Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mum’s NOT the Word: On the Not-So-Secret Life of Plants

Legend has it that the Danes decided to sack Scotland—and did so in a most un-chivalrous manner: by attacking under the cover of darkness. One barefooted Danish soldier allegedly stepped on a thistle and yelped out in pain, thereby alerting the Scots of the impending invasion. Soon thereafter the grateful and victorious Scots adopted the thistle as their national symbol. As an additional act of gratitude, the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s very own knighthood, was founded in 809 (and is today headed by the Queen of England herself).

Speaking of that country south of Scotland, the rose—the Tudor or Union Rose to be exact—has served as the heraldic emblem of England since the War of the Roses (1455 – 1485). The Tudor Rose conjoins the White Rose of the House of York and the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, and thus symbolizes the union of the feuding families. For 117 years, the House of Tudor reigned until all of its descendants died and one Scottish king, James VI, inherited all of the lands of the British Isles (and who thenceforth became known as James I). But we all know what happened to the Stuarts: absent the protective powers of the rose, off came Charles I’s head, Cromwell and his Parliamentarians succeed in battle, Cromwell is eventually defeated, Cromwell dies, the Stuarts are restored, but the House of Hanover eventually takes legal control over the Isles. Perhaps the Stuarts should have adopted an emblematic flower…

On the other side of the world, the chrysanthemum served other-worldly and this-worldly purposes. Long revered by the Chinese for its power of life and for its symbolic mediation between life and death (interesting side note: the Europeans have long considered the chrysanthemum as the death flower), the chrysanthemum appeared in Japanese lore as the “solar flower,” perhaps a parallel to the meaning bestowed upon this autumnal beauty by the Chinese. Given the associations of the sun with life, as well as the Japanese belief that their first emperor, Jimmu, directly descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese monarchy—the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world—adopted the chrysanthemum as its crest as early as the reign of Emperor Go-Daigon (early 1300s).

I haven't an emblematic crest, but I do have chrysanthemums (though not thistle or roses). Each autumn, I experience an inner frenzy caused by heightened anticipation of the opening of my chrysanthemums. They tease ever so: the buds grow and grow over a period of many weeks. They appear as if they are about to open (a bit of color shows through the sepals, tempting, tantalizing), but each day one checks the buds, they do not appear to be any nearer to exposing their glory than during the last inspection. 

This past weekend, Miranda Orange chrysanthemum began to bloom. Despite the flowers' surprisingly small size--perhaps an product of months of record heat and drought--the effect remains the same. I am elevated. I am in awe.

No wonder flowers are so often adopted as official seals, emblems, and crests by political bodies: they transport us to another realm, elevate the mood, soften the proverbial (sharper) edges of life. And in doing so, they redirect our attention away from the dirt in which the flower grows, and the dirt which invariably accompanies political bodies themselves. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Memoriam: Wayne Winterrowd

I learned this morning of the 17 September death of one of the great contemporary American gardeners, Wayne Winterrowd, after a brief illness.

Wayne and his husband, Joe Eck, were the authors of three books, including (what I interpret as an exquisite intellectual biography of a garden), A Year at North Hill and, most recently, Our Life in Gardens, and the creators and caretakers of their magnificent garden at North Hill, Vermont (blog accessed here).

I did not know Wayne in the specific, common sense of the word, but through his books I came to know an "internal Wayne" (and Joe)--or as much of their internal lives as they divulged in their books. I re-read A Year at North Hill every year, a chapter per month (for each chapter corresponds to a particular month), and each time I see the world anew, experience their gardens and their lives like old friends, and come to know more of myself in the process.

Dominique Browning, author, blogger, former editor, woman extraordinaire, devoted a blog entry to Wayne. Dominique reviewed Our Life in Gardens for The New York Times, which promoted Wayne to compose a thank you note to Dominique--and thus began a brief but, it seems, remarkable correspondence.

All of our sadness must surely be a fraction of the sadness and grief and loss his husband Joe must be experiencing.

To honor his life, perhaps we should all begin thinking of winter-flowering (taking a cue from his name!) specimens and plant one in his honor. That seems like the appropriate gardening thing to do to.

“Now Give me Those Ruby Slippers—or You’ll Never See Your [Cats] Again!”

(subtitle: Color in the Garden: Ruby)

Oh, Margaret Hamilton.

Who can forget her delivery of that iconic line, her hands arched perfectly, bony fingers protruding, pointing, grasping for the shoes she coveted ever so?! That nose, that voice, that face: she single-handedly made witches fetching.

Ruby Reds: they are compelling, aren’t they?

So compelling, in fact, they led to bullying, threats, dismemberment, kidnapping, death threats, attempted murder, and, finally… (Was this really a children’s story?!)

Ah, Ruby Reds: the Achilles’ Heel of the Wicked Witch of the West. Her desire for them—like all forms of unchecked desire—eventually blinded, and compelled her to act hastily to accelerate time so that her desire would be consummated. And we all know how that ended.

I can still hear her screams, “Your cursed brat! Look what you’ve done?! I’m melting! Melting!”

Ruby Reds: this time, it’s Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans of the Lamiacae family). It, too, melts--and screams as it’s doing so! It likes water, and lets you know when it doesn’t have enough. Drama Queen.
Yes. Drama Queen, indeed. Earlier in the day I saw the Ruby Slippers at the National Museum of American History (I spent the day at museums while Viet literally chased down Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk  on the National Mall to sign a book). There were as many people crowded around the glass case showcasing probably the most famous pair of shoes in history as there were around the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. Those little Ruby Reds do have a power over the imagination: metaphor for the virtue of self-sufficiency, portent against profligate desire (much like the Hope Diamond, come to think of it).   

My Ruby Red, however, contains all the powers of self-sufficiency as a newborn baby. The extraordinary, unseasonable heat of the last two days took its toll: there it was, drooping to the ground, the leaves almost parallel to the stems. Midnight watering rewarded. This morning it began to bloom: a rich, vibrant autumnal treat in a realm dominated by brilliant, if burnt and muted, colors.

There is nothing burnt or muted about the tubular ruby colored flowers of Pineapple Sage: they command attention, evoke desire, serve as a beacon for the butterflies and hummingbirds.

Ah, yes, the Lamiacaes are at it again, bathing my garden in drama.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Auspicious Days, Auspicious Nights

This is an auspicious day: the coinciding of the autumnal equinox and the Harvest Moon. Auspicious. That word takes me back in time…

I worked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1993, and a local-hire embassy staffer (who happened to fulfill four distinct roles: driver, translator, general office support, and in-embassy comedian who bolstered everyone's spirits and senses of humor) quite “suddenly” (from my perspective) set his wedding in the wee hours of one particular morning. Guests had but less than a day to prepare. How strange, I thought.

Why? He explained:

“This is an auspicious time, according to the Buddhist priest. The stars had perfectly aligned [for this couple, given their astrological signs], and so the wedding had to be held within a 6 hour window of opportunity.”

The conjunction of the autumnal equinox with the full moon (technically, the Harvest Moon is fullest 6 hours after the equinox) is said to be auspicious: the plenitude of the harvest and the moon, the illumination of the evening skies that makes night seem like day, the equality of day and night—all are thought to bestow particular clarity and energy to our selves and our projects, and to provide an opportunity to seek and achieve balance in our lives.

Some might discount that “stuff” as “New Agey,” “old wives’ tales,” “hokey,” or just plain “nonsense.”

But, professionally speaking, I can vouch for this energizing force of clarity; the contours of my second book project are in relief, the argument more clarified than it ever has been, writing progresses (though writing always seems to ebb and flow regardless of cosmological occurrences).   

In my gardening life, well, I find myself susceptible to, nay, being bullied by, this astrological conjunction. I find myself trying to capitalize on auspiciousness by doing the unthinkable: planting a sun/partial shade tolerant plant in “less than partial shade, more than mostly shade” conditions. The coming Harvest Moon told me to do it; the equinox called me chicken; and Jupiter only egged me on: this astrological troika would make Nikita Khrushchev proud!

Last week I purchased myself  "a little happy," which has come to be my euphemism for “Honey, I nearly spent the mortgage payment at the garden center.” I found the perfect addition to my foliage/texture-based backyard shade garden: Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum). The leaves begin the season a blue-green, turn to green and then, during summer, a lovely red, only to fade to a rich autumnal burgundy. The considerable plumes of tiny (sterile) seed heads form throughout the season and during late summer into autumn sport a lovely red-burgundy color that looks dramatic and heavenly when the sun catches it just so.
Mine doesn't quite look like the above photo (to be fair, I did just buy them after all), and I do now fear, after reading several gardening guides that specialize in ornamental grasses, that the leaves won't be as lustrously red and burgundy as they ought to be. But I thought I'd risk it nevertheless.

The stone patio needed to be set off more discretely than it currently is; a border needs to exist on the "far" side of it. So I am situating the Shenandoah Switch Grasses on either end of this emerging bed, and will most likely place 2 or 3 Harbor Dwarf Nandina domestica (if the garden center is still selling them) between the grasses (I currently have Liriope and ajuga in that space). 

Because of the sun/shade issue, I am taking considerable risks of course. But gardening is about taking risks, even if your pocketbook does not wish you to do so.  

I can almost hear Sarah P., asking sarcastically in that contrived, annoying, cutesy accent, “How’s that auspicious-ey thing workin’ out for ya?!”

I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Garden Funeral

The gardens at 410 became the unexpected site of a funeral this morning, I the impromptu officiator of funeral rites.

I plunged into the outdoors very early in the morning to enjoy the silence and water, prune, and trim the now spent flowers stalks of the Sum and Substance hostas. Miss Gray Kitty, the abandoned cat I’ve been taking care of since last autumn, appeared for food and affection, and then walked off, sated with both.

I went to refill the watering can from the rain barrel, and saw Miss Gray Kitty in the alley. The sight of her was unexpected, stopped me in my tracks. I blinked and focused.

Miss Gray Kitty was not dead. No. She was playing! I watched with delight as she pawed what looked from the far end of the alley a clump of leaves, or a leaf. She propelled it into the air, under the hose storage box, out from under it, back into the air, against the side of the neighbor’s house. And then she saw me, walked toward me, then rapidly turned round and pounced on her leaf.

Except it wasn’t a leaf.

It was a Yellow Bellied Flycatcher.

Miss Gray Kitty murdered a beautiful little bird.

After she quickly tired of her morning plaything, she walked off and left me to clean up her dirty deed. In this case, the cover-up was not worse than the actual crime.

I picked two large Sum and Substance host leaves, dug a hole, placed the Yellow Bellied Flycatcher between the leaves, and carefully placed the bundle into the hole. Onto its grave I place a few coleus leaves, and a sprig of diminutive Liriope flowers.

Though the burial ceremony was brief, I replayed in my mind over and over that scene from The Hours in which Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman, performed a bird funeral with her niece, Angelica Bell. My experience felt just as moving. But I just couldn’t lie down next to the bird as Virginia (or Nicole) had done. Not because I lacked feeling, but because the back area of the garden emitted an atrocious odor, as Gramsci had used what he thinks to be his outdoor litter box (that is, my entire garden) just 30 minutes prior. All I could think of was accidentally putting my face into a pile of Gramsci poop.

So, goodbye little birdie. Forgive me for skimping on your funeral. And forgive Miss Gray Kitty for her feline antics. 

A Bridge into Autumn

So often the visitor and casual observer of the garden asks of the gardener friend, “which is your favorite flower?” The question has the same irritatingly demanding, damnable, and impossible-to-answer quality as the “if your house were burning and you could only save one of your several children, who would you save?” hypothetical tragic query we hope we never have to face. Surely I inflate the moral imperative of the decidedly more innocuous gardening variation, but the theme remains the same.

Of course, gardeners have favorites—but notice the plural use of the word: favorites, as in multiple, many, more than a few. To isolate a single flower is the pronounce irrelevance on the rest, to erase the montage that becomes and is the garden, even if the gardener reverses the conventional gardening equation of flower over foliage, and opts instead to celebrate and showcase foliage texture and color over flower, which is only occasionally deployed as accent.

Most gardeners would be polite and respond to the question, though I suspect many would probably disregard the singularity of the expected response and offer a plurality of responses—typically one for each of the major seasons. Though perhaps surprised, the questioner would most assuredly understand the folly of the question and accept distinct seasonal (spring, summer, and autumn) responses. That might be the best kind of response: one that adequately (if a tad excessively for the questioner’s proclivities) indulges the questioner’s curiosity about the tastes of the gardener, and one that politely responds to the question being asked but implicitly warns the questioner to either never ask this kind of question, or to frame it such that it at the very least captures variation, both floral and aesthetic.
No. The better response is a storm. Interlocution becomes monologic litany. The questioner will soon be embarrassed (and ultimately sorry) he or she asked. Even a simple list of primary seasonal favorites will not suffice, but rather a listing of flowers in order of micro-seasonal appearance: that is, early, mid, and late spring, summer, and autumn flowers, with perhaps even a winter flower or two (usually witch hazel, perhaps Winter Jasmine, and maybe even Hellebores which technically begin blooming in winter though many would associate it with spring) thrown in for spectacular, learned and comprehensive effect. Why? Because, as every gardener experiences, seasons are disaggregated into distinct micro-periods given variation in temperature, light, and moisture.

 I shan’t bore the reader with my own litany, for my favorites should be obvious: this blog is a testament to my varied tastes and favorites, from the early Blue Star Lithodora to the late mum, from Petasites to Pieris and iris (Siberian, Japanese, bearded) to (false) indigo (even if I killed it), and everything between and beyond.

But here, I should like to identify a trans-seasonal favorite: the dahlia. Space (as in my property) limits me severely, and thus I am unable to grow multiple varietals or have an array of plants without looking like I had a few too many gin and tonics (always a danger with me). The disciplinary effect of geography and income have been good for me, despite my desires for more property on which to garden, for I have learned to be selective about plants; have been forced to reign in my promiscuous ways; have been forced to research each beauty with whom I would like to begin a life-long, intense love affair—for I need to be discriminating in terms of balancing design and aesthetics in my small spaces, and in terms of plant needs in my very peculiar and multiple micro-climates caused by soil, temperature (brick absorbs and thus radiates heat, for instance, thus creating an entirely different kind of micro-garden within the space of one foot), and drastic variation in light and moisture.

So I selected this blood red dahlia two years ago. She both coheres with my mid to late summer garden bathed in the intense vibrancy of summer colors, and serves as a dynamic yet complementary counter to my early autumn blues and purples which mellow her own intensity all the while accentuating her distinctiveness. She blooms from July until our first frost (usually in late October or early November). She rewards me.

This trans-seasonal favorite seems an appropriate muse, a perfect parallel to one of my heroes in life, Dag Hammarskjöld, the 2nd Secretary-General of the United Nations, who died on this date 49 years ago in a plane crash while negotiating a peace in the Congo. His example, like the dahlia’s garden presence, like all of our heroes, illuminates and uplifts, inspires and compels from us the very best of our efforts.   

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Waning Days of Summer

If summer is the full throttle of gardening life, then autumn is not many a gardeners’ friend. Crops are harvested, seeds begin to set, plants gradually fade, and the incandescence of summer gives way to the muted hues of burnt, subdued rusts and ochres, pumpkins and burgundies, umbers and persimmons.

Autumn: that other book end of the gardening season.

If spring inflates, autumn deflates. If spring vitalizes, autumn devitalizes. If spring is celebrated for renewal and rebirth, esteemed for deliverance from the depths of winter, revered for buds and pastel flowers, then autumn is appreciated for the maturation of that which will soon pass.

Autumn signifies the decline of that which we have labored over for several months. Autumn compels us to face the passage of time—and the passage of time, in the linearity of human life, can only mean decline and decay. No wonder so many become glum in the elongating shadows of the midday sun, a melancholy punctuated only by the burning landscape of autumn color.

The Greeks had two words for life: zoē and bios. If the former referred to mere biological life in the sense of birth, maturation, decline, death, and decay, then the latter captured the very essence that makes us human: the projects and identities that make us idiosyncratic individuals and that give zoē meaning. We might learn something valuable from the Greek. Our melancholy at the passing of time is but a manifestation of our natural selves. But to be melancholy is to privilege the biological and to arrest that other form of life.

So, in these waning days of summer when the effects of autumn already appear, I look around and delight in the myriad of changes that begin to pepper the garden. Seemingly overnight, Rose Mallow shed her vibrant summer dress of green and chartreuse for her understatedly elegant burgundy gown. The one seed pod I allowed to remain on her stalks has turned a rich caramel (I do want her babies, but not so many of them!) The oat-like panicles of the Northern Sea Oats Grass have begun to redden on their way to a bronze finish, and I am warmed by his chromatic complement to Rose’s autumnal beauty.

And of course the season for pumpkins is rapidly approaching.

But in my garden, I just never know where “the pumpkin” will appear.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Setting for Spring

Move onward Life; we cannot stop to grieve.
The seed demands the soil, that it may live;
This mystery of contact, strange, devout
In union, as the general scheme of love.
See, in our careful hoard of leaf-mould, sprout
Chestnuts from conkers, little pallid leaf
Of beech from mast, from acorn little oak,
Each in their germination hopefully
Intent on growing to a forest tree;
Close consequence that seed and soil provoke!

So Autumn’s not the end, not the last rung
Of any ladder in the yearly climb,
When that is deathly old which was once young,
Since time’s no ladder but a constant wheel
Like an old paddled mill that dips and churns
The mill-race, and upon the summit turns
Unceasingly to heel
Over, and scoop fresh water out of time.

Autumn’s a preparation for renewal,
Yet not entirely shorn
Of tardy beauty, last and saddest jewel
Bedizening where it may not adorn.

--Vita Sackville-West, selections from her extended poem, The Garden (1946)

Shadows lengthen in the midday sun, and the etiolated leaves grant the waning days a luster of amber that accentuates a fading life. The sun at this time of year is peculiarly golden; soft morning light and the hues of dusk bathe plants in ocular warmth, momentarily resuscitating the withering garden, casting a magical spell that commands the garden too shall return.

As one gardening season winds down, as the chlorophyll drains from trees, as leaves so early in September turn to pallid green and shades of yellow, another season begins to set: buds appear on the Pieris japonica and the rhododendron, offering us signs of the early and mid- spring glory to come.

Pieris sends out long tendrils of delicate, diminutive buds that belie its fortitude throughout the harsh winter.

An act of unplanned parallelism comes to my attention: the rhododendron and Rose Mallow echo each others’ fuschia overtones, providing spring – summer/autumn, northeast – northwest counterpoints in the garden. The parallelism is only an act of mind, however. Those who forget and those who dare not remember lose the subtle flavoring of life—the very flavoring that so often peppers the years, the very flavoring that constitutes our lives, the very flavoring that is so easily lost to time and to more prodigious events.

Those subtleties, the very ordinariness that marks the daily passing of our lives and constitutes in many deep senses a person, were poignantly captured by The New York Times in the weeks and months that followed that tragedy we commemorate today. Not intended to be traditional obituaries, “Portraits of Grief” "informally and impressionistically" depicted lives through "idiosyncratic," subtle prisms that so eloquently, so movingly, revealed the essence of personalities lived.

Those subtleties are the well-spring of life that recall pasts yet propel us into futures.

** In memory of all those who lost their lives on 11 September 2001 **

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Adult Pleasures III: Addictions

Of all the families that reside in my garden, the Lamiaceaes are the most colorful—not in the literal, but in the metaphoric sense.

The Lamiaceae family is itself quite respectable, and has given us such aristocratic, venerable personalities as sage and oregano, and the prissier, prudish lavender. But every celebrated family has its skeletons, its prodigal youth, its improbably outlandish characters usually beset by addictions of all sorts. The Lamiaceaes are the Walkers in my own garden drama version of Brothers & Sisters.

If Anise Hyssop, drag queen and sacred harlot that s/he is, is consumed by her/his own addictions, then mint has recently displayed his own addictions: coffee.

Yes, coffee.

I’ve planted mint in 2 sections of the garden, hoping it would vanquish neglected patches as mint is wont to do. But it hasn’t; my summer mojito season suffered greatly. True, I failed to amend the impenetrable clay, alkaline soil before planting, but I’ve seen mint in other Delaware (clay) gardens raid like the Norman invasion of England and thus, typical of the novice and the addict, assumed and expected too much.
Considering the consequences to my summer drink schedule, I salvaged a few remaining stalks and stuck them in water. Roots soon sprouted, and into a pot on the deck they went, nearest to the back door to the kitchen for quick and easy access in times of, well, thirst.

A European vacation came and went, the mint survived my absence (it did not flourish during this drought stricken summer, but then again few plants did), and one day I threw a clump of coffee grounds into the pot. This mass dose of nitrogen and calcium instigated a dramatic metamorphosis: five spindly stalks have become in a matter of 2.5 weeks a bushier clump of delectable leaves, ready to be muddled into favorite summer drinks.

Like good friends, we feed each others’ addictions.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rhythm, or, On Why I Garden

In a globalized world, seasons nary exist. My evidence: Costco supplies me with plump, delicious blueberries (my favorite fruit) approximately 10 months of the year. From mid-April to early October, I savor the mild, then sweet, then tart ‘Down East’ and Canadian blueberries, at which point my fix is satisfied (from October to late January) by my southern suppliers of Peru and Chile.

Sure, we occasionally must bundle our bodies in layers of wool to ward of the damp chill of winter, or dive into the cooler mid-Atlantic waters during the heat of summer (when is summer, I have to ask, given temperatures in the mid 90s in April, and August heat since late May, and occasional late warm and humid days in December?). But our culinary experiences, perhaps our closest connection to the natural rhythms of life, are now more fully liberated from the ebb and flow of the temperatures and light as the earth makes its annual revolution around the sun.

And though I rejoice in eating blueberries each morning, whether during April showers or in the midst of January nor’easters, I can’t help but feel disconnected from a life, from a world, that really never was mine in any experiential sense. I am not a farmer, nor did I grow up on a farm—and farm life is to be the quintessential experience of nature, though farmers may be inclined to shop at Costco too! But there is something indelibly magnificent, nostalgically magical, about heading into one’s root cellar in the winter to retrieve a squash, or to remove a Ball’s canning jar from the shelf to experience that sweet essence of jam you canned last summer. The magic, in my view, precipitates from experiencing each season in isolation from others; from consuming the beauty and the bounty, and accommodating the deficits of each season unto itself; and relying on one’s skills to self-sustain as much as possible.
Thus I deeply admire my friend Leslie’s uncanny ability to concoct stellar jams, and to market them to her friends with such tantalizing titles such as “Berry Brosia” or “Strawba-Mama-Cotta” (I know I got that one wrong!). Or I feel an inner fire ignited when my father speaks of building a root cellar. Or I admire from afar the antics and lives of Josh and Dr. Brent at Beekman 1802 who live a life I fantasize about living (in a restored 18th century mansion and on a working farm in upstate New York) but do not possess the intellectual, financial, emotional, or physical capacities or abilities to do so.

My abilities are more limited: in lieu of a lapel flower, I don an autumn leaf. And I garden.

Schizophrenic weather aside—the jostling of temperatures and seasons contending for calendar space at the peril of our gardens and more tender plants such as Corydalis flexuosa Blue Panda, which began to emerge from aestivation with the advent of cooler temperatures two weeks ago, but was staved off by typical August heat last week; the white-margined hostas begin to turn yellow, readying for their winter naps, all the while sending up new shoots; Orange Marmalade has lost its lustrous quality; Autumn Joy sedum bloomed early this year, like every other plant, and has past its prime joy, even before autumn has officially begun—gardening I have come to discover and appreciate offers me the opportunity to live a life I am capable of living, to be a self I am capable of being, and of dabbling in things greater and more sublime than I ever could be. I do in order to allow things to be. In that sense, my professional (teaching) and gardening lives merge, each a reflection of the other, two of many parts of a whole. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Adult Pleasures II: Neuroses

Occasionally I lament the passing of the past. Not the passing of time per se, but the passing of that which was and the passing of the ways which were.

Take, for instance, the imagination. I do not have children, and so those who do may dismiss this entry as pure nonsense. But many of the children I do know no longer have a world unto themselves, an imaginary, constructed world of secret languages and codes, of mysterious villages constructed of sticks and rocks, of potent potions and fantastical identities, a world apart from the adult realm that supervises them and exists unto itself. No, these children can purchase ready-made imaginary worlds in the form of boxed computer games, which are in my view adult worlds that have infiltrated children-dom and hijacked the childhood imagination, or perhaps they are relics of childhood imagination that have infiltrated the adult world as a measure of necessary escape (I can’t figure out which). Imagination comes prepackaged, prearranged, pre-thought, and the most damnable of them all, prescribed. And this, I think, affects the future, for those without the ability to exercise an imagination, for those who are accustomed to having the answers and the possibilities articulated for them—well, they find it almost excruciatingly difficult to expand the proverbial envelope, to imagine alternatives and possibilities. And that I find very, very sad indeed.

But the good news is that the art of imagination can, with practice, be relearned.

And so I found particular comfort and joy this past summer dining with Viet’s now formerly London-based cousins, D and L, and their children, S and R, in their garden on cool July evenings. S and R, are delightful young adults (I hesitate to call them children because, though they are 11 and 10 respectively, are so advanced and enjoyable to converse with—dangling prepositions aside), whose imaginations are rich, their intellects active and curious. On two evenings, the conversation evolved into a sharing of riddles.

The riddle—either the enigmatic or the conundrum—with their double or veiled meanings, conflate multiple realities and force us to disassemble the whole and see reality through different lenses. Riddles teach us to think differently, to imagine, to appreciate the multiple prisms through which our realities may be interpreted.

So, dear reader, I have a (pseudo) riddle for you: what nourishes the more it depletes (or, alternatively, what fulfills the more it drains)?

Or, more perversely, in the spirit of the riddle: what do cat litter buckets, neuroses, and water have in common?

Any idea?

Not yet?

Well, the answer to my (pseudo) riddle is a water barrel, and the answer to the question in the spirit of a riddle is me, as in the author of this blog.
(All that from contemplating a water barrel? Now that’s a riddle.)

A friend recently remarked that compared to my garden, hers is a desiccated mess. Another friend quipped that my water bill must be atrociously high.

A partial response to the first comment is that I selectively photograph. Some plants have thrived in Delaware’s near record-breaking drought and record-breaking heat; a few have died; and several do struggle. My pride dictates that I do not post pictures of dead or dying plants, though a master gardener I am most certainly not! But thanks to my water barrel, and to my neurotic behavior which compels me to run outside during even drenching rains to fill 6 large former cat little buckets with water from the barrel, thus capitalizing on the captured water and enabling the barrel to refill--thanks to both for my gardens are performing rather well.

We’ve had 3 rains (fairly light) since June (2 of which were in August), and though those rains have not provided adequate moisture, forcing me to use the hose twice, they have provided me with just enough water to keep most plants looking healthy during these exceedingly trying times.

The large rhododendron conceals the rain barrel, which I’ve attached to the front porch roof downspout; hence the sole source of water is that which collects on the porch roof. All other gutters are “internal,” as was customary to design 92 years ago, and combine to produce only 2 downspouts (one in the front, and one in the rear of the house). The front porch is of average size. I raise that point because a rain shower of a mere 1/3 of an inch of rain will nearly twice fill the barrel!  

Rain barrels: the answer to the riddle of what keeps on giving the more it drains.