Tuesday, January 25, 2011

First Garden First

Here's the first chapter to my new manuscript Sleep, Creep, Leap. Think I finally have the order set.

First Garden First

To be fair, this isn’t my first garden. Technically. And if I really get anal about it, perhaps my first garden was a green bean plant in a Styrofoam cup growing on the window ledge of my first grade classroom. I still remember the smell of that particular soil—very sweet, like sugary cigar smoke mixed with rose petals. Something like that. I remember sticking my finger in the dirt, probing for the bean seed underneath, the feathery give of that soil, the wonder—had the seed opened yet? Was it coming toward the surface? Then the two leaves. Then four. Every morning I’d check on the progress, along with my classmates, and during the day I’d glance over from my desk at the small cup with my name scribbled across the front, uncomfortably angled down the curve so it looked like a crazy person wrote it.

But if one is talking about several plants in the ground, my first garden was out the front patio of my townhome when I moved to Lincoln in 2003 to begin my PhD. The covenants said I could plant things, and that was all my green thumb mother needed to hear. “You need something out here, to give it some life, some character,” she said standing out front after helping me move boxes in with my dad. “You’ll be much happier for it,” she continued, her arms folded across her chest, surveying the grass and vinyl siding, then looking back over her shoulder. “Trust me. Let’s find a nursery.”

So we borrowed my dad’s SUV, picked up lavender, coneflowers, coreopsis, penstemon, a butterfly bush, a rose of sharon on a stick, some arborvitae and boxwood, some plastic edging. When we came back with a full truck my dad asked if we bought the whole store. It seemed like it to me.

Though I was looking forward to the plants, to a mini garden of about thirty square feet, I didn’t really understand what it meant—not to me, or my mother, who I grew up gardening with. Her garden was split in two: maybe two thousand or more square feet out back, and at least that much out front. I often went to nurseries with her early in the morning each summer, sometimes just to get out of the noisy house. I didn’t know hardly anything about growing plants.

My little patio garden in Nebraska was hard work. Thick, wet clay from a sprinkler system that overwatered and made the spade weigh an extra ten pounds. A full day of ripping up grass and planting on the south side in August made me question another proposed trip to the nursery. I had two dozen plants in the ground, raised a few inches in the clay, mulched, watered in. Plants. What now? My parents left me on my own a day later.

Over the years I taught myself how to deadhead by trial and error, never once consulting the internet, and maybe just a few times my mother. “How’s the garden going?” She’d ask on the phone, and I’d reply sheepishly, humbled by the thought that this small space might be called the “G” word. “Going good. Everything doubled in size this year. I even saw a big yellow butterfly on the butterfly bush today.” My mom’s voice jumped as she said, “Oh, I bet that’s a swallowtail. Aren’t they neat?” And I supposed they were. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was getting into my manageable space. An hors d’oeuvre, in many respects. Something that I never consciously connected to my childhood or my mother, and never, until I proposed to my girlfriend and we started house hunting, something I thought of taking much further.

The last summer in the townhome I carved out another ten square feet along the sidewalk and put in some liatris, snow-in-summer, a few more coneflowers, an aster. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but ripping up the sod I knew I’d caught a bug. Those ten feet were a watershed moment, a dam cracking and soon to break. As I babied the new plants with topsoil and mulch, and kneeled on the hard cement pushing my finger into the sweet soil—exploring their growing root zones and pulling out the smallest weeds—I emerged from nearly thirty years of a blurred life I didn’t recognize into a world that suddenly seemed more like home, something I’d always been a part of but never really knew.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The juncos have been feasting at the feeders this winter, dozens at a time, stopping first in shrubs to make sure the coast is clear, then leapfrogging like checkers toward the open yard. Sometimes the entire flock will jolt into the air and run for cover, and for five minutes the space is empty and silent. Eventually, one junco will venture out, land on the ground, peck at the seed-covered snow. Then another. Then thirty—until they get spooked again.

I’m sitting on the couch, flipping between a television show on U.S. air tactics in the first Gulf War, and an episode of Airwolf. Out of the corner of my eye I see a swoop of a large bird, a streak of white and olive. A flicker?

I race to the sliding door and can’t see anything. Nothing at the feeder or birdbath, nothing at the suet. I scan the tops of trees. Nothing. I look between the skeletons of perennials and don’t see anything move, not until a stroke of dark brown tail feathers pulse from behind the base of the arborvitae. A small hawk quickly lifts from the ground, junco in its clutches, and vanishes into the tree line.

I slip on my shoes to inspect the battlefield, astonished that this happened right here, in my tranquil haven—that nature, in all its forms, has come here to roost so fully. I find only a few scattered grey feathers, some in the folds of dark green thuja, some in the snow, but not a trace of blood. It was a clean kill, something with skill and even honor. Such terror in a moment, it seems wrong to be here, out in the cold, painting a picture of awe and rapture.

[This happened today, and is about as true as I get, down to the detail. The mini garden memoir has over 40 pieces, is on the cusp of 100 pages, and almost 25,000 words. I will finish by February. I have a rough outline, and most pieces in preliminary order. Just a few more to write, fill in some holes (plant profiles, a little actual horticulture).]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Model Year

Gardens are like cars. Go with me on this. You’ve got your Cadillac gardens, massive beds, large scale parterres and fountains, prim and proper. There’s the Japanese or Zen style gardens, er, I mean Toyota Prius—never assuming, but quiet, peaceful, socially connected to the larger world and landscape around it. You’ve got you Fords and GMs, you know, foundation plantings from a bix box nursery, whatever came with the house. Then there’s those exotic plants you shouldn’t have, that have no business in that environment, that can’t even handle snow and need too much pampering and cost far too much in the first place, but they sure are nice to salivate over—Bugatti, Astin Martin.

You’ve got gardens that are like a 1985 Honda CRX or some other small, two door car that just won’t quit. It’s rusted, beat up, smells like every restaurant and air freshener imaginable, it doesn’t get you out of the city, but what it lacks in dependability and sex appeal it makes up for in decent gas mileage and readily-available parts on Ebay. This kind of garden comes from Home Depot, and usually looks like an under-watered, scraggly maple marooned in the front yard, with some boxwood hugging the house, and in the fall nasty orange geraniums in a pot or two (doped up with Miracle Gro).

Finally, you’ve got your minivan gardens. I’ll call them vegetable beds. Completely utilitarian and economical, practical. But there’s always a new scratch, a new ding, something spilled on the carpet. There’s always a head of lettuce missing, infested tomatoes, strawberries pecked to death by birds. But you’re not in it for the now, you’re in it for the long haul. The experience. The nurturing. The hope that what you provide will create a better future. Vegetable gardens seem more altruistic to me, maybe like that Toyota Prius.

Still, who doesn’t dream of that sexy something sitting next to you in the Maserati convertible, both of you perfect, complete because of your fortune 500 company or the sweet inheritance or the lawsuit against Monsanto that actually stuck once hell froze over. Look at you two, wind in your luscious hair, dressed in Armani, sipping champagne from the refrigerator glove box—like some modern day Louis XIV strolling down Versailles as groundskeepers rush ahead to turn on fountains just for you.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pasque Flower and Liatris -- More From The Book

Along with narrative chapters in my new mini garden memoir, I'm also incorporating prose poemy type entries on a few garden plants that stand out to me. They all stand out, so it's hard to pick and choose, but here are two:

Pulsatilla Vulgaris – Pasque Flower

In April fingered leaves reach up like praying hands, and from their centers an oval of dark magenta rises covered in peach fuzz. The stem too, thick and short, seems to be covered in a white halo, as if emerging from a bed of frost. The thin petals unfurl, dark purple, at the center a gumdrop of yellow stamens. And there, at the center of the center, a wild explosion of purple like a frozen mushroom cloud, the style, an echo of the flower’s rising, the petals unfurling. Everything about this is chilled, preserved, a bridge between the cold nights and suddenly warm days. Every new bud breaking ground seems awkward and unsure, even premature. They keep low to the ground, careful to not leave the safety of the warming soil. In the evening the only sign that there was a flower is the gathering together of soft tentacles to preserve the next day’s resurrection.

Liatris Ligulistylis -- Meadow Blazing Star

August is pouring down heat, is thick with humidity, is raining monarchs. On five foot spikes blooms zigzag, stagger, step up the long ladder of growth, each flower placed in such a way that it might accommodate dozens of butterflies at once. The bright purple petals spill from their centers, fifty or more, each licking the air with undetectable scents. One monarch erratically hovers then lands. Another. Another. Finally a half dozen at once until something shakes them, stirs them up into the air, each making a wide circle of the garden and slowly spiraling in back toward the blooms. This is the perfect time of year, the last of the monarchs emerging, readying for their exodus south. In two months puffs of seed will spill from the places where the blooms were. Blow on them like a dandelion. Each seed takes flight like a butterfly’s shadow, released from the earth to be sheltered by it again in some place that will echo this one.

I have 35 chapters, maybe around 80 pages. About time to see how they fit into a book, in one Word document (always a little apprehensive about this big step, is it too soon to move in together?).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Four! -- More From the New Book

Another section, this one on our strange golfing neighbor, from the manuscript-in-progress Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Garden. Keep in mind, hot off the press and very raw, but your thoughts are most welcome. I have nearly 20 rough draft pieces, so half done.


We’ve just come back from picking up sandwiches from our favorite local shop. There’s nothing I enjoy more than eating dinner on the covered deck in summer, looking out over the garden and birdfeeders. My wife and I sit in silence, voracious for Philly steak and cheese, fingers covered in wonderful grease, the foil wrap scraping our fingers as we reach for sour cream and onion chips.

Surveying all that we own—a "massive" quarter acre—we hear blue jays squawking and brown thrashers chasing each other through cedars. From right to left squirrels fly across the balance beam of the chain link fence, placed along the back property line so we could see through to our neighbor’s three acre field and pretend it was our own.

The empty lot next door has a small hill in the back that rises about ten feet to the sloping edge of our neighbor’s acreage. Late one night I heard men’s voices and trucks beeping, then mechanical sounds like dozens of bodies being secretly dumped into a hole. The next morning three new oak trees were scattered near the property line. Who plants trees late at night?

During dinner I lift my head from the onions and peppers and melted swiss to see our neighbor appear suddenly on the top of the hill taking chip shots at golf balls. He’s launching nearly invisible balls toward his house 80 yards away.

He looks over his shoulder at us. I can’t believe we make eye contact, but we do, and it feels like an eternity. He slowly looks down to his ball, lines up the club, and takes a good long, arcing swing.

Then he looks at us again, bends down, places another ball. I’m not even eating any more. I nudge my wife.

This swing doesn’t seem as graceful as the last—it is wide and sloppy, hasty. Is he trying to perform?

He turns his body a little toward us. Hello, I say to myself out loud, my wife laughs and says “Be quiet!” Then she says just as loudly, “What the heck is he doing?”

“Maybe he’s checking us out. Sizing us up.” My wife shrugs and takes a bite of her sandwich. The man chips at a ball, then leans on his club, looking out over his small field of goldenrod and immature wild cedars. A kid could get lost in that acreage playing hide-and-go-seek.

“Did you hear those trucks the other night?” I ask my wife. “What? No,” she replies.

“They planted some oaks out back at about 1.”

“At night?” she says, while out of the corner of her eye watching the man watching his landscape.

“Yeah. Kinda creapy.”

“He looks creepy,” she says. “With that moustache and all. Why does he keep looking over here?”

After a few minutes our neighbor tosses his golf club over his shoulder nonchalantly like a civil war rifle and waddles off toward his house. We lose sight of him behind the taller cedars along our fence and finish eating so I can go dig in a few more plants before sunset.

For years I find golf balls against our property line, some half buried in mud, perhaps rising from the depths through frost heaves and rain. One day, I’m sure, I’ll find one in a planting hole. A message, perhaps, like a horse head.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hatchback Trees -- My New Book Project

I'm writing a new gardening book by Feb 1st. 40 short snapshot-esque chapters on the first years of my garden. Target length is 100 pages (a nice pocket book I hope). Below is one section of 15 I've written so far, and I'll likely post more over the coming weeks. I'd love your base, first, gut reaction on these pieces as they come along.

The book is tentatively titled Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Newbie's Garden, and will be a mix of styles--humorous, lyrical, descriptive, narrative--most chapters only a few pages long. Some chapters will be posts taken directly from my blog, others, like the one below, are fresh off the press and quite raw.

Hatchback Trees

No one stares. No one even looks over at the stoplight. I suppose that’s fine, I don’t want to make a scene. I’m just trying to get from point A to point B without losing too many leaves or side-swiping another car when I blindly change lanes.

The tallest tree I’ve had in my hatchback was an eight foot maple. The widest was about four feet, a weeping white birch 50% off at a big box store (it was too sophisticated for their usual clientele, I’m convinced, and thus its sale price).

Once a young man helping me asked if the tree would fit in my car. I laughed, scoffed, rolled my eyes and moaned a “duh.” But there is a trick to it, and sometimes it does help to have someone up front threading branches through the seats, past headrests, on to the dash, and out the window. I don’t like coming home to find even one small twig has been torn off.

The pot is the biggest problem, like trying to lift a bag of shifting sand to your chest. Over the years I figure I’ve lost a good yard of planting medium, soil, mulch, and compost to my trunk.

I drive home at or below speed limit, taking the side roads, trying to reduce wind drag as the maple, birch, or crabapple needles its way out the passenger window. Often I’m poked and prodded along the way, twigs piercing my arm, my cheek, leaves tickling my ear, and once, a preying mantis taking the tree-bridge over into my hair and almost causing an accident. But I gave her a good home.

Maybe there's no art to hatchback tree hauling that makes me special. But I see kids in the backseat of a Ford pull up to a truck and whoop and holler at the black lab in the cargo bed, excitedly waving and barking, the dog wagging its tail like a windshield wiper on overdrive. I wish someone would pull up next to me, look over, smile, maybe even wink. Yes, I’d see them say in their eyes, yes, you are a man after my own heart.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Lorrie Moore's Birds of America

I give you an oh yes moment, then some hearty laughs from Moore's short story collection (which is marvelous--beautiful and real life prose with lovely doses of subtle / clever / smart humor the likes of which I've never seen before).

"Staring out through the windshield, off into the horizon, Abby began to think that all the beauty and ugliness and turbulence one found scattered through nature, one could also find in people themselves, all collected there, all together in a single place. No matter what terror or loveliness the earth could produce--winds, seas--a person could produce the same, lived with the same, lived with all that mixed-up nature inside, every bit. There was nothing as complex in the world--no flower or stone--as a single hello from a human being."

Did you say OH YES? Makes me think about the food chain, a human eating a fish who ate a smaller fish who ate a fly who ate.... It all gathers and accrues and we become everything and each other. I almost wish I could write an essay for the story class I'm teaching.... tomorrow?! School starts tomorrow???  

And now some Tom Swifties, as she calls them (though the way she uses them in a story makes them even better, even more clever and narratively acute):

I have to go to the hardware store, he said wrenchingly.

This hot dog's awful, he said frankly.

I like a good sled dog, she said huskily.

There's never been an accident, she said recklessly.

You're only average, he said meanly.

Take a bow, he said sternly.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Where I Write, How I Write

I might as well post a nude photo of myself. Showing my space is really an act of total exposure. And you know you feel voyeuristic about it, too; I do when others let me look in on their creative spaces.

Spurred on by Dee's post on writing tips at Red Dirt Ramblings, I give you my small 10x10' writing space that is far too warm any time of the year with the door shut (and shut it must be).

[The book shelf in the corner behind the red chair (the red chair I sat on as a kid in the living room) holds all the books I'm reading for my next memoir on Oklahoma, the Great Plains environment, Mennonite migration, and Native Americans in Oklahoma Territory. Anything on the floor is related to classes I'm teaching. That's my system.]

[Last summer's newest book shelf, which my wife and I stained in the garage (big mistake), and which was filled within 10 minutes of being moved into the office. I still have enough books to fill 1-2 more of these shelves. Someday--a library with two-story built ins and a fireplace, and a desk the size of a buffet table. Nota bene: this is about as clean as my office gets.]

I don't have any writing advice, other than don't do it. Unless you enjoy all manner of self torture. See, I'm a perfectionist. Not in the first draft stage (which is suicide), but in editing and research. Editing is where the real writing happens, and that's where all the joy and hope of the first draft crashes against the rocky shore of the inner critic, where rejoicing rises and dips into the deepest dispair, then ricochets to Mount Olympus, then down we go again.... I used to have a bad inner critic that simply said, "You are God, you rock." Now it says, "Push it, push it harder, go deeper, come on, don't settle for that, you know you can do it better, stop whimping out you patsy, good grief."

Dee says the inner critic can, most of the time, be a bad thing. I agree only when we're talking about beginnings. But that critic must be honed, sharpened, and tuned to a fine pitch so the writing really happens and works, and this means lots and lots and lots of second guessing, hopelessness, and head banging on the table. It means ecstatic, orgasmic excitement (best feeling in the world, can't even describe it to you). It also obviously means mood swings, which are necessary to finding the way out of the word maze and realizing potential.

Looky here, this post is turning into a bit of tyrade. There's the romantic, cliched idea of a writer or artist--and to a certain degree it's spot on. But like any profession, peserverance and raw passion (and raw talent to begin with) is the only thing that gets you through--and it does get you through, eventually, kind of like Exlax.

It's important to have your own writing space. I was recently reading another blog where the author said it's disirable, but not essential to have one, and yet if you don't have that space it's nearly impossible to work.

I need silence. I need complete silence within a 50 foot, three dimensional radius. I need hours of uninterrupted time. I "joke" with my wife that I need a red "On Air" light outside the door so she knows when I'm really in a groove and need as much distance and stillness as possible. (Does that make me a bad person? I've lived my life thinking my need for silence and solitude makes me bad, and I carry this guilt around, it festers, it makes me angry and leads me to feeling placeless and ungrounded, uncomfortable, on edge, out of my body. No one befriends a person like me.)

After I write I need 30-60 minutes to cool down alone before I can re-enter the world. Sometimes I surf the net, or stare out the window or at the ceiling. It's the same as in the garden, I think. Planting, inspecting, working, I need time to sit back and leave the garden while I'm still in it. I don't know what this all says about me, artists, or introverts, but there you go. We're all so immensley complex when we're alive, and then we die and are reduced to hardly an echo, open to other people's interpretations and memories and suppositions, all as fluid and dynamic as this moment here, writing and reading, alone but impossibly on display, on stage, dissected, probed, judged, and felt up (emotionally felt up, willingly violated).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mr. Renegade, You Make My Heart Sing

January perks up every year with the Renegade Gardener--a man who also installed the landscaping / gardens around my mom's new home in Minnesota. I'm still getting over losing my childhood home, but the new house sure is nice, too. I guess.

Anywho, check out Don's High Spot / Black Spot awards. If you like sarcasm and brutal ecological truth, you'll like Don. By extension, you may like me, too. There are always many literary gems with Don's awards, but I chose this more subtle one:

"Much of the joy in gardening comes from gaining expertise in growing a wide and disparate collection of plants the presence of which you enjoy. From its infancy in your garden, each plant exhibits different behaviors hinting at different needs, much like children. These differences range from subtle to stark. As parent, your job is to discover and adapt your skills at nurturing based on these differences.

This development of skills is usually fun, occasionally frustrating. You will grow some plants that help with the dishes, do their homework without prompting, and are eager to attend Sunday school. Other plants arrive home after curfew in the back of a patrol car. That the easy plants are often plain and the bad boys always gorgeous reflects a universal principle often adapted to literature and film."

And yes, Don, why do chewing gum packages now look like condom packages? Is the next step for seed packs to emulate this marketing strategy? I think it'd work.