Sunday, August 30, 2009
As the luxurious lethargy of the hottest summer I can remember in the Pacific Northwest abates, and cool, even chilly, mornings spill into the Snoqualmie Valley, I pick up speed, the speed needed for the harvest. Yet closing the windows for the first time in months also breeds a melancholy, a child’s melancholy after being told to come in after a day of play. When I was a child I’d react to my mother’s calls by running away and hiding behind the neighbor’s garage. This cooling down, this turning inward also spawns reaction in me.
And reaction’s what we need. Spring was so active tilling the soil, choosing and planting seed, setting things in motion with a nudge or a shove. Now the table has turned and the Victoria plums, losing their chalky blue bloom as they ripen to near black, nudge back, beg to be harvested. I could see them from the living room window where I sat most of the morning with a cup of tea and the New York Times spread around me like blankets and pillows. If I don’t react to their ripening in the next few days they’ll be lost. It is the cucumbers and beans that shove though. I could not see them from the sofa, but their readiness lodged in my mind yesterday evening as I surveyed the looming harvest. Hopefully the chill instills some lethargy into them in the next few days, so I can focus on the cabbage. Ah, benign cabbage, slow fruit-less cabbage, they hang like slackers around the garden neither nudging nor shoving. They are the act of patience manifest. Unlike the zucchini with their constant impatient call, “Harvest me before I’m too big to budge.” Why did we plant so much zucchini? Why were we so proactive this spring? Why hadn’t we taken into account these cool days when we would rather be wistfully verbal, than agrarian?
Years ago I cracked open a fortune cookie that changed my life. I’ll admit I’m vulnerable to sooth saying and fortune telling, whether it comes from a line across my hand, or a star transversing the great black vault of night. Of all the silly wisdom I’ve garnered over the years from Ouiji boards, tarot cards or Rob Brezsney’s “Freewill Astrology”, the advice which stuck the hardest was in a fortune cookie. “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it,” is what the slip of white paper dusted with crumbs advised.
“ Uh-oh,” I said in mock horror.
My friend, Susan, who I was dining with at Eddie’s Chinese Food on Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee, raised her brows knowingly, silently. This silence, from someone who had a verbal response to everything, lodged the omen into my 19 year old mind. I was a disco-dancing, drug-addled sycophant at the time, prone to poses and pleasure. More arsty-fartsy than artist. In a constant reactionary state to my “farmy” family and home state, Wisconsin.
In the 80’s a down in the dumps Wisconsin created a promotional slogan to draw visitors, perhaps even new inhabitants or new businesses. It was simple and direct, like Wisconsinites. It read: “Escape to Wisconsin”. Quickly, mutilated bumper stickers appeared everywhere reading “Escape Wisconsin” In the following years as I watched my friends leave Milwaukee one after another for New york, or at least Chicago --one even went to Mexico City , another to Stockholm--, I realized, I, too, would have to leave the Holstein upholstered landscape of Wisconsin. So I applied myself to my studies both in art and botany, and it was the botany that got me out. My travels lead me from St. Louis, where I continued my botanical studies, began my gardening career and received acclaim as a collagist, to Koeln (Cologne) Germany, where I bar-tended, and apprenticed with the florist Heiko Kalitowitsch.
When I was still in those formative years before puberty I had made a wish. No, it was actually more of a proclamation: “I’m going to live on a farm in a swamp when I grow I up.” My family laughed, of course. I still had all my boyish ideals intact. Frog and snake hunting, mucky soakers and being somewhere no one else wanted to be was all that was important to me. Well I lost sight of that goal, probably rightly so. I needed to learn a little bit more about life before I made such a dramatic choice.
But the choice finally came three years ago, when Michael asked me to live with him. I fought at first. “I don’t want a farm. It’s too much work,” I protested. “I don’t want to live in a flood plain. It’s too much work,” I whined. Yet maybe my childhood wish was finally seeking fulfillment. So I moved to the swamp I had wished for so many years ago. From where I landed all my other arrogant strivings and pretenses seem like mere reactions.
It is strange how fast a summer goes and how slowly wishes are fulfilled. When I planted cabbage seedlings in spring in our rich bottom land soil, their floppy waxy blue leaves seemed so hopelessly vulnerable to the early heat and drought. I never thought they would make it. But today, as the sun burns off the chilly fog and the lethargy of Sunday morning, kicking me into a gear that I can only call “High Speed” as if I were a Waring blender I plan to make sour kraut, pick beans,cucumbers, and plums. Maybe I’ll even take a bike ride through this valley I share with beavers, farmers and Holsteins.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I love reading, maybe even more than gardening.
I don’t do enough of it. I rue my youth, when I was “lazy” and “ literary” and only had the compulsion to pick up another book after finishing one.
Now, I seem to buy more books than I read, thanks to Alibris making it so easy to access numerous independent booksellers across the country. I almost always find what I’m looking for at a decent price. How can I resist? Is it passion or compulsion? I think the latter as I order yet another book, that I am not sure I will find the time to read. They pile up in my office, like the numerous trees still in pots in the nursery.
I rarely get caught up in the shimmer of the little screens, TV or internet. I love the sensual pagey-ness of a book, which was programmed into me so many years ago. I am a slow reader, that mythical reader who reads every word. I wish I weren’t, maybe then I could get through all those books I buy. I almost crave a prolonged illness confining me to bed and books. Fortunately my strong constitution does not allow this. But despite all the constraints of time, mostly manufactured by me, I read and read and read.
I would like to share with you, dear readers, what I’ve been reading. A sort of book report, not reviews. I’ve included pictures of the covers, because although I believe a book cannot be judged by it, as the axiom goes, I love book covers and they say a lot, though sometimes deceivingly so. When I went to my shelves to pull the seven books I’ve read since February, I realized though there was a very horticultural theme that runs through them all they are very different books. From the wisely sentimental The Florist Daughter to the imaginatively philosophical Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. From the playfully historic romp of Beans to the personal history of Wildwood. These writers’ responses to the green world though sometimes overlapping were actually quite different.
This list does not include all the reference books I use throughout the first half of the year for pruning and planting information, nor while researching for my column in “Garden Notes”, nor bird and wild flower guidebooks I use. Literally thousands of books go through my hands each year in my constant search and research.
Here are my seven favorites from the first half of this year:
The Florist Daughter, Patricia Hampl
I love Patricia Hampl’s voice, intimate and expansive, loose yet concise. This memoir is the story of her parents, St. Paul, immigrants, class and the floral industry, and of course Patricia herself. This amazingly “ordinary” story, as Ms. Hampl calls it, is at once eloquent and thoughtful, funny and fumbling. Everything you could want in a friend. Her book actually reads like a long letter from a friend , who has paused half-way to access her life. I dare you to read this and not step back and start accessing your own life. And that of your family, city , ancestry and culture. If you can only read one chapter read about her adventure in cake baking, and the sugaring of lilac flowers.
BEANS: A History, Ken Albala
BEANS is a lovely work of history with recipes. This maligned fruit that “ toots” is given such a loving and thorough treatment by Mr. Albala it will make you want to make a pot of chili or at least plant green beans. I was amazed to discover how important the humble legume was to every culture on earth, and how often frowned upon and used to separate classes. As Charlie Palmer says it’s “ an instructional book that reads like a novel.” A real pot boiler I might add. The chapter on lentils alone will tell you more about the history of humanity than you learned in any high school history class.
The Passionate Gardener, Rudolf Borchardt
Borchardt was a philosopher, poet, novelist and gardener. This book published in 1938 is not only a treatise but also a homage to gardens, gardeners and the green world. His writing has a wonderful 19th century quality to it, presenting his thoughts with rich imagery, and gracefully long sentences. A perfectly slow read for a slow reader, filled with gold. I will definitely reread this one. I know I didn’t catch it all the first time. Every gardener should read the chapter “The Wild Flower and the Cultivated Plant”. Elucidating.
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison
This is a truly philosophical exploration of real and imaginary gardens throughout human history. From Eden to Harrison’s garden on the campus of Stanford University, this book covers a lot of ground, no pun intended and opens territory I’ve never considered. Bright new thinking appears on every page. The chapter “ Eve” is absolutely revolutionary in it’s thoughts on why we left Eden. Though this book is not necessarily an easy read, I highly recommend the chapter “The Vocation of Care” to all literate gardeners. Finally some perspective, from this book which had the most profound effect on me this year.
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin
Deakin is England’s equivalent to Annie Dillard. Though I have just begun this book I find it hard not to include it on my list. His slow walk through the wooded world is hypnotically personal. He takes you into himself and then out into the world with him. A perceptive man to whom a pencil is as much a wonder as an expansive starry sky.
As a reader I am not only prone to education, research or philosophical enquiry. I also read for fun. One of my guiltiest pleasures is the English gothic romance writer Daphne du Maurier I recently found a copy of Kiss Me Again, Stranger at a thrift store. It includes “The Birds”, the story the inspired the Hitchcock film yet much scarier and a wonderful story about a haunted apple tree called “The Apple Tree”. What I like about du Maurier besides her incredible control of the English language is her ability to invoke the beauty and horror of the natural world. I have no problem calling her a dime store sublime, and though I read her with fervor at times, I would never carry her on a plane, or into a cafe. She is reserved for bed time reading on rainy or gusty nights and rightly so. Another great thrift store find was a Modern Library collection of the tales of Grimm and Andersen. The inclusion of such obscure tales as “The Singing Bone” and “The Salad” are proof that these are not just for children and far from the Disney versions we were brought up on. Creepy, unhappy and downright weird. I get a kick out of these teaching stories of yore.
Then there is the New York Times, which Michael thought he might save from extinction by buying a subscription (only the Sunday Edition). What a monstrous delight and luxury to spend Sunday morning fishing out the most interesting articles to read. I could never read the whole thing. I remember a prison architect I dated way too many years ago who broke up with me because I didn’t read the newspaper. I guessed I wasn‘t educated enough, or informed enough. I was much busier then, as now, with aesthetics than politics. I actually believe politics could use some aesthetics, and I’m not talking graphics. Finally after 30 years I am reading the Sunday paper on a weekly basis. I realized maybe why he broke up with me wasn’t for “political vs aesthetic” reasons, or that I was uninformed, but because I couldn’t sit still and enjoy a languorous Sunday morning pouring over the New York Times, to which this prison architect subscribed, and a cup of coffee, I didn’t drink coffee either. It was just a bad fit and the newspaper excuse was the only way he could describe it. I guess I would have liked him better if he was reading Virginia Woolf.
I also read blogs, less so now that summer is here and I’m outside for hours on end. I will be writing a post on my favorite blogs in the coming weeks.
Writing is sort of reading in reverse. Or is reading writing in reverse? At least I have to reread what I wrote before I rewrite it. What a tangled web we weave. And read.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
As I flew from Chicago to Green Bay, Wisconsin over a week ago, I sat next to a businessman and rancher from Austin, Texas. The safe topic of weather came up. I hadn’t realized the West Texans were without rain for the past 18 months. He seemed worried as he told of friends’ wells running dry, of having to buy and truck in water and hay to keep their stock alive. When we were about half way up the coast of Lake Michigan, just over Sheboygan, he broke from the conversation and looked out the window at the vast expanse of blue.
“Is that fresh water?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
The wistful look on his face could not hide the gears of a businessman inside. Was he dreaming or scheming? Certainly he was craving just a sip of that vast watery landscape.
When I finally reached Iron River, Michigan, and my parents’ farm, I relayed this conversation to my mother who grew up in Texas and always has a deep affection for the place. But she has lived the latter three-quarters of her life near the Great Lakes, so she became defensive, telling me Canada and the U.S. had made a pact not to sell the waters of the Great Lakes. Already years ago there was plans to build an underground canal to bring the abundant waters of the Upper Midwest to the arid Southwest.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is suffering it’s own drought this year. Yet on the first morning when we woke the dew was so heavy our shoes were immediately wet when we stepped into the grass. A baffling sweetness filled the air.
“ Sweet like flowers,” my mother said, though the nearest flowers were the scalding red zinnias around the front porch.
Then we looked down to the clover pocked lawn.
“ Maybe it’s the clover,” I said, though it seemed the scent was much grander than what those little white flowered weeds could emit.
The dry weather had been good for haying and the fields had just been mown, the hay rolled. But the sweetness was beyond fresh cut hay or clover. Was it the smell of August? The nearly sub-alpine quality of the air at my parents’ farm, which my mother always jokingly calls “ Windy Acres”, was astir with breezes as usual, transporting the sweetness and disguising its source.
I thought how wonderful this sweetness must have seemed to early people who did not live in the soda-poppy, frosted-flaky world that we do. Michael, a biochemist, says that sweetness is the first craving and the first addiction. I‘m sure we all remember spending our first pennies, or quarters depending on how old you are, on candy. Sweetness is a metaphor for all that is good in life. Maybe what we were smelling that day was the joy of our reunion.
We walked to the vegetable patch in our dew soak shoes. My mother, so proud of her poppies and disappointed in her corn, and my dad, making a point of showing me his giant pumpkin which was still under 3 inches, could not understand my excitement over the huge swath of blooming dill they left grow among the beans and tomatoes.
“I rip it out like weeds,” my mother said. She always has as I remembered.
I love dill and yet never seem to be able to get it to grow for me here in the Northwest. I plucked a ferny leaf and popped it into my mouth. The bitter greeness filled my mouth giving way to a sweetness. An after taste? Or a memory of youthful hours in my mother’s garden and the vinegary evenings of pickle making after dinner?
Later that day I dragged out the hose and watered the garden, watching the gophers eat the green opium poppy heads and then head to their burrows to nap. Iron County, where my parents live, was voted the best water in the state of Michigan a few years ago. I can attest to it, I can’t keep myself from drinking glass after glass of the sweet artesian purity. I attribute it to my parents good health.
A few days later I woke to cravings. Cravings for sweets. So I dressed quickly and went outside before breakfast. The jubilant gossip of the sandhill cranes which always remained at a distance, suddenly broke overhead as they swooped over the garage, their wings nearly touching the roof. The air was so lovely, moisture clung to everything like survivors after a shipwreck clinging to debris. The rain the forecaster promised missed the farm again. The sugary dew would hardly suffice. My parents would have to return to their watering, as my visit was ending.
As I drove down M189 through the rumpled post-glacial landscape veiled with a pelt of sugar maples and pot-holed with little lakes, the first hushing melancholy of Autumn overcame me. Some drought stressed maples along the road blushed an October copper. I shooed crows from the black top with my rushing vehicle. Time was passing with the fog sliding off the morning. Everything transpiring, everything expiring.
When I left Seattle it was still in the 90s and we were at the tiring end of a dry spell. Returning to gray skies and rain was sweet. Not that I don’t like sunshine, or live in a flood plain with a seemingly limitless well, but rain, magical rain, beyond what science can describe, is incredible. I don’t think I could have said that last February, nor can I fight off the bitter sweet twinge of melancholy as summer slips back a bit revealing the first glimpse of fall. The frenzy and anxiety of watering has subsided, the lushness I had sought with frequent waterings suddenly emerges after the rain. The plums swell and ripen, the cabbages head up, the cucumbers lengthen in mere hours.
On the first day I was home, I stuffed some of these rain swollen cucumbers with green dill seed heads I had collected in my parents’ garden and tenderly packed in my luggage, into quart jars. I boiled a salty brine, filled the jars and went to bed. I fell into a restless yet heavy post-travel sleep, realizing all the watering would now be replaced with harvesting.
And trying to remember the recipe for sweet pickles.
My parents with the apple "State Fair", the youngest tree in their orchard with many trees over 100 years old. They actually eat an apple a day, keeping them spry.
Friday, August 7, 2009
I'm on vacation until August 13. If you're looking for something to read visit the Northwest Horticultural Society's website. They post their quarterly news letter Garden Notes there. You can read my column "The Story of Plants" by scrolling through the past 2 years' issues.
Reading is a very cooling activity, I recommend it as highly in summer as I do in Winter.
Soon a post on what I've been reading.
Reading is a very cooling activity, I recommend it as highly in summer as I do in Winter.
Soon a post on what I've been reading.
Monday, August 3, 2009
In my mind roses are dandelions cluttering up grocery store floral displays bundled by the dozen. I have probably spent more time dead-heading, de-leafing and generally fussing over clients roses than I have spent pulling dandelions. Of course I love dandelions, so I probably pull fewer than most people do.
As I have said before I have resisted bringing roses into my life or the gardens I create (unless requested by the client). Maybe I’m cowardly, or maybe I’m brave in my resistance to the most lauded and loved flower on the planet (that’s my assessment). Either way I was destined to partner with a rose lover. Life works that way, drawing you to what you resist to show you that resistance is futile.
So my clever, self-important anti-rose stance is eroding.
Michael ordered over 20 new roses this year. Most from Rogue Valley Roses. I haven’t been able to get a grasp on the actually number of new roses and when I asked him he masked his compulsion with vagueness.
Twenty, or so, roses are a lot if you have a normal city lot. We have 7 acres, or so, once again the numbers are vague with the property lines smearing into the surrounding marsh.
We (you see I could not help but get caught up in Michael’s passion) sought out roses with a very specific qualities. Hardiness, exquisite fragrance, ramblers or climbers to trail among the trees and shrubs in our hedgerow. You might think the conditions we put on our choices would have limited us. But in reality we were both amazed how many roses made it to our list. We certainly couldn’t buy them all.
I have not said “my new favorite rose” since I bought the David Austin rose ‘Othello’ 18 years ago. I don’t think I’ve bought a rose since. Now I have a new favorite rose, ‘Westerland”. It’s an elegant coral pink, long in bud and sweet of fragrance, actually I think it gets a 5 star rating on all accounts even disease resistance (sometimes it good to resist). Finally a rose that has convinced me roses are worth growing.