CONFESSIONS OF A KILLER
Because let’s face it—if you are a gardener, you’re also a killer.
If you have weeds overtaking your grass, flowerbeds, and vegetable garden, what do you do?
If you find slugs on the leaves of your precious plants or crossing the sidewalk, what do you do?
If you find ants and earwigs at the bottom of your artichoke leaves, what do you do?
If you find eggs laid on your broccoli heads, what do you do?
If grass is growing over your stepping stones so much you can’t even tell a stone is there, what do you do?
I rest my case.
“…in this world/you have to decide what/you’re willing to kill.” –Tony Hoagland, in his poem “Candlelight”
So this week, here’s what the gardeners on our small patch of ground have been willing to kill: We’ve pulled beets for canning and eating; called Eco Life to come dispatch our bald hornet nest; stepped on and snipped slugs; tossed out the possibly mosquito larvae-ridden water in the birdbaths and swapped for clean water; pulled weeds wherever we saw them (though not nearly enough); pruned back some errant raspberry vines; soaked the artichoke heads in warm salt water and then sprayed them to get all the ants out; and turning over a stepping stone, gasped and smashed ant eggs.
When you’re a gardener, you are making life or death decisions daily. When you hoe or pull weeds, you are telling them bye-bye. Some folks let them lie if there are no seed heads, and let them become compost right where they are. You dig and find slug eggs, ant eggs, and potato bugs. Stamp, stamp, squish, squish! When you prune, you decide what branches get to live and what ones don’t. Deadheading is more gentle, since what you clip off usually isn’t still alive, although if there are seed heads at the ends of stalks, then the promise of life remains. (If you find dried up heads and you want more of that plant next year, save the seeds and plant them in the spring. That’s how I get my hollyhocks, Sweet Williams, and marigolds. In the herb garden, the feverfew, parsley, and chamomile re-seed themselves. Dried seed heads from those weeds I’ve missed is how I get new weeds, too! Oops.) We spray Neem, insecticidal soap, and fungicide; we share pest management with other species, buying ladybugs and lacewings. We plant Whack-A-Moles. What’s more, we are not alone in our murderous intentions.
But don’t despair (unless you are a disciple of Jainism). You are ridding your gardens of thugs. (Now if only someone could come take out the voles making holes in the mole trails everywhere I look!) There is a saving grace: For everything you kill in your garden, something else more beneficial or beautiful gets to live and grow. We might yank out the pea vines or the fava bean stalks, but they have left lovely nitrogen for our other plant life. We have to pull up the carrots and beets, and dig the potatoes in order to eat them. Ridding blooms and branches of pests keeps our flowers and trees growing lovely and healthily.
Once again, we see how our gardens are metaphors for our larger lives. If we are carnivorous, we kill for meat. If we are vegetarian, we kill vegetables. If we are pescatarian, we kill fish. We kill to survive and to make our world a more beneficial and beautiful place.
One of my favorite methods of gardening is anti-activity, the practice of disregard. Now, that’s not the same thing as neglect, which would mean not pulling weeds or watering, or any number of small things we do to keep our gardens lovely. Disregard is accepting what it is various plants and bushes decide to do on their own. Letting them be. Watching them insert themselves where they wish to, and not interfering.
We had to remove an infected tree from our hedge, so in the open space we planted a camellia bush and a red-twigged dogwood along the outer edge, scarlet runner beans on their pole trellises in front of those, and flowers in front. Hostas had already been there, and a poppy that came from who knows where. I found some flower seeds from last year and was gifted with some wildflower seeds, so I planted them all. Little sprouts are up now of those, but what has surprised me is that when I checked on this space after a two-week hiatus due to surgery, I found growing amongst the little flowers radishes ready to eat. What??? I don’t know for sure how they got there, and neither does my husband. As near as we can figure, radish seeds somehow were mixed in with the flower seeds. I love radishes and I’m enjoying this example of crunchy happenstance in my salads.
A long-standing disregard based on curiosity involves wild foxglove. I make bets with myself at the end of its season as to where it might decide to grow the following spring. I let the spent blooms lie where they fall so the results of the guessing game will be in my favor. If it’s a windy winter, though, the odds are no longer in my favor. The foxgloves’ decisions can either make for a great surprise in composition, adding height and pinkness to a section of a flowerbed, or disaster if it chooses a space where it looks awkward or it hogs a space where I want something else to be. That problem is easily solved, however, by a yank of prudent removal. The time for that, sadly, is now. Bye-bye foxgloves. See you next year, who knows where?
Almost a decade ago, my friend Liz was overrun by rose campion (Silene coronaria)(also called bloody William—eeuww!) (deer resistant and drought tolerant!) and in a fit she ripped them all out and gifted them to me. They take over, she told me. Oh, gee, thanks, Liz. But you know, they haven’t. She has rich river silt in her soil. I have compacted clay and that has made all the difference. I like how they look, and the greyish-green of their foliage is a nice contrast to their vermillion blooms. Their spread makes a nice drift. And they LOVE to drift! I never know where I’m going to find them from year to year. Only if I look for the little rosettes in the fall do I have any hint of where they will take over. Just because they have grown in one area throughout the summer, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in the same place next year. Their little feet like to roam. I treat them the same way I do with foxgloves. I send them packing if I don’t like where they’ve plunked themselves down. When the blooms are finished, I either stack the stems where I want some plants to be next year, or I cut off the dried blooms full of seeds and plant them the following spring, in an attempt to force them to grow where I please. Sometimes that works and sometimes not. That’s what I call laissez-faire disregard.
Wild daisies can also be unwelcome brigands in a manicured, planned bed, but I let some of them stay if otherwise I’d have an empty space, or if I’m waiting for a late riser to come up. The daisy blooms and dies to ugly stems, and then I remove it and the other plant rises to take its place. Usually, though, I don’t keep them underneath open windows, because they smell like dog wee. Sometimes our open pasture is full of them, and then they are pretty to look at, from a distance. They grow in the soil under trees and bushes, so there’s that in their favor, too, especially if a tree or bush blooms at the same time. Then I get to view a complementary double palette of color.
I’m a fan of happenstance in my garden because it’s like getting a present from Mother Nature. I don’t know what it’s going to be or where and I look forward to the surprise every year.
FIELD REPORT FROM THE HERB GARDEN
In the few sunny days we had before another slew of rain slammed down, my sweetheart and I worked out in our various gardens, surrounded by plants and tormented by weeds. We slung away into the “dump it” wheelbarrow the grass that grew anywhere we didn’t want it. I heard the crows broadcasting to each other what we were up to, in case seeds they could purloin later were going to be part of our garden process. Swallows divebombed me because I was working mostly in the herb garden which is in close proximity to their houses, and the bird feeder is located right there. The golden finches, scarlet tanagers, and sparrows must have been salivating in the bushes, starving, because I never saw them.
But I was saving them from death by pruning the evergreen in the middle of the herb garden. I’ve long since forgotten what type it is, if I ever knew. I bought it because it was swirled upward like a Dairy Queen ice cream cone. That lasted only one year because I had no experience sculpting trees. Overestimating my talents, I tried sculpting it myself. The result was sad, indeed. In the ensuing years, I’ve been letting it grow back in hopes it would fill out and look like a real tree. We both tried, the tree and I, but the outcome has been less than we anticipated.
This was the year I had to do SOMETHING. I have noticed all the felines emerging from under the tree with smiles on their faces and feathers in their mouths. The tree provided the perfect hiding place, a little cave next to the trunk up under the bottom branches. There they bided their time until a bird was in the right position, and then, POUNCE!
The first thing I did after my loppers, pruners, and shears visited Mr. Sharpenator, was to sit down on my bucket seat and start eliminating branches, from the bottom up. There were enough feathers in the tree cave to have built a whole nest or two. Thank goodness I was spared seeing birdie skeletons! I raked everything out that had been lodged there. Now for 18 inches up from the ground, all around the tree, is nothing but open space. I like to think the tree likes the air flow now, like when you cut your hair and you feel pounds lighter and can feel the breeze on your neck. The shorn tree can feel the breeze on its trunk.
I stood back and gave it a few more nips and tucks here and there and it looks reasonably the way I envision a tree of its species should look at its age. Its branches aren’t covering up the herbs in the four raised beds around it anymore, so the herbs are happier as well. The lavender doesn’t have to crouch and bend. The oregano doesn’t have to push and shove, then move to new neighborhoods. The herbs can now feel the breeze on their necks as well.
I expect better production from now on. I’ve already clipped and dried the parsley, so the rest of the herbs will have to up their game. The lemon balm and chamomile come next, and the tea leaves need clipped for drying whenever it stops raining long enough. I’ll be making black tea again, with cinnamon, orange peels, and cloves. So yummy! All that’s left to do in the herb garden is to get rid of a bit more uninvited grass, and to plant some herb seeds, both medicinal and cooking herbs, in the beds and pots.
The crows will get excited again seeing me out working, but I will foil their intentions this year, just as I did the felines, with preventative measures–white cloth covers pinned down over the top of the herb seeds I plant–until they are toddlers or maybe even teenagers.
Once the sun comes back in a long stretch, we’ll install the fountain in front of the tree so we can view it from the kitchen window, and the herb garden will be complete, with something beautiful and/or scented blooming there all summer long.
“How could we tire of hope?
–so much is in bud.”
We gardeners on the Oregon Coast have had enough of winter and its rain, rain, rain, all too often combined with hail, snow, gale-force winds and freezing temperatures. Either we don our rain coats, pants, and hats, brave the chill and wet, and do the bare minimum of what needs doing outside, or we stand looking out our windows and sigh, feeling despondent.
Instead, to beat the late winter drear, we could take a step, or several, towards the small joys, while waiting for the great ones, and relish the impermanence of Nature. Behind my window beaded with raindrops, I see the beginning yellow blossoms of the forsythia and the peach blossoms on the quince. Two deep rose camellia flowers have bloomed for a month now on the small bush we planted late last summer.
I see the bare, crimson branches of the red-twigged dogwood, a welcome jolt of blazing red against a dripping grey sky. I observe also the leaves emerging from the ‘Dark Knight’ buddleia, with its promise of deep purple spears, smelling of honey, come summer.
The pansies and primroses bloom a happy hello from their pots on our front porch and the pink and cream-colored hellebores do the same from their bed tucked in behind the barberry bush.
In the back hedge, I witness the pinkish hue of the leafy arrivals of the snowballs, the honeysuckle, and the wild currants, all shouting, “Soon!”
The stalwart daffodils have withstood every weather indignity, several sometimes at once. Alongside them, the nibs of hyacinths and tulips chant, “We are rising—just wait until we rise!”
The birds at the feeders—the chickadees, juncos, and scrub jays, the swarms of robins on the ground and in the sky, and the hummingbirds as hungry for red blossoms as I am—assemble in the herb garden. Any minute now the acrobatic swallows will arrive to give birth and raise their babies.
Everywhere in Oregon now, you can hear frogs croaking in the sodden fields and ditches.
What a relief it is to look with alert eyes and realize something good is happening out there beyond our walls.
Indoors, hands that yearn to be stuck in soil instead busy themselves creating pieces of art for the garden. I create a gazing ball from an old bowling ball, attaching broken pieces of glass and mirror in a pattern that will reflect sunshine and blooms from spring through fall. My husband paints his own version of prayer flags that will festoon the pergola.
As Herman Hesse said in the last century, “It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones…a thousand other tiny things from which one can weave a bright necklace of little pleasures for one’s life.”
I revised this older post first written seven years ago because the message in it is relevant right now–and probably forever.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
–William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
When my husband and I saw the film Invictus seven years ago, at the end of the film, the full-house audience stayed seated until the screen turned black. I like to think everyone was thinking about the message of the story or their memories of the time when apartheid was in full force, not only in South Africa, but here. Or maybe they were thinking how inequality still exists here at home with those who don’t look like us. I hope formulating their intention to change things kept people in their seats.
The poem “Invictus” hung on my classroom wall all my years of teaching, not only as inspiration to the students who may have read it but also for myself. Facing daily adversities requires something a person can grab hold of for strength, and this poem was my reminder that no matter what was done to or around me, I alone governed how I reacted. While we cannot control what is done to us, we are in control of how we respond. This lesson is not easy to learn, taking me at least 55 years before I REALLY got it.
Viewing this film also took me back to the school year of 1979-1980 when one of my students was a foreign exchange student from South Africa. Les was a good-looking, swarthy, sturdily-built lad and much in demand on the football field. In class, he did his assignments and was socially appropriate. He seemed so nice, I wanted to know why he embraced apartheid. Finally, the time came when I could ask him, when my asking would not embarrass him. How could a class of whites who appeared to be well-educated as his father was, for example, continue this racist division I asked him. I wasn’t making comparisons between his country and ours, I assured him, but I wanted to understand. When you know a thing is wrong, why do you keep doing it?
“If we do not keep separate,” he told me,” they will overrun us. They are many and we are few. They will destroy us. We will not have the country we know. Everything we worked for will be gone. I don’t harbor them any ill will. Most people don’t. It’s just better this way.”
I thanked him for answering me honestly. I didn’t debate the issue out of respect for that honesty. Besides, my little arguments would change nothing. But I understood.
Fear, then. Fear keeps us choosing to do the wrong thing. Later, after much reading of enlightened authors and my own life experiences, I learned we do what we do for two reasons. Our choices always boil down to these two reasons: fear or love. Always.
So when I saw Invictus, I thought about Les and wondered how he’d fared in the last 37 years through all the changes in his homeland. I wondered if he became the master of hisfate, the captain of his soul. I wondered if his life has taught him well, and he now bases his actions on love.
I’m just beginning to realize I’m a “slow” person. I take my time to think, to process everything I do before I move forward to action. Although I’ve been like this all my life, for some reason the magnitude of my overall slowness, with the exception of my (sometimes) quick wit in conversation, has just recently dawned on me. My energy level due to many birthdays is waning, causing me to be even slower, and that may have sparked my realization.
My mother told me that I started talking at the age of nine months. However, no one could understand me (I wonder what language I was really speaking? Or was that a function of how I heard things?), so I stopped talking and didn’t start up again until I was a year and a half old.
In high school geometry class, our teacher Mr. Gregory started off the period with a fast thinking exercise with which I could never keep up. So frustrating when I knew I wasn’t stupid and when other students would have the answer the moment after Mr. Gregory stopped talking.
When I was still in my 20’s, a teaching colleague asked me one day why I walked so slowly. I was undone. I hadn’t known there was a preferred pace of walking. I hadn’t known people were watching me walk. I hadn’t felt slow. What’s more, I didn’t really have an answer.
I love to write, but it takes me forever to come to a finished piece that is acceptable to me, and I assume, to others. Other writers can knock off an essay, novel, or poem quickly, but not me.
I have also realized that being slow has aggravated me in all areas of production, all my life, from my walking and exercising speed, to my writing, to personal relationships. While I love being connected with people, especially those who vibrate at a higher level, I function better when I have time to myself. I lose myself when I am constantly engaged with others, going from one event to another. It’s as if the muscle memory in my brain needs time to catch up because it’s used to my slower pace.
A quotation by Hans Selye, CC, endocrinologist, has provided me some explanation and comfort for my need of large amounts of free time and my slowness.
“Find your own stress level—the speed at which you can run toward your own goal. Make sure that both the stress level and the goal are really your own, and not imposed on you by society, for only you yourself can know what you want and how fast you can accomplish it. There is no point in forcing a turtle to run like a racehorse or in preventing a racehorse from running faster than a turtle because of some moral obligation. The same is true of people.”
While I enjoy prancing like a racehorse from time to time, the truth is that what I need to survive is a slower pace. Now I know why. While others are passing me by, instead of wishing I could be as swift, I plan to embrace being a turtle.
My friend Carol and I got together recently for a joyous reunion, joyous because we have known one another since the first grade in our rural Northeastern Oregon town and when old friends reunite it feels good. While we were together, another friend of Carol’s joined us, and as the stories began to flow, she shared her experience of reuniting with the classmates of her youth. Musing aloud, we wondered at the phenomenon of getting back together with our former classmates.
As a former teacher, I am enjoying the same connection phenomenon as with my classmates. It’s a though students and teacher have become the same age and revel in reconnecting just as much as former classmates.
Why is it that we so enjoy seeing each other once again and it feels like we never were apart, even though we might not have connected over the span of 30, 40, or 50 years? Carol, her friend, and I speculated but never really came to a definitive answer. We just knew that this reunification happens, and in most cases, it’s lovely. Another one of those mysteries that we enjoy despite knowing why.
Then today I was reading No Ordinary Time by Jan Phillips and came across this:
“Quantum nonlocality teaches us that particles that were once together in an interaction continue to respond to each other no matter how many miles apart, and at a rate faster than the speed of light.”
(This also explains why I can sometimes know a person is going to call, write, or somehow get in touch with me.)
She continues: “Physicist Menas Kafatos writes: ‘Nature has shown us that our concept of reality, consisting of units that can be considered as separate from each other, is fundamentally wrong.’ Since we are composed of cells, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, this makes each of us part of one indivisible whole, interconnected and interdependent.”
So now we have an answer, both metaphysical and scientific–which I believe more and more are one and the same. We come together because once we meet, we are a part of the other, and the other, us. It feels good when our molecules come home to roost.
How Did I End Up Here?
I didn’t plan to be a gardener. In fact, my senior year of university I remember vowing to never live anywhere near a farm, where I’d lived through my teenage years, ever again. No more hands chapped, chaffed, and stained by soil or Black Walnut skins, no more broken, chipped fingernails, no more gloves with the ends of the fingers worn through, no more back sore from stooping and bending, no more picking hazelnuts up from the ground and stuffing them into my mother’s ruined nylon stockings, then hung to dry in the attic. No more sweating in noonday sun, picking raspberries and being scratched into a bloody mess. I even spurned one boyfriend’s proposal because I knew he would be a lifelong farmer. It would be the literary life for me—books, theater, symphony—and my life as a teacher. So it’s very curious, indeed, how I became the avid home gardener I am today.
At first, there was no place to BE a gardener in the town where I began my career. The weather in Southeast Oregon’s High Desert was not much conducive to farming in those days before backyard hoop houses. No one I met there had a greenhouse. But my hands and eyes got itching to play in the dirt and see things grow, even to pick those wretched raspberries. I began asking around and observed that some people did have gardens, and that they grew short season crops like radishes, green beans, and peas. I had a huge back yard and what else was I going to do with it? I’d missed the fresh vegetables every summer from my parents’ garden. If I hurried, between the last frost and blazing 100-degree weather, I could maybe get in some lettuce and broccoli. I, too, could spend time chopping up the hard, reddish-brown slugs of the region. The jars on the canning shelves in the basement began filling, as well as the freezer.
There still were not many flowers, only lawns and bushes, because, well…rattlesnakes, who hung out in the shade. The previous owner had planted phlox along the fence line, and those were flowers enough for me, then.
Ten years later, I had moved as far west as a person can go and still be on land, surrounded by lush greenery, and I thought I was in Heaven. I could really garden here! Once I bought a house, I put in a small garden, much to the consternation of my neighbor, who thought lawns looked much more dignified. He protested, à haute voix, to anyone who would listen, the sins of my garden fence. My gifts of fresh produce when summer came, hushed his tone to a quiet grumbling. I moved once again to a house with a hillside behind me, where I envisioned terraces of burgeoning flowers and a vegetable garden. Through trial and error, I learned how best to cultivate flowers and food a mile from the ocean, what grew and what didn’t and what worked to keep deer away (nothing, short of a shotgun).
Now I live inland on a lovely, flat acreage, where my husband and I grow flowers, small fruits, and vegetables; where we have a small orchard of fruit trees that give us more apples than we know what to do with every autumn. I am working in a garden of some sort from February to December. So much for young adult proclamations!
Why am I a gardener now? I have the genes of my father and his father before him. I also believe that the beauty of flowers and the magic of growing things wormed its way into my childhood brain until it was a part of me and an addiction I couldn’t and no longer wanted to battle. I can’t exist or imagine a life without sunshine and fresh air, my hands soaking up the healing microbes in the soil as I work. My guess is once you’ve spent time as a child in a garden, you’re a goner.
Sprayed across the upper kitchen cabinets,
the blender, the toaster,
and the counter top.
Chunks ice-green, limp and sweaty, cling
to my knees, toes, arms, and hair.
Nest in my cleavage.
Flop on the floor.
Soak in salt water.
Later, the fragrance of fermentation
(as when my father says,
“Pull my finger”)
Permeates the garage.
I cut short my errands past the crock,
Become a mouth breather.
Six weeks passes like eternity.
My father grew up next to a family of 11
who lived in a one-room cabin,
ate sauerkraut all winter
from a Hogshead barrel.
Still, there’s a reason
My ancestors celebrated
The new year with pork roast,
Potatoes and sauerkraut.
I can taste the salty succulence now.
Worth all the slicing, dicing,
Brewing and stink.