It’s a “soft” day here on the farm, a term I learned when I was in Ireland a dozen-plus years ago. My understanding of the term, which may or may not be entirely accurate, means that the precipitation is a little more than a mist, not quite a drizzle.
And on September 8, which could be just another brutal summer day in this part of the world, the air is cool but not chilly, the breeze rustling still-green leaves. Green but for a few smallish yellow ovals that my friend who owns the farm tells me are walnut leaves, spiraling to the ground. My mother and grandmother must be shaking their heads in heaven, that I don’t know a walnut leaf without being told.
I’m farm-sitting for a friend who will be at an artist’s colony in Greece for the month of September. So I’m blessed to be spending four weeks in a hundred-year-old farmhouse filled with art and collectibles and furniture that is as softly comfortable as the precipitation today.
I typically live in one of Charlotte’s happening in-town neighborhoods of old houses, wide sidewalks and everything you need to live the good life–restaurants, library, book store, grocery store, post office, local bakery, local coffee shop, deli/wine bar, consignment store, yoga studio and a wide array of tattoo parlors–within a two- to six-block walk. Even my church is walking distance.
I love where I live, but having the chance to spend a month writing in the country feels like I’ve landed in my very own writer’s retreat fantasy.
Although I have a lovely triple-window view of a ridiculously green lawn sloping down to a tree-canopied meadow, I just left the house. I tromped around the lawn , getting my rattiest old walking shoes wet, feeling the rain on my face and arms–something that would just feel silly in town. On my way in the back door, I pulled a few weeds from the small back-door garden where some kind of cool-weather crop (I can’t remember what my friend said) is just putting down its roots. I love dirt under my nails. I love feeling the dirt release its hold on the roots of weeds that need to come up.
Shoulders, forearms and pony tail damp, I just came in to find the kitties–farm kitty Randolph and city kitty Miss Bailey–having abandoned their two-day getting-acquainted feud to nap on opposite sides of the butcher block island in the kitchen.
And it feels absolutely appropriate that the first work day on a writer’s retreat should be spent in nothing more productive than tromping and napping and eating.
A friend called this morning to encourage me to take a walk in today’s perfect morning air, as he had just done.
He knows what kind of weather I like. But he also knows morning is my best writing time, that if I don’t dig into my hardest work before I distract myself with phone calls or emails or errands, I tend to put off the work. I explained again to my friend why taking a walk in the morning isn’t a good idea, with so much work, so many deadlines.
My friend romanced me: Temperatures below 70, no humidity, breezes to ruffle my hair and the leaves overhead in my sidewalk neighborhood of tall trees and front-porch houses.
I looked at my to-do list. I looked at the clock, at my optimum work time, ticking away.
I turned away from the window, faced my computer.
And remembered that in six weeks, I will be 62. Not old. But certainly my optimum time for living life is ticking away, as it is for all of us.
I walked. And felt so grateful for the way the dogwood trees waved in the breeze that tears came to my eyes.
Snow whispers me
out of bed a breath before dawn.
Hair barely dry from the shower,
I step out the kitchen door, leave it
ajar for the cat.
Bolder than me, she dips
a paw into the blinding unknown,
pit-pats between the summer chairs,
over the neglected shovel,
around the perimeter of a prickly
barberry, stems red-hard
against the white.
I stay in the doorway, watch her
sidle fence’s edge, wary but braving
As she can afford to, not knowing
how it stings to venture out,
have your feet fly
out from under you.
The cat comes in.
Breakfast is served.
I brought in Homestead verbena, already a sprawl of outrageous purple flowers. Miss Huff lantana, a smallish perennial with a deceptively Old South name that will put out hot orange and golden flowers, sometimes with a hint of blush, eventually filling up the landscape even in the hottest of summers, as deceptively demur Southern belles will sometimes do. For spice, fluorescent pink ice plant, which folds its gaudy flowers every night and flings them open again every morning.
And out of sheer recklessness, a nice-sized lilac bush whose fragrance will leap to compete with a nearby magnolia, which has more than a dozen fat buds lush with promise.
After they were all in the ground, I set right the leggy rose bushes that had bent double in a recent storm. To show their appreciation, a dozen buds opened this morning, watercolor red.
The verbena was barely in the ground when the bumblebees gathered ’round. By late morning, the butterflies had come – one very chic in black with iridescent blue trim, a shy one in white, others in orange and yellow to show solidarity with Miss Huff. Coming in with authority, a plump chickadee in formal-wear perched high in the five-gallon maple that has already leafed out in rich green.
Sometimes when I garden, I understand why God went on for days. Who would want to stop? Let there be this…let there be that…and watch the magic that follows.
Disclaimer: I do not advocate killing off alpha males. And I’m not necessarily saying that aggressive, hostile men are baboons.
Once upon a time a tribe of 62 baboons were living a very typical baboon life in Kenya. Like most baboon communities, the Forest Troop was dominated by a small number of large, nasty-spirited and bullying male baboons. These dominant males made the women and the smaller, less aggressive males miserable by abusing and mistreating them. And as sometimes happens, the baboons who were being abused by the biggest and meanest were taking out their frustration on the younger and smaller members of the community, who were then bullying those even younger and smaller than they were.
We know all this because the Forest Troop was visited and studied every summer by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford.
Then, about 20 years ago, nature proved that the survival of the fittest may not always look the way we think it looks.
Because they were big and strong and aggressive, the dominant males in the Forest Troop fought off the competition for what seemed to be a major coup: a nice, big juicy pile of meat. Which happened to be tainted with bovine tuberculosis. Oops. All the alpha males in the Forest Troop died.
One might think that the others in the community who had been oppressed for so long would now step up and take over all the chest-thumping behavior. Not so. For 20 years now, the community has maintained a peaceful and nurturing atmosphere, even to the extent of communicating to incoming adolescent males from other, more typical baboon communities that mean, nasty behavior will not be tolerated in the Forest Troop.
I first heard this story on a National Geographic documentary about stress. This small part of the bigger story fascinated me and I Googled around until I found a New York Times story that referenced the same research. Although the study in question was about stress, I also see a wonderful object lesson about the potential for all the mean-and-nasty among us to make themselves extinct with the very attitudes and behaviors that they believe make them kings of the hill.
I’m not holding my breath, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the human race could prove itself to be wiser than a tribe of baboons by learning the lesson the primates had to learn the hard way?
Four days at the cabin. Countless wheelbarrows full of gravel spread. In the ground: one maple tree, three azaleas, two rose bushes, two rosemary plants, four juniper shrubs, four asparagus plants, one crepe myrtle, one coreopsis and three speedwell plants. One pair of brand new medium-duty garden gloves from K-Mart, already coming apart at the seams.
I was fully present with my arms as I raked gravel, my right hip as I leaned into the shovel, my back as I dragged plants and soil amendments into and out of the back of a vehicle. I sweat. I felt the sun on my arms and the breeze on my face and clay clinging to my hands.
I sat on the front steps with a tiny lizard. I played live and let live with the dirt daubers who are building a mud hut somewhere around the porch. I stood for five full minutes trying to determine if the snake across the driveway was alive and dangerous or dead and somewhat less threatening before I took another step. I listened to the cows who live a half mile down the road. I napped with my cat.
Most of the time, I live in my head. I am, therefore I think. I think more than I feel. What a glorious thing to get out of my head for four days and into my body, into the earth, into the moment.
I’m not even going to probe that for some deeper meaning. I am content to feel it and be grateful.
Today, the sky is gray, the color of dull pewter. Not exactly rainy, but a soft mist most of the day brought leaves to their knees and darkened the pavement. A chill in the air confirmed that, once again, winter will have its say. An ugly day as a harbinger of more ugly days to come.
At lunch, I sat at my window and watched as the wind tumbled leaves ass over teakettle. Brittle and brown. Plie and en pointe and glissade, like a troupe of weightless wrens, some scudding across my balcony or hovering, undecided, over the table top. In the background, a Mozart piano sonata on the radio.
From street level, I’m sure it felt damp and chilly and mildly unpleasant. But from the third floor — maybe for anyone who was able to get high enough above the everyday dreariness of it – there was magic not only in the moment but in the way an otherwise bleak day transformed into art and blessed my spirit. A scene from a black-and-white film. A passage from Jane Austin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, set to Mozart.
Long before the Internet – before telephones or telegraph or radio – global communication took place.
I recently watched ”Cosmos,” a 30-some-year-old series on the mysteries of the natural world. One of the episodes visited the world of whales. I learned that decades — centuries — ago, whales were able to communicate at distances up to 15,000 kilometers via deep channels in the ocean. I had to look up kilometer because I had the measles the week my class learned measurements and measurements have been a mystery to me ever since. My dictionary says a kilometer is .621 mile. So 15,000 kilometers is…well, my calculator is across the room, but I think 15,000 kilometers can be rounded off to “a long way.”
In other words, whales could manage the equivalent of global texting when humans still needed paper, ink and weeks on a boat. Over the last couple of decades, humankind has finally developed expensive technology that can do what whales are capable of naturally.
By the 1970s when “Cosmos” came out, damage to our oceans had reduced the deep channels by which whales communicated; at that time, those the whales’ long-distance capability had been whittled down to a few hundred kilometers.
I wonder if whales can communicate with each other at all today.
If they’d been graced with earth’s most marvelous brainpower, would whales or lions or elephants or camels risk destroying their world? Are we really as smart as we think?
Stepped out on my balcony last night, plate in one hand, glass of iced mint tea in the other. Not yet late, but overcast, so it was neither too hot nor too sunny for comfortable dining out.
As I pulled out a chair, the bistro table lit up at the very instant I sensed a flash over my shoulder. Before I had time to name it lightning, thunder exploded like rifle shot, so loud and so close I expected to whirl around and see a limb cracking and falling from one of the giant trees beyond my third-floor balcony.
Nothing to see. But I knew a declaration of war when I heard one. I covered my willow rocker, took down my red umbrella, brought in the folding chair, retreated to my dining table. The sky remained calm, the wind never picked up. In the end, I could have stayed outside, dined to the music of birds and the hum of traffic from the nearby expressway, let the day fade out. But when nature roars, I’m not bold enough to call the bluff of a natural world that continues to prove it is cruel and capricious.
Tonight, without the all-talk-and-no-action fireworks, it has begun to rain here at the intersection of afternoon and evening. A gentle rain, no wind, even. I’m going to sit out on the balcony and wait to find out if nature — unfeeling as ever — waters my tiny garden or if I’ll be up doing it myself tomorrow morning.