This (very) little light of mine

Plants and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. One needs to be in a certain place (both literally and figuratively) to set down roots, to care for something other than yourself, to nurture a thing that takes years in the offing and may or may not say “goodbye cruel world!”, committing herbicide in a strong crossbreeze or going all brown-fronded if you decide to take a few days extra vacation. In my last days in New York City I was *getting* nearer, intellectually, to that place where I yearned for green things and it was perhaps this gentle metamorphoses that finally drew me out of the city and back down south. In that final Brooklyn apartment, a “garden apartment” (read: deepest darkest basement), I kept a tired philodendron right up next to the window. Every day the sun’s slow march up the narrow skyway of our block had the plant pressing its leaves against the wavery old window panes like a little match girl in reverse. What warmth and light there is… out there. City darkness descending at 4pm had me dreaming lustily of golden mote-filled southern farmhouse afternoons surrounded by blooming Meyer Lemon trees and gardenias in winter as if “The South” was some sort of magical giant tropical jungle (which it kind of is) and “my farmhouse” was some sort of airy glassine hothouse (which it decidedly is not). Our house was built in 1895 and, in the manner of houses built before the advent of electricity or running water, it is sited on the highest natural elevation of our land and oriented exactly due east/west. These simple, profound spatial choices make it so that any water runs down and away from our house (no flooding, ever) and that, since the sun travels directly overhead, our house is often 10 or 15 degrees cooler than it is outside. This is just the sort of brilliant old-fashioned use-case practicality that thrills my soul when I encounter it in the wild. How fascinating! How ingenious, you builders of yore! How fortunate we are when the power goes out, say, for a week in an epic summer storm, and we sit, cool as cucumbers, as modern houses with their giant south facing windows and sturdy retaining walls heat up like peeps in a microwave.

The thrill is gone, however, absurd nostalgic feelings of superiority short lived, when one realizes that what this sunshine situation ALSO means is that while our house stays easy breezy day in and day out, direct sunlight shines in the front windows for only an hour or so after rising until the sun meets the roofline and then again for about an hour in the back windows as it retires for the evening. Needless to say that isn’t NEARLY enough to support my own personal citrus grove (I know, I know,  a concerto is played on the world’s tiniest violin). But it IS enough to support a hearty menagerie of general shade lovers wrangled by myself by hook or by DIY crook into the few areas that are treated to the brief patches of sunlight that meander across the walls throughout the day. Several feet of a patch of wall perpendicular to a window in my bedroom gets a generous slant from noon onward… so I built a vertical hanging shelf based on this tutorial using some super old boards and rope that happened to be lying around in the shed.A row of Sweetheart’s tiny succulents and divisions of happy shady growers stands at attention in a motley collection of narrow vessels on the windowsill in the laundry room, gilded for a brief but adequate time in the 3pm-ish range.My search for vertical solutions led me down vintage-style hanging planter rabbit holes, which led me to discover that even the simplest ones were selling for, like, $50 on Etsy, which led me to my first attempt at macrame (decent! I should have gotten special string for the purpose, the twine I had on hand is a little… hairy… but considering the whole thing was basically free? Bon.) using a turned wooden bowl I inherited from Rav as the base……gets suspended in the small patch of diffuse light by the kitchen sink, alongside a mother-in-law’s-tongue (still there, happy…actually very much like my own mother-in-law, these little pals are lovely + easy going and have the best time quietly doing their thing pretty much anywhere where no one will bother them), a prayer plant cutting (no longer there, not bright enough), and a basil start (never had a future there other than as pesto, finally deposited into the herb garden/in my belly):***Note: these are not blog photos! Well, they are, I guess, exactly that, by default of being en blog, but, they aren’t, like, “styled” or whatever that is or means, that striving perfection that might keep people from posting in places for years at a time because oh look at that it’s actual life… see: drying dishes, old tupperware, soda stream, Sweetheart’s aeropress (not the photogenic Chemex set there, just so), an ancient sponge used only for wiping up babe’s post-prandial mat, and the cluttered little hook under the cabinet where I hang recipes from a butterfly clip when I’m cooking to keep my v. limited counter space free from books + papers (from this picture it looks like I was last making an almond cake). Eff it. ***The little landing at the top of the stairs gets the best light in the house, doubled and reflected off the white standing seam roof of the front porch, it’s the only actual direct sunlight we get all day, and it’s absolutely glorious in this slender little zone for a few morning hours. Three plant stands, a small plant table, a terrarium on the floor, and the cat (obviously) soak up any rays they possibly can while they can. It’s like plant YOLO. This is where I put green things that maybe, possibly, just perhaps are inching towards that tropical dreamscape of higher light + care requirements… palm types, jungle types, and an eight year old fiddle leaf fig impulse purchased from the Ikea in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Fiddle Leaf Fig just put out a new branch WHILE WE WERE OUT OF TOWN.

Oh ho ho! My how the tables have turned! I find myself completely surrounded by green things, each with its own distinct personality, each thriving in its own special zone, each chosen to thrive despite perhaps less-than-ideal conditions. Like all things: you might not always get the heady jasmine and winter clementines of your dreams, but finding what fits where and working to make beauty green up and grow in the space you have… well, that’s pretty darn nice too. Or, like someone once said better than me: once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. Or, perhaps even more to the point: you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.

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The Tree Farm

ChristmasTreeGeese Back in the sun-drenched wilds of August, I met my dear friend Jennis at the brewery just up the road for a beer. It was one of those slant-light-hot-in-the-sun summer’s end late afternoon that feels endless and magical and lovely and surrounds everyone who basks in its light with an aura of possibility. Jennis had brought a friend and her partner and we spoke passionately about the proposed natural gas pipeline that will probably be destroying our valley soon and about history and land and watersheds and adventure and how to ride in a truck with dudes so they’ll take you seriously (good advice to have in one’s dungaree pocket) and somehow the conversation wound its way around to the family business in the wilds of the valley west of us: a Christmas Tree Farm! What an enterprise, what a place to grow up… what magic! So, we sat in the setting sun surrounded by good vibes lifting our glasses and saying: when it comes time for Christmas (which is most certainly impossibly far away) we’ll have to go to your farm to get our tree this year. And, as time moves ever swifter, this past weekend the moment was nigh, with a chill drizzle in the air, for us to hit the roads and head to the great river’s headwaters and grab bow saws, hanging all in a row from wooden pegs, and walk the fields full of soft-needled, bushy white pines (my favorite, and somewhat of a rarity), Jennis and her sweetheart and two excellent children, adept with saws and ideas and silent stalking like ninja-elfs (see below), discussing the necessary merits of the ideal tree: must not have too many holes (but cannot be too perfect), must be somewhat scraggly (but not too scraggly), must have adequate spots for larger ornaments, must also have adequate room for many presents, bonus points for a birds nest. Geese overhead, the air grey and misty and magical and lovely in its own blustery right, merry Christmas, and god bless ye hairy gentlemen, it’s time for hot toddys.

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From Blossoms

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It couldn’t seem like better timing, just as the bee knows when the nectar flows and the hummingbird passes by in his yearly stride, to simply take an impromptu left instead of a right and go down the beautiful winding road that takes me to the peach orchard. As if guided by an unseen compass, the call of the peach, the country song on the radio “Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars/Pointing me on my way into your loving arms/This much I know is true/That God blessed the broken road/That led me straight to you” GAH what is this…country music radio is KILLING it these days for me.

It’s peach season, and it’s wedding season, and it’s adventure season, and it’s firefly season, and it’s baseball season and I am surrounded by love. Coming back from another sweet + heart-full trip south, seeing one of my dearests free to be true and honest in sorrow and joy and held up, that honesty celebrated, by the love she chose (a goosebump, a boom, a fist pump, a blossoming garden, full of possibility and hope, this is just right)…and now packing for the great trip north, kicked off by a celebration of one of the greatest loves I’ve ever seen, pure and fierce and kind and smelling of sage and wildflower honey… So. In with the enamel coffee cups and the scarves and the horizontally striped shirts, go a gallon of peach cider, six impulse peach donuts, and two pecks of glorious dusty skinned peaches. Coming with me to spread their southern sweetness, to hold in our hands and adore, from blossoms to the sweet improbability of something so perfect in spite of everything else. So this. This poem seems to be just the heart of it. The. whole. shebang.

From Blossoms

by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

On Plants

azaleasI’ve always loved plants, flowers, blooms. Made forts in boxwoods, learned and loved the evocative names Mama had planted in the gracious swooping beds surrounding our house, onomatopoetic almost, Bleeding Hearts, Johnny Jump-ups, Naked Ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Poet’s Laurel, St. John’s Wort, Harry Lauder Walking Stick. I held dear The Secret GardenPeter Rabbit, and a book called Flower Fairies of the Garden (my copy of which my Mama brought back to me recently for use as a research tome). I’ve always loved plants, but it’s been like how you love Paris or how you love Vermeer or how you love Virginia Woolf. You love them from afar, through the lens of where you are, they’re distant, somehow, you appreciate their beauty and softness and worldly majesty when you are lucky enough to brush by it, but Paris is not yours, the Vermeer isn’t in your care, and you will never truly understand Virginia Woolf, no matter how many times you re-read To The Lighthouse. I’ve always felt the same way about plants. I love them, but that they are not meant for me to understand. And when I try, one of us usually ends up a shriveled brown mess.tulipdewI think this has a lot to do with our relationship with time. Talking about this crazy winter, the forsythias straggled in just last week, leggy and blown like a horse ridden to far too fast. In deciding whether to cut it back drastically or let time take its course, the words got tossed around we’ll just have to see how they do next year. It’s unfathomable for a person of 25 to be thinking about what a plant is going to do a year from now when they don’t know what they’re going to be doing six months from now. The rare young birds that do have very old souls indeed. You have to be in a place where you’re ready to put your own roots down before you can be worrying about anyone elses.daffodil

Understanding a plant takes commitment, the delicate pruning of the lilac, the blooming off of new-wood-old-wood argument of the Azalea (what, that takes 3 years to understand?), and the dauntless perennial bulbs that are springing to life right now, a testament to the staying power of loveliness and perhaps proof of the rightness of civilization. Miss McKay says that her mama told her that if you see daffodils in the country, it means a house used to stand there, the plants become the record of the people, and are still there after decades. And this is the, ahem, root of it. The best kind of plants have a kind of permanence (like Paris, like Miss Virginia) that, literally, takes root and hangs on for years, you are their steward, you have to be in it for the long haul, and if you do your job well, the roots you put down will outlast you. I discovered a stand of daffodils in the back woods, near where some mysterious stone columns have sat, fallen for years like an Appalachian Ozymandius, the dark green shoots bursting from bramble, proof that someone cared here. And I care here now.

Pollen

2014beepollen1This has been our first bee-winter, and, as the weather channel fear mongerers/anyone with eyeballs can tell you, it’s been a real beast. Weeks at a time stretched with the hives covered in snow, with me just watching from the kitchen sink, hoping it was like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” when they live in the rickety store-bought-wood house in town which, unlike Pa’s hand chinked log cabin in the Big Woods, was always drafty and freezing UNTIL the huge snow, when the drifts rose to the top windows and the girls were finally snug as bugs in rugs… or snug as bees in a hive? Aaaanyway, when the temps slowly started to rise, we saw them making forays out of the hives, sweet bumbling little flights on wobbly wings, proof that they had made it through their own long, hard winter. And, bless them, they would return to the hive, woozy, riding low in the water, laden with pollen. Full saddlebags of bright yellow alder and maple’s greenish grey or dun. In the spring, this pollen is used to make bee-bread, a heady ambrosia of pollen’s protein, a little bit of honey, and some probiotics from the bees themselves that is the stuff that baby bees are nursed on to rear them strong and mighty in time for the coming nectar flow. So, seeing our bees heavy with pollen, we knew that the Queen was holding court, and that the next generation of honeybees are being groomed to flourish. Signs of spring indeed.014beepollen32014beepollen2

Lucky Spring

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Found this little guy in a patch of dark rich soil that had accumulated at the corner of the woodshed, in theory from years of sawdust and leaf mold and right in the spot where the badger knocked over the grill last summer. Maybe that was the tipping point. Ash and leaf and earth and dirt and dust become soil. It takes a while for the hard clay of this ground to turn into the kind of fertile anything that will encourage growth beyond wild asters, but, like most things, with the right combination of work and the fortune of circumstance small wonders can spring forth. Can you call it luck? I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that a tiny patch of delicate clover sprung from the nothing of a cool and shady previously inhospitable corner of my world, or that I noticed the little shoots yesterday in the midst of my big-doing-striding-purposefully-around the domain rehanging a broken clothesline and picking up the wreckage of winter… and that the tiny majesty stopped me in my tracks and I turned around to bend over the patch and take in its sweet small gentleness, and among them, there was this: a tiny four leafed clover. Good things are happening and good things are going to keep happening.

Another Meadow

jaysmeadowThis picture doesn’t even begin to do my dear friend Jay’s meadow justice. His new house (which feels ancient and lived in and almost smoky with tangible good vibes even though they just moved in) is bermed into a hillside and the sloping greens on all sides are simply filled to bursting with wild baby’s breath, black eyed susan’s, zinnias, cosmos, feathery coreopsis, plain little daisies, queen anne’s lace, wild yarrow, sunflowers, branching asters, and the whole thing is chock full of bees. He planted it all, wide strides and a linen bag of seeds at his hip, feeding a rain of possibility across the fall-dark naked earth in last year’s chill, and now it’s this. To me it feels like magic, but he’s the kind of man who makes you see that magic like this beauty is just intention with a touch of wonder. After our last visit, just as we were leaving, his sun-kissed bride ran out of the house with one of her precious jars and a pair of Japanese shears in hand and said you must take flowers with you, take as many as you can. These are my kind of people, in every possible way.jayscosmos