A Memorial

Shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, still puzzling over how to garden in this very different place, I went to a quilting session at the home of Kathy French. One look at her front yard and I knew this was the person whose Michigan gardening advice I wanted. A gentle slope down from house to street bore an elegant tumble of gorgeous perennials, varied in color, shape, and contrast, but always companionable with each other. She told me the front lawn had been dug up to connect to the city sewers, and when they said ok, now we’ll put the sod back, she said, please don’t. She did this instead: compost, mulch, more soil, and perennials galore.

It was from Kathy that I learned I could plant perennials in October here; that sage kathy's peoniesand thyme would stay green all winter; that deer didn’t eat fragrant herbs; and that it’s true, as they say, that the best thing for the garden is the shadow of the gardener. Not only did she give me advice, she also divided her peonies and gave me the divisions.

Kathy was very keen in her observations of the natural as well as the constructed world. She brought a level of portraiture to her quilts whether the design was scenic or geometric, working with very small pieces of fabric to bring out light and depth that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It was exactly the way she did her garden: with care and attention to detail, but with freedom of spirit. She got all the pieces not just to work together, but to be happy in each other’s company.

kathy's peony 2Kathy moved away from Ann Arbor to another place she loved, but she kept in touch with us. I saw her for the last time in the spring; this fall she died after an illness of a few months. But the world still holds her beautiful quilts; and the peonies she gave me are doing well, growing, and in their proper times still blooming, in my front yard.

 

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Rain, Snow, Rain

Fall is getting ready to shift into winter. There’s some color left in the trees, but a little snow sifted in with the rain the other day and clung to the north-shadowed parts of the yard for a while. Like any premonition it soon passed.

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last bed of bulbs going in

A few last chores stood ready for me: planting the rest of the bulbs; cutting the tops from the asparagus patch which I’d left because they were still green; raking up more leaves for the compost pile; sweeping up pine needles to mulch the blueberries; checking that the dogwood trunks are well wrapped against the deer. The buck that has moseyed through my yard for a few years now is up to eight points, and I’m sure is one of the destroyers of bark on my dogwoods, but has yet to leave any antlers in the woods for me, the ungrateful wretch.

I also had to bring in the ceramic birdbath, which is not winter-proof. It had a skim of ice this morning, and the birds did not seem to be bathing in it any more, though they were still enjoying the seedheads left standing a short distance away. Zerlina watched from the window, wearing an expression of slight alarm. She has always preferred the inanimate objects in her life to stay put unless she moves them herself.

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Deer respectful of a crabapple tree

And then Sunday morning Doug and I ate the very last of the tomato crop. These were the ones I brought in green on a first-frost warning, and they have ripened nicely indoors. Even ripened this way they are much tastier than supermarket tomatoes, not being varieties bred for shipping carton survival. I cut them up and scrambled them into some eggs, and we had one last bright burst of harvest before the seasons move on to their next thing.

Frost

Our very late first frost came in the early morning hours of last harvestOctober 26th.  A frost advisory can lead to much agonizing – what to cut and bring in, what to cover and leave out – but this time it was clear. Harvest everything that was left, which wasn’t much. In the shortened hours of late October daylight very little was ripening anyway. I brought in my last armload of green and part-green tomatoes, and a few last cosmos and cornflowers, which looked oddly like William Morris wallpaper as they stood in their vase.

On the chilly weekend that followed, I pulled deceased plants, collected tomato stakes, and Doug brought out boards cut to length and fitted with corner pieces, to set up one more raised bed in last flowersthe last remaining spot in the garden. He had offered to do this last spring, but I’d already planted the area in its unraised state so it had to stay as it was. Setting the bed up now would avoid timing issues next spring.

I had a warm jacket on, and a scarf, and gloves. Doug was in shirtsleeves. He did have gloves, but they were work gloves to keep splinters out of his hands. I’m not sure if he was always a polar bear, or if he became one after some number of years living in Michigan.

“This is great,” he said, “I’m not sweating.”

I like to avoid sweating as much as the next person, but we could have had another twenty degrees out there before it became a problem. Still, I was glad he wasn’t suffering as he built another garden improvement for me.

When we finished and went inside, Zerlina came over and nudged my leg. I reached down to pet her, and though she didn’t scream, she did jump and run away, only to come back and sniff my hand suspiciously. No way she was going to let me warm my hands up on her. I would have to warm them up on Doug, instead.

Quieting Down

The roar of tomatoes in the garden is dialing down to a low rumble. They ripen very slowly now, but on the positive side the squirrel has stopped eating them. I’m guessing cooler weather has inspired him to gather more walnuts and acorns, things he can stash for the winter. Mucking around in my tomatoes is all very well in late summer, but it’s October, and time to get real.

The squirrels need things to eat all winter because they’re up, out, and running around. They have this deal with the trees, where the trees give them all the nuts they can haul away, and in return the squirrels plant them in ridiculous places the trees could never have come up with on their own. The squirrels plan to dig them all up and eat them as winter proceeds, but as you’d expect from their louche and scatterbrained behavior, they lose track; thus establishing the next generation of trees.

Woodchucks, on the other hand, hibernate. I can hardly wait. Once there’s a frost, ours will tuck into her burrow and stay there, offering me relief for a few months. Until then, she is havoc incarnated. I caught her in full wallow yesterday, lazing in

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tired October garden

my plumbago groundcover, scarfing down all its pretty blue flowers that she scorned just a couple of weeks ago, when there were tastier options. Would that she would scorn them now, but she is dedicated to padding out her waddly flesh so that there will be something left of it when she wakes up after her long fast.

There are still cosmos in the garden, and some zinnias, but everyone looks so tired. It’s time to take down the berry nets. It’s time to bring in the cushions. But the end of one cycle is the beginning of another. It’s time to plant bulbs.

Harvest

They are slowing down as the hours of daylight decrease, but the tomatoes are still rolling in. And the squirrel, having acquired a taste for hot peppers, is still eating

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bonus tomato

them. Sometimes when I stand at my kitchen window I see him out there, making free with the fruits of my labor. At first I would rush out in a rage to run him off, but eventually I realized this was useless. True, as soon as the screen door creaked he was gone in a flash; but screen door, rage, or not, once he had his three bites out of the tomato he looped off anyway. I could think of only two ways to keep him out of the garden: stay out there all the time; or put a roof over it. Not very practical.

In some years there would have been a frost by now, so I try to look at the abundance side of this situation: the tomatoes the Perp eats are bonus tomatoes; those

tomatoes of grace

tomatoes of grace

he leaves behind are tomatoes of pure grace. Even the ones I pick half green and ripen in the house in an attempt to defeat him, are way tastier than common supermarket tomatoes. Supermarket tomatoes are not bred for flavor – they are bred to withstand the shipping and handling necessary to sell them in supermarkets, as they have to be, since no one would buy them in the bruised and leaking condition a garden tomato would demonstrate when so shipped and so handled. We need to keep this in mind before we scold supermarkets. Until someone invents a tomato transporter to beam them into supermarkets directly from farms, supermarket tomatoes will continue to be bred for sturdiness.

My squirrel, who seems almost able to beam himself into the garden, appears to have been bred for persistence. Did that first tomato burn your tongue? Try another. That one too? Keep going. How can I argue with desire that will fight through the pain of fire on the tomato skin, to get to the luscious heart inside it? I’m not sure if it’s fear that motivates him to flee at the threat of my approach, or something more like taunting. He is a Siegfried of squirrels. Unless I am wrong about his gender, in which case she’s a Valkyrie.

A Squirrel in the Tomatoes

It started, I believe, as an error on the squirrel’s part. He looped himself up over the fence and out of the garden, in his mouth a green tomato the same size, shape, and color as a walnut in its husk. If he tries to stash that for the winter, I thought, he’ll be disappointed.

the perp

the perp

But either he was indeed disappointed and kept coming back hoping for a different result, or he bit into it and found it as delicious as I do, because he has been in the garden regularly since then, conducting what seems to be a very thorough taste test: a bite here, a bite there, green, red, small, large. He never finishes any of them, but he ruins a great many.

So here’s the really odd thing – this doesn’t happen every year. I’m pretty sure I have the same squirrels, or mostly the same squirrels, every year. Do they forget about tomatoes over the winter? Do they only eat tomatoes when other food is scarce? If I threw a lot of walnuts into another part of the yard, would that keep the squirrels away from the garden, or reaffirm them in the notion that my yard has the best eats in town, or increase the local squirrel population?red and green

Meanwhile I spray hot sauce and critter repellent, which are resolutely washed off by rainstorms, and bring at least some of the tomatoes in before they’re ripe, for protection. And think up original imprecations against squirrels.

Dinosaurs of Bozeman

Before the eclipse, we detoured to see some dinosaurs. Montana apparently once teemed with them, and the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman has more T. Rex fossils than anywhere else in the world.

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Hall of Horns and Teeth, Museum of the Rockies

They have fossils of loads of other dinosaurs, too, and every one of them was found in Montana, predator and prey, large and small, even babies and eggs, all the bones and shells turned to stone.

Dinosaurs have always seemed to me to explain a lot of legends. Imagine you are walking along an eroded cliffside or washed out streambed, and you stumble on one of these: the head of a giant monster, turned to stone, half in and half out of the ground. Even to us today, knowing what it is, dino headthe remains of a T. Rex look terrifying. This creature is powerful, but trapped. Is it dead, or sleeping? Was it turned to stone by some protective force, or by an evil one? The dragon sleeping on its hoard, the monster to be battled by the hero, the trolls turned to stone by the rising sun – here they all are, real as can be, if misinterpreted. And here is the fatal flaw and crowning glory of humankind: our inextinguishable desire to understand things, no matter how badly.

Behind a glass wall, paleontologists and grad students were working to free more fossils from their millions of years of hardened dust, while answering questions posed to them by small children. The museum was full of small children, who seem to have an affinity for dinosaurs, as they do for science museums generally. Children are used to asking questions about things, as opposed to being embarrassed not to already know the answer. Then they become teenagers, self-conscious, sensitive to criticism real or imagined, sulking in the family car while their little sisters and brothers leap with joy among the science exhibits. But eventually curiosity wins over the teenagers, and some even grow up to become the staff behind the glass wall.

Because this is us. Stories of trolls and dragons don’t hold up against the questions we ask. It’s enough to give me hope when I read the comments section in the average news article, roiled with conspiracy theories and trembling with classic debating errors. Keep poking at that layer of petrified dust, people. If there’s a fragment of truth down deep, it may look nothing like what you expect.

Total Eclipse

Doug told me how, a college kid in 1972, he and some friends drove from New Jersey to the Gaspe Peninsula to try to see a total eclipse in bad weather, diverting across Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island at the last minute, getting there just in time to see the sun eclipsed by the moon, before the whole shebang was eclipsed by the storm.

I told him I’d never seen a total eclipse, but had seen several partial eclipses that went pretty far. Nothing like it, he said; I have to take you to see this one.

Okay, well, he’s an astronomer, he’s picky about this kind of thing. I remember once being hauled out of bed at 2 a.m. to see a fuzzy comet, and being fairly unimpressed. But with his previous weather experience in mind, Doug proposed a trip to dry western Idaho for this eclipse, and I love western road trips so I was happy to sign on. We flew to Boise, and after a lovely drive through Idaho and Montana (another story), returned to Boise pre-eclipse.

Weiser, Idaho, just over an hour’s drive northwest of Boise, is a town of about 5,000 people. They put on an annual fiddle contest bringing in thousands more every June, so they know how to handle crowds. We headed up to the high school athletic field, where they had parking, restrooms, V food croppedbreakfast burritos, and lots of open space. A large section was fenced off for tent campers, most of whom had come for the whole weekend, which was good for the day-trippers among us. We’d been warned of massive traffic jams, but they did not materialize.

There was plenty of space to suit all endeavors. Some people set up tripods and cameras with clock-drives; v setupssome propped hand-made pinhole projectors on the ground; some spread blankets, ate snacks, and chatted. The field was edged with a single row of sycamore trees, and we sat in the shade of one and leaned back against its trunk, waiting for the show. The sky was clear, the sun high above the horizon. We watched people goofing around in their dark eclipse glasses, and got up to check the sun now and then.

When it started, it was just like all those partial eclipses: the sun was a flat cookie, with a small, symmetrical bite taken out of it. I checked periodically as the bite got bigger, and watched it in the sun-dapples under the trees, too. v leavesThe sycamores had big leaves that didn’t make good pinholes, so the images were blurry. Robin's Handmade EclipsefinderI interlaced my fingers, making small spaces between them, but the grass was rough and the images still blurry. So I put some white paper down on a flat spot, and cast my shadow on that. Much better. But still not different from a partial eclipse.

Doug said it would be hard to look away from the sun as it was about to eclipse,

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The sun and the moon in Doug’s hand

but if I turned the other way at the right moment I would see the moon’s shadow coming toward us from the west, about 70 miles wide and barreling toward us at something like 2,000 miles an hour.

Okay, this was different from a partial eclipse. I couldn’t imagine it, so I thought I’d be sure to look.

Everyone was standing now, out from under the trees, like an army of sunflowers, all turned to the same spot in the sky, and all wearing cardboard eclipse glasses as though we were at a giant, outdoor 3-D film festival. All except Doug, who was turned the other way, looking for the shadow. The descending cool and darkness was at the level of a heavy thunderstorm about to let loose, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was extremely unsettling to me, but Doug was wreathed in smiles.

“Here it comes,” he said, and here it came: a huge, blue-grey shadow rolling over the low hills west of us, crazily, disconnected from the sun, from the moon, from reality, as it seemed, though in fact they were its cause and anchor. It looked like we might all drown in it. It looked determined. I turned back to the sun, flipping my glasses down, and saw the last limb of sunlight flare out, looking like what they call it, a diamond ring, caught in the glare of a photographer’s flash. And then the day went dark. The air went cold. We all took off our glasses in a single movement, and a shout, a cheer, went up from the entire crowd, for the moon, for the predictive ability of science, for the rim of fire edging the hole in the sky where the sun had vanished, well-explained to us all, but feeling mysterious all the same. It was about 11:25 in the morning, but we could see the stars.v eclipse

For two minutes, bare-eyed, we all stared together at this absence of the everyday, relieved by science of the terror so we could appreciate the glory: rays of white gold shooting out from behind the moon in every direction except toward us, a crown for the moon’s effort. We lifted our phones and cameras and toasted the universe with happy picture-taking: congratulations on your beautiful achievement. I will certify it on my facebook page. We smiled as though our efforts had anything to do with it.

Then the diamond burst out on the other side of the ring, and we all put our glasses back on for one more look as daylight began to return. There was still plenty of partial to see as the moon slid away, but few stayed to watch this anticlimax. We were all in it together watching the well-named totality, abetting each other in that huge cheer; but now that the moment of ecstasy had passed we drew back into our own groups and couples, engaged in smaller circles again, packing up gear to go. That was when the traffic jam happened.

It was a good bet that the lovely and polite people who directed us to our parking spot, fixed us hotdogs, and pointed us to coffee, tea, and bathrooms, did

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Sign in Boise

not share my opinions on political issues. This was red Idaho, and Ann Arbor’s very blue. But during the eclipse we all saw the same facts, the same way. If there was an alternative version of a total eclipse, I still haven’t heard about it. There was solidarity in that mammoth cheer. It was a shared moment between the universe and humanity, when we were all in it together and were fine with that. Doug was completely right. It was not like anything else.

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?