Slow to start, but strong finish

I was recently describing myself to a new acquaintance as a slow starter who picks up speed in the middle and then finishes strong.

If only the starting gesture didn’t have months and months or years and years of a pre-thinking, getting-ready time.

Several birthdays or Mother’s Days ago, my mother gave me a wall garden planter from a potter that, by now, may not longer exist. (I can’t find it on the Web.) It sat on a garage shelf, in a box on which I had marked “Wall Garden,” since that day, yet with very good intentions. A few weeks ago, I took it off that shelf and moved it to the on-deck position: on a small bench near a bucket of hand tools near the garage door.

Today was the day. I bought the plants, soaked the moss, and pressed the plants into the soil in the dish. Watered, it’s horizontal and in a sunny spot, settling into the planter before I hang it up. The recommended time is two weeks. I’ve already identified the spot.

Is there a lesson? For me: don’t over-think the small, low stakes projects. For you, if you know me: be patient; I do appreciate your gifts, and I will implement them all (and mine, too!) in good time.

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Plant list: Sempervivum ‘Red Rubin’ (hens & chicks), Sedum hispanicum (stone crop), Sedum spurium ‘Fuldaglut’ (stone crop), and Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ (stone crop) — all from Allandale Farm

That’s why they pay us

photoLast year I bought the materials needed to repair the concrete around our bulkhead that is crumbling in a few places. I suspect this is a back-door entrance for mice into our house. I then threw a blue tarp over the bulkhead, weighed it down with a few old bricks, and procrastinated the task for several months. Yesterday, I re-started.

This morning I went into the backyard to inspect if the first layer of Quikrete® had dried. I kneeled and touched it. My peripheral vision noticed the immobile, five-inch long slug, and I jumped up, disgusted. I stood back; I stared at and then photographed it. (Note: you can click on the image and see the full-sized beauty.)

I was both fascinated and repelled. I remembered some work I did the summer before college, when I took on lots of odd jobs to make money: child care, house painting, and landscaping. Neighbors hired me to clean out and mulch under their deck, which was built only about three feet off the ground, so I had to crawl on my hands and knees in that dark wet space for hours. Enough light seeped through the spaces between floorboards and lattice on the sides that I could spot broken cement blocks that had been discarded there, and I spread around huge double handfuls, one after another, of the spruce mulch. Occasionally under my dungareed knees I felt a pop. Only when I got out to the light did I see the mucus-y smear and realize how many slugs I was sharing the space with. I forced myself to finish the job, shuddering when I felt the pop and pressing on. I liked the smell of mulch — still do — and had my pride to consider.

This is what work is sometimes, isn’t it? We accept the big task with enthusiasm or at least willingness, and then the hours and days present us with the actual nature of the work: the dirt, bent back, slug slime, and belief that we were made for better things or at least great praise and compensation for our dedicated labor. All work has some of this, even art. I don’t love everything I do, and I don’t believe that old lie: Do what you love, the money will follow it. But I am satisfied when the mulch has been laid down and the broken bricks thrown out. I can at least say, “Someone had to do it, and that person was me.”

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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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.

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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)

Trick leaf

When I first spotted this leaf it was dusk. The dimness of the light hid the filaments holding it in place.

A few days later, the leaf still levitates, the spider web holding fast. Only a good strong wind or the brush of a human hand will dislodge it.

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Photograph by Jimmy Guterman, who said upon emailing the .jpg to me: “It takes a village to make your blog.” I like that.

Time of the season

An MIT friend/colleague posted this on her Facebook page:

This week: 22 student meetings (30 minutes each), 12 student presentations to watch and grade, rehearsal for panel talk, planning meeting for IAP workshop, go to conference, give talk, come home… By next Monday I expect to be a shambling, drooling zombie.

Her capsule summary of her week prompted me to print out my Google calendar and annotate it with things I needed to get done the evenings ahead of actual student meetings, deadlines, a rehearsal, a lecture. Last night I left it laid out on the dining room table. This morning it greeted me. I added the coffee.

All those cross-outs on my To Do list on the left, obviously a good thing, explains my absence from blogging. There are especially a lot of drafts to review, and in the bits of free time left over I find myself wanting to read (The Heart Broke In, by James Meek — so good), not write, or go outside instead.

Outside the windows and along the route to work, the trees are changing and getting ready to drop their garments. Watching the big Japanese maple in the backyard, which we can see outside the south-facing windows on the second floor of our house, involves the holding of one’s mental breath. The leaf color turns and turns and turns, the leaf stems continue to cling to the branches as though hanging from their fingertips, a few let go and fall, and one day soon — poof! — the rest will fall, blanketing the grass in a big crimson carpet.

This is autumn: school burdens and tensions and the lead up to the holidays, while nature relaxes. I find myself wishing for the bottom of the To Do list to be reached, quickly, and simultaneously studying the unfolding of the season.

This is autumn too: leaves to rake, fallen branches to pick up, annuals to compost, and small and noticeable steps of progress and pleasure in one’s students (and children!).

We can, at once, be getting things done and in the moment. I do not think life can be lived entirely one way or the other.

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The title is of course an homage to the Zombies 1968 song, “Time of the Season.” I associate this with my brother Michael, who was one of the influential disc jockeys of my childhood. This 45 got a lot of play on my parents’ record player.

A pumpkin for Elsa Woodbury, d. 1924

Chores to do. Walk to take. We took a break from one and went on the other. Jimmy was enthusiastic, but I had to promise the reluctant Grace that when we hit 20 minutes we’d think about turning around.

Heading to Allandale Farm, we cut through the beautiful Walnut Hills Cemetery.  There are enough paths and gentle hills to make it a decent walk, which we’ve done many times. I thought I had seen all the gravestones of interest. Today this knee-high marker caught my eye for the first time; the small pumpkin at its foot was a beacon.

Infants died for many reasons in 1924, as Elsa Woodbury did at only one day old. The mystery is who is bringing a pumpkin to her grave 88 years after her death. No doubt her parents are dead. Grace speculated that a living, younger sibling could have done it. I wondered about a niece or nephew. Somehow, though, the memory of sweet little Elsa remained powerful enough in a family’s collective mythology that she would get a pumpkin for Halloween, the only one we noticed, by the way, in the cemetery today.

Does anyone else have a story idea for this find?

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Photograph by Grace Guterman, at my request.

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.

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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).