Seeking “a Kernel of F***ing Worth”

This past week I finally learned what the numbers attached to the AQI (Air Quality Index) mean: 1-50 Good, 50-100 Moderate, 101-150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, 151-200 Unhealthy, 201-300 Very Unhealthy, 301-500 Hazardous. This morning as I write (and please let these numbers be better by Tuesday when this posts), friends in Portland have 294, further south in Oregon the numbers are all above 300 and hazardous, our Los Angeles family 157. We hover around 200.

The West Coast, except blessedly Anchorage 17, burns with unprecedented wildfires. Human stupidity (both in the big picture by failing to act on climate change and in small, careless ways, “wreckreation” and gender reveal parties!?) leaves forests and houses and towns destroyed, yellow twilit skies and acrid smoke, the number of deaths not yet known. Lies and rumors complicate already impossible firefighting. Heartbreaking stories tell of mass evacuations and homes lost, including those of firefighters. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting in a shelter or car or motel after evacuation, wondering about the fate of one’s home.

And that’s, of course, just part of what faces us. The Woodward revelations last week that Trump knew how virulent the virus was and how it spread. He lied about it and people died. Every day reveals the administration’s corruption and manipulation of the agencies charged with keeping us safe. And then there’s the danger that this mendacious man might win reelection.

“And still we go on…” – that’s what Patti Smith says in this clip from Smith’s Instagram account my painter friend sent last night: (https://www.instagram.com/tv/CE-uBSrAmiS/?igshid=8p1nrnzzbkbf).

In her quiet, unadorned way, Smith is so very articulate, just says what is. That we go on, feed the birds, drink coffee, make masks and jam, are thankful for safety (if we have it), but anxious and unsettled, made miserable by so much suffering.

She made me smile with her humanity.

Please stay safe.

 

 

Summer Revisiting

The beginning of September brought a return to summer heat, and everything is dry, dry. A handful of flowers remain to draw for Sweet B’s postcard project, crocosmia, tall purple salvia, tiny cyclamen. The lower leaves of sweet peas grow crinkly and pale, but a few stragglers still bloom up top. The old, indomitable rose bushes put forth a second flush of blossom after a mid-summer pruning. So many orange orbs of pumpkins show through huge and tattered leaves – nearing their allotted 110 days. Maple leaves begin to fall.

The solar twinkle lights shine and only a glimmer of light shows in the sky, when I take my seat by the window in the morning. And with the light, neighborhood birds appear – the tiny house wren who’s been near the patio all summer, often startled when we walk through the rosemary into her space, juncos, and lately a blue jay. Hummingbirds check out the last flowers and dip and dart into the little fountain. All summer I’ve heard mourning doves, watched them visit the birdbath, then fly high to the top of a huge fir tree. Their cry sounds like somewhere else or something sad.

The other day I walked through town to drop a package at the Post Office. Every other conversation I passed contained the word COVID, “if it weren’t for COVID,” we could do this or that. Masked tourists and locals queue by the ice cream shop, and masks cradle chins of people eating at outdoor tables, separated under umbrellas in the middle of town.

Winter is coming to this COVID year. Light bulbs reveal they are burned out, like light bulbs always do in the fall, but no gaggles of backpacked kids walk by our street. We’ll be more indoors, with flu and darkness. In my head I try to turn it around, what if we kept our masks on and didn’t get the flu, didn’t make each other sick with colds?

What if we settled in to enjoy all that’s newly on the screen? The brochure for the Seattle Arts and Lectures series came, and all lectures (including Maira Kalman and Tana French) will be available online. We missed Lord B’s birthday, but could watch our older son’s Zoom trial – with participants in different towns, even different states. My husband’s university classes are online – no long trek by ferry, train, and foot to the campus.

But I don’t think I can make it work – not with all the misery the government seems too broken or heartless to address, not with people dying, little businesses folding, civil unrest, and the threat of retaining the unspeakably bad president, with his political vaccine and cruel words and actions.

Oh, no way to end a post. What about bulbs – those hopeful packages – can we plant them now and picture a better time in the spring?

 

Blackberries

Forty years ago, when I first looked for property here, a patient realtor drove me around. Sometimes we’d stop and graze on blackberries in brambly thickets, warmed by the sun and tart, bits of wildness on a cultivated island.

Blackberries grow in bunches, a couple ready to pick, alongside others still red or pink – food for another day. Sequential ripening benefits scavengers of all kinds. On the bluff, shaded by huge firs they never fruited, but only stretched thick, aggressive canes armed with sharp thorns, over the salal onto the driveway.

Wild blackberries are often deemed thuggish interlopers, best controlled by goats. But in this summer of our discontent, I see them as a gift. On the big street near us, passersby stop to pick from a hedge thick with berries, deep purple stains the sidewalk below. One morning, when I asked what she’d do with them, a woman gathering blackberries along a quiet street said muffins – and to freeze and eat in the winter. She recommended a handful on the top of sweet lemon cake. My neighbor and another friend make freezer jam – and inspired me to try.

On a commuter path nearby, blackberry vines entwine themselves in the lowdown branches of a young cedar. I passed that patch repeatedly before noticing a dark spot, then another. The cedar boughs protect a little from the sharp barbs of prickles snagging clothing and skin.

The construction behind us (thankfully paused since early summer) destroyed giant tangles of berry bushes, but a thick patch remains – alive with birdsong all spring. North facing, those berries have been slow, but now, encouraged by weeks of warm sunny weather and one downpour rain day, they ripen.

Sweet B quickly learned to discern ripeness by a gentle tug, and with her parents gathered berries for pie from the hedgerow in our little neighborhood. On her dad’s shoulders, she reached high up, where dark clusters dangle, and her mom topped our blackberry pies with crusts of woven lattice.

It was summer.

 

St. Francis Leaves the Bluff

When we moved to Bainbridge two years ago, we wanted to make sure the move was right, so we didn’t sell our house, but leased it. Planning to visit often, we kept access to the guesthouse, the Buffalo. But the universe conspired to prevent visits, and time has come to put the property on the market. (I recognize this as a tale of privilege. Several times that’s stopped me from writing, but the blog began on the bluff, and now that part of the story ends.)

Only 900 square feet, the Buffalo is still a complete house with the utensils, bedding, linens, art, photos, books, and furniture of a house. And, because of a big closet, extraneous things got stored over the years – all our photo negatives packaged in labelled shoeboxes, beloved aged backpacking tent, sleeping bags, extra kid equipment. An empty file cabinet became the repository of my mother’s things when she died, her purse, her files and photos, and little stacks of expired passports and driver’s licenses.

In her book of essays, titled “Everywhere I Look,” Helen Garner quotes a clergyman’s wife on changing houses, “Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”

Because we never really lived there, the Buffalo’s emotional weight blindsided me. In the first few of many trips to clear out, I thought it would be just sort, give away or toss, pack. But things speak of their provenance to a person packing up, voicing memories and original hopes.

A lot of the things I hoped for came to be. We built the bigger house and a garden and moved there, our sons came willingly to visit, and one married there in a beautiful ceremony. Eventually the Buffalo sheltered their growing families, and always it made it a pleasure to have guests.

In the drawing below, done early in the garden’s life, it’s orderly. But this spring, nature occupied every available space. Thuggish plants crowd and engulf plants once cosseted. Buttercups invade the beds, water suckers ruin the shape of the enormous Sambucus, the paths are clotted and choked by grass. I used to fantasize it was “contained abundance” – no longer.

My friend the wordsmith (who has been the most amazing help and support, making a sometimes hard thing cheerful) says it looks like the garden of an abandoned English estate. Kinda. The realtor will have it cleaned up for listing, and I’m hoping for a new gardener to love it.

The wordsmith’s husband muscled our statue of St. Francis (it stood for years in the center of the foursquare garden) into my car. I remember the first time Lady Baby spotted him and stood nearby, seemingly shocked he was taller than she. He looks contented now, in his tiny pretend Tuscan courtyard, surrounded by rosemary and welcoming hummingbirds who visit a nearby fountain.

 

The Garden Here in the Time of COVID-19

Today, spring rain falls on the tiny patio outside the window where I sat so much during recovery – my spot for early morning tea. Last month I watched the rosemary bloom sky blue and eager hummingbirds visit. Beneath it, pink blossoms of thyme crowded the pavers. Planted three years ago, the clematis finally produced white flowers against the trellis. The old rose is huge and full of budded promise.

A pot of Apricot Beauty tulips, one bulb planted years ago on the bluff, produced three welcome flowers. I can see lily spears emerging from another pot, and the hollyhock from last year looks strong. A bundle of forget-me-nots – tagalongs from Alaska – fills a pot. Bags of potting soil and compost clutter the space now – spring cleanup and planting underway.

Theoretically. But this year, like everything else gardening is different. An old and dear friend, wrote that “it’s hard to match the exuberance of my outside spaces with the interior obsession with pandemic news.” That’s true.

At the garden center, with limited opening and strict rules, I bought compost and soil and pumpkin seeds – and sweet pea seeds (quickly, as we are one person at a time inside the building). You can wander the plants outdoors, staying apart from other masked people, but I came home feeling a little sad, the springtime enthusiasm seems muted, wary, gardeners stopping to chat a thing of the past. Employees looked windblown and exhausted. Plants limited. Something grim tinges everything with so much sad and awful news circling the planet.

So far, my sweet peas seeds and cannellini beans haven’t germinated. I’ve attempted to prepare the pumpkin patch from last year (it’s still lumpy with unbuilt planting mounds). Eager for their color, I bought a couple of tiny calibrachoa, destined for containers, at the grocery store on my weekly shop.

But exuberance? Thanks only to perennials (my friend has a perennial garden I bet). The sturdy, old and beautiful trees and shrubs left by the gardener of 30 years ago – the crab apple, rhododendron, and lilac – all burst forth undiminished. I greet the newer perennials with gratitude – the scraggly rose bushes, gift from a gardener on my morning walk, now fill their space, a California poppy rescued from the garden center (the one blossom such an unusual pink) has become a sizeable clump. Lavender, nepeta, and geranium, return and push aside the yellowing leaves of daffodils and tulips.

And on a self-seeded foxglove, gift from a bird, six sturdy stems head skyward. Out back, a grocery-store-purchased compact delphinium I never managed to repot, neglected all winter, reappeared with new healthy foliage – a rebirth I don’t deserve.

And in a cheerful quarantine garden activity, Sweet B and I are beginning a project. Each week we plan to send each other a little painting on a watercolor postcard of a flower from our gardens – adding words about the flower on the back of the card. We’re in early stages, but it’s a thrill to get mail from her. (On FaceTime recently, she advised me that I might want to add some figures to my paintings and they wouldn’t be so plain.)

It inspires to make a record of garden bloom – maybe specially in this pandemic year.

 

 

August Catch Up and September Plans

In August the Greek scholar successfully completed his course – missed nary a day, and now speaks of more classes in the fall. After many last trips (each time thinking, surely this is everything!), the bluff house is finally completely empty of us.

In the garden here, sweet peas climbed up and up, provided countless bouquets to enjoy and give away – then succumbed to powdery mildew. The pumpkins and squash engulfed their space – encroaching on path and drive – now 16 pumpkins (sugar pie and a mystery big variety) turn orange, and the squash grows stripes. The old roses bloomed a second, and even more beautiful, flush of dusky pink. The cosmos, planted in bad soil (which they clearly love), stand tall and bushy in front of the house.

Sweet Baby and her parents came to visit during a hot August week. She flew out of her stroller at the ferry terminal, saying: “I very missed you! I very love you!” (A spirit raiser for sure!) Though smoke limited hikes, we walked in the island’s woods, read books from the library, painted watercolors, visited playgrounds, made a cake, and set up our young friend’s doll house with people and furniture. We ate corn on the cob and blueberries galore, “cold ones please.”

Our old friends on Bainbridge showed us a beach, where you can pull the chairs stored there into the water and sit to dangle and cool your feet. Or if you’re brave and tough like my friend – you can go for a real swim!

I painted more blue and whites and flowers in August, and because September holds a big family adventure, I’ll post them for the next few weeks – starting with the one containing hydrangea (new to me for painting).

Oh yes, winter is coming, but so is this! http://www.vulture.com/2018/08/hbo-my-brilliant-friend-adaptation-teaser.html

 

Plant I.D. and a Late Summer Break

Do you know PlantSnap? It’s a three-dollar app that uses artificial intelligence to identify plants from a photo taken with a smart phone. On my first try, it provided two out of three correct identifications (the third plant was pretty obscure).

It’s wonderfully August – time for a break and for spirits to rise outdoors. I’ll be back when the days grow short, and I’ve managed some drawings. Enjoy this last month of summer, and thank you always for reading, comments, and messages!

 

A New To Me Old Garden

My neighbor says that early in the 30-year life of this group of houses, six “little old ladies” lived here, one to each house. I wonder if one of them made this garden.

A deck – just six-feet wide – runs outside my workspace. An equally narrow strip full of perennials, between the deck and the fence, reminds me of a thicket, a hedgerow, or a stuffed bed in a real garden. This spring I’ve watched blooms come and go – rose madder rhodendron, pink-tinged white crabapple, white lilac – and now spirea turns hot pink, and a hydrangea becomes that purply French-blue.

Underneath, hostas of different leaf and flower size, ferns, white astilbe, and yellow loosestrife smother traces of a little gravel path. A five-foot rickety fence supports a Sleeping Beauty tangle of climbing roses, hydrangea, and honeysuckle. Up against the permanently propped-open gate, foxgloves make themselves at home beside a couple of struggling-in-shade peonies.

In a couple of feet along the east side of the house, two maple trees, tall ferns, hostas, a lavender hydrangea, and several lively pink azaleas crowd over a lumpy trail. In the neighbor’s adjoining garden strip, three tall arborvitae strategically block windows. I love to walk this skinny path – ferns crowd my knees, water captured in the hosta’s pleats tips onto my feet, and it’s cool on a hot day.

In front of the house, the remodel turned a covered porch into an enclosed entryway. But, against the house, two large rose bushes remain, one pink and one yellow. In a small and sloping grass patch stands a beautiful dogwood tree that blossomed white for weeks, and now begins to set red, strawberry-shaped seedpods. A chunk of the grass patch made way for a new walkway of stepping stones climbing to the front porch.

I divided four-inch pots of wooly thyme into smaller bits to grow along the stepping stones, and culinary thyme plants march up beside them. For this summer, in the bigger space where the grass is gone, I planted a delicata squash and a sugar pie pumpkin. Visitors smile and say, you’ll have runners everywhere! And with luck some squash and pumpkins.

The eight-foot wide sunny space between driveway and house, where kitchen and new entry make an L, became a small patio with a trellis. I hope sweet peas in summer and an evergreen clematis and jasmine all year will buffer the car from view. A sun-faded yellow umbrella, some pots from the bluff, and a small table cheer the recycled pavers.

It’s small and very peaceful here for now, but development threatens the lot to the north. The old house, green shed, and fine stand of Doug Firs there will disappear soon. The new buildings won’t shade us, but they will loom, and, because of density desires for this part of the island, be very close to us.

One morning last week I heard a racket, and from the upstairs window saw three guys at work wielding weed whacker, Bobcat, and chain saw.

Just an opening salvo making me realize I had better enjoy every day now – but isn’t that always the rule?

Cloudy California And Sunny Sweet Baby

Despite uncharacteristically gloomy SoCal weather, after Alaska we spent a week following Sweet Baby (turned three in March, no longer a baby either) as she went about her activities.

She attends a beginning ballet class on Sunday morning. From the hallway adults watch on video, as the teacher mixes classical ballet positions with exuberant movement for tiny tykes in leotards and ballet slippers. Sweet Baby practices at home – sits just like a little Degas ballerina with arms wrapped around one knee, the other leg tucked under her, then rises when the spirit moves her, skips, and becomes a butterfly. She loves the bounce of a tutu, loves all costume-like dressing – combines gauzy skirts with layers of aprons and headbands and often a floaty cape made of something repurposed.

And Tuesday and Thursday she attends pre-preschool with one of her parents. California is a different setting for school than I’m used to – the classroom is in a huge old house, two gracious rooms with windows and high ceilings. Wooden blocks, wagons, dolls, dollhouse, and dress-up clothes litter the wood floors during playtime. Circle time is shorter.

So much activity is outdoors, Sweet Baby’s class eats snack at a curved table under a pergola, plays in a garden full of tall hollyhocks, blooming jasmine, and vegetables beds planted by the children.

The rest of the old house and other buildings around the grounds are for the higher grades. I watched first graders, wearing sun hats and wielding shovels, working in their garden, and middle schoolers heading off to orchestra practice, hauling their instruments along paths under huge oaks.

During a trip to the Huntington Gardens on Wednesday we saw their children’s garden – no conventional playground equipment but rooms to explore and tunnels to crawl through created by green hedges. Little fountains in stone bowls on the ground feature fish that spout a knee-high burble of water randomly, apt to splash the unwary and delight small folk. A topiary volcano erupts with water mist and, in a greenery-surrounded room, jets of cold steam make a fog so thick that Sweet Baby worried when her mom disappeared into the mist.

Fridays are for swimming lessons at a huge complex of swimming pools near the Rose Bowl. But it was cancelled that Friday, our last day and the only sunny one, so we visited an old-fashioned garden center in Pasadena and came home to spread three big bags of compost, plant hollyhock and lamb’s ears, and sit under the pergola Sweet Baby and her dad built over many weekends last year.

Every night we stretched out the Royal Wedding into a week of pleasure by watching the rebroadcasts – didn’t you love every bit?

It all ended too soon, Sweet Baby’s Thai relatives visited for almost two months just before us, so this departure snuck up on her. When we left, her dad told us she said: “But what we gonna do?”

Plan more visits north and south I say!

Compost

Once, after talking to many gardeners and asking questions about their composting methods (some very complicated), I wrote an article for the Anchorage Daily News.

Theoretically, If you put this sort of stuff:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into one of these sorts of containers:

You might get these sorts of results:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my favorite response was from a neighbor who said, “Oh yes I compost, I toss my apple cores under a bush.”

 

 

 

Firsts

Living some place new brings a series of firsts. Our first meal was haphazard (tempting to explore restaurants instead). Making soup and muffins seemed a milestone, except for failing to realize that new ovens need to burn off manufacturing oils – that smoky interlude set me back.

Longing to make a first drawing or painting in my new workspace, I would like to declare a series for “Her spirits rose…” – but that’s not happening right now. So I’m tempted to post a few spring images from years past – ones once published in “print media.”

Twenty years ago we provided images to a graphic designer by hand-carrying or mailing the original, or having it photographed. I have full watercolor sheets of individual illustrations marked up on the back by the designer with instructions to the printer: “Country Gardens, 7/96 pink rhodie 61%.” But now, if I separate the images so they’ll fit, I can scan them myself and post to a then-unheard-of blog.

And because gardening and plants are much on my mind (as in those days), I picked out appropriate-to-the-season possibilities for the next couple of weeks (sort of a series). Seeing these old images again brings back memories of gardens from my past life and questions about what I’d do differently now.

Instead of my new rhodie, which is a Rose Madder Pink, here’s an old one in Permanent Rose. More to follow as spring moves along!

Settling In

Some moments in the new house feel like camping or waking up the morning after an airline loses your suitcase – not sure where things are, not sure why I forgot to pack a few table knives.

But moving day went so well, three strong guys and one equally strong young woman swiftly loaded all the labeled boxes, furniture, outdoor chairs, and pots with plants into a truck and a huge trailer. By noon we were on Bainbridge, and by early afternoon our belongings stood stacked about the new house.

The mother of my young friend came right over and set to work unpacking boxes and shelving books in the living room, and our younger son arrived from the airport to help. (I am so grateful for every bit of help we had!) Our old friends who live on Bainbridge – a quick seven-minute drive to their house – welcomed us that evening with a festive meal.

The weather couldn’t have been better – moving day dawned clear and the sun has been constant since then – five days and holding. Because of the house’s orientation, early sunshine pours in our bedroom and upstairs, fills the living room and kitchen all day, and late in the evening disappears into tall trees.

When I started on my walk early this morning – the air cool, sky clear – buses and bikers passed me heading to the ferry, city bustle in a small town. The walk is a gradual downhill through town toward a newly opened piece of protected land, tranquil with trees, grass, and benches. I pass houses and gardens along the way, get glimpses of Eagle Harbor and early morning scullers, spot herons working on fragile-looking nests in a tall stand of trees, and circle back uphill to home.

In spite of surrounding houses, each of our windows reveals huge firs and deciduous trees just-beginning-to-leaf. A Japanese maple with golden-green leaves shelters our neighbors’ porch. Birdsong begins early, loud and lovely all day.

From my work space I look out at the remains of old garden plantings, and what our younger son called “some serious rhododendron business about to begin.” A wizened, but budding crabapple, a climbing hydrangea, lilac and daphne shrubs (small and scraggly, but still fragrant), and lily of the valley emerging from moss grow in the few feet between a narrow deck and fence. Invasive ivy, Scotch broom, and blackberries hang over the fence from the vacant (for now) lot next door.

Our younger son left Vivian Russell’s “Gardens of Inspiration” on the table where he ate breakfast. It’s really fun to encounter books anew, and no matter the small scale of this garden, maybe because of the small scale – I’m inspired!