The Daily Muse
The loofa vine from hell, it grew from one seed and now covers thirty feet of our back fence. Loofa anyone?
I have been slowly falling back into the daily rhythm of the garden- the simple tasks of weeding and watering have provided me with their usual comforts.
This past weekend, Victor and I raided our old garden for some perennials- daylilies, Louisiana iris, crinums, and ox-blood lilies. I thought I would feel guilty on this divide and conquer run- but, as it turns out, my former garden has turned into an impassable jungle of ruellia and nearly all of the plants that we rescued were simply buried. If we didn't dig them out they would have been doomed. You need to be agressive when gardening with invasive plants like ruellia, and it seems no one who lives at our former home has the nerve or the time to take the gardening offensive.
Speaking of garden warfare, one of the chores that I have taken care of this week is laying down a defensive cover of corn gluten, an excellent organic pre-emergent herbicide. It took 100 pounds to treat our garden but it will be well worth it since we are gardening underneath of elms that release hundreds of thousands of seeds every fall. The gluten actually fertilizes the garden as it controls the weeds and is 100% safe for all of the garden critters, though the garden does have a distinctive 'cheetos gone bad' aroma. I am hoping that that will fade away soon.
One other 'raid' that Victor and I conducted was on the rockpile at the local cemetery- we hauled off a five hundred pound piece of limestone that had been dug from the ground. We are using it as a zen-like accent in the sea of crushed granite of our side yard. Several of our elderly neighbors who walk the block have inquired discreetly about 'what it means.' They must think we're crazy, gardening with stones and gravel. All I can say is that I knew we were crazy when we were wrestling that stone into my truck!
A butterfly visiting the pickerel weed in our pond
This arrangement sits at the terminus of one of the long 'view corridors' in our garden
It is very early in the morning, I tried to read through the New York Times and our local paper, but all of the news was a bit too depressing for me. So, instead I have been doing a little research on the web and dreaming about getting started on the transformation of our front yard. Up to this point, 90% of our efforts have been directed to the back garden and the front still feels like someone else's yard. Our resources have been strained by all of the effort we've put into the back, so we are not in a position to start any new projects until the spring. But, that hasn't stopped me from dreaming.
A very stong cold front blew through last night- we didn't receive any of the promised rain, but, as I am writing this, it is 53 degrees outside, decidedly cool for early October. The cats have all been running around with their tails in the air. Their internal barometers erupt with any change of weather- their ears go back and tails fluff out as they race around the house tumbling over one another. They usually are nestled down in my lap this early in the morning, today they are providing some needed comic relief.
Yesterday, I cleared one of our planting beds in the back for some wildflowers and seeded it with bluebonnets, the national flower of Texas. They are a guilty pleasure. I look forward to their 'arrival' this coming spring. Who knows, by the time they are blooming, I may have a front garden too.
Last week I read a short story by Eudora Welty titled 'A Worn Path.' It describes a journey that is also a relationship, both fueled by selfless love. It is a remarkable tale. I read the story for a class offered by The Seton Cove, and as the class discussed the meaning of the story my thoughts drifted to the relationships and paths that have guided my own steps.
The metaphor of life as a journey is an ancient one, probably too well worn for some. However, there is something to be learned from even the most obvious of symbols. I often start classes on garden design by asking the students to imagine the journeys they wish to take with their gardens, for in this too, walking the path is not just a physical act, but a relational one.
In Welty's story, the path itself is alive with rewards and dangers, both thoroughly etched into the mind of the protagonist, an old black woman from Mississippi. She is that rare individual who seems to hold no grudge against misfortune, and is thankful for the smallest blessings, those rare patches of smooth downhill track. It is hard for us to imagine such a perspective when we live in world full of trip wires and frustration (usually, of our own invention.) I can barely make it into work without cursing the smallest hindrance, I'm sure that many of you feel the same way.
Our gardens fill with weeds and critters, are by-passed by rain, and drown in floods. Our relationships are likewise filled with annoyances and tethers that detain and antagonize. Often, we respond by looking for a quick fix or by simply jumping the fence hoping for a new path where our fantasies rise up to greet us. Too late we discover that what felt like a race filled with potholes, was life itself, filled with those inescapable stumbles and steps.
It helps me to think about the path that I am on and who I have shared it with. I aspire to the dignity and courage of Welty's character, knowing all too well, that I may end up lying on my back in a ditch, "like a June bug waiting to be turned over."
It is growing late, time for bed. Yesterday, Victor and I helped some friends out by baby-sitting for their toddler overnight. The baby, known to us as "Peanut", is a total joy. She is on the verge of walking and talking, and looks out at the world with sparkling eyes. She spent a good part of the evening stalking our cats, who had decidedly mixed reactions to this brash little invader. After many adventures, Peanut spent the night between us, and for the first time in my adult life, I awoke with a baby curled up next to me. It was a very simple thing, her tiny fingers wrapped around mine, but the memory of it kept returning throughout the day. My eyes opened on a different world this morning. Thank you Peanut.
I just finished walking through the garden with a friend who is visiting from San Miguel de Allende, one of the most picturesque towns of Mexico. He and his wife retired there and are enjoying life "On Mexican Time." He is an architect, and as we wandered about our conversation focused on the structure of the garden. He intuitively sensed that I had designed the garden for movement and we talked about the metaphor of the journey. When I look back over the past year I can see the varied steps of that journey- we have come a long way with this place and with one another.
October 22 - morning
This past weekend marked the first anniversary of my brother's death and what would have been his 42nd birthday- my family gathered here in Austin to spend some time together and to visit his grave. We all still feel his presense, and are mindful of his sense of dignity, his withering humor, and the potential for continued judgement of our demeanor, so we tried to be on our best behavior. I think he would have approved.
Yesterday, after my family returned to Houston, I stopped by the cemetery to say "Happy Birthday." I spent a little time tending to the flowers planted there and then allowed myself to think back to those days we spent roaming the fields and woods around our childhood home. Jeff was my shadow when we were growing up. I was the big brother, and he was my faithful companion, following my lead even when it was most unadvised. I was always heading off on some expedition or crusade- determined to save the world, or at least defend our "castle" of stone lined terraces that my dad had built in our front yard. As I remembered these adventures, I found myself wishing I could walk through my new garden with Jeff, sharing my current obsession.
Sometimes I wonder if I was at least partly responsible for Jeff's withdrawn and somewhat disapproving character. I was always leading him on windmill charges against the latest in my string of imagined evils. Later, he seemed reluctant to engage the real world, prefering an invented one where everyone played by the rules, where gentility was the norm, where things were kept in order, and above all, where one carried oneself with dignity. No wonder so much of the day to day world repelled him and he walled himself off.
Just before he passed away, I brought drawings of our new garden's design to the hospital to show him and he seemed impressed. I never got the chance to tell him that he had made a profound difference on my design sensibilities. Years before, when he was visiting my last garden (which started out with a kind of wild informality) he made a rather arch comment about his preference for design and clarity. At first, I just took it as being old formal Jeff, a little uptight, even about a garden. Later, however, I realized he was right- a garden should have a sense of design and clarity. Since that time, I have moved ever more steadily towards classical design principles.
So today, I take some comfort knowing that, in a way, Jeff is with me when I walk the garden. Our garden will never be as neat and precise as the world that Jeff built for himself, but we can try. Yesterday, I felt compelled to honor his memory by giving our garden a thorough weeding. I feel certain that he approved.
The past few weeks have been a very hectic time, we've had many visitors to our garden and have also made some welcome additions. On the additions front, we have brought in a great deal more stone, a gift from my friends J. David and Margaret Bamberger. I have been working with the Bambergers on a documentary feature about the environmental and educational mission of their ranch, Selah. Margaret knew of my passion for collecting interesting rocks and fossils for the garden and invited me to do a little "prospecting". A couple of weeks ago I took her up on her offer and J. David and I took off on a hunt armed with a crowbar and a wheel barrow. I was specificallly looking for "holey" limestone and David knew just where to take me- high up on one of the escarpment bluffs of the ranch there is a large field strewn with weathered limestone. I felt like a kid in a candy store- everywhere I looked I saw a stones with striking shapes, all worn smooth and filled with "honeycomb" holes. We managed to wrestle two large boulders and an assortment of smaller stones into the back of David's truck. On another rise, a mile or two away, David showed me some weird rocks that look like volcanic extrusions, the shapes were unbelieveable. Here, we managed to fit another large pair of stones onto the truck.
As we were walking around on the second hill, David leaned down and picked up a stone and said, "Now, here's something special." From a distance I could see it was a smallish stone, only about a foot across, but when I got up close, I could see it was a weathered piece of limestone with a depression in it that looked like it had been formed by the foot of some ancient beast. No, it was not a dinosour track (though there are some on the ranch) the center of the stone had simply eroded away leaving a perfect basin enclosed on all sides. I knew instantly what David had in mind, this needed to be a part of our pond.
Hours later, after I returned home and had cleaned off all of the stones, I tried to fit the "basin" into our pond and it simply didn't work- the color of the stone didn't match and it was too large to fit at the base of our waterfall where I had originally envisioned it. Still, it called for both water and a very special site. It was then that I remembered hearing a quote about "all great garden paths leading to water. " So, I took it to our Zen garden, which is where our network of paths eventually lead you, and sank it into the crushed granite at the entrance. I filled the basin with water and placed a small spiral fossil and three green pebbles inside. Now when I step into the Zen garden, I feel the need to stop spend a moment or two at our little sacred pool. As much as our beautiful pond and waterfall, this tiny basin reflects the soul of our garden.
This past weekend, we had two groups of friends over to enjoy the garden and the beautiful autumn weather. On Friday night, the board and staff of The Seton Cove were here to spend a little community time, and then on Sunday morning, friends and family from my Sunday School class came by. Like any artist at an opening of his work, I watched the crowds, looking for reactions to what Victor and I have created. I was especially pleased by the two people who seemed most moved by our little pool- Patty Speier, the Executive Director and spiritual leader of The Seton Cove, and our youngest visitor, the daughter of our friends Liz and Duff Stewart, Grace Stewart, who is only three or four years old. As I was showing Patty the Zen garden, she stopped by the tiny pool and commented on how special it was. On Sunday morning, Grace seemed transfixed by the water bearing stone when she first encountered it, later, I saw her lead her mom by the hand down one of our garden paths, taking her to stare into the basin and touch the spiral shell.
There are many famous spiritual passages about the need to approach the divine in a child like fashion- no one is more reverent than a child awakened to beauty. In the words of Black Elk, "...this too is a good example of how much grown men may learn from very little children, for the hearts of children are pure, and, therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."
Thanks J. David for having your eyes open. Thanks to Patty and Grace for seeing. And, thanks to Margaret for the invitation.
Continue to November 2001
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