Gardening is revising

dahlia1I hadn’t really planned to garden on Saturday — I have been fantasizing about a day of decadent rest with books and a lightly spiked drink — but after Jimmy and I dropped Lydia off at 6:30am in the South End for the first leg of her trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Boston Children’s Chorus, I had a hankering for both dirt and improvement.

“How would you feel about a quick trip to Home Depot? I believe it opens at seven.”

“Sure,” said Jimmy, the driver.

By 7:30am, we had pots of sunflowers, flats of ground ivy, and one red dahlia, which I had to buy because, as I told Jimmy, “It’s alone, and it needs me.” It was the last dahlia in sight.

revision_sunflowers potsThe sunflowers that Lydia and I planted a few weeks ago never really took off. I blame the black landscaper’s cloth; I should have used the white cloth I used for my first folly. A few seedlings came up here and there but not enough to insure a burst of yellow in August. Instead of giving up and throwing down grass seed, I thought I’d help nature along and augment our few babies with some adolescent plants from the nursery.

revision_sunflowersBy 8:30am, they were planted in the two narrow rectangles in front of the house between the road and the town sidewalk. The dahlia doesn’t really fit, but she needs sun too, so I nestled her in with the sunflowers.

revision_afterAfter we had a coffee-and-dog break, Jimmy went back to Home Depot for some rolled sod, which was scheduled to arrive in the store at 11am. Meanwhile, I started digging up the area around my path to nowhere. The heavy rains mid-June had pounded away a lot of the grass seed, and the water also revealed some stones that had been too deeply set. They were enough below ground level that a huge puddle formed, about two inches deep and three feet in diameter. The birds were happy, but I didn’t make the path for it to become an occasional birdbath.

revision_pathAs I dug, I thought about writing and especially about revising. It can be very exciting when you jump into a new project full of energy and vision. The satisfaction of finishing a first draft — whether it’s a poem or a new flower bed — reflects a glow onto the work itself. For a while, the draft can shimmer in beauty simply by virtue of being done and having an existence outside the maker’s head. But then some time passes, whether days or weeks, and shimmer fades and the reality of the draft reveals itself. There are awkward phrases; there are gaps; and there are puddles that make only birds happy.

Jimmy returned with the sod, and he dug too. We got dirty, and the closer we got to getting done, the messier this revision became. I tossed rocks to the side as I came across them. We pulled up stray roots. I wondered of course why I was re-making a path to nowhere. The world doesn’t need it.

At one point Jimmy, noting my tight-lipped fatigue, suggested that we put the tools aside and get back to it next Sunday. I looked him in the eye and said, “We have to finish it today.”

revision_Jimmy sunflowers 250In the middle of revision, even though I enjoy having something to work with and puzzling over problems, it often starts to look worse before I can make it better. In such moments, it is tempting to put the hard work aside and fall in love with a new project. People say the blank page is scary, and it can be, but it’s also full of possibility: a screen I can project my hopes onto. In the middle of a revision, it’s easy to lose heart, because I can start to see what my poem or essay or sunflower folly or wandering path will not become.

And yet only by finishing it will it become something. So we dig, shovel, smooth. We finish, as well as we can.

It was a beautiful morning for nematodes

Sometimes I do these things just to do them. For example, I saw on MAKE this watering can made from an empty milk jug, and I had to make one simply because I could.

nematodes_sprinkleLast year my cheap plastic watering reached the point of battered beyond use, and I threw it away. I haven’t replaced it because it seems an unnecessary purchase. The hose will do.

But I had a sudden urgent need for a watering can: 10,000,000 beneficial nematodes (Steinerema feltiae) in our refrigerator that had to be applied to the lawn on a rainy day. Today was that day.

nematodes_fridgeWhat are nematodes? They are microscopic parasites that kill other parasites, namely the grubs in the dirt under our lawn. Those grubs grow up to be some kind of scarab beetle, and beetles eat the fibrous roots of turf grass.

A mournful violin tune could be played every July in my front yard after the bright green grass starts to die off and wither in patches. I’ve done the soil analysis, and we have applied compost and extra nitrogen. No matter how much we tend to it, the lawn gets sickly after its early summer burst. I don’t want to spread a toxic chemical like GrubX on it. That seems like a greater harm than good. Nematodes, purchased from Gardens Alive!, are benign to all organisms but for beetle grubs, into which they burrow and eat their guts out.

Plus, I have seen grubs while planting — their fat, white fetal bodies curled into a C shape, so visible against a scoop of dark soil.

This morning, the ground was wet, but there was a lull in the rain. Under Winston’s supervision, I made a watering can from an empty water jug: I heated the tip of a brad nail with a BIC® lighter and pierced the jug lid many times.

nematodes_punctureThen I mixed 5,000,000 nematodes with tap water I had already put into the jug. (After I used up the first solution, I came back and repeated the process with the other 5,000,000 nematodes for the other half of the front lawn.)

nematodes_mixtureWith my homemade watering can, I applied the water-and-nematode solution to the grass by shaking the jug and squeezing it a bit too.

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Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

Well-made path to nowhere

We’ve lived in our house since June 1999. In the backyard, under a huge Japanese maple, is a dry, packed-dirt patch that has defied the planting of grass and flowers. Because it’s a long and narrow strip that follows the length of my neighbor’s fence, it has always seemed to be a natural location for a stone path.

But paths should lead you to a spectacle or stopping place, and one planted there would only lead you to my neighbor’s gate, which is never used. These neighbors are homebodies — the indoor kind — and we never stand in our backyards talking or offering pies to each other or doing whatever friendly people divided by fences do.

The path idea, though, had planted itself in my mind. Several weeks ago I picked a Saturday and wrote on my calendar: rent roto tiller! With that, a project was set in motion.

It takes longer than a morning to make a path. The labor happened over a few weekends; as of yesterday afternoon (Sunday June 2nd), it’s done. Here is how it unfolded in 10 illustrations: nine photos and one movie.

1. Tilling begins.

1 Path

2. Tiller does its thing; man follows. (Note: this is 7-sec movie.)

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Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications

homemade seed marker

homemade seed marker

In the spring of 2009, I planted a sunflower folly in half of the front yard: link. It was a dramatic success. For me, it had been an experiment as well as a therapeutic act after I had experienced a major disappointment. In September, the growing season done, I was content with the results of my folly, documented them, and set the idea aside.

A month ago, as she watched me start the spring clean up, Lydia asked, “Can you do the sunflowers again? I loved that.” So here I go again, although on a smaller scale.

This time, instead of planting half the front lawn, we tilled up the barren strips that lie between the road and the town sidewalk. Sunflowers can grow anywhere, and the poor quality of this soil will not deter them. The flowers’ appearance will also delight passers-by and provide us with a visual screen.

Mail-order seed packets

Mail-order seed packets

Seeds were purchased from Burpee and Gurney’s. Because the planted area would be smaller, I only ordered six packages total, in a variety of colors and heights:

  • Elf: yellow, 14″ to 16″ stems (Burpee)
  • Sunspot: yellow, 2′ stems (Gurney’s)
  • Chianti Hybrid: burgundy with gold, 4′ to 5′ stems (Burpee)
  • Hybrid Double Shine: fuzzy orange, not many seeds, 5′ stemps (Gurney’s)
  • Coconut Ice Hybrid: white, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)
  • Solar Flare: flame red, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)

After tilling (thank you, Jimmy), Lydia raked and smoothed the dirt. I sprinkled on some foul-smelling fertilizer, and we used the eraser ends of pencils to make 1″ holes for planting the seeds.

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia came up with the planting scheme: tallest flowers in the sight line from our front windows, with shorter ones surrounding them. Her first proposal was that we “throw them down and let nature take its course,” but that was not enough of a scheme for me.

supplies: landscaper's cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

supplies: landscaper’s cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

This was quick work. After planting, I watered the dirt lightly, put down some landscaper’s cloth with big staples (I used black cloth this time because I could grab it at Home Depot, but wish I had the white that I mail-ordered and used for my first folly). I made some improvisatory seed markers with the seed envelopes, some gardening sticks, and binder clips. See above.

I drank espresso. Winston kept us company.

Winston, good company for gardeners

Winston, good company for gardeners

Official planting date: Monday, May 20. Stay tuned for progress reports.

—–

Previous posts on the Sunflower Folly of 2009, in chronological order:

  1. Sunflower folly: link (with full instructions)
  2. Sprouts: link (first sprouts, 13 days after planting seeds)
  3. First sunflower: link (first sunflower, 73 days after planting seeds)
  4. Habitat: link (folly as habitat for a wild rabbit)
  5. Harvest: link (sunflower harvest, four months after planting)

I try and try to understand. I study you for clues.

Winston is two years old, a poodle Shih Tzu mix, and a stray. Two days ago we adopted him from the MSPCA shelter in nearby Jamaica Plain. Besides a few health observations made by the shelter volunteers and veterinarian, those are the only facts we know about Winston, who was once named Saint. This is our first dog.

Winston_Grace

Winston and Grace

We study him for clues, trying to discern his “personality,” his preferences and fears, and even the unknowable: his family history. When Grace, Lydia, and I met him for the first time at the shelter, he brought to the bars of his pen a soft calico bone-shaped toy. We took that as a signal to play, as when a dog drops a stick or ball at your feet.  The first toy we bought him, once he was ours, was a soft fleece bone-shaped toy. He holds it in his mouth, brings it to us, but not to play catch, we’ve discovered. He doesn’t let it go; he doesn’t want us to tug at it.

Here comes Winston

Here comes Winston

We’ve discussed at length what this sign might mean. Lydia has deduced the fleece bone is a comfort object, like a child’s pacifier, and says, “I want to know what his life was like. I wish we had more information.” Jimmy, who came with us for the formal adoption visit, has observed Winston at home, and concludes that he was once well-cared for. Winston has some nice habits and deliberate gestures. We don’t know what they all mean yet, but we suspect they are part of a communication system he had with other people.

He’s just a dog, I know. Still our urge to know him — not as a blank slate but as a creature with a history and with an inner, coherent life — is strong.  We desire very much to understand him: through observation, but beyond it too.

Winston_shelter

First meeting: we belong together

Meanwhile, this week I am reading Joan Acocella’s profile in the New Yorker of psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips. He claims that our deepest urge is to be understood, and he finds this to be a fruitless urge and “our most violent form of nostalgia,” says Phillips. It is “a revival of our wish, as infants, to have our mother arrive the instant we cry out from pain or hunger,” explains Acocella.

I have wished to be known, to be deeply understood.  I am skeptical, however, about Phillips’s reasoning. It’s too Lacanian for my taste. Would we really spend our adult lives driven by desires established in infancy? That contradicts my common sense. (Or perhaps Lacan’s ideas confound my understanding. Also possible.)

My urge to be understood comes from my strong inclination and effort to understand others: Jimmy, my children, the members of my family of origin, my closest friends, and even the occasional colleague or student who intrigues me. This effort to understand — although conducted invisibly and silently — I give as a gift. I want the same one in return.

And maybe we are all doing this all the time: studying each other for clues. Or maybe this effort to understand others is gendered. Or maybe some people, like me, emphasize understanding in their relationships, and others emphasize problem-solving, favors, or action.

I do agree with Phillips that we would be better off in accepting our lives and stop always striving to fulfill its potential.  Good luck with that, though. I both aim for that and find it hard to do.

Winston faces the camera

Winston faces the camera

We do know we will never fully know Winston or get the facts on his family history. We are constructing a new narrative, and in doing so we are envisioning a previous one. We will assign logic and meaning to all the clues and believe at some point that we know our dog. But we will really only know the story we have made of him.

P.S. Yes, I know. He’s a dog. It’s my thoughts about him that interest me, which make me wonder about my thoughts about just about every person in my life.

Held in place by snow

The birdhouse, which came with the big tree on our property when we bought it in 1999, has no function. There has never been a bird in it. Once I saw a squirrel in it and another time a full triangle of pizza! I put the two together and deduced that the squirrel had stolen it from garbage and set it aside for later eating.

Snow_birdhouse

It seems banal to take a picture of a snowy birdhouse among snowy branches, but often the everyday items of our lives gain in resonance and beauty when they stand out, visually emphasized by the snow, which obliterates the background.

So much was blanked out in this Blizzard of ’13. Even my neighbors’ yard, which abuts ours, became softer and more lovely to look at in the snow. The dying cypress hedge punctuates the view, indicates where we end and they begin. Last summer, the dying cypress hedge, dried and brittle looking, was only an eyesore and the topic of repetitive unresolved conversations with the neighbors, who own the hedge and don’t want to cut the shrubs down. Isaac and Olga want to leave the hedge there and plant other things in front. Bamboo, for example. In the meantime, to get privacy from us, they have leaned old wooden pallets against the dying hedge and planted junk vines that they have draped on the dying branches. On our side, I have done no more than keep it clean and trimmed. A fence is called for, but expensive.

I imagine standing in their yard and looking past the dried, thinning cypress into my yard: big Japanese maple, recently painted house, no debris in yard. I feel proud — too proud — and resentful. Why do they get my work as a view and I have to look at their clutter as mine?

At one time, when the children were small and we had a swing set and less time for gardening, no doubt there were days of our clutter that they had to look at. Maybe they are more generous, or more clutter-loving, and could look past what was then our stuff and appreciate the activity.

When we meet them in the summer at the property line, they do comment on the children and reminisce about the times they watched them play. “What a nice family,” they say. We have been spied on kindly, I gather.

It’s not them I don’t like. In fact, on days when they set up all their white tables and borrowed chairs, I know their many friends are coming and that the yard will be filled with people visiting, talking, eating, and that the lovely sound of a chorus of voices in the outdoors dark will comfort me as I go to bed.

It’s like the sound of being a child and going to bed while one’s parents and their friends are in the living room or finished basement, playing cards and drinking cocktails and laughing. The sound of both mystery and safety.

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A tree grows in Brookline

On Saturday I went to Allandale Farm looking for end-of-season hostas. No luck in the perennial section. I wandered by the trees, though, and saw an Eastern Redbud, a good understory tree that I’ve been looking around to buy. This one was about eight feet tall and 50% off. I went home in my little Honda, got Jimmy, and drove back to the farm in the minivan.

The tree fit horizontally in the back of the van, with the hatch open. I rode in the middle seat, holding on to the pot and looking at the branches fluttering out the open back. Another car followed us until we turned, and it did feel like being a kid again and sitting in the way back of a station wagon with the window down. Why that constituted adventure, I’m not sure. But it did.

On Sunday I got the hole started, digging in a corner of our backyard where trees from the three other yards that join ours at that point send out their root system into our patch. I snapped at those suckers with a pruner as a I went. Jimmy returned from an errand and finished the digging and root pruning. It takes about an hour to dig a hole for a small tree.

Gardening is occasionally a fight with the earth, when I am bemoaning weather, shade, or soil conditions — or even neighbor conditions. For example, the folks on our western boundary have a long row of hemlocks affected by that persistent fungus epidemic, and all we can do is live with the showers of needles that are shed from those ailing trees.

On Sunday, however, I had the feeling of planting a tree as being an act of capitulation and acceptance. This is where I live, this is our tiny corner, and this is our dirt. Bringing a tree into the yard seemed like a re-commitment ceremony, a signal that I embrace everything my habitat is and everything it is not.

In my adult life, in my relationships with the people closest to me, and in the roughest times with them, it is often my feeling of having my feet on the ground and my life physically connected to other lives that has reminded me of my place on the Earth: what I’m about, and where I fit in.

I do have those fleeting fantasies of being untethered and not tied to people or property, to live the free-floating life. Like everything that floats, however, there is no shape, color, smell, sound, or weight to that. I picture that as me alone in space and not in a place. That is not adulthood; that’s nothing-hood.

As I was planting my tree — and I reserved the best task for myself, the back filling of the hole with dirt, the mulching, the water — I was contentedly renewing my alliance with the patch of ground I live on and the people I live on it with. This is the you I take care of. I will be here for a while.

And whether this is who I am by nature, or who I have become over time and long habit, does not matter.

—–
Thanks to Mary Schwartz for her suggestion of a title for this post, which is of course an homage to that wonderful novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

Weeding and thinking

The crabgrass is an invader. Not only has it staked its claim on various islands of the lawn, it has mingled with the flowers in the front yard too. What we call “weeds” is socially constructed, you know. Crabgrass is simply one kind of grass, equal to others, but we don’t like it, we can’t control it, so we think of it as a weed: undesirable and to be eradicated.

I’ll live with it on the lawn — and it only grows out front, where there’s sun — but I dislike crabgrass among the flowers I planted intentionally.


Weeding is good to do early in the day. It focuses the mind and then clears it. Was I procrastinating the semester prep I need to do when I put on my work shoes and gathered the bucket and tools? Yes. If one is putting off something else, though, it is good to at least accomplish another task. Recently I read that the highest-achieving people always do their most difficult work first. Ah, not me. I like a little puttering first, sort of like walking around the block before a run. The warm up, the loosening.

It is satisfying to grab the head of a clump of weeks, pry the dirt a bit from below, and then pull, feeling the roots of the weed pull back and my own gentle force eventually overcome their tenaciousness. Is this similar to the satisfaction dentists, doctors, and even aestheticians feel in their work with the human body? The organism resists; the professional — wilier, and with tools — overcomes. This may also lead to the despair that is sometimes felt in working with the human body, with nature in general: ultimately, its own force or fragility asserts itself and the counter force we apply fails. The river overflows the bank; the freckles proliferate; illness has its way; children grow and become themselves; we age.


Working with one’s hands — and typing does not feel like work with one’s hands, although hand writing does — focuses the mind on the task. There are a set of small decisions to make as well as continual adjustments. To any passerby, I probably look quite still as I weed, just my hands and fingers busy, but I inch my way down the front walk and my mind, meanwhile, buzzes with thought: about the flowers and which ones to plant again next year, about the fall tasks around the corner, about water and my access to an abundant amount of it, and about the burden and pleasure in owning a piece of the earth.

Eli once said it’s so weird that people can own property, a piece of the planet, and when you stop to think about it, he’s right. Surely, we have to live somewhere, but strange that only Jimmy and I have a claim on these particular 7,000 square feet of dirt in Brookline, Massachusetts. And how far down do our rights go? A foot? Down to the sewer and gas pipes? All the way to the center of the earth? I picture a cutaway view of my house on the earth’s crust and the massive sliver of geological layers on which we rest. And if I do own the sliver all the way to the planet’s core, do I also have responsibility for it?

The parts of life that touch me have this awesome responsibility: if I know about it, or am associated with it, I am implicated in its maintenance or outcome. To not take responsibility (and I don’t, always) is to make an active decision to *not* concern myself, to shut off that part of my brain or body that could act. I won’t help (though I could); I won’t care (though I do); I will leave this to someone else.

I’m not borrowing the rhetoric of the self-help movement to assert my need for “me time” (I hate that expression). Occasionally I have this dialog with myself because I am lazy or tired or even because I lose faith in myself.

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