Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You'll Enjoy this Book

Waiting, an excerpt from Married to My Garden

Winter is a Waiting Time

An excerpt from Married to My Garden, my most recent book

Clouds come from time to time—
and bring a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.


Late January and the ground is frozen, the trees are coated with white frost and all the little beautiful evergreen colonies of Mrs. Robb’s spurge are huddled together shivering in the cold. This is a time of stillness. It’s the dormant season, from the root dormire, meaning to sleep. I would like to return to my bed and slumber on this Tuesday morning, but instead I bundle up in fleece and sip hot Earl Gray tea, and write, looking out onto the bleak landscape. Even the rake stands against the sweet gum tree in repose, and the compost pile is frozen stiff. Nothing moves in the garden.
So the sight of a few birds flying between the tree tops is a relief of sorts. Life wants to move. So much stillness smacks of death. I long to go outside and do something—my fingers itch for the pruners and the trowel. I want to pull weeds, to prune roses, to grab a handful of lavender and pinch the leaves, releasing the aroma of summer, of love, of happiness. Winter is a hardship, a deprivation, an absence that makes me cranky. But remembering how cold it is out there, and how quickly my fingers will turn red, I decide to be a bear in winter, to hibernate and be still.
This quiet time is part of a cycle that comes each year, a breathing space between all the planting and tending, all the grooming and feeding. It’s a time to reflect, to look, to contemplate, to simply be rather than do.
In every life process there’s a segment like this. Just before the seed germinates, it sits quietly underground, in the dark, out of sight. A certain amount of faith is required for us to leave it alone under the soil, and let it spring to life in its own sweet time. We wait. The same with the bulbs that we bury each fall. Underground they sit for months, invisible to us, doing what bulbs do in the deep of winter, until it is time for them to spread their roots and send their shoots up into the upper world.
And it is the same with us, with our own internal growth processes. We have a knot to unravel, a problem to solve, and we mull, we discuss, we write, we contemplate, and then, we bury it in our own sweet unconscious mind and sleep on it. The seed, the bulb must rest a while in the dark, must quiet down before it is ready to send down roots and send up shoots and bloom into understanding. Perhaps a dream will come in the night to cast some light, or an insight will appear some days later. No need to rush or worry—the quiet time, the night, the waiting, are all part of the growth process.

Birds Have Their Say

Birds Have Their Say

In the garden, I never know how small surprises will change me in big ways. This past year, the birds had their influence, and this is how it all started, last spring.
At first, the song of mourning doves woke me up early each morning. Their haunting tune, which my musician husband Tom says is C followed by F sharp, is a lot more calming than the screech of scrub jays.
Out in the garden, I followed the sound of the mourning doves to see if I could find their nest. Sure enough, it was in the gutter just behind the white lilac in full bloom, right above our bedroom window. I could see a baby bird’s head peeking over the gutter, waiting for worms. No wonder we could hear their morning serenade so clearly! I made a mental note to postpone the gutter cleaning 'til after nesting season.
Mourning doves delight me in many ways. I enjoy their stately walk along the driveway where they hunt for bugs and seeds. I love the flutter of their wings when they take off, and their pretty gray and tan colors. Bird life adds so much pleasure of the garden.
The largest gathering of birds is at the furthest end of the garden where old hawthorn trees reach from the neighbor’s yard and weave together with my own Portuguese laurel, witch hazel, Cornelian cherry dogwood, and mock orange, to form a dense hedgerow. Safely ensconced in this twiggy habitat, birds sing their hearts out at dawn and again at dusk, praising the day at both ends. The melodic cry of chickadees, the staccato twitter of bush tits, the sawing buzz of hummingbirds thrills me.
The joy of listening to this natural choir helps me appreciate the gifts of the less manicured part of the garden. I no longer need to apologize for this rather shaggy, naturalistic area, where I’ve let things go, and surrendered to the wild and woolly origins of this site. Now I see it as an homage to the original elderly homeowner who grew only fruit trees and let the grasses grow thigh high. I dedicate the south end of the property to Mr. Berg, to the birds and Mother Nature.
Now I plant all my new treasures closer to the house, where I can keep an eye on them, and protect them from slugs, weeds and cutworms. This is where the soil has been amended repeatedly, and many of the beds have been raised to provide better drainage. I have finally drawn some boundaries between the cultivated garden and the native wetland, and there is great comfort in knowing where to focus my energy.

Gushing Geyser

Winter Excitement

I was still in my bathrobe, working on my column for the Portland Tribune, when a big bang interrupted my writer’s trance. I figured it was the UPS guy who loves to run up the porch, drop a package and then rap on the door like there’s a fire. But then, I heard more banging. I ran to the door and there was my neighbor Denise, pointing to a large geyser shooting up in my front yard. Oh my god, it looked like someone had installed a huge jet fountain right beside the driveway.
I knew the shutoff was right there beside the geyser, but by now a small lake was covering it up. I ran for the phone and in my panic asked information for the Portland Water Bureau and was speaking with them before I realized I needed the West Slope Water Bureau. Dialed again, got lovely Heidi, who stays calm through all emergencies and within minutes Bart and his crew were on the scene.
But even before Bart arrived, a handsome young man knocked on the door and offered to help. A contractor, working in the neighborhood, he had the right tool—a key—to shut off the water, but didn’t have high boots. We waited together, and soon the real experts arrived and began fishing through the lake to find the shutoff valve.
Once they turned the water main off, the actual catastrophe seemed less dramatic. Water pooled away from the lake and everything calmed down, including my racing heart. Turned out the hose bib connection had burst, not a pipe, thank goodness, and I’d just have to replace the faucet. The men went to lunch and returned later, shut off the irrigation valve (which delivers water to the garden) and turned the main back on, so I’d have water to the house.
While I waited for them, I surveyed the damage. The water had washed away the soil around the roots of a newly planted ‘Coppertina’ ninebark and uprooted some recently planted spurges and hyacinth bulbs. Even in the cold I was able to dig out some frozen wood chips from the big pile on the shoulder of the road—mulch for the garden paths—and cover the roots for now. I poked the bulbs and spurges back into the ground and hoped for the best.
I tried to give the water bureau guys a tip, but they refused it over and over, so I handed them a shopping bag of goodies that I was going to take to a party next week—little boxes of cookies, candy, popcorn, truffles, from a Harry and David gift package that my dad sent for Chanukah. I was relieved that they let me give them at least that. Those poor guys! One had his arm a foot down in the icy water trying to find the shutoff valve. They were so kind, too, said I just needed to buy a new faucet, and to remember to shut off the water next year, without any lecturing or hectoring.
Ironically, I’d shut off all the water to the front and back yards and to the greenhouse, weeks before this cold front hit, but didn't think I needed to shut off this particular box as it's always been sound. Until now. Sigh.
It's been a while since I had such an adrenaline rush. It took about half an hour to get back to normal. I think I've had my excitement for the week. I'm staying in now, with a cup of hot tea and the cats for company. Napping as usual, they took it all in stride, that is, if they noticed anything at all.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Moments of Joy Between Storms

Growing up in New York City where anyone sane uses public transportation, I never learned to drive on snow and ice. Even now, as soon as the ground turns white, I panic. Racing to the grocery store to stock up on life’s necessities—bananas, dark chocolate, eggs, spinach, crackers, yogurt, cheese, apples, soup stock, romaine, red peppers, cat food—I stuff the cabinets and refrigerator as full as my Jewish mother would have. I dash to the library to pick up reserved books and find a few promising DVDs. Only then can I relax and settle in at home.
I write, drink Stash peach black tea with vanilla Silk, pet the cats a lot, and worry. Will the power go out? How long will it be before I can drive again? Will I be able to get to dinner with friends, to my dream group, to my Women’s Circle holiday party, to see the Christmas boats with my husband Tom?
After three days of this, I grow very crabby. I crave exercise, I’m desperate for sight of a flower, I miss my garden. I get snappish with Tom. I start feeling old and decrepit. I realize that my hair is way overdue for cutting, that all vestiges of my summer tan are gone, that my muscles are turning to jelly. Worst of all, I have nothing to write about, with the garden shrouded in snow.
So today, I am overjoyed to watch the black asphalt reappear as the snow and ice melts. I call my hairdresser and she too is elated, as her morning has been filled with cancellations. Together we maniacally exult over this surprising window between storms, as she snips, shapes and fluffs. It’s heavenly to be surrounded by people, by the smell of lavender botanical shampoo as Tracey massages it into my hair, even by the sounds of muzak. I leave feeling renewed, and head for Starbucks to get a soy latte.
Most days, I see these kinds of activities as interruptions in my writing and gardening day, but today I soak in every sensory detail and stimulus. When a woman bumps my grocery cart near the refrigerated cheeses at Trader Joe’s, I give her a big smile. I savor the food samples with complete and sincere thankfulness—Stilton embedded with cranberries on a cracker with a side of sharp cheddar are exquisitely delicious, especially since I skipped half my breakfast to get to the hairdresser’s on time.
Every day is filled with amazing moments of beauty and pleasure, but these bursts of delight are more vivid after a period of emptiness. I think we’re in for more snow soon, and I hope I’ll remember the benefits of being housebound, and go with the flow.