Thistledown

artichoke

“It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

–Ray Bradbury

“It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters that you do,”

–Me, to my teenage son

Walking out on the hill in the rain this morning  into that sweet earthly scent of rain on dry grass–petrichor, the blood of the old gods falling on stone–to shrug off the hood and let the drops burnish my hair.

Since the deluge in April, there was little rain, not the soaking female rain of spring that trickles to the root. Days have been warm and mornings spent carrying water in cans and hoses, swearing at sprinkler heads with stripped threads and leaking faucets forgotten in October, sprinkling, spraying, misting, playing the rainbow in the arc of falling water.

Zucchini seeds burst above ground yesterday, waiting until I was distracted, between morning watering and evening’s final tour. There are globes forming on the artichokes that are still small as thimbles. I let the thistledown bloom lavender blue and invite the bees to a buffet. The plums are red and hard as olives.

I gleaned wild asparagus with Grandma from the banks of irrigation ditches and pastures when I was a child, keeping a wary eye out for a bull or vexed mule. No two spears were the same shape, size, or color, as they are cultivated now. Some were thick and squat and purple; others willowy and pale green, with an occasional natural albino, a bouquet of spring phalli jutting from earth into the light.

Local asparagus is coming in season and to market, tender and firm (however disappointing in uniformity.) I buy a braces of it, while it lasts, to saute simply in a splash of stock and butter, a drop of white wine, and a drizzle of maple syrup, simmering off the liquid and shaking the pan to finish with a blister. The cure is always growing nearby.

 

 

Virtue in Herbs

may_pink_rhoddie

“Much virtue in herbs, little in men.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A train whistle walks in the middle air, longing in the distance, winding north along the river into the mountains. A solitary motorcycle travels the street below the hill before the commerce of another week begins.

I’m waiting. There is an hour when the dew lifts while the sun is still low: handfuls of Greek oregano to cut and hang for drying, wary of winter just as summer begins for all too soon comes flowering and seed. An herb’s essence remains locked in the leaf before the sun coaxes the oil to the surface, yet dew might molder a bouquet from the core. Thyme. Mint. Savory. Rosemary. It’s May.

Greek oregano is voracious and tenacious, leaping into the strawberry bed, seeding secretly into flower pots, bickering with the catnip. It responds well to rough handling like wrestling an adolescent dog.

Thyme lies low and sidles crablike, spreading rumors and telling tales.

Mint sings arias of sleek pirates and adventure, though the blueberries criticize the key.

Savory is prone and lazy, languishing over visions of love and summer romance.

Rosemary is willful and wild. She scorns containment and flourishes in bleak rocky soil exposed to heat and rain. (I do not dry her leaf, but only cut fresh stems when needed. Rosemary simmered in clean water clears ghosts and cobwebs as well–or better–than burning sage.)

A scrub jay charges a quail perched unaware on the fence rail to knock it down into the yard. I wonder where the dog is. The quail scoots beneath a rhododendron for cover.

It’s time.

Joyas Voladoras

blueberry_bells

“It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

–Brian Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras,” The American Scholar

Brian Doyle was an essayist, novelist and editor of Portland Magazine. Some dozen years ago while working as a software analyst and project manager, I submitted a piece to the Oregon Quarterly‘s annual essay contest. My essay was selected as one of ten finalists with Doyle as the final judge. Finalists were invited to an afternoon’s conversation at the University of Oregon campus followed by a public reading that evening.

I accepted the invitation. Doyle reviewed each essay during that afternoon. When he came to mine, he looked up over his glasses across the table. “What can I say. This is a mess. It’s beautiful, but it’s a mess. Maybe you’re a poet.” He moved on to the next essay in the stack. I didn’t attend the public reading.

Brian Doyle died of brain cancer in 2017. The Oregon Quarterly no longer holds an essay contest, reinventing itself as an arm of the university’s marketing department. I went back to writing project plans and business cases for ten years until I wrote them all.

“A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas.”

–ibid

The moon is full tonight, again. The dog inside barking at the moon sinking in the west early this morning. Moon-keeping time signals spring Easter and Passover holidays when she waxes full after equinox, marking Ramadan and Asian New Year when she is dark and new. The first red dogwood bracts unfurl outside the window.

I rediscovered new black ballet slippers I bought on sale in October and tucked away for now, this spring moment. I forgot them in the snow. I washed the fleece sweats and folded them (I considered giving it all away as though I’d never need fleece again.) When I brought the neighbors their groceries, they showed me a tiny Calliope hummingbird at the feeder outside the kitchen, the smallest bird in North America. It weighs as much as a ping-pong ball.

Time curves upward and hangs a heartbeat before descending. There a comes a place, recognized only in retrospect, where the arc plays out to fall, when thoughts bend toward memory over hope, wistfulness over desire.

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you.

 

 

By Gemini

red_quince
Red Quince

“We are not committed to this or that. We are committed to the nothing-in-between…whether we know it or not.”

–John Cage

There was thunder yesterday, hail. Rain beat down in sheets to flood the grass and gutters. I was driving along the parkway like a fool. Today the sky breaks blue and clouds scale the butte like dragons, slippery and serpentine, some white, others black, mostly grey. They lick the face of the hills climbing down or move along the ridge and it’s spring suddenly with grass thick from snow melt, daffodils and grape hyacinth, and everywhere the scent of blooming plum.

Grandma said thunder was the sound of dwarfs playing bowls inside the mountain. She said if the sky had a patch of blue big enough to make a Dutch man a pair of pants, it wouldn’t rain.

When she swore, it was by the twins, Castor and Pollux. I had two theories about this as a child: one, that she was referring to my Grandfather “Jimmy” or; two, Grandma was invoking Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio. However, in any instance, the “J” was softened to a long “Y” for reasons I didn’t comprehend and she shook her fist with more determination than damnation.  It was many years before I discovered that she was swearing by Gemini, the Dioscuri, an ancient oath adopted in some sublime fashion I cannot explain, yet find delightful.

When we walked together, she pointed out different plants and told me their names. They all looked alike to me, all green, as things do to a child.

sky_flowers
Sky Flowers

 

Pear and Pine

pear_and_pine

The snow is gone, even the last gritty floes in the grocery store parking lot, though sorting is long. It will take more time. Wood chippers chew in the hills, shredding up branches and limbs. Wild cat sawyers pull dented trucks to the curb and wrestle chunked rounds from the medians into their pickup beds to haul home and split, cure, and sell.

The night before the scots pine was hauled up the hill off the shattered back fence, I dreamed of a crocodile—the pebbled bark rough like a reptile’s hide. I realize this only when the trunk is sawed down to stove lengths and the crew of lean young men come for approval.

Pear blossoms lace through pine boughs. Mercy and I take the long way around returning from the park and I pause to look at this strange co-mingling. I make the dog stand while I breathe in mixed flower and pitch at the corner, wave my hand along the starry branches to descry a reason. Snow levered the pine’s roots from the ground and the tree fell to its knees against the neighboring pear. There are different types of pine, as there are many different sorts of pears: lodgepole, ponderosa, western white, sugar; each pine is known by its needles and fruit. Western white, I think, but Mercy is unimpressed and takes the lead in her mouth to nudge me up the hill and home.

The pine will be logged. The pear might survive. The little brown bats are out at dusk. A rufous hummingbird, bright as a new copper penny, appeared outside the window.

 

Aftermath

aftermath

The sun pushes upward into an empty city.

The triple tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus,

Toppled once to the east, twice to the west,

Roots a waking bear crack the pavement as it falls.

Wrack and wreckage,

Flotsam flung from a receding wave.

What did you lose?

What did you surrender?

Because there was no choice save surrender,

As sun and moon met the Earth Shaker.