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surviving february

Over dinner our family sometimes plays the tattoo game.  It goes something like this:  If you had to get a tattoo, which animal (or fruit or motorized vehicle…) would you choose and where on your body would you put it?  The answers are sometimes surprising. Riley always tries to choose a bird no matter the category. John once chose a unicycle for his “motorized” vehicle, and that led to a half hour discussion on locomotion. But anyway, the kids like our strange amusement.  It’s a pastime that saves us on days we’d otherwise easily fall into lamenting the ways the world feels terribly broken.

How the world is broken seems more evident in February, when the slant of light has changed, but not enough to signal spring. When it feels like it’s been winter long enough, and yet the storms keep on coming. What’s wanting is diversion enough to distract from another several weeks of slate skies and long underwear.

The other day I found the perfect thing on River Teeth‘s website.  You can sign up to get a daily email from them — “28 days of Beautiful Things.”  Each day you will receive an excerpt from Michelle Webster-Hein’s essay “Beautiful Things,” originally published in River Teeth in 2013.  I was hooked after reading the idea for the project, but what really got me was the gorgeous photo of a beet, a vegetable I uniformly detested in youth but which now I cannot eat enough of.

Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red.  Roasted, pickled, slawed.  Nothing beats (ha) growing them. Feeling them release from the soil when they are ready to be harvested.  Knowing that under the tough exterior awaits brilliant color, sweet earthy flavor. Fresh beets means eating the greens, too, steamed or sauteed in sesame oil or hidden inside chili or lasagna (don’t tell the kids).

I’m not usually very clever about where I’d put a tattoo — I almost always choose my arm, because it seems like if I’d gone through the journey of permanently inking myself, I’d want to be able to admire the art without having to use a mirror.  The kids tell me that’s not the point.  Tattoos are meant to be seen by others.

My obsession with body art doesn’t get much past our dinner game.  When we play vegetable tattoo, a beet in any of its iterations is always my answer.  It’s also the lone answer to another game we play — If you were marooned on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be? The beet.  Of course. Though I would have trouble deciding which variety.

The miracle of a beet is the topic of “28 Days of Beautiful Things” first beautiful thing.

Today’s excerpt from Webster-Hein is an ode to dust — oddly dear to her, its silty presence on her belongings means she’s spent time doing what she loves instead of housekeeping.

Amen to that.

From River Teeth's website.  How could anyone not love this gorgeous vegetable?

From River Teeth’s website. So gorgeous every time…

Categories: gardening, kids, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

flown the coop

2013 - February to August 054

Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg.  This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding.  Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet.  To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.

I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens.  For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself.  We’re renting a house.  Zora is allowed here, but nothing else.  The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile.  This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!!  Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.

Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!

Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley.  I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs.  We brought them home in March, a cold one this year.  Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.

Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business.  Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute.  Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering.  Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

Sure.  They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be.  But chickens are filthy.  About week three the stink kicked in.  They shat in their food, in their water, on each other.  They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings.  Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound.  Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.

Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move.  They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months.  I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.

The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man.  We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story.  My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.

Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.

Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.

It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age.  No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named.  In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.

We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left.  He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.

“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said.  “Works every time.  They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey.  How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”

Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves.  Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it.  The place was like Club Med for chickens.

His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars.  “This is our pet cemetery,” she said.  “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there.  “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”

“Cats?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Hamsters.”

She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.

We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much.  They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.

But chickens are different, I think.  Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing.  Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too.  Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise.  When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.

Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals.  He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that.  His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop.  The birds also came out to “play.”  They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes.  Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.

When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.”  He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging.  “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here.  ”

For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense.  My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars.  No soup pot for them.

Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog.  I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.

Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!

Categories: chickens, community, gardening, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

found books

Spring was full of reading disappointments.  Either the book I chose had a stupid plot.  Or characters I couldn’t access.  Mystifying edits. Writing that made me feel I wasn’t in very capable authorial hands.  By May I had begun to despair.  I used to read every book to the bitter end,  the least I felt I could do to honor a writer’s hard-won journey to publication.  I don’t do that anymore – there’s too much great literature to read, too many bad books out there, and too little time.  Now I give a narrative 50 pages, and if it’s not working for me, I put it down.

It’s possible my problem this spring was mostly reader error, what with packing and being distracted, but I don’t think so.  Summer’s surprising, random, unexpected reading list broke several months of stories that failed to delight.  One thing I love best about these reads is the way they came to me.

From the “Take Me” shelf at the coffee shop:

When the Killing's Done

While I waited for my latte at the coffee shop, I looked through the “TAKE ME” bookshelf and found a tome about two centuries of opportunists exploiting the natural resources of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The promise of a couple generations of depletion from sheep ranching, a shipwreck that introduced rats to Anacapa, and one very passionate National Park Service conservationist Alma Takesue from the 21st century who wants to eradicate the rats on Anacapa to save a species of shore bird, made me take the novel home.  Always rich and believable, Boyle’s female characters tussle with the natural world and with their lovers.  Boyle is masterful at storytelling with a wide lens on generations and place, but he’s also good at the intimate landscaping that captures the dark forest, as Willa Cather calls it, of the human heart.  And while When the Killing’s Done is far from one of Boyle’s best works – even full as it is of shipwrecks, the sticky wicket of conserving species and how conservation is inextricably linked with destruction, and a very one-dimensional PETA-esque bad guy called Dave LaJoy who gets what’s coming to him on the heels of an act of revenge – in all ways that mattered most to me this summer, it was the perfect read at the right time because I was transported out of my world.

From a rusty wheelbarrow selling used books at a garden shop:

San Miguel

I had T.C. on the brain already.  In the city on my way somewhere else, I walked by a garden shop wheelbarrow and out of the corner of my eye caught the name Boyle. For $2 (sorry, T.C.), I picked up Boyle’s San Miguel, set again in the Channel Islands.  It’s another sheep island story, on a different island this time, and most of it set in the 19th century.  But in both When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel (published less than a year apart), Boyle is scratching an itch about generations of people discovering, exploiting, preserving, and resurrecting the natural resources of the Channel Islands, and the human drama behind such ambitions.  Both books are gritty romances, rife with relationships built upon punishment and power, lust and willful misunderstanding.  He’s fantastic at this emotional geography, map-making a world of tortured souls who often don’t know what they want, or worse, they do know, and their sometimes terrible desires become the gears of the story.  I get it.  An island is an interesting Petri dish for storytelling, with an ecosystem you can manipulate and experiment with, not to mention the outside world sailing over to disrupt the narrative.

I couldn’t put it down, because how could you not careen off the tracks with such characters as these?

From a pile of books a friend gave me:

12731708

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This book had been on my bookshelf for several months, and I’d purposefully avoided it because of the cover, spring green with a bird and stamp on it that screamed of some saccharine story about women finding epistolary love.  While packing, I left out books from my collection that seemed like good summer reads.  Most of them were mysteries.  Another look at the synopsis of Bradley’s book piqued my interest, so it made the cut.  It took me almost the whole first book to realize that though Bradley’s narrator is a precocious, naughty and very determined eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the book isn’t really Young Adult, though on the surface it seems to be.  I liked the book so well I did a quick search to see what else Bradley has written and was gifted with the knowledge that there are FIVE Flavia de Luce books.  Oh boy.

I checked out the next three from the library, in LARGE PRINT, because those were the only versions they had.  And I was desperate.  In each of the books, set in the 1950s English countryside, Flavia works to solve a murder.  A crackpot chemist with her own chemistry lab in the abandoned wing of their ancestral English home, Flavia comes at problem-solving through science; in fact, a reader can learn a thing or two about chemistry from her.  But some of the best scenes are born out of the passages where we see Flavia acting as a child – mourning the death of her mother, plotting revenge against her two older sisters, looking for a way to talk with her father, who is wracked by grief and who deals with the imminent crisis of bankruptcy by losing himself in his stamp collecting.  The cast of characters flanking Flavia is, of course, also delicious – Dogger, her father’s valet, gardener, butler, and right-hand man, and also Flavia’s closest ally; Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, whom Flavia half longs to be adopted by; her bike, Gladys, which used to be her mother’s and which ferries her to crime scenes and various investigations; and in each book, the characters who come through to people the world of the crime.  It’s delicious fiction – witty, smart, backlit by clever capers for which you can suspend disbelief — and the first time I’ve fallen for any books from the mystery section.

Bradley’s got another installment in the wings, Book Six, due out January 2014, and I’ll wait, mostly patiently, to continue the saga.

Also, there’s going to be a television series.  Oh dear.  Mixed feelings.

In the mail from a friend, because she knows I adore him:

Benediction

Kent Haruf’s Benediction.  A master at impaling his characters on the prongs of their foibles and choices, Haruf’s stories teem with regret and redemption.  His characters labor under the aftermath of failing to act, or emotionally sealing themselves against the world, and the reckoning that comes as a result of hiding from themselves.

His latest, Benediction, is again set in Holt, Colorado.  It’s more ambitious in some ways than his previous novels, in that it braids the lives of five or six sets of characters.  At the center of the narrative are Reverend Lyle, a newcomer from Denver who’s been transferred to Holt for some transgression we can only guess at, and Dad Lewis, dying of cancer, owner of the town’s hardware store, father of two children — one estranged son and one daughter who’s come back to care for him as he’s dying.  Writers are generally advised not to scaffold a story around cancer, a character dying from cancer, so I was skeptical such a seasoned writer would take this plunge.  But the presence of Lyle, a man of God, works to offset Dad’s life of harsh mistakes and complicates one of Haruf’s central questions about what it means to live an upright life.

Readers know, of course, that Dad Lewis is going to die from cancer.  Haruf establishes this on the first page.  We know his wife Mary is there to take care of him, that he’s agitated by regret.  While he waits to die, we see Dad’s life in flashback, which is to say we are transported to times for which Dad feels he must make amends – the firing of an employee and that man’s ultimate suicide, the way Dad alienated his son Frank.  The big question pulling a reader through the narrative is whether and how Dad’s going to see Frank again before he dies.  Except through morphined hallucinations, he never does see his son again, which is inevitable and heartbreaking and earned.  Dad’s absentee and sometimes harsh parenting and his tender care of others instead of his own family have brought him to this place of being alienated from his son, and it hurts like hell.

Readers also know that Reverend Lyle will do something to alter his path — he must have agency where Dad can only recollect his version of it from his deathbed, after all – but we don’t understand why Lyle doesn’t have a better relationship with his son, and what makes him fall away from the church, though it seems admirable enough after a life of passivity.  Still, I’m not sure he’s working to his potential as a character.

The heart of the story, then, is the disconnect between fathers and sons, the bond between mothers and daughters (Haruf has an affinity for stoic women; Benediction is rich in pairs of two generations of women holding what crumbles together), and the way, as in all of Haruf’s work, people quilt family out of the dust of loss and need.

I’ll forgive Haruf for the left turn at the end and its half-hitched deus ex machina with Alice and her bike, since I can see he was grappling with how to deliver the point home.  I was already crying my eyes out about Dad’s death, about Reverend Lyle’s inability to make a relationship with his son, even there in that dark garage.

We have to work for grace however we can, but there’s never enough time, which I guess is largely the point.

Categories: books, community, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

the world according to william stafford

A poem by William Stafford hangs on the wall near my writing desk.  Letterpress printed on a broadside by the talented team Marquita Green (she linocut the image and is also the most fabulous woodturner) & Joseph Green (a poet in his own right) on one of their vintage printing presses, Stafford’s prescient words are framed by a woods scene and some deer.  I make a habit to read the poem whenever I sit down, and to reflect upon how aptly Marquita and Joe have captured its essence.

A funny thing has happened in the year or so since I put the poem there:  it’s become a kind of baseline by which I write, a place from which to jump off each session, and a reminder to allow my characters to be imperiled, whatever that means for each of them.

Meditation

Animals full of light

walk through the forest

toward someone aiming a gun

loaded with darkness.

 

That’s the world:  God

holding still

letting it happen again,

and again and again.

 

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how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

Categories: community, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Cowgirl Up

I wrote a western story, which was a bit of an accident.  My character, who came to me in the middle of the night, was a boy living in the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Range just after the turn-of-the-century (the last one).  On the cusp of becoming a man, his rite of passage was to join the men in town in their efforts to keep their river water from being funneled away by the needs of the big city.  Then there were guns in the sagebrush, and several dead people.  And birds, which seem to creep into most of my stories.

Anyway, this story “The Water Men” just won the Moonlight Mesa Associates, Inc. Cowboy Up Short Story Contest.  I’m deeply grateful and very surprised.

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