Late September

This is the time of year when my garden is lush, gloriously overgrown, Baby Boo pumpkins climbing the asparagus fern, self-seeded cosmos tall, blushing pink, waving its feathery leaves in my face as I try to untangle the roller-coaster tomato vines plunging from their support towers to the ground and back up again, roses woven with thyme, zinnias rocketing out of the cilantro, and volunteer cherry tomatoes springing up in comical places. You can’t tell the raised beds from the mulched paths because everything is knee-deep in leaf and tendril.

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Don’t sit on the glider for a week, see what happens

It is more opulent than it has been all summer, and it’s at this very moment that the first red leaf drifts down from a wild cherry tree, just to let me know that frost could come any time.

Climate change has shifted this part of Michigan from Zone 5b to Zone 6a, the average minimum temperature up a notch, and the average first frost receding a bit further into October. But those are averages, not guarantees. There are many green tomatoes still on the vines, and if I don’t want them to turn to mush I need to watch the weather forecasts and be ready to bring them indoors before a frost, while they’re still firm and whole.

I learned this the hard way, having had no experience with it in California. My first year gardening here I was into protecting them, throwing sheets over the tops of the vines to ward off the cold and keep them going. This was too hard – see above description of tangled tomato vine riot. I do have one cold frame where I grow cherry tomatoes (thank you, Doug), and I can roll the vines up into loose wreaths, tuck them in, close the lid, and harvest cherry tomatoes for a couple more weeks. The other tomatoes stayed on the vine, where indeed they turned into mush. Too sad. The next year I watched the weather more carefully, and at the critical moment gathered them up and brought them inside. There I found that they continued to ripen though off the vine. The result was not as good as the garden-ripened ones, but was still better than store-bought. Besides, they were my own little darlings!

Meanwhile, I am channeling my Texas mother’s way with fried green tomatoes. I haven’t quite re-created it yet, but with every autumn I come a little closer.

 

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Visit to a Neighbor’s Farm

Today my garden group went to a local farm operated by a community of Tibetan Buddhists. They were not, said our guide, ascetic; rather, they believed in appreciating what we perceive through our senses, the pleasure and beauty of everything around us. Their gardens, both the formal and the informal, were beautiful, bounteous, even scenic. IMG_0793.JPGThey had happy goats. They grew produce in raised beds, and sponsored art shows and poetry readings on the lawns. A young fellow was double-digging row after row of raised beds with a big, cheery smile on his face.

Our guide himself was an artist as well as a gardener, and had painted a magnificent mural of buddhas in the large and airy shrine, upstairs in the second barn. There were other artists at the farm, too, and it was graced with stonework, bronze sculptures, wooden shelters, Monet arches with clematis being trained over them, a pond full of koi. The fish wintered over in the pond, but had to be protected from mink that came looking for them. Mink! Little luxury coats, just slinking around right out in the open!

Michigan is farm country, however much the rest of the nation thinks of it as Detroit and cars, and Ann Arbor is quite a foodie town, in no small part due to access to high-quality, local-transit fresh food. I hadn’t realized this because, first of all, I thought it was all corn, and second, well, winter. But it’s not just produce – it’s beef raised eating grass in fields, eggs and chickens from actual barnyards, cheese from happy goats like these. img_0801Once in my small, locally-owned grocery store, I saw a group of Amish farmers – to tell by their clothes – sitting in the small cafe area, talking to the store manager. It was February; they were talking about what crops sold well the year before, and what therefore they should plant for the coming season. This is “local” in action.

For more on the Buddhist farm, see http://whitelotusfarms.com

September Morn

In spite of the fact that I never liked school, that the flowers and tomatoes will soon be shutting down, and that the long hours of daylight are fading fast, I always get this happy feeling of a new year starting in September. I didn’t like school, but I loved going shopping for new school supplies. The smell of freshly-sharpened pencils is right up there with the scent of apple cider in my pantheon of childhood memories, and the remembered delight of shuffling through fallen leaves obscures my negative feelings for the tedious and boring child-warehouse to which I was shuffling. A lot of what I didn’t like about school was that it constrained or separated me from these things – these glorious things.

Because poets love things. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” said John Keats. Pablo Neruda wrote Ode after Ode to “Common Things.” The thing you can grasp in your hand, the sum of all the effort that went into making it, illuminates it into metaphor, which turns and magnifies it back.

Look, for instance, at these things growing in my garden. I put some seeds into some dirt a few months ago, and for weeks now I’ve been eating the results: yellow summer squash and tomatoes. They look nothing like the dirt. Yellow? Red? Where did that come from? But when I slice them open, there are the seeds inside, like a memory. They are things of dirt, air, seed, water, and care. We eat them unthinkingly, because if we had to pay attention to every commonplace miracle as it happened, our heads would explode. It is necessary, or mostly necessary, to walk through the world with a sort of miracle filter between us and it. This goes for the human-made world as well as for the natural one. We tell each other our thoughts across greater and greater distances, not only expecting this as our due, but being mildly outraged when it fails.

As a gardener and a poet, I volunteer against this onrush of nonchalance, risking soundness of mind in the service of appreciation of the world.