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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Homeward

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Each winter morning, about 7:30, their cries preceed them.

I step outside as they fly into view. It only takes a few minutes for them to fill the air above the flat corner lot. Sometimes they are so low, I can hear the sky wafting through their stiff wings. Part trumpet, part bark, their voices inspirit the newly risen sun, the praising trees, and the admiring witness below. Encouraging each other, swapping places, their loose chevron makes its way south from the historic public golf course where they sleep to the park memorializing fallen firefighters where they feed. Canada geese, scores of them, permanent residents in our town.

I remember Linda.

Her cancer was in remission when Linda entered the graduate program. Her faith, however, her joy, her enchantment with life hadn’t seemed to abate one tiny bit. It seemed she loved learning all she could about anyone around her. Linda listened disarmingly well. She laughed easily. She seemed freely poised to become a brilliant counselor.

The University of  Wisconsin in Superior occupies unremarkable brick buildings across the harbor from Duluth, Minnesota. Not long after fall semester begins, nights grow quickly and chill deeply. Linda’s bright, warm presence in class rewarded my weekly trips 110 miles down the dark two-lane highway.

Nearing mid-terms, she was absent. One week, no big deal, but two weeks? Linda came to class one more time, her head wrapped in a gorgeous scarf, her eyebrows thinning, her face pale but brilliantly alight. Her doctor still hoped this round of treatment would send her cancer back into hiding, but she wouldn’t have the strength to rejoin us until afterward. She gave us her address and phone number, saying she would love to stay in touch.

I was nervous about calling. Linda’s illness presented me with uncharted terriory. What would I ask? What could I say? Her courage and cheer were irresistable, however, and I was fascinated by her journey. She welcomed me with apparent pleasure.

At the time of my visit, she’d been told: the cancer overwhelming her colon ignored the chemical attempts to stop it. Time was limited. Pain could be controlled. Loss of life force could not. She would leave. Husband. Household. Family. Church. Friends. And yet she wouldn’t be conquered. She laughed. She showed me photographs. She told her favorite stories. And when I cried in marvel and elated sorrow, she cried, too.

From the loft of my tiny house, standing on the edge of a broad, silent meadow, I heard them. Crooning calls, hundreds of them. Their long lines, fresh from the arctic, waved through the graying sky. At the sight of Lake Superior, they directed each other to turn east, toward Duluth, toward the house where Linda rested between visitors, between breaths, between worlds. The Canada geese took turns in the lead, each winging body easing the way for the one in its draft. Going home. South or north, they were always going home.

When the air was again silent, I took out a box of crochet threads. Black, warm grays, downy white. And I made a small pouch. I don’t remember, now, what I put in it. There may have been sage, tobacco, a feather.

Trembling, I wrote a letter. I couldn’t know everything she was feeling. I couldn’t know what she would experience. I couldn’t know exactly where it would be or what it would look like. And yet, Linda, I understood that you were going home. I hoped in some small way, this little bundle, embued with the spirit of the geese, would be a comfort on the journey.

In January or February, but during a thaw, I received a letter from Linda’s husband. When she left, she held the bundle. It went with her. She’d asked him to write me because, she’d told him, she knew I would rejoice with her, for her, at the news.

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There have been many prompts to think about home, recently. My trip to Switzerland, the holidays, an upcoming trip to visit Mom in Iowa, the twice daily overhead cries of the geeses, even the current drought in Colorado. This post is the first in a series regarding what it means to be Home. If it sets your own thoughts loose, I’d love to hear from you. Come on home. We’ll have tea.

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.

An August Spring

This marks the sixth week since wildfire poured like lava into the northwest edge of the city.

It may be years before many lives are resettled, homes rebuilt, and traumatized souls find gentle peace.

Even as I witness and feel the ongoing disturbance, now, as I drive up through the devastated neighborhood, a strange thing happens: I feel a welling of joy. I have the great good fortune to be present at a rebirth and to lend a hand.

From the garden I am helping to restore, I see a wild meadow greening. Some of the Ponderosa, given only a few inches of rain, have pushed green needles from their branch tips. Up on the hillside, too far away to photograph, a shrub shines in the Chartreuse glory of new leaves. Birds sing. A hawk cries.

Several helpers and I have been carefully removing what branches and twigs the heat destroyed, revealing new life. The work is irresistable. The young growth makes me giddy.

Around two weeks after the fire, a rose, spirea, Euonymous alata “Compactus” aka dwarf burning bush, and Rose of Sharon had only tiny leaf buds hidden in brown stems. The meadow beyond the garden looked like a moonscape.

Five weeks later…

In the patio bed, lungwort, lupine, hyssop, daphne and more offer all the freshness of May.

Rosa “Nearly Wild” prooves just how tough and cheerful she is.

Petunias in rowdy bloom, were only basal leaves after the firestorm. We keep looking for the wild turkeys to come hunting and pecking through the emergent meadow.

Initially, I’d thought this honeysuckle was gone. It’s not only leafed out, but just beginning to bloom.

Though much here and more elsewhere is lost, the regeneration commands my joyful attention.

The Phoenix

A part of me thinks: the Pheonix isn’t a bird. A part of me thinks: the Phoenix must surely be a plant. Maybe all plants. Maybe a tree.

On July 5th I got a call. “Could you come and assess the fire damage to our garden? We’ll be here all day tomorrow.” Of course. Yes. Look for me in the afternoon.

I needed to go to the burn. I needed to have a reason to go, but I needed to go.  I needed to be present to the charred, the changed, the aftermath, and to the spared.

As I wound up Flying W Ranch Road, sights I’d seen over and again in the media stood there for real. In the neighborhood where I had once worked and my friend, Susan, had once lived, 149 homes lay heaped into their foundations. My heart rose to my throat in a cry.

Swinging left up Chuckwagon, I faced the massive stand of blackened Ponderosa.

Along Linger Way, a cul-de-sac overlooking the city, no house obscured the view.

At the top of Wilson Road, on the west side and flanking the Flying W, three houses gone. One unscathed. I stopped and walked up to the one still standing. Towering Ponderosa, softly whistling in a breeze, but brown.

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

Ten days earlier, on June 26, a firestorm swept down the rugged hills above this home. A blast of heat traveling 65 miles per hour flash-dried leaves, needles, stem tips, flowers. A rain of embers pelted the garden. I can imagine them sizzling in the damp lawn. When they fell into a Mahonia here, an errant juniper there, even the shredded tree mulch, they flared. A patch of Himalayan Border Jewel, next to the front walk blackened. The home, however, had been well-mitigated against wildfire. Firefighters were able to douse the flares.

Gathering my wits, I examined each plant, closely. As I opened smokey stems and peered under sooty leaves, I saw green. After only three douses from the hose, new leaves pushed out along stems. Rosettes flourished on the soil.

I was reminded of entering a garden some days after the first frost had paid a nipping visit. Of course, that’s why we sometimes refer to a frost or freezer burn. The desiccating effect is so similar.

What is the appropriate response to such plant trauma?

For the shrubs and trees, it’s quite simple. Wait and water. Go around every day and applaud each new leaf. Stand in awe. Once they are truly into recovery, maybe a month after the heat blast, prune away what didn’t survive. I’ll probably give them all a gentle foliar tonic of seaweed extract, too.

For perennials and annuals: I cut away the dead. The annuals got a weak fertilization. And I filled the gaps and replaced the perished with gorgeous new stuff. Out of pure gratitude, the homeowners agreed to let everything which had survived stay, even if it will be weeks before they produce another blossom.

Astonishingly, none of the hummingbird feeders, glazed ceramic containers, nor faux terracotta tubs were damaged by the heat.

Behind the upright fuchsia, a red star cordyline and magenta geranium, though somewhat skeletal, are growing like Ethyl Merman sings, full tilt: Everything’s coming up roses.

From the destruction and the ash.

The Phoenix must truly be a plant.

Letting Things Be

It’s getting close to cut-back time in the gardenhood. Close, but not quite. I need to rest in winter’s processes a while longer.

Most of the neighbors swept their leaves into plastic sacks months ago. Their yards are as tidy as winter allows. The only rake I touched pulled the leaves from a patch of lawn under the front yard crab on to the shade bed. Otherwise, I’ve left every stalk to blanch and let winds gather last summer’s canopy around dry stems and slumbering rosettes.

Frankly, it’s a mess.

The garden hasn’t developed winter interest. It’s sparsely planted and immature, lacking the textural carpets, architectural elements, and focal points that carry garden aesthetics through a brown Colorado winter. Even so, I couldn’t bare the thought of taking anything down.

There’s a very practical benefit: Everywhere the leaves have stayed, the soil remains moist and frozen. This, despite no snow for a month. I checked just yesterday, when the temperature flirted with 60 degrees, and the sun came and went behind April-dressed clouds. It comforts me to know that below the unkempt surface all is as it should be. Life continues.

I’ve needed to be with the garden as it is, to hang fussy habits in a crowded closet and rest. I find it quieting to watch the red cabbage, which never flourished in depleted soil, as it discolors and droops. The once proud iris leaves prostrate themselves and pale. Seed heads topple and spill. Stems crack and bend at strange angles.

Observing all this without interrupting it for pretty’s sake has been a tonic for grief-frayed nerves. Following last year’s departure and falling away, I’ve had some healing to do. Many friends have experienced great loss, rough transitions, and trauma as well. I seem to feel each one with them, more acutely than before. The garden, in its dormancy, soothes me by its example: Nothing is defeated, only submitting, changing, returning to earth.

Twenty years ago, on a Pacific beach in Nicaragua, I found shell after shell worn to pink and cream translucence. Held up to the sun, warmth and light shown through them, making them feel alive in a way, surely transformed from the husks of protection they had once been. I was inspired. I wanted to become translucent, too. Then, I was struck with terror, understanding the enormous forces involved.

Some while ago, a previous gardener tossed handfuls of small shells into the long parking median turned street garden on this flat corner lot. Now and then one surfaces, dirty, in tact. Taken away from pounding surf and constant tides, hidden in the soft darkness of the soil, they won’t ever polish thin enough for sunlight to shine through. I like to imagine how they got there, but I don’t envy their fate.

So, this winter, I’m witnessing the forces of nature in the garden and the forces of life in myself. Despite the tumble-down appearance of both, all is well. Below the surface, we are waiting for spring and very much alive.

Edward the Handsome

Edward the Handsome, though snow-white, hasn’t an arctic bone in his feline body. It was officially cold in the gardenhood earlier this week, minus ten one morning. He asked politely to be let out the back door. Each time he stepped head and shoulders onto the stoop, lifted his nose for scents, and curled back around to the kitchen.

I had my suspicions, but never knew this about Ed. You see, he lived for 13 or so years with my dad. There, until last March, he played second, third, or fourth fiddle to the dogs. I didn’t see much of him when I visited. Since then we’ve had the chance to learn a lot about each other.

He had access to the outside world whenever he wanted it, through a pet door which Dad, stubborn spoiler of animals, duct taped open day and night. Pokey, the last of Dad’s canine companions, wouldn’t press through the plexiglass flaps. With the doors permanently open, Pokey could run out and bark at crows or squirrels whenever he pleased, and mice, racoons, and skunks found their way in to bowls of food and a litter of untouched treats and chews. What a nightmare.

Yet despite his low ranking, intruders to his safe place, and constant access to a world of other possibilities, Edward the Faithful stuck around. When Pokey departed, Ed lent Dad his furry and lanky self for petting, warmth, and comfort. Dad was mighty grateful. Later, when incontinence got the better of him, Dad would say he was wet and stinky because Eddy jumped on his tummy, releasing his bladder. It might have been a feeble story, but it was the only face-saving logic Dad had. Ed didn’t seem to take it personally.

Later, when Dad no longer had the wherewithal to object, the pet door was shut. Edward the Remaining learned to use it. That was my first witness to just how smart, or at least adaptable, Ed the cat is.

By then, sundowning syndrome disrupted what was left of Dad’s daily routine. In a large shaky script, Dad wrote “6:30 CHORES” on a sheet of paper and left it on the stove. These chores were feeding the birds and squirrels, taking a walk, and feeding Ed. Sadly, predictably, the note to self didn’t help. Ed got used to asking sweetly and getting fed by whichever child was on hand. And when he wasn’t out for a bit of sun and a roll in the dirt, Ed coiled and stretched next to Dad, in the double recliner in the TV room or on his bed. Then, only on his bed.

Ed snuggled next to Dad’s left hip through the wee hours of the Wednesday morning when a thundering wind helped Dad fly home.

The moon-white cat has lived in this tiny, flat-roofed house for a month now. He’s been a good sport, considering. He’s had to teach me a few things, too. For starters, the expensive good-for-the-senior-kitty food – both kibble and canned – simply won’t do. “Give me what Ol’ Merlie gave me, or I won’t eat.” The message was clear. Secondly, all the enrichment in the world doesn’t equal the thrill of being terrified by a flock of geese chatting as they wing over. “Trust me. I’ll be careful. But unless I go outside, I will refuse to thrive.” Not at all last is this: “Petting is done on my time. I initiate.”

He’s made a few concessions and even some pleasant discoveries. He accepts that canned food comes twice a day and kibble is nibbled in between. He watches the cursor dash about the computer screen. Toys are actually fun. Catnip rocks. In his old house, the curtains were always drawn and the windows high and practically without sills. Here, windows are better than TV for entertainment, and the sun comes through them, too.

Edward the Comfortable has found every sunny spot and moves from one to the next as they change. He has also discovered my lap. Although his new and oddly familiar person doesn’t sit still nearly as long nor as regularly as Ol’ Merlie, which is somewhat annoying to the boy, he often prefers my lap to sofas, chairs, or the bed.

This morning before sunrise, Ed and I both stepped onto the back stoop. He jumped down for his morning roll, and I wondered at the moon being bitten into a crescent by the shadow of the earth. What glow remained reflected the early evening light half-way around the world. I marveled at the dance of orbs, of light chasing dark chasing light, the wholeness and perfection of it all. The urge rose to run back in and call Dad to have him step outside and share the eclipse. I don’t imagine that urge will ever go away.

Instead, after his promised careful perusal of the back yard, Edward the Handsome ran up the straight walk from the shed to the stoop. We both went inside to warm up and welcome the dawn.