Who?

autumn joy

Herbstfreud. Sedum “Autumn Joy”

Cloudy equals cool, and I had energy.

Out I went. Took up the hose and showered the containers and drier spots on the flat corner lot. While I drenched the grapevine, a woman with shoulder-length grey hair strolled by. She stopped and chatted over the chain-link fence about the weather. How strangely cool it is, how quickly it can change in Colorado. Although, in her tidy black pants and pastel striped shirt, she wasn’t exactly familiar, it’s the sort of exchange I’m used to in a neighborhood of wide sidewalks and pedestrians. With a look of purpose and a contented smile, she strolled on.

By the time I made it down to the Sambucus, she was striding up the other side of the street. “Must be visiting one of the neighbors,” I thought as she stopped some 15 feet before the intersection and crossed toward me, again. She stepped up the curb with a little difficulty and seemed to get tangled as she walked through the tansy, coneflowers, and asters. Fearing she might stumble, I asked her if she needed a hand. “No,” she said, “if I can just make it through these weeds.”

Again, not so unusual. Natural equates wild equates weeds for lots of folks. Trying to sound firm and gentle, I said, “Those aren’t weeds. I actually work pretty hard to take care of that garden.” She stepped out onto the safety of the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said looking a little guilty. She regained her stride in her original direction.

As I finished up, she walked up the other side of the street, this time crossing the intersection. I thought, “Good for her, getting in such a nice walk.”

In I went, poked down something from the fridge for supper, and turned on the computer. Just as I opened an email, there was a knock at the door.

There she stood. Lost. Really lost.

“I was on my way home from work,” she said, “and my car stopped working. Then, I think it was my nephew who came and got it. Now, I don’t know where my car is.”

“Oh!” I said. “Would you like to come in?”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said.

“Not at all,” I said. “Please, come in.”

“Thank you!”

“Here, sit wherever you’d like.” She perched on the love seat, her feet in tiny white walking shoes, snuggled next to each other. “Are you thirsty? May I get you a glass of water?”

She insisted she was fine.

I recapped her dilemma. “So, your car stopped working on your way home from work and your nephew came for it…”

“Or maybe it was my Dad…”

I notice she is empty-handed. “Someone you knew took your car with your purse and keys, and now you don’t know where it is.”

Though she looks not a day younger than 65, she nods like a school girl.

“Do you know where you are?”

“I think I’m somewhere between work and home.”

“Oh! Where do you live?”

She lights up. “Somewhere near downtown.”

“Do you know your address?”

“I think it’s 515.” Her air is at once satisfied and evasive. Five years ago, I had conversations like this with my dad. His dodging and deceits infuriated and frightened me. Suddenly, in the middle of my gut, I understood them more generously.

“Oh! Nice! Your house number is 515. And what street do you live on?”

“I. I don’t know.”

“Oh, I see!” I’m feeling tender and charmed. “Is there someone who might know where you live?”

She said her sister would know. But, if we called her, it would take a long time for her sister to get here. She tells me the name of the town where her sister lives. Had I heard of it? No, but if you tell me your sister’s name, maybe we can find her.

Over the next little while, I learn her name, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s names, her dad’s name. I try to locate them all via the internet on my phone. I find a number for her sister. It rings and rings. Every other line of inquiry leads us in circles. Her dad should be home from work by now, she’s certain. He always comes and gets her. He works at the hardware store. Did I know which one?

She worries, over and over, that she’s interrupting my supper. Are you hungry, I ask? Oh, no. My mom always has bowls of snacks set out for us when I get home from school.

I try her sister’s number again.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“I know. How about if I call the police and see if anyone is looking for you?”

“OK! Maybe they’ll know where my dad is.”

“Or your car!”

“Right!”

So, I dial 911. All the while I describe her to the operator, she looks at those tiny white shoes, her hands folded in her lap. “Is she cooperative?” they ask. “Call, again, immediately, if she leaves.”

My new friend is going nowhere, if I have anything to say about it.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“We’re going to wait for someone to come and take you home.”

“I don’t want to interrupt your supper.”

“Oh!” I laugh. “I’ve already eaten. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”

“No, no. I’m fine. My mom always has bowls of things out for me when I get home from school. I like your house. This is a nice house.”

“Thank you! How do you feel?”

“Oh, you know, it’s a little hard when you can’t remember things.”

“Ah. You’re a little anxious?”

“No, no, no. I’m comfortable here. This is a nice house.”

“I’m so glad.”

“But I’m taking up all your time. I should go.”

“Not at all! I’m enjoying your company.”

We talk in loops and tendrils until a young officer comes to the door. “And your name is?”

“Chris.”

“Chris, this is my friend, Karen. Karen, this is Chris. He’s come to give you a ride home.”

“Do you know where I live?” Her soft voice is full of wonder and relief. She stands as he tells her the address.

The evening is just fading as they walk out the gate.

“Thank you for coming!”

Absorbed in her conversation with Chris, she doesn’t turn.

I wave, anyway.

You Know You’re a Gardener When… (take three)

The instant recognition of an old flame startles you awake.

Before you even hear that the crickets have stopped singing, you put a name to the face, and the memories erupt. The summer between high school and college. Intense conversations under cicada-droning trees. Riding the Greyhound through endless cornfields to meet his parents. The last time you saw him. Minneapolis. December, 1974. He agreed to watch your dog while you went back to Iowa. One night, he let her out, and she didn’t come back.

Of course, you look him up on the internet. The first eight links are to or about his work, now a photographer with a studio in a Vermont barn and a business that takes him around the world. Words fly at you from the screen. Led the pack, numerous awards, accolades, MoMA, teaching in the graduate school, and Chinese Government. Personal hints, too. Wife, kids, coach, soccer, beekeeper.

Holy catfish.

It was a silly thing to do, especially on a Monday morning with no billable hours posted on your calendar.

All through coffee and dressing and breakfast, a cascade of useless thoughts sends a wash of agitation through your system. How long you think you can keep up this house? How soon you going to lose that 30 pounds, dagnabbit? You can’t even get someone to flirt with you on a dating site! They flip like an antique TV screen gone haywire. They repeat like two bars of a stupid song. They swarm you like mosquitoes. You go running from the house.

You try cleaning the car, wiping all the non-porous surfaces with the foamy stuff you got from the guy wearing a pink cancer awareness ribbon under the canopy of the filling station. It works great, the foam that is. It cleans like nothing you’ve used before. It works until you get to thinking, “I’ll bet he never has to detail his own car, unless it’s an antique Porsche living in his Vermont barn, and he doesn’t let anyone else touch it.”

Enough. You abandon the 10-year-old Scion (forgetting it’s paid for, by the way).

To the shed.

You grab the digging fork (Vermont castings, circa 1985, mint condition) and work over the bed where the garlic flourished and the rose Finn potatoes made an attempt. You dolly heavy bags of compost and spread the contents — evenly, mind you — across the bed’s surface. Again, the fork. Worms, all sizes, wave at you from the soil. There were none when you first converted this sodded wasteland. With gloved hands, you break up the larger clumps. You, in your sixties, have built this habitat for earthworms, all by yourself.

When did the morning air become such a caress?

You spring up the back stoop to retrieve the shoebox full of seeds stored in the studio closet. From it you pull envelopes of potential. Wild arugula, red Russian kale, heirloom dwarf gray peas with bi-colored blossoms, and mâche. You line them up for a portrait.

Peas. One inch deep, four inches apart on either side of magenta-glazed wire supports, which look beautiful against the weathered cedar fence built for you by a dear someone who calls you his best friend. Kale. Two feet away, one-quarter-inch deep, eighteen inches apart. There are just enough weeks left to taste the earthy sweetness of these purple leaves. Arugula and mâche. Two shallow bands. Scatter. Pungent emerald sprouts should be ready about the time the blue spuds tumble out of the next bed over. Corn salad, the most cold tolerant of them all. You think it may get a sheath of frost-cloth later. Her nutty flavor finds its way forward to a November plate.

All in, you find enough pine needles to cover the lot.

Stepping back to admire, you can’t stop smiling. You know you’re a gardener when…

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Remembering the Handsome

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Last night, my dear friend, Judy, saw a streak of white in the lower periphery of her left eye. She glanced down, thinking it was Eddy.

“I know,” I said. “He’s still here.”

Most times I come through the front door, I hear him land on the floor from bed or sofa and wait for him to stroll into the entry and stretch, toes spread, before me.  A bow of acknowledgement, one would think, except, of course, he was a cat. More likely, he was continually attempting to teach me how I should greet him.

He was once, you may remember, my dad’s cat. But I often wondered, after he came to live with me, if he hadn’t just tolerated the long haul from his beginnings in the Carolinas and his nearly 14-year tenancy in Dad’s household, in order to come to me. He was a very patient feline.

The first time we met, he was sitting under a shrub near the stoop to Dad’s front door. I gasped. At his beauty, his presence. His green eyes met mine and seemed to say, “Where have you been?” Then he disappeared.

The night Dad breathed his last, Ed lay curled by Dad’s left hip, purring. I knelt on the floor, placed my hands on Dad’s and remembered all the words to “Over the Rainbow.” Together, we sang him home.

In the little house in the Gardenhood, Ed was courteous (never scratched the furniture, always used his box) and a very good trainer. Despite my staunch opinion that he would be safer indoors, he made it abundantly clear that he should be allowed access to and from the flat corner lot via the huge dog door. Even so, to assuage my fears and prove how wise he was about traffic and the ways of the human world, he often elected to stay behind the fence and watch as I tended the garden in the danger zone of the parking median. Well, not always, of course. Once he discovered catmint, he might follow me out there if the gate was open, just for a nibble. Oh, and fresh catmint aside, he wasn’t going to eat “health food,” thank you very much. Give me Friskies from a can, from a variety of different cans, in no particular order, and don’t for a minute assume you know which one is my favorite.

He showed his great intelligence in other ways, too. After all, how many cats do you know who watched Downton Abbey?

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At first wary of visitors, he soon began granting us audience, allowing perfect strangers to run their hands down the wedding gown satin of his fur. He gained the admiration and following he knew all along he deserved.

If I was outside, then he followed. I might dash out to the compost between breakfast and leaving for work, and when I’d return, there he was, waiting on the back walk. I’d croon at him, and he’d stretch is full length and roll from side to side. Times like that, I’d stroke him wildly and set free clouds of kitty down. He’d wet the sidewalk with drool, then suddenly take a powerfully playful bat at my hands and prance off to be coy.

When he didn’t think I was watching, I’d see him on patrol, pussy-footing through unmowed grass out to the yard’s shrubby perimeter. There, without provocation, he’d dash pall-mall back through the dog door and go skidding over all the floors before leaping up to his station in the front window, the same place where, before him, Willie watched the world.

In winter, he preferred the warmth provided by interiors. Still, he needed thrills. So, he taught me to play. He must have been sure no one else was watching, otherwise, how else would he have lowered his dignity and chase or be chased by a dot of red light? Or heavens, to spend 20 minutes stalking and pouncing on the end of a string. How ridiculous.

Eightteen, I’d say to friends, and he still loves to play. His blood work results would be great for a cat half his age.

Then, suddenly, he was off his Friskies. Only three months had passed since his wellness visit to the vet, but his new blood work now pointed to cancer. Unknown variety, probably blood.

It was a swift decline, and he bore it with majesty.

I gave him what my friend, Nancy, calls an Egyptian burial. His grave was lined with sacred herbs and a swath of scarlet cloth. By his head, I placed photos of me and Dad. Under his nose, a can of tuna fish (dolphin-safe, of course), a bag of kibble, and a handful of fresh catmint. Around his paws, his toys. There’s a big slab of flagstone over the top. I’d have built a pyramid, if I’d known how.

The first nights, I couldn’t sleep. So, I dropped a pillow on top of the bed. Something to curve myself around, to avoid kicking, to warm the small of my back. A weight, heavier than gravity, anchoring the bed and me to it, just off geographic center. Eddy’s spot.

Two new moons have come and gone since he made his dignified departure. Now, looking at all the photos I took of him, only makes me smile. I’ve started singing in the shower, again, too. When I push aside the curtain, it’s easy to see him, sitting on the rug, like he used to, listening. “Where have you been, Handsome?” I want to ask him. “Where have you been?”

The First Question

South wing of the atomic-rancher.

South wing of the atomic-rancher.

Winter remains.

We’ve had snow, which suits me. The flat corner lot gets real, from-the-sky-gods moisture. And I get to rest.

Rest in this case means: do something other than dig, pull, deadhead, tidy, prune, mow, irrigate. I don’t look at catalogues. I don’t seem to need a fix.

Although I can guess the neighbors wouldn’t mind if I got around to it earlier, I figure March is soon enough to spruce up winter-worn debris. In another month, I’ll attend a day-long presentation about going native in the urban landscape. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready by then.

I do wander about. When an early January thaw took the snow down, I couldn’t help but look for crocus. That got me chuckling, and seemed evidence enough I’m still and will likely always be a gardener. Primroses planted last fall have pushed up new life. Heuchera peeking through an avalanche of crabapple leaves remain as lively as they were in October. I look for the hardy cyclamen planted some years back and hope they were only waiting for a moist year to reappear. So, you see, I’m not indifferent. I notice. I delight. I simply don’t feel compelled.

I have to say, it’s a relief to embrace this about myself. I once thought I’d become less of a gardener, losing all ambition in the winter, allowing my attention and energy to wander elsewhere. Such a loss and change of focus caused an identity crisis. Glad I’m over that.

So, what am I doing instead?

I’m reading (Terry Tempest Williams, David Whyte, Lester Brown, Kristin Linklater). I’m writing (just finished a chapter to submit to a book project on connecting with nature). I’m going to the movies and watching Downton Abbey. I’m journaling as an exercise in reinventing myself, envisioning the future when I fully take up my original calling: empowering others to live true to themselves in communion and community. I’m dusting off my knowledge and passion for voice work and teaching workshops with my friend, Elena. And I’m gazing through the windows at the quiet flat corner lot, walking her paths and sidewalks, and wondering just when it occurred to me that she had gained the status of gardenhood and why.

When I started this blog three years ago, I had to first get clear what it was and wasn’t about. The first question I asked: When does a patch of ground become a garden?

I haven’t come close to accomplishing what I wanted to on the flat corner lot. She’s still pretty humble. The soil has barely nudged. The list of pruning and arborist work is overwhelming. The heat, fires, drought, hail, and late freezes of 2012 and 2013 nearly took the gardening life right out of me. And yet…

There is a sense of welcome here.

There is a sense that we’ve come to know and accept each other, this patch of ground and me. I tolerate her tendency to invite weeds. She tolerates my distractions. I celebrate her abundance of dandelions. She celebrates my infrequent mowing. I adore her effortless tenacity. She adores my hanging out the laundry. We admire each other. We protect each other.

Elsewhere, gardens are taken to the height of artistry and craft, and they aren’t more garden than the flat corner lot. I know. I’ve tended some mighty ones, visited others, read about still more.

Here, however, I’m welcomed home.

She celebrates my infrequent mowing.

She celebrates my infrequent mowing.

 

The Phoenix Turns Two

On June 26, 2012, a firestorm roared down the foothills into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs. 346 homes, two human lives, pets, treasures, thousands and thousands of trees, and who knows how many wild ones, gone.  Images of that day still fill my heart with sorrow, helplessness, and dread.

On July 6, 2012, I stepped into an odyssey of healing.

All around the house, every tree and shrub, every perennial, every annual, brown. It was like walking into a sepia toned photo.

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Eventually, all the heat-scorched pine needles would fall.

As I drove week after week through the devastated area to this garden: I felt happy. It was the sight of plant life. First a chartreuse shrub shining way up on the hillside. Then, the scrub oak shrugging up dark green mats. And it was the anticipation of beauty, reckless and daring to re-inhabit the garden.

returning to life

Honoring the lives of all the plants — from towering ponderosa to tiny mounds of pinks — the homeowners waited nearly a full year to give them a chance to come back. I love these folks dearly for this. They could have, you know, sawed and yanked, thrown in new. But they didn’t. They gazed with tenderness. They cheered every new whorl of needles. They praised each opening bud. They gave thanks for the steadfastness of old friends. They said, out loud, of the white firs that had gone up like torches: “They sacrificed themselves to save our house.”

So passed the remainder of the summer of 2012.

Spring of 2013: Together, we hand-picked the trees who would replace those who had perished. I selected shrubs. All this gorgeous vigor made me giddy.

native cork-bark fir

Cork-bark fir, a Colorado native.

the old putting green

The fire melted the astroturf on a little putting green. And it got converted to a garden. How fun is that?

Then, at summer’s end, another disaster, another miracle. Rain. Too much rain. The burn scar, unable to absorb and buffer streams from big rain events, sent debris-filled flood waters crashing through nearby Manitou Springs. But this garden was spared. And the land around it drank as deeply as it could.

In the spring of 2014 a meadow appeared. And by full summer, it was breathtaking.

meadow following fire

Not all the trees who perished were replaced. One fine old friend became a different work of art.

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flames above trout

bear face

mountain lion

Short weeks after the fire.

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Summer’s height, 2014.

patio bed to water feature

water feature after recovery

Following the fire, garden-related businesses donated pots of annuals to bring cheer to the neighborhood. This generosity is honored by refilling the pots.

germs

Of course, we do a few elsewhere in the garden, too.

two tunias and a germ

Most of all,  however, it is the miracle of this garden rising with the phoenix of the wider landscape, both new and enduring.

sit here for hours

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What a blessing.

Timelessness

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There is something timeless about a stormy afternoon.

Even though the wind has everything in motion. Leaves let go and scuttle across pavement. Newly uncloaked locust branches, dipped in wet ink, sign repeating messages against the screen of gray sky. Chimes in the snowball bush outside your studio diminuendo then clang again on the same four notes.

Here, at the desk which was still in your father’s office three years ago, the light from the window doesn’t change.

There is something delicious about the timelessness of a stormy afternoon. You eat a bit too much of it and grow dreamy. The chords of ambition you had yesterday, when the peak was covered in snow, when the sun came and went and the air remained mild, when the washer filled and emptied onto the line, when the last of the black beans were harvested, when the garlic harvested in July was tucked in neat rows following the beans and covered with old pine needles, when the fresh sheets went back on the bed, when the onions simmered into the first robust soup, when the house was tidied, when candles were lit and the table set for company, those chords have become a hypnotic drone in which countless melodies reside.

Choose one of those melodies and let it lead you into remembering how much you love looking up words in a heavy, printed dictionary. Drop into the relaxed rhythm of your breathing, the sense that you are napping while fully awake, the sense of fullness in your belly where awareness dwells and phrases form and echo out like slow strikes on a steeple-full of well-cast bells.

You feel warm and steamy as if fresh from your bath and the Lawrence Welk show is floating bubbles up the screen. You feel dark and purposeful like the garlic.

On the aqua vinyl cushions on the furniture on the front porch, hundreds (oh, yes, hundreds) of spring bulbs are sorted according to type and destination. Harvested from the soil near where the bones of your great grandparents rest and destined to naturalize on the last rise of prairie below the Rockies, they are stalwart and ready. When the storm passes, work resumes.

For now, the industry of timelessness is warranted.

Cutting Down

(Adapted from an essay written in 2004)

“Widespread frost expected,” warns the forecaster. It’s past sunset. We’ve already had a morning of shimmering windshields. Hauling containers full of fragile plants into shelter for the night takes a lot of effort, and for what few days until the next crystalline visit. So, I decide to take my chances by draping everything in old bed clothes.

“I’ll miss you if you’re gone in the morning,” I whisper as I tuck plants in. “Thank you for all the beauty.” Sheets and worn blankets spook me, looking like mounded snow in the post twilight. I leave the porch light on, as if its yellow glow will ward off freezing.

With an extra cover on my own bed, the open window narrowed to a crack, I snuggle down to sleep.

In the dream, I walk through a wood to an audience with a holy man. Along the way I pass an old friend reclining on a soft earthy mound. He seems lovely and quiet, full of knowing.

To the holy man I query, “How can we be both mortal and immortal at the same time?” He laughs, delighted. When I leave, I find my friend again. He greets me weakly, yet with good cheer. Near his shoulder, a gentle woman, clothed entirely in white, tends him. He is dyeing of aids. A bruise-red blotches his extremities. He turns an arm, admiring its autumnal color.

Then, I am awake. Morning spills into the sky. Even viewed from my pillow, something in the light informs me the frost didn’t come. The warning, the shroud-like sheets, the saying goodbye have only conspired to awaken a question. Like a spring bulb, whose roots break dormancy when the soil cools, my subterranean mind conjured a dream to help me ask it.

Out in the daylit garden, the colors ripen. The season of cutting down is here.

It’s a controversial subject, this cutting down. Some folks want everything cleared away. That way they can skip the reminders of the end of summer and have only the clear space of potential to look at through the winter. Some prefer to leave everything in place and let winter blanch and break and blow the plants into new forms. Seeds scatter this way. There is more to catch and hold the snow, more to soften the wind. Insects might take shelter. Birds find a seed or two.

My criteria are showing.

Even so, as each rooted resident succumbs to the process of perishing, I assess its contribution to the scene. When none can be found, it is cut down. Among the first to go were the sunflowers. All of mine were planted by squirrels. Weeks ago, they started shinnying the stalks, harvesting their bounty. For a while the leaning and headless trunks still had some charm, but when the leaves tarnished, the plants simply had to go. No meaningful second flowering, no functional value, not even a beak-full of treat for a visiting woodpecker warranted their staying.

While I have a fondness for certain forms, colors, seed-throwers, and wind-dancers, I also have my critic. The scraggly, the uninteresting, the very tired-looking come off at the base.

There is work to do. Striding into the garden with nippers and a tarp to catch debris, today, there is also a tenderness around my heart. I can’t simply judge and execute. I crunch leaves into mulch and pat it into place with my hands. I snip pithy stems for the compost. Remembering earlier glories and committing them to future soil, I give thanks.

I tend the garden, giving it effort and whimsey. And then I let it go, giving it respect and gratitude. And, yet, it’s the garden which grows me. What endurance is transplanted into my character? What compost is made for the seed-bed of my wisdom? What support provided for the delicate twining of my hopes?

I return to the house, spent and nourished. The lilac by the back stoop extends a twig of turning leaves. I admire the bruise-red color.

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