I type. Her chin resting on my left arm. We’re cozy and warm inside, and I’m sipping my second cup of coffee seasoned with Spicy Maya hot chocolate and Detroit Spices.

The rain blurs the distance into smoky shadow and the breeze carries the memory of fire. Rain here and now isn’t like the rain of my childhood – where it was hot and steamy and we could put on our bathing suits and cavort in the street. It’s winter and chilly and uninviting except to look at through a window inside a cozy room. It may be time to leave the garden to it’s silent slumber and make a pot of sublime soup.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Death of a Gardener

“Hands tremulous as cherry branches kept
Faith with struggling seedlings till the earth
Kept faith with him, claimed him as he slept
Cold in the sun beside his upright spade.”
Phoebe Hesketh, Death of a Gardener

A sad thing happened yesterday. A friend died, quietly and peacefully after a mercifully brief illness. I never actually knew her as a gardener. By the time we met in the garden, we were both retired, and she was slowing down. She was a teacher of gardeners, patiently naming plants and demonstrating a tough and quiet wisdom that could be mistaken for a grouchy unsociability in those who didn't know better.

She embodied the spirit of volunteerism in both its meanings. She was a person who performed services willingly and without pay, providing an example to others who may have come to the garden for personal growth but stayed to cultivate that passion in others. But she was also like a stubborn volunteer plant, flourishing in our communal garden without being planted or cultivated.

She had slowed down by the time I met her, but still had more energy and curiosity than many people half her age. She and her guide dog no longer walked the garden paths instructing and inspiring us with her insatiable thirst for knowledge and her example of patient service. By the time I became a volunteer, she preferred to work alone – sitting every Saturday in the information booth, greeting visitors and answering their horticultural questions.

Once I helped her on a guided tour of the garden, given to mostly blind adults. She showed them how to touch the soft fuzzy lamb’s ears, and to gently rub the leaves of scented geraniums and lavenders to release their fragrance. This opened a whole new world to me when I listened, touched and smelled, and the only way I can hope to repay her for what she gave me is to try to show it to others.

So many garden metaphors come to mind when I consider this remarkable woman. But there is one that comes to my mind now, as I begin to contemplate her loss in this golden autumn season when acorns are falling from the coast live oak tree. Dorcas embodied the gardener’s faith that the ground we prepare, and the seeds we sow today, will bear fruit in the future – regardless of whether today’s gardeners will be there to witness the next harvest. While she will be greatly missed, the volunteers that she inspired will continue her work for many seasons to come.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Something in Dirt and Water

Her work
Brings out of dirt and water
A whole thing, a hole where
The use of the pot is,
A container for the thing
Ursula K. Le Guin, from "The Writer on, and at, Her Work"

For all my pretensions to having some, shall we say, class, I like wine in boxed containers. I opened 2 wine boxes like a pro last happy hour: white zinfandel for Faithful Companion and Burgundy for moi. Took the little coin-shaped cut-outs where the spigot protrudes from the box, and presented them to FC in a dish when I gave him his plastic cup of ice chips and white zin. To smell the corks, of course. Today, I’m making white chocolate pumpkin fudge and a sharp cheddar pumpkin tort for tomorrow. Licked the pans. Delicious

Yesterday afternoon, I planted my 5 gal coast live oak betweem the dying pine tree and the big rock in foreground. I hope the tree, now exactly as tall as I am, will outlive us all.

At the Garden yesterday morning, I walked through a tiny part of the vanishing west that is burning away like the morning mist between the hills. In the air was the almost subliminal sound of thunder: the planes at Lindberg Field. When the marine layer is thick enough to reach into our inland valleys on cool November mornings, I could hear the jet rumble sounding like the deep background thunder of the world, funneled east to my ears beneath the low canopy of cloud cover.

We only pay attention when things catch fire. Now that the smoke is only coastal fog penetrating our yard and the garden, we can go back to ignoring our drought. And the vanishing unincorporated clutter of back country lives, stranded among condo developments in the valleys and McMansions on the hill tops. Local water officials voted to continue practicing denial about our water supply. Why ration water before the faucets run dry and before it’s time to pray on the statehouse lawn for rain.

The back entrance to the Garden is reached by a walk down a dirt path leading from a gravel construction parking lot at the neighboring community college. You emerge amid a clutter of abandoned plants, signs, an old flatbed trailer, some piles of compost or broken concrete, old fence posts and concrete planters. I walked beneath 100 year old California pepper trees and surviving eucalyptus trees. Only the strong have survived our sixth year of drought. I walked near enough to smell the native chaparral separating the back lot from the child care center’s playground. The chaparral was so fragrant with flammable creosote, I could imagine the cave torches for giant-sized hands that they make when they burst into flame.

These back country sites still exist, but it was nice to notice one and enjoy its own characters, smells and sounds as I went to planting cool season seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and a million kinds of lettuce. Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

White Chrysanthemum

A white chrysanthemum -
and to meet the viewer's eye,
not a mote of dust.

Matsuo Basho

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kinesthesia in the Garden

“. . . I am trying to invent a new way of moving under my dress: the room squares off against this: watch the water glitter with excitement: when we cut below the silver skin of the surface the center retains its fluidity; do I still remind you of a locust clinging to a branch: I give you an idea of the damages; you would let edges be edges: believe me . . .”
C. D. Wright, “Crescent”

Kinesthesia is the sense of touch, of movement of one’s body. To me it is the secret to moving from a state of concentration to one of awareness, and that’s what my garden does for me.

Concentration contracts, narrows perceptions, clenches muscles, shuts out all other input. Awareness opens, widens perceptions, exhales cool refreshing sensations. By paying attention to the senses awakened when I move in the garden, sensory messages go directly from my muscles to my brain, without the interruptions and filters of words.

In my back yard, my capacity for awareness expands. I can stand between the earth and the sky and feel my connections, and my movements; I can let go of concentration and become aware - what Buddhists call mindfulness. For me, the goal of a garden isn’t the flowers that please the eye, or the fat tomatoes that please the palate. I soon grow tired of the colors, and the showing off – like these lazy mums sunning themselves on the rocks in the late November afternoon.

For me, the goal of walking around in the back yard, is kinesthesia – I feel what it’s like to be inside my skin, beginning with an awareness of my feet connecting with the ground. When I begin to feel what my toes feel, I can begin to see what my eyes see – just the colors and the light and shadow of each tint, without the names, or flowery descriptions, or metaphors.

It’s like re-discovering a way of moving, a fluidity I understood as a child, but forgot as I gradually learned how to master concentration at the expense of awareness.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Remembering Mom and Dad

“I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.

“I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily cups--
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,--
The tree is living yet!

“I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then
That is so heavy now,
The summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow.

“I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.”

Thomas Hood, “I Remember, I Remember”

Monday, November 12, 2007

Surprise Party

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after…

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause…

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

Wallace Stevens, selected from: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

I don’t know which I like best about this poem – the beautiful, different ways, or the ability to see differences in the first place. Especially in such an unlovable sight - Audubon calls them the gangstas of the bird hood. The verses above are my three favorite ways. To see all 13 ways of looking at blackbirds, read the entire poem

November has been cooling and the coastal marine layer has migrated to my back yard - 20 miles east of the ocean, at the dizzying height of 22 feet above sea level. We’ve even felt a few minor drizzles here – it cools and softens the air, awakening drying sage as I hit the leaves with the hose.

Many, resident and visitor alike, decry our alleged lack of seasons. They are all wrong. Seasons change here too, sometimes with such a gentle soft touch that you might miss it if you’re not in the yard when it happens. Like missing the bus to work on the perfect autumn day and driving down to Rock Creek and kicking the brown leaves and savoring their aroma: the smell of Home.

The mums are throwing a surprise party. I’d forgotten what was where, and that’s part of the fun when they start to show their colors. No doubt about it, autumn is my favorite season for enjoying outdoors, even blackbirds.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Solitude Delivered From the Anguish of Loneliness

“Every deed and every relationship is surrounded by an atmosphere of silence. Friendship needs no words – it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.”
Dag Hammarskjold

Notwithstanding my fondness for the colors, images and poems about autumn, there comes a point when I realize I’m surrounded by the dead and the dying. Another word for harvest is murder.

Now, I expect annuals to die, immolated in a final blaze of glory. But what about the collateral damage? Oh, the vegemanity! My young vegetable starts, I hardly knew you. So young, so tender, so appealing to bunnies. I didn't have enough wire baskets to go around, so you can see the surviver inside the perimeter and the stumps of its companions outside the wire. They had so much to live for. Purchased Sunday, planted Tuesday, nibbled to the nubs by Friday.

But the universe makes the rules in the Garden. Here only change is permanent. Seeing the garden with compassion but without self-deception is like trying to see death but without fear. Here’s George the Scarecrow, decked out in his tux for the Fall Festival. I got a big Styrofoam pumpkin and put Medusa Gourd’s rasta hair in the top. This was before the Festival, originally scheduled for 10/27, but postponed to 11/10 by the fires.

Here’s headless George after the fire. The Garden was spared, but the fire was within blocks, and the winds were pretty fierce around the perimeter. We’re making the most of the change. Sometimes, we put too much emphasis on heads and not enough on hearts. George is perfectly happy headless, as he is at home all year, next to Medusa Gourd.

Medusa Gourd is visiting the Garden for the festival, sporting her rasta hair, somewhat thinned by all the commotion, but looking incredibly happy to be near George. They apparently preside helplessly together over the rabbits as they harvest by night.

Reunited friends again, Headless George and Medusa Gourd get it: solitude without loneliness.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Almost Exactly Like Gone with the Wind

"In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile."
Elinor Wylie

When I was young, I moved fast. I had people to see, places to go. I had important stuff to do. Once I stopped going places, and seeing people, and doing important stuff, well, I didn’t just stop being important, I stopped being fast.

Once, my reactions were so quick they seemed like coincidences. What I lacked in grace I made up in speed. Now, I move with the great deliberation of the unbalanced, the elderly, or the very wise. I’m still ungraceful, and I’m not very wise, so you see my situation. My reactions today were in the kind of movie slow motion you see when bridges blow up and the action hero leaps from the runaway train as it tips into the ravine, with blazing guns in each hand (the hero, not the train) and lands on his feet, perfectly balanced on the precipice.

I cleaned the waterfall today, and in the process, I fell in. Nothing seriously wounded, not even pride. Just one of those falls, like a giant sequoia in a primordial forest, pulling surrounding trees down in its wake.

I was standing atop the big rock in the middle of the falls, tearing out green goddess lilies, toad lilies and some nasty grass-like mat that had virtually swallowed the big rock. I had abandoned my shoes, and the water was only mildly cool, and I was perfectly balanced, and I moved one foot, and I reached slowly out, and I grabbed the last clump of stems, and I knew in a blinding flash there would be no stopping me. I was going down.

I had time to consider several options, to discard each in turn, and to consider the best way to twist and lean so my butt hit the big rock instead of my hip. I made a lovely splash as I slid down the rock and landed in the muck and roots at the bottom. Not exactly perfectly balanced, but more or less upright. I did however, hold on to the damned clump of stems.

I raised my clenched and muddy fist full of gooey brown toad lily leaves, and raised my face to the sky, and I shouted defiantly, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!”

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Nature’s Indulgence

“There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth make a harmony, as if Nature would indulge its offspring.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

CNN reports that snow is falling on the Cascade mountains this morning. Meanwhile, back at the ranch: in my back yard, it’s 73F and sunny, with the vestiges of the morning fog lurking beneath bushes and low trees.

I’m busy making signs for the Veggie Garden where I volunteer. Our fall plant sale was postponed from 10/27 because of the fire, and will now occur on 11/10. This is actually better from a vegetable gardener’s perspective because my tiny seedlings of lettuce, cabbage and Swiss chard will be planted this week. They won’t be much to look at, but they’ll offer the promise of things to come, rather than the worn out, mildew-tainted zucchini leaves and burnt tomatillo plants that I mostly removed last week.

The small home-made signs in this picture were from my backyard about this time last year. The Veggie Garden signs are larger and in color and laminated to last for the entire cool season.

The mums are at their most beautiful, ready to be picked for an arrangement at the festival next weekend. The day is beautiful and inviting, and the air is crisp and faintly fragrant with the rusty smell of withering summer crops and spent flowers. It’s hard to think I’ll be moving indoors soon to work on my inside hobby: the endless Art Nouveau doll house.

But on this beautiful sunny Sunday, that’s easier to imagine than snow in the mountains.