September has been a long, lingering sip of wine for me. In my youth, I was thoughtlessly busy with the beginning of school, homework, new friends and harvesting on the farm. This year I have slowed to a crawl and savor the heat and dry days while letting go of my former life yet again. I’m facing the fact that I will never return to work with the public as a teacher, writer or artist. The crone’s inward turning after 60, release of old blood ties and obligations, and a new gratitude for simply waking up every day have replaced the angst in my fifties.
I am grateful daily for the little dramas and triumphs I find in my small urban lot–the spiders who live or die by what ends up in their web, a mockingbird’s virtuoso performance all day long in the backyard, the monarch’s heroic journey as it finds respite from the Tithonia or zinnia of its homeland before heading south, and the late-planted poppies that insist on flowering no matter how late in the season.
I hesitate before planting my fall crops, afraid to break the spell of this enchanted late-summer slumber before the hard frosts. I know the cold will come but I’m in no great rush, lulled by the soft song of tree frogs and crickets amid the whir from grasshopper’s wings that continue to fairy dance on languid evenings. Winter will come soon enough, but until then I pause on the doorstep, listening to the faint echo of summer’s retreating footsteps.
They came in all forms, winged, buzzing, and pollinating their little hearts out. The seeds I’d ordered through catalogs in the dead of winter, nurtured from faith under grow lights, transplanted to flats that waited through a cold spring, finally planted in ground later than usual — were waiting for them. The targets were a mix and a gamble, all of them. Some blooms had started out strong and sure, budding and expected to perform, only to be cut down in their prime by ravenous rodents or hoofed invaders. The weak and spindly that were not expected to survive have surprised and surpassed expectations, a reminder that struggle can create strength.
I am always humbled as a gardener to witness the urge to grow and flourish at all costs, to sacrifice the root and plant for the flower and seed, the extraordinary acrobatics required to fertilize and perpetuate all species. I’ve seen nature be cruel but also extravagantly generous. In the garden, as in our human culture, bullies and victims exist under our noses, those who succumb senselessly to infestation and the lucky ones who flourish where they are planted.
On nature’s stage, her dramas and comedies put any of Shakespeare’s plays to shame since life and death is not an illusion to be performed the next day. There are no repeat performances with the fear of winter’s breath blowing down the necks of those desperate to reproduce for another year. Every day I stand in my yard and gaze in wonder at the bumblebees wearing their pollen pantaloons that are so full they can barely fly, cardinals gorging themselves on the bowing sunflower heads, lightening bugs who are still shining for their mates as autumn kisses the breeze and crows congregating for their rowdy fall fraternity parties in the trees.
The sun wanes and our shadows lengthen after cicadas march down into earth for another seventeen-years’ sleep, monarchs lay their eggs on the way to Mexico, the honey bees gather their last golden mead, goldfinches rear their final offspring and we don our masks for another season.
June and July became blurred by extremes in rain and heat. Rainfall totals broke a 165-year-old record in my area and when the sun turned red from wildfires in the west bringing the heat with it, our wet soil cracked under the strain. We were told to pull all bird feeders and drain the baths when a mysterious illness started killing the songbirds. Scientists still don’t know the source. Luckily, all the flowers I have endlessly planted have come to the rescue for pollinators and seedeaters who flock around the house. We harvest from our vegetable garden daily now, and I am thankful to freeze the bounty as we begin to don our masks again with the new variant.
With all the torrential changes in weather, mood and outlook, I have learned to go with the flow and let the fear drain away. My soul is too exhausted to hold on to the terror of what will be, adrenaline racing with worry at every news update and media blitz. I consciously change the station in my head and head out to the garden or sit beneath a tree old enough to remember another kind of blitz, its roots burying the ills of man to feed the tender shoots of a new beginning, nibbled on by fresh fawns who have existed for only a second in the world, but who are already wiser than I.
Autumn is usually a dry season, but this year who knows? With reservoirs full and rivers overflowing, water will still find a way to leave and wind its way toward the collective oceans. And like the summer itself, I cannot hold the water back or prevent it from moving on. Even the dew will disappear one day soon, to be replaced by its cousin the frost.
Until then, I admire those sparkling jewels I find displayed in the morning garden.
I was preparing my usual last-minute blog post for May when one of my eyes began it’s long-awaited vitreous detachment during the Memorial Day weekend as a consequence of my eye surgeries last year. Most of June and two retinal tears later, I can finally bend over to plant my garden and lift the watering can again. I’m grateful for technology and medical advances but there are always nerve-wracking tradeoffs and repercussions to any alterations that didn’t come in my prenatal package.
After a relatively quiet spell of weather in May (although unusually cold) we were treated to a huge tropical storm system that precipitated a deluge of over four inches of rain in less than two hours. My family thanked our lucky stars that we lived on a hill as my husband and I bailed out our basement in the middle of the night while hundreds of sirens wailed eerily all over town for water rescues after flash flooding roared through downtown, the nearby university and right down the hill from us. I don’t think I’ve ever lived through so much rain in such a short period of time–over seven inches in three or four hours!
Someone local was wondering what we had done to deserve plague, locusts and now floods. But I surmise that we only have ourselves to blame. Oh, and the locusts are really beneficial cicadas that turned our backyard into the land of plenty for many critters and birds and left my garden alone, although there were some comical cicada rescues from my row covers and barricades to keep wildlife from eating all our vegetables. Despite the setbacks we were able to harvest lots of lettuce, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and a new one–Romanesco cauliflower (or broccoli depending on who you talk to).
Speaking of wildlife, we watched the birth of deer triplets over Memorial weekend from our kitchen window. I was all set to work in my backyard that morning until I saw mama deer giving me the stink eye from our neighbor’s yard. Something about her behavior and long-forgotten childhood memories of our dairy cows about to give birth alerted me that we should stay inside and just watch. The process took all morning, and the deer’s efficiency in birth, cleanup and nursing without any human intervention was astounding to me after witnessing so many difficult birthing sessions with cows and sheep. Sadly, two fawns did not survive beyond the first week and the remaining one has a terrible leg injury. I can’t imagine trying to raise fawns in a heavily populated urban environment. There are so many hazards and predators, including a bobcat recently spotted at the edge of town.
Finally, I’m very grateful to my husband and daughter for stoically planting the multitudes of seedlings in June that I grew and refused to compost. Packs of annuals, native perennials and vegetables sat in trays for days while I recuperated from my laser eye repairs and tried to figure out where to put them all. (Note to self next year: Don’t plant or buy anything unless you have a place for them.) Now in year two, I’m still figuring out sun and shade movement around our home, and where to place containers for best effect. The new patio provides full morning and shifting afternoon sun that can be a challenge for demanding plants, and the recently constructed raised beds still need lots of amendments (I’m tracking down some organic dried chicken manure even as I type).
After the big June monsoon you’d think we would settle down into drought, but we seem to be trying to turn into the northern tropics, which our neighbor’s cursed bamboo is wildly celebrating by taking over the block along with all the groundhogs, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels that reside in there. I’m half-expecting to see a panda emerge from the depths of his jungle any day now and wander down the street. If June is any indication of things to come, I won’t be a bit surprised.
On this last day of April I look up to receive the emerging leaves on our backyard red maple, an ancient sentry that has overlooked our little bungalow for decades. As the lone tree on this skinny lot, she reaches her arms out to welcome and shelter us as we go about our outdoor chores. Last year on the final day of May I had just been given permission to begin gardening again after some scary eye issues post surgery. I’ve never been more grateful to get back to the earth and ground my grief for the world in fertile soil again.
This year I may have gotten a little carried away with the seed buying and propagation, but I’m determined to see no plant left behind. This vow of mine may become quite a challenge since my neighbors are equally intent on sharing their abundance of riches after a year of scarcity. I’m thrilled to share my bounty with my daughter living up the street, and together we will spread gardening cheer in spite of the deer, rabbits and groundhogs that cruise through our yards like they own the place (which they do).
With the help of my editor husband who needs a break from the hours of remote business meetings he covers, we have dug up a good bit of our front yard lawn to make room for new flower beds that will host native plants and pollinator flowers for the insects that are rapidly disappearing from our world. There are four new raised beds for the vegetables in back as well as a no-dig vegetable plot. The radishes and greens are already thriving and the snow peas are popping up. To my mind there is no better sign of hope than flats of seedlings ready for launch.
As I clear away the non-natives and invasive plants, I am learning to recognize the natives that I will leave and encourage. That includes loads of wild violets in every shade of purple, lavender and even white. I cheer on the white clover and enjoy watching rabbits nibble up the spent dandelion stalks like spaghetti noodles. Our bluebird pair has returned but unfortunately the neighborhood mockingbird who serenaded us with an amazing repertoire of calls was taken by a hawk last week and the yard falls silent in the evenings now. Its absence serves as a reminder that there is still loss in the midst of fresh new life that kisses the boughs and peeps from nests lined in rabbit hair.
I count myself lucky to prepare for a second Beltane in my little yellow house. May you all enjoy a beautiful May Day tomorrow!
Instead of a lion, March came in with lamblike timidity. Approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID lockdown, my husband and I were unsure of our access to vaccinations. We doubted that we could undertake our big project for this summer–a backyard patio–anytime soon. I was skeptical that I would receive all the garden seeds and plants ordered amid constant shutdowns on my favorite seed company websites. And I remained wary of letting my guard down as the country begins to reopen.
After an early tipoff by a neighbor, I managed to schedule appointments for both of us in the first week of the month so that we could complete our second shots by the end of March. Even better, we could walk the three blocks to receive our vaccines (although uphill) without any complications other than sore arms and fatigue. Fortunately, we live in a county that will continue the mask mandate and social distancing with an eye to what has befallen other countries and the rise of variants in our own region post spring break.
Fearing an endless gauntlet of pandemic-created obstacles when we began the bidding process on a patio and other landscape issues, we found a neighborhood contractor who was able to begin at once on our challenging location by creatively working around a gas meter, buried electric line and a downhill slope. Our patio would be made from leftover slabs and offcuts from a nearby limestone quarry and built on three different levels. Almost daily for three weeks our new outdoor room took shape as the site was dug by hand and paved with stone sawed to fit. A white film of limestone covered my garden and seeped under our backdoor, but when the dust cleared the inconveniences were all worth it. We can enjoy our new living space just in time for warm April breezes.
We were determined to hire a small local company that employed several families, allowing them artistic and creative freedom to add and revise as the project evolved. We were surprised by a special touch when the contractor’s teenage daughter decorated four center stones with beautiful flowers, insects and calligraphy. She chose the words “faith,” “love” and “believe” as well as our family name for this unique space unlike any other.
As a bonus, tons of topsoil removed while building the patio have been redistributed for flower and vegetable beds while my vision for the garden slowly emerges. We also have many leftover limestone pieces to play with as we turn our blank-slate of a lawn into a welcoming sanctuary for nature and humans alike. We found that loosening our control over the process and outcome provided plenty of opportunities we would never have considered before. The letting go can be scary but worth it.
While I write, hesitant and uncertain March is going out like a purring kitten with sunny skies, piles of seed packets, emerging spring bulbs and a handsome red cardinal splashing in the birdbath. When I look out my kitchen window, my brand-new patio tile reminds me that anything can be manifested when you believe in possibilities.
This February we experienced the deepest snows and coldest temps since moving into our little yellow bungalow. I was beginning to think we lived in a southern climate until the negative windchills rattled our windows and deep drifts muffled my garden dreams. But as is the course of all extreme weather events, the pendulum has swung back to a lovely week of balmy breezes and the recent polar vortex fades into memory but for a few scraps of white clinging to the edges of driveways.
Once again we count ourselves fortunate as we watch the aftermath of grid failure in warmer lands completely unprepared for such arctic extremes. No doubt lives have been totally disrupted and altered by conditions that they couldn’t control. In a heartbeat all that you’ve counted on can disappear along with power, food and water, violently shoving your life in a very different direction. I was reminded of the polar vortex in January 2014, when our house in the suburbs suddenly lost electricity after a heavy snow along with one other house right before the temperatures dropped forty degrees overnight to -11 Fahrenheit. By the next day, 100,000 households were out all over the city with restricted travel, but we were the only ones in our neighborhood.
Luckily, my family could stay with our generous neighbors across the street while waiting three days for the electric company to get around to restoring power for only two houses (which consisted of flipping a switch at an electrical box by the street). In the meantime our house temperature dropped to below freezing and every liquid froze (even the shampoo) as my husband kept a fire going in the fireplace during the day. We made the wise decision to drain the water pipes which saved our plumbing. Our neighbors in the same boat were not so fortunate, sustaining $20,000 in water damage.
Afterward, many suggested we get a generator or a wood stove to prevent a repeat of a supposedly rare occurrence (which seems to be occurring more often now). The street-side power station that malfunctioned was later replaced. But I couldn’t seem to get warm again even after the house eventually thawed out and the frozen bottles returned to liquid. Our illusion of safety was gone, and we were tired of maintaining a home that was too big for us as we’d outgrown the suburban lifestyle. Over the years we’d dismissed the nudges of change as merely annoying little snowballs that finally grew in size until reaching avalanche proportions on the heels of an arctic clipper. I feared an iceberg was next.
And so four months later we put our house on the market and sold it in a day. We gave away most of our furnishings and settled into a two-bedroom apartment with the assurance that the complex had backup generators. Snow removal was included in the rent, and we could walk to stores for food and supplies. But the appliances were all electric and there was no fireplace. In extreme cold the fire sprinklers in our ceilings would have burst and we couldn’t turn off our water and drain the pipes if we wanted to. In three years, we would move on as part of the five-year odyssey to find community and sustainability in an increasingly isolated world where you barely know your neighbor.
I will never forget the family who lived right next door to us in the suburbs who knew of our plight but never even offered to run an extension cord over to power our portable heater for an hour or so. To add insult to injury, our house sat dark and frozen while their house was luridly aglow from the extravagant Christmas decorations that were still up and running. As I watch the same selfish and negligent acts unfold on the news while Texans struggle to survive, I wonder if we will ever find a way to get along and work together in community with such a sense of distrust and entitlement rampant in our culture while the lack of foresight and preparedness continues to undermine our very existence as a species.
These days we still don’t have a fireplace or generator but our wishlist for power backup includes solar and a wood-burning stove. For now our gas stovetop will have to do.
Time once again for the annual unveiling of my word for the year, a theme that always becomes eerily accurate as the months flow by. Last year’s “Rebirth” certainly lived up to its potential by anticipating my eye surgeries as well as our recent relocation. Little did I know how life-changing 2020 would be in my little corner of the world and all over the planet as social, political and scientific transformation was brought to disruptive, often violent, life.
Since I began to stay home and avoid public spaces last January in preparation for my medical procedures, I have essentially been homebound for a year now. My new life became very limited in scope, forcing an internal perspective and examination which I had been avoiding for decades. For me, it was much easier to mold my motivations and actions around someone else’s agenda than to determine my own. For one, it’s easier to blame the other party when plans don’t work out, which is usually the case when you aren’t on the right path.
In retrospect, my forced isolation in childhood and subsequent expulsion when I no longer fit the family dynamic catapulted me into a series of careers and relationships that never seemed to work out. Like the prince in Cinderella, I searched tirelessly for someone or something that would fit my life’s slipper without really examining the shoe itself. What color and style was it, what was it made of, and where did it come from? I acted out the traditional roles of artist, writer, academic, teacher, librarian, proofreader, shopkeeper, caregiver, house cleaner, and office assistant to fulfill others’ wishes and unfulfilled dreams, and conform to the expectations of my generation. In many cases I didn’t feel I had much choice as a female raised by a woman who thought my role was to marry a farmer and stay at home while also insisting I go to college and become a famous writer or artist.
Needless to say I was confused. What I really wanted was to work in the family nursery and tend to the colorful seas of annuals, geraniums, poinsettias and tropical houseplants in magical kingdoms under glass. I come from a long line of growers and farmers who passed their green thumbs along to me. But due to misogynistic views and family dysfunction, that dream was not to be. So I created gardens for myself: an entire bedroom full of houseplants in high school, an assortment of zonal geraniums my father grew wholesale that I dragged around for all four years at college, an obsessive collection of herb plants at a duplex as a newlywed, a square-foot garden hand-dug while recuperating from a difficult pregnancy, backyard raised beds as first-time homeowner, an ambitious but doomed try at homesteading 5,000 square feet of mule pen out in the country, feeble attempts at container gardens in the suburbs and finally a stint at running a community garden at a retreat center with no help from the community.
Which brings me to today’s little California bungalow on a very narrow urban lot in a neighborhood that encourages gardens rather than lawns. In fact “Gardens” is in the name of this century-old historic suburb built for limestone, railroad and factory workers in a town known for its creative quirkiness. Last year, despite some medical setbacks and supply difficulties, I managed to start some seeds, buy plants, build a cold frame and create garden beds with my husband’s help. This year I’ve ordered seeds early and made big plans to replace our barren lawn with vegetables, flowers and native plants while continuing my quest for year-round harvests. The photo shown above of my cold frame was taken two days ago, in January. I can’t wait to winter-over more vegetables and greens next year.
Which finally brings me to my word for 2021. After last year’s traumatic and frightening process of birth, there has to be “Growth.” Now that I’ve found my place in the world, I have the opportunity to grow, literally and spiritually on my own terms. Will I create art? Well, yes, gardening is an art form, and I plan on producing some garden-inspired art, too. Will I write? I certainly hope so. There’s much to be noted in tending a garden, particularly nature’s lessons in humility. Will I engage with others? That remains to be seen, but I fervently wish to contribute to my little neighborhood and provide a better habitat for wildlife, especially the insect world that is rapidly vanishing while we wait for vaccines and herd immunity.
I guess the glass slipper may have turned into a gardening clog, but it’s still beautiful to me.
What goes around, comes around. Isn’t that the saying? While my country is receiving a healthy dose of past bad decisions come back to haunt it, I’ve concluded that the ghosts of Christmas past also employ this karmic trickery during the holiday season. For many years, they didn’t find me at home, but this year was a different story, of course.
In my childhood family, Christmas traditions were enforced with a rigid (very Germanic) iron fist. There was always a real tree no matter how prickly, crooked and infested, draped with tangled strings of burnt-out lights carelessly thrown into a box the previous January, the ponderous Christmas stollen made with pounds of butter festooned by labor-intensive slivered almonds boiled from their skins, the unlightable plum pudding that everyone hated unless you buried it in hard sauce, my mother’s exhausted bad mood Christmas morning from staying up all night wrapping gifts, and the tense, awkwardly polite visits to estranged relatives on Christmas day.
After we were married, my husband and I had to agonize over whose family to visit for Christmas, keeping New Year’s celebrations to ourselves, thankfully. When our daughter came along, however, the pressure to travel increased considerably. Following a disastrous holiday trip where all three of us spent most of Christmas holed up in a guest bedroom with the flu, I made the decision to stay put and start new traditions, for all of our sakes and sanity. Out went the obligatory stollen and rock-hard pudding, the dragging of the child (and adults) away from their new toys to uncomfortable visits with relatives, the long road trips under threat of bad weather. In came the fake white tree with non-traditional ornaments, alcohol-infused morning coffees, a Christmas Day outing to the movie theater, and our own list of alternative holiday music.
As empty-nesters we even abandoned our rented apartment for inns at state parks, where we adorned the hotel rooms with our own decorations, watched Christmas DVDs and indulged in homemade snacks while leaving the real cooking to the professionals. Our holiday activities consisted of walks along park trails and daytrips to little towns and local shops. Recently, we’ve spent Christmases with my daughter, since she loves the Christmas traditions that are special to her, including a Christmas Eve brunch at her favorite cafe and watching the grand-cat rip through his presents on Christmas morning.
This year, it was time, yet again, to start new traditions. I suspect that a lot of families came to the same conclusion. We are lucky to be together as a family, while many are grieving the absence of loved ones and homes right now. Since the future is more uncertain than ever, we were determined to make the most of it without needing Scrooge’s nocturnal wake-up call. We’re back to being homeowners, with a tabletop artificial tree in a traditional green color, hung with ornaments from our childhoods as well as purchases over the years. There’s a Christmas puzzle continuously in the works, a diverse holiday music list playing on bluetooth, the streaming of old holiday shows or cheesy Christmas romances, and an occasional neighborhood stroll to see the lights and decorations. We’ve even expanded our holiday season with a special dinner at home now for Winter Solstice with lots of candlelight. My husband purchased an advent calendar that is a chest of drawers which he fills with tiny treats and gifts, plus a slip of paper with a holiday activity that the receiver can do. We look forward to continuing this new tradition with new and old gifts for the drawers.
With so many gluten-free flours and dairy-free options available, I even brought back the almond sugar cookies I loved to decorate and eat as a kid. On Christmas Eve my daughter and I cut out new shapes while listening to holiday tunes. Once again I can sip on a delicious (spiked) dairy-free eggnog, indulge in dairy-free caramels and take a big bite into turkey sandwiches plump with gluten-free stuffing. Maybe the taste and appearance aren’t quite the same as what I remember, but I’ll gladly trade the old unhealthy holiday ghosts dripping with guilt and obligation for newer spirits full of wholesome pleasures more in line with who I am and want to be.
My hope for you, dear reader, at the end of such a cataclysmic year, is that you find new traditions in the rubble of our old lives that bring you joy in the dark days to come.
Yesterday I put my small vegetable garden to bed after an unusually long harvest season, but isn’t the unusual the norm in 2020? As I fluffed straw over the garlic, spread fresh compost on new beds for next year, and harvested the last of the herbs and chard before the snowfall and windchill forecast for the next day arrived, I allowed a sense of accomplishment to settle over me for having come this far in a very difficult year.
November marks one year since my spouse and I moved to a new house and city after a turbulent 2019. Perhaps the events of last year helped me cope with what was to come. The sense of personal loss that haunted me for months was slowly healed by a little patch of victory garden that grew and produced against all odds. Without much to work with and a host of predators always hovering in the wings, the greens kept growing and the tomatoes producing (we are eating windowsill-ripened tomatoes right now!)
Finally the vision I had when we first saw this property of a winter cold frame on the south-facing side of the garage has been realized. In fact, the setup is so protected that it’s been too hot for the cold-weather greens I started in September but now they are taking off as the temperatures fall. Next year I know to plant a fall crop in the ground and wait on the cold frame garden until at least another month, the luxury of a warmer growing zone. One day I may achieve the ultimate goal of growing food in my own tiny greenhouse, but until then nothing gives me greater pleasure than to peek under the lid at hopeful green beginnings during nature’s time of endings and dormancy, much like we humans have been experiencing in our quarantined worlds this month and year.
As winter closes in, I turn to unfinished projects and home-grown remedies for the world-weary homebody. Abandoned knitting and new recipes for health and healing will replace the daily watering, weeding and barrier maintenance. Stacks of how-to books and seed catalogs await my attention. When I can tear myself away from the grim daily Covid counts and political travesties to focus on simple rituals of self-care, my soul is the better for it. Like my little bed of green beginnings, it is a luxury that many don’t have and I will never take this for granted again.