While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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The Pomeranian in the Pond

This June has been hot and dry; so dry that the water in my fish pond evaporates noticeably on a daily basis.  I’ve had to top it multiple times this month which is something usually not needed until late summer or early fall.  Another result of this heat is rapid, lush growth of pond plants. The fish seem to love this bonus – extra places to hide from the sun, the heron, and an occasional raccoon.  This lush growth makes more work for me, however, in that the filters need to be cleaned frequently.  The water I use in cleaning is then given to plants in the garden.  And any gardener knows that the result of fish water on plant growth is phenomenal!

Anyway, as I was cleaning out the filter recently, I was reminded of a hot, dusty day last August and an encounter I had with my neighbor’s little dog.  The tiny, high-strung creature had wandered into my yard while I was working.  I had not seen him but I heard a rustling sound near the pond and assumed that The Squirrel had returned to bury peanuts in the moss bed I was struggling to create.  I was working with my back to the pond, and was on my knees and mostly hidden under a large Leycesteria, so the nervous little guy didn’t see me.  I backed out from under the plant quickly, turned around and stood up fast with the intent of scaring off the damn squirrel.  But it wasn’t The Squirrel.  I was stunned by the sight of my neighbor’s tense, shaky little Pomeranian.  Stunned because he wearing a pastel pink jacket (in summer!) and sported a large pink bow on his head.  The bow was so large the dog’s ears were pushed slightly askew and stood straight out from his head.  He looked like a deranged Easter bunny.  We stared at each other for a short moment and then he decided to bark – at me – in my own yard.  If you are familiar with small dogs such as this, you are aware that once they start barking (in a high-pitched squeaky voice that sounds like a toy being jumped on repeatedly by a kid with nothing better to do but drive you crazy) they don’t let up.  And he didn’t.  More barking, louder barking, ensued.  I wanted to calm him a bit so I talked to him, and walked towards him.  This agitated him even more and he began to hop up and down as he barked.  But his hopping took him close to the edge of the pond, and this made me as nervous as he was.  In a slightly louder voice, I said “Stop!”  He didn’t.  So I knelt down, extended my hand, and said in as soothing a voice as I could muster, “You’re ok little guy.  Calm down.”  Any other dog would have calmed down or come to me, or maybe even run back home, but not my neighbor’s dog.  My attempt at kindness, compassion, and friendliness was apparently so threatening that he barked himself right into the pond.

Between the poor pup’s thick fur, his jacket, the many plants stuck to him, and the splashing fountain, getting him out of the pond was a chore.  And it didn’t help that his legs were moving faster than an electric beater on high speed.  After three disastrous attempts to pull him out, I resorted to using the large fish net to scoop him out of the water.  But this frightened him even more because he couldn’t figure out that the huge, black net coming towards him was actually going to save him.  Finally, I was able to bring him close enough to me to grab onto his soaked jacket and pull him out of the pond.  I held the dripping, frantic little dog in my arms and stood up.  His pink bow was askew, his fur was matted with plants, his ears stood straight up and twitched frantically, and he smelled like the wet, fishy, hysterical dog he was.  I looked at the poor, shaking creature in my arms and thought, he looks like a hung-over Easter bunny who’s had one hell of a morning.  Then, to add insult to injury, he slipped out of my arms and landed with a thud on the terrace.  Before I could react, he ran through the hedge and back home.

I haven’t seen my neighbor’s dog since that sad August day last year.  This seems to be a pattern in my garden – animals come to visit but seldom return.  Only the resilient or demented stay around.  But that’s ok, because I have many unfinished projects calling my name and no time to play in the pond.


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The Real Problem with Gossip

As I worked in the Gardens in Carkeek Park this morning, I overheard two people talking about someone I assumed to be a close mutual acquaintance.  The two seemed agitated – sweeping hand gestures, raised voices, rapid speech – all the signs of irritation, if not anger.  I tried to close my ears to the diatribe and managed to ignore most of it, but the few words that broke the peace of an otherwise gentle morning were harsh and sounded, ultimately, like one long complaint about the third person’s personality.  Ouch.

All people gossip at times.  Psychologists, sociologists, and others who study human social behavior as a profession explain gossip as being motivated by any number of multiple causes: a means to differentiate oneself from a disliked or misunderstood person; a non-confrontational way to even a score; a way to demonstrate affinity between two people by excluding a third; a means of ostracizing someone disliked by one or more members of a group; or simply a way to cause harm.  Of course, I have no idea which if any of the above reasons motivated the conversation between my garden visitors this morning, but it certainly sounded like the last one.

Gossip almost always results in unintended and unforeseen harm.  For example, a scenario among 3 mutually acquainted people could run as follows: Person 1 has old resentments against Person 3, and decides to share with Person 2 some of the aspects of 3’s personality that 1 doesn’t like.  Unforeseen by Person 1, 2 decides to act upon that information and subsequently treats 3 in a confusing and hurtful manner for many years. Person 3 becomes tired of the treatment and asks 2 for an explanation of the behavior.  Person 2 tells Person 3 that he is acting on information 1 told him years ago.  When the behavior doesn’t stop, 3 confronts 2 again, an argument ensues, 2 demands an apology from 3 which 3 believes is not warranted and does not give, and 2 terminates the relationship.

Who is responsible for the dissolution of the relationship?  Clearly, Person 1 started the process by his gossip.  But Person 2 made the decision to act upon that gossip in a malicious manner and end the relationship because Person 3 wouldn’t apologize for the confrontation.  Person 3 should not have allowed the behavior to continue for years; he should have opposed it at its inception and asked for a meeting between all three parties.  Or should Person 3 have taken a different path entirely and walked away from the situation rather than confronting Person 2?   If all three individuals feel that they have acted appropriately, can the problem be resolved?  The problem started with gossip.  Gossip, which may have been innocently intended, caused irreparable harm.  That is the real problem with gossip.

Yes, we are only human.   All humans make mistakes and some mistakes have long-term consequences.  But how we learn from those mistakes, how we respond to the damage done to us and that we have done, is the true measure of a person.  As my grumpy Buddhist teacher once told me, if you do no more than live your entire life by the precept “Do no harm”, you will have lived a good life.  To that I would add, Do no Harm and Spread no Gossip.



The Spider Dance

This has proven to be an unusual late spring in that it feels like late summer; dryness in the air, dust on the gloves, and grey in the sky.  Although we’re not in summer yet, August looms near.  A sure sign that seasons are askew is the prevalence of spiders around my house and garden.  If my memory is correct, this phenomenon occurs more frequently in late summer and early fall, or at least it appears so.  Did I miss a month this year?  Granted, I’ve been distracted but this is odd.  Spiders and their small, stringy webs (not the big, beautiful orb webs seen in autumn) seem to be on every plant in my garden and hanging from every gutter and fascia of my house.  Each morning that I go to work outside I am greeted by a face-full of silk.  I don’t appreciate it even though I tell myself that spiders are beneficial creatures.  I know this.  I know that they eat aphids and other pests and I’ve seen more than one wasp trapped in an autumn web, but this isn’t autumn and I’m not ready to deal with spiders this early in the morning.  I tell myself that I like spiders as I brush a web from my sleeve.  I tell myself that I need spiders in my garden as I walk through the stringy mess and one falls around my neck and arms and OH GOD IT’S ON MY FACE!   Now I’m sure I feel something crawling down my back underneath my shirt and ARRRGH!!  I scream!  There’s one crawling down my bare arm right now!  Before I can get control of myself, I am running in place, jumping up and down and frantically flapping my arms around my head and neck and trying not to scream too loud because I know the poor spider is already flying over the hedge at an incredible speed (I didn’t mean to do that) and my neighbor isn’t awake yet but now IT’S REALLY CRAWLING DOWN MY BACK!

At this point, the poor spider is not only long gone but quite dead, I’ve had my exercise for the morning, and my neighbor is awake.  Well, it could be worse.  You could have a spider crawling down your back RIGHT NOW!

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A Rose without a Scent? Flowers that Glow in the Dark? Stop Messing with those Genes!

My latest goal is to learn the basics of genetics, which should keep me busy for the next 20 or so years.  This complex, intricate, delicately balanced, meticulous process is the force behind heredity, the engine of life.  Through genetics we learn the process by which new life is created and that this process is fundamentally orderly and systematic.  We learn the elegant simplicity of this orderliness by seeing that life starts from the smallest, simplest units – molecules – to the largest living organism on our planet, a fungus in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon.

From a string of amino acids to polypeptides that make proteins, we learn that the information of life is stored in DNA, which is transferred to RNA and from there transferred to proteins that do the work of life.  Proteins are as versatile as they are essential; they become specialized by their shape – the function of a protein is primarily determined by its shape.  Proteins hold DNA together, they transport other molecules, they perform mechanical work, and they function as signal receivers or receptors.  The symmetry of this system of transferring the information of life – from DNA to RNA to proteins – is clean and efficient.  In a word, beautiful.

In addition to the above, the system is self-correcting.  While mistakes in DNA replication are unavoidable (from a variety of causes) and occur at an approximate rate of 1 error in every 10,000 base pairs, this miraculous system has mechanisms in place to catch and correct these errors.  Mismatch repair enzymes recognize and repair most errors that occur during the process of replicating not only base pairs of enzymes but of the sequence of those base pairs.  Those errors not corrected are called mutations, some of which can benefit the organism but more often have serious, harmful consequences.  We see the result of these errors in disease, malformations, or early death of the organism.

This system has given us the seemingly infinite variety of life here on Earth.  Life has taken countless different forms over eons, each working in harmony with another, and if left alone will continue to create new life in subtle, harmonious forms for eons to come.  Humans use selective breeding of plants and animals to our purpose, and often without considering the harmful consequences to the organism in mind (note the prevalence of disease and/or malformations in different dog breeds).   But is our species so important as to require a flower that glows in the dark?  Do we really need a rose bred so that it makes a picture-perfect cut flower for weeks in the vase and without a flaw on the foliage – but no scent?

Our fascination with selective-breeding and genetic modification seems to be guiding us towards destructive results.  The prevalence of dogs with hip dysplasia or certain cancers is well known.  Studies have shown that health problems throughout the animal kingdom occur from eating foods that have been modified with genes from other species of plants, or even from fish or other animals.  Push-back from groups that produce these foods has been supported by their own studies and phenomenal amounts of money.  Who are we to believe?  What are we to believe?

To me, the answer is clear.  The system of genetics, as originally created, has done well by this planet so far.  We would be wise to allow it to continue unmolested.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something.