While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Canyon de Chelly, Chinle, Arizona

Red and yellow rock, white sky, green trees dusty and stunted; red rock ruins bleached beige by an inexorable sun.  It’s so hot sweat dries as soon as it appears.  My clothes are bone dry and etched with dust.  Red dust fills the cracks on the path and the lines on my skin.  Water traces a thin red line as it runs down my hand.  The soil is so dry water rests as tiny beads upon its surface.  I understand how a flash flood can come out of a clear white sky – out of a cloudless sky.  There is nothing here to hold water, and if rain falls some distance away it stays on the soil surface, rushing down narrow canyons and ravines leaving just dark stains behind.  It is over as quickly as it started.

We climb a trail with our Navajo guide, Harold, who takes us to ancient honeycombed ruins.  We look inside openings; we climb ladders and look down through absent rooftops into homes long since abandoned.  Small people lived here.  The rooms are small and the ceilings short.  I imagine families cooking, children playing, laughter filling the cavernous village, and the quiet padding of soft-soled shoes as children run through the narrow spaces of the settlement.  Their homes were built into the canyon walls, in the deep shade of overhanging ledges.  Ingenious water collection methods demonstrate that even a thousand years ago water was scarce.  I feel slightly intrusive, like a large clumsy visitor who tries to make herself less conspicuous among the delicate artifacts of a family I barely know.  My curiosity overcomes my discomfort and I follow our guide as we examine the remains of a fire pit.  Tiny bones, corn cobs, bits of pottery and wood; life here was lived as fully as in any modern town.

We leave the dark, cool safety of the ruin and walk into the bright searing heat of late afternoon.  It’s a long hike back to the jeep, past Spider Rock – the 800 foot monolith of red sandstone.  This towering rock is scared to the Dine’ – Spider Woman makes her home at the very top of the tower.  From a distance it looks smooth and accessible, but not welcoming.  I imagine that she would protect her turf from invaders with ease.

Night at our lodge.  We walk out into the black and silver speckled world and sit on a smooth, rounded rock.  The Milky Way is clearer than I have ever seen – so little moisture in the air that the stars look close and touchable.  A spiral path of our galaxy invites me to jump up and walk along it.  It takes no stretch of imagination to understand why myths and gods came to be.  Language is utterly inadequate when compared to a clear desert night sky.  All I can do is feel it.

Canyon de Chelly is a place of stunning beauty, immense heat, omnipresent dust, and universal language – the language of something primal, experiential, and inherently understood and unvoiced.  Something so old it can’t be forgotten, even as it cannot be remembered.


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Travel: Thoughtful gardens and productive walks – nothing more.

I follow a stone path through shaded gatherings of moss and fern.  A tall canopy of maples protects the soft, subtle hues of green from a hard burn of sun.  Smooth, rounded stones guide the way and remind the visitor to watch closely the path and surroundings.  I cross over a pond on a stone bridge and peer into the welcome of a small pagoda.  It invites me to sit for a moment before moving on.  The unyielding heat of day follows along above as I walk the path and it strikes fast as an insult as I leave the shade.   Out in the sun and humidity stands Aconitum napellus, Monk’s Hood, in full bloom.  Beautiful color; deep rich blue, difficult to ignore.  I think that we admire the beauty of poisonous plants much the same way we care for people who have harmed us – from a safe distance.  Sometimes distance is all that is needed.

I follow a manicured path to a garden of meticulously pruned boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, and walk the pattern with amusement.  I appreciate the plant but I won’t grow it.  Boxwood needs to be tended but it doesn’t demand, as some other plants do, as some people do.  I think of Prunus laurocerasus, English Laurel, and the word bully comes to mind.  Boxwood is a bit kinder; asks a bit less in time and effort.  It asks something that can’t be misunderstood as a demand.  A small amount of kindness goes a long way, and sometimes a request is just a request.

A magnolia garden provides a grand sweeping flourish, like a ball room full of gowns in whites and pinks and purples – a full skirt of a garden, almost gaudy.  Nothing concealed, nothing obscured resides in this primitive genus.  What you see is what you get.  It is not hard to appreciate such a plant.  Its flowers seem as sincere and open as an act of kindness.  ‘Come here, look close; I’m as perfect as I appear.’  Large, glossy leaves alternate along sturdy stems.  It is a beautiful tree that sometimes causes extreme reactions in those who see it.  Magnolias sometimes carry the burden of negative association upon their limbs, as if we take something personally when logic tells us otherwise.  Sometimes a tree is just a tree.

In a morning of shimmering heat and dust-dry air, I followed a winding path among cactus and palms, leafless trees, aloes and agaves.  Heat and aridity have dictated these shapes and forms; survivors of an environment honed to uniqueness by minimal sustenance and extended paucity.  Few blooms lingered from earlier in the year, but those that persisted were beautiful in their symmetry.  Pure colors – yellows and reds – answer the intrinsic call to reproduce.  ‘Look at me!’ ‘Come my way!’  ‘For a good time . . .’ we know the rest.  I respond to cactus and succulents for the same reason I respond to stone; timelessness makes sense.  Long before I visited this garden, and long after I leave, this place will persist.  These plants, these rocks, this dry air and stark, pale sky – indifferent to my presence.  As it should be.  Indifferent, but not untouched.  I’m careful where I step and I hope others are, as well.  The damage we do in a short time can be enormous.  Think of the damage we do from just one word – one sentence.  A plant can survive a deep cut or the loss of a large limb but it will struggle afterwards.  We can survive a deep wound or a life-changing loss and we struggle.  But, as with all beings, we adapt.  What choice do we have?  We adapt and if we are wise, we improve.  We find genuine happiness.

I walked to a bench and sat down.  The many shades of green answered the clear, pale blue of the sky.  Not a cloud to be seen.  I wondered about the evolutionary paths these plants have followed; the animals and insects that have evolved in tandem; those that will fail and those that will survive.

And then I knew, sometimes a garden is just a garden.

Gardens visited:  Missouri Botanical Garden; Gregorian Garden in Bath, England; Balboa Park Desert and Old Cactus Gardens, San Diego


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August Theme: Travel

Costa Rica; Monteverde Cloud Forest

Have you walked through a cloud?  Have you walked on ground soft as moss and felt buoyant in heavy, damp air?  Did you imagine a forest silent and calm yet found it filled with movement and sound?  Did you walk out of the tyrannical heat of a late morning sun and into a welcoming dark so deep your breath stops for an instant?

Maybe you thought, as I did, that nothing could surpass the beauty of your native forests.  Maybe you felt that no other place could match the inherent strength of a redwood grove, the calm beauty of a rainforest, or the abundant energy of a Douglas fir setting.  Perhaps you believed, as I did, that the colors and shapes you would soon encounter would match the pictures you had seen of plant life in a cloud forest.

You would be surprised.

I walked into the forest and immediately, reflexively, ducked my head.  What was there to bump it on?   Dark.  Ambient space, dark and dense.  Warm heavy air dripped down upon me.  My clothes, already damp with sweat, became wet with cloud.  Moist fog slightly cooled the heat of day, but only slightly.  Breathing became a bit easier.  Above me, giant leaves cupped and curled towards earth and guided the flow of water into the dark space below.  Efficient.  I tried to brush away the mist surrounding me, but no perceptible clearing occurred.   Water trickled down my skin, down leaves, down vines – down the smooth bark of giant trees.  A walk along the dark path brought blasts of unexpected color in small, startling hues of reds, oranges, and yellows. The colors hit my eyes like a blow.  Flowers of playful shapes and candy colors – remarkable beauty in creative form.  The world looked and smelled green.

Our group walked in and out of shadow throughout our hike.  When we reached a break in the canopy, on our way to the zip line, my daughter and her friends were impressed with the noon sun – we cast almost no shadow.   Costa Rica is the closest we have been to the equator.

For most of the group, the zip line through the canopy of this lush forest was the high point of their tour.  For a few of us, however, nothing surpassed our walk through this primitive, sensual environment.  I still have dreams of the experience.

If you have the opportunity to visit this welcoming, peaceful country, do not miss the Cloud Forest of Monteverde.  This community offers comfortable hotels, beautiful scenery, wonderful coffee, ample hiking, and an artisan cooperative with hand-made crafts.

But most memorable – a walk through the Cloud Forest.

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August Theme: Travel

British Columbia, 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s.

1980’s: Walk along Commercial Drive in Vancouver and you enter the heart of Little Italy – the land of strong coffee, rich food, and flirtatious men.  Fun and memorable, the Drive in the 1980’s was a lively district of Mediterranean languages and cultures, and outstanding food.  The best sauteed lemon vegetables and the second best coffee I’ve ever tasted were from Café Calabria, served to me by an attractive dark-haired man who treated me (and all the other women in the café) as if I had stepped right off the big screen and directly into his life.  He received a large tip.

During these visits to British Columbia in the 1980’s, my spouse and I had enough expendable income to splurge on hotel stays.  Our most memorable hotel experience was at The Four Seasons, in downtown Vancouver.  Every aspect of comfort was thoughtfully and elegantly provided, including fluffy white lounging robes which the visitor could take home (for a price!) as a memento.  The beds offered the perfect amount of softness – like sleeping on a cloud but with good back support – with luxurious comforters and mountains of pillows.  The bathroom was a tasteful study in marble and mirrors, with designer soaps that found their way home to my much more humble bathroom.  The towels, thicker and fluffier than I’d ever encountered, stayed put.  During on memorable visit, I don’t remember which floor our room was on but the view was deep and wide, and colorful at night.  After having walked many miles that day from downtown museums and shops, into neighborhoods, parks, and a late-night dinner, we fell into bed around 1 a.m.  No sooner did we fall asleep than we were shocked awake by the sound of a bullhorn, a whistle, and hundreds of cheering voices.  My first thought – that’s some great breakfast!  On the street below us, a huge group of runners were starting the first leg of a marathon – at 5 a.m.!   But, our room supplied great coffee and we were young, so lack of sleep wasn’t much of an issue.

1990’s and 2000’s: Our hotel stays in later years, after our daughter was born, were much less elegant (think Best Western, etc) but as memorable as those earlier stays.  We tried to stayed in hotels with kitchenettes – a most convenient way to travel with children who wake up before restaurants open.  Vancouver is a fun place to take young kids – Granville Island, Vancouver Maritime Museum, Britiannia Mine Museum, and of course Science World, all offer hours of entertainment for young kids and parents.  Stanley Park is a must-see destination and the perfect place to let kids run off excess energy.  Many good hiking trails exist in the park for older kids, as well.

On the way to, and home from, our visits to British Columbia over the decades, we have always taken time to stop at the International Buddhist Temple (Guan-Yin Temple), in Richmond.  The Buddhism practiced here is Mahayana.  The temple opened in 1983 to much excitement.  This temple compound is known around the world as one of the finest and most authentic examples of imperial Chinese architecture outside of China.  The building is stunningly beautiful, almost overwhelming in detail and grace.  The grounds contain gardens of conifers and impeccably pruned broadleaf shrubs, as well as bonsai, rock gardens, and water features.  Peaceful, exquisite beauty follows the visitor throughout the temple grounds.  Take time to sit in silence and you will be rewarded with the gentle sounds of life.  During one visit a few years after my daughter was born, I was lucky enough to have time to sit in meditation in the temple while my spouse took our young daughter for a tour of the grounds.  Of all the many enjoyable experiences we have had during our visits to British Columbia (Whistler, Victoria, Vancouver and surrounding areas), that 20 minutes of meditation is the one experience that has remained most clear and vivid to me.

With or without children, for one weekend or many weeks, with a large budget or on a limited income – British Columbia offers countless places of interest to explore and enjoy for visitors of all ages.

Wishing you comfortable beds, great food, and beautiful memories.


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August Theme: Travel

“The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.”  Yogi Berra.

This month will offer a few essays about travel – high points and low, gorgeous gardens, and a couple of unexpected visitors.  The areas I will write about are;  Vancouver B.C., Costa Rica, England, and Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.