The Daily Muse

A  Garden Journal -- January 2006

Last Update: January 29

A little boy being presented to his family's church in Guanajuato, Mexico.

I just returned from an extended tour of the heartland of Mexico with my partner Victor and one of our best friends. We spent Christmas with Victor's family and then visited the colonial cities of Morelia, Patzcuaro, Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato. It was quite an amazing tour with many highlights including dozens of spectacular religious structures. I will be building a special page for this website focusing on the sacred architecure of Mexico in the coming days so be on the look-out. In the meantime, here are a few of the five hundred images that I shot...

 

In 'La Parroquia,' the fantastic gothic temple of San Miguel de Allende. One of my favorite images ever.

 

The Cathedral of Morelia seen from the doorway of the Palacio de Gobierno.

 

The gateway of the Morelia Cathedral.

 

Morelia on Christmas night.

 

Morelia has an elegant downtown or "centro." This was the view from our hotel's balcony.

 

A lively street arcade in Morelia.

 

Sunset in Morelia.

 

The evening light illuminating the beautiful stone facades of Morelia.

 

An interior shot of the amazing Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Morelia. The church was built in the 1700's, but was decorated in the early 1900's with 'polychrome' (sculpted and glazed clay.) Absolutely amazing!

 

A wide shot of the Santuario's dome.

 

A scene from a colonial era convent in Cuitzeo, a small town in northern Michoacan.

 

A statue in Patzcuaro.

 

I love using architectural detail to create abstractions. This is in Cuitzeo too.

 

A church doorway in Cuitzeo.

 

A scene in the main church of  Dolores Hidalgo.

January 4 - evening

It is a work in progress, but please visit my new photographic  tribute to Mexico. Hope you enjoy the tour!

January 10 - morning

Another image from Mexico.

Another cool and dry morning here in Possumhaw Hollow... We haven't had any significant rain now for months and I am beginning to get a little nervous about the year ahead. I am glad that most of our garden is made up of plants that can take desert-like conditions, however, I never really  wanted to live in a desert!

Speaking of deserts, our Governor has recently come out in favor of teaching "intelligent design" in Texas schools. It seems Texas is determined to become an intellectual desert. Of course, Governor Perry doesn't give a damn about intelligent design or faith, but he does recognize power, and the theocrats are in power here. A few years ago, the Republican Party thought they could just use the fundamentalists for their own ends, but what has become increasingly clear here is that the leaders of the radical fundamentalists had the same view of the Republicans. Guess who won? It is an odd feeling observing this from Austin, the little blue island in a red sea. Emerson once said, "The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide." My guess is that the fundamenatlist leadership doesn't care about societal suicide if their medieval version of heaven is what they expect to rise from the ashes. As for the masses packing their churches, the more generalized fear that our culture generates is just a small step away from fear of science and the truth.

January 14 - morning

Another image from my Mexico page - the beautiful Jardin in Guanajauto, one of the most civilized spots in North America.

With the approach of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King  I have been reflecting on the strengths of the early Civil Rights Movement and the failures of contemporary progressive politics. What follows is a treatise of sorts that I hope you will reflect on...

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In his brilliant book, The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch offers an insightful critique of the American “Progressive” movement. In a chapter largely focused on the rise and fall of the Civil Rights Movement, he talks about one of the keys to the early success of Martin Luther King and others, a bearing and attitude that the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called, “The spiritual discipline against resentment.”

Lasch writes, “Self-righteousness and resentment, as Niebuhr understood the latter term, went hand in hand. Victims of injustice, whose suffering entitled them to resent it, had all the more reason to renounce resentment, lest it confer the sense of moral superiority that allegedly excused them from retaliating against injustice with injustice of their own. In order to undermine their oppressors’ claim to moral superiority, they had to avoid such claims on their own behalf. They had to renounce the privileged status of victims. They needed “repentance” no less that their oppressors.”

Lasch continues with his analysis of the near miraculous success of the civil rights movement in the South when he quotes Leslie Dunbar, a white participant in the movement who described civil rights activists as “Strange revolutionaries,” who “come as defenders of the land and its values. They come, as one prominent white Southerner once put it to me, to give us back our country.”

What I fear most in America’s current "culture wars" is the lack of an organized opposition to the radical right that truly speaks to our values, that actually believes in the country that needs to be reclaimed, and that isn’t deeply resentful and self-righteous.

As a gay man living in a state that recently passed an anti-gay marriage amendment by an overwhelming margin I understand the temptations of resentment. When I travel from the little blue island that I inhabit out into the wider red sea of Texas I run into my own self-righteousness when I encounter them…The Wal-Mart shopping, Bible and gun-toting, W voting Americans.

I try to remind myself that red-staters are not universally motivated by hatred or ignorance, but largely from a very real and palpable fear. For many, especially those living paycheck to paycheck, America in 2006 is a truly frightening place. News reports lead with what bleeds, jobs are being outsourced, wages are stagnant, healthcare is nearly out-of-reach, our culture turns ever more vulgar, and enemies seem to lurk around every corner of the globe.  Some of us  might claim that these dangers are exaggerated, and indeed they are often exploited by the fear mongers of the right, however, they are by no means delusional.

The self-righteousness I struggle with when traveling in red state suburbs or small towns also reminds me that the individuals who inhabit those places feel that self-righteousness, if not directly through me, they sense it in our culture – they know that the latte sipping urban sophisticates look down on them. And, as much as the leadership of the Democratic Party and liberal interest groups talk about looking out for the little guy, the little guys sense that the boundary between genuine concern and condescension gets a little blurry in the blue archipelago.

I had a disturbing epiphany about all of this during the first showing of Brokeback Mountain that I attended. During the scene when the character, Jack Twist, is passionately reunited with Ennis Del Mar, many of the gay men in the audience let out a loud and Simpsonesque laugh, HAAAAH-HAAH! I was horrified because they were laughing at the fact that Alma Del Mar, the wife of Ennis, witnessed Ennis and Jack’s passionate kiss. Her world had come undone. They laughed. Their callousness translated as, “Stupid bitch, he’s one of us!” A tremor of discomfort radiated out from several of the straight couples in attendance. Here we were together in a theater showing a beautifully acted and directed film that positively glows with real compassion… shouldn’t that compassion flow in both directions? Of course not every gay man in the audience laughed, and some may have simply been releasing pent-up tension from a highly charged moment, but still…

The Civil Rights Movement that Christopher Lasch was writing about was the last real success of the progressive “Left Hand of God.” (To steal a phrase from Rabbi Michael Lerner.) After the signing of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act the movement drifted into resentment politics and victimhood was elevated to a status akin to sainthood. Today, the scattered remnants of the left seem more concerned with political correctness than with actually making a difference in the lives of everyday folks and the Democrats don’t seem to believe in anything. Many of my friends, straight and gay, are hoping that the current troubles of the Bush Administrations signal an end to the rise of the right, however, I think they are sadly mistaken. Fear isn’t going on vacation even if Karl Rove and Cheney are “frog marched” out of the White House.

What is needed to counter fear is hope - not a foolish optimism, but a genuine hope that despite the darkness of the evidence; the light of dawn will come. What fuels that hope cannot be proved by the march of history or our current state of affairs, but rather the undying and maybe even unreasonable conviction that the light is what matters.

I do not claim to be a Christian, but Jesus had it right when he advised his followers, “No man, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar, nor under a basket, but on a stand, that those who enter in may see the light.” A resentful, self-righteous heart is shrouded – its light cannot be seen much less shared.

Hope lifts our eyes and strengthens us for the work that it must inspire. Hope is the best antidote to the spiritual nature of the crisis that threatens our democracy. But our hope must be bound to that “discipline” that Niebuhr pointed to. We cannot  win hearts and minds if we carry resentment, much less callousness and self righteousness to those we seek to convert.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

December 21 - morning

Every gardener that I know here in Austn is holding the breath this week-end, the forecasters are calling for our first significant chance of rain for months and we are all hoping that they have it right. One of my favorite things to do in the garden is simply to sit on my back porch and watch the rain come down. I hope to have that opportunity tomorrow.

So far, the effects of the drought seem minimal, but that is largely due to the mild weather. One thing that I have noticed is that many of the different types of narcissus that I have in un-irrigated beds seem stunted but, hopefully, that will change in the coming days. Speaking of mild weather, one of the tulip magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana)  that I pass  every day on my way to work is blooming weeks ahead of last year. I hope that we don't rush into Spring too early only to experience a late cold snap.

Here is an old article (from the Library) that I wrote about the personal relationship that so many gardeners develop with the rain, hope seems to be the theme this month...

For Central Texas Gardeners, Rain is What Hope Grows On  (April 2000)

It rained last night - a good rain, sustained and heavy. This morning, before dawn, I went down to the garden with a flashlight to check the rain gauge - seven tenths of an inch. It came as a surprise; the forecast had not even mentioned the possibility of a shower. I am pleased, thankful that my garden is now soaking in sweet relief. However, I am also a bit resentful that I was in bed when it rained, that I was not able to sit on my front porch and watch it slip off the leaves and fill the rose blossoms with glassy beads. I feel as if I have missed a visit from an old friend.

Rain is the most cherished event in Central Texas gardens, for it is rain that sustains both our plants and our hopes. Without it, our gardens become jealous mistresses always panting for our attention. It is no wonder then, that we develop personal relationships with the weather radar or think of the rain as a friend. I'll readily admit to being a weather junkie, and it is all because of rain. When a predicted storm front dissipates just miles from town I take it personally. I rant at the weathermen and fume about my betrayal. During especially dry times, I have been known to stand in the garden shaking my fist at approaching storms, daring them to rain on me. You know it is getting personal when you try reverse psychology on clouds.

However, when the rain does come, our gardens respond with visible joy. This morning I can already see that the rain has made my garden shine - everything seems greener, fuller, more alive. I feel invigorated too, as if a weight has been dropped from my shoulders. When the sun finally stretched across our courtyard, and I made my way through the garden, I marveled at its response. Even the birds' song seemed brighter. No wonder the ancients adopted the rite of baptism to symbolize redemption and rebirth. Praise God from Whom all Blessings flow, indeed!

I suppose it is because we live where we do that rain plays such a large role in our lives. Austin sits on the 98th meridian, the boundary line that separates the well-watered east from the dry and thirsty west. To gardeners, it must seem as if we are always one step over the line. Some years we enjoy a bounty, as much as fifty inches of rain or more, but more often than not, we end up on the dry side. We obsess about dry stretches to such an extent that we have lost perspective about what a serious drought looks like. Old timers remind us of the early 'fifties where rivers and lakes dried up, dust blew, and nearly all of the younger trees died.

While I still welcome nearly every rain, even in the wettest of times, over the years I have prepared my garden for its absence. Going or gone are the thirsty plants that require my constant attention. It is simply irresponsible, and far too exhausting and expensive, for me to pretend that my garden is located in Houston or parts further east. As time progresses, and Austin continues to grow, water is bound to be a resource that we will pay ever more dearly for. How desperate will our rain dances be then?

Still, even with the xeriscaped portion of my garden ever increasing, I find there is nothing like a good rain. This morning the river ferns were heavy, their fronds shimmering with countless drops of precious water. "God's water," as my neighbor calls it, not the processed, pumped, and treated stuff. No, this was the real thing. The plants know the difference and are thankful. I am thankful too, for the freshness in the air that lingers while I write this. I know mornings like this will soon be a thing of the past. The heaviness of summer is always just around the bend here in Texas. Even in summer though, a passing thunderstorm or two might clear the air and give us hope, and that is what gardeners grow on.

January 22 - morning

Rain! Several brief but heavy downpours have already passed by this morning and I can hear thunder in the distance. I haven't gone out to check the rain gauge with a flashlight, but I have been tempted!  I look forward to a little back porch time today and I hope that you make time for a little rain-sabbath too.

A Sabbath Poem from Wendell Berry...

We hear way off approaching sounds

of rain on leaves and on the river:

O blessed rain, bring up the grass

To the tongues of the hungry cattle.

from the book, Given

January 23 - morning

Another image from my Mexico page  - the pyramids of Ihuatzio.

Yesterday, Victor and I went to see The New World, Terence Mallick's beautiful new film portraying the story of Pocahontas (Playful One) and two Englishmen, John Smith and John Rolfe. The film is about her evolving relationships with these two men, but it is also very much centered on her  genuinely reverent and grateful spirit. It is that spirit that illuminates this film and that sustains her through terrible personal and cultural calamities. I was genuinely moved by the performance of fifteen year-old Q'orianka Kilcher who portrayed Pocahontas. Likewise, I loved being immersed in the landscapes that Mallick takes us to, from the Tidelands of Virginia to the formal gardens of 17th Century England. The pacing is slow and meditative and if you allow yourself to sink into the story and the places and try to inhabit the innocent yet wise spirit of Pocahontas you will be deeply rewarded. I think The New World is a profound and very hopeful movie and recommend it to you. (I feel compelled to add that you shouldn't go expecting a heart-stopping adventure story or you will be disappointed as Victor was.)

January 29 - afternoon

Possumhaw berries.

It is a gorgeous, warm day. It is at least 80 degress fahrenheit outside and there isn't a cloud in the sky. I'd be upset by this if it weren't for the fact that we had our best rainfall in nearly six months yesterday morning - 1.5 inches! I spent the last few hours quietly weeding the garden and now it is time for a little back porch snooze. I'm going to climb into my comfy chair and hopefully drift off to sleep in the company of the goldfinches. Bliss. I wish the same for you.

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