Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The first snow flakes of the season appeared last week. Graphic snowflakes on the little weather calendar in the newspaper foreshadowing a cold front, and yes, snow, on the way. Everyone was excited. If I, like mother says, had a nickel for every time I heard the word “snow’ I could have quit working by this week. Instead I’m laid-off by snow. Not the wordy, chattery snow that spews from everyone’s lips when the forecasters start mentioning snow, but actual rain-turned-into-ice-crystals snow.
Just days ago I made a little square of my left forefinger and thumb, and right forefinger and thumb. I looked through it like a photographer at a portion of the garden that could have been spring. I framed a sasanqua camellia, an apple tree still full of green leaves, fuchsias and one erratic rhododendron covered in pink flowers. There was not a hint of Fall’s changing leaves or decay. It was a scene as fresh as May. But it was November 17th.
Fall can be that way here. Langourous. Not in a hot tropical way, but in a confusing abundance of color from the changing leaves and the newly blooming flowers. From temperatures which don’t quite reach freezing and yet stay warm enough to keep dahlias in bloom. Not to mention fuchsias, camellias and rhododendrons. And provide cucumbers and zucchini into November. I find myself rather flummoxed during these months. Do I cut back the dahlias when they’re still half-heartedly blooming? Do I let all the nasturtium seedlings that are popping up in abundance and growing with Spring-like vigor go until they freeze? Or get the work over with now? Can I validate staying in and reading all day on a Saturday which is only cloudy and 55 degrees?
So last week when I was thinking it wouldn’t snow, “Just more meteorological exaggerating,” I couldn’t help but wish it would snow.
You see, I love snow. The more the merrier. I love a city muffled, tongue-tied. Traffic at a stand still. These snowy days are the real holidays, no Labor Day Blow-out Sales, no New Year’s Eve Galas, or Easter strolls through the Arboretum, en masse. I do feel sorry for the people who collide, spin-out and slide off icy roads. It’s no fun. But what does it hurt if everything shuts down once in a while?
But more than anything I love a world swathed in white.
A few years ago, as a Christmas present to myself, I went to see the Vedic Astrologer Dennis Flaherty. I am a sceptic. So I let astrologers go on without giving any cues. Let them damn or vindicate themselves. I was quite surprised how precisely accurate he was. By the end of my session Mr. Flaherty was vindicated. And I had a new color: white.
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of white. To me it’s not even a color. But the insightful astrologer insisted it was my color, when he saw a puzzled look creep on to my face. If he would have said red or yellow, I would have agreed whole-heartedly. If he had said green or blue I would have assented. But white? I had no feeling for white. It rouses neither anger nor happiness; neither comfort nor excitement in me. Maybe he wasn’t such a great astrologer after all.
But I kept what he said in a secret part of my heart.
Why not white?
I’m a gardener and, like Pig Pen, a perpetual cloud of needles, leaves, dirt and rocks- yes, once I took off my shoes at a friends house and a rock fell out- follow me everywhere I go. White surfaces, white clothes are my nemesis.
But that’s not why I don’t like white.
It’s been three years since Dennis Flaherty told me my color was white. I’ve been looking askance at white ever since. Asking white to prove itself.
I guess I’ve always been intimidated by the imperiousness of white. Wedding dresses. The white-glove-tests. Porcelain. Jock socks. Snow White ( the Disney Classic). Ambulances. Clapboard churches. Linens. The absolute perfection of a hen’s egg ( I usually buy brown ones).
The White Album.
The blank page.
So lately I’ve been trying to create a blank space for myself to re-address white.
Trying to look at the white that I like instead of white that scares me. It began with those first graphic snowflakes last week. They reminded me how much I love snow and, well, snow is white.
So I began a list:
Sugar cubes.
Madonna lillies.
Bone china.
Swans; mute, trumpeter and whistling swans.
Paper bark birches, especially Betula papyrifera and B. utilis jacquemontii.
Ghost brambles (Rubus lasiostylus hubeiensis)
And, snow, even when it covers the beautiful golden-orange decline of fall.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The other day Nora Ephron was on NPR, touting her new book I Remember Nothing. The host asked her what her advice was for people who were aging, since her book was about the aging process.
She replied ( I am paraphrasing wildly here) that you should do what you want now. Don’t put things off, or keep overly busy with things you don’t really like to do. She used a friend dying of throat cancer as an example. This woman could not eat anymore and she regretted not eating enough hot dogs in her life.
Now I don’t want to eat more hot dogs and I don’t have terminal cancer and by all life expectancy charts I’ve got a ways to go. But there was some truly practical wisdom in what she has to say. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about practical wisdom, way too late into life. So that I’m melting in that direction is certainly a sign of my aging. So I gave the flip-file of my mind a whirl and began looking for those things I’ve been putting off. What do I want of the rest of my life?
More travel?
More writing?
More work? More friends? More fun? More sex? More books? More plants?
More time;more sleep, more food; more...?
More. More. More. I was beginning to sound like Ronald Reagan.
Do I really want more out of my life? Do I really want to squeeze harder and see if I can get one more drop or two out of this stone?
I know Mies van der Rohe’s words “Less is more” have been quoted to death. Do I really want to do some conversion mathematics with my life and get more out of less? We’re back to that squeezing again. I’ll save that for yoga class and orange juice.
Since I was driving when Ms. Ephron prompted this rash of thought about the rest of my life--I never would have expected it of her-- I really didn’t stay very focused. There where intersections to maneuver, cops to slow down for and one wildly erratic dog bouncing in and out of traffic as if it were one of the pack.
Maybe I didn’t want to think about the rest of my life just then. Too loaded.
And then just as the flip-file fingering stopped I realized all I really wanted was to appreciate what I had. Really and truly. And then all the rest would fall into place, I am sure.
But that’s getting harder every day. With my cup running over things are getting awfully messy around here. It’s hard to know what to appreciate or how.
When I was a bartender in Cologne, Germany I had that over the top American sense of service that the Germans don’t know how to appreciate. Its just not in their make up. “Just give me the beer, and cut the friendly chatter.” Once I did that my job got a lot easier and, yes, my tips went up. What was harder to get was the filling of a glass. In Cologne the regional beer Koelsch is served in a thin cylindrical glass that is marked a few millimeters from the top with a small white line and the number 0,2 l. Like a test tube in a laboratory. Most Germans didn’t like when I broke this boundary, which I saw as being generous. “Its too full I’m going to spill it.” Besides the beer was suppose to end at that line and the foam begin. It was an exacting art which I eventually became very good at.
I sure don’t want to draw a line on my the glass of my life, or cup as the case may be. I’m not that exacting, and I actually like a half empty glass once in a while as much as I like the messy overwhelmed feeling of over flowing.
I like picking our last zucchini on November 14th. The garden just won’t quit, which is the kind of overflowing I like. But I also don’t know if I want to head to the other side with a suitcase so full its bursting at the seams. Or have to run out to the garbage can more than once a week, or have recycle bins full of junk mail, or try to remember what I have to do for the week. I’m a chronic list maker at this point. I know this all sounds like complaining but I think that is part of this sorting out process. If I’m complaining about something is it something I really want in my life? Is it something I want to put the effort into appreciating? Or just get rid of?
Well, I can’t, for example, stop taking out the garbage. That’s one of the things in life where you just don’t want any overflowing going on. So what do I do? Stop making garbage? That certainly is an option. And I try to re-duce, re-use , re-cycle as much as possible, but that takes time too. So now, this is still in the experimental phase, I try to make the trip to the garbage can an adventure, a little hike through a portion of this magnificent world. I listen for birds, smell the air, gaze off a the mountains. Yes, I am very fortunate to have mountain views on the way to the garbage can.
Then suddenly I am appreciating something that I don’t necessarily like to do.
Now if I can spread this appreciation over everything, like a great blanket of sparkling snow...
Its in the experimental phase, as I said.
But it seems to be working, because now I even appreciate Nora Ephron.
Thanks for the advice.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I keep getting letters from Garden Design warning me to renew. Each letter over the weeks escalates in urgency and makes grander and more generous offers. I think I’m up to 3 years for the price of one by now. No matter how they plead, whether with fear tactics, or enticements I can’t help but refuse.
Not that I don’t find Garden Design a beautiful magazine full of inspiration. I just have so many other things to read. “Read” is the operative word here. I don’t read Garden Design. I flip through. I pause here and there, even at ads. I read a caption, a head line...
Okay, I read Garden Design. I even read a whole article in the November/ December issue. “Your last issue.” Again!?
The article, “Jack Frost: Master Gardener”, was written by Valerie Easton a local garden columnist and author. I feel the same sort of triumph that Val feels when she wrote: “Only after a killing frost puts the garden decidedly to bed do I have guilt-free time to read a novel or go to the movies.”
Well, frost of any kind has been late in coming this year, unnervingly so. Usually out here in the valley we have a killing frost by mid-October long before Seattle and the rest of the Puget Sound Basin. I look forward to that frost exactly for the reason Ms. Easton states. I want to be able to turn my back on the garden guiltlessly.
I am always looking for reasons to snub the garden, or in more enlightened moments “let it go”, even in spring and summer. But it’s hard to let go when the weather isn’t cooperating. In August I gave up on ever seeing cucumbers, the summer was so cool they barely came into bloom. But last Friday firmly Fall and well into November I picked our last cucumber. we do not live in Mexico you understand, or even southern California. We’re only a little over 100 miles form the Canadian border.
Mid-week when the temperatures reached upward toward the mid-70s making bulb planting a delight I was feeling a bit anxious about where this was all going. The weekend before last the river, filling with heavy rain, was nudging toward flood stage. Luckily it never got there, though it did spill in places out onto the road. I had begun the settled-in season during those rains, opened a book and began to read without an end point in sight. It was a guilty pleasure. Though it was wet it was still warm enough to get some plants in the ground. That’s the problem with doing this for a living, there is an unstoppable stream of plants coming on to the property. But my clock was ticking already to a different drummer, sorry for that mixed metaphor, but you understand the ticking was drum-loud. I needed to crash, to go into reading, writing, baking, the general preoccupations that make ignoring the garden less guilt-ridden.
I was looking forward to a dismal weekend, where lethargy finally won and I could finish reading “Sukkwan Island” a startlingly excellent novella by David Vann. On page 103 when the two protagonists , a father and a son “... both looked into the sky, into the grayness that had no depth or end, and then they went inside” sounded like the perfect weekend to me. I’m sure those of you who were stuck in an office on Tuesday and Wednesday when summer made a guest appearance --I even tanned a bit-- would disagree with me.
Yet we both got what we needed.
Saturday offered all manner of glum weather, rain, wind, clouds. Hardly miserable, but “miserable” I said none-the-less, pulled the fleece blanket over my pajama’d body and went on reading. I finished “Sukkwan Island” and headed back into Roger Deakin’s Wildwood:A Journey Through Trees. I started it about a year and a half ago and have been savoring the series of essays on the cinematographer’s relationship to trees and wood, and the fascinating people and places this interest found for him. I’ve been reading Deakin’s rich humble prose in chunks between other books. And I know it will be one of those books I’ll return to over the years like Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. I finished Deakin before bed time and began assembling a stack of back issues for my Sunday reading. I was getting into this lazy thing. And what could be more lazy than reading magazines all day? Well, I guess, napping. But I’m sure that would happen between Gardens Illustrated and Pacific Horticulture.
You see, there are getting to be way too many periodicals in out house between my horticultural subscriptions and Michael’s literary ones we probably get upward to 10 magazines a month. I usually try to read them all in January when the weather is really bad and it’s time to do a little new year purging. But I was looking forward to getting an early start and maybe using my January downtime for something productive.
Then the sun came out.
It was Sunday and it was sunny. It was what all you office workers were hoping for and it dashed my lazy hopes of wallowing in the glossy world of magazines.
Oh,well, I could have just lied there basking like the cat. But you don’t know me if you think I could do that. I would take a 101 degree day, or a 101 degree fever for me to just lie around on a sunny day.
So I went for a walk.
As I walked I called my dear friend Joseph who lives back in Philadelphia. I didn’t really want to walk alone and Michael was busy writing. Joseph and I always share weather reports for the first few minutes of our calls. Who’s warmer? Who’s wetter?A bit competatively, but all in fun. He almost always wins, living on the rambunctious East Coast. When I win it is when we are having a prolonged cloudy spell, weeks, months even, without sunshine.
It happens here.
But not this year. What we’re having this year is prolonged instability. The sunshine never stays long enough to build false hopes. The rain and gray just takes us to the edge of dismal and then retreats. So when a Sunday is sunny and your plans are for lying on the sofa with stacks of back issues, because after all it is November and it should be at least cloudy if not raining, you change your plans and go out for a walk.
It was good to do some foot work assessment of the valley and the progress of fall. So after I said good-bye to Joseph I kept walking to Tolt MacDonald Park.
The river was no longer frighteningly high. Yet the “pond” is back in our neighbors’ horse paddock. The drainage ditches along the road which cuts through the swamp are engorged. Frogs scuttled across their glassy black surfaces as if winter was an afterthought instead of a foreboding. The prognosticators, those generators of doom and gloom are predicting a walloping good winter this year. Wet, cold and snowy I keep hearing. Then why is November nearly as pleasant as July?
The calm before the storm?
At this time of year, the flood season, when the river becomes threatening, I wonder sometimes why I gravitated to this watery place. Even if it only closes the north end of the road and I have to take the long way out it feels like more than an inconvenience. But I have an affinity for watery places. When Michael and I were traveling through Rajistan a few years ago I was constantly on the look out for sources for water. How do all these people live with such little water, and such dirty water at that? I am increasingly uncomfortable when I visit my sister in Arizona. I have watched Phoenix mushroom out into the desert at an alarming rate and I can’t help but ask, “Where is the water?”
“ I wondered again,” writes Roger Deakin about his travels to the arid landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, “ how it is that trees are able to feel their way towards water, even when their roots have to travel some distance to reach it. By which process do they sense its nearness? Those little roots, which do all the work of absorbing water, may just be antennae of a kind.” Like roots the search for water is innately deep in me. I feel more comfortable knowing its near. Like a willow on a river bank dangling its toes.
It was like being home being able to just walk through my neighborhood.
And the walk was remarkably rejuvenating, probably much more so then a slumped afternoon on the couch with a stack of magazines. There were birds and birders on the road, bikers, roller-skiers and Sunday-drivers-- some of them were actually driving like it was Friday afternoon-- their were families in the park, dog-walkers and dogs, joggers and me stopped on a log to take notes:
“ When I woke before dawn I opened the door to let the black cat in. At first I sniffed the darkness. Then I drew it in deeply through both nostrils. There was a faint sweetness to the air that one might misread as the first frost. It was clear enough. But not cold enough. By mid-day I basked on a log in the woods, where sun rays piercing the canopy were warm, released some tensions still lingering from the week. I had wanted a gloomy Sunday, an excuse to retreat from the world, but I was totally glad it wasn’t delivered.
“You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes you just might find,
you get what you need.”"

Monday, November 1, 2010

" JAZZ!"

Last week Michael and I went out to dinner on an inconsequential Wednesday. We went to Boxley’s Place, a rather excellent restaurant, in North Bend. Boxley’s offers live music, mostly Jazz, every night of the week.
While we were there a pianist, Tony Foster, got on stage. Was briefly and dramatically introduced, then began to play to the handful of diners. He began to play well, then perfectly. Michael and I stopped our inconsequential Wednesday conversation and turned toward the stage to listen.
There was a mike shoved in to the open lid of the grand piano, though the restaurant was small enough for un-aided music. His playing was amplified to drown out clanging cutlery, the birthday-toast glass-tinging, and the general level of the conversation which got louder when the music began.
I listened intently. But also wondered intently, about how such a talented musician ended up at Boxley’s on a Wednesday night in mid-October. An inconsequential Wednesday night at that. Did he have time to kill? Or are there just too many jazz pianists? Too few venues?
I was suddenly reminded of a guest in one of my gardens who, loaded with as much gin as I was, could not desist from questioning me. What sort of garden was this anyway? “I mean,” he begged, “what do you call this style of gardening?”
Gin-numbed I had no answer. I had never thought about a style of gardening really. My client had requested an English garden. I interpreted his wishes by creating lush and colorful mixed borders in the open woodland setting.
The guest still stared at me waiting for the answer.
“ English mixed borders?” I guessed, unconvincingly.
“No,” the garden guest continued, “ that’s too stuffy. This is not a stuffy garden at all.”
“ I don’t know,” I had continued to sip gin and a clear answer became harder and harder to find for this guest who wanted a definitive and exacting answer.
I began to swagger through my memory of the process of making this garden. What were my influences? I had never actually seen an English garden at that point. I had grabbed from every direction I could. The Italian countryside, the German naturalistic gardens I worked in, the lush annual plantings of the Missouri Botanical Garden, even the Sonoran desert. I was a collagist at heart, a surrealist. I had even been called an impressionist or an abstract expressionist, my gardens always being equated with art movements of the past.
Yet I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, put a name on my style.
But the guest only got more inflamed the vaguer I got. If I couldn’t supply an answer he would.
“ Jazz!”
Obviously he had a better handle on the gin than I did. He was suddenly clear and confident in his assessment.
“That’s it! It’s like jazz!”
Now jazz is not my favorite kind of music. It’s too complex, too sophisticated, too brainy for my tastes. But here he was someone I had met for the first time calling my style of gardening “Jazz!”.
And he was right.
All the other tags I applied to this garden, all my efforts to name what I was up to fell short.
Then flat when he repeated it, “Jazz!”
I felt he was becoming more interested in his assessment, his accurate assessment I must add, then in the garden, my style or even me.
As I looked around with the word “Jazz!” bumping against the gin in my head, I could see the complexity and the brainy sophistication in the borders. I could see his point.
I wondered if anyone else saw it that way. Or knew what they saw. Or cared. Most of the other guests in the garden that evening weren’t even looking at the garden; it was just background noise to their conversations.
On that inconsequential night at Boxley’s, I was drinking gin and watching Tony Foster play his heart out to no one but Michael and I. I saw my own dilemna of “playing to deaf ears”. But this pianist’s confidence, the very timbre of his being needed to play. He would have played, like falling in an earless forest, because he had to play.
Like I have to garden.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A few nights ago Michael put on some Thelonious Monk for dinner music.
Now I like dinner and I like music, but some forms of jazz at dinner jangle my digestion.
Maybe it is the demands of the music drawing me away from the pleasure of the meal. I have a hard time “drowning it out”. I decided at that moment, “I don’t like jazz.,” though I kept it to myself.
But I can’t help but agree with the garden guest from years ago, who insisted on calling the garden I created “Jazz!”. I love syncopation. I love setting up a rhythm and breaking it. I love to free associate, to improvise. It’s probably why I found so much pleasure in collage for years. I had made a god of collage and made my gardens in his image. But slowly I am beginning to see the musicality of gardens.
Already years ago I was flirting with this idea, when I was living in Germany and had way more time for thought. A man I was dating at the time was studying musicology at the University of Bonn. I couldn’t believe how angry he was with me for insisting that music and gardening were very closely linked art forms. As if I were trying to connect heaven with hell.
I wasn’t just talking about the rustling of leaves in the wind, or songbirds’ warblings. I insisted that both took place in time and worked intently with interpreting time. He would have none of it. I think that’s when he started considering me an idiot and our lovely little love affair ended shortly thereafter.
I still believe the ideation necessary to make a garden span time is the same sort of ideation needed to make music. I still believe in rhythm, “that fascinating rhythm”. In syncopation, in meter, in harmony and dissonance, and in cadence in the garden.
I still beleive in Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Jarret, Betty Carter, Duke Ellington, and even Thelonious Monk
And, yes, that’s Jazz.