A character in something my brother reposted says – “I know why May is called May, because there may be frost, there may be heat, there may be rain, there may be sun!” Right, or, in the case of this particular May, all of the above!
Still, day after day I’m bowled over by the flowering shrubs and trees. The whole tiny back yard out my workspace door would delight the gardener who planted here 30 years ago. The white lilac explodes with bloom and the gnarled crabapple tree and agreeable-pink rhododendron form a canopy over a corner of the tiny space. Two juncos rule this terrain – they burst from the canopy to hector me at my slightest intrusion.
After winter walks of mostly unchanging green and gray, I relish the daily differences. I list the blooms (sometimes needing to look them up on PlantSnap). I’m not sure why I want the names – to tell you, to hold on to them, to make it all last longer by paying attention? I pass azalea, laurel, lilac, viburnum, wisteria, ribes, choisya – all ablossom – and often fragrant. And fruit trees, a thick layer of pink petals already carpets the ground beneath some cherry trees.
All that winter rain must have encouraged this year’s extravagant show. When preparing the mounds in the pumpkin patch, I dig down to move some of the self-seeded nigella and heartsease, and the soil is still cloggy and wet. To my delight I found a tree frog in a pile of black plastic pots next to the garage door. In the tiny “meadow,” bunnies have eaten the leaves but not the blossoms of bellis.
Perennials race ahead with their renewed lives – the rosemary is thick with blooms and bees, I’ve seen columbine, wallflower, forget-me-not, and the straggly clematis climbs high on the patio fence. In the neighborhood circle, delicate white blossoms cover the blueberry bushes. Hard rain, and then heat abruptly ended the tulip show, and daffodils shrivel – both reminders of the whirring rush of plant life and the inevitability of endings.
This article, Let the Post-Pandemic City Grow Wild, is a story of humans as accomplices to nature rather than enemies. It made me think about what I want from this small city garden space, what I need, what nature needs – flowers to please pollinators and to paint, to be able to watch the whole progression, and to enjoy every stage.
This month I saw flowers in a quantity and variety I never expected to see! Our California son lived up to his name as trail boss and took us on an adventure during a few days of the California “superbloom” – that celebratory wildflower explosion born of the winter rivers of rain.
Purple and orange painted the embankments beside the freeways as we drove out of Los Angeles toward the desert. At freeway speed, it’s hard to identify flowers beyond the unmistakable orange of California poppies and a guess at purple sage or verbena. Closer to our destination, Borrego Springs, and carpeting the huge surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert Park, a haze of golden-yellow brittle bush stretched as far as the eye could see.
The desert can look vast and inhospitable from a distance, barren and bleak, and so utterly different from anything familiar. But up close, in the narrow, sandy canyon trails, tiny clumps of two or three small plants often bloomed in the shelter of rocks in the trail – tiny garden patches formed where seeds are protected from footsteps.
And beyond the trail – so much color – pink from prickly pear cactus flowers, varied yellows and oranges from recognizable flowers like buttercups and desert marigolds, penstemon and mallow, and the whites of desert chicory and pincushion flower. And unfamiliar plants like fairy dusters whose small feathery blossoms look just the right size for a housekeeping sprite, or the strange ocotillo plant – spikey stems seem bare but up close have tiny leaves with tips of bright red blossoms.
Borrego Springs, normally a place of moderate temperatures in winter, provided a couple of days of 96°! But we stayed at the Hacienda del Sol – a refurbished motel full of bare bones comfort and charm with motel rooms and casitas. (Their motto is “the 1950‘s called and wants their motel back.”) The updates are perfect – heat pumps but old-fashioned radios, internet but no television, Formica tables but wool blankets and hot showers.
And a great pool to delight the kids in daytime heat. At night we could lower the deck chairs, lie back, and stargaze as we attempted to expand our knowledge of constellations beyond our Alaska familiarity with the Big Dipper. Borrego Springs is an International Dark Sky Community – and for those of us accustomed to winter dark lit always by streetlights and a glow from buildings and the never-dark skies of northern summers – this was a thrill. Lying in the dark under the sky provided a vivid awareness of our place in a vast universe, where we float on our tiny speck full of color and life.
We returned to the Northwest to plentiful April showers – and the cold and wind of our never-ending winter. But bulbs, shrubs, and trees, like their desert relatives, flower anyway!
March Toward Spring
It’s easy to read wrongly something observed in the natural world but watching a small bird with a bundle of dried grass trying to begin a nest in the crook of a tree branch, I empathized, beginnings are hard!
Truly, that beginning looked nearly impossible, bare branches, wind, the dried grass tuft just fell down. I had never thought about how birds begin the process of making dried grass and sticks into a safe and secure repository for eggs and offspring. (Later I read about the varied methods https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/)
Windy cold spring weather hasn’t helped the task. Inexplicably, on a Thursday in mid-March, the thermometer hit 60°, and people were giddy. In celebration I considered putting away boots and snow melt from the entryway. The next day temperatures dropped, and snow was predicted to follow the cold north wind and sleety rain.
Nonetheless, signs of spring flash! The flicker who considers our house part of its territory ratatats with a teeth-jarring explosion on the metal chimney. On my walk I hear frogs peep their songs in pools in the woods, and plants soldier on – cherry trees blaze with pink and white – and daffodils have finally spread their yellow sunshine along roads and in gardens. On the patio, anemone bloom and the paperwhites that got nowhere on the windowsill at Christmas promise to open their papery shells. Lilies spike up – reminders of July and summer heat.
My fantasy meadow – the small patch of sloping lawn in front of our house is abloom! It was a pleasure to leave it raggedy and unmown last year and see what would come that might please pollinators. And last fall I bought early bulbs to plant in the lawn – tête à tête daffodils, crocus, grape hyacinth, and tarda tulips – hoping they could get ahead of the grass (which never did get long). But my hands could barely get the trowel in the compacted and thickly rooted lawn –– I gave up.
But the gardeners, Alfonso and Jesus, who tend the community property part of our little neighborhood rescued me. They made short order of the basket of bulbs, and this spring flowers dot the space. They aren’t so plentiful as in my imagination (Alfonso said: “you need more!”), but they are cheerful. And this spring, given weather and world events, any cheer is good!
February, the 2023 Version
Recording the strange and extreme atmospheric conditions of this year’s winter, makes “Her spirits rose…” feel a little like an infrequent weather report.
It used to be one could make generalities about the months, we might have said, “February is this way or that way,” but now it’s only safe to deal in specifics. This February was 10 degrees colder than normal. Oh, and wet. In Washington, several days brought a dusting of snow, enough to cause trouble. But on the East Coast, temperatures soared.
In January I wrote about our trip to Los Angeles during their historic atmospheric rivers of rain, but this month we enjoyed two days of the old California winter weather – 55° sunshine for a hike in the Arroyo Seco and visit to the Huntington Gardens. But for the rest of the days, a “major and unusual storm” soaked us – marked by frigid temperatures in the city and a record snowfall in the mountains.
Each day, while her brother napped and sheets of rain teemed down the windowpanes, Sweet B and I sat at her kitchen table, drinking ginger tea, and making pictures. And, after a quick dash through the rain from car to art supply store, we explored the possibilities of a new set of Neocolor crayons and ink markers. Sweet B is reading now, and has just discovered she can, with effort, read Jack and Annie, the famous Treehouse explorers, on her own.
Earlier in February, longing for some color, I spent an afternoon at the Seattle Flower and Garden Show. When I lived in Alaska, I visited the show to write about the display gardens and lectures, but this time I just wandered. All those plants for just a few days had seemed so over the top in the past – pretty unsustainable. (Although, knowing plant people, heroic attempts were surely made to save plants for new lives in real ground.)
This year the display gardens were more modest – still beautifully full of spring bloomers like hellebore and bulbs of hyacinth, tulips, and daffodils forced into fragrance and color, and only modest and easily transplantable conifer trees. Shopping and eating opportunities have increased, including many marketplace booths featuring compost, making good dirt, and pollinators – hosted by people eager to share knowledge and encourage those activities. Those are gardening concerns more in keeping with our reality here, where a week later a headline read: “Hundreds of state plants and animals at risk of extinction.”
But given the hope that humans care for what they love, it was good to see so many people in companionable groups, enjoying garden life on a winter afternoon.
In a different context there is much buzz about dry January, but the weather gods did not participate. And as payback for the rain and freezing temperatures that Sweet B and her family endured here over the Christmas holiday, during a California mid-January trip we watched rivers of rain waterfall off horizontal gutters day after day.
We dodged the deluge to have fun anyway. A visit to a train museum delighted about-to-turn three Sweet Brother. We rode a tiny train around the park, climbed inside giant steam engines, and walked back and forth on real train tracks for a very long time. Among Sweet Brother’s passions, trains are second only to construction vehicles.
Then we came home to a dry and cold last week of January.
When we first came down here after all those years of real winter in Alaska, I expected spring to happen quickly as it does there – flip a switch and the growth (and gardening frenzy) begins. But, because the beginnings are so welcome in January, I’ve come to love the glacial pace of spring here. Daylight improves, the sunset is after five p.m., and mornings often hold early promise, even if they succumb to hovering clouds that force the day back to gray gloom.
But I spotted a snowdrop just after the new year, the tips of daffodils already emerge through last fall’s fallen leaves, and fragrant bushes stop me in my tracks. Most specially sarcococca – which I can never pronounce – but love its common name, fragrant sweet box. For it is fragrant – now it seems that every street presents a sarcococca offering – anonymous green bushes most of the year, the fragrance of their tiny blossoms surrounds me on early morning walks.
The local florist does its porch proud all year long, and I often step up on the porch to see what seasonal flowers they’ve arranged. Now, in this gray time, a few hyacinth and pots and containers of tiny blooming jonquils cluster around a blast of painted color. Most welcome!
Dark, yes, but full of holiday lights and music to brighten days!
Back in November I listened to an Internet station, playing classical Christmas music in a constant stream, to conjure up winter cheer while I painted images to become small originals and cards for Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery this month.
I found inspiration in old photos and old drawings, revisiting moments of festivity in our other houses – the living room in the Anchorage house ready for a solstice tea party back in our day, Lady B’s bedroom with a tiny tree, and crotchety Frances in a peaceful moment in our Port Townsend house. A Christmas letter photo from a friend in England inspired an image of her retriever in the snow by a cottage (changing her brick to red). So many years in the north make snow a part of December for me, though mostly painted snow now.
All the time I thought a lot about the season – comparing, remembering. These days I am grateful to revisit some of my memories by watching the younger generation, remembering the joys of Christmas past, youthful Christmases with someone special, a velvet dress in the evening, snowy ski days; children full of excitement and anticipation, thrilled by it all; and then, returning college students (no matter that they left immediately to go out with friends), the house alive and cheerful again.
Our young friend came home this weekend from Cambridge, where she is studying this year, and I hope the California family will come next week (last year derailed by ordinary colds, the year before by Covid). Crossed fingers, holiday travel (never easy) is more fraught now for sure, but like Sweet B, I look forward to decorating the tree, making cookies, and most of all reading the books of the season by the fire.
Sometimes my mind slips ahead to next Christmas – what will that be like? Should I buy a recommended Christmas tree stand that promises to make the job easier than the tree-stand-wrestle of this weekend? Or wait to see what the year brings.
Best to stay in the moment. I will post these winter images on Instagram (@gilmorekaty) but include this one here – our kitchen corner where a teapot warms the dark. For it is time soon to celebrate the winter solstice and welcome returning light and renewal – a celebration shared by all in the northland.
I wish you a warm, bright, and healthy season – festive and joyful!
Now the thankful week arrives, when we acknowledge how much we have to be grateful for every week. Including this year – disaster averted on Election Day – thank you specially to Generation Z!
On my gratitude list will be opportunities for work I’ve so enjoyed, seizing gift thoughts that float through. In one endeavor, I entertained myself greatly by making postcards for the most recent beginning-reader in the family. Utter nonsense that was so much fun to do. So I subject you to a few of the images and, forgive me, the doggerel. I send these along with Thanksgiving wishes all around!
October For Real – At Last
About 11 a.m. last Friday, the long-awaited rain arrived. I slipped out to the deck in stocking feet and brought in the faded geraniums and the little ice cream table and chairs, wooden parts covered with old oilcloth but not protected from hard rain.
In spring I’d had plans for that little seating spot – intending to ignore the looming three-story buildings staring down at us and have tea there or eat lunch – but a summer of travel and too much heat foiled that plan. Finally, after hot weeks and weeks of drought, and days of thick forest-fire smoke, the air is chilly and cleansed by rain.
Autumn beauty found its way nonetheless. In sunshine tourists gaped and stopped to photograph the maple trees’ royal red and gold, and in gloom and rain, color-washed leaves brighten the sidewalks. Flowers soldiered on – one cosmos plant in a particularly happy spot is more than two feet tall and wide and blooms still with magenta good cheer. And, discovering beauty and interest I’d always overlooked, I painted the gone-by golden stems and seed heads of meadow grasses.
I like what Katherine Swift writes in her book “The Moreville Year” in a chapter titled: “A Little Vase of Flowers”… “There is something very touching about flowers seen like this: just two or three blooms, picked at random, not ‘arranged.’ They still seem part of the garden.” These late bloomers, wonderful to paint, speak of resilience, a final burst of defiance in the face of the inevitable.
The shape of the seasons becomes unfamiliar. It used to be you could talk about this happening in January and that happening in July, but those sureties no longer hold. So, all one can do is pay attention to what is. And this peculiar weather seems part of the general uncertainty and fear in the air – political tension, war, new variants. Are we all tired from holding those fears at bay?
And sometimes I wonder if the world has always seemed so unsteady to people of a certain age. My father-in-law in his last year was reading a book titled, “How They Died.” I was young with a new baby and dismissed it. But now I find myself wanting to read about “how they live” in last years – specially the writers and artists I admire – the ones who keep a-going with work.
And wet streets and dark days lead me to thoughts of grandchildren and holiday plans, storing the geraniums and pumpkins for winter, making a pie, and being excited to plant bulbs for spring.
No matter my efforts to cling to the last of August, September happened last week in a flurry of back-to-school excitement. For weeks it’s been summer hot, and so dry, but change is upon us.
Recently we woke to the first morning fog in months, geese gather on the shore heading south, squirrels knock hazelnuts out of trees, and a neighbor who heats with wood has already stacked a mountain of delivered wood into her tidy shed. A scatter of leaves on sidewalks crunches underfoot from drought, and bramble leaves turn red.
The pumpkins, which had such a hard go in the cold and wet early spring, finally show some orange. They may not get their required 110 days to be pie ready, but each day more of their huge yellow blossoms open defiantly – late season beauty and color swarming with bees.
Being much inclined to leave seedheads this year (and in truth having missed a lot of deadheading), I’ve watched a small wren pry open the sweet pea pods. They seem large seeds for such a tiny bird – maybe it seeks insects within.
And now, verges and rights-of-way enrich my walks with the proliferation of seedheads and shapely dried stalks of grasses and, yes, weeds as they prepare for next year. The filagree blossoms of Queen Anne’s lace close on fists of seeds held high, and the puff balls of hawkweed scatter in the wind. All these small wild places, the ones that matter to the natural world have caught my attention this summer (probably belatedly). But it seems like our thinking changes about the importance of such spaces and how we might provide them.
I’ve been aware of the attempts by municipalities and large gardens to make meadows supporting pollinators and creating visual interest – and the efforts of homeowners to get away from the monocrop of level lawn and embrace “No Mow May.” A nearby neighbor began early in the season to cut only around the edges of his lawn – and a path through. Each day I walked by to see what appeared in a formerly green blank.
This fall I want to scatter and dig in many small bulbs in our tiny bit of lawn – anemone blanda, species tulips, small narcissus to naturalize – and then let the grass and weeds grow next spring and see what happens.
I suppose that’s a huge part of the changing season – planning new beginnings!
“Flower Pleasure: Books, Bookmarks, and Watercolors” at the Miller Library
I’ve so neglected the blog for all these months, but now I wonder what I could possibly have said about our ongoing dire straits. Each week brings some new sadness, for humanity, for the environment, or double outrages like last week’s decisions. Maybe I would have given up anyway – turned completely to painting a record of the wonders we have in flowers and plants – as I seem to have done for the Miller Library show!
My show at the Elisabeth C. Miller Library opens on July 5, 2022, and continues until July 28, 2022, with a “Meet the Artist” from 3-5 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Hours and location on their website: https://depts.washington.edu/hortlib/)
Oh, I have enjoyed making this work. The Miller Library inspired much of it – particularly John Gerard’s “The Herball” from 1597. The illustrations provided images to adapt for bookmarks I made specially for the Miller as a fundraiser – 36 bookmarks, each with an illustration redrawing a woodblock image from Gerard and a quote from a gardening book (most available at the Miller).
I also greatly enlarged and painted the images with watercolor for two large paintings.
And for a set of 12 accordion fold books, “A Flower Year: Books I-XII,” I wrote, and digitally printed short essays and printed, then hand-painted, images. Here are Books I and VI:
The exhibition includes a 15-foot long (when extended) accordion book titled, “A Pumpkin Season,” and the series of drawings “Mornings at the V&A,” which first appeared here on the blog, and now will be in the Miller’s wonderful, glassed tabletop display cases.
I’d love to see you at the “Meet the Artist” – if not, I still hope you might have a chance to visit the Miller, such a treasure for those who love plants and gardens. This librarian’s article really describes it well: (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/236591#page/35/mode/1up).
A visit would make a great day out – a pleasure to ride the light rail to the University of Washington Station, then walk below the UW athletic buildings, through the Union Bay Natural Area to the library in the Center for Urban Horticulture. (Info: https://botanicgardens.uw.edu/center-for-urban-horticulture/visit/maps-trails/)
True summer has arrived now in the Northwest – and I wish you a really enjoyable one!
Postcards for May
Happy May to all! I hope spring finds you well and enjoying our emergence from winter’s dark tunnel. Perhaps because it stands in stark contrast to Putin’s barbaric behavior, this spring has seemed more delicious than ever before – alive with beauty and birdsong.
As an escape from things one can do nothing about, my mind has been much occupied with flower images for my solo show at the Elisabeth C. Miller Library in July. So, when the Bainbridge Island of Arts and Crafts recently requested postcards for their first-ever mail art exhibition, I adapted some of the drawings I did for part of the Miller show.
John Gerard published “The Herball” in 1597 – full of errors and appropriations from other authors – the woodblock illustrations are nonetheless charming and a great pleasure to draw from. (For the show in July, I also enlarged some of the woodblock images into big watercolors!)
I’ve heard that hundreds of original postcards have been donated and will be for sale as a fundraiser for the non-profit gallery – it should be fun! (On view from this Friday, May 6 until May 29, 2022.)
Here are my offerings, along with all best wishes for spring to you!
In spite of early snow and torrential rain (no exaggeration), the frost on Sunday felt decisively January.
On a sunny walk, my mind buzzed with thoughts of my commonplace book idea. I’d imagined 24 small books about flowers for the beautiful glass cases at the Miller, but lately, I’ve questioned that plan.
Now I think about taller books, still about flowers, the year in flowers. Just a sampler, and, of course, Washington flowers this time. Some of the months will require revisiting past notes and blogs. And because the books’ size will better allow stems, I can begin with the branches of January.
In these early months I get to check memory against reality – and observe new things – like this beginning to bud Ribes sanguineum decorated for some unknown reason with a teeny, tiny knitted hat!
Here’s to You 2022!
While getting out the tree decorations this year I found a note I wrote to myself: “I’m putting these decorations away on January 6, 2021, while rioters attack the U.S. Capitol. Where will we be when I unpack them?” The answer I suppose is in the midst of a barely bipartisan investigation and a lot of other woes.
The tree didn’t get decorated by our California family as hoped – colds (not Covid) felled three members, cancelling travel. In hindsight, maybe a good thing. Omicron increased its presence, an after Christmas snowfall left ice in its wake polished by a stiff north wind, and temperatures fell to a record 17° in the Pacific Northwest.
Our young friend, her parents, and her visiting university friend from England, salvaged Christmas Eve. The young people decorated the tree (revisiting a long-standing tradition from our young friend’s childhood), and it was interesting to hear the 20-somethings’ take on Covid, feeling lucky because they’d had two years of real college, and feeling sorry for younger students who began their studies on-line.
We missed the California crew, but, backsliding to FaceTime togetherness, opened Christmas presents in the morning and ate Christmas dinner with them. Which is far better than nothing.
Now it is January – and we head into our third pandemic year with mind-boggling crises around every corner – the Covid deaths that now seem unnecessary, the refusal to deal with climate change, and the threats to our democracy.
The other night we watched “Don’t Look Up!” – have you seen it? I laughed – laughed hard – the reactions to impending and certain doom so absurd. And then, of course, the truth of the whole thing hits – how precisely and accurately the movie skewers humankind’s reaction to important events like climate change – or Covid for that matter. The attempts by the heroes are familiar and heartbreaking – the responses chilling. It’s very good and very discouraging.
But it is a new year, and, as my painter friend said recently about the future: “you never know.”
So, here’s hoping for health, accomplishments in your chosen endeavors, and year-long sprinklings of unexpected joy (like revisiting images from the last 10 years – starting the sunbonnet of Lady B – who just turned 10 herself)!
If you are away for a while this time of year, and miss the gradual shortening of the days, the disappearance of light is shocking. Darkness lingers late in the morning and descends early in the afternoon – but – all the better for shining twinkle lights and Christmas trees!
We were away in Kauai – for a glorious time (a year delayed) with both families. Days of body surfing and boogie boards with Mrs. Hughes for the girls, Lord B floated the “Lazy River” that forms by the shore near the place where we stay, and Sweet Brother, having never known Hawaii pleasures, happily paddled in the shallows and dug in the sand.
Each night after dinner the cousins searched by flashlight for frogs and giant snails. They mastered walkie-talkie lingo enabling fun communication between the condos (code named Jungle Base and Tower Base). Every morning I walked what we came to call the “cookie walk” – with Sweet Brother in the stroller and one or the other, or both Sweet B and Lord B. As we walked a path beside the beach, my companions adventurously tromped cross-country through a patch of trees, spoke of birds and baby chicks, stopped at the “laboratory tree” to include found treasures in its crannies, and sang made up songs to appease Sweet Brother (he does not like to stop).
The Alaskans had gone home before our trip ended with three days of serious storm – gale winds and torrential rain – but warmth.
After missing holidays and trips last year, to be together in that warmth felt luxurious. Last year we all tried so hard with strange, lonely holidays – and here is normalcy (sort of) returned and welcome. While the pandemic slides into endemic –the California contingent will come for Christmas.
I’ve been silent here on the blog – so many books I’ve missed writing about – Anthony Doerr’s new book “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” “Patchwork: A Life Amongst Clothes” by Claire Wilcox, a curator at the V&A, and a revisiting of all the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, beloved if not well-known, British writer from the last century. Treasures all.
My excuse is the show next summer – I want to explore books and pictures about gardens and plants, and I have been rereading my books and visiting the Miller Library. So far, I’ve only produced dummies of the artists’ books and bookmarks I’d like to make, but I have plans. Without the fresh flowers of the warm seasons and the inspiration of growing things – this will be a different way to prepare for a show.
In the meantime, along with our Christmas card (drawn by Lady B this year!), I send you warm wishes that these days at the year’s nadir are full of holiday cheer!