Posts Tagged With: outdoors

i could be that bird

Kathleen Dean Moore’s book, Wild Comfort, is a gorgeous and rich collection of essays.  Moore’s writing is lyrical and dense, not the kind of prose you can gobble up in one sitting.  I found myself carrying this book with me wherever I went all week, comforted by its presence in my bag, anticipating having ten minutes (more if I could get them) to read a passage.  Her pieces are reflections of what we give and take from the natural world; how we grieve and what that means; the ways our culture invites us to fall away from nature in the name of progress and how, still, we find we need the solace of wilderness.  To be a naturalist, Moore suggests, is to have a kind of split personality – part grim reality, the byproduct of seeing environment through a scientist’s lens; part heady joy of one whose senses are on full alert.

For my part, I find grim reality is a space I occupy too often.  I forget, in my obsession with humanity’s dark underbelly, evident especially in this election season, that there’s so much to be grateful for – the kids I work with in the school garden who’ll try any vegetable I ask them to because they love the space they’ve helped to cultivate, the bumper crop of Jonagold apples bursting from my tiny, espaliered trees.  The color amber.  How my dog’s feet smell like Fritos.

I could choose to find joy more than I do, focusing less on how the world seems determined to forget history, or how any shopping excursion is proof we really are zombies and don’t know it yet, or how a generator and a crossbow are probably the best tools in preparation for the end-of-days.  I could choose to be the bird of Emily Dickinson’s poem, the one singing her heart out through the storm:  “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul…”  I could be the bird and live a more intentional life with less cynicism.  I could be that bird…

In her book, Moore frets about not living an intentional enough life.  As an exercise in gratitude, she decided to establish a “happy basket” on her desk, into which she put pieces of paper with notes recording times she felt really happy.  Her plan was to document things that brought her joy for a year, and then go through and evaluate the data.  Ultimately, she didn’t make it for the year, which I love.  One crummy day eight months or so into the project, she tipped out the basket to see what those scraps could tell her – chiefly, that none of the ways the world said she should be happy actually made her happy.  Not stuff or success.  Ideas, solitude, her kids, and moving in the outdoors delivered joy and grounded her.

Yesterday I was talking to a dear friend on the phone, lamenting the way I am built to be dissatisfied, suggesting I, too, should start a happy basket.  She was quiet for a minute, and then said to me, “But that’s what your blog is.  You don’t need a basket for your desk.”

Which I guess is true as I look back over my posts.

While we were on the phone, I stood at the window and watched the caramelized colors of autumn in my backyard, the quilt of leaves I would have to rake again before the rain came.  There’s one holdout of summer’s gaudy blaze left in the yard, a fuchsia in full bloom.  Fuchsia have a reputation for being difficult to grow, temperamental without diligent fertilizing, and prone to dying easily if you don’t baby them.  I have utterly neglected this plant, which lives in a planter box on my deck.  While everything else around it is closing up shop for winter, this fuchsia is hardy, saucy, showing off with her pendulous bloom, her firecracker bloomers.

I was about to ring off, promising to post a missive worthy of a happy basket if I could dip into the well and find something, when a female Anna’s Hummingbird arrived to my fuchsia, sucking down nectar as fast as she could.  Not all of them migrate from our part of the state, I guess, and maybe this one intended to meet some friends in California or Mexico later.

But she stayed for a while, immersed in feeding on each one of those sweet fuchsia globes long enough to allow me a good look at her red-flecked head and peacock-colored wings. Although my friend is thousands of miles away, we saw it together.  A gift to witness and to share, a thing I would’ve written on a scrap of paper and put in a basket.

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the well of souls

A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard.  Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground.  Mornings are not my sharpest time.  It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.

Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem.  A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street.  The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years.  I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners.  Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.

My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before.  The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world.  Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house.  Someone was paying attention.  It was creepy.   Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground.  He gave up and planted something cheaper.  Azaleas, I think.

John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies.  He’s actually kind of a poet.  For pirates.

“What do we do?  Call the police?  Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”

“I guess,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.

“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”

“This is shitty,” he said.

It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police.  I probably couldn’t identify my plants.  I doubted they’d be able to.  It was the perfect crime, really.  I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition.  Our street was a goldmine.

Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up).  She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better.  Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly.  Also, I should know her name and what her rank is.  Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.

Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working.  She was from New Jersey.  “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone.  How much were they worth?”

John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass.  “Oh, Jesus.  Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.

“But those plants were already here,” I said.  “Also, you love the garden.  Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”

He shrugged.  “True.  I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”

Mountain Fire

As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks.  It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen.  Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy.  I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine.  Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like.  But still.

As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid.  Someone had been casing the neighborhood.  What else in my yard had the chance of being taken?  Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night?  The windows were open.  How could I not have heard someone digging outside?

I left that spot bare.  Afraid to plant the same thing.  Not sure what else to put there.  I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.

A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods.  There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy.  What if those people were a bunch of kids?  What if they lived off the grid?  What would that look like?  How would they decide what to steal?  Who would be in charge?  What else was at stake?

Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions.  It’s a mess.  It’s my first.  The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together.  It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything.  Some days it feels like giving birth.  Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.

Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves.  I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.

I eventually did plant something in the bare spot.  Grass.   That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.

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