Tag Archive | World View

The Day After the First Freeze

IMG_9610 (533x800)Today is the day after the first freeze of the season, and it smells kind of funny around here.  I am pretty sure it is not me; although one can never know for certain, I did just wash my winter sweaters when I pulled them down from the top shelf of the closet the other day for the first time since last spring.  But I step onto the back patio, and I am struck by the odor.

It is the smell of decay, and I am struck by how quickly it has set in.  It was just last night that the killing frost happened.  When I went to bed a little after 10 p.m., which is early for me, the electronic thermometer in the living room said it was still 35 degrees outside.  The freeze probably did not come for several hours after that, so a good guess is that about 15 hours ago, everything was still alive, and there was no reason other than the sterotypically unreliable predictions of the weather forecasters to expect that it would actually get cold enough to kill.  But now, the leaves on the lantana have turned almost black, and their flowers, which were vividly red and orange and yellow just yesterday, have followed suit.  The blooms that shone on the hibiscus out by the mailbox have faded from their yellow and orange and pink to brown, too, and their leaves, at least the ones on the outside of the plant, are drooping, ready to fall.  The massive elephant ears have graciously passed out, falling to the ground behind the azaleas and the heather and the mondo grass, where no one will have to watch as the water in their cells is released, making them into a soggy pile of mush.  But the bolder cannas, which just yesterday burned like torches with their bright orange and gold flowers on top of the tall towers of their stems, are now just as tall and bold in their decay, the brown hue of plant death standing in front of the bedroom windows, calling all to witness the injustice and shock of their sudden demise.

All of that death has come together to generate that smell.  There is a complexity in the odor:  it is clearly sour, and if I discovered it in my refrigerator, it would be a warning to me that whatever it emanates from would probably make my stomach turn inside out.  But there is a sweetness to it, too, and when that odor mixes with the smell of smoke coming from a neighbor’s fireplace, burning against the chill in the air to make a house feel the warmth a home is supposed to have, that odor of decay evokes autumn.

I look again at the plants which are now, suddenly, generating that odor.  They are dead now, and death always brings the feelings of grief:  of sadness at the loss of things that were once so beautiful, of regret at the missed opportunities to appreciate and tend better to those things which are now gone, of fear because death is so sudden and so complete, of anger at the injustice of vulnerability, of a simple but overwhelming exhaustion that comes from having spent an exorbitant energy on a deep love.  It is best not to rush those feelings that come with grief.  It is best to notice them when they appear, to acknowledge their presence, maybe even to greet them politely, and to endure them and even appreciate them while they are taking up our mental and emotional space.  They won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to show them the door, so we do the best we can to receive them when they show up, even though they did not have the good manners to call ahead and let us know they were coming.

But even as I look at the remains of the leaves and flowers in my garden, and even as I smell death and decay in the air, I notice and I know that there is something more going on.  The hibiscus will be left with nothing but the eerie form of sticks poking out of the ground, but in a few months, new leaf buds will form on those sticks, and they will bloom again next year.  The lantana will have to be cut back to the ground, but around the base, new branches will grow in the spring.  The cannas and the elephant ears have complex webs of bulbs and tubers at their base, just out of sight under the leaves and mulch, and those will absorb more and more water and nutrients through the coming season, so that new towers of stems and leaves will shoot out again someday.  And I even have hope that the gardenia which I bought last spring but never got into the ground, which did so well in its pot in that spot out by the bird bath, which I meant just last weekend to put into the ground to protect it from the cold air, will survive and thrive again.  Death is not the end of the story; there is still the miracle of resurrection to come; I am assured of things I hope for, and I am convinced of things that I have not seen.

Earlier today, I heard the story of a man whose mother died while he was still a nursing infant.  Not many years later, his father died, too, and he and his sister were taken into the homes of relatives.  When he was 18, he set out on his own.  In the course of his life, he traveled the world, built a career advising others in the investment of their personal finances, raised a family of happy and successful children and grandchildren, cared for his wife as she got sick, and finally died at 86 years old, having decided to give up dialysis so he could leave this world with the dignity of the ability to make choices still intact.

That story gave me hope:  hope in the ability of people to survive times of deathly grief, hope in the power of family and community to make each of us feel loved and safe and strong, hope that the sorrow of the present will be redeemed by the joy of the future, hope in the abundance and eternity of life, hope even in the smell of decay that comes on the day after the first freeze.  Because that odor is not the end of the story, but only a sign of new things to come.

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Mushrooms

IMG_1770 (800x533)Where I live, we’ve had a lot of rain recently, so now, we have a lot of mushrooms in our community. They are growing in all the neighbors’ lawns. Some look like perfect toadstools, with a skinny stem and a wide top, shaped so that a small mouse caught in a Disney movie could find shelter during a sudden storm. Some are tall and thin with a narrow, pointed top which are best described as, um, erect. Some are oddly shaped, with tops that are wavy and irregular and almost no stem to raise them off the ground. Many are a creamy eggshell color on the top, but others are brown or yellow or gray or green or even a dusty but vivid orange-red. Some have spots or streaks that look like shadows, while others are smooth and constant.

Every time I see the mushrooms as I take the family dog on our daily walk through our neighborhood, I feel compelled to run home, grab my camera, and retrace my steps to try to capture some photos of the neighborhood fungi. Lately, I have paused before acting on that impulse because I am not sure why I have it. They are not beautiful. Even with the best of camera settings, with high-contrast lighting, saturated colors, and blurry backgrounds to make the resulting photos as dramatic as possible, they are still just mushrooms. They are plain at best and disgusting at worst. They are certainly not the subjects for the kind of photos one would want to hang on one’s wall. So why do I feel driven to photograph them?

The mushrooms are not beautiful, but they are fascinating. I think it is the similarity between those two evaluations which compels me to get my camera, and I think it is difference between them which has lately made me pause before using up more precious megapixels. Just think about the words themselves. Both beauty and fascination are nouns, and both can be expressed as adjectives, too: beautiful and fascinating. But when you try to make them verbs, things go awry. Something can fascinate, although it will require a direct object which is willing to be fascinated. But to be transformed into an action, beauty needs a little help. Although one can beautify, it sounds a bit awkward; one would be better off making beauty, or creating beauty, and then beauty itself becomes the object and the action gets put elsewhere.

Both beauty and fascination are subjective; one person might find something beautiful or fascinating or both, while someone else may not. Both beauty and fascination are a part of the equation of beholding, but they come at it differently. Beauty is something intrinsic to the object itself: a beautiful flower bears its beauty whether someone is looking at it or not. Fascination, on the other hand, happens inside the observer: an object is not considered fascinating until someone notices it, studies it, and allows it to evoke wonder or curiosity.

Besides our neighborhood mushrooms, how else might that distinction between evaluating some things as “beautiful” and others as “fascinating” be applied? Objects in nature can be either; as a gardener, I have encountered and planted specimens in my yard that were beautiful but not fascinating, as well as ones that are fascinating but not beautiful. Visual arts have a more clear purpose which can allow a judgment of either beauty or fascination; a piece might be created to communicate beauty, but it also might be designed to communicate other messages which make it fascinating, even if the piece itself is not considered terribly beautiful. Similar things could be said about writing. But what about sounds? Music can be beautiful, whether it is from a bird or an orchestra; it can also be fascinating, although only the most academic of critics would sit through a symphony or a song that is fascinating but not beautiful. And what about food, or odors, or textures? We add other senses, so that something can have a pleasing taste or smell or feel in addition to its visual beauty. And, at the same time, its flavors, odors, textures, and appearance might also be fascinating.

So what about people? I’m not sure more could be said of the myths of human beauty and the mysteries of human attraction, so I will only say this. One of the pieces of the Christian way of seeing the world I treasure most deeply is the affirmation that all people are loved by their Creator, and through that love, every person is made beautiful, no matter what he or she looks like. As with a flower, human beauty is intrinsic, and I find that truth to be one of the most beautiful. Fascination, on the other hand, happens in the mind of the beholder, and I think it is in there somewhere that we can understand such phenomena as attraction, tolerance, kinship, jealousy, pity, empathy, and a whole lot of others.

The window of opportunity to photograph mushrooms is very small. After only a few hours of sunshine, they start to shrivel, to shrink, and to fall, and no matter what colors they displayed when they were at their peak, they all turn to a mushy, slimy brown. At that stage, I do not find them fascinating any more, and I am not even tempted to take a photograph; their value to me is simply that they will decompose and add their minerals, fibers, water, and other nutrients to the soil underneath. Still, we had some rain this evening, so when I go on my walk tomorrow morning, shall I take my camera along with me?

Two Hummingbirds

IMG_7167 (2) (800x534)There are two hummingbirds who have been nourishing themselves on the feeder outside my living room window in the past few weeks.  One is absolutely gorgeous.  The ruby of his throat is a deep, vibrant, fire-engine jewel tone.  The green on his wings and his back match the red in its tone.  He is a little bit smaller than the other one, as if his colors are made more intense by concentration.  It seems like every time I look out the window, he is zipping around the feeder.  First he sticks his beak into the hole in the middle of one of the small, aluminum flower petals, reaching his proboscis all the way down to the sugar-water in the dish which is secured underneath the hole.  Then, he jumps back and hovers in the air for a minute as if he has to let the sweet lubricant settle into the deepest part of his being before finding his way to another of the aluminum-petaled flowers.  I am reluctant to tell him that each flower leads to the same reservoir of sweetness; I guess he will figure out the physics of it all on his own if it becomes important to him.  Sometimes he rests his wings for a minute as he drinks; most of the time, though, he remains suspended in air, using some of that intense, sugar-fueled energy even as he sucks it into his tiny body.

I would love to get a photograph of him.  If I could get the light just right, his ruby throat and his emerald back and even his pearly belly and face would practically glow.  So every time I see him taking a meal, I quickly pull out the camera and quietly head outside.  But immediately, as soon as he sees me or hears me or uses whatever sense he uses to perceive my presence, he flies away.  It does not matter how quietly I open and close the door, or how slowly I put the view finder on the camera to my eye, or how steadily, almost imperceptibly, I step around the corner to get a clear shot.  He will not stick around long enough for me to take his photo.  And he refuses to return as long as I sit there.  I can pull out my folding canvas chair, prop my camera on my lap, and sit still for what seems like hours.  Something has told him to be afraid of me, and he will not return.

But as I sit there on my patio, I am frequently able to see the other hummingbird which hangs around my feeder.  She is much, much friendlier than the other one.  She might wait for a few minutes to let me settle in, but then I hear her buzzing vibrations in the air, and she comes flitting about the feeder.  Like the other, she goes from this aluminum-petal-framed hole to that one, stopping between sips to let her meal settle a bit, sometimes resting on the edge of the feeder and sometimes continuing to let her wings beat as she takes her high-calorie nourishment.  While she sometimes prefers to drink from the hole on the opposite side of the feeder from where I sit, she will almost always spend at least some time on my side, with a clear view from my camera.  She even helpfully steps back from the feeder for a second or two so the auto-focus on the camera can capture her, rather than the feeder itself, making the photos come out much more clear.  She is the one in the photo above.

There is only one problem: this hummingbird is nowhere near as beautiful as the other one.  She doesn’t have much of a ruby throat; only one, small patch on her throat is red at all, and it lacks the vibrancy of the others.  It is a bit off-center, too, making it look more like a blemish than a feature of her complexion.  And the green on her back is a bit dull, too; it is more of a brown, really, and even the white of her chest and head seems to have a grayish tint.  So I find myself greeting her kindly, but not moving as eagerly to take her photograph.  She’s nice and all, but what I really want to capture in my lens is the other, more beautiful one.

It is hard for me to even admit this.  To say this publicly requires to admit just how shallow I am.  I assign a greater value to the more attractive one.  And I easily dismiss the other, less attractive one as friendly enough, but not really worthy of my best photographic attention.  Why do I do this to myself?  Is it simply because I put too much value on the judgements of others?  If I could just get a photograph of the prettier bird, people would want to look at my photograph; they would place a greater value on the product I produce, and maybe even a greater value on me, too.  Is it that kind of pride?  Or is it something else?  Is it some primal impulse within me that I cannot control?  Is it because I am naturally drawn to the more attractive one, as if anything that is stronger or prettier will help me to conceive a more attractive offspring, who will be more likely to find his or her own mate and carry my genetic material well into the future?  Is this some kind of survival of the fittest instinct, spilling all over my backyard?

Or am I really just a shallow person?

Why am I unable to look at even something as inconsequential as my hummingbird feeder and avoid getting swept up into the myth of beauty?  Why am I incapable of turning off my evaluation of physical features, even if just for a moment of lounging in my backyard?  Why does it seem like I can only direct my viewfinder toward that which is most vivacious, most sexy, most bold in its beauty?  Why do I judge like that?

I’ve been working my way through Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now:  Living in the Spirit.  It is one of those books of short pieces which you have to read slowly and savor or you will become quickly overwhelmed with introspection. In one short essay entitled “The Burden of Judgement,” Nouwen cites anonymous fourth-century desert fathers, who simply and truthfully pointed out that “‘judging others is a heavy burden.'”  And Nouwen invites the reader to imagine “having no need at all to judge anybody.”  “Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom?” he asks (p. 60).

And I realize as I imagine that I long for that freedom.  I don’t know the origin of it, but I have heard of a greeting that is shared by some Christians that goes, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.”  It’s a bit of an awkward phrase, but it acknowledges that something deep inside of each of us bears the image of God.  If I could overcome the impulse to judge; if I could look past the shallow evaluations of appearances; if I could cease putting one person or one creature beside another, or putting all creatures beside myself, in order to point out the flaws in each one, then I would be free of something which, now that the desert fathers mention it, really does feel like a heavy burden.  That freedom would open my soul to receive every person, every creature, as a unique gift which bears a reflection of nothing less than God.

I sat on my patio for almost an hour this afternoon, simply reading a magazine and enjoying what was going on around me.  With an almost-seven-year-old boy in the house, I don’t get a chance to sit like that very often; I even had to spend some of the time ignoring the scratches of our resident chocolate lab on the back door.  As I sat, I saw all kinds of beauty around me.  Blue jays flew in and out of the trees.  A young squirrel perched on a branch of the dying oak by the fence.  First one tufted titmouse, and then another, came along to get an afternoon snack on the bird feeder.  Then, a brilliant cardinal wanted a turn, but he was chased away by some other bird.  And I saw my friends the hummingbirds.  The more outgoing one took her turn on the feeder and went to a tree branch to watch for a while.  A little while later, two others flew in over the roof from the front yard, but the strangers couldn’t even make it to the aluminum-petaled flowers before the other two swooped out of the trees and chased them away.  The whole time I was out there, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to go inside and get my camera.  But because I resisted the urge, I didn’t gaze at what was going on around me through the lens of my own judgements.  I didn’t have to decide which of the creatures I was watching was more beautiful than the others.  I could simply enjoy them all, each one filled with its own reflection of the beauty of its Creator.

I felt so free that the Christ in me almost sang a doxology:  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

What My Hibiscus Knows

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can't believe I don't have a photo of the pink one!

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can’t believe I don’t have a photo of the pink one!

I think my pink hibiscus has made a choice, and her choice gives me hope.

Most people around here treat the tropical hibiscus as an annual:  once the first frost has taken away the last chance of any more big, bold, flashy flowers unfolding for the year, most people dig them up and throw them away.  Then, in the early spring, those folks find new hibiscus plants at the stores, and while they are not the cheapest plants, they are widely available and ready to bloom by early April.

But not me.  I know that I could go this afternoon to the nearest big-box store to have my pick of greenhouse-grown hibiscus, with their intense colors already fully exposed.  Maybe it is because I am too cheap, and I can’t bring myself to discard a perfectly good plant; maybe it is because I am too sympathetic, and I feel like any plant that has made it through the winter ought to have a fighting chance to show its beauty again.  But I just can’t dig up the old hibiscus and throw them away.  So I don’t mind that they lose their leaves in the winter; after the first frost, their usual verdant, green hue starts to droop, and the blossoms all close and drop.  Then the leaves turn a color which evokes the “gifts” my son often gave me in his diaper.  Once the leaves dry, they fall to the ground and insulate the roots from further frosts, leaving only bare sticks poking toward the sky.

My hibiscus plants have now gone through two of these cycles.  Last year, though, the pink one had a rough time.  Well, I say she is pink; the color of her petals is more of a hot, strong fuchsia, with a bloody-red center just like her yellow and orange friends’.  As the new stems started growing upward in the late spring, she showed signs of catching a fungus.  The disease seemed to clear up on its own, but a couple of her stems started to lean over to be parallel to the ground.  Then as they grew again, they curved to continue straight toward the sky.  She was just a little too close to the black-eyed susans in front of her to begin with, so once she lost her straight, upright form, her leaves and blooms intermingled with the spreading, gold-and-brown pile of wildflowers.  The confusion that resulted was not the high point of garden design.

Fast forward a few months.  It was February before we had our first freeze this year, exceptionally late even for our sub-tropical climate.  Before the hibiscus froze, new leaves had a chance to form around the bases of the plants.  These are the beginnings of the new stems each year.  Within a couple of weeks, the leaves around the yellow and orange hibiscus had succumbed to a subsequent frost.  But not the pink one.  I think it might have been because of her unusual shape, or maybe because she was more closely surrounded by the plants around her, but through all the other frosty mornings, she never lost the fresh, green leaves which had started coming from her base.

I expected that the pink hibiscus would capitalize on her advantage.  I expected she would use her overwintering leaves to get a jump on the season.  I expected that she would keep growing her nascent stems skyward so that she could position her leaves to get the most sunlight, before the new season’s leaves even started to grow around the base of her friends.  I expected she would strive hard to bloom first, attracting all the bees and butterflies to help her in the process of reproducing herself.  But that’s not what she did.

Instead, she waited.  Her leaves, which she developed so early, didn’t disappear, but they didn’t grow, either, until the other hibiscus had similar leaves ready to shoot up into tall stems.  I realize that the hibiscus plant doesn’t have any agency, and that there is some scientific gobbldy-gook about the light and the air temperature which explain why she didn’t grow up early.  But I prefer to believe that she purposely waited for her friends.  I prefer to believe that she decided not to get out ahead of the others.  I prefer to imagine that she chose not to capitalize on her good fortune, the gift of some leaves which were not bitten by the frost.  I prefer to think that she saw the benefits of having some companions in the process of growing and developing into full flower.

I prefer to dream about a world where we don’t exploit every competitive advantage, where we don’t strive to absorb the brightest spotlight, where we don’t push others out of the way as we try to attract attention to ourselves.  I prefer to hope that we will wait and make sure everyone is ready before we launch ourselves onto the world.  I prefer to think that it is better to have some companionship as we grow, exploring each new stage with others, discovering each step of progress with a shared wonder at what we can become.  I prefer to understand that we have a choice to make:  we can choose to trample others down while adding to our own privilege of strength and vigor and beauty and wealth, or we can choose to be a part of a community where we build our privilege together.  I prefer to believe that at least one, humble hibiscus plant in the universe chooses to share rather than compete, and I prefer to have faith that such a choice reflects the will of the One Who set the universe in motion and to Whom I pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It is only this week that I have seen the clumps of leaves around the base of all three of the hibiscus starting to build into stems.  Within a few weeks, they will each begin to push out flower buds from the unions between their stems and the leaves.  Then they will bloom:  the vibrant yellow and orange and pink petals, with their bloody red centers, all burning hot and strong in the sultry July sun, flashing their appeal to passing bees and butterflies, revealing their bright beauty to passing neighbors who offer sufficient time and attention while they are walking their dogs.  And they will be out there together, just like they ought to be.

Embarrassing Faith

IMG_5384 (800x533)Early spring is an embarrassing time for gardeners.  O.k., maybe not for all of them.  Maybe it’s just me.  If I really knew what I was doing, I would be able to time my plantings so that something spectacular would always cover the stuff that is not so spectacular, at least not yet.  The big, empty spaces where the black-eyed susans have not yet come back up would only serve to highlight the spectacular blooms of the azaleas.  The camellia blooms would linger long enough so that the spindly mess of roses would have time to leaf out and bloom.  The densely-planted pack of daffodils would distract one’s eye from the variegated liriope which hasn’t yet come back from its post-freeze shearing.  Then, the daylily greens would be up and full and ready to shoot forth stems of blossoms just in time to hide the dying daffodil foliage, which, the stern voices of the experts who write the newspaper columns warn, one ought never to cut off.  The dying foliage gathers sunlight to feed the bulb, which stores energy for next year’s blooms.  If you cut that process short, you risk a whole year of wimpy daffodils (gasp!  oh, the horror!).  So, you have to put up with dying foliage, and if you are clever, you find a way to make sure it is hidden.

I have never been that clever.  A couple of weeks ago, I started cleaning out my perennial beds in the front yard.  I usually leave the woody branches of hibiscus, the dried-out stalks of cannas, and the spindly nest of lantana stems right where they are through the winter.  Their own leaves drop and cover the ground around their bases, and they collect the stiff, brown leaves from the oak trees as they blow down the street.  Again, the experts warn against this practice; leaves can harbor diseases and hold in too much moisture, causing the roots of the perennials to rot over the winter.  But I take my chances, figuring that the leaves will also insulate the tropical plants from the freezing air which occasionally infiltrates our semi-tropical climate.

But then, in early spring, after the danger of frost is past, as the heather and hibiscus and lantana are just starting to shoot forth bright, green leaves into that brown, rotten mess, I clean things up.  I cut the heather back to the ground, and I push the oak leaves to the center of the bed so they can work their way into the soil.  I cut the lantana back to the ground, too, so its new shoots will come strong and healthy from the center of the plant, keeping its more-or-less mounded form rather than continuing to spread all over creation from last year’s branches.  I cut off the towering, dead stalks of the cannas, I remove the dead leaves of the gerbera daisies, and I cut off the clematis, leaving only about six inches of each stem from which the new growth can emerge and spread up the trellis.  I pull the clover and chickweed and dichondra which has spread into the beds, and I lay out fresh mulch where last year’s has become thin enough for these weeds to push through, being careful to see if the calla lilies and oriental lilies are poking up through the dirt to announce that they will, in fact, come back for another year.

In my mind’s eye, at the end of all of that hard work, I see the potential:  the many colors and textures of foliage and blooms that will take us through the late spring and into the summer and fall.  But to look at my yard in its present form, you couldn’t prove that any of that beauty is ever going to be real.  I have to acknowledge in this season that I may be deluding myself.  Things may not turn out as I envision them right now.  Something might have died over the winter; some of the pretty things I planted last year may not come up again.  Or worse, a few of them might come up, but others might have rotted into the soil, so that there will be awkward holes in my landscape by the middle of the summer when it is too late to do anything about them.

Faith is like that.  I was preparing for my Easter sermon the other day by listening to the Working Preacher podcast.  The seminary professors who participate in the conversation pointed out that Easter requires us to admit that faith is risky.  We believe what we proclaim, but the fact is, we may be wrong.  We may be wrong to talk with such certainty about a savior who was raised from the dead.  We may be wrong to conjure such authority when we talk about a God who loves unconditionally.  We may be wrong to say with any conviction at all that sometime in the future, as things are coming to an end, everything will work out o.k. because God is in charge.

We may be wrong because we don’t see those things right now.  We know them; we feel them; we believe them; we even experience them.  But we do not see them.  We cannot prove to anyone that the stories we tell are truth, or that the love we perceive breathing life into being is real, or that the hope which strengthens us will ever be realized.  We have to admit, if we are honest, that it is possible that we are deluding ourselves, and things may not turn out to be the way we envision them.  That is why it is called faith, not certainty or authority or any of those other, more definite words.

And I wonder if that is why a lot of people are not willing to commit to it.  It is hard to embrace something while admitting that I may be wrong.  Faith requires vulnerability.  It requires me to risk embarrassment; just like the whole world can see my naked front yard, with all its big, empty spaces and sheared ornamentals and spindly roses and dying daffodil foliage, the whole world might also see my faith proven wrong.  But for me, faith is worth the risk; my knowledge and feeling and belief and experience of God summon a courage that is enough for me, just like the beautiful colors and textures I see emerging in my mind’s eye right now are enough to take me into the next seasons of life in my yard.  Everything may not turn out as I expect; in fact, I am pretty sure I will be wrong about some things.  But that is part of the strength of vision and faith, and the reason I am willing to risk so much for it:  more often than not, even when it doesn’t turn out the way I expected, its unanticipated revelations are more lovely than I ever could have imagined.

When I cleaned out my flower beds a couple of weeks ago, I looked carefully for the calla lilies which grow next to the heather and gerbera daisies near my mailbox.  They hadn’t poked their pointed leaf shoots up through the surface of the ground.  Frankly, I was disappointed, but I made my peace with it.  Perhaps they are only supposed to live a couple of years.  Maybe an accidental tromp through the flower bed last summer crushed them for good.  But their absence would leave a hole, and I was beginning to doubt that the flower bed will be as I hoped this year.

Then, just the other day, I looked again, and there they were, just jutting the tips of their shoots about a half an inch above the mulch I had spread.  Those points will grow taller and taller, no bigger around than a pencil, and once they are tall enough, they will unfurl into sword-shaped leaves whose flat surfaces will absorb the sun’s heat and light.  And then, once they pull enough stored energy from the bulbs underground, more shoots will emerge from the base of the leaves, and they will reveal fascinatingly beautiful petals curled around erect stamens.  Calla lilies are some of my favorite flowers.

At least I think that is what will happen.  Only time will tell.

Green Wood

IMG_2001 (800x600)This is the time of year when not much is happening in my yard.  Last year, I got restless about this time, and I started trimming back my perennials, trimming bushes, clearing leaves from the flower beds, and generally uncovering everything for spring.  The plants responded to the message that it was time for them to wake up and get ready for spring and summer.  Fresh, bright, green buds of leaves and branches started to appear in the ensuing weeks.  And then, we got a late freeze, and all of those new buds which I had so optimistically encouraged withered in a droopy, slimy, sad little mess.  It took most of the plants several weeks to recover, and I spent those weeks worrying over them, fearing the worst, and watching to see if they would live or die.

So this year, I have vowed that I will not engage in any pruning, any cleaning, or any other form of encouragement with my perennials and shrubs until the middle of March at the earliest.  I will gingerly start my spring cleaning then only after checking the long-term forecast to make sure there is no freeze anticipated. I will not be disappointed again.

The problem with that commitment is that it has left me a little restless, with not much else to do in the yard on the warming days of February and early March.  So, I have been trying to content myself with pulling weeds.

God knows there are plenty of weeds to pull.  And this time of year is the perfect time to get them.  For the most part, they are tiny things, flimsy, with barely any roots to hold them in the ground.  Some of these are the early spring weeds, whose whole purpose in life is to produce seeds so that more of the same kinds of weeds can come up next spring.  They do not live for very long; the period when it is not too cold and not too hot and dry for them is very brief.  They never grow very tall.  Some, like the chick weed, spread a quite a bit in their brief lives, but they don’t have much depth to hold them in the ground.  Some, like the sticky burrs with their nasty little spikes which poke our early spring feet as we go walking across the early spring lawn, become more annoying as they age, but even they are not with us for more than a few weeks.  The early spring weeds seem to have evolved to be efficient:  they shoot up quickly, they get their work of reproduction done quickly, and then they die quickly.  Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, as my Aunt Suzy would say.

Others of these weeds, though, are the ones that will be around for a long time.  They may or may not produce seeds; some of them mostly seem intent on spreading their roots.  These are the dichondra, the clover, and even the dandelions in the grass.  Once these get a hold in the lawn, they cannot be eradicated without horrible petrochemicals.  They can only be managed so they don’t push out the good grass altogether, which is a fine enough arrangement for me considering the alternatives.  But when they get into the flower beds, everything starts to look ragged, and the good flowers can’t ever seem to get ahead.

The theory of both the early spring weeds and the long-term spreaders is the same:  get rid of them now while it’s easy.  If you get the early spring weeds before they go to seed, the theory goes, you won’t have nearly as many next year.  If you get the long-term spreaders now before they spread to far or dig their roots too deep, the theory continues, you won’t be fighting with them as hard in the summer.  So there I was last Friday, alleviating my early season restlessness by pulling up the tiniest little sprouts.

As I went along, I realized that my efforts were an act of great optimism.  The fact is that no amount of early-season pulling is going to prevent weeds from growing in my flower beds.  Whether or not I go out there now on my hands and knees pulling the flimsy little sprouts, I will be out there again in a few months pulling more.  My work may or may not be in vain.  But as I was trying to make sense of what I was doing, a song kept coming into my head.  It is a song sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, on one of their more obscure albums which, depending on the company I am in, I either proudly or timidly admit that I regularly popped into my cassette tape player in my car when I was in college.

The song is called “Greenwood,” and it was written by Peter Yarrow in the early 1970s.  It takes its title and theme from a saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.  The words are what one expects from Peter Yarrow in the early 197os:  an earnest lament about violence and war.  They are predictably preachy, but their purpose is noble:  to stir people to act to overcome the systemic forces of repression.  The song’s melody is haunting yet beautiful and simple; it focuses attention on the carefully chosen interrogative of the lyrics:  “If we do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?”  If you want to listen to the song, someone has been kind enough to load it onto YouTube:

If you just want to read the words, you can click here.

Besides its clear insistence that violence must end, and despite its clear tone of lamentation, I see this song as a call to hope.  It makes the point that how we choose to view the world will change how the world actually is.  “The killer and the cynic waltz together,” the lyric goes; those who choose to see only the worst in others are dancing awfully close to those who are willing to take another person’s life.  It talks about “the impotence of people raised on fear,” pointing out that if we do not teach each other how to have hope and trust, which are the antidotes to fear, then there’s no reason to even attempt to make things different.  What Peter Yarrow wants us to do in the “green wood,” now, while we still have a choice in the matter, is to not only end violence, but also to keep the realities of violence from persuading us to embrace a cynical and fearful view of the world.

I agree, and that is why I was pulling weeds.  While I don’t believe my work now will make the weeds go away forever, I think pulling weeds in the early spring helps me practice hope.  And I need the practice after a winter filled with dark headlines of violence, distrust, fear, cynicism, greed, and on and on.  I need to believe that the more weeds I pull now, the fewer sticky burrs will find their way into the tender skin of my little boy’s feet and hands and knees and elbows and whatever else might come into contact with the lawn later this spring.  I need to believe that the more clover and dichondra I remove now, the more profuse and brilliant the azalea and clematis and lantana and heather and daylilies will bloom throughout the seasons to come, each in their own time.  And I need to believe that my restlessness can be channeled into productive work, so that I can also believe that my impatience with the way things are can be channeled into some positive work in the communities I am a part of to make things more like the way they ought to be.  If I don’t channel that restlessness and impatience, all I will know is that the frost will invariably kill the new buds, that weeds will inevitably smother the flowers, and that violence and distrust and fear and cynicism and all the rest are just the way the world works.  Considering the alternatives, I will pull the early spring weeds.

“As they led him away, … [Jesus] said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?'” (Luke 23:26-31)

My Reflections on the World’s Largest Cabbage

On the radio this evening, I heard an interview with the man who grew the newly-crowned World’s Largest Cabbage.  The large, leafy head weighed in at the Alaska State Fair at 138.25 pounds, he said, and he emphasized the decimals, as if the extra quarter pound is going to be what keeps his produce on the largest-cabbage throne for many years to come.  If I heard correctly, it measured something like seven feet from the tip of the leaves on one side to the tip of the leaves on the other side.  It was a big cabbage.

In the interview with the man who grew the record-setting vegetable, the reporter started by asking the obvious question:  how does one grow such a large head of cabbage?  The man replied with all due humility, saying that the real advantage has to do with the unique conditions in Alaska.  Since the sun is up almost around the clock, he said, the leaves just keep growing and growing, never stopping to rest through the night like the lazier tropical specimens would.  The reporter pressed him a little bit, pointing out that all of his neighbors would be growing these enormous cabbages if it only had to do with the midnight sun.  Then, he conceded that his success in raising the cabbage also had to do with his own efforts.  He said that, if you want to grow a big cabbage like his, you can’t take off on a weekend fishing trip, or a week-long hunting excursion, like some of his neighbors do.  Instead, you have to tend the plant every day, watering and fertilizing and addressing even the smallest signs of pests, disease, or other threats.

The reporter moved on by the end of the interview to ask what would become of this large cabbage.  Would it be good to eat, she asked?  The man said it would; you would just have to peel off the outer leaves, just like on any other head of cabbage, and the inner parts would probably taste just fine.  He went on to explain that most of the fresh-food entries in the state fair are collected on the last day by local food pantries and other programs, who gratefully distribute the award-winning produce to people who need food.  However, something as big as a 138-pound cabbage is a bit too cumbersome for those groups, so it will probably end up in the wilderness somewhere, feeding some lucky herd of wildlife before what remains decomposes to feed the microbes in the dirt.

I can’t get this story of the record-setting cabbage out of my mind.  The story evokes two questions of polarities for me as a gardener.  For one, the story of this cabbage speaks to the question of what makes for successful gardening.  Is it the hard work of the gardener that determines whether the crops will produce and the flowers will bloom?  Or is success the result of the dumb luck of the location and the weather?  And the second question this story brings up for me has to do with the purpose of gardening. Is it more noble to use our land, water, and fertilizer, as well as our time and muscles, to grow only produce which can provide nutrition to our bodies?  Or should we dedicate resources simply to coax from the earth beautiful flowers and plants which have no utility other than to bring joy to our minds and souls?

The world’s largest cabbage exists in a tension somewhere in the middle of both of these extremes.  As the man who grew it admitted, the cabbage did not attain its record-breaking size solely through the good luck of being planted in a place where the sun barely sets.  But neither did the meticulous attention, knowledge, and labor of the gardener alone create this record-setting phenomenon.  Both location and hard work were needed to bring this cabbage from a tiny seed to the biggest specimen of its kind that the world has ever seen.  And similarly, this cabbage was not grown strictly to provide vitamins and fiber and good flavor for the gardener.  But it also could not be considered simply an aesthetic creation.  Its purpose was neither utility nor beauty; it was something else entirely.

I never thought I would string these words together to form a sentence, but I have to admit that I can relate personally to this cabbage.  On the first question of purpose, I cannot believe that I am granted space on this planet only to be useful to other people, to the world as a whole, and to the God who created me.  The joy I feel when I witness beauty, when I experience love, and when I glimpse the mysteries of God must have an intrinsic value.  Human life cannot find its entire purpose solely in its utility or solely in its pleasure; our purpose is at least a balance of those two, and perhaps even something else entirely.

And any success at achieving life’s purposes is similarly complex.  A number of years ago, my sister tried to convince me that she and her husband had earned everything they have.  I know that they have both worked harder than some people do.  But if I am honest, I can’t buy my sister’s claim.  I have worked, too; I have worked harder than some, but not as hard as others.  But where I am in life also has to do with the location in which I was born.  I am not talking only about my birth in a rural town in the American West in the late 20th century, although those facts of location all contributed in important ways to who I am now.  I am also talking about the social location of my birth.  I am what I am in part due to the dumb luck that I was born to parents who live solidly in the middle-class, and who have worked for many years to maintain the trappings of that social position.  I am what I am because my family values education, and there was never any question that I would attend college.  I am what I am because my parents also value freedom, so any adventure I wanted to take was granted full support as well as a ride to the airport.  And I am what I am because I have never had to question whether my parents love me, even when my education and my freedom have been expressed through decisions they could not understand.  Everything I am is not due solely to the luck of the location of my birth, but I will never claim that I have earned everything I have through my own work.

So I live with that cabbage in the middle of tension.  My understanding of human purpose is caught somewhere between utilitarian function and aesthetic beauty.  What I am now is a result of the luck of the location where I was planted as well as the attention, knowledge, and labor I have put forth as I have gardened my own life.  And 1200 or so words later, I am still fascinated by the world’s largest cabbage.