Complaint of the Immigrant Fruit

Summer’s been mild and lovely, but the tomatoes are not thrilled. They’re out there sulking, reddening at a grudging rate while the bacon sits forlornly in the fridge and the pasta sleeps alone. One or two small ones ripen per day, barely enough to decorate a salad, not big enough to cut into slabs and slide into mayonnaise.

future blt's

future blt’s

Tomatoes want heat. They remember their domestication by Aztec farmers, the tropical, pouring sunlight they were bred for; they have forgotten the cool mountain home of their ancestors in the Andes, where tomatoes still grow wild on tangled vines. Tomatl, said the Aztecs, close enough to understand in Michigan today. What cooler word did the Inca have for them? Give them summer heat and they distill its flavor into red flesh, summer in a thin, flaming skin. Imagine how it burst on the tongue of the first Italian chef bold enough to try it, in the kitchen of a Medici perhaps, when Europe thought it was poisonous. Tomatoes were found to need no antidote. My tomatoes are moping, but they will come through. It’s just going to take a little longer than usual.

Men In Trucks

They varied in age, size, and attitude. So did the men. There were twelve men, one huge dumptruck, two bobcat loaders, a roller, two pickups with trailers to carry the bobcats and roller, and the huge paving machine itself, like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, or at least Dante’s Inferno. The dumptruck fed lumpy black chunks into the paver and a smooth, black, steaming driveway appeared beneath and emerged behind it. Men not running the machines tended the edges with shovels and strange long-handled tools.  There was a burnt reek in the air.

They had already ripped up the old, crumbly asphalt from the driveway, laid down gravel, and rolled out a first layer of new pavement while I was busy elsewhere. The lavender and thyme once draped so gracefully over the edge of the asphalt, softening it, were cut back, prepped for surgery. Now I was here to watch the final layer go on.

The men and the trucks worked together seamlessly, and wordlessly for the most part, since the machinery made enough noise for all participants. My cat had already lit out for a quieter territory, but I was sure if my grandson were here he’d be fascinated by the whole thing. My kids, at that age, would have wanted to get out in the middle of it, directing traffic. I was fascinated by it myself.

Because this is truly human stuff: how we have extended our puny strength to rock-moving, road-building proportions. True, this has led us to some big mess-ups on our planet. But we can imagine and follow a plan of both brute force and intricacy, moving tonnage while placing 45-degree bevelled edges exactly where the lavender and thyme stop. Maybe we can learn to fix our planetary mess-ups. How many have to agree before we can start?

Leaning Back, Looking Up

Yesterday I realized that the pair of birds I thought were hawks were last year’s eaglets, much bigger now but still immature of plumage, as well as in behavior. They rollicked through the sky, screeching away and making quite a racket as they tried out several trees and a telephone pole for height, view, or whatever it is that eagles like best in a perch.

juvie eagle


They sure weren’t going to sneak up on any critters, but they seemed to be taking great joy in life. Was it joy, or was that me projecting my feelings about being able to fly like that, over pine trees, river, housetops, patchworks of roads, gardens, woods? Adult eagles don’t cavort; come to think of it, adult deer don’t cavort either, but fawns do. Cavorting is the province of the young. I resolve to cavort, as a protest against unfair ageism.

In the late afternoon they were joined in the sky by a number of vultures and a few crows. This was convenient for studying the differences between them; also, there were wonderful clouds. I leaned back and watched this busy sky, and thought about the names for groups of things. Vultures, for instance, are a kettle when they’re flying, a committee when they roost together in a tree, and a wake when they’re feeding. This is one of the best sets of group names: in flight, vultures swirl around as though being stirred in a great, invisible pot; bunched together in a tree they look exactly like a committee meeting you’d try hard to get out of; and of course when they’re feeding it’s a feast in honor of something that died. Makes a murder of crows seem lame. I had to look up the word for a group of eagles: convocation. I’ve personally never seen enough eagles together in one place to qualify. The pair I was watching were definitely a Joy of Eagles.

Alas, Poor Blueberries

Last week we had some freakishly hard, heavy rain. The first of these storms knocked lots of nearly-ripe blueberries off their bushes, whch was very sad, but that’s the way it goes with gardening.

A few days later there was an even heavier rainfall. In Chile they call this kind of downpour “lluvia mata pajaritos,” rain that kills baby birds. I didn’t find any nests on the ground aftwerward – I found an entire tree. There was no wind; the damage was from the weight of all that water on an ash tree that had been attacked by emerald ash borers, an accidentally imported species against which native trees have no defenses. There are so few ash trees left in Ann Arbor, I didn’t notice that we had one back there behind the garden, until it fell. Then it was obvious.

I didn’t hear it fall because the rain was making such a racket. I wouldn’t have seen it go even if I’d been looking out the right window, because visibility was about six feet. I had been working in the garden in the morning before the rain started, came in when the clouds got alarmingly thick, worked on a poem for a couple of hours until the rain stopped again, and only looked out the appropriate window by chance as I fixed a cup of tea.


From the house all I saw was a leafy mass. I put down the teacup and went out to find one of my wonderful blueberry-net cages bashed in and one section of fence reduced to half height, but – miraculously – the blueberry bush inside the ruined cage survived, and no tomato plants were destroyed, though a couple were somewhat dented. The tree lying across the fence looked suspiciously like a ramp for the woodchuck. I wonder if she has any little beaver friends in the nearby creek.

Stacking Things Up

Having spent much of my time recently writing poems and weeding the garden, I have now drawn up this comparison chart:

item                                                                               poems         weeding

makes order out of chaos:                                       yes               yes
work is never done:                                                    yes               yes
efforts greeted with enthusiasm by others:       no                no
urge to persevere nonetheless:                             yes               yes
results in tomatoes:                                                    no                yes
can do on rainy days:                                                 yes               no

I think it’s a wash.

Fourth of July

On our walk this morning, a neighbor coming the other way with her poodle paused and gave us a significant look. “The eagle,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, perhaps so the poodle wouldn’t hear, “is sitting about four feet above the nest. Easy to see his white head.”

This slowed our walk down considerably, trying to remember where the nest was that we hadn’t seen since last summer. But then we heard that screamy call, so like a seagull’s; and then we saw the white head against the sky, and the white tail flicking like a sunglint in shadows.

Happy Fourth of July, national emblem. How’s it going? We still have a country, dire predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. Are we all resilient enough to make it through this era of incivility together? I put American flags out in the yard, red-white-and-blue bunting and garlands hanging from rails and flowerpots. It’s everybody’s country, and it’s everybody’s flag. E pluribus unum.

I’m decorating because we’re having a barbecue. We’ll grill burgers and set out lemonade and iced tea and beer, and in fine Midwestern fashion the guests will all bring contributions to the meal. There will be amazing salads and excessively delicious desserts, and cultural traditions from all over the world will be appropriated. I approve.

And then there will be sparklers. We won’t wait until dark because there will be rapidly-tiring children, and in Michigan on the 4th of July the sun sets at 9:15 and twilight lasts till ten o’clock. Sparklers are bright enough to shine in the late light,Version 2 dancing and twirling across the lawn in hands of all ages.

Then the guests will leave, the sparklers will be replaced by fireflies, and neighbors who go in for noisy fireworks will set them off. I wonder if the eagles are secure enough in their own nests to sleep through it.

Life in the Mitten

One of the charming things about Michigan is that everyone carries around a map of it. Two maps, in fact. Hold up either hand with the thumb facing right, and there you have the entire lower peninsula, also known as The Mitten. You can point to your hometown, or summer lakeside cabin, or favorite vacation spot, without reference to state or federal highway systems, and without struggling to describe landmarks obvious to you and obscure to your audience. It sounds funny, but I was really appreciative of these illustrations when I came here knowing only Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the airport in between. Those who are good at making rabbit handshadows can, while forming the mitten with the right hand, improvise a fairly decent Upper Peninsula by saluting the mitten with the left.

Michigan does, clearly, have the shape of a mitten, but it never occurred to me to see it that way until I moved here. Looking at something is not the same as seeing it; what we see is conditioned by what we expect to see, which is conditioned by our experience. This was brought home to me recently in my living room.

These are three pastel paintings I made of mountains, snow, and fog, the first two in Chile and the third in Pasadena. I’ve shown them many times, and their Chilean and Californian viewers have always expressed the belief – the recognition – that these are mountains, snow, and fog. But my Michigan friends, viewing them, express the belief – the recognition – that these are waves breaking on the beach. Michigan has no mountains, but more coastline than any state except Alaska. Of course people here have seen mountains, and pictures of mountains. It’s just that coastlines spring more readily to mind.

In the same way, I have seen coastlines, in Chile, in California, and here, but I had not seen how much my mountain pictures looked like waves on beaches. I am grateful to my fellow Michiganders for this insight.

Summer Solstice

target pond

baby geese in a parking lot pond

Tonight, a little after midnight in Ann Arbor, is the summer solstice. That being the case it seems better to call it the shortest night of the year rather than the longest day. These astronomical markers seem to argue with the earthly seasons: summer and winter in full swing before their solstices, fall and spring unhinged from their equinoxes. The heat lags the light.

All manner of life gets its start now, looking to ripen in a few weeks or months: green tomatoes in the garden; flowers; baby animals, probably,

alas, including woodchucks. The birds have finally found my birdbath, and the female cardinal is especially fond of this little spa. There’s not much more

two blond kids

two blond kids

to plant – more basil seeds, good to sow in succession so I can let them go to flower; more woodruff in the woods, more lamium in the shade. Everything wants to be fed and weeded, or staked. But now the days are long enough to accommodate however much there is to fill them, a feeling that flows over onto all other subjects: that time has expanded – thank you, stars – until there’s plenty of it for all you could ever want to do, have, or experience.

The Aftermath of Daffodils

june: thyme is overwhelmed

thyme overwhelmed

As summer glides in, the dame’s rocket is subsiding, and the yarrow and nepeta are stepping up. The long leaves of my hundreds of narcissus turn yellow, and I pull them up by the handful each time I walk along the driveway. Lamium and ceratostigma

june: nepeta does its part

nepeta doing its part

chuff over them in places and even the nepeta does its part to hide the leftovers, but the thyme I thought would do likewise is overwhelmed. Here you can see what worked and what didn’t in the Great Daffodil Cover-up Effort.

june: ceratostigma

ceratostigma wins!


I realize I have a different idea of what constitutes a hot day, compared to most Michiganders. It’s my California experience, I’m sure. They walk around in shorts while I’m still in my sweater; they turn on the air conditioner while I’m sitting on the deck enjoying the breeze. No, I do not think eighty degrees is hot. Eighty degrees means you can finally wear your sandals. Ninety degrees, however, is hot.

june: last resting place

last resting place

This level of heat usually waits for the Ann Arbor Art Fair in July, but there’s no arguing with weather; we’re getting a dose of July right now. Still, the problem’s not heat – tomatoes love it, and the sturdy Michigan perennials, I was surprised to learn, can take it. The problem is watering them. The weather map is festooned with tiny thunderbolts, the weather radar teems with green and yellow blobs, and with much rain predicted I’m not going to run the sprinklers, overwater everything, and encourage rot and fungus.

june: incipient tomatoes

hot, happy incipient tomatoes

But then the large blobs and tiny thunderbolts dissipate into the ether, a monsoon in Grand Rapids, a deluge along the Ohio River Valley, and peaceful blue skies over Ann Arbor. Leaving my yard and garden unwatered. The last three days have been like this, so I watered everything today. This should make it rain tonight, right? I’m doing my civic duty for the benefit of the whole town.

Flower Follow-Up

IMG_2050The dame’s rocket that was just coming out a couple of weeks ago has become exuberant. I’ve always loved exuberance in a flower and this rampant, luxurious petalmania is no exception. But I have also come to appreciate a certain kind of restraint.

Last week I posted a photo of some iris standing preternaturally straight and tall, but neglected to comment on them. They are Siberian iris, and their habit is to stand like that, though all around them – outside the photo – the bearded iris are losing it. The bearded iris are gorgeous, but they get top-heavy, fall over, and have to be propped up; and as blossoms fade they turn sort of slimy while clinging to their perches, impinging on the grandeur of the newer blooms. Spent flowers of Siberian iris shrink discretely back into their spathes, withered but polite, getting out of the face of new blooms. No need to deadhead them; I just cut the whole flower stalk down at my leisure, when the plant is done with it.


Siberian iris, top-down view

I found Siberian iris while looking through the White Flower Farm catalog for something dark blue and deer resistant for my Michigan yard. The color was called “Caesar’s Brother” so they must have seen it as royal purple, but it looked blue enough to me. The deer-proof claim turned out to be true, it did very well where I wanted it, and then I discovered this tidy habit it has. So I expect I will plant a little more every year.

I don’t have to plant dame’s rocket. As long as I yank the garlic mustard and pull the buckthorn sprouts, the dame’s rocket will flourish. I discovered this by trial and error, the key to gardening: the garden shows you what it wants, you just have to pay attention to see it. As they say in “The Trouble With Poets,” ain’t that just like life.

Sort of like life, if not just like it, is my Shady Lady. She sits in a right-sized chair nextgreen lady to my garden bench on the north side of the garage, and I’m still working out plants for her. Her lamium shoes have established themselves nicely, but it’s hard to keep her hands and knees watered, with the pots on their sides like that. These are all supposed to be perennials. Last year, her first on the scene, I tried Jacob’s Ladder for her hair, but though it’s doing very well on the ground there next to her, it didn’t like being in a pot. So this year she gets coleus, perennial in Pasadena but annual here. I won’t feel so bad when it dies. If it does well up to frost, she’ll get a new treatment in a different color every year, just like the hair of lots of other ladies.