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.

water feature after fire

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.

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Homely: A Valentine

the old home garden

Sleeping Bear Oasis, where I garden before the flat corner lot.

Would it be a stretch to say you love your garden? It might frustrate you from time to time (OK, a lot). There may even be times you want to tear out whole beds. Start over. Walk away. Then, there are the moments you wrap your hands around a mug of favorite brew and take a stroll. You might bend to lift a flowery face or pinch away a browned leaf, but mostly you just look, even admire. This isn’t because there’s nothing to do, no weed to pull, no hose to drag. It’s simply because you want to visit, to be together with your garden.

You might grab your camera and snap photo after photo of the same greenly emerging bun, the same trio of lilies, the same burnished ferns that you photographed last week, last year, or the year before. Approaching plants just like the children you adore, you only wish you could say, “Smile for me, honey.” If you’re like me, you probably do say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful.”

“Most of us intuitively believe that the things we labor at are the things we love…” wrote Shankar Vedantam in Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even if It’s Crooked which aired on NPR’s morning edition on 6 February 2013. “What if… it isn’t love that leads to labor, but labor that leads to love?”

To pursue the question, Vedantam spoke with Tulane University Marketing professor, Daniel Mochon, about a phenomenon he calls the Ikea Effect. “Imagine that you built a table,” Mochon said. “Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you’re the one who created it. It’s the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.”

From a marketing director’s point of view, this effect is a great way to get people in the door. For every person who has ever struggled against criticism, Mochon says, “Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.”

Any gardener who has successfully pruned an overgrown red twig dogwood knows the truth of that.

In the business world, however, it turns out the Ikea Effect has a definite downside. It can cause a detrimental loss of objectivity. After laboring on a concept for a couple of months, the person working on the project or an entire company may fall in love with their idea and not see its flaws. It becomes a failed project, and time and money are lost.

To some extent, we gardeners are subject to the same failing. And I think we can turn it to our advantage.

Some years back, my old garden was suggested as a possibility for a garden tour. A statewide organization of garden clubs sent a representative from Denver to deem whether or not my garden was worthy. She came before I had a chance to do some planned maintenance, and I arrived home in time to see her standing in the mess, gesturing toward a brush pile near a chain-link fence, and shaking her head at the local garden club representative. My face and ears burned with a bit of shame and a dollop of anger.

broom in panorama

Deemed unworthy.

Here is where a gardener has a definite advantage over the Ikea Effect. For two truths were revealed that day: 1) An outsider declared my garden a failed project in business terms. She saw my garden through the objective eyes of one who had a certain standard, which my garden didn’t meet. 2) I loved my garden, anyway. My time and money were far from wasted.

I don’t only mean I loved my garden sentimentally (which I surely did). I mean I loved it by rolling down my sleeves, removing what didn’t belong, and providing what it needed. Even more, I loved it by seeing the uniqueness and beauty it offered, photographing it, and sharing it with friends.

I confess, I often think of the flat corner lot as homely. Budget constraints in time and money haven’t allowed me to fill it with plants and sculpt it with stones. Even so, I love it. Loving a garden transforms both it and the gardener. It allows the gardener to change definitions of beauty. When I look up homely in my German/English dictionary I find the word heimlig, which means atmospheric. The gardenhood cradles the atmosphere of home.

About a million years ago, I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. His love-as-verb approach shook my romantic adolescent concepts of love to the ground. As the Ikea Effect — labor leading to love — jogged my memory of reading Fromm, l had to look up the quotation. He wrote, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissm. It isn’t a feeling, it’s a practice.”

Gardening, too, is a practice by which we come to love.

Returning

From the center of a clutch of undead and pirates standing with open sacks on my front porch, she chimes, “I’m a princess.”

She takes two fun-sized sweets from the basket. “I see! What is the name of your country, Princess?”

She buckles her brow while the others dip into the stash. “I’m dressed UP as a princess,” she says, unbuckling.

“Oh, I understand. I’m dressed up as a grown-up.”

She buckles up again before turning with the others, chorusing thank you down the walk.

Thus begins the fourth year in the gardenhood.

I could have stayed longer in Switzerland. My welcome was robust, and I was so at home. And yet, when I made my travel plans last summer, I wanted to be back by Hallowe’en. I’m happy feeding the goblins.

Last year, the porch was dark. I took the bag of treats to my dad’s house. My brother answered the door. I’d spent half the day planting tulips, narcissi, crocus, and lilies in a new garden. Or was that the next day?

A crew of painters worked on the trim of the portales framing two sides of the garden. One of the young men listened to his i-phone, the 1930’s sound track to The Wizard of Oz. “If pretty little bluebirds fly…” Uncanny. I remembered Dad telling me what a crush he had on Judy Garland. Dad was big on beautiful girls.  A storm was blowing in.

The year before that, I had to put a gate across the studio door. Willie the terrorizer was definitely against the idea of ghouls and toddling bunnies at the front door. This year, the flat corner lot is spooked by Edward the Handsome, a pure white cat, his sea-green eyes pale in twilight. I don’t remember if Ed hid from the begging mobs at Dad’s door last year. Last night, however, he curled and closed his eyes on the futon.

To say Ed is happy I’ve returned from Switzerland wouldn’t be a stretch. He’s spent the last two nights curled up against me in bed and breathes easy now in my lap, head bowed, ears still, answering my slight movements with tiny grasps of his huge, polydachtyl paws.

While I prepared to depart home for home, Sandy blew up the East coast. Friends on both sides of the pond worried about my flights. There was little room in me for angst as I filled my senses with final views of the village I love. Still, in thoughts that crackled like static, I wondered how new blogging friends, Kevin and Donna, were faring. Last I heard, long-ago sweetheart, Les, was living and golfing on Long Island. High school theatre comrades, Erik and Susie, pursued their dreams in NYC. Was everyone safe? How oddly grounding to have my thoughts returning to these people never-seen or last seen forty years ago as the hours droned by and the plane chased the sun to Chicago.

I’m just about 40 hours back in the gardenhood. Leaves cover lawn and beds, collect in small drifts by the chain-link fence, a perfect haunted look for celebrating the supernatural.

I’ve dragged the hose all around, run the duster over the creaking floor gathering up Ed’s generous offerings of kitty down, unpacked my suitcase, and sorted all the contents. I’ve answered all the emails, generated a few more, filled out my mail-in ballot, and paid my bills. With business taken care of and vampires plied with candy, some not-yet-returned part of my consciousness believed I would wake up this morning under Mucca and Maria’s roof. Like Griffin in Men in Black III, parallel universes converge and separate behind my eyes.

The not yet returned part of me expected to wake up here this morning.

The gardenhood waits for my integrated footsteps.

While part of me still walks here, behind Maria and little Anna-Lu, having just bought 6 loaves of fresh bread from a farm an hour’s walk through woods and pastures.

Admiring Mari-Ursla’s work.

Mumala and Anna-Lu under the fig tree in the last of summer’s sun.

Mo sccots to join them.

Stones garnered from wet places, the colors of fog and glaciers.

In the gardenhood, dry-place stones.

Nebbelmeer, a sea of fog, closed the sky over the valleys, but left the mountains in glory.

Rain.

…turned to snow.

The village disappeared from the rest of the world.

Barely visible beyond the gardenhood, the foothill neighborhood of last summer’s fire.

The newly homeless from Sandy’s wake, like those from the Waldo Canyon fire, sleep in so many hotels, spare bedrooms, and livingroom floors, certain cells of their being wondering where they will awaken. Where does a dream end and life begin?

By grace, no trauma has tossed me home from home. I’m returning by dreamy, gentle stages to the gardenhood. Yes, and though my costume is downy from a lap-full of cat, I’m still dressed up as a grown-up.

Homecoming Season

Cowbells chime, are you listening?
In the valley, a river’s glistening.
A beautiful sight.
I’m happy tonight.
Traveling to the lovely Switzerland.

Mucca watching Maria arrive at the Feriehuesli, a little cabin in the woods (2005).

The garden surrounding the Laberehuesli (Swiss dialect for the “little house on Liver Street”), isn’t just an outdoor room in the manner of landscape design parlance. It’s lived in, a place for meals and tea and reading and conversation and celebrating.

While lovingly tended it remains as tussled as curly hair allowed to dry as it will.

I know this garden almost better than my own. I know, too, every sound and scent of the house at its heart.

That’s where I’ll be for the next couple of weeks.

See you in November.