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?

downton cat

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.

 

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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Lingering

The warmth and colors of summer linger.

Summer's professional wardrobe.

Summer’s professional wardrobe. Fresh from the line. The clothes line, that is.

Kale salad. Inspired by Nancy W, who was inspired by Martha (THE Martha).

Kale salad with caramelized grapes and onions, walnuts, yams, and feta. Inspired by Nancy W, who was inspired by Martha (THE Martha).

The first tomato.

The first tomato. Indian Stripe. Perfection.

The last daylily.

The last daylily.

Labor Day weekend balloon festival.

Labor Day weekend balloon festival. Right over the gardenhood.

A mandala. Drawn by Nancy H. (One can never have too many Nancies in her life).

A mandala. Drawn by Nancy H. (One can never have too many Nancies in her life).

This drawing represents my spirit’s calling into a whole new realm of gardening. Assisting in the creation of sacred space. In lives. In landscapes. For Earth’s sake.

The lingering warmth and colors of summer calling me all the way home.

Recess in the Gardenhood

Wednesday evening this week, Rose and Diane, who work with me in Green Way’s gardens, agreed to let me cook for them.

We needed to talk about the coming season, how drought will effect our work load. Passionate gardeners often find ourselves with many other things in common. Our conversation ranged over several countrysides. And while we laughed, exclaimed, solved the world’s problems, and, yes, ate, it snowed.

It snowed a real snow. Moisture laden. Four inches in the three hours. They left in a quiet sifting of heavy flakes and a celebratory mood.

5inches

The official total out at the airport was 7.3 inches. The patio table on the flat corner lot captured five.

Makoto Moore, meteorologist with the national weather service in Pueblo, CO, says “We’re still knee deep in drought.” But snow on the ground lasting for several days and the clean fragrance of fallen clouds raises spirits and has everyone hoping for more.

Up in the mountains as much as 17.5 inches of powder accumulated. Good news for the river basins.

Did you know that no rivers flow into Colorado? Here, instead, are the headwaters of the Platte, the Arkansas, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and more.

Snowpack remains at 75% of normal statewide, but with March and April typically the snowiest months, fingers are crossed that February’s treasure will kickstart a productive spring. You can almost hear as folks around the state take turns holding their breath.

Another big storm heads our way tonight. Cell phones have buzzed: blizzard warnings are posted.

Today, however, I declared a recess in the gardenhood. The sun polished the sky into a porcelain blue. Wednesday’s snow shrank and liquified, singing its way down gutters and storm grates. I strolled on down to Shooks Run just to hear the liquid music. Upstream, inside the fence of the municiple golf course, ancient western willow raised their broad and glorious heads, bright February gold twigs against high, icy bands of clouds.

Back in the office, a message from my cousin Ginny alerted me to the March issue of National Geographic. There is an article on fracking in North Dakota. It attempts to give a balanced socio-economic look at the changes fracking is making in the state. The photos by Eugene Richards convey the story beautifully. However, a quick reading yielded no information on troubles ranchers are having with their livestock. There is always more to the story.

Alright, back to recess!

Tracking the gardener.

Tracking the gardener.

Home on the Range

Graphic source: The Colorado Springs Independent.

Graphic source: The Colorado Springs Independent.

Our little neck of the prairie faces a crisis.

In case you hadn’t heard, 2012 was the hottest year in the 117 that records have been kept in Colorado, a full 109% above average.

And it didn’t rain or snow, either. Not much, anyway. A scant 8.11 inches fell on Colorado Springs for the entire year, less than half our semi-arid average. We actually haven’t seen an average year in a long time. We have entered an extreme and persistent drought, and NOAA’s predictions for 2013 give no reason to hope for improvement.

Colorado Springs Utilities reports that 2012 water usage in the city was the highest since 2001, the year before our last worst year. And that, even though households all over town have turned off their outdoor spigots, rolled out weed barrier, and spread rocks to create moonscapes.

The water that flows from our taps is surface water, starting out as mountain snow. Seventy per cent of our water is from the Colorado River basin. Snow pack in that basin stands at 40% of average. It would take very large amounts of wet spring snow to pull us up to average. An unlikely eventuality.

Currently, Colorado Springs is on voluntary outdoor watering restrictions. Residents are asked to water only once a month this winter in order to preserve their landscapes and conserve our common resource.

Mandatory restrictions for the growing season are almost guaranteed. Although the final word hasn’t been spoken, in all likelihood, we’ll be restricted to watering two days a week and charged a fee for using more than 2000 cubic feet a month. To put this in perspective, the flat corner lot — about 4500 sq ft of lawn and gardens — received from 2025 to 3584 cubic feet a month from June through September last year. I divided the garden into 3 sections, and watered each section twice a week. While nothing perished, it was far from a banner year. For most of the summer, the lawn crunched under foot.

With a few careful strategies and some changes in design, the garden will come through. There isn’t a gardener alive who hasn’t experienced set backs, bad years, and disappointments. Years like these help us become better gardeners, if we’ll learn to adapt and keep our spirits up.

What’s disturbing, is this: Ultra, a Texas-based oil and gas company has purchased 18,000 acres of mostly undeveloped land within the city limits. They have been granted two state permits for drilling exploratory wells on that land. Our city council believes that our land use regulations could be adapted to allow oil and gas drilling within the city.

We’re talking hydraulic fracturing, folks, right here in no-river city. And while Colorado Springs Utilities hasn’t yet been approached as a source for the water required to frack the earth, their number crunchers have determined they could, if they were asked.

Seriously? Our urban forest can die for lack of water, our gardens shrivel, and our lawns turn to dust, but there’s enough water to frack? Seriously? In a state where rainbarrels are illegal because every drop that falls on the land belongs to farmers and other enterprises downstream, you can even consider taking 5 to 50 million gallons of water per well and rendering it unfit for any other use?

Fracking isn’t new and it certainly isn’t isolated to Colorado Springs. However, the local issue is representative of the larger one. In a world where demands on water for life’s basic necessities are outstripping supplies, destroying water for profit sounds more like a war crime than a smart idea. And the local issue is where I feel empowered to take a stand.

The odds of standing down the oil and gas companies are stacked. They’re attempting to lull us with a spate of radio and television ads telling us fracking is as good for us as loaf of sliced bread. However, if enough good people tell our city council to just say NO, maybe we could defend our home on the range and be the seed of something bigger.

The Chinese character for crisis is formed from the characters for danger and opportunity. Gardeners face adversity and turn it into a chance to improve our skills. I’m counting on the gardener in every person to face the danger of fracking and turn it into an opportunity to move our country into a wiser relationship with water and earth.

Home is Where Your Madness Blooms

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Last summer, hanging a week’s worth of gardening garb out to dry, I noticed that some of the T-shirts were more faded on the back than in the front. Chuckling to my self, I thought, “You know you’re a gardener when this happens.” Quicker than the proverbial wink, the question followed: When did I actually know I was a gardener? Did it really begin when grade-school-me planted carrots in the sandbox outside the kitchen door?

Those questions sprouted into something tasty, like one of those beds of multi-colored lettuces. When does a person become a gardener? Are we born this way? Does some latent gene kick in when we’re exposed to grandparents bending over a zinnia or row of beans? Or is it environmental? Is there a virus that enters through the eye, under the fingernails, or in the perfume of a peony? How do you know you’re a gardener? What are the signs? Is it madness?

I’d been listening to my own true confessions on this obsession when I encountered a blog called PJGirl. There, I learned you just might know you’re a gardener if, after an hour of gardening first thing in the morning, you realize you’re outdoors in your pajamas. Madness delighfully confirmed.

Here we are. It’s February, and all the gardeners we know (in the northern hemisphere, that is) are swooning over seed catalogs or readying shelves and window sills for those little starter pots. We’re reading books, cleaning and sharpening our tools, sorting thorugh last year’s notes and photos. We’re pining for the smell of mud and can’t wait to come into the house with wet trouser knees. Is this how we know we’re gardeners?

Well, I’d like to find out.

Gardenhood turns two this week, and I turn 60, and the questions just won’t stop.

Today’s questions: Would you like to help me celebrate? Would you be willing to share your true confession? How do YOU know that you’re a gardener? And if you say you’re not, how are you so sure? (Hint, killing plants might actually mean you are). You’ll notice there are no qualifiers here. I didn’t ask you if you’re a real gardener, a talented gardener, or even a successful one.

Let me prime the pump with a few confessions of my own.

You know you’re a gardener when watching a movie — even a thriller or a stunning romance — you’re naming all the plants. Worse yet, you pause the DVD to get a positive ID.

You know you’re a gardener, when you get what it means to have a “gardener’s gap”. Moreover, you have a swath of tan there.

You know you’re a gardener, when you miss weddings, meals with friends, and your monthly book-group meeting because it’s May.

True confessions can be posted in the comment section, or if you’d rather, send an email to gardenhood88@gmail.com.

Thank you for two great years. May your madness bloom with joy.