Small World


As I write these words at the end of May 2020, the world is on fire. From my vantage point within the confines of a small bungalow on a narrow lot in a college town fallen strangely silent since the middle of March, my state and country’s rush to reopen just as civil unrest spills into the streets resemble the torrents of broiling rapids breaking free from a dam of oppression. And at my age, I finally know better than to test those waters.

It’s no coincidence that our 1925 house was built on a hill in an area with a high water table and plenty of swampy low spots. As the climate changes, this formerly northern state harbors the southern symbols of my youth including towering rhododendrons, enormous azaleas and fragrant English boxwood. While I relive the sights and scents of childhood on restricted neighborhood walks, we continue to meet neighbors who are strangely connected to previous people and places as the past repeats itself with yet another cool, wet spring that is sure to switch to a sweltering, stormy summer in a matter of minutes as we watch our street turn into a river running down to an unknown fate that only the young will be brave enough to follow.

Waiting on the hill for the next presumed Covid wave has kept my husband and me close to home with only occasional forays to a local nursery or hardware store. The convenience of online ordering helps us with no-contact pick up at the grocery store and farmer’s market along with delivery of various goods to our doorstep. We finally invited some friends over for cocktails on our open back porch this weekend at the acceptable social distance and felt vaguely rebellious. We watch daily reports of protest from the safety of our computers and television while searching for truth in social media, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Meanwhile, we refurbish our old house, search for scarce supplies, appliances and commodities we took for granted only months ago, live frugally, plant our garden with last year’s precious seeds and watch the lone survivors from previous gardeners emerge in our yard. So far, the remaining residents are mainly peonies with their attendant armies of ants. I’m not a huge fan of this particular perennial because of its floppy nature, but beggars can’t be choosers in this time of Corona and I am grateful for any sign of life, however myopic. As my new post-surgery vision adapts to far-sighted ugly realities, I become more appreciative of what is under my nose on a dependable high ground, no matter how humble.

Time On My Hands

I see by the date of my last post in July that many moons have passed since I posted. Indeed, the act of writing itself has become foreign to me while my hands were used to weed, water and plant seeds. The cultivated earth mistress that demanded most of my attention this year has finally been put to bed, all 5,000 square feet of her. I look at my hands beat up by countless days of cuts from the soil knife or spines off the squash vines, and can actually see clean fingernails as familiar calluses fade into the paleness of my skin.

For the first time in months, I have time on my hands and I find myself a bit lost. The house cries out for attention–closets full of items tossed in randomly for lack of space or safety from sharp kitten teeth, floors that need a good scrubbing to rid them of ground-in garden soil, receipts piled in a drawer with budgets long neglected, paintings and craft projects waiting to be finished before spring. (I could go on, but it’s too early in the day to start drinking.)

I look around in amazement and wonder what happened to that obsessive-compulsive overachieving minimalist who used to inhabit this body sitting here on another dreary mideast morning, the sun that I used to curse for heatstroke by midmorning in the summer, now nowhere to be seen. Wild birds huddle at the feeders outside my insulated windows and the nearly full-grown cat I rescued is squeezed into her favorite cardboard box that’s now three sizes too small for her.

Like a growing child who puts on last year’s winter clothes, I find that my old ways and concerns no longer fit me in this new life of organic gardening, rural living and community consciousness. I’ve learned so much beyond what not to plant next year, or how to manage when the power goes out. I’ve tested my physical limits and personal boundaries this year, and found out when to say no. I’ve become more of a realist and less of a dreamer, although my imagination is still sparked by the light glinting off of dewy spiderwebs and ice-encased red berries.

I’m back to long walks on the wild trails down by the river with my spouse, a patient man who has put up with my obsessions and depressions for over 30 years. Finally, we have the luxury of staying home on snow days without the guilt or grueling commute on dangerous roads. And because of the little community we live in, we can avoid the isolation that rural life often demands in the winter. Gathering together on cold, dark nights before solstice for food, music and laughter, or organizing a trip to the college town close by, are perfect anecdotes to the winter blues.

Meanwhile, there’s still some kale sleeping under its winter blanket, pale parsnips waiting to be harvested from frozen ground, and plenty of sweet potatoes to last us through the holidays. It’s been a good year and time to celebrate.

Maybe I’ll even paint my fingernails.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Just as John Fogerty so famously sang, this summer’s movie reel is a continuous replay of events from nearly twenty years ago. Again and again I’ve been struck by the similarities. Indeed, there are even close parallels to childhood and teenage summers gone by. But almost two decades ago, I was adapting to a new life in a strange place, juggling a giant garden and a gaggle of pets, with no idea where this was all headed.

Three years later I was headed back to the suburbs, with a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease and a sense of defeat. Nice try, I thought, too bad my attempts always end in failure. All for nothing. Flash forward to 2018 and like so many of my random life experiences that held no rhyme or reason, suddenly that brief foray into organic gardening and sustainable living provided the foundation for me to start a new garden with support from fellow gardeners in the community I now call home.

Based on the wisdom and guidance of those who have lived and loved this farm and retreat center for many years, the 5,000 square foot vegetable garden that is part of the property’s centerpiece full of flowers, fruit, shrubs and trees, has produced over a hundred heads of lettuce, bushels of heirloom tomatoes, countless cucumbers and ridiculous amounts of squash.

And the community members have responded by creating beautiful and delicious dishes out of all the bounty in addition to produce for the retreat center. Whereas before I was alone in my endeavors trying to find ways to give away excess food, now I have a network and a sense of connection with my fellow villagers. Just the typical random morning chat in the gardens with coffee makes all the years of preparation for this cooperative garden effort worthwhile.

While in the garden at the beginning of June discussing lettuce with one of the chefs, the other deja vu element showed up in the form of a tiny kitten with blue eyes followed closely by a local vet who happened to be attending a retreat that day. “She’s a tortie, seven or eight weeks old,” the vet called out, “barely weaned. A baby.” The whole retreat group tried to catch her, to no avail. I was left waiting for my ride at the end of the evening, dead tired but unable to ignore the gut-wrenching mewing coming from the shrubbery.

Flashback to 2002, when my last cat landed on our doorstep in the country, full of fleas and desperate to live with us. And beyond that experience were the ancient memories of kittens abandoned in my parents’ farm fields, tiny cries for help from corn and bean rows that I would answer because I couldn’t ignore those sounds without my heart breaking into pieces.

Now I was closing in on two years since my last cat’s passing and vowed not to get too attached. Certainly no kittens, I said, too much work. But once again I couldn’t ignore those desperate little cries, and I started meowing back. She came straight to me out of the bushes, dripping wet, and climbed right into my arms. Turns out she was a neighbor’s cat that crawled up under a car, took a little ride and tumbled out about a mile down the road. She suffered a scraped nose and lost one of her nine lives, but she managed to find me just when I needed her. I just didn’t know it yet.

So here I am at the end of July, with a lifetime of living accomplished in just a few short months, with a cat and a garden and too many vegetables. But also with a sense that all that’s come before has prepared me for what I need now, to start all over again.

Where Has All the Rain Gone?


Naturally, or unnaturally it seems, we’re experiencing a drought where I live just when I’ve started to garden again. Community members scour the skies, and hunker down in front of the computer weather sites while keeping their phones tuned to weather apps. Time and again I have watched a promising storm split within a mile or two and circle around us. We water incessantly, nearly every plant has already peaked before June, new temperature records are set daily.

This is life in the new climate, I fear. The art of growing food becomes more than a practice in sustenance, it becomes a leap of faith. I can only plant the seeds, and hope our well doesn’t run dry. Water becomes more precious than gold. The guidelines set by local county extension offices are now meaningless. A seismic shift in seasons sends us all reeling — even the wild ones who are frantically trying to raise their young feel fast-forwarded by weather extremes.

And yet, I wake early every morning anticipating what I will find growing in the garden and what has pushed itself up from darkness, not caring whether it was watered from a hose or the sky, the will to live overriding all.

April’s Foolishness

The tulip’s version of the “jester hat.”

As a gardener, April has been the most challenging, frustrating and puzzling month so far this year. I have enjoyed it immensely. There’s nothing more “in the moment” and strangely invigorating than carting 164 tomato plants to safety amidst gail-force winds and snow, or protecting 260 lettuce seedlings with 16 sets of cotton sheets kindly donated by a fellow gardener.

I remain in debt and awe to the remarkable recovery witnessed in plants and the kindness of community in helping to grow food, plain and simple. Looking forward to Beltane and May’s gentle (non-freezing) breezes.

Here’s to the merry month of May!

Invasion of the Vegetables


After a hiatus of many years, garden mania has once again taken over my soul and my house. Seeds are germinating in my art room while sweet potatoes hide in our coat closet and tomato seedlings await their peat pots on the kitchen counter. These days you’ll find me wandering around with a plant mister and planning charts while checking projected night-time temps on my phone and muttering about frost-free dates in my sleep.

On gusty nights I wake up in a cold sweat wondering how my lettuce starts are faring now that they’re finally hardening off in the unheated greenhouse that tends to lose its panels in a strong wind. I’ve been known to rescue them after dark for an overnight stay in the protection of my house, much like a parent sheltering her young from the blows of life.

Nearly twenty years since my last foray into seed starts and county extension handouts, I’ve found that much has changed with the proliferation of new technology in growing lights and heating mats, but very little in terms of my anxiety and protectiveness toward my “plant” progeny.

And while garden centers and box stores will be full of perfectly potted specimens lined up in pristine rows to pop into soil when the weather finally warms up enough to shed our winter coats, the little farm where I live grows organic with an eye to the unusual and the flavorful, and strongly supports the seed companies that provide ethically obtained, preferably heirloom seeds that are untreated and unsullied by the corruption of corporate tampering.

Besides, that first taste of juicy home-grown heirloom tomato will be well worth the vegetable invasion overtaking my home.

Short and Sweet

Winter Aconite in the garden.

Since February is short and sweet, so is this post. I’ve been wandering around the gardens on this warm final day of the month, searching for signs of life after death in the aftermath of a very bitter cold December and January. And sure enough, I see encouraging signs poking up out of the old leafy remains of last year, signifying that hope truly springs eternal!

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope from An Essay on Man