Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Healing Power

Some of my classmates posted comments on their blogs that may at first seem unrelated but both have been stirring in my head. Mark Anthony wrote about Natural Children at http://marnature.blogspot.com/2009/03/natural-children.html . He was commenting on another classmate’s blog, Amanda at http://agorecki85.blogspot.com/ and so the circle continues. Both were talking about the healing power of nature and how children are drawn to the outdoors. It was a special place for many of us as we were growing up. It remains a healing, calming place for us still. Becca at http://backyardtransliteration.blogspot.com/2009/03/backyard-healing.html was running away from her nature essays that weren’t cooperating and found singing birds and a little peace in her backyard and then shared it with us. Then Johnny at http://johnny-borderlands.blogspot.com/2009/03/great-circular-route.html posted about “the great circular route” and that perhaps we are breathing air breathed by Julius Ceasar. We just had a visiting geologist/ literature lecturer at The University of Texas at El Paso who said that scientists have discovered that the very same dust that blows away from El Paso in our stupendous dust storms has been found in the Hebrides. They have done extensive research and analysis and our El Paso dust actually travels halfway around the world.

I thought about how nature, and this class, is connecting all of us who would not otherwise have met. We will meet in August at the Chatham residency but we already know things about each other that we have shared in our writings. In our discussion boards we recently read Leslie Marmon Silko who talked about inclusion and being a part of a greater whole. We are all connected. There are people who have not yet seen that connection but that doesn’t mean that they are not connected to each other and to us. That is happening to all of us right now if we will just pause, breathe and be aware.

Be in the moment.

March 24, 2009

The Acacia

Desert plants are not like other plants. They have an armory that would rival any warring state but their blossoms are delicate and unbelievably precious. When you see those stark pictures of Africa with a silhouette of a tree, it’s probably an acacia. They will thrive with neglect or even with abuse. Even if the tree dies, somewhere there is a seedling, a seed pod unopened waiting for just enough rain. The promise of new life. The acacia has soft thistledown yellow flowers that appear before the leaves. The scent is subtle but heady. In the early dawn or at sunset, the smell is similar to the sweetest iris. The scent envelopes you as you walk beneath the spreading branches but it alludes if you stick your nose next to the flower. With the flowers come vicious thorns. The young branches send out thorns over an inch long, sharp as needles, nestled among the soft puffball flowers.

With the cultivation of life and healthy plants, there must be some destruction too. It is part of the great life cycle. This weekend we are trying to help the acacia by our house. For too many years, it has been allowed to split into multiple trunks which are weakening the tree. When the seed pods came last fall, they were so heavy the tree almost broke. It is the nature of the acacia to have multiple trunks but this tired tree has been damaged by utility trucks, unkindly pruned and yet, every spring, it sends out its yellow cloud of fragrant flowers. We cut back the trunks that are too heavy to salvage. We prune back the branches. I cannot bear to waste any of it so we gather all the cuttings and snip them by hand into manageable bits that I can use for mulch. The spiny twigs will serve to protect the tender plants in the backyard with fewer defenses. The branches we cut into firewood lengths. As we remove the heaviest limb, the tree groans and stands a little more upright. The yellow flowers shower their scent around us, the dust of their soft blossoms sprinkled in our hair.

The acacia reminds me of a fortune teller reading my palm and telling me of multiple paths that I have followed. So many times we are afraid to be hurt so we have our thorns ready to defend even before the damage is done. There is balance in the acacia. Good and bad. Dark and light. It is the ultimate survivor. Even when the tree is old and scarred, there is always the burst of yellow in the spring. A promise. A hope for the future.

March 24, 2009

The Garden – Part 7

March 15, 2009 - The garden is truly ours now. The ground was warm, it was a beautiful afternoon and we decided to plant. All four of us were out there getting dirty. It was a wonderful productive afternoon. We had hot black compost from the bin and our piles of fresh wood chippings to tuck the garden in. Although I have seen it happen all of my life, it is always a miracle, a thing of wonder to me, to see seeds actually sprouting up from the soil. I plant, I water and I wait. But I have such a hard time believing there will really be a plant appearing from that tiny insignificant seed.

We planted rows of bush beans. One garden supplier has gotten clever and has packaged smaller amounts of different varieties of seeds for the “backyard gardener.” That’s us. The Obamas and the Stover/Wongs will have our harvest in somewhere between 60 to 90 days. We hope. There are beets, spinach for now. Chives and marigolds for fun and for natural bug control. My neighbor shoved some garlic cloves down and is asking to plant carrots and celery. We bought some tomato plants since they take forever from seeds and they help make it look like a real garden. There is a glorious pineapple sage that I could not resist. It sits regally above the scrawny tomato plants

March 22, 2009 -- When I wrote most of the above, we had spent two days playing at being gardeners. Albert got ambitious and cut up scrap lumber to build a rough fence because Fanny the Wonder Dog is indeed fascinated by the garden. She pulled up and ate the first plant that Albert put in the ground. Now she can look but no nibbling, no digging. She hangs out with us and wonders what the heck is keeping us so occupied but she’s thrilled that we’re all playing in the dirt together. The miracle has happened. The beet seeds that are the size of sand or coarsely ground pepper have sent up their flags of life. Crowds of little two-leaved seedlings are poking out around the soaker hose which also marks the rows. Biology is amazing. I still cannot believe that a real plant with a fat red beet at the bottom of it can possibly come from a piece of grit but there they are.

March 24, 2009 -- Even though germination is supposed to take 10 -12 days, I still am the great doubter. The beans have appeared today. Not all of them but a fat coil with flat leaves is curling up as though fighting its way out of the ground. There were four different varieties of bush beans all mixed together so I guess this really will be pot luck, but one variety seems to be getting a head start on the others. This afternoon there were even more. And the spinach is appearing now. Unbelievable. We really are urban gardeners. We have a garden. Things are growing!

Monday, March 2, 2009

A reflection of nature writing

Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is unquestionably a classic. The commemorative edition I own has both his Almanac and several “Sketches Here and There” that offer a glimpse into his coming of age as a naturalist and nature writer. My favorite passage in the book is the month of “February.” I have added the opening line of that chapter to my Quotes to Live at the sidebar because I firmly believe that this is the inherent problem in the United States today. In “February”, Leopold details the cutting of a grand old oak tree for firewood to heat his home. He cuts this venerable tree with utmost respect and in this chapter he details various events throughout the life of this oak. One of our recent nature readings was in a “rant” about hunters. Even as long ago as 1870 “a market gunner boasted in the American Sportsman of killing 6000 ducks in one season.” “In 1872, the last wild Wisconsin turkey was killed.” “In 1866, the last native Wisconsin elk was killed.” And so it goes through the essay. Leopold says, “The stump yields a collective view of a century.” As he saws through the oak, he gives us facts about the waste and destruction that humans have wrought on the land.

We are so far removed from our food and our sources of heat and light that we take all of that for granted. Saturday night as the month turned over from February to March there was a blackout in El Paso over most of the city and some parts of the county. People panicked. The traffic lights went out and there were numerous fender bender accidents. The blackout happened late at night, not at rush hour or a busy time of day but it gives a hint of how dependent people are on all the devices that rule our lives. We flip a switch and no one thinks about the hills of Kentucky strip mined for more than my lifetime to provide that coal. No one thinks about the fossil fuels that are not renewable to provide that coal. Some make the case for nuclear power plants. Do you want radioactive leftovers dumped in your county? No one does, but they will defend nuclear power over coal. Neither is the simple answer. When I grew up on the farm, I rode the tractor with my father to the edge of the woods to cut trees for winter firewood. We chose dead trees, trees that crowded others and “junk” trees. My job was to load on the wagon the wood I was able to lift. As we saw the wood pile dwindle in the spring, we were aware of every tree that we sweated over in the summer. People have lost that awareness. If you’re cold, turn up the heat. Never mind where it came from. Never mind where it will come from in the future.

Maybe we should start minding.

2 March 2009

The Cemetery

There is something about a cemetery that brings peace. People talk in quiet voices when they walk among the dead as though the dead might be listening too. Walking among the dead brings up memories, some best forgotten. This past October, I walked with my sister and my aunt where several of our relatives are buried. We shared stories that my sister had never heard; stories that never touched her innocent childhood. My aunt told stories about her mother and her stepfather who never loved her. I told a story of rejoicing at a burial many years ago. She told me about her oldest daughter, my cousin. Women, who have been sexually abused as children, never forget. It colors our relationships with our family and with men for the rest of our lives. My aunt was facing another death. We buried her oldest son at Christmas. Another death, another story. In the cemetery that autumn day, we shared stories that had not been shared before. We shared stories that should have been shared 40 years ago. Perhaps if the children had been brave enough to share their stories then, we could have eased each other’s pain. In the telling, all the anger, the hurt and the shame come out. It doesn’t heal. I don’t think it ever does. But as we walked out of the cemetery gate, something had changed. We were gentle with one another and our voices were quiet. The pain isn’t gone but it is understood. And shared.

2 March 2009

The Garden – Part 6

February 28, 2009

What a grand adventure today! We’ve been budgeting for the garden along with all the unexpected house disasters that can befall an almost 80 year old house. One of the items on the have-to-have list is mulch. Mulch is a requirement for a desert garden to succeed. There is so little moisture in the summer and the sun bakes down so hot, that delicate plants can shrivel into nothing. A thick blanket of mulch helps hold the moisture next to the roots where it’s needed, it keeps the soil a cooler temperature and thankfully it blocks the weeds from taking over the garden. Today we heard the distinctive grinding sound of a wood chipper. Across the street, our neighbors had hired someone to take out a tree and cut some dead branches. The workers were stuffing the branches into the chipper turning them into wonderful desirable wood chips. Albert went across the street and asked what they planned to do with the chips and they replied that they would be taking them to the dump. With a little negotiation and ten bucks, they agreed to bring the chips over to our house. We organized a fire brigade of every trash can we could find; handing the can up to the man who shoveled the chips into the can then hefted it over the side. My son and his girlfriend helped and within less than twenty minutes, we had little pale brown mounds of mulch all over the backyard. They will go on the garden after the plants are visible. We’ll tuck in every plant. Right now there is a gentle warmth issuing off the piles of chips, a reminder of nature at work. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Wood chips to my garden to help make food to feed us this year. In “The Gifts,” Richard K. Nelson spoke of his son being, “joyous and alive” a “boy made of deer.” We will be a joyous family made of wood chips and earth from our back yard garden.