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.

End of Summer

The scent of dryer sheets sneaks into the back yard. It’s how one recognizes a Sunday evening here on the flat corner lot, a stone’s throw from the landmark yellow apartments. I heave the electric mower across long grass, remembering pastures on Swiss slopes, complexly herbaceous. Remembering, too, the mixture of disappointment and amazement as I witnessed their scything, the flowers toppled, the perfumed barns, the milk in my coffee, faintly yellow, easily frothing, signaling my thighs to hike inclines. A fondness for Swiss pastures and the family of friends who wander them, sometimes with me puffing along, fosters a tolerance, even an affection, for overlong turf, dandelions, and the mix of broadleaf hooligans that comprise my lawn.

Only a month ago, lindens confounded mowing evening. It was Sunday, and yet, the heavy, sweet scent pressed no chemical burn up my snout. Then, there we were: stopping our bicycles under a towering, nearly conical tree. Leaves, heart-shaped and delicately fringed, open palms sheltering pale and drooping flowers. My henna-maned companion, Mucca, reaching her small, quick hand, plucking blossoms for tea. We were so young and on our way to swim in the Zurichsee.

No wonder I chose a neighborhood resplendent with mature European lindens. For ten days or so, during the heat-strain and non-stop work of July, I am 34 and on vacation, about to dive into the soul-cleansing mystery of cold, deep water. Uncomprehending the voices around me on the grassy bank, they are a cocoon of music. Surely, I will emerge transformed.

This evening, well past the midpoint of August, dryer sheets and freshly mowed lawn weave into the close up songs of crickets and the farther off drone of traffic. Threaded into this generous tapestry, the echo of voices. She was here. My henna-maned companion and her dearest friend, Maria, together on the mixed herbaceous lawn, swathing me in the music of their nearly incomprehensible dialect.

We took our meals together round the table under the crab out back. Friends came to share in the joy. Mucca’s quick hands were completely at home in my kitchen. Daily, Maria’s surgical precision, chopped chives from the garden. The chives from Deb, now long gone to New Zealand, were planted with the hope of being prepared for such a visit from so far away.

One might imagine that this small house would feel crowded with two more people, exotic and dynamic, filling the spaces, using the bathroom, overtaking the kitchen. But the house got bigger. Such, I suppose, is the expansive nature union.

Ambassadors of a parallel life, they carried a shuttle that wove together a hole in my being, something I hadn’t dreamed could happen. You see, I, too, have occupied their house. I know every window’s view, the song of each hinge, the tumble of the lock. The stairs can’t be ascended in secret. The bread keeps in a muslin cloche on a circular shelf in the corner cupboard. Before their visit, I wrote to Deb that I knew their house better than my own. The truth of this surprised me. And the result of their visit surprises me even more: I am deeply, happily, mysteriously at home.

These are women who know me from another world and time, when I sang and lived out loud. They still ask for sung blessings over food and lullabies. Mucca still listens with tears on her lined, tan cheeks.

Leaning on the doorjamb to the kitchen, I watched them prepare a dinner of salad and potatoes with quark. A favorite meal of Mucca’s because it’s simple, grounding, and homely, it’s one we’ve had so often in their house. How could I have known to ask them, “Cook for me like you do at home.” Should they ever come again, I will.

The chives, translated from Swiss German as “cutting leeks”, have completely regrown. Days are still hot, though the light has become more callow. The sky, a robust blue, fills frequently with towering clouds, and sometimes blesses us with rain. One night, during their visit, Mucca, Maria, and I sat on the front porch in the bent bamboo sofa with its aqua vinyl cushions and let ourselves be cooled and thrilled by a profound storm. When it passed, the crickets took up their chorus, and we were happy together, old comfortable friends, at peace.

Though the flowers I bought for their pleasure have gone to the compost heap, the house, my home, remains spacious, as though emerged, unfurled and dried in the sun.

First, Plant Dreams

I gave up competitive gardening.

That’s how I describe the continental drift in my attitude toward my garden. This has nothing to do with how hard I’m willing to work, nor how long. It has everything to do with how I want to feel. Here, at home, I want to cultivate calm, a sense of spaciousness in which to wonder and observe, an invitation to relax, a measure of delight, and an honest welcome. Yes, and I want to plant food. I might die doing all this, but I certainly don’t want to kill myself over it. You can appreciate the difference.

Before, when I was in the middle of making the previous garden, I wanted to create a landscape that set standards, that shouted “This is Colorado!” I wanted outrageous beauty, a stellar collection of unusual plants, wild success, and the admiration of others – especially those others who know a great garden. At times it seemed I would have died for this.

In 2007, a week before the Fourth and heading into what was bound to be the most brilliant lily season yet, that garden was shattered by hail. Already exhausted, my heart broke. I had to photograph the destruction, and then I couldn’t look at it for many days. Entering that grief, embracing the suchness of the garden in shambles, undid my mooring and set me on my current course. 

Now, having docked for whatever time I’m here, I want to fit in and still freely express myself. I feel no sense of contradiction, no restriction other than practical ones, well, like money.

So what’s my plan?

Everyone has asked me. The most honest answer: I don’t know. This is such a new approach in such a different venue, that I can’t know. But I can discover.

When I moved in, the long parking median on the south side of the lot had once been converted to a flower garden and had been let go. Alright, that’s too kind. It was derelict. I didn’t even know it was a garden at first. Comprised of just over 900 square feet, I figured it was garden enough for my first year. I would clean it up, divide the huge colonies of iris, throw in giveaways from other gardens, and cast a few seeds. Oh, and the empty planter wrapping the southeast corner of the house could be made into an elevated rock garden. Simple enough. As to the rest of the place: I’d buy an electric lawn mower.

About a year ago, I started deviating. Looking out the window of my studio, I could see a rectilinear theme with shrubs and peonies and no rocks nor junipers (though I love them) and everything in shades of red, coral, and creamy yellow. It persisted in getting my attention. So I smothered the front lawn.

In mid-summer, while mowing the back yard, I yearned for a table under the awning of the crab apple. Never mind the huge brush pile from all the dead limbs and weed trees I had cleared and tossed in the center of the yard. That would all be gone someday. As soon as I had a table, there would be meals and friends and wine. It would be just like back gardens in Switzerland, full of leisure and laughter and linens. I extolled this dream to my friends, who all had great suggestions. Then one dear heart, downsizing her patio furniture, made the dream come true. One shining night, under a full moon, we planted the dream of many shared and pleasant meals right under the crab.

No place to store it for winter, the table has stayed put. When I look out from the window over the kitchen sink, friends always surround it.