Thursday, May 29, 2008

Me, the Intelligent

“We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.”
George Saunders, “Braindead Megaphone” Saw this blogged Here.

I miss humane and precise speech as much as the next subscriber of basic cable TV. But more than either of those virtues of discourse, I’ve been missing signs of conversational intelligent life recently. Which has me thinking of creating an application form, to apply to have “…The Intelligent” appended to you name after you die, as in “Abigail the Intelligent” or “Geraldine, The Intelligent. In fact, I should get the title merely for thinking this up. And yes, I’m perfectly aware that one of the seven cardinal sins is pride, Mom. Which is why I want to wait until I die to be referred to as intelligent, thus proving I was also modest and/or unappreciated during my lifetime.

So far, here are some questions on my draft “Application to Posthumously Append ‘…The Intelligent’ to Name” or APAIN, for short.

1) Are you now, or have you ever, blogged about American Idol (other than in a parodic and/or ironic manner?

2) Are you, or do you wish you were, a secret agent with a license to slap stupid people?

3) Did you once have the power to arch your back just right and ask for pretty things from people who wouldn’t say no? Do you honestly miss that?

4) Do you like my pink plastic (now legless) flamingo, perched in her nest in the shade above my potting bench? I couldn’t bear to have her humanely “put down” just because her metal legs rusted and she fell over.

5) Do you work outside in the garden because:
a. you have enjoyed a lifelong pleasure in gardening;
b. you have realized as you age that you need gardening as physical therapy;
c. you have realized as you age that you need gardening as a mental therapy;
d. you are required to perform public service working in a public garden as a condition of your parole while awaiting trial.

6) Did all your friends turn out to be insurance salesmen?

7) Biggest Regret (Chose one or more)
a. Killing an expensively inappropriate rain forest transplant by trying to grow it in Zone 9;
b. Leaving/not leaving that place, at that time, with that person;
c. Quarreling with people who don’t matter enough to warrant it;
d. Realizing that regret itself is always the primary motive for the self-loathing you’ll never outgrow;
e. Declining the homecoming crown at law school graduation;
f. Other: please specify as obliquely and passive-aggressively as possible.

8) Finally, do you sometimes theorize about astrophysics, for example, that in the middle of every black hole out in space, scientists will someday find an old lady stumbling around in the dark and looking for a stepladder to replace the light bulb?

Couple of problems. What are the passing answers? Who will grade them? Oh yeah: and will we be graded on a curve?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Weather and Wisdom

“One has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.”
- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

There was I time, I was considered wise for my age. Now, I’m older but no wiser. This could mean, I suppose, that now I’m merely wise. The unfortunate logic of these parallel trends argues that as I keep getting older without increasing my store of wisdom, I’ll soon be stupid for my age. Then, simply stupid.

On Memorial day, J&K came down for the weekend because Lake Arrowhead had 4 inches of snow. Here, we had a big morning downpour. I know I harp on the climate change thing too much, but rain on Memorial Day? Tornadoes last Sunday night in Riverside County, mudslides in Orange County, hail in San Diego County? A forest fire in Santa Cruz, 5,000 acres and counting. It stopped raining here on the Ides of March. Three days before the Memorial Day weekend, temperature outside my back door was 101F. Sunday morning it dipped below 60F in the morning rain. While the downpour tapered off by noon, it settled down for a mildly windy drizzle all afternoon.

While I presume to know exactly nothing about actual climate change, where we’re going, how desperate we are etc. I do observe anecdotal anomalies which I ascribe to Nature’s revenge for Man's hubris. I also observe and interesting effect of these changes: that the natives (and drought tolerant plants from similar Mediterranean climates) seem to go with the flow.

At the Garden, the purple Jacaranda was at its peak in mid-May, together with similar trees all over town. Thriving beneath, a patch of Hooker’s primrose that we permitted to invade the neighboring wildflower area. While I unfailingly prefer purples, I am reminded by sights like these that yellow is a complementary color not to be forgotten in my vision of the backyard I hope to have some day. So, while my dwarf Japanese maples are already burned around their edges, and one of my baby hop vines has already succumbed to weather and the appetites of night visitors, the natives simply wait for the next change in the weather and carry on quietly.

I sometimes feel like a transplanted piece of flora inhabiting a hostile climate, clinging desperately to life in the face of climatic insults, attacks of rabbits, raccoons, possums, and the ubiquitous lizards, zipping in panic across my path as I lumber around the yard lamenting what Nature has wrought. Like Eliot, I find it easier to “use my words” to say what I no longer need to say. Like much that grows in my garden, I seem to use my wisdom to adapt to the climate that no longer prevails.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Continuum of Belief

“People who believe they have the truth… should know they believe it, rather than believe they know it.”
- Jules Lequier

Ahhh, religion, you old chestnut. Curses and plagues, the fire next time, and whatnot. Conflating believing with knowing. But what if devout faith were mere conjecture, belief mere opinion? The faithful want to transmute their belief into Truth. At what point does speculation solidify into a fact?

I’ve had laryngitis since last Xmas. Curse from god, or blessing from the universe? I suppose that depends on whether I believe in god, or the universe. A godless homeopath would conjecture that my inability to talk is a symptom caused by my belief that no one is listening. And who can prove what a tree sounds like when it falls in an empty forest? It’s all about Hope, which to me is the first of the three great commandments, not Love, and certainly not Faith.

What about hope in political discourse on Truth? A wise woman I know once said, “Finding reasons for hope in the face of … political oppression is perhaps a political response even if it was not originally intended to be so – for it is a form of resistance”. To me, hope means resistance to the tyranny of people passionate about theories they cannot prove, whether they be tyrants, gods of war, or gardens undergoing global warming.

What is the place of Hope in religious discourse on belief and Truth? If it’s true, all must believe. And yet, lots of guys have been killed by a guy with a different God, a different Book, a different Truth. (Which is strange, because if you could prove it was true, you wouldn’t have to kill anybody, would you? Although, come to think of it, I don’t think anybody’s been set aflame because of belief/disbelief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

What about the act of resistance in planting a garden? The first requirement of gardening in a climatological maelstrom is to hope. Here @ Motel California where I garden, we have yet to sink into the sea. I’m on the Pacific Plate side of the State, not on the North American Plate. I’m heading north to San Francisco, due to arrive just about the time the climate warms that many degrees of latitude to make the San Francisco of a thousand years from now like San Diego I remember yesterday. (I’ve lived here 35 years ago this month, making me practically a native. Yet although I’ve spent the majority of my years here, I will always feel like a transplant). Global warming is True: provable fact, not faith or conjecture, not politics. It’s about more than backyard gardens, looming water rationing, plague and pestilence and fires.

Whether the oppression is political, climatological, or spiritual - graceful resistance may be noble, and here’s hoping that devout wishes come true. Hopefully, I’ll plant vegetable and sunflower seeds. (YES! I did it! Used “hopefully” in the previous sentence perfectly grammatically.) Here’s hoping I’ll have enough water to sustain those hopes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Stage, a Garden, or a War Zone?

“All the world's a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”
Sean O'Casey

We all star in our own show, but I’m not quite ready to perform. Instead, I’m all, like, I need to spend every waking hour in the backyard getting dirt beneath my fingernails, puttering, playing, propagating, potting. It’s not mere gardening – it’s therapy. And it’s just what I need at this stage in life, this season of the year. This is no autumnal time to slow down and take stock. This is the time to throw your arms in a wide embrace, to spin around until you fall down on the grass, and look up and watch the blue sky spin.

I’m perfectly aware that this isn’t a race. There’s no final exam with a prize to the first one who arrives at the solution. Most of the year, I try to teach myself to slow down, and the garden is the place I try to learn this lesson. This is the one time a year however, when I can justify hurrying, there’s so much to do. The show is on!

I’m also perfectly aware that there are bad things out there, lurking in the underbrush to trip me up. Not all the bad things lurk either. Some are right in my face. Like the Eucalyptus Redgum Lerp Psyllids that seem to be everywhere. The lerp (don’t you love that name?) is all over the US Southwest and it’s described as “plant-juice sucking homopterans in the insect family Psyllidae. Redgum lerp psyllid nymphs (immatures) form a cover called a "lerp," which is a small white, hemispherical cap composed of solidified honeydew and wax. Lerps on leaves can be up to about 1/8 inch in diameter and 1/12 inch tall and resemble an armored scale.” I don’t have to go to a website to find a picture. These are from my back yard. Mmmmm, lerps.

And if it’s not lerps, its something else. The second picture is from the front driveway. It turn out that “Adult Eucalyptus trees in California are attacked by at least 14 other introduced insects” and that “drought stress increases damage to trees from both lerp psyllids and eucalyptus longhorned borers”. Mmmmm, borers.

Life is more than a stage, and I’m more than a player. It’s a jungle out here, and I’m the intrepid gardener determined to oppose the forces of villainous Nature aligned against me by wading into the war zone and keeping hope – and plants - alive. I’m also determined to continue mixing metaphors of gardens, stages and wars in this blog. If it’s inside my head, then it ends up here sooner or later, in a big stew of images, thoughts and ideas. Why should my garden and I be any less desperately unrehearsed than the rest of mankind?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Spring Gardening as Collaboration

“He that is in a town in May loseth his spring.”
- George Herbert (1593 – 1633)

Our gardens often provide the interface between our geometrically organized living spaces and the comparatively “wild” undeveloped spaces in the sprawling suburbia many of us inhabit. Man rules the urban environment and the architecture we construct to suit our needs and pleasures. Nature rules what’s left of the wilderness beyond our cities and outside our neatly organized suburban dwellings. My dish garden with the empty chair beneath an arbor of thyme and variegated lemon geranium (or pelargonium if you’re being stuffy) often spends winter near a window where I can be reminded of the empty space I long to occupy outdoors. I hope I never miss Spring by spending it cooped up inside somewhere.

Whether they be small patio or balcony gardens consisting of clusters of flower pots, or rambling back yards planted and nurtured on a grand scale, what we do within the (mostly) fenced enclosures that mark the boundaries of “our” property is make a space to transition between the organized world of man and the seemingly chaotic world of nature.

So it is in our cultivated gardens that most of us encounter nature. And it is there – in the process of cultivating our gardens – that we acquaint ourselves with the need to cooperate, not dominate. Every garden is a collaboration between the gardener and nature. Sometimes nature rejects our attempts, and other times nature improves on them.

When a painter paints a landscape, it captures a moment in time, and a vision the painter saw and interpreted. A painted landscape is static. When a gardener creates a garden, while it is possible to capture it in a moment with a camera, gardens are never static. Even a paved sculpture garden is subject to the play of light and shadow, rain or snow, that re-shapes what we see. As any gardener knows who has watched a treasured plant succumb to the forces of nature, gardens evolve in ways not always within control of the gardener.

Thus, for better or worse, our gardens exemplify our collaboration with nature, and teach us the best way to garden is to establish a friendly co-dependence with the forces of nature – our seasons, our soil, our changing climate. My zen frog, barely visible beneath another small arbor backed by another miniature tree of lemon geranium, seems to be silently meditating on something profound about collaborating with nature.

As I pause during this busy season of cleaning, planting, ordering, and acknowledging my past gardening failures, I once again learn the lessons of patience, acceptance and co-dependence that I seem to forget during winter when my garden is left to itself. My garden brings out the best in me, even though I often fail to return the favor.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Hop Arbor: Pure Hoppiness

“It is amazing how much mature wisdom resembles being too tired.”
- Robert Heinlein

K and I finally erected an arbor so I could plant my hop rhizomes. We found it seats perfectly in the notches in the footbridge that were to hold a crappy railing. The heat is on today, but when we finished the arbor late Monday, it was still in the 70s and pleasant. Tuesday, I planted “Brewer’s Gold” on the right in this pic and “Sunbeam” on the left side. Now, Friday, we’re having a Santa Ana desert breeze knocking around the wind chimes and nudging the temps up ten degrees in the hour before noon. It’s >90F in the shade now, and I have to check the veggie garden and provide some emergency supplemental water to the new sunflowers.

Not to mention that the compost isn’t going to turn itself. I’ve got a kitchen garbage pot full of coffee grounds, rotting banana skins and something else that smells nasty. It has to go outside with the full bin of shredded paper, where they will join and confer with their garbage ancestors and move on to the next spin of the Mandela/spinning compost bin. Ah, the cycle of life!

It took us all day Monday to get the damn arbor up, and attach a trellis at each end to add stability and provide space for hops and sunflowers to climb. Without getting lost in cataloging the miseries of getting old, let me just say, I sure can’t do what I used to do in the time I used to do it. Or as K says, it takes me all night to do what I used to do all night.

So, let’s just call it mature wisdom and leave it at that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Gardening in North Carolina

See the small sunflowers at the left side of the path leading to the arbor? Planted 3 weeks ago, they are already almost a foot tall.

I recently posted here some news from my sister M about her vegetable garden in Michigan. The following is from my sister-in-law R, who, apart from being an accomplished professional horticulturist, manages to plant a killer veggie garden. Perhaps that's not the right adjective to use when discussing edibles, but you get my drift. R recently moved from rural Maryland to rural Asheville North Carolina, where she is starting all over on a vegetable garden even before the house is ready to occupy. Here's what she's doing these days:

"Yesterday, as an early Mother's Day present, J caged all my tomatoes and expanded the garden by another several square yards--he saw that I was running out of planting space. To accomplish this, he had to move a significant pile of mushroom compost. He roto-tilled a good bit of the compost into our Carolina clay in our continued struggle to improve the heaviest soil I've ever gardened in. When my sister (who does pottery) visited recently, she remarked on the suitability of our clay for making pots.

"I'm growing a couple local tomato varieties--'Granny Smith' and 'Mountain Fresh' as well as two 'Juliet' (a grape type), a few 'Roma II' and 'Beefmaster'--for a total of 14 plants. (with the extra space I may plant a couple more.) My snap peas have started climbing their support fence and my potatoes are up and looking strong. Beans are just coming up as are the squash and chard. Today I need to thin/transplant some lettuce I sowed too thickly. We will have our first picking of sprouting broccoli for dinner tonight and we'll be eating lettuce and spinach from the garden by the end of the week."

Since I don't have pictures of the garden R is planting, here are some of the veggie garden where I volunteer. You can see the "cages" we made from pvc and chicken wire to deter bunnies and other creatures. The grasshoppers can still get in, but the big guys are stumped. Since the pics were taken, the corn is starting to poke above the cages and they'll be removed tomorrow. The critters seem to prefer baby sprouts, so I'm hopeful the corn and other veggies will survive after their protective armor is removed.

What amazes me about R's post or last week's report from M in Michigan is the difference not only in what is planted, but when. Out here in Zone 9, chard (foreground in second picture) is just about the only "cool season" plant remaining in our veggie garden. I am gradually reducing the number of tomatoes I'll plant here, finding that some, like Brandywine, just don't like my soil and/or climate. And mushrooms? Good grief. I thought I was exotic trying potatoes for the first time last year. I have neither the shade nor the water to grow 'shrooms in my yard. And, oh my, lettuce in June? Lettuce has long gone from San Diego home gardens: either harvested by the critters or the gardeners. The the few plants that remain in my yard are bolting beautifully so I can try to salvage some seed for next year. We plant lettuce in November here, to harvest beginning with Christmas dinner salad.

So, what are you growing in your edible garden, and what are you eating at your table now?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Gardening in Michigan

"It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."
Diane Ackerman

My sister lives in Belleville Michigan, and she is too busy gardening to blog. So, I'm doing it for her, and posting her lovely daffodils. I asked her for pictures of her garden. Here's what she had to say yesterday:

"Okay, so I decided the late afternoon (well, 6:30) sunlight on this glorious 70-degree day would be perfect. Before I could get to the things I wanted most to show you, the batteries in the camera gave out, and I only have 2 of the needed 4 replacements. Then again, I am also out of beer, so a store run is not inconceivable, even though the light will be gone by then.... I'll get back with lilacs and yard improvements!

"I started with my favorite weed: ground ivy, gill- over-the- ground, other names. I adore its tiny orchid-like flowers, which set off my dandelions nicely! Then my lovely new creamy daffodils, still going strong a week after the plainer, smaller, yellow ones. Behind them, the rose hedge is leafing out and it smells like roses even without any flowers. The two tomatoes I put out weeks ago in walls-o-water are no bigger than the two still on my windowsill. The raspberries (from Gary's mother's house, where they had been brought from his grandmother's house in MN decades earlier) are budding.

"We have had such a string of perfect weather as I've never seen here before. I can only attribute it to Alice leaving the state. ;-)"

So much for gardening in Michigan. I was going to take a picture of my tomato plants, now beginning their serious growth, but we had an unexpected rain. I say unexpected because I have missed the weather reports because my tv was broken for more than a week. But the real reason I don't want to include photos of my tomatoes are that I don't need a red bag of water to shelter them like my sister's, and they're now about as high as the red bag in her picture.

My sister's daughter visited San Diego recently and I was reminded of her love of gardening as she enjoyed my backyard garden. My own grown daughter has a number of interests and skills that keep her too busy to garden. Besides, she once pointed to a tomato plant and asked in perfect seriousness, "That's a tomato, right?" So although it may be easier for me to grow tomatoes in my garden, my sister managed to cultivate a love of gardening in her daughter; and it's a mystery to me how I failed to do the same in my own daughter.

Monday, May 05, 2008

My Recursive Morning

“The deeper a man digs for knowledge in his garden the more he realizes that he has only scratched the surface.” Anonymous

Today looks like a mirror facing a mirror with me in the middle. The ever-smaller me is reflected into infinity, vanishing into a distance that bounces back recursively to right now. Looking at the old person in the mirror, I must remind myself that objects in the mirror are funnier than they may appear.

This overcast Monday morning, the flat light illuminates everything evenly, without shadows. The sights make thoughts of gardens past ricochet around inside my head, briefly lighting up old memories – like the porch swing in the house on Dallas Avenue, and the bed of violets and lilies of the valley beneath the screen door leading into the back yard. Was it the shade of a hydrangea or a lilac bush where these modest woodland plants grew? Because I was small, I remember the small flowers better than the bush that was bigger than I. These sparks of memory suddenly appear less than random; taking a direction inside my skull and pointing the path to the future – to the dreadful years to come. What gardens have I yet to design, to plant, to nurture, to inhabit?

My train of thought careens through groves of digression into old memories, garden corners containing undiscovered clues to meaning, and curves back to today – to the overcast sky, and the absence of shadows. The garden this morning is gray and uninviting. I have work to do inside. A quick pass to visit the baby sunflowers, the struggling basil, the flourishing potatoes that need more soil heaped on top of the vines. Thinking about my Mom and her (mostly unfulfilled) gardening visions.

For her I think – and for me too apparently – gardens represented the opportunity to dream, to plan, to recall, and to execute visions only the gardener sees. I wish I could grow lilies of the valley here in San Diego, but they don’t survive. I’ve finally got some dog violets that insist on blooming even though they’d like a lot more water than they’re allotted. Who wouldn’t?

Friday, May 02, 2008

How Dreams End

"Oh, Mr. Done, screen me from their eyes and questions as much as you can! I'm so worn out and nervous, I shall betray myself. You will help me?" And she turned to him with a confiding look, strangely at variance with her usual calm self-possession.

"I'll shield you with my life, if you will tell me why you took the hashish," he said, bent on knowing his fate.

"I hoped it would make me soft and lovable, like other women. I'm tired of being a lonely statue," she faltered, as if the truth was wrung from her by a power stronger than her will.

"And I took it to gain courage to tell my love. Rose, we have been near death together; let us share life together, and neither of us be any more lonely or afraid?"

He stretched his hand to her with his heart in his face, and she gave him hers with a look of tender submission, as he said ardently, "Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!"

- Louisa May Alcott. "Perilous Play" (1869)

I dreamed I was in a space suit - tethered to a satellite between earth and the moon. I experienced vertigo. Not from looking at the big blue marble and being able to “crush its head” between my thumb and forefinger. But from looking beneath my floating feet and feeling the infinite way to fall. In my dream, I swooned like Rose on hashish.

So I woke this morning to a new season out my back door. Just like we call the year-end in-between season Indian Summer, there’s a sort of Indian Spring happening today. Summer was here last week – a few hot dry days was all it took to shrivel the cool air. But now, we’re getting another taste of the most delicate Spring I recall in years. Cool mornings, sipping my morning coffee on the back patio, while Lily sits in the other chair in the sun.

Lilly gazes up at the bird nest in the eaves with lazy concentration. She’s watching for baby birds. I’m trying to un-focus and re-capture the same dreamy feeling. I’m tired of trying to recognize patterns. I wear my over-coded Western imagination like blinders. The only way I can see the world is if I try to order it. I am trying to make sense of life in the only way I can – by reducing it to a movie playing outside my Spacesuit window, or by deconstructing the garden metaphors I use to describe it. Spring overwhelms my sense of atmosphere: both what I breathe, what surrounds me in the garden. Do it right, and it’s like floating in space, but with your feet on the ground. (How can the cat be so intent while resting? I believe another of her superpowers is the ability to dream with her unfocused eyes wide open.)

Today, I watched with a camera nearby. Yesterday, (without the camera) K and I watched two or three baby birds fledge from the nest tucked into a corner of dry eaves, just above where I’m drinking iced coffee. Yesterday, we didn’t get pictures, but I’m still hopeful I’ll get to know their names. However, today, I snapped a territorial hummingbird, trying to claim our patio bird family’s favorite perch and bathing spot. I caught a nasty big grasshopper in the same spot, doing whatever these evil creatures do between binging on my tender veggie garden starts (particularly the elusive white eggplant). Probably purging – it’s easy to believe that these things have a creepy eating disorder.

K has hung a birdfeeder immediately above the veggie garden. Sure, birds don’t need seed in this season of plenty. My IPM theory here is that if the birds get used to visiting this spot, they’ll keep visiting to eat the grasshoppers before said grasshoppers eat my food. Vegetable gardening has never felt so much like an endless war of attrition where I have to keep changing my tactics instead of fighting the last war.

Last year, I actually harvested some worthy vegetables. This year, I have a premonition that this might be the happiest time to end the dream of a vegetable garden – while It still retains some hope of survival. Heaven bless vegetable gardens if dreams end like this.