Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Life’s Daily Prospect

"Long have I loved what I behold,
The night that calms, the day that cheers;
The common growth of mother-earth
Suffices me--her tears, her mirth,
Her humblest mirth and tears.”

"These given, what more need I desire
To stir, to soothe, or elevate?
What nobler marvels than the mind
May in life's daily prospect find,
May find or there create?

To the stone-table in my garden,
Loved haunt of many a summer hour…”

John Keats - Ode to a Nightingale

After a long day working in the back yard, I sometimes sit with a glass of wine and a garden journal, trying to remember and note what is planted where. It’s a practice I often used to skip – trying instead to wring out the last daylight out doing whatever needs doing during this busy season before twilight chases me indoors.

In recent years, I find the stopping and sitting to be increasingly more important than the busy doing of gardening chores. My knees are worn out, and my sprained ankle continues to remind me it’s not quite ready to get back out into the game. Sitting on the bench, I find these aches and pains recede as I learn to observe and enjoy life’s daily prospect from my stone table.

The trick is for me to learn how to look at the garden and see beauty, to watch the bees, and listen to the wind. If I sit still, I can hear the water splashing into the pond nearby, the birds in the canyon nearby, and to hear somewhere in the distance an unseen dog barking and children shouting in sheer joy. It’s not easy for me to sit and appreciate what’s here now instead of seeing what needs doing tomorrow, or next week, or next year. But learning to enjoy mother earth’s humble mirth and tears is a skill worth mastering.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Roadside Attractions

"The works of a person that builds,
begin immediately to decay;
while those of him who plants
begin directly to improve."
William Shenstone, ‘Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening’ (1764)

Speaking of the glories man builds, driving through the optimistically named Inland Empire the other day, we encountered a billboard that proudly advertised “the Largest AM/PM in the World!” at an upcoming rest stop. Proving what, exactly? Why, the particularly American phenomenon that pride in a particular thing doesn’t necessarily signify the intrinsic worth of said thing. Although in fairness, the restrooms were sparkling clean, if somewhat overdosed in a room freshener that smelled like a cross between unmade Jell-O and the lobby of an overpopulated convalescent home.

The Japanese lady is admiring the water lilies from the bridge. You take your inspiration where it comes, driving through Southern California where the process of growth and decay seems to be speeded up. It’s not like the good old days.

The AM/PM billboard recalled a long-ago road trip from Salt Lake City, Utah to Washington DC, through the barren Midwest mega-farms. Roadside attractions were manufactured by the locals, we reckoned, in an effort to lure drivers into spending a few bucks on coffee, gas, or admission to contrived attractions - like a “zoo” for two retired circus elephants and an anorexic coyote. Across the corn fields of Kansas, we kept seeing signs advertising roadside attractions like “the world’s largest prairie dog” and Daniel Boon’s burial place. We saw so many of the latter, that we became convinced that poor Daniel was disinterred and moved regularly to give small town truck stops a point of interest sufficient to induce travelers to stop. For us, it simply made us put the pedal to the metal in an effort to outrun Daniel’s restless ghost. The World’s Largest Prairie Dog turned out to be a crude concrete statue standing approximately two stories tall, painted in that brownish-pink color that paint stores produce by mixing all the leftover paint together in one barrel. Sadly, as with most works of men, the World's Largest Prairie Dog will never last. We never did find out where Daniel rested finally in peace, and that still disturbs my dreams.

The other night, we went out to dinner at a recently opened chi-chi restaurant decorated in a style that reminds me of nothing so much as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Gleaming faintly threatening brushed stainless steel appliances in the restroom, gauzy curtains with gleaming gossamer threads separating booths, curly metal and ceramic low voltage light fixtures that look like a nightmare that even Salvador Dali would wake screaming from. The martinis were good, but the entertainment was priceless: it was prom night at the two local high schools located equidistant from the restaurant, across the country club golf course in one direction, and the shopping mall in the other. These are upscale schools, the kind where the parents buy their daughters convertible Mini-coopers or PT Cruisers for their sixteenth birthday, and where big hair has never gone out of style. The dress code this year was sequined gowns and ill-fitting rented tuxes.

We observed a table of pampered, overdressed girls with professional makeup suitable for an Academy Award ceremony; another table of cheer- leaders, each matched perfectly with a color-coded jock; and notably, a party of two dignified young men unaccompanied by young ladies – further evidence that the anti-gay marriage vote in California was an aberration that will ultimately be undone.

So of course, the minute a swarm of young ladies headed to the restroom, I couldn’t resist. The girl talk in the restrooms was deeply superficial: Do my bra straps show? Your manicure is gorgeous and I love the way the green tip color matches your sequins! Do you believe what his mother said about her own prehistoric prom when his father was taking our pictures? Such self-conscious beauty. As the Japanese lady admires the flowers, she is unaware of the giant alligator on the rock behind her. Danger lurks everywhere.

Meanwhile, back in the back yard, I am at that stage when I wait for the garden to blossom into its full potential – beseeching the seeds to germinate, reminding the hop vines to twine counter-clockwise, smelling the pure white roses which I’d never wanted in the first place but have come to love for their lovely flowers as well as their deadly thorns which I refuse to remove, despite the rose’s overreach of a garden path. Walking through my garden is much like driving through the Inland Empire: you take your chances looking for points of interest. Sometimes you could be attacked by a rose bush, but sometimes you get local prom night. I’m thinking of making a miniature billboard to tuck beneath the thorny rose and warn the rabbits as they forage at night amid the windy mossy ways: World’s Biggest Rose Thorns Ahead.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Souless Capitalism

"God gives gifts to all creatures… no matter what their station or condition. He may give innocence to a lunatic, or heaven to a thief. Contrary to most theologians, I have always believed that even worms and weasels have souls, and that even they are capable of salvation."
- Mark Helprin, "A Soldier of the Great War"

My Mom used to say that animals don’t have souls. Her complex religious beliefs didn’t leave room for puppies and kitties in heaven. Which was probably just as well since she was busy raising too many kids and taking care of her invalid mother-in-law while we were growing up. That didn’t leave any time or money for household pets. Thus, it wasn’t until I was older, and a bit wiser, and considerably more doubtful than Mom about the business of immortal souls, that I got a pet cat.

My cat is my pet, my blood pressure medication, my solace, my furry cuddly toy whose purr can induce amnesia about whatever was bothering me before I picked her up and held her to my ear and buried my nose in her warm soft fur. She listens and I’m pretty sure understands every single secret I whisper to her.

Regardless of whether she has a soul - or for that matter, whether I have one - doesn’t matter to me so much these days. Mom would be shocked – shocked – at how I have expended so much devotion on a small brown animal of no particular beauty.

But even Mom wouldn’t have been able to put a price on a soul. My grocery store, apparently, can. I recently purchased a “secret invisible sol” (sic) for my cat at the bargain price of $2.46. I do think however, that Mom would agree with me that a soul shouldn’t be taxable.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Dry Season

"The flowers anew, returning seasons bring; but beauty faded has no second spring."
– Ambrose Philips

Already it’s hot out – a week of >80F in my yard. At least the hot flashes of summer are merely summer weather these days. Relax, it’s only the postmenopausal postmodern condition, not the approach of doom and night sweats. The Chinese refer to menopause as a woman’s second spring. Mom called it The Change. Californians call it midlife transition.

Menopause isn’t a pause at all. It’s more like a running stop. It’s Wylie Coyote, running two steps beyond the edge of the cliff. Suspended in midair, before gravity kicks in, he floats, dawning surprise filling his eyes. Menopause is that moment, only it stretches out month after month.

This season is like that fall – I’m still sowing hope, but I cringe anticipating the landing of coming summer, and what I might never reap. The hot dry desert looms below Wylie. The desert floor, simply obeying the laws of gravity, welcomes him. He has plenty of time to wish the fall would be over and he’d land already.

Thus Spring passes, with no promises, and Summer advances on my unsuspecting young seedlings and transplants. Grasshoppers are already mowing down the last of the lettuce and the beans left behind by the rabbits. I hope the grasshoppers leave me a few sunflowers. No second spring here, grasshoppers, nothing to see here. Please move on.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hops Envy

Members of the Western North Carolina (WNC) branch of my family (Ruby and her Faithful Spousal Companion, or FSC) grow hops organically. I find no consolation in the fact that Ruby is a professional horticulturist with years of experience growing things so lovely that when she publishes gardening books, pictures of specimens in her former Southern Maryland back yard feature prominently. My hops, pictured at the end of this post, are sickly and stunted compared to theirs. Here's what they have to say:

"First, at the risk of making you jealous, we are experiencing the wettest spring here since becoming permanent residents. The regular rain--mixed with plenty of sun--was a major factor in attracting us to the mountains. Southern Maryland summers seemed to be turning dryer and dryer with every year. Little did we know that three straight years of draught would mark our transition to WNC. As I write, however, the weatherman is calling for severe thunderstorms today through tonight. This event will end @ six days of on/off rain. Can't really get in the fields with things so damp, but it sure beats irrigating with the hose….a major chore last spring. Of course all the moisture raises the alarm for things like powdery mildew! Ahh, the farmer's lament: it's either too much or too little. Maybe being a paper-pushing bureaucrat was a better option. Nahh, at least as long as my living doesn't depend on it.

"I suspect the precipitation is a significant factor in this season's growth in our hop yard, but we're still learning what is/is not to be expected as we enter season #2 with a major expansion. You may recall that last year's "test plot" was comprised of five, 20 foot rows with four hills apiece. This year we extended each of the original rows to 50 feet, and added seven more 50 foot rows plus three 75 foot rows. That translates into a total of @ 260 hills. We figured an expansion of this magnitude was necessary to produce a harvest of "commercial" relevance. Even with 260, we may have to await 2nd year yields to peddle cones at the wholesale level. Time will tell. While all five original varieties were expanded with the extension of the original rows, the 12 new rows were limited to three: Cascade and Willamette (due to vigorous growth & cone production); and Nugget (to provide a high acid variety)…

"Also, you may not be aware that we're working to get formally certified as organic (USDA sticker and all). Organic is a huge factor in much of the WNC community….at least one microbrewery is 100% organic. We believe that flying the organic flag will be a crucial marketing lever, and it should allow us to demand a higher price for product. Our first visit by inspectors is scheduled for next week…

"6footVine - To illustrate progress, this picture (taken cinco de mayo) shows the original ('08) Willamette hills, including above sprouts, with @ one month under their belt. That's a yard stick leaning against the center vine, attesting to the 6 foot milestone.

"08-09 Contrast - Seeing is believing: the second pic (also 5 May) captures a 2nd season Willamette hill (actually the same hill as sprouts above) as well as the '09 extension of that row. Quite a difference! Based on last year, the '09 plants will ultimately approach or reach the 12' trellis top and produce a "credible" number of cones. However, we're eagerly awaiting what the Lit tells us will be a much larger crop from the 2nd season plants.

Final Thoughts: This physical undertaking has given me new respect for the rigors of farming and those who choose it, forever reminding me that I'm no longer eighteen. Both Ruby and I have always wanted a rural life….for as long we both can remember. We've made it, but on many occasions I worry that we made it too late. That said, we're loving life (with limited endurance and sore muscles), and we plan to press for as long as the bodies allow. 20-something lower backs of our sons have been life-savers every now and then."

Compare with my second year of growing hops in San Diego: barely visible in this picture.

It's not that I envy their hops, so much as I'm disappointed in my hops. It's one thing for Ruby and FSC to have green thumbs, it's an entirely different thing for me to have to contend with drought, pestilence and plagues of locusts, at least figuratively speaking.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spring Interview With a Terrible Gardener

"When you have heard all my adventures, you will understand what trials and vicissitudes I have had to undergo to reach the felicity of this palace; you will realize that I have had to purchase the wealth which sustains my age with strange and terrible labors, with calamities, misfortunes and hardships that are scarcely credible."
The tale of Sinbad the Sailor, Ten Thousand Nights and One Night

Kent Brockman: So, TG, what are the most calamitous misfortunes and hardships associated with Springtime in Garden Blogville?

Terrible Gardener: Well, it would have to be the Spring garden blogging cliches I have to I have to endure. For example, the zoomed-in pictures of flowers, in artful pastels, some even with dew drops.

KB: And that upsets you why?

TG: When I grew up in suburban Washington DC, this is the time of year we’d head out to Haines Point, walk around the Jefferson Memorial where people were carefully framing their souvenir pictures of Cherry Blossom Time with the Jefferson Memorial in the background, reflecting basin in the middle, framed by overhead cherry blossoms reflected in the water. We’d stroll past, right into the picture frame, and whisper “Been done.” (Do a Google image search on “cherry blossoms, Jefferson Memorial” and you’ll get about a million lovely pics.) Besides, anybody can get flowers to bloom in Spring. That’s why god invented roses.

KB: I see. Trials and vicissitudes indeed. So, what's your number two Springtime blogging cliché?

TG: Next would have to be garden bloggers who talk about Spring Fever being the cure for Cabin Fever, or use metaphors more faded and worn out than a prostitute’s chenille bedspread. Like, the Great Circle of Life, renewal, rebirth, resurrection etc. That would include references to god’s (with a capital G) renewal of His promise to us that we are immortal. All’s I’m saying, Kent, is that Spring is equally likely to awaken bleak existential flashbacks and blunt reminders about how life has no meaning. Nobody blogs about the dark side of gardening in Spring, Kent. It’s garden bloggers’ dirty little secret, and it dominates my meditations as I soak in the spa at the end of a day gardening.

KB: Thanks for sharing your self-absorbed opinion of what constitutes hardship. Finally, what’s your number one beef about garden blogging in Spring?

TG: Simply that Spring makes me feel old, Kent. It makes me feel older each year, as I drag my creaking ass outside to overdose on the joy everywhere. If not for ibuprophen and the spa, I’d never recover from the pain that seems worse after each winter, or accept that my fingernails won’t get clean until next November. Spring’s the time of my annual realization that it doesn’t get any better than this. It really doesn’t – it gets worse.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gardening Bliss By Any Other Name

“If by some miracle I ever did something the right way the first time I tried, I would have absolutely no idea why it worked. If the goal of man is knowledge, I am reaching my goal via the path of maximum mistakes.”
Ellen Sandbeck, Eat More Dirt

I sometimes label plants in my back yard. Most times I don’t bother because many who are called to my garden are not chosen to remain there long. I don’t know the names of many of the survivors, and furthermore, I frequently have no idea why they survive when so many others don’t make it past the first season, or even through their first night.

The point of gardening for me has little to do with creating the kind of yard that will impress my neighbor, the president of the local garden club. When her garden club people do their annual tour of member gardens, they rarely peek over the fence at my often abortive gardening results. This neighbor has a gardener she pays to busy himself weekly in her yard: trimming, grooming, planting and removing as necessary to attain the kind of garden-club look you might see in garden design magazines. Lately, the Garden Magazine Style tends towards an icy postmodern minimalist chic that "doesn't speak to me." Those GMS garden chairs pictured would kill your back if they tempted you to sit and relax, though god knows they look pretty untempting.

Seriously, how seriously can one take gardening when one doesn’t bother to actually garden? At this time and in this place, the more senior your garden club membership, the whiter your gloves, and the more translucent your bone china teacups, the more serious you are as a gardener.

Despite the fact that I don’t pass any of those tests, and despite my poor habits in labeling plants, at least I know the flower pictured above is a white rose, and that works for me. My own gardening goals are more directed at creating a place that induces my own tranquility and personal bliss, and are thus undeterred by failure.

By my measure, I am reaching my goal, my admittedly poor plant labeling skills notwithstanding.