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.

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.

Home is Where Your Madness Blooms

on the line

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.

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.

Good Rest

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Good rest! And as you settle in,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember that the light within
Still glimmers through this day,
That you might, with a gentle pow’r,
All suff’ring cause to sway.
 
With sparkles of divinity
Each blessed soul is born.
The image of Eternity
Marks every blessed form.
And all who come to honor this
Will banish human scorn.
 
And so, with ev’ry breath you take
To Spirit you give voice.
Be mindful that it’s love you make;
It is a holy choice.
With ecstacy your birthright,
In every day rejoice!
 
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy!
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
 

Commitment

Sometimes the gardener is herself the garden.

I’m two-thirds of the way through year 59, and I’ve been decisively editing my attitudes.

Here and there were habitual thoughts that had grown so thick and spread so wide, they were choking out other thoughts, more useful ones, happier ones, even prettier ones.

I’ve tried tackling these habits in the traditional way, by getting to the root of them. I mean, don’t we think that if we get to the bottom of some issue, understand how it became an issue in the first place, we can correct it?

What works with dandelions or rampant campanula doesn’t always work with the psyche.

So, with some forthright guidance from my long-time nutrition counselor, Marsha, I changed tactics. I’ve done two things: Deeply accepted the state of my mental weed patches, and loved myself anyway. I stopped denying that I was terrified about my future and gave thanks for my present. I said out loud that I was tired of being fat and gave thanks for my strength and flexibility.

Next thing I knew, I was getting an inkling of what might bring me joy. I accepted being anxious about not knowing how to get from here to there, and let myself imagine all the joy anyway.

One morning, I looked in the mirror and saw a dear and remarkable friend. I said to her, “I weigh 147 pounds.” And we giggled at each other. I actually weighed considerably more than that, even though I’d reached my “summer low”. It was the same summer low I’d reached over the last several years, the low that let’s me zip the skinny jeans, and still the low I was never able to crack.

It felt so good to say I weigh 147, that I kept right on saying it. I’d say it as I got in the car, and my posture changed. I’d say it walking down the street, and my step lightened. I’d say it standing in front of my open closet and choose different clothes.

A few weeks ago, I stepped on the scale. It must have been wrong. I stepped off and stepped on again. Four times. It read 5 pounds below the summer low. A week later, 7 pounds below. The skinny jeans not only zip, the muffin top is gone.

Today, I took all my winter and early spring jeans, capris, and skirts to Goodwill.

As to the joyful future I’ve let myself imagine: To be continued…

Comfort and Joy

Snow, at last, illumines the gardenhood. I went out before the sun rose to clear the walks. The sky, a deep Virgin’s blue, was crowned by the waning crescent moon. It was cold enough to give the air weight. Still a northerner at heart, I revel in mornings like this and seem to require one to fully awaken the sense of wonder, gratitude, and awe that dance in the holiday spirit. Carols and lights and the scent of fir trees help, yet there’s nothing like snow.

Jacket over hoody, thick wool socks and mittens, my heaviest jeans. By the time the mountain and spired conifers were gilded, work had warmed me through. Scrape, toss, scrape, toss – there is a lot of sidewalk around this flat corner lot. I stilled my shoveling often, changing postures, admiring the light and the sugar-fine comforter settled over everything.

How is it that crystalized air, frigid white powder from deep space, and back-aching labor give rise to a sense of well-being and delight?

“Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”

Indoors, Ed the arctic white cat, remains. He’s having nothing of this wintry weather and its shiny deposit. We slept like stones, me under and he atop three inches of down rolled out for the occasion. Instead of prowling the fence-line for thrills, he’s attacking the stuffed mouse, tossing, batting, pouncing, biting, rolling on his back and scratching it with all four paws. I admire his adaptability. He prefers expeditions beyond the backdoor. He also prefers certain temperatures and dry toes. He makes his own fun, finds the windows, kneads my lap. All, it seems, on his own terms.

Another lifetime ago, suffering from extreme seasonal affective disorder, the approach of Christmas sent me spiraling, and not upward. The pressures to be cheerful, to make gifts, to out-bake my mother-in-law all rode me hard. What I craved was quiet, intimacy, reflection, and beauty. What I engaged in was manic activity and too many well-fed conversations in overheated, brightly lit rooms.

In the year following my deepest depression, with all my body chemistry telling me to hunker down and my psyche wanting a cure, I chucked the baking and the gifts. Imagine the strangeness of such an abdication in a Christmas-crazed society. Well, desperate times call for something untried.

My hands empty and calendar clear, my bloodstream untroubled by sugar, I listened. The eternal theme of the season kept calling to me: the coming of light to a darkened world, hope to the darkened soul. I put on my snowshoes, and took myself into the mystery, the slumbering woods, the quiet. I trekked out of the comfort zone of making traditional merry and into the comfort that evidenced eternity, that yielded joy. My entire relationship to Winter and to its timeless holidays was transformed. I grew to love Winter and take comfort in the rest it afforded.

Now that I live in an urban forest, is it any wonder that I revel in a dark, snowy morning?

I confess, I still pressure myself to have a merry Christmas and contribute to the merriness of friends and family. I worry that I’ll spend the day alone, won’t get asked to parties and concerts, will spend too much money, forget or disappoint someone. Crazy, I know. Even worthless old habits die hard.

At least now I can do more than fret and compete in the “merry-thon”. I can wake up in the thinning darkness and, with a quiet playfulness, answer an invitation made by fresh snow out into the bleak midwinter garden to find shimmers of glory and glimmers of peace.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Blessed Solstice. Happy Hanukkah.

May you find comfort and joy.