Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adult Pleasures VII: Confession

Confession—not in the strict Catholic sense—must be one of those universal pleasures to expiate our souls of the guilt and angst we feel for lying, cheating, thieving, scheming, or whatever else compels us to tell another of what a human being we are. {Notice I did not write “what kind of human being we are,” or “how bad of a human being we are,” or any variation thereof. I assume none of us are bodhisattvas; we just are…and hence we need to confess every now and then…}

And so, as 2010 (for many an Annus horribilis) comes to an end and as 2011 appears on the horizon (invariably all hope the new year will be an Annus mirabilis), I offer my own confession.

I covet. I desire. I yearn. I’ve even scouted, encountered, and, dare I admit this publicly, touched.  That touch is poison: for it has the effect of underscoring the negative s of that which we have, of those in our presence. Newness attracts. And so we desire and covet more. Yes. I am naughty: very, very naughty indeed.

Now, perhaps my dear reader will think I should first share this confession of naughty doings with Viet, especially since touching was involved, but what good is a confession if it is shared only with one?! Spread the pleasure, I declare with aplomb!

I want more, and so began looking around. At the risk of sounding superficial, I admit that either the object of my affections offered interior depth and beauty but (let me be civil about this) was not blessed in the exterior department, or the exterior attracted but the interior was rather vacant and banal.

Conventional wisdom may dictate that “looking around” is a sign of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment, and there is much truth to that as conventional wisdom goes. But I am convinced that “looking around” is also symptomatic of deeper maladies: impatience and an inability or lack of will to fully engage the beloved and the self. And these things may be traced back to desire. Desire is, as the Buddhists tell us, the root of all suffering. And suffer do I!

First, let me venture this thought: “shame on me!”

Second, I do not deserve the honorific of “gardener,” for my desires relate precisely for more garden space. I sense that I have outgrown that which I have created here at 410. I yearn for an all black flower bed, perhaps mixed with a bit of silver or deep purple. I yearn for an all white garden room, and a bed of fiery red, a full shade fern garden and a woodland walk. People remark of my gardens, “oh, this must take a long time to care for.” And I respond: “creating it took a long time; caring for it is relatively easy. In fact, I can handle more.”

So I began to look: house-hunting on the internet, until one day I went to look at one of the “grand ladies” around the corner on Baynard Blvd.: its interior was magnificent, but its exterior spaces were miniscule. I would be down-sizing my garden, which is exactly what I do not want to do.

Such has been my plight over the last few months…fantasizing about other properties. Shame.  I won’t be surprised if Priapus, a minor Greek god of gardens (and another unmentionable) punishes me by killing off my beloved Corydalis flexuousa (Purple Leaf or Blue Corydalis), or some other plants in my garden.

Gardening, I have quickly come to realize (despite my months of weakness coveting more), is a long term commitment to cultivation and care. Thoughtful gardeners, Robin Lane Fox would admonish, learn over time the needs of particular plants, and set such plants in a lengthy conversation with one another. The gardener listens to those conversations and adds to and subtracts from them in the long term. I have planted a garden (and frequently amend) and owe this garden my compassion and acre in the long term. I owe myself (and my plants) not simply this initial investment of energy but allegiance over time to watch it grow, to see the Climbing Hydrangea conquer more of the fence as I weave its tendrils between the deck balusters; to witness the filling in of the East Side Shade Bed which I vowed to renovate (and which I have been renovating); to enjoy the fruits of the mid-level “wall” I constructed out of Shenandoah Switch Grass and Firepower Nandina to set off the stone patio. In fact, there is much more to be done, much more to change, much room to plant, much more to enjoy.

The joy of gardening comes not simply or even primarily from planting/creating a garden. The joy comes from the work of gardening—the care, the cultivation, and yes, the weeding and the pruning, the additions and the subtractions, the raking and the composting, and the multitude of creative ways we small space gardeners can get more with less.

So, dear reader, you have my confession, but I offer my own remedy, a sort of New Year’s resolution that may be easier to keep than all those others. I will pursue the joy of gardening with vigor and renewed meaning and conviction, passion and devotion, to all those plants that exist outside and in spite of me. I will love the gardens at 410, and all that reside within it.

A Happy, Plantastic New Year to all!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yule Logs and Yule Tidings

There is something primordially attractive about observances, rituals, and holidays that celebrate the rhythms of nature. Today, 24 December, marks the Eve of the Yule, first celebrated by the Germanic people as a pagan religious festival to encourage the "rebirth" of the sun and the welcoming of winter. Though the actual date of the Yule varied from late December to early January according to the lunar Germanic calendar, its affixing to 25 December came to us from the Romans (and Julius Caesar in particular) with the adoption of the Julian calendar.

Customs such as the Yule log, caroling, the Yule sacrifice (usually of a boar or goat), and decoration with greens (hollies and evergreens) ensured, along with copious amounts of alcohol (to warm the soul and the body, I presume), a spirited observance!

The Yule log in particular has fascinated me. So much symbolism wrapped up in this iconic thing that, save for social meanings attached to it, is nothing but, well, a piece of wood. Tradition has it that no one worked as long as the Yule log burned--and some burned for many days! (Apparently, families would choose a green wood or soak a large log in water to ensure a long fire...ah, proletariat mischief!)

In any case, the type of wood selected as "the Yule log" signified different things. One burned oak to bring strength, wisdom, and healing into one's household, while aspen was thought to encourage spiritual growth. Burning pine signified prosperity, birch engendered fertility and offspring, and ash invoked protection.

The log, though, was never allowed to completely burn through. Families would save the unburnt piece to use to start a new Yule fire next year as a sort of symbolic gesture of continuity of the flame, of hope, and of eternal lightness.

With technological advances, our sources of interior heat switched away from burning of wood to gas, oil, and electricity--and with that switch has come the decline of the fireplace and its absence in many a modern home.

But the Yule survives in many forms: the Bouche d'Noel as a fabled dessert (which Viet's exceptionally culinary-gifted sister, Van, made once year), which proves to be a most spectacular, bedazzling, and festive treat);

the table centerpiece;

and, for the ultra moderns, in most curious form.

New Yorkers--ever mischievous, ever resourceful--have revived the burning of the Yule log but in most nontraditional form: electronic! This year, the Yule log will appear in 3-D for those with such technological capacities.

No matter how your Yule log burns--literally or metaphorically--I wish all merry Yule tidings!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Offerings for Saturnalia

We’ve been treated to an unusual astronomical trifecta: a total lunar eclipse of a full moon on the winter solstice. The brilliant pristine cool white of the Long Night’s Moon turned a shaded gray while in the Earth’s penumbra, and a haunting red during its 73 minutes in the umbra.

Despite the brevity of sunlight on this shortest day of the year, my “day” was long: from my arousal at 12:51 a.m. to watch the eclipse to an 11 p.m. bedtime after an evening with friends for Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice celebration. After a delicious dinner, we noshed on the traditional Yalda foods of watermelon, nuts, and pomegranates, and then read poems of the Sufi lyric poet, Hafiz.

Today marks the beginning of the “returning” vigor of the sun, though honestly we won’t feel its effects for some time. We must first endure the frigidities of January and February, and the frequent frosts of March, before we can fully welcome the warmth of the sun and the life it generates.

On this solstice I am somehow, for some reason, reminded how uneven our lives really are. We lurch from one extreme to another, even as we try to mediate and balance. Perhaps this makes the equinoxes so utterly special: precisely because those are rare moments of equanimity in a decidedly unequal world. The ancient Romans had the same thought, I suppose, for their Feast of Saturnalia, observed during these long nights, rested precisely on irreverence for tradition, subversion of the social order, the deliberate making of merry, [and even gift giving, or saturnalia et sigillaricia]. Slaves became masters, and masters became slaves, punishment was forbidden, and all drank themselves into wondrous orgies.
My garden is an orgy right now…but not an orgy in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture and harvest. It is an orgy of building material (both discarded and new), insulation, wood, metal caps (for window exteriors), and the old iron weights that once resided in the recesses of the window wells. Visually, it’s a mess. Metaphorically, though, the orgy of materials is an offering to Saturn, a saturnalia et sigillaricia, an ode to harvesting and retaining heat and warmth, just like the soil in early spring, which warms the roots of herbaceous plants, instigating them to another season of growth and wonderment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

At One with the Garden in Winter

For nearly three-quarters of the year, we commune with the garden. Those are blissful times: times of activity and growth, experimentation and familiarity, rejuvenation and repose.

Late autumn to early spring bring quieter times: times of lamentation, times of a different sort of repose, and times of planning (with all those garden and seed catalogues coming our way, how could one resist the urge to chart and plan the spring and summer garden?).

But winter brings with it a different kind of opportunity—an opportunity that all gardeners must heed. It is the opportunity to study the architecture of space.
Winter lays bare the beds, the garden rooms, the hedges, the walkways, and the walls. But so exposed are the parts that makeup each. Take this walkway, for instance. This dusting of snow accentuates the shapes of the stones. Here I see a shrunken Egypt and an elongated Sinai. Two stones below or toward the foreground we see undulations caused by millennia of successive waves—a reminder of a past so alien and almost unimaginable.

I see the stone walls that outline my beds have sunk into the ground by at least 4 inches. Height recedes. Verticality morphs into an unwelcome horizontality.

Frost-induced reduction of the ajuga makes stark the sinuous walls. My fetishistic collection of rocks once again appear, their herbaceous screens having retreated in the wake of winter’s onset. And the redesign of the east side shade garden bed becomes more apparent as only the anchor specimen plants—the Sawtooth Aucuba japonica Serratifolia (Serrated Japanese Laurel), Kerria japonica (which I moved from the heavily shaded southwest corner), and the Nikko Blue Hydrangea—are left to inhabit the winter garden, accented only by the improbable, preternatural greens of the Autumn, Christmas, and Holly ferns.

And today, indoors, despite the cold and the frozen ground, I live in the garden and commune with it. The window wells are being insulated, and the windows reinstalled (which means I shall live for the next few days sans windows in particular parts of the house). Nothing separates me from the garden, and I feel the same cold the plants feel. Even for me, this is too close for comfort in the winter garden. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Homage to Little Garden Friends

Twilight yesterday offered us here in northern Delaware a quintessential early winter sky: a darkening, yet brilliant sapphire blue sky and a waxing gibbous moon--snow white, crisp, and dominating.

Today, Venus glistens against a pristine, deep blue-black early morning sky.
The cold doesn’t just envelop; it intrudes into the very fiber of your being. It dampens much life.

Yesterday, a pair of squirrels perched on the fences—balancing, brave and stalwart against a steady, stiff northerly wind—eating nuts and other debris deposited in our ground compost pile. 

And I thought back to all those garden visitors throughout the year, wondering where they’ve gone and whether they or their offspring will ever find their way back to 410…

Like this molting Robin, searching for a springtime worm... 
 Or this bumble bee, so methodical....

Or this female Praying Mantis...

Or this Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, Delaware's State Butterfly...

Or this Cardinal, ever the charming, aurally distinctive visitor...

Or this male Praying Mantis...actually....he may have been devoured by his mate...

Or this little bug...

Many have moved south; many have gone into dormancy, preparing for their grand metamorphosis; and others...well...they have graced us in this life, and we say thanks for their appearances...