In a pre-Christmas issue of OnBeing’s newsletter, The Pause, Padraig O’Tuama tells a story from his late teens, a period of his life that he describes as “too interested in religion” and “too much zeal.” Working for a church in Dublin, he encountered an elderly woman in chapel nearly every day for five years. And every time, she would say, “I’m praying for you; for your conversion.”
He goes on to say how his initial dismay (“I was already converted”) evolved over time to a deeper understanding of conversion: “It is an embrace of the possibility of change and future. … It calls us again and again throughout a life.”
He might have said, It calls us to life—to a deeper, richer, more genuine life.
In some contexts, conversion is seen in binary terms: yes or no, before or after, saved or not saved, sheep or goat. St. Paul is the prototypical example, to the extent that “Damascus Road experience” is a familiar idiom, even in the secular world.
In others, the pattern is more like that of St. Peter, conversion on conversion on conversion. Even after his uncomfortable post-Resurrection “little chat” over breakfast (“do you love me … feed my sheep”), even after Pentecost, we have the story of his dream on the rooftop in Joppa.
I have been blessed with many conversions over the course of my life. But I say “blessed” only after the fact. Conversion, in my experience, is not a pleasant thing to go through. Most of the time, when we say we are praying for someone, we pray for favorable external circumstances: May you get well, may you get the job, may you win the lottery, may your pain go away. To pray for another’s conversion is to wish pain onto them. Granted, a necessary pain that will lead to that deeper, richer, more genuine life, but pain, nevertheless.
What a startling, presumptuous prayer! And one fraught with pitfalls for the pray-er. If I pray for your conversion, am I ignoring my own need to change? (E.G., May all you folks who voted the “wrong” way in the recent election come to see the light.) If I pray for your conversion, am I assuming that I know what you are in need of? I have repeatedly made the mistake of thinking I knew the particular way my spouse or child needed to change. And yet, more than one of my own conversions came at a wise and loving challenge from Nancy.
On another front, signs of spring are all around. Shoots of the spring ephemerals are popping up through the leaf litter. The woods are full of birdsong. Nancy spotted a pair of red-shouldered hawks in the big pine tree below us.
As usual, the list of tasks we were going to accomplish over the winter is barely diminished. We did spend two afternoons crawling around under some rhododendron, pulling out the English ivy—a task I am only willing to do when it is too cold for the snakes and other critters to be active. In our observation, the ivy does not climb and cling onto the rhododendron and azaleas. And under the rhodies, the ivy was far less thick than just outside their reach. Too shady? Or does that genus somehow suppress ivy?
A final aside: Here is a clip entitled “Mona Plays Basketball.”
I have been privileged on these cold and cloudless mid-November mornings to watch the daily purpling of the Cumberlands. My days begin when my dog pops her head over the side of my bed at daybreak, signaling “You are wasting daylight, and I have to pee.” To the north, the Cumberland escarpment is a uniform wall of deep blue, beneath a pale blue sky. By the end of our walk, however, the rising sun shines a red-tinted spotlight on the mountains’ face, and soon their ridged and folded topography is revealed, as the high places turn purple while the hollows remain deep blue.
For much of the year, only the mountain tops are visible to us, with the lower slopes hidden by the row of still growing tulip poplars that will someday cover the entire view. For now, their bare trunks and branches are almost black random mullions in our temporary window onto the full mass of these mountains—easy to look through and forget their presence.
If the wind direction is into the sunrise, the windmill tri-stars on Buffalo Mountain shine a brilliant white. On other days when they are turned oblique to the sun, they are hardly noticeable. Meanwhile, the ever higher sun lights up the nearer trees in the valley a yellow brown.
Now comes coffee. After trying several methods, we have settled on a slow pour-over. The ritual has become another nod toward mindfulness (and adding the used grounds to the compost bin is easier with this method than the messy disassembling of K-cups).
Settling into my easy chair with my coffee, I must choose: Will I start my day on a contemplative note, with my journal and/or a dose of Richard Rohr or Mary Oliver? Or will I succumb first to the blood-pressure raising siren call of the morning paper and news feed?
In any case, my time in the easy chair is limited. Mona needs to play, which she typically announces by dropping a tennis ball into my lap. Once, and only once, I snapped, “Go play with yourself!” and, as if I’d thrown a switch, she spun into her tail-chasing dervish mode. Mostly, though, she will charm me or wear me down until I get up and pay attention to her.
Over the course of a day, we will have two or three sessions of chase-the-ball-down-the-hall; a couple of trips outdoors to harass chipmunks or race around with a nearly flat basketball that she scavenged from the woods gripped in her teeth; not to mention the four walks on a leash, poop bag in hand. The latter, pursued vigorously up our very steep street, double as my aerobic interval training. Our previous dog called me to Sabbath; this one calls me to action.
Our long-term project to replace the invasives on our property with wildlife-friendly native plants is slowly showing progress.Our rogues’ gallery of undesirables has become a Ten Least Wanted: English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, ground ivy, Italian arum, mulberryweed, Oriental bittersweet, privet, mahonia, Rose of Sharon, and poison ivy. The work of many of our days consists of removing one or more of these pests from some small definable patch of ground.
Arum is Nancy’s current villain #1. Impervious to herbicides, it reproduces by means of tiny underground corms. Dig a plant up and it leaves many corms behind. Her current strategy is to do “Mohs surgery” around the mother plants, digging outward and down until all the visible plant is removed. Then wait a few weeks for the corms that were left behind to emerge and do it again. And again. And again. Her hope is that by preventing the emerging young plants from producing new corms, eventually the soil’s inventory will be depleted. It is grinding work. For each young plant that is visible, she will find a dozen underground. Fortunately, this is cool weather work and their bright green leaves are readily visible against the seasonal brown.
How to do this on the greater-than-45-degree slopes below our driveway? We use a climbing rope anchored to my truck, with a prussic knot allowing the harnessed digger to hold a position on the rope and work with both hands.
Some days, it seems we only tear down. Yet the work also includes building up after the tearing down. In woodland patches cleared of English ivy, long-suppressed native forbs are coming back, and the wood asters we planted are propagating. A strip of our stilt grass meadow, weeds smothered under a silage tarp for a year, was recently planted with a native wildflower mix. An American holly, rescued from a choking, cloaking tangle of Oriental bittersweet, displays its glossy foliage once again. We added The Hazels—a pair each of hazelnut, hazel alder, and witch hazel—to define the northern border of the meadow.
Our hazel alders have white fuzzies. Tennessee Naturescapes tells me that is good news. These are woolly aphids, food of the caterpillar phase of the Harvester butterfly—the only carnivorous butterfly larvae in the western hemisphere. You can read here how these meat-eating larvae manage to co-exist with the aphids and the ants who “guard” them.
Mary Oliver wrote*:
“I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy. But it seems impossible.”
(*From “This World,” in her collection, Why I Wake Early.)
The funniest story I have heard about covid-19 hoarding came from my son in Oregon. He was at a gasoline station when someone pulled up in a homemade go-cart and asked for one-half gallon of gas. Any more would have just leaked out through the rust holes higher in the tank.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself whipsawed in my reactions to the pandemic. So far for me, it has been more like a vacation than a hardship. My vacation started back in that distant time (three weeks ago) when covid-19 was mostly a problem for other places. I had minor surgery and was forced to be inactive for several days. So I read. Books. A lot of them. Some new, others pulled from my bookshelf to be enjoyed for a second or third time. My recovery coincided with the local onset of social distancing. Normally at this time of year, I would be juggling gardening and other projects between my home and church, and spending lots of time on the two bands that we belong to. With the bands shut down and normal church activities curtailed, I just stay home. Work outside or in the shop for awhile, practice the sonata I am trying to learn, then settle in my recliner for more reading. A vacation.
Sure, there have been minor quandaries. Is it okay to make a quick stop at Home Depot on my way home from physical therapy? Should I quit physical therapy? (They are shutting down, so my last two appointments will be remote.) When the contractor I have been trying to get for a month finally says he can look at the job, do I turn him away?
I will admit to one or two moments of panic when reading about what could happen and imagining myself as one of those who needs a ventilator when none are available. In truth, however, I have barely been inconvenienced.
One can find—in the media, in the commentariat, among acquaintances—views on where we are heading that range from Pollyanna to Armageddon, from fears of social breakdown to signs of empathy and solidarity with the afflicted, from the fatalistic “I will die” to jokes about hoarding toilet paper when the symptoms are respiratory.
Nancy and I were having a “best of times, worst of times” discussion recently. Relative to most of humanity, past and present, we were born into place, time, and circumstances of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege. Furthermore, my worldview held that, over time, these blessings of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege would spread to larger segments of humanity. Observing 1) the accelerating pace of fallout from climate change, 2) worldwide political tendencies toward the nastier forms of nationalism and tribalism, and 3) our revealed vulnerabilities to this pandemic, that worldview and our blessings seem increasingly fragile.
As a former spiritual director regularly asked me, where is God in this? I reject the simplistic and naive answers to that question: That God is absent or non-existent; that God is vindictively punishing us for some infraction; that God is testing our faith, and we need not take the precautions, such as hand washing and social distancing, prescribedby mammon (updated versions of snake handling and the prosperity gospel). I do not believe God has willed this disease on anyone, but I do believe it has something to teach me.
Exactly what, I do not yet know. But I see some hints in the recent daily meditations of Richard Rohr. I won’t try to summarize, because I am still digesting. If you are interested, I suggest going directly to those meditations, March 21 through the present. Contemplate what the psalms of lamentation (March 21) have to tell us. Explore Barbara Brown Taylor’s word, “endarkenment” (March 26). (That one has prompted me to re-read her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.)
It is, amid many rainy days and a frightening pandemic, an intensely lovely spring. I am trying to pay attention to both.
As I wrote the date in my journal, I appended, Feast of Stephen. That set me thinking about how far removed contemporary culture (myself included) is from the time when saints’ feast days were equated with calendar dates in ordinary vernacular. History and/or Shakespeare buffs will know that the Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day. But what time of year is that? The rabble in the Globe Theater knew.
I am reading a book about the northern border of the U.S., which begins with a history of sixteenth century French exploration of North America. That led me to read up on the preceding forty years of religious wars in France, where I found a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. St. Bartholomew’s Day? When is that? Sixteenth century Frenchmen knew.
St. Swithun’s Day? Yes, he did exist, and there is a reason for the rhyme tying his feast day with a weather forecast. No, I am not going to tell you. Have your own fun looking it up. I will only divulge that the Feast of Stephen falls on December 26, which is also The Second Day of Christmas.
Of course, we have our own (almost) contemporary saint’s day massacre (St. Valentine’s). But aside from Valentine, and of course, St. Nick, what saint’s days take your mind immediately to a calendar date? St. Stephen is my limit.
Looking out on this Feast of Stephen, I did not see snow, deep and crisp and even. I did see a lake of fog in the valley below. That’s been a feature of the last few days. Below is a series of photos taken on Christmas Eve as day broke—the Cumberland Mountains stark against a clear sky with a lake of fog in the valley below. (Photos begin at 7:25 am and end at 8:29.)
It is too cold this time of year to do my journaling out on the deck, so that series of photos represents jumping up from my writing every few minutes to walk out onto the deck and capture the sight. I claim my journaling as my current contemplative practice. But sometimes I wonder. My entries often seem little more than making “to do” lists and “Dear Diary” reporting, more narcissism than contemplation. The saving grace is that the exercise forces me to pay attention, to be present.
We bought this place in 2017 and spent the entire fall of that year on the initial round of renovations before moving in; 2018 was a year of trying to settle in and planning how to accomplish the other improvements we thought were needed; and 2019 has been the year of the contractor. Major sweeping changes to two bathrooms, removal of some scary trees overhanging the house and garage, reshaping the drainage around the uphill side of the house, construction of safer and more convenient exterior access to our downstairs. Enough! Our resolution for 2020 is “No more contractors!”
Both the tree removal and the drainage improvements sent Bobcats up and down the old logging road that is our principal access to our meadow. Now that steep pathway is a muddy mess, likely to stay that way well into spring. I am especially anxious to put a deep organic cover over the roots of a huge chestnut oak, to help it recover from the compaction of all the unaccustomed traffic. If it fell, it would likely take with it the whole 200-foot long row of big trees bordering the west edge of the meadow. I have a truckload of leaves at the top, and a similar pile of wood chips at the bottom. But the muddy steep slope is too much for The Goat. So I reverted to more primitive technology—raking the leaves onto an old bedsheet and lugging it on my back like Santa’s toy sack. Later I hope to do the same with the wood chips, although that will be an uphill slog.
2019 ends—and 2020 will begin—with a big push to get our studio, shop, and garage sorted for future creative endeavors. Construction leftovers and an excess of “that might be useful for shelving (or storage or…” have all these spaces overcrowded to the point of gridlock. We have goals:
Nancy’s studio table art-ready, not cluttered with sheet music and bins of miscellania to be sorted
My shop cleared of unusable wood scraps, with dreamed-of work stations functioning
The music end of the studio free of intruding leftovers so that we can walk in, pick up mallets, and play.
These last few days of clear skies and warm temperatures have me wanting to play in the woods. There is easily a couple of weeks of tempting tasks calling me out there, and I will heed some of the calls. But cold and wet days will return, and we will continue to tackle the studio and shop. It looks to be a very good year.
It has been a busy summer. We are remodeling two bathrooms, gutting them down to the framing and working back out. Although the physical work is hired out, the disruption of daily living and the time involved in researching and selecting materials still have a huge impact on our capacity to carry on with normal activities. Two years after buying this place, we still don’t feel settled in.
The big event of our summer, however, was a trip to Ireland—two weeks with our church choir (and some groupies). We sang Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast one weekend and at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the next, plus a public performance at Bangor Abbey, our choirmaster’s home parish. As in all my musical undertakings, I feel I am the least talented and least experienced of the group. The music was difficult, and there was lots of it. So, telling about those experiences is much more fun than was the actual doing.
The debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah” occurred just a few dozen yards from Christ Church Cathedral, and its choir, plus that of nearby St. Patrick’s, comprised the original chorus. We sat in the stalls of that choir and sang for eucharist and evensong in that church! Our recessional passed under its great organ just as Emma, our organist, hit the lowest, most powerful notes of her postlude. Those vibrations stay with you long after the physical echos have died away!
To get to the bell ringers’ chamber in the belfry requires climbing a narrow spiral tower from the south transept, and traversing an outdoor catwalk along the base of the transept roof. In ancient times, we were told, the belfry was also the treasure vault. The narrow spiral approach, corkscrewing clockwise as you climb, was designed to put an attacking (right-handed) swordsman at a disadvantage. I never realized these places did duty as forts!
For all that, the most memorable parts of the trip were the more traditional tourist things. When asked about strongest impressions, favorite experiences, etc., I give some variant on “everything.” Was it the wild northern coast of County Antrim, or the crowded streets of Dublin with buskers on every corner? Or maybe the ancient stone ruins? The invariably lovely countryside? The food, the friendly people, the coffee? Ah, the coffee! And flowers everywhere!
Nearly everywhere you go along the Northern Ireland coast has a sign with a variant of “Game of Thrones, Season x, Episode y filmed here!” We were in and around Portrush a week before The Open. Astounding, the logistics of putting on a major golfing event in a fairly isolated location! Hundreds of acres of temporary structures, some 30 by 40 feet and two stories high! We stayed at the nearby Giant’s Causeway Hotel, a Fawlty Towers-looking structure set amidst the lushest meadows imaginable, edged by clifftops a hundred meters above the North Atlantic Ocean. The Causeway’s polygonal basalt columns are a marvel, but an after dinner, almost dusk walk along the clifftop meadows is the memory that feeds my soul.
We actually spent more time in the big cities. There, too, delights abound. St. George’s Market in Belfast, with its handcrafts and culinary temptations and Tennessee flags. (Nashville is a sister city.) A gourmet dinner on our “private” open-air balcony atop a department store. (Actually, that balcony would hold thirty diners, but all the other patrons that night preferred the smoking balcony.) Another dinner, a seafood mezza, at a Lebanese restaurant in Dublin. Extravagant floral displays in gardens and window boxes. Public art. Even rural roundabouts might have towering sculptures! And walking, walking, walking. One day, our phone app clocked nine miles of random “let’s see where this goes” meandering.
Typically, when Nancy and I travel, we are ready to go home by the third day. Not since our honeymoon have we had a two-week vacation. I am happy to say two weeks was not too long. Still, it’s nice to be home.
The weeds did not go on vacation during our absence, and we are in a fight to prevent the mulberry weed and stiltgrass from going to seed. But those gardening activities have to compete for our limited time and energy. Church, band, the remodeling project—all want a piece of us.
Three weeks after our return, we hosted the four grandkids and their parents. At the beginning of that three-week countdown, the downstairs room the kids were to sleep in had no ceiling and, in a few places, no subfloor in the still-under-construction bathroom above. The furniture from that room, plus construction tools and supplies filled the rest of our downstairs guest spaces. It would have been a busy three weeks even without the stiltgrass and band and other components of our everyday lives.
“No matter our vocation, we so often find ourselves living life as a form of triage.” (Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story).
Amen! Testify! Even in retirement. Even without remodeling.
Our house is surrounded by trees—mature trees that not infrequently shed parts of themselves. Even the slightest of rain showers seems to bring down one or more sticks you’re grateful not to have been underneath when it fell. Once last year I found a thirty-foot long limb at the edge of our meadow—a seemingly healthy arm ripped from an eighty-foot tulip tree. Did I sleep through a windstorm? Did an otherwise benign shower generate a freak localized burst of turbulence just fifty yards from my bedroom window?
Three days ago, I found an even bigger widow-maker in the driveway back to our garage. I stepped off about forty feet of chestnut oak, nine inches in diameter at the butt. This one, at least, was dead wood—woodpeckers had been at it. It seems to have taken a tip-first dive, then toppled sideways down the embankment to land ten feet laterally from the plane of its fall.
The source tree was one of a cluster of three big chestnut oaks covered with English ivy, the removal of which had not yet risen to the top of our priority list. As the widow maker had damaged a rhododendron at the tree’s base, I climbed the bank to trim away the broken branches. While up there, I removed ivy from the trunks of the oaks, and Nancy resumed her long-interrupted task of clearing it from the forest floor. Triage.
Fortunately, that rhody is not a well behaved lawn shrub; it has gone native and formed the beginnings of a “laurel hell.” Loss of a few branches soon won’t make a noticeable gap in its overall form.
The ivy is bound for the landfill; can’t risk its taking root again. The widow maker and its rhody victim I cut up and hauled downslope. Half a ton of matter added to our brush pile.
Yes, our place generates lots of work. But pleasures also. From our deck, we daily watch the antics of the hummingbirds, the clouds, the windmills on Buffalo Mountain. From the deck, I noticed the snakeskin in the redbud. That eighteen- or twenty-inch juvenile had climbed twenty-five feet up the tree and slithered out of its skin on branch tips so small you’d think they would not support a goldfinch. Just in the last week we’ve seen our raptors at hood ornament height on prey-catching trajectories just in front of our moving cars: the barred owl across Nancy’s bow one night; the red-shouldered hawk across mine the next day.
For two glorious weeks in Ireland, we put the daily demands aside and walked new paths. Even now, back to “real life,” I am blessed that my daily triage involves mostly responsibilities willingly chosen.
Our interim rector recently used the following prayer:
Gracious Lord, we thank you for setting before us tasks which demand our best efforts and lead us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities. Let us leave the past behind and look towards the future that you hold for us.Help us to be thankful, joyful, and expectant for all you have done and will continue to do. In the name of the One who leads us forth. Amen.
Looking down on the meadow below our deck, first time visitors to our new place often say, “You must see lots of deer down there.” No, not really. I did see three of them grazing their way up the slope this morning when I took my breakfast out onto the deck. But that was a rarity. We saw far more deer at our old place, a tight suburban neighborhood, than we do here, where the nearest neighbor is a hundred yards away.
Nancy still misses the frogs we left behind at the old place, and we still puzzle over where to construct a small pond. Frogs and deer notwithstanding, we see lots of wildlife. Before the weather turned warm enough to use the deck, I would spend my morning contemplative time at our bedroom window. Most mornings, the ground was alive with chipmunks and squirrels and rabbits, robins and chickadees and birds I cannot identify. We’ve woodpeckers—pileated and downy, the occasional turkey, a glimpse of a coyote. A red-shouldered hawk is a frequent sighting. And, of course, crows.
The prize is “our” barred owl. The first spring here, I spotted it perched high in a tulip tree. Later, on a dusk walk with Mona, it startled us by rising out of a neighbor’s yard into a nearby dogwood. Apparently, we had interrupted dinner. Three times last winter, my truck and that owl almost collided as I was driving home at night and it was swooping across the street in front of me, presumably aiming toward mice in roadside garbage. More recently, we have been hearing mating calls in the night and have seen it twice in early morning hours, perched just a few feet off the ground in a small tree, awaiting breakfast.
Our son’s dog alerted us to the skunk disappearing underneath our porch. (Fortunately, he was inside looking out the window.) Our builder, who once had a wildlife control business, recommended that we let it alone. That space couldn’t readily be made skunk-proof, and the skunk was not harming anything and might be useful in keeping the yellowjacket and grub populations under control. Days later, he saw a litter of skunklets (kits) out for a noontime romp. So far, no stink.
Last year, we reported on the crazed bluebirds banging on our windows. I am happy to report that this year they have settled down to nesting. Nancy has spotted pairs in all three of our bird houses.
In the past week, we have had a blacksnake hanging around the house. (I usually say “blacksnake” because I cannot reliably distinguish between a black racer, black king snake, and black rat snake. This one, I think, is a rat snake, as it still has some of the markings of a juvenile.) Ordinarily, I would not think this unusual, given the number of chipmunks we host. But it most recently ventured up onto our deck. What prey could it be looking for up here? Possibly, the hummingbirds that visit our feeder. However, given the location of the other sightings, I suspect it is trying to find a way up to the gable peak around the corner, where a pair of phoebes built a nest on the remnant of the old power cable that use to feed the garage.
Our landscaping ambition for this place has always been to move it more toward native plants and away from non-natives. That ambition was reinforced on discovering the book, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Subtitled, “Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden,” the book argues that we cannot depend on a few large nature preserves (e.g., the Smokies) to preserve biodiversity, and that suburban lawns and gardens have an important role to play. The authors are not opposed to non-native plants, and indeed use some in their own gardens. But they note that an urban/suburban landscape that is highly fragmented and primarily planted in non-native species does not support native wildlife. As an example, they note that plant-eating insects (e.g., butterfly larvae) are adapted to specific plants, and that non-native shrubs from Asia, even those that have been in North America for hundreds of years, have proved resistant to becoming a food source for native insects. That is good for the shrub, but the larvae are critical food sources for baby song birds. A suburban landscape of non-natives does not support the butterfly larvae, which in turn do not support the song birds, and thus becomes much less diverse.
Over the past few weeks, the property downslope from us was partially cleared. Much of the loss was kudzu, and we still have a buffer strip between us and the cleared land. Still, it is another disruption to the movement and sheltering of native fauna, and yet another reason for us to root out the invasives, thin the exotics, and plant more natives, restoring something closer to the native landscape in the small patch of earth we take care of. We intend to be kind to our fine feathered (and furred and scaled) friends, and hope to see more of them in the years to come.
I once read about the Native American three sisters garden: A symbiotic mixture of corn and beans and squash (the three sisters). The corn provides the pole for the beans to climb, the squash provide a root-shading, weed-suppressing ground cover, the beans fix nitrogen for the trio. And the resulting produce is a nutritionally balanced diet. This summer was the first we had lived in a place with enough sunlight to grow vegetables, so I thought I’d give the three sisters a try.
As the photo shows, my garden is not a threat to the commercial food industry. That is my entire corn crop. The corn had stopped growing at about knee height, and I had to scaffold a substitute for the beans to grow on. The squash grew normally for a while, flowered but never set any fruit, then overnight disappeared entirely. I did get two subsequent pickings of beans—and remembered that I don’t like string beans. Ugh!
Nancy, meanwhile, grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, and thyme in pots on the deck, flavoring our breakfast scramblers all summer long.
I’m the country boy, scion of farm-raised parents. As a child, I helped plant, hoe, pick, and preserve bushels of beans and peas and corn and tomatoes and potatoes. Year after year after year. Nancy, suburban girl, is no stranger to growing food, but on a smaller scale. What can I say? Pride goeth before the fall.
Next year, I’ll try something else. Sugar peas, maybe. I like peas. Zucchini? Has anyone ever produced too little zucchini?
“Next year … “ Is it just me, or is that the refrain of all gardeners? “Next year, I will try different varieties.” “Next year, I will plant earlier (or later), fertilize better, keep the weeds down.”
I’ve become increasingly aware of “next year” since I retired, and Nancy and I took on responsibility for some of the ornamental gardens at church. We are always behind on the in-season weed control and the out-of-season dividing and moving and digging out and adding in. “Next year, I’ll get those those toad lilies divided.” “Next year, I’ll clear out that overgrown corner and start again.”“Next year, I’ll keep the mulberry weed and thistle from going to seed, eliminate the vinca and the poison ivy.” Yeah, right!
At our old house, Nancy had, over a period of years, achieved a low-maintenance, largely native plant landscape around the house. In our woods, I had kept the poison ivy under control, and together we had held the neighbor’s English ivy at bay. Now we are in a new place, twice as large. The trees in our woods are furry with a decades-old infestation of English ivy. Poison ivy is abundant. In the open meadow, we are “blessed” with ground ivy and Japanese stilt-grass. From what I read, even goats won’t eat the stilt-grass. To make matters worse, I let it go to seed this year, because I got behind and wasn’t paying attention! What fun to look forward to “next year!” To be honest, we had stilt grass and ground ivy at the old place as well, but so much less! Have we bitten off more than we can chew?
We have a dream, a vision. In our vision, our woods have only native plants (minus the poison ivy). The meadow is kept open with native grasses and wildflowers. There are paths and nooks and benches. A frog pond (or two). Can we get there in our lifetimes? It’s impossible to forecast. But, so long as our health holds, each year will see some progress. And there will always be a To Do List for next year.
“How are you today?” It’s my chiropractor’s usual opening line.
“OK, ’til half an hour ago,” I reply, “then my back said, ‘We’re done!’”
I had been facing uphill on a 45 degree slope, bent over, digging a trench for a drain line.
I have been here often enough to know the signs. When my erectors seem on the edge of spasm, I heed the warnings. I had hurriedly showered and driven to his office before he closed for lunch. With a quick adjustment, and the admonition to put ice on my back when I got home, I was in and out in a few minutes. (It is a patient-friendly business model—monthly fee, unlimited visits, no appointments, no insurance, no up-sell. I hope it continues to work for him. It certainly does for us. But that’s not what this post is about.)
Later, at home, as I gather my lumbar support cushion and my ice pack, I pick up a book from the night stand. Soul Gardening (subtitled Cultivating the Good Life, by Terry Hershey) is one of several currently at my bedside, to be sampled and savored a few bites at a time while winding down at the end of the day. The book mark is at the beginning of the section, “Winter.” Winter soul gardening, it seems, is about Sabbath. Just as we need, and are lovingly commanded to take, regular rest, our gardens too need that seasonal rest. They may be unproductive—even ugly—in winter, but in that mess lie the seeds of rebirth that spring will bring forth. My back, it seems, needs Sabbath.
The temperature is in the nineties, yet my deck is shaded after midday and there is a slight breeze. I sit, read, watch the mountains and our meadow, nap. Lately, I have been doing my morning journaling out here. Soul gardening.
We have come through an extended time in which we were driven by agendas that left little time for rest. Selling parental houses, remodeling and moving into this one, getting through the wedding of our youngest. We have recently reached a point where we talk of the luxury of choice. Yes, we have a list of projects in and around our new home that will take years, at least. Yes, we have other obligations—including church and musical organizations. But, as we tried to explain to our son and daughter-in-law when they worried that we were working too hard, much of what is on our To-Do lists is play. Others golf or fish or travel. We play in yard and shop and studio. These days, when we wake in the morning and consider how to spend the day, we are making happy choices from a large and luscious menu.
I am reminded of those discussions in the business literature of my mid-career days, warning of the trap of urgency. All of us fall into that trap, spending our time and energy on tasks that are presented as urgent, to the detriment of those that in our hearts we know to be more important. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age; perhaps the luxury of retirement; possibly just that, at my age, society no longer views me fit for the urgent tasks. Whatever the reason, my life is less driven by urgency and more by importance, than at any time in my past.
So I am not much put out by the forced leisure. That trench will get done, or not. Maybe my son will do it. With care, my back will recover in a day or so, and I will—carefully— resume my digging and hauling and mulching. With a healthy dose of reading and writing and watching for hawks from my deck chair.
“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium.
I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more!
First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight.
We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear.
As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot.
Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot.
Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred.Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.
(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)
What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window.
In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.
If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted.
Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter.
Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.
It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.
There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.
It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.
“If we ever move,” Nancy had declared, “let’s get a level lot, so we can watch sunset every night.”
Boy, did we fail that one!
Or did we? There is a level bench for the driveway, which follows the topographic contour. And a subterranean one for the basement slab. All of which only slightly negate the elevation drop of 70 feet in 300 from the high to low points of our lot. Gardening and landscaping will be a challenge.
On the other hand, if and when the time comes, we can live on the main floor, descend two shallow steps, and walk to the mailbox along that level driveway. Not many homes in our part of the world offer that kind of level.
As to the view, it is true that thick forest lies to our west. But we have seen some spectacular sunsets filtered through that forest, more than we ever saw from our old house.
When we named this blog, The View from Blackoak Ridge, we described the “view” as “in part, a visual look at our physical surroundings” (but) “also an intellectual, spiritual, emotional view from where we are at this stage of our lives.” Being hemmed in by suburbia, the “visual” views were decidedly short range, and the visual descriptions tended toward the microscopic. (See the category, Frog Blog.)
We have moved just two miles. We are still on the same ridge, but on the back side, on the edge of city/suburbia. Some previous owner had removed trees downslope, opening up a meadow below and a “Wow!”-eliciting view of the Cumberland Mountains in the distance. Our physical view has expanded. We not only see sunsets filtered through the forest, but, I expect, in the months and years ahead will see the play of sunrise, sunset, and moving clouds on those distant mountains.
My “intellectual, spiritual, emotional” views are also tending toward the macroscopic. We have been through major changes with our parents, and I see and feel the weight of time on my own body. I am—we are—more intentional in our choices of how to spend our time; more fully into “the age of active wisdom” than when this blog began.
We are moving to the new house in the final days of 2017. It is Christmas as I write, and will still be Christmas liturgically when we move. All New Years bring new adventures; this one is pregnant with possibilities. The “bleak midwinter” gives way to new beginnings. Happy New Year! And may all your Christmases be bright.