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).

Everywhere you go, there’s a habitat

I am working at home today. As a break, I thought I’d complete a fix-up of our old garage door. I went to screw on the new weather stripping and noticed that the handle to the pull-up door is rusted and bent.

After I found what I wanted at the local Home Depot and paid for it, I couldn’t help wandering over to the Garden Department. I hovered around the on-sale perennials (two for $10), and I noticed this creature hovering around the butterfly bush, as it should.

The fall annuals, especially mums, are getting star billing at all the nurseries and garden centers right now, but try not to let your head get turned. Walk to the back of the store, where you’ll find some drooping and over-sunned perennials deeply discounted. It’s the perfect time to plant them. I bought two sets of 4 each (hosta and phlox), violating the rule of Plant in Threes, I know, but they were each the last of the batches, and I could not leave them lonely.

I like digging things into the ground now because it gives me a sense of anticipation for the spring. There will be a long period of darkness and rest in which I’ll forget about the new additions to the yard and then, come May, voilà. There they will be.

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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Looking for signs of meaning where perhaps there are none

When I walk or run around the neighborhood and spot an unkempt yard — knee high grass, fallen branches, no blooms, shapeless bushes, ripped screens, tree branches hanging heavy on the roof — I wonder if either the very old or the very sad live there.

What do the unfamiliar passers-by make of my robust crop of crabgrass in an otherwise tended yard? I hope they think I’m very organic.

Earlier today Grace was puttering around with the camera, taking pictures of things she was on the verge of throwing away. This is my coping strategy, to make it easy to discard things that have sentimental value. The digital camera can help us hold on to them, even after the shoes, artwork, or unmatched dishes are gone to Goodwill or a landfill.

I poked my head out the front door and said to her, “Please take me an artful photograph of crabgrass for my blog.” Here’s one she offered.

What does my crabgrass means to me? I can only do so much; herein lies my limit. If you want trees and flowers, please look past my grass.

A magical place where coffee grows on trees

This magical place exists not too far away, in Milton, MA, where my sister Sally lives and where she spotted this perfect blue cup hanging from a tree. Sally sent a picture my way. The next day, walking the same route, the cup was still there. Later it disappeared.

There is a place in my brain activated by the word “coffee,” by the implements of coffee, and by the thing itself. If you’re my friend and you like coffee (James or Marcia, for example), then I like you extra. Siblings, you too.

Every coffee story or image reminds me of another one. Recently in one of my early classes, I got to the lab  right on time, 9 a.m.  It’s a big enough class that several other instructors are involved, and one of them is in the habit of stopping at Dunkin Donuts on the way in and buying munchkins to share and a coffee for himself. On this particular morning, I hadn’t had time to get my own coffee, and I felt forlorn, although I did fake a good coffee alertness face. And yet my eyes kept tracking the movement of Phil’s giant iced coffee around the room. I was like a dog who perks up when people food is about to be served: ears pointed, nose twitching, eyes wide.

The coffee-bearer offered the box of doughnut holes around, one instructor at a time. He reached me. “Do you want one?” he asked.

“Actually, I’ve been eying your coffee,” I admitted, perhaps panting a little.

“Oh, by all means have some!” he said enthusiastically.

I got a cup from near the wash-up sink. I held it out to him; he took the top off his plastic cup and poured. I was happy — it had not been hard to get what I wanted. I drank.

An hour passed as student teams worked on their projects, and instructors hovered around helping and prompting. I kept my eye on Phil’s iced coffee and noticed that half remained, with ice still bobbing in it. Want more? he signaled by pointing at the cup.

I nodded. He walked over and refilled my cup. “You’re like my dealer,” I said and smiled. He laughed.

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Image by Sally Kokernak Millwood, found April 10, 2012 in Milton, MA. Thanks, sis!