Thursday, September 24, 2020

Just When I Needed You Most

I owe you an apology.

No, dear reader, not to you.  The apology I owe is to the garden. 

Back in the annual romantic horticultural swoon of spring and early summer we spent such fond hours together, refreshing beds, working in compost, sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, assembling the irrigation system, relishing the intertwining fecundity of soil and possibility.  As the weeks went by I spent perspirational but soulful hours inside your gate, weeding, watching for predatory bugs and withering diseases.  It was hard work, but it was good work.  They were satisfying hours.  


But in recent weeks something in me shifted.  I wasn’t aware of when it happened.  Even now I can’t pinpoint the moment, or the reason.  Perhaps I got otherwise busy.  Perhaps I was distracted.  To be sure, COVID concerns have ground the reverence out of all kinds of things in recent months.  Too many things have devolved to merely the functional, the necessary, the basic.  Masked shoppers in stores barely make eye contact with one another; casual conversation is almost unimaginable.  We get in, gather what we need, and check out as fast as possible.  There is a vacuous wariness in the air between us that is almost as stultifying as the virus potentially within us.  A joylessness has come to characterize us as the pandemic has dragged on.  Head down, we simply get it done – whatever “it” might happen to be.


That could extend to the garden.  But I can’t blame it all on COVID-19.  After all, one could argue that the garden should have been the most powerful antidote to the malaise.  Nature, growth, fresh air and soil, and unaffected work.  Nothing about the garden’s daily needs has been altered by health concerns; neither masks nor social distance nor virtual interactions.  The CDC has published no guidelines about safe gardening.  All that was needed continued to be what always is needed – a hoe, a hose, time, energy and attention. 

No, what happened in me was far more insidious. 

 My relationship changed - as human posture relative to nature so routinely changes.  I became a user; an extractor; a predator of sorts – mining and pillaging the garden assets and stuffing them into the freezer, the dehydrator or the water bath canner as fast as I could with as little thought as possible.  I’ve been going through the motions.  Absent, suddenly, was the reverent partnership; silent was the stewarding joy.  The prolific fruiting became an objectified warehouse – a rooted pantry - rather than a holy abundance.  Gone were the hours spent scooting on my knees or leaning on an implement’s handle, lost in reverent appreciation.  Past were the stolen moments I simply wandered among the rows, marveling at the progress, taking deep and satisfied breaths.  Lately I have shuffled out with harvest crate, perfunctorily filled it with as much as could fit, and lugged it back to the house once the gate was latched behind me.  

Minutes expended among the plants rather than hours.  

It has been mechanical rather than marveling.  

Taking; rarely giving beyond lifting the hydrant handle to drip a little moisture near the stems.


And so I apologize, and am determined to recover a warmer, more participatory way.  Starting today.  It was good to snap on the overalls again this morning, gather up some tools and get down on my knees.  It was good to restore some breathing room around the young pepper plants transplanted late in the season that were getting crowded out and choked by extraneous and invasive growth.  And it was good to notice among those now-liberated plants some optimistic prospects.  It was good to tend early summer’s new bed that is sprouting the adolescent asparagus stems now fronding and gaining strength for years to come.  And it was satisfying to finish weeding a row and turn to admire the progress.  And yes, it was good to fill a bucket with harvest along the way – in the course of my work, rather than being the sum total of my work.  We were in it together again.  


And it did, indeed, feel good – to you, I’m guessing dear garden, as much as to me.

And after something of a melancholic season, the simple therapy of it feels good as well.


And so I’ll be back – more patiently, more gratefully, more reverently this time.  

More partner than predator. 


In the meantime, thanks for all you’ve done without me.

I owe you.


Monday, August 3, 2020

The Miraculous Wonder of Here


I've been tending to things.  

This morning, as the new dawn replaced the full moon, I released the chickens.

I shivered In the cool foretaste of autumn.

I watered flowers and herbs and the sweetgrass I recently planted behind the labyrinth.

I disposed of a dead raccoon.

I sowed native prairie seed, sprinkled compost and watered.

I swept the barn and set up the pen in anticipation of baby chicks arriving soon.

I harvested vegetables.

I added many of them to pots on the stove.


It has been, like each day (though each in its particularity), a juxtaposition of life and death, hope and decay, seed and soil, preparation and completion, nourishment and depletion, salivation and repugnance.  My hands and energies the hyphen and comma connecting the disparate words and phrases of living.  


And it all belongs – the parts that make me smile right along with the elements that make me gag.  Side by side I get to wonder if seeds will grow while delighting in the issue of those that did.  I protect, which unfortunately means I also kill.  A wondrous alchemy of mundanity and profundity, I marvel at the matter-of-factness of the beauty.   

It happens.   I do my best to midwife all sorts of nascent possibilities – in the soil and in my mind – with water and compost and weeding and brooding, but I only assist.  The rest –

the conceiving, the flourishing and the thriving – is well beyond me.  That my hands get wet in the birthing is speechless privilege, coupled with the comic gratitude I continue to feel at the reality of the “me” I have known for 64 years actually being here in the messy, sweaty, earthy reality of it all.


Here in the granularity of it all.  

Here in the birth cries and the death throes.

Here in the sowing and the hoeing.

Here in the tending and the disposing.

Here in the perspiration and the chill.

Here in the cacophonous, riotous, exhausting abundance of everyday of life.  

Here in the miraculous “here.”

When Mary Oliver poetically asks me what I intend to do "with my one wild and precious life," the most and the best I can think of, by way of response, is... simply notice,

and pay attention.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Thriving By Walking Around

We maintain trails through the property - through the prairie grasses, through the woods, around the lawn.  More than mere "access", they are an invitational feature of our particular landscape.  They beckon, as surely as a curled finger motioned in our direction.  "Come," they whisper; "explore."  And though not nearly often enough, we do - on foot, on snowshoes, on the bench of the utility cart.  We answer the summons to pay closer attention.

Every season has its reward - in summer the joints of the bluestem, the monarch on the wildflower, the lushness of the foliage; in fall the crispness of the air and the color in the leaves; in winter the muffling carpet of snow, the crystalline accents in the elbows of the trees; in spring the myriad awakenings, the buds, the awkward fawn.  There are textures.  There are scents.  There is more than meets the eye and ear.  We walk amongst it, not to get anywhere in particular, but to see, to feel, to listen attentively and receive the gift of what life along the trails has to say.

Not, as I earlier confessed, often enough.  We make excuses.  "It's too hot."  "It's too cold."  "It's raining."  "I'm tired."  All the while, the grasses whisper, the leaves shimmer in the breeze, the hedge apples swell and fall and roll like bowling balls, the deer tamp down trails of their own, the colors evolve.

I'm determined to counter my neglect.  Recently an old word reentered my orbit that has tugged with a gravitational pull.  "Peripatetic" is a transliteration of a Greek word that means, at its simplest, "to walk around."  It is an "onomatopoeia" kind of word to me - it sounds...ambulatory; active.  Peripatetic.  Aristotle's educational endeavor (4th C. BCE) was known as the "Peripatetic School" because, not being a citizen of Athens and therefore unable to own property, he lectured to his trailing students while walking along the pathways of the city's common spaces.

In his own version of "The Peripatetic School," business leadership guru Tom Peters centuries later encouraged an effectiveness strategy he coined, "MBWA" - management by walking around.  A leader can learn a great deal, he argued, by pushing away from the desk, exiting the office, and wandering around the workplace, observing, listening, chatting, building rapport.  It is to suggest that as much or more can be learned viscerally - through our pores - than via the data of reports.

At the very least it is more interesting.  And nourishing.

I'm determined to more regularly feed our "Peripatetic School" of homesteading - which is to say, "of living."

Walking around.

Paying attention.



Not merely maintaining the trails, but using them; and allowing them to use me.

TBWA:  "Thriving By Walking Around."

It might not be an efficient strategy for getting places, but it may well be the only means of living in them.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Big Silence to Fill

We didn’t want him in the first place.  We tend chickens for the eggs, and roosters aren’t qualifited.  We only buy hens.  But accidents happen - “sexing” is an imperfect art - and so it was that of the two Mottled Java hens we purchased from a nearby hatchery, Samantha turned out to be Sam.  As I have noted elsewhere, by the time all of this became clear, we were invested.  Time.  Money.  Feed.  Affection.  

And so it was that Sam found a home in our flock.  It hasn’t been trouble-free.  There was that winter when, amidst an excrutiatingly cold spell, Sam’s comb was frostbitten.  He took on a tragic posture, shuffling out of the coop each morning, only to stand hunched over most of the day just outside the door.  No crowing, no chasing the girls.  We were sure he was dying.  And then he didn’t.

There was the time his foot was injured.  We were never sure how it happened, but one of his “toes” was one day abbreviated and bloody.  His movements were impaired.  He limped.  He did the best he could.  We treated the injury as best we could, but our medicinal expertise is limited and our expectations were low.  But once again Sam recovered.

And then there was the fox invasion.  I’ll spare you the details but it was ugly.  Usually something of a guard rooster, Sam abandoned his post amidst the carnage, adopting the “fight another day” strategy of retreat, and we found him in the front yard, traumatized.  With the help of our neighbor, we restored him to the coops and eventually nerves settled and normal life resumed.

Until yet another unintended rooster revealed himself in a batch of chicks.  Gallo was young and fiesty and colorful, but small.  Compared to Sam, he was junior varsity.  But Gallo became the aggressor, chasing Sam, abusing him, pecking and humiliating him.  Cowling him down and standing on him.  One day I watched Gallo chase Sam across the chicken yard and over the fence, after which Sam went missing for the day.  When he finally returned that evening looking like a bedraggled shell of a man, I subdivided the yard, putting a fence between the two roosters for safe keeping.  There Sam has lived ever since - Sam and the several hens who rotated in and out to keep him company.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was at least detente.  Everybody was safe - physically, socially, and psychologically.  And the two developed a kind of ritual.  They would crow antiphonally.  Back and forth, call and response.  For hours at a time.

Until yesterday.  This summer we have a new family of raccoons living in the neighborhood.  We have seen them running along the tree line.  I have seen evidence of their digging around the coops.  Most disconcerting is their desire for breakfast.  I am accustomed to them moving and hunting at night.  We work hard to secure the chickens in their coops at dusk to have them out of harm’s way after dark.  But this little family is active in the morning.  I shooed one out of yard one morning earlier in the week, and trapped still another.  Unfortunately, yesterday, after releasing the flock at daybreak, I went back to bed.  It is the intense time of garden season and we have been working hard.  That paralyzing fatigue coupled with an atypical late night drew me back between the sheets for a few extra minutes of rest.  Somehow I didn’t hear the commotion.

At least two of the chickens were victims - Sam among them.  I can picture him defending.  He was, as I said, big, and he could ruffle himself into an imposing presence.  He would stand his ground.  He was always the last one to head inside at night, sanding sentry outside until all the girls in his charge were safe.  I can picture him trying to defend them.  

Futily, as it turned out.  

And strangely - or not, perhaps - we are heartbroken.  We didn’t want him in the first place.  But in the end, we loved him.  And despite the remaining hens, the coops seem somehow empty.  

And quiet.  Gallo crows, but there is no answer.  There is call, but no response.  He even laments the loss of his old nemesis.  And his job has suddenly gotten bigger.

It is, as we continually remind ourselves, the way of nature.  The raccoons aren’t evil, just hungry.  But that little bit of rationality doesn’t help much just now.  It’s deafeningly quiet out there.  Out there, and in here as well.  

Gallo has big shoes and silence to fill.  As, I suppose, do we all. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Spending the Currency of Perspiration

I am not a heat-loving guy.  In truth, there isn't really all that much of it in Iowa - a couple of months on average, unlike the oppressive expanse of it across the calendar in the Texas of my rearing - but heat is heat, regardless; which accounts for my frequent consternation.  Despite the opulence of the season outside, my waking hours are increasingly spent indoors.  Early mornings are tolerable, and I use them to keep as many of the garden weeds at bay as I can.  Lori is more intrepid.  I arrive early, she remains late.  Between us, we are keeping up, if only barely.  The vegetable beds are thriving and growing; salad greens and turnips frequent our table, and the braising greens are coming into their own.  The green bean bushes have blossomed, along with the squashes and cucumbers, and adolescent tomatoes are burdening their branches.  Berries, both cultivated and wild, we manage to glean as we pass their snagging reaches.  The peppers and cabbages won't be far behind.  We'll wince at the water bill when it eventually arrives, but the flavors that bill has enabled will be some balm for the financial pain.

But while the vegetable garden's invitation is primarily gastronomic, the flower beds proffer other inducements.  The butterfly bush is awash in blossoms and, as advertised, butterflies.  The day lilies - justifying their biblical splendor that shames even Solomon - open like a ballet in slow motion.  The iris, the poppies, the daisies and echinacea, the towering sunflowers and spindly zinnias - the beds are awash in them.

But the blooms are ephemeral.  They arrive as if by magic, and just as suddenly disappear.  These are their glory days.

These days that we spend largely inside.  Avoiding the warming sun that has beckoned the color.

I'll get acclimated.  Eventually.  As much as I dislike the assault of them on my skin and the drain of them on my constitution, these, too, are days "that the Lord has made."  Comfort and ease are no substitute for the beauty that swabs and dots them.  It is a common passage.  What practicing scales is to a pianist, what calisthenics are to athletes, what knife scars are to a chef and iambic pentameter is to a poet, intemperate days are to a human aching to master the art of being fully alive.  Living through the onerous and strenuous disciplines is the only door opening into the beauty they evoke and beckon us to celebrate.  And savor.

It is summer - not my favorite temperature, but my favorite benefactor.  And so I'll get up in the morning and embrace it.  There is work to do, but also beauty to attend.  The blooms won't be around for long.  And perspiration is a small enough price to pay for the glory of embracing them.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Breathless Wonder of the Season

I know, we are behind.  Maybe not that far, but we feel the need to sprint to find the progress we had intended.  It's not that we have been idle.  We took it upon ourselves to rework the garden fence - all 350-feet of it, more or less.  Grass and poison ivy and all manner of unidentified other tree like invasives had worked their way up and between and into the chicken wire rabbit fence and the polypropylene deer fence, and varmints had breached the fortifications over the years.  It's hard to believe, but we are finishing up our ninth year at Taproot Garden and while other aspects of the farmstead are showing steady improvement, the fence was showing its age.  We removed the old chicken wire, dug up the invading growth, added landscaping fabric to hopefully slow the rate of its return, installed new chicken wire with securing staples.

All that, plus nature has had its own ideas.  The fencing project had to wait for the ground to thaw out from winter's freezing, and then occasionally wait for it to dry out from springtime's rains.  And then there were late season freezes and hail and high winds and...

Meanwhile, the greenhouse grew more and more dense.  Herbs and flowers and vegetables alike started crying out to passersby, "Help!  We are being held here against our wishes!"

Finally, the fence project was completed and the garden was, once again, reasonably secure.  And the great migration could begin.  We had already direct seeded several rows - lettuces, spinach, potatoes, beans, beets, carrots and collards, okra, Swiss chard, turnips and radishes.  But now the big stuff could join alongside. We started with a smattering of tomatoes - black krim, Cherokee purple, Paul Robeson, indigo apple, black cherry, Lilian's yellow, Brandywine, Amish paste, San Marzano, Dakota Sport; then added broccoli, cabbages, kale and peppers.  It's progress.

There is some distance yet to travel, just to get where we ought to be.  There are onions for which to find a place, and leeks, more cabbage and peppers and I don't even want to think about how many more tomatoes.  And we are rapidly running out of room.

We'll figure it out.  And at least it's underway, this annual adventure in the soil. Eventually we'll hit our stride and find a rhythm - the warp and weft of weeding and watering, monitoring for bugs and noticing diseases, aching for sun and cursing the heat, shoes sucked off in the mud and praying for rain.

You know, gardening.

One of these days we may even get to eat some it.  In the meantime, let the breathless pace and wonder of it all begin.  I've got my hoe and my hose ready.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Beauty of Distant Light, Interrupted

Some people, I recognize, simply know this kind of stuff. They are bent that way.  Perhaps they took lots of science classes in school, or in a fit of curiosity along the way, studied up on it and integrated the perfectly fitted knowledge.  That's not me.

I was not the math and science guy so in vogue these days.  I sang in the school choir, competed with the speech team, and performed in school plays.  I didn't blow things up in the science lab.  In college, when the curriculum forced me into yet another lab science, I tried to get "Gourmet Cooking" qualified - it included a lab requirement, after all - but the Dean said "no." Word around campus was that Astronomy was the blow-off class that anybody could pass.  I registered, faithfully attended the first four classes and then, with an exam closely approaching and I not having understood a single word heard or read, quietly dropped the class.

But the evening sky this week erased all that feckless indifference.  It was, hmm, different.  It was as haunting as it was beautiful.  I was captivated, curiously troubled and yet strangely warmed.  For once I wanted more than to simply receive it with gratitude; this time I wanted to somehow understand it.  How can it be that somewhere in the universe above me and the chicken yard, in the waning moments of a day suspended in the stranglehold of a season stifled by cloying pandemic fear and isolation a phenomenon so evocative and poignant could ephemerally materialize?  I snapped the picture, but by the time I returned indoors a few moments later it was gone.

Where does the purple/pink of sunset come from?  Scratching around several internet-offered explanations, I could only smile at the summary answer.  I should have guessed. It's almost always the explanation of the origin of larger-than-life beauty.

Obstacles surmounted.

In the vineyard, the best grapes emerge from vines that have struggled  into challenging soil.  On the stage or the playing field, the finest, most artful performances result from the most rigorous practice and rehearsal.  And in the evening sky, it turns out that the most alluring colors are daubed by sunlight that has traveled the farthest from the horizon, along the way stripped of its light-weight blues by molecular obstacles and interferences and storm clouds.


It is color that has had to work hard to find us.  And the result is beauty, itself.

Somehow, in days like these when obstacles and limitations and the ominous hovering of metaphorical clouds are palpably - oppressively - present; in this season during which beauty seems a distant enough and pale phenomenon, this wisdom from the evening sky speaks grace to me.  And I not only better understand; I am even more deeply grateful.