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.

 

In Time

It’s been a year since my last post. Like, to the day.

I’ve been debating whether or not to start up again. Well, actually, for nearly the whole year. Today, there was a sign. Or, I took it as one.

IMG_5155I mean what are you supposed to do when a bouquet of daffodils flies over your house? Seriously. What would you have done?

This was the final balloon classic in Colorado Springs. Shortly after this beauty flew north past my house, it was caught in a change of current that took it west. Then I watched it descend, most likely landing in a parking lot a few blocks away. I don’t know if these are signs, as well. We should know in time.

Home Springs Eternal

 
It is spring, my decision, the earth
ferments like rising bread…
        Margaret Atwood

crocus 3 march 13

Look closely. Crocus blading up through last October’s leaves on the flat corner lot.

I hear the word everywhere. Tiny crinklings as remnants of snow collapse: spring. Silver piping from the scout robin: Spring. Moaning coos escaping the ring-necked doves anxious for young: SPRING. First crocus, crocus blooming, crocus across the street, the gardeners chime: spring.

I have mixed feelings about spring.

There, I’ve said it. A gardener. I have mixed feelings about spring.

I have the expected, the normal feelings. Air that is both fresh and warm, air that is scented by awakened soil, air with a blush of humdity: Breathing this kind of air kindles exuberance. This kind of air through my hair and on my cheeks stands me up taller.

The first glimpse of green, always looked-for and yet always a surprise, is like meeting a new friend, one who seems utterly familiar.

…and yet… and yet…

Like the warning chords from the sound track of Jaws, these very delights set off a cold stream of ambivalence, as well.

I’m not a gardener who pines through winter. Not anymore, anyway. I don’t pour over catalogs or wish it wouldn’t snow. And the main reason I go through photos from the summer before, is to organize them. There isn’t time to organize them in the summer. And therein lies the rub.

Summer yields so little time.

Unlike many friends working in schools, offices, and firms of many sorts where summer offers vacation days and relaxing weekends, my summers are heaped with work. Winter is spacious, cordial, a break in routine. I get to try new things, see more friends, play. In summer, while my friends are playing and enjoying their gardens, I’m working in other peoples’ gardens and barely have time for my own.

I make time for my own, of course. Such an odd phrase — making time — as if it could be whipped up out of things you find in the fridge. Really, time isn’t made, it’s borrowed, stolen, traded. Until the next thing you know, you haven’t cooked in three weeks, you’re completely out of clean clothes, you can’t remember the last time you called your mother, and you’re friends have given up. It’s 9 PM on a Saturday; you’re standing in the gloaming with a hose in your hand; you really need a shower, supper, and a glass of wine; and you look up to Heaven and say outloud, “Do I ever get to do anything but garden?” But the One Who is Usually Listening just chuckles.

(Audible sigh). Yes. I sometimes feel ambivalent about spring.

Last year, I taught myself a gesture. When I felt summer crowding me, I jabbed my elbows out from my sides with a grunt. Then, I’d have to laugh, it felt so good.

It is spring. My decision: Summer is properous and relaxing, home and garden springs of time.

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.

Homeward

canada_geese

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.

down goose feather

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.