Saturday, September 27, 2008

Coming Out

So I went out to harvest some beans this morning at our garden at work. I was shocked to discover, upon shelling them, that they are purple and pink! How is it that I knew so little about what I was planting?

Either that, or, as one of the residents here at the youth housing program (my workplace) speculates, they have just taken on the energy of the house. It's an LGBTQ-focused program, and we've ended up with pink beans, purple carrots, and a squash plant that a resident (as documented in a previous post) identified as gay because it was producing only male flowers for the first month of its flowering life.

The youth (age 20) who speculated this morning (about the influence of the house's energy on the garden) identifies as female and will be beginning the biological transformation to female in the next couple months. She has not spent much time in the garden, but was suddenly very excited by these pink beans. "Outside, it's like any other bean," she ruminated, "but inside, it's pink."

It's so easy to be critical of people for failing to appreciate the natural world, but who pays attention to things that have no apparent bearing on their lives? For young people navigating their teenage years, broken homes (or the foster care system), and the sexual and gender prejudices of this society, is it any wonder if they take for granted things others of us hold so dear?

It's wonderful when you find a way in. This young person asked if she could take the beans to make a necklace. "They match my shoes," she said.

I told her she'd have to dry them first. "How?"

And suddenly an item from the garden had relevance to her life; had meaning and thus worth. We can talk all we want about teaching kids about the relationship between human beings and the natural world, but until we make that relationship tangible--and recognizably relevant to their lives--can we expect them to pay attention?

It turns out you dry beans by leaving them on the bush until the pods are dry and brown. Damn. There's still a few left out there, but we'll see if they're still purple and pink once they're dried.

"Who knows, they may turn brown," I said.

"Yeah, maybe it will be just a phase," she said, echoing a sentiment she's surely heard many times, sounding tired of it.

"But for now," I said, "We'll offer all the support they need."

"Cool," she said. "Then we'll eat them."


The daily bounty (from our very small garden):


The mystery bloomer I spoke of in an earlier post has bloomed:

It's "Tricyrtis", according to a reader of this blog, also known as "Toad Lily". Originally found on the rocky slopes of the Himalayas, it now lives in my front yard. SO cool.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery"?

I harvested all my carrots today, and what did I find?

These two sketchy ones, as pale as the undead.

Bunnicula has struck.

After cross-referencing their leaves to that of the other carrots, I came to an alternative explanation: that they are not, in fact, carrots.

But what are they, then? They were growing exactly where I THOUGHT I planted carrots.

They're weird, that's what they are.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Winter Cometh...

Alright, we got our long, hot spell (the second coming of summer), and the tomatoes have finally begun to ripen. Isn't it crazy, though, that so much mental and physical work is expended on these plants for just several weeks of fruit? Maybe some of you out there got a bit more than that--a month or two--but that's with a lot of pampering. They're good, but are they THAT good?

I'm thinking that my fall crop of peas isn't going to amount to much. They're still awfully small. The spinach should be harvestable on time, though, and the chard should last through the winter.

My squash plants at work are not doing so good...all the flower stalks on the inside shriveled up and died, and the leaves have some sort of mold on them. Time's up!

Two days ago I was driving home from work. It wasn't dark yet, but it was raining, I was stuck in traffic, and everybody's lights were on. I suddenly had this memory wash over me--the memory of what it's like in the other Seattle, the Seattle that exists for the other eight months of the year. The one where it's dark a lot, and wet, and we all tuck inside of ourselves and become contemplatives or depressives, depending on our individual temperaments or the mood of the day. It really is shocking to me how the mood of this city, and of its inhabitants, shifts so dramatically between seasons.

And the gardens...

When I call myself a novice, I should add that I'm not a TOTAL novice. For several years I have established summer gardens, in the high desert of Utah where I formerly lived (when I wasn't traveling). I prepared the beds and planted the plants and even did a bit of weeding, but somehow I managed never to be around for the harvest, and every year I started a new garden in a new place, generally at a friend's house rather than my own (as I didn't usually have one of my own), so I never had a sense of continuity, and I never thought long-term. This is the first year where I will not only be gardening into winter, but preparing the beds for next year when I will (God-willing) garden again in the same spot. Woo-hoo!

I'm nervous. I'm reading to get ready. I'm reading Binda Colebrook's Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest and, of course, Steve Solomon's Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. This is the plan for our plot at the p-patch:

Leave the young Chard and Kale in one patch for winter greens, and for the rest, bring in a bunch of compost and mix it in. This is to raise the overall soil level, as our plot has managed to sink...or perhaps our neighbors' plots have just managed to rise? Either way, we've become the swale, and that's no good.

Then we will mix in a bit more compost, dolomite lime, and fava beans shallowly into the top 2-3" of the soil and let the cover crops go wild.

It's gonna be a bit less work this winter than it has been this summer, isn't it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Up Close and Equanimous

Two apple trees close together among drifts of wild, fallen grasses. The lower branches, leafless, bracket the underside of the joined canopies with their crisp gestures, their broken and tapered joints and ends. Behind the trees a ribbon of mist lies across the field, silver and dull orange, slightly gold. The sun rises inside it, its light diffused, a light blub inside a lampshade.

It's dawn. The cool of Fall has begun to infiltrate the days, eating away at them from both ends, morning and night. I am squatting, both hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea. Two deer are eating fallen apples under the trees, and one appears to have wedged an apple too far back in its jaw, so that it starts jerking its head to dislodge it. A funny thing to witness. A moment.

I just returned from a Vipassana meditation course, ten days of silence and a grueling routine of sitting, broken only three times a day for an hour or so at a time for eating and walking. (Yes, I post-dated the last couple entries. Tricky, I know; will you forgive me? I'm bound to do it again.) There is so much I could say about it, and halfway through my time there I had developed a series of starting points, a blueprint, for a humorous, poignant, elegant-yet-gruff written treatise on the experience of a first-timer at a meditation course. Then I realized all the scheming was just one more way my mind had of salvaging itself from the present moment. Of escaping. Thinking about the future to avoid being fully with the present.

Nonetheless, I was left with some observations. Some moments. And, as a responsible citizen blogger, whose duty it is to speak of gardens and gardening and all things that are at least minimally-related (or can be minimally-related with a little creative effort) to gardening, I am going to offer you some of these observations.

The grounds of the meditation center (in Southwestern Washington) include a small, dishevelled garden and a couple fields for walking, bordered by woods. There is no excess of design, or indulgence of aesthetic sense; there is hardly a design at all. The point of the grounds is to host a deep "operation" of the mind-matter phenomenon, after all, not to put people at ease.

The wild animals on the grounds, though, are remarkably at ease. Clearly they've learned that the worst a strolling meditator is going to do is stare at them for an unnervingly, impossibly long time.

And this is precisely what happens there. Everything gets stared at, pondered, ingested, digested, dissected, grokked. We are not allowed to bring any diversions into the center, which includes books and journals and drawing pads in addition to electronic items, but the mind is remarkable in its ability to make diversions out of anything, and so the little things that we usually breeze past on our way to more important, bigger, more impressive things, get a lot of attention. They're what is left. And they, too, become objects for meditation.

The bumble bees on the sedum blooms. Every day, all day, the blooms were crawling with bees. I would sit down right next to them and watch the bees six inches away. I would watch their movements, look into their eyes (they never looked back into mine--other insects, yes, but bees, I learned, are just too busy). Put myself in their shoes, feel their movements as they made them, try to feel what it is like to be a bee. They would crawl the blooms incessantly, sticking their nectar-straws into every tiny flower, over and over, probing for dregs.

In the morning I would go check on them. The bees would be passed out on the flowers, like party-goers, drunk with nectar, who never made it home. Do they have a home? Are they far from it? I would wonder these things. I would lean down close and blow slightly, then slightly harder. One would stir, lifting a lazy leg like, "What? Go away." If it was a warm day and warmed up quick, they would start work fairly early, but if it was a cold day they wouldn't start 'til noon. At some point, though, they would awaken, and right away the work day would begin. They'd start before they were even able to fly. Crawling half an inch or so across the surface of the bloom and unfurling their proboscis groggily, they'd take their first sip.

The best cure for a hangover is another drink, right?

There was the caterpillar with the legs like sea glass, translucent green. The soft, dense, hairless body like a piece of clouded, speckled jade. The two little specks of its eyes, disturbingly human in relative proportion to the size of its head. When I touched it, finally (I just can't resist; I'm a meddler), it condensed into a smaller, harder version of itself, humped its back, and squirted three jets of slightly-green liquid out of orifices on its side. I reacted quickly, rubbing the juice off my hand onto the tree, then on my pants. I waited a moment to see if my flesh started dissolving.

And, finally, the grasshopper. The grasshopper returned my stare. No matter that I caught it, when I opened my hand again it chose to stay. It looked right at me. From several inches away I saw my reflection in its eye. It's big, Jiminy Cricket eye. The carapace of its upper body was square as a box. The cluster of palps (the tiny appendages under its chin) was like the underside of a very small crab, pale green, pale as an eggshell. It's legs were serrated, with hooks for feet and after the hooks small, flat, paddles. For swimming? For ping pong? For smackin' fools down?

It didn't move, except its palps, once, which came alive and twittered together for a moment. Was it talking? Just making sure they still worked? I tried to crawl inside its skin, to become it, but it wouldn't let me. I am me, it seemed to assert, you are you; let's keep it that way. It was opaque, impenetrable. It would die soon, when the temperatures in winter fell to freezing. It would freeze and its consciousness would go where consciousnesses go and what would be left would be like a twig, a hollow carapace, then nothing. I was aware of this. I was aware of this in me, too. Death is so real, so unavoidable, and yet it is impossibly opaque. We cannot alleviate our fears with knowledge. There is no flashlight that reaches to the back of that cave. How does one prepare for death? How does one accept it? What does one do?

It moved suddenly, after many long minutes had passed; a ripple went through its legs as each lifted and set on my skin, one after another, like it was making sure that none were attached to my hand. Then all of its palps opened like fingers, to grasp the air or take a breath or accept everything all at once no matter what. There was a slight lean forward, like a helicopter, and then it became a tiny explosion of whisked color and was gone.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Garden Updates

I just can't get enough of this chard, but it can't seem to get enough of itself either. This stuff is SO ridiculously abundant it's almost getting annoying, like someone who talks too much. No matter how articulate (productive) they may be, you just want to say, "Enough already!"

Selectively allowing for volunteers at the border of our plot at the p-patch has created this motley of flowers that attract beneficial insects. Fennel and Marigolds:

The cinderblock bed at work is overgrown, to say the least:

But on a tomato plant laden with hundreds of tomatoes (literally, the "Sweet Millions" tomatoes have HUNDREDS of little green tomatoes on them), only a few a day are ripening. Without all the heat and sunlight, there's just not enough sugars to go around, I guess. I'm hoping for a sustained hot spell soon that will send them into a flurry of ripening.

The greens are very happy in general:

And I just can't get over this toma-bow:

Except that now I'll be forced to, 'cause only seconds after taking this photo, I ate half of it.

And Who Could Prune a Tree So Perfect?

Only the wild, I think.

Where does art come from?

I got into a conversation with a young man on the trail. A tall kid with an incisive mind. When we spoke of natural beauty, and I called it creative, he said, "It's not creative; it's creation. It's what our whole sense of beauty is based off of."

Of course.

The ancient Taoists, in the creation of their art, sought to model--through close observation and alignment with the natural way of things--the harmony of the natural world. They strove, through a sort of meditative state, to channel the Tao through themselves unimpeded. Thus, the art they made would be less a work of self-expression, and more a work that is expressive of The Way (the literal translation of "The Tao"), the natural harmony of the universe.

It's a wonderful approach to creativity. A way to be in touch with something bigger than just ourselves. A way to grow closer to the world.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Song for a Sedentary Summer

This is the first summer in ten years that I haven't spent mostly in the wilderness. The first sedentary summer of my adult life. All previous summers have been spent with youth, in the wild places of the West, backpacking. I've led fun trips and I've led not-so-fun trips. I've led therapeutic trips and I've led less-than-therapeutic trips. I've spent over 600 nights in the field in every kind of weather.

Giving it up has been surprisingly easy.

I never thought I could love the settled life so much. Give me stability! Give me routine! Give me the same damn thing over and over again, day in and day out.

Gardening is the place I go when I want to discover, or remember, the mutability of the day-to-day. Underneath the veneer of unchanging routine is a changeless fact: All things are in constant flux. Nothing is the same from one day to the next. Even the seasons, rhythmically recurring and seemingly regular, vary from year to year in their temperatures, timing, particular weather conditions, and surprises (hurricanes, for example).

One need only pay attention.

Today I noticed that this plant I planted last fall--I really have no idea what it is, my brother gave it to me--is finally starting to bud. I'd given up on it, figured it wouldn't bloom this year. But now it's begun, and the fact that I have no idea what it's going to be is really, really cool.

But as much as I enjoy research, I also love surprises. And these days, with all the world's information at our fingertips, it's getting harder and harder to be surprised. At times I purposefully neglect to gather information.

When I know I'm going to see a movie, I won't watch the trailer. There are times when I've been traveling that I've opted to leave the guide book buried in my pack for a week or two. It seems a little silly, but there it is.

But I digress. What I was going to say is that EVEN though I am loving this sedentary summer, I recognize my own propensity toward extremes, and figured it would be important to balance the sedentary-ness by getting out backpacking at least once. And of course I always have to drag some young people along.

Mission Accomplished! When: last weekend. Where: Foss Lakes, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Weather: Terrible.

It seems we encountered what seems to have been the ONLY ridiculously bad weather in the region. When I returned and asked people how the weather had been in Seattle, they said, simply, "fine." As if they couldn't fathom why I might ask the question.

As if they simply wouldn't believe that most of our youth had spent the last night of the trip eating dinner in their bare feet and underwear because all their clothes were wet; that they preferred near-nakedness in the cool drizzle to their sodden clothes.

Yes, it was rough. It was tough. It was tumble and it was definitely stumble. It was soaked and sore and stubbed and short-tempered and tried-patience and quiet mornings that lasted all of twenty minutes. It was backpacking with six youth who had never been backpacking, c'est la vie.

In the end, we marched into the Mountain View Diner in Gold Bar, in long underwear and soggy boots, plunked down, ordered burgers the size of our heads, and called it a great trip.

The amazing thing about young people is their resilience. I was not soaked to the extent that they were (mostly because I put my rain gear on when it started raining rather than after I got wet), but if I had been, I would have been twice as miserable as them. They took it in stride. Perhaps they didn't know better. Perhaps they thought this is what backpacking IS. And it is, I suppose, sometimes.

It's good to get out there, no matter what. My love of gardening (though still fairly nascent) and my love of the wilderness are inseparable. I would even go so far as to say that together they represent the two sides of being human. There is the portion of me that is fairly domestic, which I can know, cultivate, control. And there is the portion of me that is wild; that will always be outside my sphere of absolute knowledge; that is rife with the unknown; that is not a sheltered garden but a wilderness in which frigid rains may fall.

I must allow it to remain this way, not only because it is freeing to do so, but because to attempt to cultivate everything--as we know, now, from the study of ecology--is ultimately destructive. We cannot effectively control what we do not understand, and we will never understand everything.

Which doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to understand it.

Funny enough, in gardening one is forced to recognize that even in the sphere within which we claim knowledge, we are still responding always to new things, new developments. The world is in constant flux. Pests arrive in irrationally large numbers, something doesn't fruit for no apparent reason, a raccoon digs up a bed. We exist in a living continuum. It moves, and we have to move with it.

If we let it, it keeps us on our toes. It makes us pay attention. And if we keep paying attention, then what?

My guess is that I'll learn something.