Thursday, October 30, 2008

Legend of The Oak Leaf

“The tenacity of oak leaves gave rise to a folktale that explains why oak leaves are shaped the way they are. Legend has it that the devil once made a pact with a farmer. The devil stipulated that he could snatch the poor man’s soul that fall, as soon as the oak had lost all its leaves, which were then rounded with a smooth edge. The devil was beginning to look forward to October. However, November came and went, and by December, all the trees were bare except for the oak. Its leaves, withered and brown, held fast to their stalks. Spring arrived and, one after another, the withered leaves dropped off the tree. When the last of the leaves had fallen, the devil thought the farmer’s time had finally come. But when the devil appeared to collect his due, the farmer guided him very close to the tree and showed him that the tips of new leaves had long since started to appear. Upon seeing this, the devil flew into a terrible rage, venting his anger on the oak tree it with his claws. The leaves of the oak have had strangely lobed edges ever since.”
- From The Curious Gardener, by Jurgen Dahl, “Some Things About Oaks”

This theory, while not scientifically accurate (the devil has claws?) or botanically correct (if old leaves are torn, new ones will grow back torn?), carries within it a lesson about hope and faith and all sorts of dreams deferred, which is doubtless why I favor this theory over some dull tale about the life cycle of the oak tree, and also why I find it instructive when it comes to formulating a theory about why, say, tornadoes always strike trailer parks, or carnival clowns seem so closely related to serial murderers, or even why scary movies always come out at Halloween.

Constancy is rewarded over fiendish cleverness. Even after we all pack up the garden following the final garden party, decorated by Mother Nature in those bright and garish fall colors, even if we all doze fitfully through those lengthening winter nights, and we all stagger dimly through those short cold winter days: nature abides, seasons unwind, and leaves return.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Escape to the Meadow

All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.
- Ambrose Bierce

This Victorian print, as interpreted by me, an amateur critic with an attitude problem, tells a sad story. The scene pictured is – to me – an allegory, each object representing a particular characteristic and fraught with dark symbolism. Consider this picture from the point of view of a person immersed in the scene.

The pink flower in the middle foreground is a passion vine, and contrary to what I thought, the name wasn’t chosen to invoke passionate emotions. It refers instead, to the euphemism used to describe the crucifixion of Christ. The name derives from one of the many scary visions of St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). He saw this vine growing upon the cross, hence the name Passion flower. Named by missionaries to South America “Flor de las cinco llagas” (Flower of the Five Wounds), the parts of the vine are said to represent the five wounds of Christ on the cross. The 16th century Jesuits who named the flower thought the ten petals represented the ten faithful apostles (two didn’t make it to the last passion of Christ). The corona symbolizes the crown of thorns, the five stamens the five wounds etc. Pretty gory, but those Jesuits spent a lot of their free time converting heathens using “extraordinary means” (a more contemporary euphemism for “torture”), so pretty flowers heavy with meaning probably helped them sleep at night.

In this picture, I think pink passion flower vine beckoning anxiously overhead represents something, or someone, clinging and trying to hold the person back. Unseen, but growing louder behind this person, I imagine the snarling hounds of hell, breathing loudly and coming closer. The vine symbolize a need that cannot persuade, and seeks instead to impose control.

The person is stuck in the swamp, perhaps on their hands and knees. The swamp in the lower foreground represents worldly responsibilities weighing the person down, and the other inescapable demands of the world, assaulting the person’s feet of clay. He is mired in the muck of the everyday.

Then, the person gazes into the distant meadow - seen in the background. He struggles, stands up. No longer mired in the swamp or held back by the anxious vines, the person breaks free suddenly, and runs across the grass. There he is, tiny, wearing a purple shirt, softly playing a small flute, his back turned to the clinging vines and the sucking swamps.

When one is mired in a swamp and literally choked by overbearing vines, what more peaceful place to visualize than a miniature model of a quiet pasture, amid placid sheep?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blessed Pomegranate Fruits

"It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale."
- William Shakespeare, "Romeo & Juliet"

The Chinese revere the "three blessed fruits," (Fu-Shou-San-Tuo) as representative of The Three Greatest Blessings. The three fruits are the Hand-of-Buddha (Citris medica) which symbolizes happiness; the Peach (Amygdalus persica), symbolizing longevity; and the Pomegranate (Punica granatum) which symbolizes fecundity and a hopeful future.

I found this beautiful miniature pomegranate tree this weekend at the nursery I visited to buy sweet pea seeds. It's probably the dwarf "Nana", and it is destined to become bonsai in a dish garden.

The pomegranate is not native to China however. It is believed that it was brought there from Afghanistan during the Han dynasty (circa 126 BC). A ripe pomegranate, half-open and showing the ruby jeweled seeds became the Chinese symbol of numerous male (!) offspring rising to fame and glory and generally possessed of great filial virtue.

Shakespeare used the nightingale singing at night to prefigure that the lovers would remain together, but possibly only in death. I prefer to reflect on the Chinese symbolism of filial piety. I could say that this little pomegranate tree means I'm all set for being cared for in my dotage - at least a little bit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

And Now - for Something Completely Different

“But if, in our world, there is any chance of becoming the person you haven’t yet become… will I know how to seize that chance, turn my life into a garden that will be completely different from my forebears?”
Muriel Barbery, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

Seasonal change is in the air, and something about autumn makes me think of life changes. Sitting on the porch with my morning coffee, my eyes keep drifting from my book to the yard, momentarily empty of birds. Our regular summer residents have left, presumably to move farther south. The inhabitants from the north who winter here have yet to arrive. It feels like my imagination and I have the garden to ourselves.

Breathing in crisp morning air, I imagine that I have been kissed by a radioactive frog, and to my surprise, instead of turning him into a prince, the kiss confers certain super powers upon me. At this moment, I have the power to become the person I haven’t yet become…

Suppose I had the power to cure everyone of all intolerance - including even lactose intolerance? Suppose I could make even terrible porn movies have interesting and engaging plots? What if I could free the world from the chains of male pattern baldness, say, or eliminate luminescent golf pants and make horrible plaids work together? What if my superpowers include the ability to raise the minimum wage in a single bound, repair potholes with a cute wrinkle of my nose, or assure that every opera ever sung will include a fat lady singing the final aria?

My reverie is disturbed by the vocal whining of my darling cat, who has discovered the injustice of me sitting outside in the sun while she languishes behind the screen – abandoned and alone. What kind of superhero would I be if, despite all my special new powers, I neglected the spoiled brat on the other side of the screen?

And sure enough, after correcting this injustice, with me on one chair and the cat settled on to the other in the sunshine, the world seems to spin smoother on its axis. I make a solemn pledge to use my superpowers only for good – whatever my powers may turn out to be, and whatever the hell “good” is. While I fully intend to maintain my secret identity as a mild mannered housewife with a gardening blog, I recognize that with great power comes great responsibility. Whatever I have become, I resolve to turn my life - and my garden - into something completely different.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Gorilla (sic) Warfare

“A youth in apparel that glittered
Went to walk in a grim forest.
There he met an assassin
Attired all in garb of old days;
He, scowling through the thickets,
And dagger poised quivering,
Rushed upon the youth.
"Sir," said this latter,
"I am enchanted, believe me,
To die, thus,
In this medieval fashion,
According to the best legends;
Ah, what joy!"
Then took he the wound, smiling,
And died, content.”
Stephen Crane

It’s been hot. Too hot to work outdoors. I’ve got bulbs to transplant dammit! Instead, I’ve been trapped inside, engaged in a life and death struggle with Yahoo, trying to figure out how to import an address book from another e-mail application. Combine me, non-intuitive technology, and hot dry weather, and my lack of patience becomes more conspicuous.

Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, my infinite impatience with technology. And yet. The sad truth is that, as rusty as my computer skills are, I am a geek genius compared to the other people in our volunteer group who may want to use this technology. Yesterday, I forced myself to slog through the jungle of unhelpful help screens, the dead ends, and unfamiliar jargon, and returned to base camp empty-handed and cranky.

If I complain too much about how Yahoo managed to turn my grumpy mood into blind rage, I worry that this post might be entered as evidence of my insanity at the coroner’s inquest – where they will try to figure out whether I jumped or was pushed. So, I’ll stop here and make another cup of coffee. Then, I’ll don my glittering apparel and return to the jungle to fight the Yahoo mail gorilla.

Monday, October 06, 2008

I Made Cheese!

There's a change in the weather
There's a change in the sea...
...So from now on there'll be a change in me.
My walk will be different, my talk and my name
Nothing about me is going to be the same.
I'm going to change my way of living
If that ain't enough
Then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff."
Billie Holiday, "There'll Be Some Changes Made"

The weather is changing, and I won't be able to work outside every day. This is the time of year when I try to find things to do inside, to change my way of living in the backyard.

I've been making my morning coffee iced coffee all summer. Today is the first day I made hot coffee. I also had to wear slippers or my feet would be cold: another change from my summer bare feet. So, in recognizing these signs of seasonal change, it's time for me to change myself from gardener to homemaker.

So, one of the things I've wanted to do is make cheese. I experimented with a simple recipe using buttermilk and raw milk. I added fresh chives to mask the sometimes rather bitter taste of raw milk.

It turned out ok, but clearly I need to work on it. I'm getting some rennet and citric acid, and I'll "strut my stuff" by experimenting with other kinds of cheese.

But for a first try, I was pretty proud of it. It was supposed to be mozzerella, but it turned out more like feta in texture.

It was good on last night's dinner salad. Maybe, if I can learn to make reliably good cheese, somebody WILL love me when I'm old and gray.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Good Day

“The Garden exemplifies the massive, but often unrecognized dependence of human creative activity upon the co-operation of the natural world… (The garden also exemplifies) the degree to which, more subtly, experience of the natural environment depends upon human creative activity. When combined, these two themes deliver the idea of the garden as embodying a unity between human beings and the natural world, an intimate co-dependence.”
David E. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens.

Got my new planted bed situated and planted some nasturtiums, sweet peas and purple hyacinth bean yesterday. I also planted garlic and onions at perimeter areas just on the off-chance the ground squirrels or rats, or whoever, will be deterred from entering the veggie garden proper. The garlic are both organic, from SSE: ‘German Extra Hardy,’ and Shveliski ‘Chesnock Red’.

I also got my first planting of lettuce going for the Veggie garden. I did a six-pack each of the following (mostly heirloom) lettuce seed from Seed Savers Exchange:
‘Amish Deer Tongue,’ ‘Bronze Arrowhead,’ ‘Forellenschuss,’ ‘Red Velvet,’ ‘Susan’s Red Bib,’ ‘Yugoslavian Red’. I also started a six-pack each of the following cabbages: ‘Mammoth Red Rock’ and ‘Winningstadt.’ Broccoli” ‘De Cicco.’ ‘Purple Cape.’

I also got fresh, local, grass-fed chicken eggs from Angus Acres, a small homestead chicken farm in a suburb less than ten miles from my house. The names of the chickens are on the bottom line of the egg carton label.

A perfect fall day, with sweet air, warm sun, dirty fingernails, and much accomplished. This was one of those days in my backyard where I felt the unity and intimate co-dependence between my garden and my heart. A really good day.