I am reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. I do not know why I haven’t read it before unless it was because I knew that it would hurt me in the way that some beautiful writing does. Beautiful writing coupled with a powerful story that just happens to be true can bring me to my knees. Each reading excursion with this book leaves me feeling less than everything I want to be while, at the same time, fuels my belief that writers are the most powerful people in the universe. I dole out the pages, a few at a time, just before bed, hoping that filling my brain with Patchett’s beautiful words will fill my subconscious with the ability to the same.
It has been seven days since I took a photograph. I’ve picked up the camera, again and again, but each time I do I feel like I am holding something I’ve never seen before. It feels awkward in my hands and I struggle not to drop it. It has been seven days since the two eggs being warmed by the mama hummingbird I named Lily were stolen, then found broken and empty on the ground beneath her nest. It has been seven days of me questioning myself, could I have somehow prevented nature from taken this path to destroy something I hardly knew yet something I knew I loved?
I hear a bird and for a split-second, before that high-pitched chirp turns into something else, I forget. I grab the camera and race to the window only to be disappointed, again, at the chestnut-backed chickadee playing on the water rock. Still, of their own accord, my fingers fumble for which button to push turn the camera on. I flip a few dials, zoom in, but I’m out of step, too late. I can’t focus. I miss the shot and I just don’t care.
My dog Cassie mopes around the house and I’d like to think she is grieving too though I know she’s probably just having one of those days when her many medicines upset her stomach. When she rings the bells to go outside, I follow, half-heartedly and empty-handed. I wander down the path and sit on the glider at the far end of the garden. I have to walk by Lily’s nest to get there and I try, oh how I try, not to look because I can’t bear the emptiness I know I will find, the emptiness that will only echo how I feel.
Cassie does her usual garden patrol, down dogwood alley and back again. Shoves her head into the verbena, chasing bees, pauses to squat and pee in the carex meadow, sneaks a drink of water, even though she knows better, from the bubbling rock.
I don’t catalog what’s blooming for my garden log. I don’t pull the chickweed tangled in the coyote mint. I don’t worry about the wasps building yet another nest up under the eaves. I don’t check the growth of the madrone or pinch tip the ceanothus or even check to see if the lacewings are still laying eggs on the pipevines and monkeyflowers.
This garden I’ve built to be a sanctuary for me as much as for wild life isn’t working its magic on me. Not today and I wonder, in the way that an emotional writer wonders to extremes, if it ever will again. I kick my feet and glide back and forth until I can’t stand to be outside anymore.
In the kitchen I wash my hands out of habit, not because I’ve done anything outside to get them dirty. I look out the window above the sink and wonder, absently, how long it will take for the manzanitas to grow up above the courtyard fence and give us the privacy we want from people peeking into the kitchen as they walk by. There’s a bubbling rock on the other side of the fence. It’s hidden from me inside the house but sometimes I see birds, crows and finches most often, as they come and go for a drink or a bath. Today a hummingbird hovers window high, stares in at me the same way people passing on the sidewalk do before diving down, I assume, to the water rock. A minute later she is there again, dancing in place, staring right at me. I am the one who turns away first.
Of course I do not know, for sure, if it was Lily. My writer’s imagination can conjure up any number of stories around the experience but the truth is, I will never really know for sure. Anything I want to believe, I will have to take on faith, a faith of my own creation.
In Truth and Beauty, Patchett tells a difficult story made more painful because it is the true story of her decades-long friendship with Lucy Grealy. It is a story about loving someone you know you can never save, not from the rest of the world. Not even from themselves. As I knew it would, reading this book makes me fold my soul into a tiny piece of nothingness until it nearly fades away. I feel two things at the same time: incapable of ever writing again and a hunger to tell a story so true that it slices the reader into little heart-sized pieces.
I damn Patchett for making me feel so much at once. I feel like I haven’t really lived the life I have been given. I feel like I haven’t experienced anything big enough, strong enough, raw enough to be able to craft a story that will split you wide open and leave you and your emotions scattered, shattered, all around you.
These are not sentences I write to elicit emails and phone calls from people who want to soothe and assure me of my own unique abilities. I write these down for anyone, including myself, who has ever felt they were not enough of anything to do whatever it was they wanted to accomplish.
Because whatever it is, you are enough. You are enough right now to be a writer, a poet, an artist, a sister, a mother, a friend or whatever it is that you want to be. You don’t need to travel the world. You don’t need a special education. You don’t need fancy equipment or approval from some committee. You don’t need to experience and overcome a catastrophe. Anything and everything you need, you already have, inside of you and because of the life you have already lived in the way that only you can live it.
If this were a novel I would tell you how, after watching that hummingbird dive down and dance back up again, several times, to watch me watching it, I would tell you how I picked up the camera, filled again with confidence, went outside and took shot after shot of beautiful photographs of the bird I felt sure was Lily.
But this is not a novel. This is real life. And the truth is that when I saw that hummingbird outside my window I felt nothing. No desire. No connection. Yet later that night, when I crawled into bed and picked up Truth and Beauty I started to cry. And instead of reading, I finally reached for my notebook and a pen and I started to write.
The things that break us are often not what we would expect. And the things that open our eyes to who we really are often small, sometimes no bigger than a hummingbird.
I heard a lot of bird chatter out back late this afternoon and went to the window to see if any birds were playing in the water. I took these pictures through the window (gonna have to wash them soon if this keeps up.) Across about 10 minutes I took over 100 pictures. I kept waiting, wondering how many birds would land on the rock at the same time.
I actually think there might have been more than eight on there at one time but I was so memorized watching them swoop in, race off, and swoop back that I forgot to grab the camera right away.
I’m hard at work on the synopsis for Flyboy but I took some videos of the garden today and thought I’d share them. I’ll apologize in advance for the shakiness in some.
I was thinking about my new garden and how it all came to be and how much creating it is like writing a book.
I didn’t know anything about California Native Plants when started it so I went and got a bunch of books and read and read and then I read some more. Then I joined a native plant discussion group and listened to people share their stories. And I visiting gardens and took notes on what I saw. Then I came home and read some more.
And out of the research a garden took shape. Just like a book.
I spent all day working in the garden and kept the camera nearby to catch any visitors. I’m used to the bumblebees and the big fat carpenter bees but this was a new one feasting on the Clarkias today. His abdomen was very flat. I haven’t been able to ID it yet. Any bee experts want to give it a shot?
We recently put a pondless water feature in our backyard. I got the idea from
This was a really simply project. We sunk a feed bucket in ground. Put in a solar pump. Put in an auto-fill float valve like you use in the toilet. Ran the hose over to the faucet and buried it. We put a barbecue grate over the bucket and ran the tube up the grate and up the center of the rock. Then we covered the grate with rocks. The panel for the solar pamp is off to the side on the arbor.
1. We have a possum visiting our yard every night. This does not make Cassie happy. The possum pokes his (her?) head up over the fence and Cassie is ringing the bells like crazy for me to let her outside. She charges up the hill and barks her alarm back until the possum disappears. Even then she has to patrol for another ten minutes to makes sure he doesn’t return. I feel badly for the possum but it’s fun to see Cassie’s instincts kick in. She doesn’t bark at squirrels or cats in the yard.
2. I have a lone, non-native sunflower in my yard. By the time I figured out what it was the flower was about to open so I decided to leave it for the birds. A few days ago I noticed something was eating the leaves. I figured it was snails and made a mental note to put out some Sluggo. Yesterday I saw two finches clinging to the stalk of the flower eating the leaves. Who knew?
3. I found a dead hummingbird in the yard which always makes me sad. Actually he was still alive when I found him, (didn’t pick him up but found him still breathing on the ground) but he died right away. I don’t know if he ran into a window or if a cat swatted at him or what. I was afraid that was my one hummer but lately there’s been another one flitting through the yard which perked me up again.
4. I have my beautiful new birdbath set up in the backyard. The Japanese maple tree is right there for quick cover and escape. I have a steady drip, drip, drip that goes on several times a day. But no birds are using it at all and I can’t figure out why.
5. Long before we actually began planting in the yard I have been cultivating a few plants I brought over from my last place. One of these has been our native dichondra. I put a lot of it in-between stepping stones on the dogwood side of the house and have been growing more to cover a berm that is under the Japanese maple tree. A few weeks ago I decided I had enough starts to plant. They were just little pieces, maybe a couple of inches long. I covered the berm and within a few days half of them were gone, pulled up and dried out before I could get to them to put them back in the ground. I blamed Cassie. She doesn’t normally pull plants up but since she likes to lay in that spot I figured they must have just gotten pushed around before they got rooted. (The whole reason I want to cover it with dichondra is to give her a cool place to lay down.) I replanted a few more, larger pieces that I thought had a chance of standing up to Cassie. Then I forgot about it. A few days later I looked out the window and saw a dove gathering twigs for her nest. It was fascinating to watch her pick up a twig, discard it for some reason, pick up another one and then fly off to the neighbor’s house where she is building it. She did this 5 or 6 times and then when she came back she stopped picking up twigs and instead, she started plucking out my dichondra! She stole at least 5 of the newly planted pieces and destroyed most of the one big patch that was left. I wanted to be frustrated but couldn’t. Next year she’ll have a bigger patch to choose from.
6. And last but not least, this made me sooo happy today. The whole idea of putting in a native plant garden was to invite native wildlife into our yard. I went out to the courtyard this morning to top off the wine barrel pond and what did I see darting across the stones? A lizard! Yipee!
This week I am thankful for watching my garden come to life.
Seedings are coming up all over the yard, in spite of the birds and in spite of the dog having free range to roam. I’ll have to do a lot of thinning out after all.
First bloom on Fragaria vesca, California native strawberry. I wonder if the birds will leave us any? These are doing so well that I am going to add a lot more.
Ribes speciosum (Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry) I can’t wait for this to get bigger!
Even though the flowers are almost touching the ground, the hummers have already found them.
Annual Lupines have been blooming for a long time.
Mahonia Golden abundance. I love this so much I might have to get another one.
This little plant might not look like much yet, Ribes malvaceum … Chaparral currant. But the hummingbirds are making regular visits.
And this guy showed up today. A Cooper’s Hawk.
Much to be thankful for.
It is ridiculous to be so happy about this….about paying money for rocks….but I am.
One we bought all (most) of the plants for the front and the back yard and 8.5 yards of mulch and 3 tons of rock for the creek bed and 3 tons of bluestone for the path and the patio and all the other stuff we’ve been doing outside, well, there was still something missing. Rocks. Boulders. Varying sizes to put near the manzanitas and to ground the creek bed and more. We went to the rockyard to look but sheesh, rocks are sooooo expensive that I couldn’t bring myself to buy them. Yet.
I’ve been scouring craigslist regularly, hoping to get lucky and today I did.
34 rocks. 31 of them are 1-2 head size and 3 of them are huge. Total cost? $100.
Now to figure out where they all go.
So on Friday we went to the second rock yard for, among other things, some stepping stones for next to the driveway. We bought these but once they came home with me I realized they were way too orange.
Early Saturday morning this arrived.
By the end of the day, most of the creekbed was done.We have to rescuplt some of it though because as we went up the sides with the rocks it got wider and I don’t think it looks quite as natural as it could. Sigh. Nothing goes right the first time.
The boulders are not in the right places yet, and we need more boulders, big ones. First we have to figure out how to move big boulders because I’m no help to my husband at all when it comes to that heavy lifting stuff.
While my husband was working on the creekbed I was busy on the bark. This is as far as I got today. The bark is going faster than the newspapers. I’m putting down about 6-8 sheets of wet newspaper on the dirt and then the bark over the top of that. It will help slpw down the weeds. Plus worms love eating newspaper so I’m hoping that they’ll come up to the surface to eat the newspaper and help churn up the soil in the process.
Man I’m sore today
It seems like all I have managed lately has been the Tuesday memory challenges. The more overwhelmed I get, the harder it is to post. I’ve never mastered the short little updates but maybe things will change come November.
The short version.
I’m working the day job. Still. 11 working days left. Which doesn’t sound like many and it isn’t but still, I have to be there and that is hard. I’m not really involved in anything and everyone who is left is working to build the “new” company. I’m very much on the outside which is tough, even though it isn’t a company I want to continue to work for anymore. Sigh.
I’m cramming in all the doctor and dentist appointments I can before my insurance changes and also because we need to use up the flex care reimbursement or else we lose it. Sigh. Which means next week I am having oral surgery. Yuck. But there will be pain pills. Yeah! But the day after the oral surgery when I will loopy on pain pills I have a meeting all about something to do with the layoff and the Trade Adjustment Assistance that I may or may not be able to get help from. I don’t know. Lots of stuff to concentrate on when I will be either in pain or on pain pills. Neither sounds good.
I’m worrying about both my kids. For different reasons. Never-ending sighs.
I’m working with our new dog. Which is wonderful. And time consuming. And exhausting. But wonderful.
But mostly I am working on the yard. This is the perfect time for planting the native plants. Here are a few pics of what we’ve been doing all day every weekend during daylight hours. When I am home and not planting and not working with the dog I’m researching plants and second and third guessing myself. But that’s okay. We’re having fun.
The same area now. The blue stone patio with woolly thyme in-between the stones. On the left, in the front, is a hazelnut. Back in the corner is a spice bush. The pile of rocks is the base for what will be one of the bird bath boulders. Those are rocks that I have collected from the yard. One by one. It sounds like hard work but I’d rather pick up rock than battle Bermuda grass.
This is the rest of the backyard mostly as it was when we bought it. We took out all the plants at the fence.
This is the yard now, after the planting. (shot from the other end of the yard.) The fence line is planted with toyon, coffeeberry, ceanothus and mountain mahogny, 2 to 3 of each. Lots of good stuff for wildlife. There is space, I hope, against the back of the fence for Cassie to run as she chases the squirrels. Against the house are a pair of Catalina Ironwood. I’m still trying to decide what to do in the open area. For now it will likely be mini bark with some native lawn area. At the far end are a pair of coyote bushes and a pair (yes I am insane) of Blue elderberries. We have overplanted and probably make master garderners everywhere scream and thump their heads against a stump but we are planting a yard we love. We want dense privacy at that back fence, not just for critters, but for us too. My only worries is the battle we will soon start to fight with the rats that are under the gazebo in the yard next door. The people won’t do anything about them. So let the trapping begin. Rat zappers really do work.
This is Cassie’s “hill” that I hope I don’t regret. If she figures out she can jump before the fence area gets filled in, she could go over the backside. That’s a wax myrtle in the corner. I hope it lives but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t. We tried one at the rental house just a few miles from here and it fried. Quickly. But it is great for the birds so I hope it lives. Not that you can really see it but there is black sage that will be coming down the hill.
This weekend is a bit about rock and digging a hole for the front yard water feature. The weekend after that will be bark. And planting the meadow in the front yard.
Then we hope for rain.
And maybe next year we can be certified as a Wildlife Habitat.
This post is not about writing.
It’s about gardening.
About MY garden in the middle of the city of San Jose and the work we are doing to make it into a California Native Plant garden and native wildlife habitat.
I live in a regular neighborhood filled with lawns and standard shrubs and standard trees in the middle of their standard lawns. The yards are all, to me, very boring. But those yards, for the most part, make the owners of their homes happy and that’s fine. They keep their places clean and picked up and that’s all that matters to me.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone has one, that’s for sure.
Last week I ordered a bunch of plants from Yerba Buena nursery. Normally I would really want to go pick out all the plants myself but in the essence of time, I trusted the crew at Yerba Buena to deliver beautiful plants and they did. The nominal $30 delivery was money well spent in my book. My husband had finished the dirt moving and creek bed digging. I had finished the first stage of pondering the plants, the background base shrubs, for the first stage of planting. I was excited and ready to begin.
Sunday morning I started moving cans around, playing with the placement until my husband came out with the shovel and said simply, "Dig now, right?"
And so it began. I won’t go into all the plants we planted (saving something for new gardening blog.)
There is one person in the neighborhood that just can’t understand why I am planting what I am planting. Why I am obsessed with native plants. This weekend, as we worked, she proceeded to tell me I should have just bought a house in the mountains if I wanted all that nature, that I should get used to the fact that I live in the city. She laughed and said we would have tons of weeding to do. (Which we will. Planting disturbs the soil which disturbs the weed bank and we do all weeding by hand.) She complained that all the stuff we were doing to the yard was kicking up dust in her house. I was kind. I did not point out the fact that she kept her screenless windows open all the time might have something to do with the dust issue. She will never understand nor appreciate what I am trying to do. I shouldn’t care but she lives close enough that I can’t ignore her. She puffed her cigarette in our faces and then got mad when we asked her to move away.
I’ve been studying California native plants and local native gardens for the last few years. Studying them merely as someone who enjoys plants and wildlife in the yard, as a hobbyist, not as a scientist. My brain can’t wrap itself around the Latin names for the plant (which upsets a great many people in the native plant community) and I don’t hold the information about most of the plants in my brain for long. And I don’t care. (Something else that upsets some people in the native plant community.) I am not a landscape designed or a master gardener. I don’t care to be, I want to learn enough to plant and enjoy my yard. If I had a larger plot of land, something more than my overgraded lot in the middle of big city, I would concentrate on a more pure approach. But I don’t. Yes, I care about the environment and yes I am trying to plant responsibility, we did, after all, remove both water thirsty lawns and the replacement landscapes will be much less thirsty once established. But I am not trying to replicate what my tiny piece of land might have looked like 100 years or more ago. If that makes me a bad conservator of my property, I’m sorry.
When I learn something new I read a lot of books and ask a lot of questions. For native plants I turned to the native plants listserv and asked the experts all sorts of things. I’m sure some of my questions are very basic but for the most part, everyone is very kind. But some people are not. And by this I don’t mean just on the lists I read but people I met, on and offline, everywhere.
Some people seem to delight in waiting for someone (not just me) to ask a question just so they can pounce. Sometimes they want to show off their own knowledge. Sometimes they want to push their own agenda. Sometimes, I think, they are just mean people who are always spoiling for a fight. It is exhausting. Planning and planting a garden of any kind should be a fun experience. There is a certain joy that comes in planting something, watching it grow, seeing the birds, bees, butterflies and bugs that come to feast. This is a certain sadness that comes when you make a wrong choice and the plant dies or you make a poor choice and the environment doesn’t respond to the plant in the way you had hoped. You gnash your teeth and being to revise your plan. You learn from the sidestep. You pluck the plant out of the ground, replace it with something else, nurture it or not (depending on the plant) and hope the next version of your garden story has a happy ending.
But the thing is, you have to do it yourself. Any number of people telling you what did or didn’t work for them is just advice you need to filter through your own system. When someone starts a conversation with me about plants and I share what I am trying, I don’t expect to hear that it is perfect. I don’t expect to hear that I nailed it. I like to hear that it has promise. That I made interesting choices. That they will be interested in seeing how it all turns out.
When someone responds with a list of plants that they like best, (ignoring the fact that it is my yard) with things that they think are wrong with all of my choices, well, it knocks me down a bit. Or a lot as was the case this week.
For the past few years I have held in my mind the goal of being on the Native Plant Garden tour someday. Now I’m not so sure it really matters. I don’t want a bunch of people coming through my yard telling me that I should have planted one thing farther from something else, that another plant wants more sun than I am giving it, that my mulch is all wrong, and basically making me feel bad about what I have done in my yard. I know, no one can make me feel inferior without my permission (Thank you, Eleanor) but still, it hurts because it is a rejection of my work and it is a work in progress. I am still learning. Yes, some people’s advice can save me some money and some pain and some frustration. But there is a way to give advice that some people have yet to learn.
I need to remember it is my yard. I need to take joy in the planning, the planting, watching the garden grow and seeing the wildlife come to visit.
I need to remember that it is my yard, my process, my journey and my garden story to tell, for better or worse.
This is just ramble, a sound-off of sorts.
This post is not about writing.
Or maybe it is.
I love California native plants and the wildlife it feeds and serves. When we went looking for our home, we looked at places with big yards and it was easy to envision a native garden there. Alas, we couldn’t afford to buy those places so we ended up with a standard home in a standard neighborhood with a small yard (due to remodeling from the previous owners.) And not a single native plant in the yard. We took almost everything out of the yard, except for a Mayten tree in the front and large Japanese maple in the back. There is some lawn but it will go soon. We will begin to plant the yard in the fall but for now, the only activity in the yard comes from the birds who visit the feeders in the front and the back.
So here is my Friday Five – the Bird Edition
#1 Birds are good at waiting.
When I get home from work every day I am greeted by at least one Mourning Dove sitting on the fence and a few more on the ground near the driveway. I adore the Mourning Doves and am jealous that they are nesting in my neighbor’s yard and not mine but I know that will change when we get the yard in place.
Sometimes they majestically wait on the broken tip of the Mayten tree (which is coming out soon since it gives zero wildlife value and branches keep falling off in the storms) like this little House Finch.
Sometimes the Goldfinches want to wait a little closer to the action.
#2 Birds know how to make noise.
I am used to hearing the cooing and sounds of the doves, the scrub jays and the chittering of various other birds. But I was pleasantly surprised to see what I think is a Nuttall’s woodpecker visit our one tree in the front yard.
#3 If you feed them, they will come.
When I get home, the first thing I do is greet the dog and then we go out to feed the birds in the back and change the water. The doves are waiting there too.
So are the finches.
And this bird which may or may not be an orange-crowned warbler (feel free to correct me as I’m just learning) or maybe a wrentit, waiting in the Japanese maple.
And this bird which may or may not be the same one as above.
And these little guys, Pine Siskins I think.
Sometimes they get impatient and move very close to the window and then fly away as soon as I open the door.
And some visitors get really impatient and start to make a scene.
#4 Sometimes all you need is a good drink.
or with a friend.
Sometimes you just don’t want to swim in the deep end.
But sometimes you just just have to wait in line.
Lines are important because if you’re first in line, you get all the good stuff.
But if someone else gets there first you might have to wait.
And sometimes all you can do is climb in and claim the space as your own.
#4 When is a hole not a hole?
Can you see the hole in this dirt? For weeks I kept finding them all over the bare dirt in the yard and couldn’t figure out what was going on.
Until I realized that some of the birds preferred dust baths to the water kind.
Every day there I see three or four of them having fun in the dirt.
#5 Sun is good.
At the end of the day I can almost always count on a pair of doves hanging out on these two rocks until the sun goes down.
I get such pleasure out of the antics of these birds, it’s no wonder they have found their way into my current WIP.
And I can only imagine how many more interesting creatures we will be able to entice to the yard when, instead of having to feed them seed, we will have a yard full of native plants and flowers that will feed and house them.
I’m still typing slowly with the broken finger but hey, at least I am typing.
We had a bit of an adventure in my front yard yesterday – our beautiful, ancient California Pepper Tree split, perhaps from the heat, and half of it fell over in the front yard and into my neighbor’s yard. Miraculously it missed our house, his house, our car in front and the power lines. That was the good news. The bad news was that it exposed a giant nest of honey bees. We’ve known the bees were there. We love having them in our tree and seeing them flit around the garden. The property manager was concerned about someone getting hurt (valid concern) and the tree guy was sent out to “dispose of the bees” so he could then “dispose of the tree”. The WHOLE tree.
I was weeping giant nature girl tears about then, dead bees, dead tree – bad, bad, bad.
I got on the phone and found a beekeeper who was willing to come out and take the bees away. Alas, the property manager said the tree guy was on his way to kill the bees. I met the tree guy out front. His weapon? A can of bug spray. That’s it. Thousands of bees were circling the nest and he was going to step in there in his jeans and t-shirt and shoot off a can of bug spray??? I don’t think so.
He tells me, “If I spray them with this it won’t kill them all and those that are left are going to be really ticked off bees.”
No kidding? I told him about the beekeeper and he was all over that idea.So hopefully while I’ve been at work they have been safely removing the bees. The beekeeper told me to leave some jars for honey if there was any left. Then the property manager said that they would have an arborist come out and look at the tree and see if there was anything that could be saved and I cheered! I may not have bees but maybe I will still have part of my tree. Fingers crossed.
My neighbor is taking pictures of the bee removal for me. And to tie this to writing, I’m sure there’s a nature article in this somewhere.
Oh pictures of the trees and the bees are here .