Sunday, July 30, 2017

My garden of regrets

"But though an old man, I am but a young gardener."
—Thomas Jefferson

As I tend to my garden, I think about love, loss, and regret.

All is bittersweet now. We are house hunting and that means leaving behind my gardens of dreams, regrets, trial and error, and planting new ones.

Until I fell in love with native plants and the way they nurture the thousands of exquisite creatures of this particular place on the planet, I was a fickle gardener.

I see now that was because there was no there there. There was no real life to it; no community, no history, no rightness or belonging, no center. Such a shallow-rooted relationship is not sustainable. And the roots of a garden that doesn't belong to its place disrupt the earth and its intricate web of relationships formed over the course of millennia.

So I regret years spent planting ornamental species that did nothing to feed native bees, birds or butterflies, none of which bore any kinship or relationship to the other. Fragments and echoes of another place, not this place. The harm that is done.

But though I surely regret it, the sting is lessened because I have learned to do better. Now coneflowers, hyssop, wild bergamot, milkweed, witch hazel, serviceberry and others that feed wildlife have taken their place in my plot of earth.

I regret not planting a bur oak tree many years ago (or even more recently). I told myself my yard was too small for such a wide-branching and magnificent tree...and so it is. But why didn't I plant one anyway? For I love them with all of my dryad heart. 

(A metaphor for all the ways I make myself and my life too small?)

Now I am no longer young enough to see a young oak tree grow to mightiness in my lifetime, and that cannot be undone. 

But I am searching for a house with a big bur oak tree. At the least there must be a sunny place to plant one or two, and maybe I will be granted the years to tend them and see them flourish.* But trees are a legacy we leave to the wild ones, including human persons. Trees are one (and not the least) of the joys of living on this earth.  

I love vines, the way they artfully conceal yet reveal. But at times I regret planting the too-vigorous Englemann Ivy, a selection of the native Virginia Creeper requiring constant vigilance lest it take over the garden, yard, even the big silver maple...but. Its leaves ensconce the privacy fence in green, and in scarlet, rose and apricot yellow in October.

I've also regretted letting the wild grape vine plant itself next to my sidewalk fence, where in mere days it grows foot-long tendrils that reach out into the walkway, which I must continually trim back, feeling like a meanie while curbing its exuberance. 

But on the other hand, the birds and rabbits take cover under the leaves and eat its fruit, and it is rife with large, golden, buzzing beetles (none of which you can see below).

I'm regretting the two shrubs I planted in front when we moved into this house 20 years ago...too close to one another and non-natives. I would replace them if we were staying. 

I did not instantly eradicate the dreadfully invasive European creeping bellflower that's growing among the grass in the boulevard and has spread in an unplanted area of the back yard. Another cause for regret. To get rid of it now would require many, many hours of digging, essentially replacing the entire boulevard. 

At least now I know the purple peril and in our hypothetical new yard will have my shovel at the ready, no mercy for such plant invaders that crowd out native species. 

But at least garden regrets can usually be mended with sufficient time, energy and money. 

Unlike other sorts of regrets that visit in the dark hours, all entwined with half-formed wishes, dreams, and fears. 

These are the thoughts you keep to yourself. At least, I do. It's not the place I want to live.

Regrets aside, it is a grief to leave my well-loved garden behind. Unless there was some way to know that the next person who lives here will love it, too, which there isn't. They may dig it all out and replace it with sod, which doesn't bear thinking about. 

But there is an up-side in leaving it behind: the opportunity to convert more useless lawn to native plantings, and a fresh start. Anyone who says you can't leave your problems behind wasn't talking about a garden, because you definitely can. 

Maybe I will dig out a beloved plant or two to take with me to inaugurate my new garden, wherever it may be, along with everything my regrets have taught me. 

*Not only are bur oaks magical and magnificent beings in their own right, they also support over 600 species here in the Great Lakes region. If it is native to your homeland, plant one. Don't wait!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I know not what

Yellow Trout Lily
Erythronium americanum

Lily-yellow, tiger-gold the color of the sunlight flooding down on summer solstice like blessings, like good fortune, a healing and flourishing.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail basking
Papilio glaucus

Under glowing leaves that undulate in the wind will I find one glorious afternoon to own my life; all mine, to do with as I will. 

Wild Sarsparilla
Aralia nudicaulis

Last evening, solstice eve, I and my wild-loving sisters tended to the native gardens by the lake near my home.

Together we weeded, planted, watered, sharing our bodily energy to care for native habitat of many species of flowers, sedges, and grasses. All out of real love for the monarch butterfly and every other insect, bird and person that it nurtures.

As someone who tends to go my own way, I too rarely seek out the joys of fellowship. I suffer from the self-imposed delusion that I am a misfit in almost any group of three or more people.

But the gardening women are lovely, kind and funny. Practical and full of earth knowledge, as you would expect from persons living close to the soil. They share their wisdom generously with all who ask.

It seems strange to me that I still seek role models for how to live my life when I am at this age. Life is a work in progress. Still I am trying on ways of being like identities for the choosing, wondering, Is this it? Does this feel like a life that makes sense?  

But how else could it be. Life needs to change as I change,  something I am mulling over now more than ever as we think about where we want to make our next home.

Because the answer to those questions depends on the life I and we want to live; and on my clarity and bravery about that life, which are currently in short supply.

Cornus canadensis

When my thoughts circle and circle, I know it is time to stop thinking. Go outside. Be animal, be spirit, be present and unminding and unknowing. Now, the yellow-rumped warbler calls again and again, his voice carried on a south wind through my open windows. I'm coming!

Stemless Lady's-Slipper ready to bloom
Cypripedium acaule

I send to you solstice blessings, my wild-loving friends in both hemispheres. I wish you a hopeful bright spot today, a restorative retreat of sorts, even if only of the mind.

 All of the images in this post were taken about a week ago along the North Shore of Lake Superior, where we stayed in a small wooden cabin hugging the lake, windows open all night to the sound of waves hitting the shore. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

The scent of sacred spring

In times gone, and maybe still in places where they pay attention, they call this one Queen of the May, under the protection of the faeries. 

Hawthorn has more charisma in one wild, twisty branch than does a whole hillside of uniform cultivars. 

Of all the varieties of hawthorn at the Arboretum, she was the only one to be blooming as early as the flowering crabs. 

Hawthorn's fragrance midway between narcotic sweetness and a whiff of fermenting flesh...but nonetheless (or maybe because of it) her branches were humming with small, darting wild bees and honeybees and syrphid flies, all dizzy with nectar amid the flowers and thorns.

Hawthorn marks the entrance to the Otherworld. 

In the Old Lands, they told the tale: 

On your life, do not cut down the sacred tree. 

Take care to not interfere with the lone bush growing in the open, for a temper dwells within this tree. 

Ask permission before gathering her flowers. 

And leave an offering in return.

Hang the may boughs over doors and windows for protection from witches and Unseelie spirits...

Do not bring the blossoms inside! For ill luck or death may follow.†

(I have a witch sister who planted a hawthorn outside her kitchen window. But she was disconcerted by the flowers' heady, sweet-decomposing scent, and later removed the tree. 

I wonder, did she ask permission? Hawthorns seem unusually testy. See their thorns, up to four inches long....)

Hawthorns, genus crataegus, are cousins of apple trees and Juneberries within the large rose family. 

Many thousands of years of lore and legend around hawthorns grew up like wild hedgerows in the Old World. 

So many alien species did European immigrants bring to North America that one could be forgiven thinking that any hawthorn one finds in America must have originated elsewhere.

Whoever thinks that, I have discovered, would be mistaken. Because the royal family of hawthorns has for just as many centuries been native to North America, including seven species native to my northern region:

  • Dotted hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
  • Downy hawthorn (Crataegus mollis)
  • Fanleaf hawthorn (Crataegus flabellata)
  • Fireberry hawthorn (Crataegus chrysocarpa)
  • Fleshy hawthorn (Crataegus succulenta)
  • Pear hawthorn (Crataegus calpodendron)
  • Red haw (Crataegus chrysocarpa var. chrysocarpa)

New World hawthorns seem to have grown a thorny history of their own, one unfamiliar to me. As remedy, in my stack of reading is Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, by Bill Vaughn, guardian to acres of wild hawthorns on his Montana property. 

One day, perhaps at our new house, if we ever find it, I will plant hawthorns in my yard, and their fragrance shall be intertwined always with the unfolding, intensely mortal beauty of May. 

With Faerie queens, storm-colored clouds, changeable skies and the luna moth of spring.

But for now, Juneberry, Witch Hazel, Pagoda Dogwood, Crabapple and Silver Maple are my everyday companions, and I must ramble with intention to see hawthorns, planted as ornamental trees in the parklands around my home. 

No hedgerows, rag trees, or fairy bushes here. 

But still, magic. 

See now the small soft-feathered mother, American Robin, who has made her nest amid a bower of hawthorn's protective thorns; where the flowers will soon flutter to the ground and the tree will set fruit, growing red haws beloved of thrushes and waxwings. Which they shall eat and then plant without even knowing that they do, so that in the way of kinship, more hawthorns can protect more robins. 

†"A widespread belief in Ireland, and elsewhere, was that hawthorn blossom was unlucky. A recent survey carried out by the Folklore Society in Britain found that hawthorn flowers were considered to be the most unlucky of plants, with death resulting if brought into a house. Recently it has been shown that a chemical present in the early stages of tissue decay is found in hawthorn blossoms, so perhaps an association with the smell of death is the cause." —Niall Mc Coitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, (c) 2003. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Leaping fire on the hill
How I want to bound and burn like you, like every wild thing:
Rabbit, deer, horse, fox
The green spirit.

Leaping fish in the lake
How I want to bathe in that clear cold water
Revive my withered spirit 
Let go the pains I hold onto
Be baptized with joy
Be the joy to which the rushing waters give birth
and give birth to a river of joy

Dive into the depths of creation
without fear
Flash through the shallows, 
Swim hard upstream
Leaping forth every spring for an eon
Transform shape
wear down rock
Sublimate into mists and vapors 
then rain to earth in the Great Circle
as water begets more water and more life.

Leaping bird from branch
Wings dancing with sky
Tattoo over my heart, 
Forever winging into happiness
Bluebirds mean happiness
Every bird is like May
Bright, quick, throbbing with life
Singing gladly, wings outstretched
Carrying our wishes on their backs,
Our hopes in their feathers, 
Our dreams in their songs.

Leaping green from earth
How I long to rise like the plant people
A root, a seed
Ever-renewed, springing from the cracks
Useful, lusty, persistent and full of gifts

The bloom like the May, buzzing with bees
Green (the faerie color)
Hawthorn (the faerie tree)
May: The color of the dream world, the Otherworld as it calls, 
Stretches out flowering tendrils, 
Beckons with ever-young fingers to mortal kind
The greenling spirit of the earth reborn
And oh, little lover of fairytales and spring,
How the sap surges still 
in this young-old heart.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

True song

I woke to the true song of the robin.

All alone he sang, a brave voice in the darkness before dawn, claiming his rightful territory.

He sings of spring, a mate, rain, old berries yet uneaten, insects wakening under dead leaves. Of sunlight flooding through bare tree branches and twiggy nests earthworms wriggling forth from the earth to drink of its cold moisture.

A week ago in Santa Fe, the air smelled of dust, pinon smoke, apricot blossom, and juniper.

I still feel a slight sense of dislocation, a neither-here-nor-there. A ghosting feeling, as if my body arrived but some part of me (my spirit?) is following more slowly, maybe migrating northward and on the wing like the robins, not yet at my destination.

Air travel is especially abrupt when traveling between such dramatically different landscapes, with bare time to transition from Southwestern spring to Northern spring.

There: A high desert clarity. A sea of dry air that steals away all moisture from one's nose, in which skin takes on a map-like texture, an atlas of lizard trails and pebbled riverbeds and beetle-traced tree bark.

We walked through arid gardens of soft sands, yarrow, dusty gold, sage and subtle greens against the backdrop of pine-dark mountains, under vaulting arcs of cloud...

Down streets so quiet one could hear the gentle patter of blossoms hitting the ground...

House finches with rosy throats warbled their songs in the fruit trees, plucking blossoms one by one and drinking their nectar before discarding them to flutter to the stones below, and the adobe walls were painted by soft shadows.

We followed in the footsteps of ancient peoples, through the canyons, cholla, cottonwoods lining the small river (like but unlike their eagle-eyried kin along the Mississippi River), dusty paths, vast walls and fortresses of ember-lit and golden limestone towering overhead, glowing against the blue sky.

We climbed into cool-shadowed cliff dwellings, blew dust from our noses, carried water for the journey, rested in the shade, rested in the quiet, the quiet of an ancient place. All wild places are ancient, and sacred, but some strike one so more than others, like this one.

What would it be like, getting to know even one mountain? To watch such an eternal being through every shift of light, season, weather? Calming, I would imagine, an object of contemplation, meditation, inspiration, like Pedernal Mountain to Georgia O'Keeffe.

Oh how beautiful the paintings, but just as much the life of an artist following her vision, the photographs made of her working in her kitchen and garden, a life all of a piece, making sense.

Maybe that is what lingers most of all, a calling I have heard before and hear again. My true song. Will I listen this time?

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