Hark! The Herald House Finch Sings

The question on everyone’s lips: Will it be an early spring? We ask it perennially, and we can never really know. Winter in the rain shadow of Pikes Peak has been windy, cold, and brutally dry. We are more than ready for a change, but I hear something other than grumpy exhaustion in the voices of neighbors and friends. Recently there’s spark and gleam and restlessness. Willie the terrier, fifteen next month, sunbathes under the apple tree and, when he comes in, madly sheds. I watch a tall, hefty, middle-aged man in biking shorts wheel by and silently cheer, “You go, boy!”

At the feeders, male house finches flash their scarlet heads. Their brilliant, long winded songs fly everywhere at once.

One morning last week, surfacing from not quite enough sleep, there was a repeated melody. Oh so dopey, I lulled on my side and listened. A robin? Yes. A robin! In full-throated reverie. Robin! How easy it was to reel out of bed.

Within a day, the air on our block was full of robin notes. Strolling up the street with Willie I looked for them. There! Above the back yard where two golden retrievers live, a small flock announced itself from the wide embrace of a shaggy barked maple. Scouts perhaps? I haven’t heard them since.

Saturday evening, however, I heard rain, against the windows and on the roof, a shower. Already jubilant and breathing deeply the fragrant moisture, my body thrilled to a long, gentle roll of thunder, the first to rumble down the mountains. It’s a holy moment on which all time seems to turn.

Will it be an early spring? Anyone’s guess. There might be snow days as late as May. Yet, in the heart a quickening that storms can only sweeten, and in the pace of the old pooch, a liveliness as we step into the certainty of lengthening days.

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First, Plant Dreams

I gave up competitive gardening.

That’s how I describe the continental drift in my attitude toward my garden. This has nothing to do with how hard I’m willing to work, nor how long. It has everything to do with how I want to feel. Here, at home, I want to cultivate calm, a sense of spaciousness in which to wonder and observe, an invitation to relax, a measure of delight, and an honest welcome. Yes, and I want to plant food. I might die doing all this, but I certainly don’t want to kill myself over it. You can appreciate the difference.

Before, when I was in the middle of making the previous garden, I wanted to create a landscape that set standards, that shouted “This is Colorado!” I wanted outrageous beauty, a stellar collection of unusual plants, wild success, and the admiration of others – especially those others who know a great garden. At times it seemed I would have died for this.

In 2007, a week before the Fourth and heading into what was bound to be the most brilliant lily season yet, that garden was shattered by hail. Already exhausted, my heart broke. I had to photograph the destruction, and then I couldn’t look at it for many days. Entering that grief, embracing the suchness of the garden in shambles, undid my mooring and set me on my current course. 

Now, having docked for whatever time I’m here, I want to fit in and still freely express myself. I feel no sense of contradiction, no restriction other than practical ones, well, like money.

So what’s my plan?

Everyone has asked me. The most honest answer: I don’t know. This is such a new approach in such a different venue, that I can’t know. But I can discover.

When I moved in, the long parking median on the south side of the lot had once been converted to a flower garden and had been let go. Alright, that’s too kind. It was derelict. I didn’t even know it was a garden at first. Comprised of just over 900 square feet, I figured it was garden enough for my first year. I would clean it up, divide the huge colonies of iris, throw in giveaways from other gardens, and cast a few seeds. Oh, and the empty planter wrapping the southeast corner of the house could be made into an elevated rock garden. Simple enough. As to the rest of the place: I’d buy an electric lawn mower.

About a year ago, I started deviating. Looking out the window of my studio, I could see a rectilinear theme with shrubs and peonies and no rocks nor junipers (though I love them) and everything in shades of red, coral, and creamy yellow. It persisted in getting my attention. So I smothered the front lawn.

In mid-summer, while mowing the back yard, I yearned for a table under the awning of the crab apple. Never mind the huge brush pile from all the dead limbs and weed trees I had cleared and tossed in the center of the yard. That would all be gone someday. As soon as I had a table, there would be meals and friends and wine. It would be just like back gardens in Switzerland, full of leisure and laughter and linens. I extolled this dream to my friends, who all had great suggestions. Then one dear heart, downsizing her patio furniture, made the dream come true. One shining night, under a full moon, we planted the dream of many shared and pleasant meals right under the crab.

No place to store it for winter, the table has stayed put. When I look out from the window over the kitchen sink, friends always surround it.

Neighbor Snowblows Me Away

My favorite bulky sweater wafts small engine exhaust fumes, and I’m delighted.

I’ve just had one of my “this is the neighborhood I live in” experiences.

I heard a snow blower up the street signaling what I’d already suspected: We’re not getting any more snow today. It’s too cold. Leaving my hair in its unsightly tie-back position (totally exposing my ears) and grabbing my double-walled mittens, I headed out. The front porch and walk I cleared with the broom. Last night’s snow looked and felt like super fine cake flour. When I turned the corner to the long south side, I discovered where all the snow from the front yard had gone.

Back up the walk to fetch my shovel. Working from east to west, the little drifts yielded easily. I tossed them on the median where they might do some good. Behind me the blower noise grew louder. I glanced over my shoulder and spotted a well-bundled neighbor working the corner across the street. I decided to race him, woman against machine, to see who’d finish their corner first.

Then, the sound of the blower grew louder. Looked up, and sure enough, comes the neighbor up behind me. He cranked the spout to spray the snow on the median, and off he set. I watched his first pass, then decided it was too cold to lean on a shovel handle grinning, so tidied up the front walk. By the time I was done, he was walking the blower back to his corner. Smiling from frozen ear to frozen ear, I waved and shouted “Thank you!” He looked mighty pleased.

I’ve not met this fellow before, but the experience is becoming familiar.

The times that neighbors have stepped out of their routines to introduce themselves or stopped to see how things were going when I’m out working in the yard are now too numerous to recall. Perhaps the sweetest, however, was Palm Sunday last year. I was smothering the front lawn under newspaper and dark humus, not an activity I thought would gain universal approval. Several folks did stop to ask what I was doing, even asking if I’d replant the sod. Few commented on my plans for a garden. In early afternoon, Bea appeared on the other side of the chain link. Ninety years old and the slight size of a school girl, she held out a blue-wrapped lollipop. “You’re working so hard,” she said. “I thought you might like one of these.”

I’ve done nothing to earn these kindnesses. I just moved in and started gardening. From the first handshake, however, I felt my heart opening like a seed. We’re a mixed up bunch: Giggling girls, skateboarding youth, strolling elders, and sign posting Republicans and Democrats. We’re threaded together by these sidewalks and touched by the weather above them. I am so touched by a sense of belonging here, that over time, I realize I’ve made a list of resolutions I hope will honor and benefit the neighbors of this garden.

1) First and foremost, there will be no privacy fence. It would neither fit nor serve.

2) To practice non-attachment, flowers in the median are there for the picking.

3) I can always stop for a chat, and will say “thanks” for every visit.

4) I will buy Girl Scout cookies.

5) The light will always be on and the bowl full for Halloween.

The lull of late morning has settled down around this intersection of residential streets. Quiet enough to hear bird chatter out back, a reminder that it’s time to fill the feeders. I look up to notice a fine sift of snow slanting from the north. Guess I was wrong, two degrees is not too cold for it after all. If enough of it falls, who knows what will happen next. With a nod to Mr. Frost: Good flurries do good neighbors make.

An Open Invitation

You are most welcome to have a look.

It’s a flat corner lot, large but unimposing. Sidewalk rims it, conducting a flow of passers by. Beyond the sidewalk, parking medians sprawl eight feet to the streets. A lawnmower’s width from the walk, a chain link fence, in mostly good condition, rings the yard. Stroll by and you’ll see every part of it. The surprising thing: I like these homely features.

At what level did I know I wanted exactly this plain, see through place? I’d been looking for seclusion in which to create personal sanctuary, an “invitation only” sort of space. The front yard should have had a public face with an engaging smile, but the back most certainly shielded from view. This place had neither enclosure nor good grooming, yet it was right.

I’ve lived and labored here a little over a year, and realize the experience has me shifting my perceptions.

Perhaps what defines sanctuary is really intention and tending, a safe yet permeable boundary and welcome. Is it any wonder that a well conceived garden begins in much the same way? Another tenet of good garden design is the wedding of the garden to both the architecture and the nature of the surrounding environment. Here it must be written that a beautiful garden and a sacred space can be neighborly.

As a freshman at Macalester College, during a unit on poet Robert Frost, I learned that his least favorite word was “exclusive”. Both democratic and mystic in character, this bit of revelation speaks to me once again. This flat corner lot calls me into a new creative edge that is at once inclusive and sacred, visible and safe.

I would be most honored for your company and witness as yard and person transform into gardenhood.