Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Interview with a Terrible Gardener

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
- William Wordsworth

At what level of garden kitsch would you draw the line?

Just before I got a bunch of old tires from a junkyard; painted them white; lined both sides of the driveway with said recumbent tires, and planted strawberries in each wheel well.

How many times do you re-dial a number when you get a busy signal?
Once, each time.

What garden plant or decoration do you consider the most unfortunately and sadly overused?
Ceramic fairies crouching beneath cement toadstools.

What’s the punch line to the funniest joke you know?

It’s elephants all the way down, my friend.

What is the worst invasive pest you can imagine threatening your garden?
The dog that craps on my garden path. It’s not my imagination that makes me think I’ve stepped in a pile of shit. It’s quite real. As for imaginary pests, I suppose the most awful would have to be the ghost of the world’s worst Elvis Presley impersonator (the old, fat Elvis), haunting my garden and singing Midnight Train to Georgia.

If you ran for public office, what would your campaign poster slogan be?
Vote for me. What’s the worst that could happen?

How do you see yourself as a gardener?
By looking into a mirror.

What’s your ten-year garden plan?
For me to survive ten years, and keep on gardening the whole time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Joyous Winter Solstice

We finde it common (but not comely thou)
That, when a good Endeavour is begot,
Unless, at very first, it equall grow
With our Expectance, we regard it not.

Nor Wit, nor Patience, have we to conceive,
That ev’ry thing, which by Man be wrought,
Proportionable Time, and Means must have;
Before it can be to Perfection, brought.

Yet, ev’ry day, in things of ev’ry kinde,
Experience has informed us, herein;
And, that in many things, a change we finde,
Which at first, would scarce believ’d have bin,

For, though a Gosling will not prove a Swan,
Unruly Colts become well-tamed Steeds.
A Silly Childe growes up a Mighty-Man,
And, Lofty Trees doe Spring from Little Seeds.

Learne, therefore hence, that, nothing you despise,
Because it may, at first, imperfect seeme:
And, know, how all things (in some sort) to prise,
Although, you give them not the best esteeme.

From hence, moreover, learne not to despaire,
When you have just occasion, to pursue
A toylesome worke, or any great affaire:
Since, all things, at the first, from nothing, grew.

And, I myself will, also, learne, from hence,
(Of all my Paines, though little fruits I see)
Nor to repine, nor to receive Offence:
But, rather joy in what befalleth mee,
For, though my Hopes Appear but meanely growne,
They will be Great, when some shall think them none.

Emblem 46 from: George Wither: A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, Quickened witheh metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And Disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slang or Secret Code?

“He that likes to plant and set
Makes after-ages in his debt.”

This post has almost nothing to do with gardens. Apparently, as the season outside my door becomes cold and wet and precludes me from working in the yard, the spirals of my always fragile grasp on reality start to wobble into paranoia. Accordingly, this post is about my latest conspiracy theory, involving the word verification choices when you leave a comment in Blogger.

Is it just me, or does the word-verification text seem to be veering closer and closer to selecting real words? It seems to be evolving organically. I’m wondering if the server where all our blog posts live is developing conscious intelligence. (I hesitate to call it “artificial intelligence” because I often claim that word to describe my own pretentious attempts as scholarly blogging.)

So, back to the conspiracy, I’m sure Blogger retains the capability to block certain words, e.g. profanity, from showing up in the verification. If so, then they should tighten their algorithms up to also block words like this wordoid from a few days ago: mossesse.

Think of playing the game balderdash – think of the word verification letters as spelling real but obscure words. Take “mossesse”. It could mean a hip hop gansta who raps in Latin, “esse” being the Latin root of the verb “to be”... On the other hand, it could be a proper noun, let’s say, the Greek God of motivational speaking. Or the name of the guy in this emblem, planting a tree for the ages. You can call him Mo.

Another theory: what if the letters spelled out hip new slang and you’re the only one not in on the joke? Know what a “kittenhead” is? Or what a prostitute means when she refers to a John as a thirty-three? Well then. Check out Caleb Crain’s article “Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags and Cougar Bait: Modern Slang”(This article appeared in the December 29, 2008 edition of The Nation)

Now, while you might be an obsolete old fogey when it comes to hip slang, there’s nothing to panic about wrt/word verification. You don’t have to put on your aluminum foil cap just yet. But please humor me and keep an eye out for a word verification that says “iniatelaunchsequence.”

See, this is what happens when I have to play inside out of the sun. Instead of planting for the after-ages, this is the time of year that I delight in finding monsters under beds and ghosts in the closets, and learning fun facts like garbage-man-speak for maggots is “disco rice”. And now you and every other Joe Sixpack knows too. Try to get that picture out of your head!

Monday, December 15, 2008

'Tis the Season

"From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me -
The woodspurge has a cup of three."
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Woodspurge"

The scientific name for this plant is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in the Spurge family, "very beautiful"). Imperialistically controlling the discourse, the common name we use today for this six-foot tall native Mexican plant with bright red bracts is Poinsettia. The name is taken from early US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett who “discovered” the plant in Mexican churches circa 1825, and first brought it back to the US.

Famously amnesiac about our historical misbehavior in this hemisphere if not on this globe, Americans simply ignored the Aztec name for these plants (Cuetlaxochitl) and so do you. Further south, in Chile and Peru, the plant was called the “Crown of the Andes”. Later, Mexicans called this plant Buena Noche because it flowers at Christmas.

By whatever name they’re called, they grow locally. Except for this picture of the Ecke Ranch, the other poinsettia pictures were taken in my neighborhood of El Cajon, CA. Eighty to ninety percent of all poinsettias in the world were born on the Paul Ecke Ranch, in Encinitas, CA, a relative stone's throw from where I live.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how plants can communicate – more specifically – how, like any form of communication, plants are apt to be misunderstood.

Let’s try to translate what Poinsettias are telling us. First, let’s take the Victorian conceit of the Language of Flowers (LOF). Because this New World native wasn’t known to your everyday Victorian, those fluent in the LOF were probably clueless about this plant’s meaning. (Remember that - should you travel back in time with some potted poinsettias to distribute, and OBTW, don’t shoot your grandfather while you're back there.)

Then, take the Doctrine of Signatures which holds that God isn't much of a kidder - especially after that other plant misunderstanding; the one about where not to eat apples. Knowing man would be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, early European practitioners of Christian metaphysics posited that God would tell us how a particular plant could help us based on its “signature” or sign of nature. I’m not sure what point of a poinsettia would mean under this interpretation, and neither is Google.

So here’s my guess. How about red relating to the pulsing heart, and pointy red leaves that encircle the diminutive flowers in the middle representing a bloody crown of thorns, or knife blades dipped in blood, neither of which is your typical cheerful seasonal message of peace and love. But my favorite fun fact about this plant is that by any other name, it can still kill you, which is a pretty hard message to misunderstand.

As a gardener, I tend to go for the Peace on Earth seasonal message. Whatever it means to you, I greet you seasonally.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Say What?

"Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said _______”
Sir Walter Scott, "My Native Land"

It’s final exam week. In recognition of all the students who were up early to cram for today’s exam, I offer the following easy multiple choice question. Fill in the missing phrase from Walt's poem above:

a. I’m lost
b. That’s not mine, I was just holding it for a friend.
c. This is my own, my native land
d. I’m not bad, just misunderstood
e. Hey you kids, quit playing on my grass
f. As God is my witness, I’ll never plant lettuce again.
g. Wait! I can change!
h. I’m sorry, what?
i. ______ (fill in the blank)

Disclaimer: While Walt probably intended “man” in the first line of the poem, in the universal sense (i.e. as all persons), my suggested answers apply mostly to men in the gendered sense.

If I was trying to balance things out, I should have added some girly choices, like, for instance, “You call me that again, I’ll cut you,” or “We have to talk,” or “I’m going outside to play in the backyard.”

My garden beckons, so I'm going out to play. BTW, this is a pass/fail exam.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Gardener Reads and Cooks

“Far away, down by the police station, a dog was howling at a moon no one could see, perhaps imagining that, summoned repeatedly enough, it would appear with food of some kind.”
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

I’ve been reading Pynchon’s book, Against the Day, and it has been challenging. There are about a million characters – some real, many legendary; some ghosts, many disturbing; some parodies, many composites. Many characters have memorable Pynchon names - like arch-villain industrialist and robber baron Scarsdale Vibe; or Lake Traverse, daughter of legendary martyred bomb-making anarchist Webb Traverse. There’s a guy named “Sloat.” You know what a loser he is the minute you meet him.

I got some “white wheat malt” at the home brew store last week. I ground about a half cup in my Kitchenaid mixer’s mill attachment. It’s not as adjustable as using my coffee burr grinder, but I was going for rustic: some of the grain ended up like delicate flour, some stayed in relatively large chunks. The night before baking, I took a little sourdough starter from the fridge, and refreshed it by adding about ¼ cup of the milled grain and ¼ cup of water. The next morning I had a puffy, bubbly, sour-smelling levain.

The trans continental stories unfold on top of each other, giving a philo-thin concurrency to some of the layered threads. Characters move in and out of place and plot, connecting and disconnecting over time. As if that wasn’t enough to confuse a Mensa Lit Crit with Tenure, there’s this thing about time travel and parallel worlds, and people who can do either or both. A couple of the major plots occur not on the reader’s world, but in a parallel universe, perhaps where WWI didn’t happen.

The book begins with a story of the five Chums of Chance, a Hardy Boys precursor from the Antebellum age, at the White Palace at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and their exceptionally advanced faithful canine companion, Pugnax. The Chums of Chance is apparently a world-wide fraternal organization operating as a sort of Thunderbirds of the Victorian Age. The writing style is a delightfully fluffy confection (even down to repeated references to other “episodes” and adventures of the Chums). For example, consider the almost magical high-tech way the Chums travel: on an airship powered by steam.

Just when I’m settling in for a delightful period piece written in the most fluent “thrilling days of yesteryear” prose – weirdness starts to creep in. Wait. Did I just read that the Chums, another successful mission accomplished, took a shortcut home through a hole in the earth’s crust, encountered an entire civilization at war, and oh by the way, intervened decisively on the side of the “good guys”?

I almost started writing down names and the pages first encountered, to be able to pick up the thread pages/years/parallel universes away. I’ve doubtless dropped several stitches, but I think I’m getting the general idea.

Here it is. Pynchon clearly prefers the company of anarchists, magicians, charlatans, Marxists, Commies, con-men, crooks, grad students, theosophists, coal and silver miners, mathematicians and drug dealers/smugglers, to that of the tycoons, privileged children of nouveau riche posers, industrial giants, and dozens of other versions of The Man appearing before/after WWI as capitalist swine wearing clean clothes, miscellaneous “uncleansably rich,” dilettantes, hired guns, war profiteers, weapons dealers/smugglers. For example, one classic pair of adversaries are Edison and Tesla. Edison: bad. Tesla: good

Before you sit down to crack this book open, have a dictionary handy. For me, some new words were encountered, learned, and used before absquatulating. Some expressions with cosmic and/or microcosmic meaning are discovered (like the flashlight brand: Apotheosis Sparkless Torch). There’s a quest for Shambala, perhaps a map that leads there, perhaps not. Also, I think there may, or may not be, a weapon of mass destruction, and it may or may not be in my own world. I could be wrong.

I know I’m missing a lot of the jokes, but my favorite part about this book is that I often encounter such brilliant phrases, and such elegantly crafted sentences that they delight, without the need to understand whether they advance one of the zillion plots. Pynchon puts words together like flowers in a bouquet. There’s a group in London called T.W.I.T, or True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, made up of various “devotees of the nut cutlet.” He often over-stuffs sentences frequently with conflicting metaphorical meanings. He is the master of the run-on sentence that stands on its own as a delightful complete sub-plot.*

His sentences drip with meaning like bloody limbs on a battlefield, painting more and more shades in the sinister shadows, and throwing in the occasional actual vengeful ghost flickering at the edge of the picture. For example, one man’s rage is described as “a fluorescence of vindictiveness.” Elsewhere, he paints the sky in “almost familiar” shades of yellow:

“It was the light kept reminding him, yellow darkening to red to bitter blackness of the whirlwind brought among the sunlit, wildflowered meadows, thunder that began like the rumbling of sash-weights locked with old death-secrets of some ancient house back behind the sky’s nearly carpentered casementing and soon rocking like artillery.”

He carefully catches dialog that adds a layered richness to conversations: “Hope you ain’t having too many of those second thoughts that stop a fellow just as dead is if it was him down in the sawdust.”

When I baked the bread, I used the starter in place of yeast, and added the rest of the ground white wheat malt (about ¼ cup) in place of some of the flour. The bread has a gorgeous texture, and thanks to the white wheat malt, a tangy sourdough flavor. Now, if I could just persuade it to rise a bit more…

Pynchon’s book rewards careful study and contemplation of the rich pageant of life that he has either created, or discovered by traveling there himself and simply returned to report on. I have a feeling I’ll be re-visiting it again over the years – if I can just get through Moby Dick for the first time.

*Here’s one of those run-on sentences that condense an entire un-written novel:

“Because for all her winters got through and returns to valley and creekside in the spring, for all the day-and-night hard riding through the artemisia setting off sage grouse like thunderclaps to right and left, with the once-perfect rhythms of the horse beneath her gone faltering and mortal, yet she couldn’t see her luck as other than purchased in the worn, unlucky coin of all those girls who hadn’t kept coming back, who’d gone down before their time, Dixies and Fans and Mignonettes, too fair to be alone, too crazy for town, ending their days too soon in barrelhouses, in shelters dug not quite deep enough into the unyielding freeze of the hillside, for the sake of boys too stupefied with their own love of exploding in the dark, with girl-sized hands clasped, too tight to pry loose, around a locket, holding a picture of a mother, of a child, left back the other side of a watershed, birth names lost as well behind aliases taken for reasons of commerce or plain safety, out in some blighted corner too far from God’s notice to matter much what she had done or would have to do to outride those onto whose list of chores the right to judge had found its way seemed…Stray was here, and they were gone, and Reef was God knew where – Franks’ wishful family look-alike, Jesse’s father and Webb’s uncertain avenger and her own sad story, her dream, recurring, bad, broken, never come true.”

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Massive Dependence

“The Garden exemplifies the massive, but often unrecognized dependence of human creative activity upon the co-operation of the natural world.”
David E. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens

Several months ago, I salvaged some cheap bookcase wood from J&Ks housecleaning frenzy. Yesterday, I made a shelf for my bonsai/dish gardens to over-winter.

I used slices of the old pine tree that fell over this very spot about a year ago to make the uprights, and I used three long former bookcase boards for the two shelves. This shelf will probably self-destruct within a year, not only because the lumber is flimsy, but also because the slices of pine tree are riddled with termites. Meanwhile however, I now have a nice sunny southern exposure where the rock will provide a heat reservoir during the day to protect my babies from any cold snaps lurking in the dark nights of the next few months.

Some time back, I got Tech Support Guy to drill a drainage hole in an old fire pit. I wrestled it on top of the big rock behind the shelves, where it has survived for several years. It contains mother plants of several succulents I’ve propagated and used to populate other hot sunny locations. This is all part of my “Ten Year Plan” to make my backyard garden more “sustainable” in our increasingly hot and dry climate.

This spot would be way too hot during the summer for most of these guys, and it receives no irrigation except what I deliver by hand. Should the shelves survive this season, they’ll be a nice home for potted succulents next summer.

I readily concede my massive dependence on Mother Nature in this endeavor. These rickety uneven shelves aren’t meant to last more than about a year. Perhaps, with some cooperation from the natural world, they’ll last a bit longer.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Guest Entry from SE Michigan

Last Saturday you wrote: "One week ago, the Veggie Garden was filled with butterflies – big fat orange and black ones." I'm assuming the monarchs have finally reached your area. The interactive migration map at The Journey North says they were expected in San Diego after Oct. 24.

These were the only butterflies I knew by name as a child in Maryland, back when I could still recognize the milkweed they prize. The photo of them roosting en route is from the TJN site.

When I lived on the Florida Panhandle 30 years (!) ago, and despite the lack of data points on the referenced map today, they arrived en masse in the fall, as if they headed south until reaching the Gulf of Mexico and then turned right. I could not drive along the coastal highway without feeling like a murderer, as they got stuck in my front grill and windshield wipers and crunched under my tires. Honestly, the numbers put one in mind of a biblical plague — although an extraordinarily beautiful and harmless one. That was when I first learned of their epic migration and over-wintering in Mexico.

You, too, can help map their journey, either at the Journey North site above or at Monarch Watch. TJN says, "Large numbers of monarchs have now reached Mexico's overwintering region. By November 2nd, the tops of fifteen trees at the El Rosario sanctuary were covered with monarchs."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Truth vs. Faith

“Truth for him is faith, since he has faith in the truth; he sincerely believes in the credibility of all significations… The most diverse forms of expression – from mimicry to the “language of flowers” – are related to meanings – verbal or nonverbal – which are true, that is, believable simply because they are expressed… Thus the child, replacing truth with ordered belief, from the beginning confuses error and truth, bondage and liberty.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot (page 128)

In his biography of Gustave Flaubert (quoted above) Sartre equated faith with truth. Or rather, Sartre said Gustave confused the two. Or rather, not so much confused them as considered them synonymous – with an unresisting, un-present, unfounded (hence, “idiotic”) belief in their individual legitimacy. For Jean-Paul, Gustave’s faith in what he was told made as much sense as if I believed everything I found on the internet because, well, they wouldn’t put it on the internet unless it was true, right?

But I like the part about the language of flowers as a form of expression. At first, I was thinking that the language plants and flowers spoke to people was non-verbal, that it was without words.

But the language of flowers is not non-verbal. Flowers mean things. Flowers can communicate things. Even J-P, when he says Gustave “pronounces sentences,” that “he repeats words or puts them together like flowers in a bouquet.” The trouble with bouquets of words is that they’re slippery. What you take unproven – on faith – depends on which flavor of “ordered belief” you subscribe to.

Like spoken words, the language of flowers could be tricky too, and just as subject to being misunderstood – faith taken as belief. For example, suppose someone sent you a bouquet which contained a pretty mushroom pictured here, a spring of white chestnut, and some lovely pink cyclamens?

Let’s start with the ‘shroom pictured here. (Image: Franck Richard). Even the Encyclopedia of Life admits it looks comfortingly like several edible species, “most notably the straw mushroom.” In fact, it is Amanita phalloides, aka “Death Cap”. According to in the ordered belief we call Modern Science, Death Cap is the most poisonous of all known toadstools, and because of its unfortunate resemblance to several species of edible mushroom, thus increasing the risk of “accidental poisoning.” Oh, dear.

Is the white chestnut sending a mixed message? According to the Doctrine of Signatures whereby signs of nature are assigned meaning based on the resemblance of a plant or a part of plant to a part of the body, White chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) helps people “who feel resentful and bitter about the way their lives have gone.” Perhaps, bitterness and resentment are symptoms of homicidal accidents. In which case, the mushroom and cyclamen communicate a perfectly consistent message.

According to the Victorian Language of Flowers, sentiments were communicated by flowers. Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), for example, signifies resignation and good-bye. Regardless of who's resentful, bitter, or exiting, the sender of cyclamen is saying goodbye.

So, employing at least three different systems of expression - or ordered belief systems - the message of the bouquet would differ depending on whether the recipient liked to eat fresh mushrooms and/or white chestnuts; or on which system of communication sender and/or recipient favored; or whether either or both simply loved cyclamen and/or chestnuts.

Whether or not I have refuted Sartre’s criticism of Flaubert’s “credulity” in apparently believing everything he was told, I hope I have established that there are virtually infinite things to believe in and ways of ordering one’s beliefs. Whether we try to communicate verbally, through symbolism, one or more obscure and occult means, or other non-verbal methods, the one constant seems to be that misunderstanding is always likely, or at least possible. Unprovable truth ends up being as slippery as unfounded faith. Seems to me Satre didn’t know that some unprovable things are better taken on faith.