The Garden of Little Sorrows

The morning brings an achecanstockphoto5109847

that moves around each day

A back, a knee, a shoulder –

knuckles swollen, as if I’d won the fight.

 

canstockphoto28605287I ramble along the path with a limp

and an unfortunately located bite from an insect

that was there before me

but as revenge, won’t be there after.

 

The plants I moved yesterdaycanstockphoto686458.jpg

slump over, too traumatized by the extra sun

to give a damn, but hungry for me,

the water god, to bring showers.

 

canstockphoto2491406The sun sears the back of my neck

medium rare with a tinge of pink.

It cares not for the creatures beneath its gaze,

for its sole purpose is to burn, burn, burn.

 

canstockphoto304055I bend down to catch another weed

and come eye level with the motor of a bumblebee

I once read that human odors aggravate bees

but I stink of sweat and they ignore me.

 

canstockphoto7496638I resist gravity and stand up

To witness the aerial acrobatics of Monarchs

Who have deigned to share their royal presence

I pay fealty with large stands of milkweed.

 

The gardening session is overcanstockphoto15362073

I put away the buckets of tools

Punch out for the day, they don’t pay overtime

And leave the manicured wilds to second shift.

Me Versus Nature

Spoiler Alert: Nature wins.

The Pale Murderer Cometh

Now that spring has arrived, I’m faced with an age-old question. What am I going to canstockphoto11157518murder this year? Thus far, six house spiders, two house centipedes, eight ants, an errant box elder bug, and just five minutes ago, a carpenter ant who decided startling the shit out of me by crawling on my keyboard was a good plan. It wasn’t.

I am a very conflicted person when it comes to creatures. I research the creatures I come across. I don’t know, I guess I try to understand them in the hopes I won’t shriek die, die, die while hitting them with the broom. House centipedes are fantastic hunters – they eat spiders. As much as I’d like to remember that, when I see one of them slither their way across the wall, my primal instinct takes over. Maybe at some point in human history that instinct was “Yum, snack”, but I tend to believe even cavemen pulverized those things with clubs while grunting orf, orf, orf (translation: die, die, die).

Furred and Feathered Jerks

canstockphoto20447169The rabbits have lopped off numerous tulips, leaving a trail of colorful petals across the yard. They don’t eat the flowers. They just nip them off, as if they’re a distraction from the real num-nums, the leaves. It makes me think that the rabbits in my yard are assholes.

As soon as I filled the planters with my desperate need for color canstockphoto16122084– geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds, the pots got dug out by the squirrels who a) forgot where the hell they buried their food stores last fall and b) just like a tasty nosh of fresh root.

canstockphoto20642408The house finches have taken over the old robin’s nest we forgot to remove in the fall and now they squabble outside my study window all day long. A young cardinal has taken over a feeder, choo-choo-chooing to let everyone else know it’s mine-mine-mine. A pair of Northern Harriers set up shop in the tree next door and for hours at a time, she shrieks at him to bring her food or get on with the mating, you lout.

It’s Self-Defense!

While I enjoy riding my high horse about a yard without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer, the downside is that I am outnumbered by the sheer quantity of creatures who would like to eat our food, live in our walls, dangle in front of our faces, snake out from under the dryer, wait for us in the shower, and in general, make us feel very uncomfortable in our living quarters. And it’s not even mosquito season yet.

canstockphoto12050597This is the first house I’ve lived in for any amount of time. Before, it was all apartments. They spray for bugs in apartments, hence the infrequency of encounters. We’ve never had our house sprayed for bugs. We’re classic DIY people who think vinegar is magic (it is, it is!) and try to follow environmental recommendations for pest control. Generally, Minnesota gets a good, cold killing season. Many of the critters are forced into retreat, marshaling their forces for the longer days of freaking out humans.

I love nature. When it’s outside. Well, not right outside. Maybe a restraining order’s distance. And I try to be respectful of life in general. There are several house spiders who reside in the corners of the kitchen. That’s fine. They eat gnats that show up when produce does. And occasionally, I talk to them. It’s when they crawl over the lip of my coffee mug that I completely lose my shit and become a serial killer.

I remember once reading about monks who walked carefully, lest they step on a creature on the ground. And I get it. I get the whole respect life, creatures have value, humans are really an invasive species thing. But critters outnumber us and if they ever develop longer life cycles, elevated thinking, and inter-species communication, we are all dead.

Your Honor, I’d like to present the first (and possibly only) piece of evidence for the Defense:canstockphoto7083768

Our client could have only reacted the way she did, in self-defense.

Your honor? Your honor?

But that was evidence sir! Why are you shrieking?

Judge: Excuse my outburst. Bailiff, please get an evidence bag for my gavel.

The Defense rests its case.

A Walk on the Wild Side

canstockphoto24627239I came in yesterday evening after digging and planting most of the afternoon, dark rings of sweat on my shirt, dirt ground into the knees of my jeans. My hands were stiff from the jarring strikes of shovel and hoe into sun-hardened clay. After a shower, I tried to sit and write. Every five minutes, I was hopping up to do one chore or another. Normally, I’d spot this as procrastinating behavior, chide myself and force myself to sit again. It’s something else, though.

With my computer crash of last week, I spent most of my days outside, sweating and filthy and in motion. My mind was free of distraction. When I work outside, nobody interrupts me, for fear of being conscripted into weeding. I can spend hours alone. I drink gallons of water, stop and watch a hawk overhead, startle voles in the brush pile, watch as a caterpillar makes its way up a tree trunk.

I live in an older suburb of the Twin Cities, surrounded by little ranch houses built in the late 1950’s. Every house looks the same – some shade of tan or white, desperate to look different with shutters or fences or yard lighting. We attempted this by ripping up the front lawn, piece by piece, and putting in perennial plants. We’re an irritant to our neighbors on one side, who alternately poison and water their lawn in rapid cycles through spring.

Our back lawn is a carpet of creeping charlie, dandelions, wild violets and thyme. The rabbits dine there at dusk. Last night, I watched four of them chase each other around our yard, or as it is known in the rabbit world, foreplay. This year, I’ve been fencing all our garden beds, in an attempt to actually have produce that we get to eat. The rabbits have fought back, leaving stubs of tulips, gallium and roses everywhere. Horny, long-eared vandals.

A hail storm that lasted all of ten minutes rained down on us late in the afternoon. Marble-sized hail bounced off the lawn and house in every direction. I could smell it before it arrived and pulled tools and gear into the garage just in time. My internal barometer worked, smelling the air before rain moved in, feeling the chill from a slight drop in temperature and pressure – it always makes me think of farmers who know when to come in from the fields and old ladies, whose bunions ache just before a rain. It’s a forgotten wildness, this abstract intuition of the physical world in which we reside.

I had forgotten over the winter, cuddled up to my devices and traversing between house and car and destination and home canstockphoto6411807again. I’d gotten wrapped up in issues that were beat to death online – that seem of finite importance when standing under a clear sky, with the sun warming my face. It only takes an hour or two in my backyard ecosystem to remind me that the world inside my study is but a sliver of life.

Sitting down at the keyboard after being outdoors makes me feel like a big, wild thing stabbing at keys in some funny meme or YouTube video. Look at the primitive try to type. Words all sound like incoherent grunting as I write, but I can hear crows cackling two blocks away and notice the stillness that suggests a light spring rain is on its way. It seems a tremendous bridge to cross – this wildness caged and sitting still, trying to funnel it all onto a cold, lifeless screen.

My mind wanders to the turkeys I startled while hiking at a regional park. There were five of them, one a male in full feathered regalia, trying to woo the others. Frogs were warbling away, in a Swamp’s Got Talent sing off. Purple martins and swallows crowd boxes to get the best spot, smacking into each other and fluttering away. The wind blew across the lake as herring gulls swooped overhead and Canada geese escorted their new fuzzy families along the water’s edge, squawking loud commands to goslings who dillydallied.

I think about writing as a state of being, once removed from life. It’s civilized, structured, a story playing out on a paper stage. I’ve often felt a distance from the life around me, too busy in my head building a narrative. I need that distance. Being an introspective introvert in a noisy world requires a buffer zone. Writing serves that purpose, allowing me to create order out of chaos, perspective out of ambiguities.

canstockphoto18451476Being outdoors is a different kind of bombardment. The immediacy of life all around grounds me in the moment. I’ve tried to write while I’m outdoors, but as I often joke with my walking buddies, I have nature ADD. There’s nothing I can do but breathe, listen, smell, observe. I am not me, with a long list of neuroses and adjectives. I just am, no more or less than the red-winged blackbirds that trill at me as I cross the marsh. The bit of wildness that remains within calls back. Me too! Me too!

Fertile Ground

canstockphoto15476528It’s gardening time. Be prepared for wheelbarrows of garden metaphors, analogies and similes to seed this blog for the next couple of months. With a side of compost.

The claustrophobia of winter has begun to dissipate. It’s too early to plant seeds outside in Minnesota, but the strawberries are poking through and the buds on the lilac bushes have begun to form. I got hit smack dab in the face by a meaty bug, likely disoriented and newly emerged from the thawing ground. While trimming raspberry canes and Concord grape vines, I stopped frequently, standing motionless, a stupid grin on my face, dirt on my knees and an overwhelming sense of relief.

Something happened to my brain during the sixth month of a moody winter. I haven’t been writing much, as each session culminates in a screw it and me storming off to do housework. I am almost through one of James Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s taken me weeks to work through. Last night I took a break and looked up definitions of the many words that I could not garner from context. I’m pretty sure I’ll be brain-dumping arras, cerements, and woodbegirt, but am excited to keep inanition: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor. It’s the perfect word to describe my affliction in March.

This morning, on what will be the first of many trips to Home Depot, I hauled bags of dirt. It all starts with the dirt. It’s nothing special. There’s lots of dead stuff in it. It’s messy and just lays there, waiting, ready. But a blank patch of dirt to a gardener is an opportunity and perhaps, a compulsion. Your brain registers the conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady, clay or sandy. It runs through the catalog of seed packets. What works? What doesn’t? Should it be an experiment? Or something that gets changed every year?

canstockphoto22961553It’s not too far a stretch to make this analogy work for just about anything. Writers often talk about that blank page as if it were something special. It’s just dirt. What we put into it is what makes the difference. So, this barren landscape, devoid of creativity, of ideas and of imagination is the place to start. Some ideas will never take hold, some will briefly raise their heads only to be wilted by a midday sun. Others, though, will put you on the path to meaning, substance and beauty.

canstockphoto5109847Beauty is such a subjective word. For all the reading and writing I did this winter, each round a pale imitation of the last, I was seeking beauty. Knowledge, depth, understanding – these are the aspects of beauty that resonate with me. But beauty in gardening is not just the end result. If that were all that gardening, and writing, were about, then I’d just buy flowers at the market or read other people’s books. It is in the labor of the thing. It is one’s part as a creator, one’s tangling with point of view and weeds. It is rough hands and raw thoughts. It is dirt under the fingernails and raging frustration of translating your story onto paper.

It’s wonderful – that dirt and that blank page. A garden or a story just waiting to be created.

canstockphoto23134509

Gratitude with Attitude

canstockphoto0446766I’m crawling out of a dark place to raise a hand in greeting. Hey, how’s it going? It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and we Americans are preparing to do what we do best: eating and shopping. Like locusts we descend on turkeys and retail stores, driven forward by the primitive urge to acquire. See what I mean about a dark place?

I have a tendency towards depression and cynicism during this time of year. All the family issues rise like dysfunctional zombies and remind us where we’re lacking. While people constantly talk and write and proselytize about our dubious consumerism, somebody will still be trampled on Black Friday and grown women will roll about on the ground fighting over the latest electronic device. Arrests will be made.

So I really have to reach deep to import some meaning to this day that redeems it. Thanksgiving, stripped of its religiosity and consumer feeding frenzy, can simply be a thank you for the bountiful harvest we have seen this autumn. And it turns out, you don’t need to spend it with family you don’t voluntarily see any other time of the year. Meals can generally be pleasant times and no one gets arrested.

Thanksgiving dinner is comprised of all my favorite foods. I’ve spent a good portion of my life thinking about food and in the last decade or so, about where it comes from, how it impacts my health and how it impacts the planet. We have so many choices in this country that one learns to tune out the “latest studies” or arguments about organic and GMO foods. Now, not only do I have to fend off emotional eating, but I’m supposed to quiet the political arguments in my head about the right thing to do.

I have raised a child who is a self-declared vegetarian with aspirations to be an ecologist. She has entered an irritating stage of self-righteous zeal. Be careful what you wish for as a parent. Nothing like having a 9-year-old staring balefully at you across the table while you hungrily chomp on a chicken breast. She’s a better human than her father or I, but unfortunately she now knows it.

Many of our meal discussions revolve around where food comes from, how it is harvested and whether or not it’s the best choice for a human body. We have a garden and have spent hours planning, planting and picking. During the dead of every winter, I fantasize over seed catalogs. It used to be a simple pleasure, but now, it too has become an internal argument.

Seed sourcing, preservation and control has become a rather intense issue, as seeds get modified, patented and sued over by behemoth corporations. There are people all over the U.S. doing their best to preserve unique varieties and heirloom seeds, while the majority of food is sourced from more and more homogeneous crops, owned by a handful of multinational corporations.

Humans and the planet benefit from biodiversity. Between the meteoric rise in allergies and obesity and the fact that 75% of our food supply is sourced from 12 plants, there’s a lesson in there somewhere. The dystopian future has arrived.

So here is my gratitude for this day: we can still choose not to go blithely into that dark night. We have the opportunity to pay attention, to educate ourselves, to teach our children about what is quickly going to be known as the “old-fashioned” way of growing food. There are few pleasures greater than the first bite into a garden grown tomato or watching your child happily pick raspberries off the canes, eating them as fast as they are being plucked. Connections – that is what holidays are about, even when you’re just talking about the bounty before you.

I generally don’t do promotions or book reviews or guest posting on this blog. It’s just a personal preference. I’m making a Thanksgiving exception for a blogging friend of mine, S. Smith. The third book in her Seed Savers series, “Heirloom” was just released. Seed Savers is written for middle school kids, although my elementary student really enjoyed her first two books and is just starting the third. It is my privilege to be part of her blog tour.

Seed Savers is about a future where gardening and saving seeds is against the law. The majority of people have forgotten what it was like to eat fresh produce. An underground movement seeks to preserve and pass on the seeds and gardening skills to future generations. It’s a fabulous adventure story for kids with a lesson (bonus for parents!).

treasure thumbnail 2lilythumbnailCover Design by Aileen Smith

Happy Thanksgiving from The Green Study!

Leave Us the Birds and the Bees

canstockphoto1628056There are so many things to be outraged by, but I try to find some eventual, rational stance. Just don’t talk to me about your perfectly manicured lawn, with the little sign on it that says pets and children should stay off of it for the next 24 hours. Yes, my neighbor. I’m talking about you.

I like to stroll about my front and back yards in the morning. Morning dew makes my feet wet and cold. Rabbits dart by, startled by my intrusion on their breakfast nibbling.  The catmint, heavy with condensation, is bent over into the sunlight, where a bumblebee buzzes its way through the task of collecting pollen.

A robin dive bombs my head, causing tea to slosh over the sides of the cup from which I’ve been leisurely sipping. The robin is on guard – its babies are on the ground, flapping their fledgling wings, trying for the holy grail of air time. I see at the edge of our eave, that a wasp is building a nest. We won’t disturb it – it’s out of the path of normal traffic and wasps eat or paralyze a lot of pest insects. They serve a purpose as well.

canstockphoto4150081It’s an urban ecosystem that supports a great deal of life – from the small mammals to an astonishing range of birds. The Twin Cities is marvelous for its green spaces, although with urban sprawl, those green spaces are getting smaller and smaller. Deer and coyote are being spotted in places they’ve never been before. Their instinct for survival deems that they cross paths with humans and their manicured lawns.

Thus far, we’re the only lawn in the neighborhood that is more perennial plants than grass. We have been developing this garden for the last 8 or 9 years. It’s finally starting to fill in, but we did it the hard way – ripping up grass as we put in various beds. The easy (albeit expensive) way is to have a landscaping company come in a pull up the whole thing, to start with a blank slate. I’m a do-it-myself kind of person, though and doing it bit by bit suits my temperament.

canstockphoto1938554 I gave up the fight, long ago, to defend our plants and vegetables against the animals that reside in and visit our yard. We share. The racoons and squirrels eat themselves giddy on our Concord grape vines in the fall. The rabbits taste test everything, often settling on the clover and dandelions for a main course. Chipmunks, their cheeks expanded to hilarious proportions, collect stray birdseed from under the feeders.

If I sit still and listen, there is a constant buzz of life. I am cautious of the bees and wasps, but rarely afraid. I like to imagine that they understand I am the gardener. Bumblebees and honeybees and black potter wasps go about their business and I go about mine.

Perhaps it is the fact that I lived for many years without a yard that I wax rhapsodical over flora and fauna. I marvel that only a few minutes kneeling in the dirt centers and calms me. From where I see so much life, I look next door and see nothing, except a long span of green, evenly cut grass, aesthetically appealing, but ultimately uninteresting. And at what cost?

Lawns in the U.S. were initially established by the wealthy, seeking to mimic English gardens. In the 1950s, with the creation of suburbs, they became the standard. Most lawns contain a single species of plant, cutting down on biodiversity. Lawns require quite a bit of water to establish and maintain. 50-70% of residential water is used for landscaping, most of which is for lawns. And finally, pesticides and chemicals used to maintain lawns in this country outpace agriculture in their usage per acre.

A conservative estimate is that 67 million birds a year are killed by exposure to pesticides. A lot of practices have changed and many synthetic chemicals have been pulled from the market, but the damage is still staggeringly high. And then we get to the bees, about which Snoring Dog Studio just wrote. Recently, in Oregon, 25,000 bees died as a result of insecticide usage on trees around a Target parking lot.

Beyond the science, which is often disputed, I find the pathological need to maintain a rectangle or square of green grass to be kind of weird. I never see people sprawled out on their lawns, luxuriating in the field of monochrome green. It’s a sedentary approach to nature, something that is looked at out the front window. That somehow we are not part of it. This severe disconnect is a dangerous attitude to cultivate in a time of dwindling resources and steamrolling population growth.

On occasion, when I sit at my keyboard a mite too long or spend too much time on indoor activities, I feel that sense of disconnect. It all becomes “out there”.  Then it’s time to become wild again, to enter a world that never noticed my absence, that does not acknowledge my presence as anything less than natural.

Reading for Nature Lovers:

Reading for Gardeners: