Walking through the garden after an early morning rain storm I find dark, water-soaked soil beneath the mulch. The dusted, spent days of summer, hot and dry as a prairie, are long forgiven. A break in cloud cover pierces the garden with pale, white intensity. Subtle colors break through the curtains of gray and compete for the attention of anyone willing to notice. A bright blue Picea pungens, ‘Baby Blue Eyes’, sparkles with rain drops clinging to its needles. A golden Cryptomeria japonica, ‘Sekkan-Sugi’ glows in the pale light of a winter sun. Dried, beige blades of Little Blue Stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, sway in unison in the delicate breeze. Birds still hop through this stand, looking for seed.
Charcoal gray clouds begin a slow, lumbering roll towards the garden and threaten its occupants like a bully on a playground. But like so many bullies, the clouds threaten and pose but deliver nothing. Soon, a bright blue line of sharp winter sky pushes through the clouds – defiant and proud to be seen. It is a beautiful sight. Here for only a moment, soon pushed away by thundering clouds, and now rain returns. Cold, deep, persistent rain. It feels raw upon the skin.
Time for me to go inside. Enough rain for one short day. Long and rugged as winter seems, it often ends with a whisper and a sweet scent of promise. And new colors will flower – all in good time.
A recent article in a local newspaper stated that a survey taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-November of this year found Seattle to be the saddest major metro area in the country. Over half the population in the Seattle area reported feeling “depressed”, most reported feeling “down”, and many others reported feeling “hopeless”. The people surveyed were age 18 or older. While much of the negative outlook was attributed to the pandemic and its on-going consequences, our weather at this time of year was also mentioned as a contributing factor to the gloomy attitude.
Our late autumn through winter weather – often described as dull, miserable, cold, wet, depressing, gray, incessant, relentless, really gray, and very gray – can sometimes be, yes, gray. Cloud cover that arrives from the Pacific Ocean or Canada often hangs low in the sky and thoroughly obscures the stunning blue of our winter skies. Our damp coldness is tough to deal with and multiple layers of clothing and rain gear are required when working outside for extended periods of time, which this gardener frequently does. More than once, my rain gear has developed a leak (down the back, under the arms, around the waist, etc.) and when that cold rain reaches warm skin my work speeds way up. I sympathize with folks who sincerely detest this weather. It can be very uncomfortable and oppressive. And so very gray.
But, as a life-long Seattleite, I know that blue will follow gray. It always does.
And when blue skies overtake gray clouds, I know of no more beautiful place to live than here in Seattle. Just a little faith in blue will warm your soul – and your hands.
Each season has its own beauty – some just require a little more work to find that beauty than others. But it’s there. Take a moment to look.
A few days ago, a close friend came by to drop off a few Christmas gifts. She had intended to place the gifts on the front porch and leave – being mindful of social distancing – but when she came up to the house, she decided to knock. We hadn’t seen each other for over a year, and she hasn’t been to my house during daytime in more than 4 years, so the desire to take a moment for a greeting was strong. I put on a mask and opened the door to my wonderful friend. She’s not an emotional woman, but when we locked eyes we both started to cry with happiness. No hugging, keeping our distance, we stood outside talking, laughing, sharing and shivering with cold. She has been such a good friend for so many years that I can’t imagine (and don’t want to imagine) life without her. For more than 30 years we have shared successes, failures, deaths, births, marriages, traumas, and travel. Two of my favorite vacations were when I stayed at her family cabin on the Oregon coast. Her father built the cabin during World War 2, and she has vivid memories of evenings lit only by candlelight during that war.
My friend is a world traveler now that she is retired. She has been to every continent except Antarctica. She tries to take four large trips per year, so this year – 2020 – has been particularly difficult for her – time only for one trip before lockdown. (The same has been true for my spouse and I – we only managed to take one vacation before restrictions due to COVID were put in place.) But, our shared love of travel has always included an interest in visiting gardens throughout the world – whether the gardens are botanical, public, historic, demonstration, species, or the rare private garden opened for an individual tour (specifically for her when she visited Ethiopia years ago)- we have always shared a love of gardens! So, when my friend arrived at my door (after the four year gap), she took a look around and said, “This is a true gardener’s garden!”
Although we are in winter now, the following are pictures of the areas of my garden from seasons past that my friend has always enjoyed. Her visit was a very welcome gift in a very difficult season, and few gifts are as meaningful as that of friendship. I wish you a season of joy, of love, and of appreciation for the beauty that surrounds you. Peace.
A year like no other is a good year to daydream, and these days I have been dreaming of past travels. My spouse and I had four vacations planned for 2020; only one came to fruition. A short trip to the Oregon Coast last January was all we were allowed before COVID restrictions set in. But, as we always do on vacation, we walked through every neighborhood, every forest, and down every town road we encountered. And during our walks, what we see in the moment brings to the surface something memorable we saw in the past. Once we reach our destination, the majority of our trips are experienced on foot – safest for all. When we are driving and I see something intriguing I will point it out to my spouse, and before you know it, we are headed in that direction – car and all. Once or twice we’ve ended up very, very close to a cliff. So, as I said, we experience other places on foot. And once we return home, my head is so filled with ideas that I can barely sleep for weeks.
The following are a few pictures of gardens and landscapes around the world. I hope you enjoy them!
Do you remember the first time you entered a forest? Do you remember how you felt? Safe? Protected? In the company of something unique? One of the strongest, most detailed memories I have is of entering a small, local forest behind our neighborhood when I was young. My (younger) brother and I would walk up our street, turn the corner, and enter into another world – a quiet, peaceful world filled with secrets. Those summer days consisted of sitting on a mossy stump eating huckleberries, gathering fir cones (to us, every cone back then was called a pine cone), and telling stories. He had a wonderful imagination, even at a young age. As summers passed, we spent more time with our own friends and less time together, and eventually, the forest was cut down to make space for a cul-de-sac filled with new houses. But the memory of Forest has remained with me.
A few years ago, in a previous blog, I wrote an article titled “Does a Tree know its Age?”. In that article, I referenced research done by Suzanne Simard, PhD. with Pseudotsuga menziesii trees (Douglas fir). In her research, she uses the term “communication” to describe the interactions between some trees: a parent Doug fir and its seedlings, and Doug firs and birch trees. For example, a mother Doug fir shares nutrients with her offspring via their root systems and their shared fungal network. Research with birch trees and doug firs has shown that birch trees share carbon with doug firs in a natural forest setting, and that when foresters remove birch trees in the belief that removal would offer the firs better growing conditions, the firs actually suffered in response. (Dr. Simard is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver campus. Some of her work is easily found online).
It has been known for some time that plants respond to insect attack by flooding unharmed leaves or needles with chemicals that create unpleasant tastes and/or aromas to the insects. Plants also have the ability to create volatiles that will entice different insects to eat the attacking insect population. In addition, some plants are able to detect insect eggs that have been deposited on their leaves and respond with chemical changes that will either alert other insects to the presence of those eggs, or to kill the eggs themselves.
Interpreting such plant responses to stimuli as evidence of awareness and the ability to communicate is very controversial among some scientists. There exists a belief that without a central nervous system, without an organ like a brain, awareness simply cannot exist. These plant responses are seen as exclusively caused by chemical – electrical – reactions to stimuli. But I agree with Peter Godfrey-Smith who states in MetaZoa: “As plants lack nervous systems, they also lack the large-scale electrial patterns that a nervous system generates. Some caution is appropriate here, as plants do have a wealth of electrical activity, new forms of which are steadily uncovered. Further electro-botanical surprises may be waiting.”
I have always felt something unique while in the presence of trees – something above and beyond what their beauty and age offers. A communication with the surrounding world that I cannot yet understand. A sense of history, of life above and beyond the present, a sense of enduring space – this is what I feel in the presence of trees.
Walk through most any neighborhood and one feature will be consistently prominent – its trees. In town, in suburbs, or the in farthest outlying regions of a city, trees most likely will be the primary feature. In old, established areas of a city the trees often are very large and deeply loved. The gifts they give are innumerable; shade in summer, habitat for wildlife, beauty, a sense of place and identity, clean air, colorful seasons, and free mulch! There are a few people who would rather not have trees around for a variety of reasons, but those attitudes are for another article far off in the future.
On most of my walking routes, conifers dominate. And I appreciate this because conifers bring enormous variety to a landscape. The blue of a healthy Colorado spruce is rarely matched in beauty. This gorgeous blue spruce (Picea pungens) has served as the 3/4 mark of my daily 3-mile walk for over 30 years. Its health and beauty are a testament to the care the owner of this landscape has given this tree over the years. The blue color is a result of an epicuticular waxy coating on the needles – an adaptation to the trees’ origins in harsh climatic conditions (limited moisture, winds, and nutrient-poor soil).
A rich, verdant green is one of the most notable features of giant (true) cedars. This deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) has graced a neighborhood street corner for more years than I’ve lived here. Over the years that I have know this tree, it has offered itself as a perch for swings, home to many bird feeders, a challenge to young tree climbers, and as a shady place for children to play. Deodar cedars are long-lived and durable trees. Large, thick and sturdy limbs sport drooping branchlets that I find to be graceful and almost delicate. I love to stand under this tree on my way home from a long walk. Its cool, dark shade in summer is especially appreciated.
The smooth, light bark of this Eucalyptus is exceptional. I have walked past this gorgeous tree for years and have found myself stopping every season just to look for the subtle changes its trunk offers. Although I’m not sure that eucalyptus are the best trees to plant in a warming, drying climate that experiences summer fires, they are nonetheless truly beautiful trees, and this one is a pleasure to behold.
This ancient yew tree is in a churchyard in Downe, Kent, England, on the road to Charles Darwin’s home. My spouse and I stood under it after spending a full day visiting Darwin’s home and gardens. The church it shades was built in 1290. Many of the graves it protects preceed the church, so we were told. Nothing needs to be said about this old tree; its history is there for all to appreciate.
The next time you venture outside, take a moment to stop and observe the trees around you. Appreciate them for all they give. It is often said that trees don’t need us, but we can’t live without them. And even more than that, it is our responsibility to care for them.
One of my favorite activities besides gardening (and hiking) is walking through my city’s neighborhoods. An enormous variety of gardens exists here in Seattle – from classic, formal gardens to casual lawn and flower bed yards, to unique mini-forests or native-plant landscapes, to yards full of veggie beds or yards full of dandelions (a very beneficial ‘weed’). You name it, we have it. And in many years of walking throughout this beautiful city, I have observed an encouraging trend – most homeowners are replacing their lawns with plants. This is one of the most beneficial acts we can take for the environment: less water usage (unless growing food), greater habitat for wildlife, decreased useage of fertilizers, healthier soil (and soil sequesters carbon), more shade for all, and more interaction between neighbors. Everyone wins.
Below are a few examples of what I have seen while walking. Enjoy!
I’ve been a gardener all my adult life. In fact, I think I was a gardener from my first baby steps – I just didn’t know it at the time. And in all my years of working in my home garden, in public gardens as lead steward or as part of a team, I have always found one thing to be true: no matter how I feel at the start of my gardening day, I always feel wonderful at the end.
I had hoped we would be moving towards a smooth transition by now. I had hoped we would be on the down-side of COVID-19. Instead, we are leading the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. We have an out-going president who is attempting a coup by pressuring a few states he won in 2016 to “throw out the election results” and install electors loyal to him. We have a president who encourages racism, xenophobia, sexism, self-centeredness, and greed. We have a government that runs on lies, conspiracy theories, and false accusations against “enemies” of the out-going president. We have an economy close to the edge of collaspe, millions of people about to default on their rent or mortgage payments by the end of this year, and as of October an unemployment rate of 6.9%. And yet, at least 70 million people in this country support this president – lies and all. And countless people refuse to wear masks and/or social distance because . . because . . . “COVID isn’t real”, because “I have rights!”, because “You can’t force me to do something I don’t want to do!” Because . . .”me, me, me!”
What’s happened here? Certainly, our country has countless faults, and most of them we are just now beginning to sincerely face head-on. Is this strife the birth-pangs of a better, more compassionate country? Or are we sliding back into the Us-vs-Them mentality that many in our country have worked so diligently and so long to climb up from? I try not to become discouraged but when I see the glorification of dishonesty, cruelty, and mocking the “other”, I want to turn and run the other way. Like so many, I’ve been fighting injustice towards the “Other” since I was 16 (I’m 68 now) and in honesty, I don’t see much improvement. And this is tragic because, as a species, we are capable of kindness and compassion. We have all the equipment needed to learn to trust and accept those we perceive as different. We are able.
But, today, right now, right here, so many people are exhausted. We work and work and work. We try. We love. We lose someone we love. We watch someone we love suffer. And we try to help. We try.
Change. Life is nothing if not change. Each day, each month, each season, each year brings change. The fluidity of life brings hope, beauty, and joy to all unafraid to embrace it. Nowhere is change more evident than in a garden.