Love Note

Love, it has been said, is less a feeling than an action. I’m thinking, for example, of my wife. Not about marriage, per se,  but about her particular love for the planet. Consider a recent conversation we had at our home in New Zealand while I was packing for a trip to the U.S. I was happily placing the last items into the suitcase, contemplating the unusual emptiness that remained (a rare trip without the kids meant I didn’t have to actually suck air out of the bag with a wet-dry vacuum, and I wouldn’t need to do that little trick with the knee at the airport luggage scale), when she brought into the room two plastic bags filled with little plastic bottles.

These, she said, were for me to bring back to the U.S. for Terracycle. Terracycling, for those not in the know (as I was not until that moment), is a new movement run in part by material scientists to convert non-recyclable plastics into material for consumer products. This does not exist anywhere near our home in New Zealand, as far as we’re aware, but it is available at a supermarket called Alfalfa’s (as the name suggests, employees must wear Birkenstocks even mid-winter) in a city I’d be passing through on my way home.

I stared at her plastic bags, barely containing their loads of little shampoo and conditioner bottles (procured  wholly by accident, over the years at hotels and motels around the world), empty deodorant sticks. make-up containers, etc,. none of which are accepted in our curbside recycling program. Then I looked at her. I said the following: Okay. She said (this being marriage, meaning the modus operandi is to read minds rather than attend to words), “I know you think I am crazy.”  Though it’s true I sometimes sneak things into the trash (which is mainly an act of nostalgia), I think she is one of the sanest people I’ve ever met. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions in which she has said something that made me realize I’d been thinking wholly inside the box, fully imbibing the nectar of the dominant paradigm (though, this being marriage, I’d admitted to such less than 10 percent of the time). I promised her I’d do the sane thing.

But when the time came I found myself 1) without the car I expected to have (for reasons not worth getting into) and 2) contemplating a walk to the bus stop through the snow in sub-20 degree (F) weather in order to take two plastic bags of plastic bottles to a supermarket a couple of hours before getting on another bus to the airport to catch a set of three flights back home. I told myself that clearly this wouldn’t work—I didn’t have cash, much less exact change for the bus, didn’t have time, had never expected the snow and this level of cold, etc. I told myself this as I stopped into an ATM, told myself this as I walked grumpily across a snowy parking lot to a cafe to ask for change, told myself this as I trudged to the bus stop where a man who looked like he perhaps thought he owned the stop said, carefully, “Hey.” As my best winter jacket, hat etc. were not available for packing (long story involving the ocean), I was wearing a long overcoat 20 years out of fashion, along with a very worn and disreputable wool hat and hiking boots that were missing several lacing hooks. I was carrying a large Macy’s plastic bag filled with plastic bags that were filled with plastic bottles. I looked like one of those shopping bag people, but you often see such people on buses (I looked more carefully at the man who said “Hey”), so it didn’t matter. Anyway, to be fair, it’s hard to say whether in fact I wasn’t one.

Then I was standing over a bin at Alfalfa’s labelled “personal care products,” dropping in empty hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles, empty deodorant sticks, make-up containers, etc. A sign on top of the bins said “This is not trash.” In my head, it had my wife’s voice. I thought about how happy this would make her. I put the two plastic bags that held the bottles, along with the large Macy’s bag, into the bin for plastics bags. Then, empty of hand but full of heart, I took the bus back, walked from there to my temporary place of residence. Just as I approached the house, a tree drowsily dropped snow down the back of my neck. I had taken our recycling 8,000 miles. The thing is, I’d do it again. Look, it’s not crazy. It’s not even obligation. Baby, it’s love.

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Taking the piss

is an expression I didn’t know until I moved here, and which in New Zeanglish means to mock someone, to tease them, to take them down a notch, which is what I assumed my friend was doing to me when he swore he regularly watered his lemon tree by relieving himself of the night’s last drink or two. The proof’s right there, he said, and it was hard to disagree with the results, if he were telling the truth—his tree positively blazed lemons, unlike ours, which we planted last year and which had a few tentative fruit before the sheep leaned over the fence and took them as their rightful own, and which has looked understandably dispirited since. I’m determined to have lemons in my yard—I think they can revoke your NZ passport if you don’t—and it’s hard to know what to believe when you want to believe. But sure enough, July’s New Zealand Gardener arrives with a piece on lemon trees: apparently, Burt Monro (of The World’s Fastest Indian fame) touted the method, though I notice the writer of that piece distanced himself quickly enough from that advice. Something to do with the nitrogen, supposedly. Maybe it is just wishful thinking. Then again, we put just about anything with food waste in it on the garden—tonight it was chickpea juice or some such that my wife asked me to pour on the tree after dinner before washing the bowl. Give it a try if you want, she added, knowing I’d know what she meant, even if I suspected part of her disapproved. But the days are lengthening, and the tree is by the driveway, in sight of the gate. Are there exposure laws that cover such things if you’re in your own yard? One does wish to avoid misunderstandings with one’s neighbours, or innocent passersby. Harden up, is what any hardy New Zealander would say to me at this point (which, in context, I should add is an idiom which refers only to gathering one’s courage). I can see from only a little time in this gardening thing—and from that subscription to New Zealand Gardener I gifted to my wife—that there is perhaps no end to which some gardeners will not go, and I’m not going to become one of them, I thought firmly to myself, not going down that rabbit hole, though sometimes a rabbit goes by that you can’t resist following, just a little while, just out of intellectual curiosity, and before you know it, if you’re like me, you find yourself in a whole new place, the kids asleep, the emptied chickpea bowl on the driveway, the stars in force in a clear night sky, your back positioned carefully to the gate, whistling in the dark.

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Autumn Bells

We watched the pumpkin vines shrink until they nearly disappeared. Three days of headaches, then on a Saturday morning wake to find you can only smile with the left side of your face, can’t blink  or close your right eye, speak like someone with his mouth full, bite your lip trying to eat, relearn some habits. We popped the pumpkins off the vines, even the ones that had grown over the fence into the neighbor’s paddock, piled them on the porch, planted more lettuce, beets, carrots. Shopkeepers treat you too kindly, like maybe you’re an idiot. Or are you projecting? The whole garden had a kind of tired, morning-after wrinkled look, an unmade bed. You figure it’s a stroke. Nothing that exciting, the ER doctor says, holding the cat scan like he’s come off the mountain. An inflamed nerve pressing bone. Two weeks of ear and nerve pain, a month of dizziness and fatigue, then just a face sort of leaning down and to the right.  What’s a face? Only who you’ve been. Your wife does all the dishes, shoos you back to the couch when you try to help. It’s one thing to be lazy, another to have laziness thrust upon you.  A matter of waiting. Will the lettuces survive the frost, the beets take root, the broccoli produce, the chickens go back on the lay?  Nothing to do but let time take its time. Two months, the world half-frozen. You offer it half a grin. Your wife, patiently mulching rows, looks for signs of life. Anything’s possible. You keep one eye open.

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is here now, suddenly, like a promised but unwanted house guest whose arrival, though inevitable, it was best not to think about, nor the long stay. You thought about it, though, teased at it like a sore tooth. But like so many of one’s worst fears, anticipation is the worst part. Uh huh. I’ve been in a bit of a bad way, but my wife, hale and hearty, has been out in the garden thinning the lettuces, beets, and carrots whose seeds I so casually tossed into the ground six weeks ago, Johnny Appleseed-style, but without the hat. Sometimes it’s best to let the chips fall where they may, though my wife might contend that leaves others to pick them up. Yes, not always so bad, this visitor, bags wholly unpacked and in no rush to find other digs, on days like today, the cold snap gone by, the sun out, the woodburner able to breathe. You find ways to accommodate one another, even if you never learn affection for the season, which settles in now so comfortably you never know where you’ll come across it: on the cold leather of the couch, the olive oil gone solid in the pantry, the stacks of wood in their ever diminishment, like melting snowmen. We harvested a load of pumpkins before first frost and make our way stubbornly through it in soup and baking, whatever raises the temperature. My wife picks silverbeet, too, digs up a recipe that calls for cream, the fat necessary to get the most of the vitamins, necessary to get the kids to eat it, rescues the last tomato improbably clinging with pathos to the vine as if it were hope, lets it redden in the bowl, then we split it four ways, staring at it, and each other, like fishermen in a hut on the ice.

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has come a few hours here, a few there, but not this year all in one place, like a scattering of salt. So cool this year, some mornings outright cold, the corn asks if I’m kidding, crouches waist-high. And sunshine—not so much, a tonal phrasing I don’t hear in this place, and miss. Almost as much as I miss serious seasons, the sharply demarcated kind you can count on. More like eternal autumn. You start to think you deserve it, after awhile: Beautiful full summer yesterday, but we’re not to get two in succession, for our sins. Look, how did you get me started on the weather? Silly of you.  I repent. There are some benefits to living in a temperate zone. Warm enough for citrus trees to raise their flags all year long. The grapefruit on the one by our deck is the tastiest I ever expect to encounter, and we hold out hope for the lemon and the lime trees we planted by the driveway this year. Still, the jacket hangs always at the tip of its peg, kicking for attention. Eight years, and I haven’t grown used to it, continue to rage, rage against the waiting for the light, waiting impatiently for the predicted mellowness to kick in, my full-blossomed season reversed in the rear-view—now how did that happen? As they say right there in the prospectus, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, folks: You have to learn to endure or enjoy the world a day at a time, I suppose, as the path behind grows longer, the days shorter. Try each morning to be philosophical as you cast aside the curtain—that’s the spirit. As an editor of mine used to say, back when I sweated blood for a daily newspaper, “Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you,” the right sentiment, brother, though my kids are suddenly as tall as the corn and it’s Shakespeare I keep mumbling like a prayer over the rosary beads of the days: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

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Wu Wei

Often I find myself standing in the garden, or near it, the shovel or hoe or rake or spade in my hand, or by my feet, unaware that I’ve long stopped pulling out the couch grass roots as I’ve promised to do and have in fact been standing stock-still quite awhile meditating on the horizon, until my wife, patiently mulching between rows, asks, “What are you thinking about?” As marriage is a form of translation, what I take this to mean is, “Why are you standing there doing nothing while I patiently mulch between these rows?” This gets me to the title of this post, a term from Taoism that refers to action through non-action, to do by not doing. It has to do with not resisting, not striving against all obstacles but, rather, going with the flow of events, with the cycles of nature, which an ecologist like herself would appreciate. I’ve always been drawn to eastern philosophy; its general requirement in its Americanized version is to sit for long periods of time, its major piece of equipment a meditation cushion. A good example of wu wei as I understand it would be our tomatoes. I was reminded of this on reading a blog post by the good folks at gettin’ fresh who noted that it is always the tomatoes that get people excited about a garden, and it’s true that I never feel ours is successful until I see those plump beauties on the vine, which offer an aromatic pat on the back as I pass them. But the fact is that our best tomato crop occurred last year when two varieties surprised us by seeding themselves in the rose bushes where we (and by we, I mean my wife) had placed an arbitrary shovel-full of compost. Wu wei in action, or I suppose that would be in non-action. Still, I can see my wife’s point (as I’ve interpreted it). Like, I suspect, many others, I’m torn between two approaches to the world. One is the idea (though it could well be called a deeply ingrained prejudice) that incisive, carefully premeditated action is the way forward, that to go boldly—and this of course entails fiercely resisting all obstacles—will produce worthy results so long as your heart is in the right place. The other is the idea that non-resistance will ultimately, if counter-intuitively, get you where you want to go. That is, I am torn between the so-tempting idea that technology and force (perhaps those are redundant terms) used appropriately will result in a benign interplanetary Star Trek-like federation (which, frankly, seems to me to cut against ecology, which suggests that all actions have multiple unpredicted and often unwanted reactions) and the appeal of monk-like practicing at patience, which is the passive version of persistence (and which practiced inexpertly simply results in a guy growing gray on an increasingly unappealing cushion). Gardening, I’m coming to see, is a tangible example of the terribly difficult balance one must so often seek between these elements, is the point to which I’d followed my meandering thoughts when my wife speaks up, and I should thank her for drawing my attention back to the present on such a beautiful morning, or I suppose I could respond, Just wu wei-ing as quickly as I can, but already I’m on my knees in the damp earth, reabsorbed, hacking after every persistent runner, this one, that one, not so fast, little ones, get off my piece of planet, resistance is futile.

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My Mother is an Onion

My mother is not an onion. Let me make that clear immediately. When I arrived here, I was given ownership of a huge existing introductory creative writing course, taught by a team of instructors.  That first year, I inherited materials already sent out to students. Those materials included an exercise prompt in which budding poets were meant to write in response to the sentence “My mother is an onion.” After a flood of similar responses that left instructors in, er, tears, I was challenged at some point by one of them to write my own response. The resulting poem appeared in the NZ journal Bravado and is in my new collection of poetry, A History of Glass. Given the garden theme and to celebrate the release of the book, I thought I’d share it:

My Mother is an Onion

I spend the day reading student poems
with this title. One student’s mother
leaves a bad taste in his mouth; another’s
gives the soup of her life its savor;
a third discovers layer by layer within
herself, as she ages, the seeds of her mother’s
own frustrated desires; and one mother
brings her son so often to tears that he must
keep her in the dark of a psychological
root cellar. I’m supposed to assign grades
but put it off, gaze through the window
by my desk as shadows stretch in the yard,
light blossoms behind the oak. I feel
I should instruct them to learn something
about the onion. I should tell them
Egyptians once worshipped it for markings
of eternity in its spherical shape,
its concentric rings, which are so much like
the circles we travel: my sister and I
around our mother, my daughter
and I around hers, my own around
my grandmother, a month in the earth,
my mother ten thousand miles away
in the privacy of her mourning. I wonder
what she is doing now. Probably,
she has been asleep for hours on the other side
of the world. Probably she’s wondered why
I haven’t written a poem about her lately,
about the care with which she has tended the year’s
vegetable garden. She would want me to be
true, as she always has, to the observed world:
sweat in the folds of her neck, dirt
beneath her nails, but she would want me
to move beyond such descriptions,
not to suggest that she, too, has come through
the darkness, a moderate freeze or two,
but to find in the world some corollary
for how we all want to be compared
with what is pure, beautiful, rare,
to suggest we, too, are worthy
of worship, the kind our children offer
before taking it away. What I know
of my own mother seems suddenly
tendril, for there is no vegetable garden
to sow, only houseplants on the balcony,
hanging like questions.
Yet I think my mother would allow it,
would say, you are still young, it is not too late,
and though I have no more idea than you do
what she means or to what spectral shed
she returns tools she does not own,
I promise you she picks them up from the grass,
and before leaving the poem for the dream,
of the future or the past, from which I have
so selfishly summoned her, she stares now
with me toward that unreachable distance
into which the day goes to seed after seed.

Note: Examples are invented. You have our promise here at The Lazy Gardener that no student work was harmed in the writing of this poem.

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Married to permaculture

is a title my wife suggested for a blog entry, and I am if nothing else an obedient spouse.  “Sure thing,” I called from the couch, muting the commercial.  My wife is an ecologist. Permaculture has to do with ecologically sustainable gardening, and one aspect of said approach is to design gardens such that elements work to sustain one another, everything becomes a self-sustaining system, and nothing is without a function. The idea is waste not, want not. I realize this is a terrible thing to admit, but I sometimes have an almost irresistible urge to throw something away. I mean in the garbage. Not a big thing. Not, for instance, a plastic bottle. I mean just a little, tiny thing. Like, say, a napkin (turns out , it can be composted). We throw so little out, our garbage bags have half-lives. Plastic bags are rinsed. Paper bags and old boxes are used to help mulch the garden to suppress weeds.  Those little plastic circles that break off from the milk bottle top?  There’s an art place in town that takes those. I was recently reading the novel White Noise, written in the 80s, and there’s a kitchen scene that mentions a trash compactor. A trash compactor. Remember those? Remember when the idea was to get as much garbage into the landfill as you could? But back to my point. An example: I’ve taken on sweeping the kitchen floor each evening after the kids are asleep and it’s clear they have finished testing gravity with every conceivable item of food matter (I’ve suggested that no amount of such testing will prove the theory, as it can only be falsified, but they do their own thing). Back in the day (before chickens), I would dump the little swept piles into the rubbish bin. Alas, such days are behind me. “Give it to the chickens,” says my wife. So into the little old plastic ice cream container go the little particles and out they go to the chickens who, as promised, eat the stuff. That we re-use an old ice cream container says a lot, too, as does the fact that it sits next to a different plastic ice cream container filled with items for the compost. Weeds get drowned until they, too, are compost.  Eggshells go into the compost, which helps to grow the garden vegetables, which we eat, except for the scraps, which go to the chickens, who lay eggs. The circle of life. And this is pretty much what I think my wife meant when she suggested “married to permaculture” as a blog post, though after I heard the back door close and her footsteps move toward the garden, it did occur to me to wonder which of us she was talking about and whether she’d actually said perma-coucher.

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It  was around this time last year that library books began to appear in house. What they had in common was a chicken in the title (e.g. “Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance”). My wife was in intensive research mode. It had been several years since our last hen died, and hard-hearted of me as it might be, I didn’t miss them. Not their noisy reminders to be fed, their pooing on the deck, the chasing of them back to the run, the way they pecked to death any of their number who became ill and weak. Without the chickens, I had a lot more time to sit on the deck and contemplate the weeds, to wonder just how tall nature would let them grow.

But now she wanted to bring them back. Given the relative failure of our veggie patch, on the side yard, we had determined to create a new vegetable garden out of the large bed at the back of the property because it gets all day sun. A constant weedy eyesore, it is filled with couch grass, which stubbornly grows via a series of long runners under the earth and refuses to be tamed. Round Up would do the trick, or so we have been told many times, but we are committed to organic gardening.  Here’s a recent conversation:

Friend, surveying tree-like weeds:  You’re going to need RoundUp.
Me: My wife is committed to organic gardening.
Friend: But it’s couch grass.
Me: Well, she’s pretty tough.
Friend: So is couch grass.

But according to my wife’s research, the chickens would help to weed the garden by scratching patches bare. We’d swoop in after.

So the babes are back, three hens (Orpingtons) purchased from a friend in Ashhurst. To house them, we bought a moveable chicken coop/run on Trade Me (NZ’s version of Ebay) that we could shift through the garden as weeds gave way to soil, a device of pine and chicken wire that required assembly. The seller claimed it would take 15 minutes to assemble. I mentioned this to another friend. He immediately got the picture: “Six arguments and four hours later…” Exactly. But eventually up it went, in went the chickens—whom my daughter dubbed Katie, Molly, and Pecker—and, as planned, there go the weeds, square by square. The garden is 36 square meters of territory: We’ve tamed nearly half of it, and planted sunflowers, strawberries, lettuce, corn, pumpkins, carrots, tomatoes, beans, cauliflowers and broccoli. Each time we move the coop to another grassy patch, we let the chickens have a free run in the yard, which worries my daughter terribly, as she fears they won’t return. Maybe she senses my own hopes. Or maybe it didn’t help that once or twice I could be found over the fence chasing one or another of the hens through the neighbor’s paddock, dodging cows and cursing, not always under my breath, the busybody authors of influential chicken books who could otherwise be using their powers for good.

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Summer Southerly

Autumn, usually, when this wind comes in like a lion and slaughters the lambs. But this is late January, deep into summer (think July in the Northern hemisphere), the lettuces in the garden plump and overly abundant. Yet in comes the wind and pounding rain last night, a little gift from Antarctica, which is closer than you think. A wind with its own special name—southerly, a sound you learn living here to hate on your tongue, a little taste of winter to savor mid-summer. The temperature dropped to below 7 Celsius, 44 degrees F.  Snow on the southern Alps.  A Pacific island? Please.  One might be pressed to choose the cruelest month. Winter is always lurking here. It beckons in the empty spot in the old chicken coop in the corner of the yard, where the five cords of firewood yet to be ordered are late already in getting stacked. It waits in the uninsulated walls, the no-central-heat, the gappy old timber windows we’ve promised ourselves to fill because the southerly reaches through to rattle the bedroom doors. It lurks in all the remaining single glazed windows.  And in the summer garden, of course. Isn’t that what it is to garden? To never be only here when you are but always looking ahead, not just a month but two and three? To be cruelly aware of the transient nature of all happy heat? Your days as a guitar-plucking grasshopper are behind you. Me and my wife, in our salad days, side by side yesterday planting brassiccas.

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