Monday, April 28, 2008

Paradise Lost

"Add what lacks... Make me more equal…

"…And thy fair fruit let hang, as to no end
Created; but henceforth my early care,
Not without song each morning and due praise,
Shall tend thee, and the fertile burden ease
Of thy full branches, offered free to all;
Till dieted by thee I grow mature
In knowledge as the gods who all things know,
Though others envy what they cannot give;
For had the gift been theirs, it had not here
Thus Grown...

"... So add to what
Wants In female sex, the more to draw his love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superior for inferior who is free?
Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IX

Summer is here. It’s hot and dry. Strawberries are almost free – big fat ones that are as sweet and juicy as the smaller ones I recall as a child. Three green plastic baskets for $3. Avocados – both the thick and the thin-skinned ones – are going for $2 a bag. The net bags contain up to 2 dozen ripe fruits. (Take an avocado, spread it out on a piece of sourdough bread like butter. Chop and sprinkle a generous handful of fresh basil on top. Top the whole with a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Mmmm…) Thy fair fruit, Milton counsels, let it hang.

And yet, somehow, amid all the riotous growth of Spring, I already smell early and violent deaths outside my back door. At the recent public festival at the Garden where I volunteer, I was stationed in the veggie garden where I re-plant two entire annual crops: cool season and warm season. I lost most of the winter veggies – cabbages, broccoli, lettuce and chard to rabbits or ground squirrels, or gophers. Theives in the night. In the four days between when we planted 2 dozen sweet corn starts and the festival, one third are already gone (foreground), and the second third probably won’t be there tomorrow. The remaining 2 rows are safe so far beneath one of our pvc-chicken wire cages in the background of this picture.

All morning at the festival, visitors’ questions involved impending pestilence and Armageddon-ish weather. What’s killing my early tomatoes? What are the ginormous butterflies, and why are there so many of them? (I’m told they are sphinx moths, and they really are the size of hummingbirds when they’re grown.) Is it true their baby caterpillars will hatch into those finger-sized green tomato hornworms that spit stink at you when you threaten to harvest “their” tomatoes? Why so many lizards? I referred people with baggies of diseased tomato plants to the Master Gardeners for diagnosis.

The unspoken worry of global warming, and local firestorms blows the hot wind around us, as we compare war stories. Those of us trying to grow warm-season vegetables near the edges of the burn zone have watched our neighborhood fauna change as rats, gophers, and coyotes move in from their destroyed habit. Our murder of big black gansta crows are gone, as are the blue jays – neighborhood bullies of the air. Instead, we have red-shouldered hawks, another species of hawk I don’t know, and the occasional eagle. With owls in twilight, these birds now have air rights above the back canyon. There are lots of places that have yet to burn, and water is increasingly scarce. Our water provider just sent us a notice of a public hearing to increase our rates by over 8%. Like the days of $2.00/gal gas, we won’t miss the water until the well runs dry. Someday, what we pay today for un-rationed water will seem laughably, quaintly, cheap. Like I feel about the war, I wonder how bad it has to get before we do something to stop it.

Sunday, returning south and turning inland from the North County coast where we spent a pleasant morning tasting beer, we spotted the tell-tale plume of smoke on the horizon – puffing dark gray of solid smoke clouds, cycling to lighter and white steam from the doused fire. As we drew closer, we could observe the fire was in one of the million small canyons running from east to west leading down to the sea from the mesas to their west. Such east-west canyons are veritable chimneys for the hot winds blowing dry desert winds all the way to the ocean. We were also able to see that the fire was a brush fire, not a structure fire. It also explained why the smoke changed from black to white again, and again, as the firefighters on the ground were directed by two hovering helicopters to new hot spots.

The rains stopped in early April, but it’s as dry as October. The fire season doesn’t usually begin until summer has begun to go out in a blaze of glory by October. In 2007 the fires were very close to us in October. In 2003 they burned parts of Scripps Ranch to 2 blocks from J&K’s house in November. To think that the fire season started in May is, let’s say, worrisome.

Today my garden may be the best metaphor for the lost paradise Milton describes. Today is the third day the temps reached triple digits. It’s 98 in my back yard right now, and I’m typing this before noon. There’s a deceptive Santa Ana wind blowing out of the scorching deserts, already strewn with the rusty wreckage of the lovely Spring wildflowers that lived and died so quickly a mere few weeks ago. K was beset with hay fever all day, and they say it’s worse in the Inland Empire. The hot wind is the opposite of a cool breeze: it sucks the moisture right out of your face, like a dry kiss with the breath of hell, and assaults you with pollen from a million short-lived species east of us who have already turned to dust.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Imagination in the Garden

Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’ve rearranged the furniture in the backyard – again. As I clean up from winter, re-plant, re-pot, compost, sow seeds and generally putter, I change arrangements of pots and artifacts. I move whirly gigs, hanging pots, rocks, and even actual furniture. One gardener’s sublime arrangement is another gardener’s kitschy crap.

This Spring cleaning exercise is a way for me to slowly re-tone my muscles after Winter’s idleness, and to become reacquainted with the place I last spent time in during the waning days of Autumn. It’s also a way for me to awaken my imagination from its Winter hibernation. In the process, I re-imagine what I call my 20 Year Plan. I have a vision of a white garden in the back corner, beneath the mature California pepper tree. I’ve got a thunbergia doing quite well where I literally dumped it 20 years ago after digging it up from the front yard. I’ve planted some white creeper, a couple of lavenders and my struggling brunfeslia may have found it’s final resting place.

I will, one day, re-excavate the stairs going down the back slope to the gate that opens onto the unfenced back lot that tilts ever steeply down to the creek at the bottom – no more than a slightly damp dry wash for most of the year. Two tall branches of my rebellious black bamboo are now being trained to bend together into an arch above the top of the stairs. Eventually, I will do a path along the inside of the fence at the bottom of the hill, and heading west, where it will travel beneath the sideways pine tree and back up to a succulent mother garden around the crumbling pig pen. I’m thinking of bringing in DG rock to “pave” the white garden and the proposed path. Nothing else grows there except the Brazilian pepper that won’t die.

So ripe with potential, so many areas to tame and reclaim, I feel refreshed after a long day in the warming afternoons, when I hose things down. My wildflowers are tiny but look like they’ll survive. Safely inside the chicken-wire fence, my parking-space-sized vegetable garden are sunflowers and tomatoes and the remaining basil, hiding nervously between two artichokes. I’ve got a few beans and a sorry specimen of a white eggplant. I must be destined never to grow the elusive white eggplant. Probably prefer the lovely long purple Japanese variety, especially when they’re young and tender.

Would my garden only love me more if I didn’t keep putting kitschy stuff like the pot man all over the place? The pot man, relaxing with his feet up on the far side of the pond, contemplates an answer, but remains silent and inscrutable.

I imagine that the newly trimmed mums, munching out happily on their recent fertilizer feeding, are planning to give me spring blooms. Rarely, they’ll do that, but I think it’s gotten too warm too fast to trick them into blooming twice this year. After waiting patiently without flowering last year, my purple Iris are going to give me at least one stalk of multiple flowers. Apparently, they just needed to take a year off after being dug up and separated from their sibling bulbs. Exercise of tired old muscles in cool Spring afternoons is good. Exercise of imagination is better.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Barbarous Middle Age

"Of all the barbarous middle ages, that
Which is most barbarous is the middle age
Of man; it is -- I really scarce know what;
But when we hover between fool and sage,
And don't know justly what we would be at --
A period something like a printed page,
Black letter upon foolscap, while our hair
Grows grizzled, and we are not what we were; --

"Too old for youth, -- too young, at thirty-five,
To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore, --
I wonder people should be left alive;
But since they are, that epoch is a bore:
Love lingers still, although 't were late to wive;
And as for other love, the illusion's o'er;
And money, that most pure imagination,
Gleams only through the dawn of its creation."

- Byron, Don Juan, Twelfth Canto

The picture is a yucca recurvifolia at the Garden.

Not to quibble, but middle age is not an age you can specify until the day you die. If I had died when I was 20, my middle age would have been the year I was ten. If I live to be a hundred, middle age would have been 50, and it’s way too late for me to cry over that lost year. It may be true that today I’m older than I’ve ever been before, but once I survive today, it will be slowly buried beneath the sediment of tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeping in at a pretty steady pace.

A year ago I was leaving Savannah, after a rejuvenating visit with sisters and a day spa. We each bought one of those flying screaming monkeys and spent our last evening in the B&B finishing all the grocery store wine we’d purchased and shooting our monkeys through the air at one another. Then, we drunk called several nieces and nephews, who each reacted to our calls in various ways befitting their upbringing. I called my favorite nephew and, in my official hospital administrator voice I told him that his mother was in our emergency room raving about her wasted youth and was not for this world. He replied in a calm and gentle voice, and with a wisdom beyond his years: “Then just let her go.”

Good times.

Today, I helped my Tech Support Guy tighten the shade cloth over the fragile Japanese Maples that are already starting to scorch from the four inch sliver of sun that caresses them every day. By tightening the shade cloth, we narrowed the sliver of sunshine to zero, and now not a drop of unfiltered sun can reach their precious little leaves. Now, all I have to do is hand water them every single day without fail, and they’ll survive another summer in a climate they were never meant to inhabit.

If I live to be 70, then like Don Juan, my middle age would have been 35. Sitting beneath my straightened and re-fastened shade cloth, sweating in a climate I was destined to inhabit, I find myself closer to the fools side of the equation than the sage. I try in vain to recall what I did on this date the year I was 35. Perhaps I was just never destined to experience such a long dotage. At least I can still remember last year.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Truly Alive

"A baby's body is soft and gentle.
A corpse is hard and stiff.
Plants and trees are tender
and full of sap.
Dead leaves are brittle and dry.

"If you are rigid and unyielding,
you might as well be dead.
If you are soft and flexible,
you are truly alive."
- I Ching 76

My red basil start is beyond hard and stiff: it is gone!

So young! So tender! So truly dead. So “disappeared” leaving a small divot in the spot where it stood. After I spent my yesterday afternoon strengthening the perimeter, guarding the borders, trying to keep out the goblins in this time of terror. (And so overwrought, the anti-war metaphor!)

So, in an attempt to become softer and more flexible, I spent the afternoon today watering in the wind, listening to the sounds of wind chimes, their voices becoming more shrill as the wind picks up. Sometimes there’s a hysterical clang! The perfect soundtrack to the chore of watering on a windy, sunny, Spring afternoon.

I puttered around and got my hair blown in my face. Did I become softer and/or more flexible? Not so much.

But I was truly alive out there, with the wind tossing around sweet springtime fragrances of orange blossoms, mock orange blossoms, lilacs, wisteria and those endless yellow wildflower species. Their fragrances were being tossed around like an aromatherapy convention in a tornado. The sunshine, hose rainbows, wind and wind chimes - my Springtime Symphony of light, sound, touch and smell. I call it "Truly Alive"

Monday, April 14, 2008


"Baby if you need me,
Like I know I need you,
Then there’s just one thing
I’d ask you to do.
Take my hand and lead me
Through that hole in the garden wall
And pull me through.
Pull me through."
Jackson Browne, Your Bright Baby Blues

There’s more to life than gardening. And no, I’m not trying to persuade myself it’s true. I believe it’s true. There’s family, and I’ve got a big one, radiating out from my dead parents and through their 9 progeny: me and my brothers and sisters. We’re grown now, and dispersed, except for a family e-mail network we call Famnet. We can be as closely in touch with each other as we are at the rare reunions.

For most of us, sarcasm is a natural as the day is long. We’re smart, and we’re edumacated. We read, we write, we think, and, my how we argue. I refer, of course, to elevated discourse about the plight of the migrant farm workers, prescription cures for postmodern cultural angst, metaphorical discourse about overthrowing the hegemony of neighborhood bullies near and far.

And, also, we communicate equally articulately, by resorting frequently to hilarious vulgarity, cruel ad hominim attacks (e.g. “You Suck!” “No YOU suck!” ) overwrought metaphors about being adopted, unloved, and fully deserving of pathetic low self esteem. Before our grown children became immunized by frequent doses, they were surprised to discover the sharp edge to some of the things my generation thinks is funny. They all survived about as well as could be expected.

Then, there, the detailed analysis about each others’ personal shortcomings, insane political positions (especially the un-evolved boys). We feel responsible to advise each other of our various and sundry shortcomings, poor personal hygiene, foolish and deluded beliefs from the previous millennium and lack of intelligence, grace, or a sense of humor. We don’t exactly value the diversity of our lifestyles, and those of our expanding network of children and their children.

Except that – we do.

While the inter-family humor can sometimes seem brutal, especially to the pussies among our ranks, we’ve all been thoroughly inoculated with the love of our family members that we can dish it out as well as we can take it. I love unconditionally every member of my family, even the ones I think are morons, and I’m sure they love me, even though they resent when I’m always right.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Paradise Regained

"What fear I then? Rather, what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?
Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, Inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: what hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?”

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost. Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty serpent, and well might; for Eve,
Intent now wholly on her taste, nought else
Regarded; such delight till then, as seemed,
In fruit she never tasted, whether true
Or fancied so through expectation high
Of knowledge; nor was godhead from her thought.
Greedily she ingorged without restrainht,
And knew not eating death, Satiate at length,
And heightened as with wine, jocund and boon…"
- Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IX

My garden isn’t exactly Eden, and I’m a bit different from Eve. One of my personal favorite sins is giving vent to my slightly warped sense of humor, particularly on or about April Fools Day, when I’m clearly intent on my own taste, nought else.

Meanwhile, I’m in a much better mood, having recently had some outdoor therapy. I planted a bunch of lavender varieties on the back south-facing bank. This breaks my general rule of planting fragrant plants on the walkway leading up to the spa. I figure I can keep an eye on them in back since it’s near my potting bench, and I can use them as a mother garden to take and propagate more of same. The blue hose is the drain for the sink at the potting bench, and I've pricked holes in it to serve as a drip irrigation to the lavender, sage and other herbs I'll be planting there.

I do sometimes feel like Eve this time of year, when I re-discover how wonderful it feels to create my own personal Eden adjacent to my modest vegetable garden. Although the quote is from Paradise Lost, getting back into the groove of yard work in warm weather, I feel like my back yard is Paradise Found – yet again every Spring.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Blasphemy: In Pretzels and Blogs

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.”
- William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors. Act ii. Sc. 1.

One man’s pretzel is another man’s blasphemy. The pretzel pictured here is formed into the word “infidel” in Arabic. The Sub-Sub Baker, who invented this unique combination of food and political statement, calls it The Infidetzel™. It doesn’t smell like anthrax, but rather is as delicious as a regular giant pretzel. In fact, I’m told a batch of freshly-baked Infidetzels exude a pungent fragrance of self-righteous indignation, guaranteed to cure all customers’ righteous indigestion.

Here are the top ten things that annoy me in other peoples’ blogs:

1 Starting overwrought memes about posting, say, your past two grocery lists, your garden journal entry from this day last year, or your descriptions of the best police chase video you’ve ever seen.

2 Stories about boring stuff you did yesterday. (We all had a day yesterday, perhaps just as boring as yours thanks for sharing.)

3 Overuse of a thesaurus, use of exotic and obscure crossword words when simpler words would do, e.g. using the word “meme” when you mean “blogging somebody else’s thought instead of thinking up your own, you lazy bastard”.

4 Unsuccessful attempts to try to make pathetically drab lives interesting that fail even to entertain the smug, let alone rise above the loafers of the listener longing for profound thoughts.

5 Things your mother/father/favorite teacher etc. once solemnly pronounced, and now you totally realize they were SO right. Like, awesome.

6 Pos(t)ing as thoughtful, introspective, wise beyond your years, yet thirsting for blog comments and reassurance from perfect strangers. (Note to self: don’t appear so needy. Nobody likes a complainer, you poor undiscovered artist/struggling writer you.)

7 Describing a visit to/from Dear Old Mom; a cute example of Precocious Toddler grammar; the thing your new kitty did to the ball of yarn - all particularly when accompanied by artless pictures.

8 Explaining how, despite the fact that your hyper-life is bouncing from one hectic crisis to another, you retain a mellow sense of humor and more poise, frankly, than any one person should be allotted in life, you sanctimonious ass. We had a meeting, we sent a memo: self-deprecating head shaking passing for wisdom: it’s no longer cool. Neither is your verbal desperation tarted-up as postmodern angst fooling anybody. Stop embarrassing yourself.

9. Adversity overcome, and illustrated by dumb crap e.g. surviving an acrimonious divorce, the lingering death of a loved one; that horrible haircut at Supercuts; the barely escaped death during a cell phone moment. Remember: at our age, that which does not kill us usually makes us dumber.

10 Lectures on topics I could Google or Wikipede if I wanted, such as iambic pentameter or plant names and epithets, or what the pretty yellow flowers are called. The exercise of initiative is not exclusive to you.

Here are the top ten things I enjoy in other peoples’ blogs:

1 Simple pleasures, articulately described, small beauty beautifully illustrated.

2 Exercises of lively imagination insightfully shared.

3 Life lessons humbly related with a modest sense of irony. Easy on the passive aggression.

4 Descriptions of life in gardens – successes, failures, disasters caused and averted, but make it interesting, dammit! More than: we laughed, we cried, we returned home drunk.

5 Things your mother/father/favorite teacher once solemnly pronounced and you now realize they were SO totally damn wrong.

6 Well-written and exquisitely constructed prose that illustrates an original thought with a drop of daffiness. I also appreciate redundancy (provided its not repetitious) and the creative use of profanity, but that’s a whole ‘nother (sic) story.

7 Adversity, overcome but illustrated by clever metaphors. E.g.: offenses your bridesmaids committed unwittingly at your first wedding, and the scars they left; or, say, why living with your MIL is no longer charming.

8 Lies, dressed up as truth so well that even their own Mother wouldn’t recognize them.

9 Connections magically made between concepts that I thought weren’t related until you connected them. Really? Hummingbirds, Swedish meatballs AND grave robbers?

10 Humor so irreverent it may, at times, seem to stumble across the border into a briar patch of vulgarity - like your old Uncle Andy on St. Patrick’s Day when he started talking about his drunken Pop - but only if you don’t have a grown-up sense of humor, you twit.

BTW, so sorry. Were you offended by the infidel pretzel, aka The Infidetzel™? Then to you I say – Your mama is so fatwa. (How fatwa is she?) When she jihads around the house, she jihads AROUND the fricking House, boy. Were you offended by my list of unpardonable blogging sins, or my list of mad blogging practices that will confer everlasting grace on your blaspheming blog? To you I say, don’t be vain: many are called, but few are chosen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Gardens of the Imagination

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Isaac Newton

Grown-ups enjoy childish displays of imagination all the more because as adults, we often sacrifice our own imagination in exchange for what we hoped was wisdom: only to realize not all sad experience increases wisdom. In fact, some of life’s lessons seem to be directed at the slow realization that we aren’t as smart as we once thought we were. Nobody knows this better than the gardener, who has tried, and failed as often as she has succeeded.

Sometimes, childish flights of imagination may enable one to visit fantasy gardens – imaginary places. As adults we often imagine that we have too many real places to go, real people to see, real things to do – for such flights of fancy. So imagination withers like a bush struggling beyond the reach of the Rainbird, while our gardens of the real flourish, and then perish around us unseen.

To have an original thought, to think a new thing into reality, is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes it seems like everything’s been said and done, certainly everything worthwhile, true, meaningful. When I was growing up in suburban Washington DC, we would often go downtown this time of year when the cherry blossoms began to bloom around the reflecting pool. We’d see tourists, carefully framing the lovely white Jefferson Memorial and it’s reflection in the background, beneath sprays of cherry blossoms. We’d smugly walk past and mutter “Been done”. Even if you’ve never been there to see it, you know exactly what I’m talking about: the cherry blossoms against the round white marble edifice and it’s reflection. Lovely perhaps, but a cliché.

But, just as not every tune has already been hummed, not every dream garden has been planted. There is an infinite store of unused melody, unspoken thought, and wisdom. And there are unimagined gardens to dream and plant into reality. Perhaps original thoughts, like classic garden designs, are not lying around waiting for gardeners to trip over them, like when Le Notre designed the gardens at Versailles.

Green leaves on a red stem, or red maples surrounding the top of the stone lantern and casting it into shadow. So much the better that Versailles has "been done". I simply don’t have as much room as Versailles to realize my dream garden. Surely, somebody else has seen delicate maple leaves briefly ignited by a golden sunset.

But my pleasure is not reduced when I imagine things others may have seen – they’re fresh and new to me. Nor is my imagination discouraged by stumbling into giants who have thought my thoughts before. So, I’ll climb up on those giant shoulders and look around some more, letting my imagination take me where nobody has been before. I’ve enjoyed the backlit maple leaves in seasons past, but I still enjoy seeing them anew each Spring.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Have You Heard the Good News?

“Basingstoke today after a local woman claimed to have seen a vision of a piece of toast on a picture of the Virgin Mary at her local church. Betty Tilley, 42, was praying silently at the Sacred Heart Catholic church when she looked up to see a ray of light slanting in through the window, illuminating a reproduction painting of the Virgin Mary and as she moved closer she was amazed by what she saw.
“‘There’s just no question in my mind that it was a miracle. Right there, on the face of the Holy Mary, Mother of God, I could see a nice piece of toasted sliced white bread. The amazing thing is that it was just like the one I had had for breakfast, so clearly this must be some kind of message from God'.”
Source: New Biscuit

I’ve got to get out to the yard. Like Betty Tilley in the above quote, I’ve been inspired by a secret message from God – In my case, a message directing me to sow seeds and pull weeds. I have a mystical and improvable faith that the act of gardening works a sort of miracle on my mental outlook. I mean, I’m crazy at the best of times, but what I aspire to is a sort of goofy/crazy where I develop hyper sensory powers to see the entire world through a sunny haze of verdant growth rather than the edgy, over-caffeinated slightly menacing jitters that, I presume, were the accompaniment (if not the cause of) Betty Tilley’s vision. I’m more comfortable in my skin when my zaniness is tempered with some of the “good” muscle fatigue that results from turning the compost with a pitchfork, and my upper arms are losing their flab and my lower arms are absorbing the sun’s pure energy.

Yesterday, we saw the sun’s rays peeking through clouds and made what my Spousal Unit calls “rapture beams” – those rays that make spotlights of sun through holes in the clouds. One of my crazier sisters used to call it the “Holy Cow” sky after a cartoon that showed one such sunbeam shining down on an isolated cow in a pasture of shadowy cows.

I like to think that the cartoon cow in the spotlight was also receiving a silent message from God traveling on the light beams. Perhaps the silent message was something on the lines of “Don’t follow the rest of the cows when they march into the pen, squeezing into a single file leading to a cattle car. That’s a one-way trip for cows.” I imagine the inspired cow trying to spread the good news to the rest of the herd, and being laughed at, like I’m sure Betty Tilley’s imaginary neighbors laughed at her personal vision.

But unlike these false prophets, I have the real good news:Gardeners awake! Spring is here! Put down your knitting next to the cold ashes in the fireplace. Put on your short-sleeved t-shirt and go outside and soak up some Vitamin D. Stuff is happening in your garden, and you need to be there to see it.

(The pictures are of the Yucca Recurvifolia, Agavaceae Family. It's now in bloom across from my Veggie Garden, but don't get to close, you could lose an eye.)