Thursday, April 30, 2015

Confessions of a Terrible Gardener: I'm Beetist

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip...

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.” 

So that’s why I didn’t take any of the lovely red beets we harvested from the last of the cool season veggies yesterday. I took perfectly respectable beet greens from the harvest. Fortunately, we got over 3 lbs of beets, plus another 2 lbs of greens. Because that almost-ripe strawberry didn’t go far.  

And plus beets taste like dirt.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


"There was just so much detail in a person's life and you did well to get rid of the half of it. If you were any good you protected yourself by holding on to this and forgetting that. And even the bits you keep are best kept in silence."
 - Andrew O'Hagan, The Illuminations

There is a fine line between confiding and over-sharing.

There is a goldfinch on the top branch of a young pine tree outside my window. He's so bright yellow in the sunlight that as the the branch swayed in the light breeze he caught my eye like a blinking yellow traffic signal.

Then he flew away.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Know Thyself

“Not for the first time she reflected that there were many drawbacks to being a swordswoman, not least of which was that men didn’t take you seriously until you’d actually killed them, by which time it didn’t really matter anyway.”
 - Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

Lately, my meditation has drifted to thoughts of uncertainty like a brick drifts to the ground when dropped off a cliff. I’ve had this life-changing AFOG and I’ve somehow lost the thread of the conversation. I’ve been trying to reason out problems, and ever failing for lack of trying. F for effort.

There are probably thousands of self-helpy books about personal journeys of growth and the wisdom of the ages I could google for a lifeline or even a clue. But I’m not trying to have an original thought here, let alone to discover one dropped along somebody else’s profit margins. I’m trying to find my own path – to figure out what all this is doing to me. The quote in my recent post about Japanese gardens says the best way to learn is to watch the masters. Certainly don’t read. Don’t even listen. Watch.

It seems like I’ve been studying all my life to pay attention, and this is the final exam. But I’m not confident of passing – of learning what I think. Because these days I’m unable to think for very long. Enlightenment doesn’t even make the top ten. It’s somewhere after seeing an orthodontist. I’m stuck in this grieving ADHD where I can’t seem to get on with the business of getting on. I’m going back and forth in place along on this mood swing, madly trying that trick where you swing so hard, you go over the top and come down the other way. 

Some days I feel - if not happy - I feel comfortably content - like this is exactly where I am and it’s good to be home. It’s not a feeling I’m familiar with. Or rather it is, but with some new aspects that I didn’t see before about how to be happy with being content. Some days I unaccountably laugh maniacally.

Some days I feel so lost that I know to a nano-tolerance exactly where I am but absolutely everything else around me is hopelessly lost and I never want to find any of it again. Some days my mood is several shades darker than black only jagged like lava rock so sharp you don’t know you’re cut until you see your blood. Some days I unaccountably cry. (I am getting over the raging anger that makes my heart literally pound. That happens less. I'm taking some of the aggressive air pressure out of  passive.)

Most days end with me so dizzy from swinging around in circles that I could open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew.

In brief moments, I’m perfectly balanced in the now. I’m able to realize the extremes are just the bad parts of the dream, and things will smooth out. Sometimes I’m so fucking insightful and farsighted I can see out the other side – as long as it is as obvious as an oncoming train. But about then I lean into the swing to push that process along, trying to break the laws of entropy by rushing us all to the heat death of the universe.

In the midst of this I experience brief moments of sanity, I glimpse a vision of survival and ease. I feel so much better. In those moments, I observe that the trick of the masters is to stay in that balanced place. Somebody else has probably already flogged the mood swing analogy to death by smashing the seat with a baseball bat. But I figured it out all on my own. And I did it by watching, and practicing and doing.

I can physically balance a little better too. And I’ve been reading the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld from the beginning. He’s in great part responsible for the mentally good days (this guy’s superpower was metaphor – many of which inspired this post). Which brings me to his observations about the drawbacks of one’s chosen life’s work being appreciated only posthumously. I want to know myself. Preferably before I die.

This is the direction I have now taken on the handbrake turn careening down this particularly steep stretch of the road of my life; I don’t need no respect from no boys. Nor do I need the authorization and/or appreciation of a man. For the first time in my life, I don’t need any man to take me seriously and it doesn’t hurt me if they don’t. It doesn’t matter to me.


So next, I get to figure out how to take myself seriously. But before I can take myself seriously, I don’t have to kill someone. Instead I just have to meet myself. Only, I just have to catch my attention first. At the rate this is taking, I’ll have learned by then how to survive the encounter with the swordswoman.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It’s Called Geography

 “For a rule of the art is that its experts do not explain the reason and cause of the things they do in this matter by word but by deeds only, for they live everything to the consideration of reasoning of their pupils.”
-       Marc Peter Keane, The Japanese Tea Garden

The weird thing about trying to learn today about Japanese gardens, which were invented when Japanese monks traveled to see Chinese gardens and applied a Zen minimalism, is that you have to read books. That’s not the weird thing. The weird thing is that the way real Chinese and Japanese gardeners learned their craft was not by reading but by doing. And they didn’t have teachers that lectured. The apprentice just watched, and watched. As did Keane, to learn his art. The student has become the master, Grasshopper.

Then again, Terry Pratchett thinks you can take those goofy Zen riddles a bit too far. He says that the sound one hand clapping makes is something like “cl”. At any rate, here are some of my favorite books on the subject of Japanese and Chinese Gardening.

You can learn about large Japanese gardens in the Taschen (aka beautifully illustrated) book “Japanese Gardens: Right Angle and Natural Form” by Gunter Nitschke. It is a history book of (mostly) large garden spaces from their origins to the present day. One of the nicer things in this book is the interpretation of the principles accompanying the pictures of some of the most famous gardens in Japan. The thing I like best about it is that it includes a lot about the role of rocks in the garden, and in plants that mimic other forms in nature like plants and trees that mimic mountains and streams.

If you want to go back further, look into Chinese gardens. “Gardens of Longevity in China and Japan, by Pierre and Susanne Rambach. This is another lovely coffee-table picture book that could be used as an art history text because it explains how Chinese landscape painting was packed full of geomancy and symbolism. I believe to make an authentic Japanese garden you need to understand some of the theory that many early European students of Chinese art completely missed. From deconstructing the elaborate mountainside paintings to the calligraphically minimalist drawings, the authors then connect actual gardens to actual paintings. Some are large gardens and some are miniaturized versions. This book is one of the best at showing the relationship and cross-pollination of Chinese and Japanese.

If you want to skip the theory and just have a pretty, authentic Asian-inspired backyard garden or a small pot planted with a bonsai or entire miniature landscape including rocks, you go straight to projects. A good book for this is “Japanese Gardens in a Weekend” by Robert Ketchell. The subtitle says it all: Projects for 1, 2 or 3 weekends. Although I found them to be more like 1 -3 month- projects.

A better book is a mix of theory and practical projects: “The Art of Japanese Gardens: Designing & Making Your Own Peaceful Space, by Herb Gustafson. I have a paperback version of what I’m sure is even prettier in hardback. The book combines great illustrations, brief but thorough explanations, and excellent practical recommendations.

But my current favorite one is Kean’s tea garden book quoted above.  I first knew of him because he learned Japanese gardening in the traditional way and at one point was not only designing gardens in Kyoto, he was on the faculty at Kyoto University of Art and Design. His 2001 co-translation of one of the first written Japanese Garden books called the Sakuteiki, and later “Japanese Garden Design” which draws heavily on his own training and expertise to interpret these gardens from the inside out: from the intent of the designer.

My favorite thing that comes through in all these books is what drew me to these types of gardens in the first place. In order to create a garden that that encourages a sense of peace, you must include a sense of time - an indispensible part of the tradition of Japanese and Chines gardening. Landscape is something you can do over a weekend or two. If you want a place to go to find peace and stillness, a place to bring you into the present, you need a place that understands and expresses the past. You need a place where the stones are alive with the magic of the flora and fauna that have passed through their eyes like a speeded-up film over long periods of time.

Trees can live longer than people. Flowers can live for briefer periods. The land has been here since it’s been here. As Terry Pratchett says in Wyrd Sisters when the Kingdom is getting angry because the new king doesn’t like it, two witches discuss the problem:

“…How come this one takes offense all of a sudden?”
”It’s been here a long time,” said Granny.
“So’s everywhere,” said Nanny…”Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there. It’s called geography.”
“That’s just about land,’ said Granny. “It’s not the same as a kingdom. A kingdom is made up of all sorts of things. Ideas. Loyalties. Memories. It all sort of exists together. And then all these things create some kind of life made up of everything that’s alive and what they’re thinking. And what the people before them though.”

My backyard is succumbing to the drought. Our once large waterfall has been made into a tiny tumble over some rocks waving with hair algae – not a good thing. The pond cannot support koi because it is built on decomposing granite and is barely two feet deep. Koi need four feet of depth to hide from predatory (and protected) wildlife like migrating egrets. I’ve had a few.

My tiny tsukubai recirculating pump quit working months ago and the thyme that had strugled in poverty for years finally pulled up its roots and migrated. That’s my story anyway. I can no longer hear the splash of the water like I could when my bedroom door was feet away. Not only am I practically deaf, I sleep at the other end of the house now.  But I want to see it, and the hummingbirds it attracts when the water is running.

I debated getting a shishi-odoshi. I could hear the thunk on the rock and recall that sound from one we had further back in the garden years ago. Not only did it quit working, the electrical line powering its pump has been cut and the old original pond has become a bog that supports water plants and has lured a few unsuspecting visitors who mistake the covering of azolla for a solid lawn.  But that would take more room, and require a bigger investment of my limited energy because I’d have to install a pool liner to cover a larger spill area. Higher maintenance and higher evaporation loss are no longer options.

So I finally confirmed my earlier troubleshooting: the pump was dead. I got a new pump and carelessly didn’t realize it wasn’t powerful enough to lift the water up the 30” pipe to drip into the stone basin.

I’m going to try Korean grass based on my theory that it’s fatter and acts like its own mulch and maybe won’t let the ground get so dry like the doomed thyme. I’ve also got some chicken manure, some steer manure and some topsoil to add to the sorry dead dirt. I want to take the stupid micro spray heads that surround the perimeter sticking up 6 inches like mutant black plastic sentinels from some animae nightmare, and plant them deeper to be more level with the ground so they don’t spoil the entire effect.

My goal is to get out and use my newly flexible limbs to garden again, to get some sunshine after a dark winter, to get my fingernails dirty and to make a modest place for some peace, and to soak in some time.  I guess that’s more than one goal. And since I just decided to replace the old splitting bamboo, I now have to wait a week for the internets to bring me a new one. My beautifully aged Natsume basin is worn smooth with a patina of age that has turned the once factory looking grey concrete a deep black. Too bad I can’t grow moss in this climate.

My longer term goal is to have a small tsukubai garden with properly named and placed stones, and the deeply symbolic and appropriate three-friends of winter planting: a pine, a plum, and a bamboo. I’m going to have to replace that impractical weeping cherry with a western redbud and try to figure out how to prune it into a dwarf size to fit the small garden. Time for that later. Meanwhile, it will be another ten years for the black pine to catch up while keeping the small but spreading bamboo from swallowing everything. Plenty of time for a fast-growing redbud to thrive.

I am not in a hurry to make this happen because I’m willing to invest some time into making a drought tolerant yet traditionally Japanese space that looks like it’s been around a while and that will be around a little while longer. Someplace that looks like it’s been here ever since it was first put here.