Spring Cleaning

This is more a wildlife post than a gardening post, but as it happened in the new pond, and the pond is really the centerpiece of the garden, I am blogging this event on this site.  Also, I have so many photos that if I sent them out they would really slow down the receiving computers, and I wanted to include all the photos.  So here it is, the pictorial story of the bald eagle who took a bath in our pond.

First, some background.  Born in the mid-fifties, I have been an unhappy witness to the environmental degradation that has been the largely unnecessary result of the industrial revolution.  There have been moments of hope: the national revulsion when the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught on fire, the outcry when the link between pesticides and raptor egg viability was determined, the joy when beaches were declared public land, open to all.  However, all of these moments of seeming clarity, of the shift in public perception regarding the incredible natural wealth of our country, always seemed to fade.  The Baby Boomers, of whom I am one, seemed to move from a culture of ideology to one of remorseless personal greed and devotion to self-gratification.  This ushered in the super-sized era of McMansions, SUVs, multiple homes, pesticide, fertilizer and petroleum dependent yards and ever-increasing locomotion by any petroleum-fueled means.  Devices undreamed of in my childhood, like leaf blowers, and backpack sprayers spread noise, fumes, toxins and poisons through every neighborhood in America. From the modest dream of a chicken in every pot the grandiose boomers moved to a dream of every whim indulged, every action facilitated, the consequences to the environment be damned.

The transient spasm of concern for the environment in the ’60s and early 70’s did leave a number of very important laws in its wake, among them the Endangered Species Act (signed into law by Richard Nixon), which provided protection for listed species, making it illegal to kill the individuals, or threaten their habitat.  One of those species was the Bald Eagle, the symbol of America, which was nearly extinct here in a nation that ostensibly revered the animal.  In Oregon we were down to 20 nesting pairs in 1971, when I was a teenager.  I never saw a Bald Eagle in the U.S. when I was growing up; there were hardly any to be seen.  In fact, I did not see one until I was 15 years old, and then it was in northern British Columbia, circling over a Safeway store (probably the only Safeway store) in the town of Williams Lake.  On that same trip I witnessed a pair of Bald Eagles spiraling from the valley floor that was essentially at sea level, to above the mountain upon which I was standing, at 7,000 feet, without once moving their wings.  They were using a column of warm air (a thermal) to lift them in elevation.  In retrospect I don’t even think they were working, I believe they were just employing physics as its own end.  It was a magnificent sight, and has stayed with me vividly ever since.  Upon returning to the U.S. it was a source of active shame to me that my own country had nearly obliterated these animals in the name of violence, greed and carelessness.

In the past few years, however, I have started seeing Bald Eagles in the U.S.  And these have not been back-country eagles, but in the metro area, along the Willamette and the Columbia, around Sauvie Island, on farmland down I-5, even in a tall Douglas Fir intently observing a neighbor’s chicken coop.  As sighting grew more frequent they became a topic of wonder and excitement in our family.  I just find it impossible to be indifferent to seeing one of these animals.  For one thing they are HUGE, with a wingspan of six to seven and a half feet, and heavy (for a bird), with a weight of up to 15 pounds. Their cruising flight speed is about 35 to 45 mph, with a dive speed just shy of 100 mph.  This size, in combination with their very stern-looking visage, and their general avoidance of humans makes every sighting an experience.  The bird has been de-listed from the endangered species list, and in Oregon now numbers nearly 500 breeding pairs, a 25-fold increase in 40 years, hence the increased visibility.

So, this past weekend, life at our house stopped when a bald eagle flew low over the house, coming in from the east, the direction of the river, and dropped onto a stone in our pond.  From there he (a term of convenience, I do not know the gender) hopped onto the bank, and from there into the gently sloping shallow area of the smaller pool in the pond.  He sat there for about five minutes, chest-deep in water, scanning his surroundings for any sign of danger, I expect mostly human danger, since I cannot conceive of any other serious threat to him.  After a time he seemed satisfied that he was safe.  While he was reconnoitering we were rounding up the dog, and making sure she did not see him and bark, hissing at one another to ensure that we all saw him, and to get the cameras.  We tried not to move anywhere where he could see us, or speak above a whisper, for fear of scaring him.  Because of this we were slow to get cameras, and then did not really have time to set them properly (plus our cameras are, comparatively, poor), so the resulting pictures aren’t great, but they do document the rest of his bath-time pretty well.  I am presenting them here in chronological order.  And, a bit of anthropomorphizing here, can you imagine the relief he felt in getting  rid of all (most of) the ticks, mites and lice that accumulated over the winter?  We loved seeing him, and I hope he left here feeling greatly refreshed.






























And then he flew away.  I think my favorite moment of the whole event was when he decided to go back into the water, and plunged in so wholeheartedly.  Again anthropomorphically, my kids do the same thing.  I hear the shower water turned off, and then turned back on again.  Missed a spot?  Too cold to get out?  Having fun?  I don’t know, but that moment seemed very familiar to me.

We built (or rather re-built) the pond in order to support amphibian life; my hopes and dreams were along the lines of frogs and newts.  To have this magnificent creature (not to belittle frogs and newts, I find them magnificent, too, just less dramatically so) show up when the pond is still in such an early stage of equilibration, just blows my mind.  And it opens the entire question of: What next?  A bear? A moose?  A unicorn?  Anything seems possible after such an event.  Even the impossible.

I am also reminded, for the millionth time, that every decision I make, everything I have or do, has an impact that spreads far beyond myself.  I had this experience because of the choices I have made in my life, plus a hefty dose of luck.  When I choose to demand less, there is room for so much more.  If I had a thousand years and all the money in the world I could not build a Bald Eagle.  So, really our choice on this planet comes down to one of two: do I destroy or do I try and protect?  I can only hope that our collective will will once again turn towards the latter.

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Weather Watcher

All year long I keep tabs on the weather.  I check the forecast, usually on multiple sites on the internet, both morning and evening.  If something bad looks like it is brewing (bad for me are temperatures below 30 degrees F, which will start freezing all my more delicate plants, and, more worryingly, all the cuttings I have started) I will check several times through the day, in order to move plants inside before they get killed.  I most commonly use a site that provides daily high and low averages for the date, as well as a 15-day forecast.  I get a lot of valuable information from comparing current conditions with past norms, and it gives me clues about how plants should weather the weather they are experiencing.

Now, in the Pacific Northwest a forecast 15 days out is in no way reliable.  At this time of year we can be pretty sure that we will not be getting any more snow, but determining whether a day, 15 days hence, will be sunny, cloudy, or rainy, well, it just cannot be done.  However, it is now 15 days until our big annual plant sale, so I checked out the weather for 15 days from now as though it actually meant something.  What this actually means is that I am beginning my own annual 15-day psych-out.  I have no control over the weather.  The date for the plant sale was set months ago, we are certainly not changing it at this point.  I have no real means of addressing the weather.  While the plant sale has been held at the same time of year, early May, for seven years now, we have had temperatures ranging from the high forties up to a wilting 96 degrees. We have had pouring rain, a couple of really good windstorms, and relentless sun.  I have almost no tools at my disposal to address any of it. We have an umbrella and a couple of very small marquee-type  tents.  These do not come close to mitigating the weather in any serious way so, other than wearing a sun hat, or thermal underwear, we will all be simply experiencing whatever the weather is doing on the day.  However, none of this will change the fact that, for the next 15 days, I will obsessively check the forecast for May 12 first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  I may be irrational, but at least I am consistent.

So, this morning’s forecast for Saturday, May 12?  Cloudy, no precipitation, and a high of 61 degrees.  After the downpours of last year this sounds divine.  If there were any way to lock this in, like the price on a plane ticket, or the Buy It Now feature on eBay, I most certainly would.  I can’t however; I am still at the mercy of the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil, the exhalation of an orca in the Juan de Fuca strait.  So I just keep watching the computer, hoping that the six hours we have selected will be warm, dry and salubrious, and that the customers will come in droves.

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Winter Solstice

Well, here it is.  We have finally hit bottom in the race towards darkness.  All the whooshing sounds as the light has been sucked out of our hemisphere and into the other one have stopped.  It is quiet now, while we are waiting, resting. We are at the pause, the point in the arc where we are suspended, like a ball thrown into the air which stands perfectly still for that fragile moment before beginning its descent.  After this pause the vessel of the day will, gradually at first, then ever faster, re-fill with glorious light.  Our bodies will find warmth again, our eyes will feast on growth, color and form.  The now-quiet woods will echo with sound: birds carving out territory, luring mates, repelling foes, signaling danger.  The wind, thin in the winter, will have leaves again to rustle, while the rain will have an infinity of surfaces upon which to patter.  The frogs will croak their exultation in spring rain and filling vernal pools, looking for sex and the immortality of their DNA.

If anticipation is the acme of experience, then this is indeed the best of seasons in the garden, in the woods, for all experience still lies ahead.  I lie awake in the pre-dawn darkness, counting my still-dormant hellebores no less greedily than a miser counts his money.  My plants grow in my mind, doubling, tripling in height and bulk in the spring and summer to come.  My excitement is boundless, in part because it is so abstract.  My mental hostas are not plagued by slugs, my dream ligularias never go dry and limp.  All is still perfection in the garden that now lies under the earth, waiting for its cues to emerge into reality and, thus, imperfection.

The time I spend in the garden, now, is with plants that live in suspended animation: not eating, not drinking, barely breathing.  My time is invested in outcomes that will emerge months from now, and often only for the briefest moment.  The huge clump of bright white phlox will be exquisite, barring rain, wind, excessive heat, or even a blast from a misplaced hose.  Now my plants are only empty shells of possibility which I fill with hopes and dreams.  I am the gardener of a shadow garden, as I tenderly plant lumps of soil, and carefully arrange leafless stems and wizened tendrils.  Like the plants I barely function at this time of year.  The cold grips my hands, penetrating every combination of gloves that I try.  And since I only let myself go outside once indoor chores are tolerably under control I seldom have very much time before I am chased out of the garden by the darkness.  Like my plants the gardener I am will emerge with the advancing light.  Each day will find more to do, and more time in which to do it.  And, also like my plants, I will emerge to imperfection: to clumsiness, forgetfulness, laziness, ignorance and carelessness.  These are the water-spots, frost-nips and slug chomps of my skill as a gardener.  So I, for one, will enjoy this fantasy time, when my garden and I are always polished, always at that perfect May dawn, and then, energized by that hope and expectation, I will be propelled into a bright, new year.

Happy Winter Solstice, everybody.

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I’ve Lost That Gardenin’ Feelin’

I wanted to be a gardener for so many years.  However, I was thwarted by different circumstances: being a renter, poor soil, babies and toddlers, moving around a LOT, lack of time, lack of money, lack of energy, illness.  Then, finally, my life smoothed out and I started a garden.  It was so wonderful, in part because I had had to wait for it for so long.  I started my garden from scratch and after ten years some of my beds are in their fourth or fifth iteration.  I have many plants stockpiled, waiting for the weeds to be cleared, the soil contours to be altered, the paths to be defined.  I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have done so far, and once in a while I am stunned by the scenes of beauty I have had a hand in creating.  I have also made a huge number of mistakes, most attributable to ignorance or haste, but I am slowly and steadily addressing the ignorance, and trying to curb the impulsiveness.  My life, increasingly, has become defined by gardening.  I read about gardens, plants and gardeners.  I spend most of my (scant) social time with fellow gardeners.  I spend my (scant) extra money on plants.  My primary volunteer activity involves running a plant sale.  Gardening has become the water in which I swim, the air that I breathe, and yes, the soil in which I grow (I can’t find the darned “cue swell of violins” button on this program so just use your imagination).

So I was surprised to realize recently that I have almost completely stopped gardening as I have known it.  The weeds  have overtaken some of the beds, the carefully selected plants sit in their pots un-planted.   No dead-heading, no pruning, no staking has been done.  In short, the garden looks pretty shabby right now, and I am still not lifting a finger to address it. And all because I have a new love for… passion about… obsession with… plant propagation.  I have long been a haphazard propagator; if I broke off a twig I tried to root it, sometimes even successfully.  I owned several books on propagation , but never really set out to seriously try to implement the information in them. Then I found out that the Hardy Plant Society study weekend was offering a plant propagation class with a nurseryman whom I greatly respect.  I vacillated for a long time, since the class was an additional gardening expense that did not go directly to the garden.  However, after long deliberation I finally decided to sign up, and got the very last spot in the class.

I had a ball in the class.  It took all the information I had struggled with in books and made the process real.  Paul, and Linda (our last-minute, bonus instructor) walked us through the propagation of several types of plants, and we left the class with a 50-cell propagation tray filled with tiny starts (I also wheedled the starts from a Canadian participant who would have been unable to take hers across the border, so I actually ended up with 75).  Now it was real to me.  Here were living things which were depending on me for their care.  I am a mom, I know this drill cold.  The routines were different (in raising my human babies I neither housed them on the front porch, nor sprayed them several times daily with a mist of chilly water), but they were routines, and if I followed them I would be rewarded with a viable plant in just a few weeks (a far better outcome at my age than putting in years of back- and heart-breaking labor only to be rewarded with–Ta Da–a teenager).  I was thwarted somewhat by the unseasonably cold, damp weather, but despite both that and an absolute absence of any kind of infrastructure for them providing either shelter or warmth, a lot of the tiny plants came through.  Uh oh, now I was hooked.

About this time a friend of a friend of a friend (really, truly)  emailed to say that she was cutting back her lavishly planted garden and would I like cuttings and plants for the plant sale.  Yes, please!  I will be right over.  I arrived at her house to find her limbing-up a lovely Cornus ‘Hedgerows Gold’.  I had lusted after this plant at the study weekend, but had felt parsimonious, having spent so much on attendance (yes, I finally bought a couple small plants, but I was really very restrained…for me), and thought it was best deferred since I had no idea where I would even plant it.  But now, here was the plant I wanted, and all I had to do was take a bunch of cuttings, get them to root, pot them up a couple of times, wait two or more years for them to reach a good size, and Bob’s your uncle, I would have my plant.  Wow, way better than shelling out $14, or whatever comparative pittance the ready-to- go plant cost!  (By the way, this kind of thinking is completely irrational.  Store-bought plants are a great deal, and I strongly urge you to support your local independent nurseries.)  I had foolishly brought only a station wagon, not a truck, but I filled that car with branches until I couldn’t see out the rear or back windows, and then drove very slowly and carefully home.  Whereupon reality hit: I had to make viable cuttings of all of those stems.   I filled 2 flats with 100 cuttings of just that one plant.  I went back a second time and she gave me roses, clematis, and hydrangeas.  I filled more flats.

This table is filled and now I am using upside down recycle bint to store yet more flats

Like I needed more plants.

Lonicera standishii

Cornus 'Hedgerows Gold'

Then a friend of mine wanted to expand her propagation repertoire.  Like me, she was as enthralled with the process as with the product, and wanted to learn what I had learned at the class.  Another friend with a wonderful plant collection needed to cut her garden back for an event and offered to host us to take cuttings.  We were there for three hours which was not nearly enough time to really absorb the scope of the collection or to work systematically.  I left with both a 5-gallon and a two-gallon bucket loaded with fabulous cuttings, plus notes on names scrawled on a scrap of paper.  Some of the plants and names have still not been matched up properly, but I added 200 more plant starts to my trove.  And so it has rolled.  An afternoon at a friend’s house yielded another two flats of about fifty plants each.  Currently I have pots of cuttings on my porch from yet another foray which I am frantically trying to get processed (all that snipping and dipping takes a surprising amount of time).  And in the meantime some of the original cuttings have developed little roots, so I have been potting them up into 4″ pots, of which I now have about 150.  And through all of this I have still not taken any cuttings from my own garden.  August has to be devoted to getting around to the viburnums, hydrangeas, and weigelas I have here which I want to get started.

The botanical equivalent of baby toes.

'Hedgerows Gold' roots after 1 month of development, ready to pot.

'Hedgerows Gold', potted up.

Hardy fuchsias, potted up.

Once the summer is over, however, that will not be the end of the process.  If I am lucky I will then have between 500 and 1,000 baby plants in small pots which cannot conceivably make it through the winter on their own.  Last year I brought 120 plants into the house for a couple of weeks during the worst freeze.  This year I will need space for four to eight times as many.  Other than evicting a child I don’t know where the room will come from.  In short, I am making plants I cannot use and cannot reliably house, at the expense of the garden I already have.  But I cannot seem to stop myself.  The process is so magical, and varies so much from genus to genus, species to species, that it is like eating potato chips, or perhaps like gamblers at the slot machines: “Just one more”.

I cannot imagine being truly proficient at this process.  There are so many variables, and some, like the weather, over which I have no control.  It is claimed that mastery of a subject takes 10,000 hours, which is 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 5 years.  Perhaps if I truly did that I would feel knowledgeable about propagation.  But I am not going to be able to focus in that way and I certainly would not be able to deal with the output if I even started down that road.  What I need to strive for is balance.  So,  I am hoping that this is just a little fling, a mid-life flirtation that can settle down into a nice, steady friendship which will coexist with all the other aspects of my life and will let me wash my dishes, pay my bills, weed my beds and sleep at night.

I am lucky, though.  In the staid, quiet, complacent middle of my life I get to experience the thrill of a new passion, with all that entails: the utter absorption in the beloved, the hours spent devoted to the beloved, the reciprocation of the beloved (I have to interpret the growing of roots as reciprocation, but I am not having any trouble with that).  And I get all of that without any of the usual consequences of a mid-life infatuation.  My marriage is stable (my husband even helped me pot up rooted cuttings one night), my kids know where I am (the front porch, always), my bank account is safe (until the need for a greenhouse becomes utterly overwhelming), and I have not caught any hideous, incurable diseases.

And all the while my house and garden wait, sighing gently, waiting for me to wake up, come to my senses, and start cherishing them once again.  And I will, I promise, I really will, very soon, but right now there is a hydrangea down on Thurman from which I have GOT to try to get a cutting, before the season ends.

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Plant Sale

Dig. Pot. Label. Dig. Pot. Label. Dig. Pot. Label.  Multiply by infinity.  In the snow.  In the rain.  In the wind.  Put sun plants in the sun (what sun?).  Put shade plants in the shade: anywhere is fine!  Oh, no, the temperature is going to drop into the teens for days.  Put plants inside, cover other plants with mulch, or Christmas tree branches.  Stack them up together.  Huddle!  Huddle!  Hide from the freezing cold.  The sun comes out, the year marches on, Valentine’s Day comes and goes.  We are safe.  Take the plants out of their hiding places, let them have some light and air.  Oh, no, more snow, more cold.  Too tired to hide them again.  Let them meet their fate.  How bad can it be?  Dump dead plants, save the soil, save the labels, save the pots, compost the plants.  Goodbye dead plants, there are so many more of you still here.  Dig. Pot. Label. Dig. Pot. Label. Dig. Pot. Label.  Don’t stop, there are more plants, always more plants.  Fill up the patio, fill up the driveway, fill up the other driveway.  More plants, more plants.  No, no stop potting.  Enough plants!  Not enough time.  Groom the plants, groom the plants.  Pull the weeds, snip the old foliage, check the labels.  Why does that foxglove say it is a black-eyed susan?  It is confused. Change the label.  No confusion allowed.  Oh, no, not enough time.  Stop the grooming, start the moving.  Put the plants in trays, put the trays in rows.  Keep moving the plants.  Grasses go here, shade plants go there.  No, no, the sun finally came out for an hour, the shade plants all wilted.  Move the shade plants, move the shade plants.  Put the shade plants in the shade.  That will keep the sun from ever coming out again.  Count the plants, all the plants.  Count the plants again, that can’t be right.  Phone for trucks.  Lots of trucks, many more trucks.  Help, please help, so many plants.  Load the plants, load the plants.  Wet plants, slippery plants.  Plants with no leaves because it has been cold and dark for so long.  Load them anyway, maybe the leaves will come out tomorrow when the sun shines.  Wave goodbye to all the plants.  See you tomorrow plants, you will find new homes tomorrow.  We don’t want you here anymore.  Please open your leaves, please show your flowers, we want you to find somewhere else to live.

Set the alarm.  Go to sleep.  Wake up.  Something got forgotten.  Go to sleep.  Wake up.  Something else got forgotten.  Write it down.  It will never get read, but write it down anyway.  Sometimes writing helps remembering.  So many lists, so many notes.  No time to read them.  Only write them.  Write notes on little pieces of paper.  Little pieces of paper are much easier to lose, so use lots of little pieces of paper.  Keep writing, never read.  Put all the notes in the same bag.  Do not read them, no time to read, just put them away.  Alarm goes off.  What a stupid time of day.  It is still dark.  How can we sell plants in the dark?  No one can see plants in the dark.  No one will buy plants they cannot see.  This was a bad idea, a very bad idea.  Get up. Guilt.  Shame.  Embarrassment.  Avoid these, show up.  Do what you said you would do.  How can we sell plants in the dark?  Eat seeds for breakfast.  And carbs, lots of carbs.  Snap at loved ones.  Push them out the door.  They wait while all the forgotten things get remembered/done/collected.  Rain.  Not much rain, just enough to keep everyone cold and clammy.  Good call, weather, discomfort for all.  Drive.  drive fast.  No one else is out.  No one else is awake.  Drive fast.  So much to do.  Arrive.  It is dark and wet.  Set up.  Set up again three feet to the south.  Hurry, hurry, they are coming, all the people to buy plants in the dark.  Unload the plants, so many plants, too many plants.  No time, no time to organize, no time to arrange them nicely.  Unload the trucks.  So many trucks.  The trucks keep coming.  Now the vegetables.  So many vegetables.  More vegetables than before.  More tables for vegetables.  Vegetables everywhere.  Who plants vegetables in the dark?  Oh, it isn’t dark anymore?  Light, rainy, cloudy but light.  People can see the plants.  They can see the vegetables.  It is almost time.  Put on the signs.  The tape does not stick.  Everything is wet.  Find a dry place, put tape there.  Yes, it is a corner that no one can see, but put it there.  It is almost time.  Are we ready?  No, but it is almost time.  Hurry, hurry.  No, you cannot come in until it is time.

Now it is time.  Come in, come in.  The rain stops,  the clouds get thinner.  The sky gets lighter.  People are shopping.  They have cardboard trays.  Cardboard only.  You cannot have the plastic trays.  Give that back.  Take plants, leave trays.  Shopping, shopping.  Questions, questions.  Take this plant.  You will love it, it will love you.  This plant will change your life.  You will change its life.  It is an orphan, please give it a home.  Answer questions, look at the sky.  Is that a bit of blue?  Everything is going to be O.K.  Relax, the weather is going to be O.K.  People shopping, answer questions, plants are going.  Then. RAIN.  People fleeing, people scurrying, leisurely shopping over, people running, not buying.  Bad, bad weather, but now at least we will know if there are any witches amongst us.  Any witches?  No witches.  No shoppers either.  Please stop, rain, please, please stop.  The rain stops, then starts, on and off all day.  People shop, but not as many, not enough.  Still so many plants.  Come take our plants.  We mark them down, we load up carts.  Take our plants.  We don’t want them any more.  We want your money instead.

Then it is over.  bring back the trucks.  Time to go home.  The sun comes out, it is lovely now.  It taunts us while we load the trucks.  The plants are so heavy, and there are too many of them.  Fewer but not enough fewer.  Curse you, sun, where were you when we needed you six hours ago?  Feet are hurting, legs are aching, backs are sore.  Just one more load, just one more box.  Time to drive home.  Plants in the road, unload the plants in the road.  Unload one more truck.  The sun disappears, it starts to hail while we unload the truck.  So then, it could have been worse after all.  At least that is something.  Unload the truck in the hail, but at least there was no hail during the sale, or snow, or swarms of locusts.  Perspective is important.  The truck is unloaded.  It is swept out.  The blankets are refolded.  It is ready to return.  Goodbye truck.  Please come back next year.  We cannot have the plant sale without you.  We would not be able to take our plants to it.  Goodbye.  Go inside.  Take off shoes.  Stretch out on the sofa.  Turn on the television.  Everything hurts.  Now everything is paralyzed.  It hurts to move.  It is almost impossible to move.  But must eat.  Want to eat.  Go to kitchen.  Bring food back to television, and eat.  Eat carbs.  Lots and lots of carbs.

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April 6, 2011


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Fizzy Heart

When I was in my teens and early twenties I would usually awaken in the morning literally trembling with excitement at all the glories that the unfolding day might bring.  At that age everything seems possible, even when it is not, and the choices seem endless and infinitely desirable.  Experience did not dampen this excitement for many years.  Bad things did happen to me, my heart was repeatedly broken, not only in the conventional sense, but also when I saw deliberate cruelty or ignorance or selfishness.  Yet even having experienced all those disappointments, the losses, the loneliness, and all my own shortcomings, I still awoke every morning to a day filled with limitless promise.  Perhaps it was optimism.  Perhaps, in that wonderful phrase, it was the triumph of hope over experience, but it was part of my life for many years.  Then, as time wore on, it disappeared.  I was alone for a number of years, with no safety net, and the responsibilities and endless obligations wore me down.  There are no killjoys like exhaustion and worry.  After that came children, which, while renewing a sense of joy and wonder, also come with their own special kind of exhaustion.  So, it had been many years since I truly felt ebullient on any regular basis.

Completely unexpectedly, however, one of the miracles of middle age is that the feeling of being overcome with hope,  joy and possibility has returned.  I no longer awaken to it.  My immediate feelings upon awakening are of gratitude that A. I have awakened at all and B. after all my recent eye troubles,  that I get to see for another day.  Those are both pretty joyous feelings, but I also awaken to many immediate responsibilities and it is several hours before I am free of those, and not always even then.  No, where hope and joy currently reside for me is no longer a time, it is now a place.  I find them in my garden, and so the time I get to experience these feelings is whenever I am able to go work outside.

As I work it is as though I am being filled with helium, or carbonation.  I feel little bubbles of pure joy around my heart, and I start to feel giddy and light-headed.  I feel such luck at being able to be absorbed in such an activity, and the feeling of such rapt absorption is ecstatic and transcendent.  I am engrossed with the myriad details of each plant in turn.  I am fascinated with leaves, flowers, root structure, the timing of each plant’s emergence from the soil, buds from bark, leaves from buds, flowers from sepals.  I plant each tiny plant, each one a bundle of little genetic switches which will take those abundant and commonplace materials, earth, air and water, and render them into visions of breathtaking beauty.  My peonies right now are shoots of pure garnet not even an inch high, but in my mind’s eye I see them as they will be in May and June (or, this tardy year, perhaps even July): amber stems, ruby-tipped foliage, and huge, tender pink cabbages opening to a tangle of golden stamens and a scent so rich and sweet that when I finally smell it again it will obliterate all other sensation for that instant.

And as I am engrossed in each plant I am surrounded by another layer of awareness and sensation.  I see the color of the clouds against the endlessly changing sky.  I hear the sounds the birds make and those changes as the day winds to a close and last minute adjustments are made to territory, food levels and the night’s roosting arrangements.  I feel the wind as it ebbs and flows against my face and body, gentle in the lee of the house or a tree, stronger and more insistent as I emerge into its direct path.  I smell the air scented with its journey from the ocean, across the mountains, against the conifers.  I am alone in my activity on this miraculous, incredible planet.  There are six (or is it seven by now?) billion other souls out there, but I am only dimly aware of them.  I can hear a little traffic noise above the soughing of the wind, I can see a few lights blink on in the valley, but no one disturbs my ecstatic communion with plants and soil, wind, air, light and sky.

My attention moves from plant to sky, plant to bird, plant to wind.  Gently I remove the layer of moss and liverwort from the surface of the minute Hosta ‘Tiny Tears’, then I tuck it gently into into its new home, which I hope will protect it from slugs, even one of which would utterly destroy it.  As I do so I hear the increasingly hysterical calling of the robins settling in for the night, testing numerous trees for their bedtime suitability.  I sift potting soil and grit around the exposed roots of the hosta and hear the ceaseless, convivial chatter of a flock of bush-tits at the suet feeder, one last infusion of high-density calories into their tiny, active bodies to make it through another night.  With one last burst of conversation they are off.  The sky steadily darkens, both with impending night and with deeper cloud-cover, the wind picks up as the front moves in, the sky is a complex fugue of gray and steel blue uncaptureable by either technology or art, and never seen before nor to be repeated in all of time.  I place the newly planted hosta, with its companion, on the stump where I hope they will be happy: sufficient light, but not too much sun, too rigorous a climb for the slugs, close to a path I often use so that I can see them often as they emerge from soil and unfurl their miniature leaves.

It is the problem of the chicken and the egg.  Do I garden because it gives me something to do while I experience outside, or do I love outside so much because it is where I garden?  Nature has always been my home and solace.  I don’t find gardening all that natural, but as I do it I experience a lot of nature.  I don’t choose to strap boards on my feet and slide down a snowy hillside, I don’t strap a lantern to my head and wander into caves (although I bet one of those lanterns would make me a phenomenal night-time slug-hunter).  I don’t affix bolts to sheer cliffs and winch myself up them.  I just hang out, with the wind and the rain and the birds and my plants.  Maybe the people who do all those other activities outside feel the same ecstasy I do, maybe they have other reasons.  I just feel very blessed to have rediscovered joy, in that place where we began, in the garden.

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