A Month

Is it irony that after my last post our 50-year-old trees came crashing out of the sky exactly a month after her death.

When she was dying I ran to the grocery store and caught Garrison Keillor’s show in a few minutes it took to get there. It was that magic light of dusk. There was nothing beautiful about the drive along an old rarely used railroad track. I’ve always been drawn to the abandoned places the places of open sky and few people. That’s why I loved the Montana I used to live in. It would not be the same Montana now. In that short drive I felt the company of every vast abandoned space I had ever loved, every landscape, every place of solitude. I felt time telescope from being a 12-year-old walking the city lake and in the shadows of the newly rehabbed warehouses to being 20 in Marble, Colorado to the wind scoured plains of Eastern Montana where the mountains were just a promise and back to the industrial suburban road in the city I’d made a life in where I was 40 and my best friend was dying.

And I heard this song.

We Hardly Recognized the Sky

The year after we moved into our house our neighbors lost a mature linden tree that stood at the border of our front lawns; It was one of those trees never meant for show, tucked between our houses simply becoming part of the landscape one takes for granted walking down the suburban streets until the straight-line winds came.

We were standing at the back of the house looking west and I remember looking east over my shoulder as the light hit the trees a certain way– The awkward light of thunderstorms that those of us who live in a land of tornadoes have come to be familiar with — the dark thunderstorm behind and the way the trees were moving it seemed impossible that we would keep any of them. We heard the crack and saw the crown disappear from the familiar canopy.

The strange mixture of awe and horror at seeing that giant tree with it squirrels nests and birds nests strewn across the lawn, spilling out to the street. It was like being let into a world you’d never had access to– a kind of voyeur in the treetops, but the ruin of one.

The irreplaceable nature of a mature tree. That came back to me again after Alicia died, continues to come back to me in these weeks. The irreplaceable nature of a mature friendship–the accumulation of years and memories and history. The stories.

When that tree fell we hardly recognized the sky.

On a related note I’ve been thinking too about how generation informs the children we have. The generation we came from but also the generation our parents came from. There are seven years between my husband and myself but in ways we fit very well together because our parents shared the generation. Both of our mothers were born in 1943, both of our fathers more than a decade before that. My mother is very much on the cusp of a generation right before the hippies. She was the second wave of the feminist movement at its very beginning, the freedom riders–my mother was raised in the 50s, the early 50s and late 40s and it is that she remembers most. My father’s model of marriage would have come out of that false image of the 50s, so too my husband’s parents. So even though my husband and I were born respectively in the mid 60s and early 70s….some of the ingrained patterns, the way we were raised, the things encoded in us came from a very particular time. I’ve written before about how I remember each particular step of ironing a man’s shirt. Polishing silver. Folding a fitted sheet. Making hospital corners on a bed. I was thinking that just last night as I made a Bolognese sauce… (that my mother would’ve referred to as plain old spaghetti sauce) wondering as I read the Cook’s illustrated recipe, “who needs to have the directions of how to brown ground beef” as I seem to remember having ever hovered over my mother in the kitchen. Watching each flick of her wrist. I thought how interesting it is that we would come together… all of us who stumble upon one another in this world… I thought about who my best friend was and how different it was from who I am in the world… her parents were 10 years younger than my mother, 20 years younger than my father in a generation where that kind of gap was glaring. Even though we shared a generation the mores and expectations that shaped us, maybe, were different.

As per Jjiraffe’s suggestion I’ve tried to make a list of the things that I have done in relation to my goal of our urban farm. I’m a person who has had a big goal of writing my novel for 15 years or more… (after my MFA in 98 ) and all I tend to focus on are the “have not dones “… I purposely went as far away as I could from goals surrounding writing in this project. I’m glad actually; It is a great relief to focus on something else.

We have cleared land, set the boxes, I have ordered as many yd.³ of compost from the city as I think we will need. I ordered seeds from the seed savers exchange although I probably won’t be planting seedlings until next year. This year I will get heirloom plants if I can from the local farmers markets and nurseries having waited far too long to start most seedlings in this northern climate. There is something profoundly soothing to me and looking at the Farmer’s almanac. Maybe it is the Minnesotan in me though I was only raised here, not born here… Farming seems so much of the culture, so much of the mythology here. I spent hours pouring over the seed savers exchange catalog. Who could resist the Paul Robeson tomato? Or someone’s aunt Mamie whose Tomato seeds were passed down from generation to generation… The same tomatoes somebody remembers on a dinner plate in the 30s on their farm table kitchen. Who could resist growing the Queen Anne’s pocket melon? A melon that Victorian women carried in their pockets as a natural perfume. In this world of Hybridization, homogenization Where every urban pocket of the world looks like another urban pocket of the world… There is something enchanting almost about preservation, preserving this delicate coding inside these seeds– as if we could reclaim or recapture some essence of our grandmother’s table and in doing so keep her stories alive. Replenish the earth, like a time lapse reel from a jr high filmstrip …from seedling to full-leafed fruited plant… from sapling to broad crowned tree obscuring the bright hole in the sky.

Project Dreamcatcher:Urban Farming

Seventeen days ago I sat cross-legged on my bed with a few moments before Z woke to write a post.

The days before I had spent in the hospital visiting my best friend. I had last spoken to her on that Monday — and went to the hospital Tuesday and Wednesday night to sit with her mother and father, her aunts and other friends who would sit by her bedside.

Thursday night I didn’t go because she had woken up Wednesday night to an aunt holding her hand and telling her she loved her and my friend opened her eyes but couldn’t speak and I will forever remember her holding out her hands on either side — shaking as she said to her mom who had leaned in to soothe her — and she said “peace” “I want peace” — and I understood then, as deeply as I had in the moments I labored with Z when my body shook because I had an idea of how I wanted to give birth and who I wanted to have present — and it wasn’t that way; I remember the crowd of people and my mother there and though I’d like to honor how she always imagined the birth of her grandchild– I had clarified it to my doula, to G, in my birth-plan– just the three of us, no more.

I thought I understood my friend in those moments — on this other continuum of life. I texted her husband that night and said that though my heart was with them I understood that she really needed peace, that I wouldn’t be at the hospital Thursday night.

Friday I was sitting on my bed writing a post (one I’m still working on) and I happened to have my phone at my side (ringer off as always) and I just happened to look down to see the name of my best friend’s husband. He was calling to tell me that her oxygen use was declining, that the signs were there though they had no idea how long, and that he wanted me to post a call on the caringbridge site for photos. I asked then if I could come to say goodbye — and he said “of course” and I raced around getting Z ready for her grandmother’s — not even an hour later I stood at my best friend’s bedside, her husband at one hand, her brother and sister-in-law at the other, my hand lightly resting on her right foot — when she died.

I’ll write more about that when I’m ready. That night I drove alone the three and a half hours to our cabin, my husband and the kids in another car. I drove with the dog through the foggy and damp northern woods. Hundreds of fragments unspooled in my head — words, images, events — things I half-remembered. The moon was full but obscured by clouds high above the pines as I pulled in past dark.

The next week, I gardened.

I had let my gardens go largely to weeds in the past few years — with only the most meager of attempts to keep the bindweed and crab grass at bay. The prairie garden was one thing — it could take a certain amount of chaos — with its grasses and aster, goldenrod and phlox — there was a certain riotous intention in that garden initially and so, I thought (wrongly) what harm can a few twining, flowering weeds do. And I let it go.

The front garden, on the other hand — a more formal strip that faces the street in this suburban sprawling green — had begun to suggest that the people inside of the house were going through some kind of mental health crisis — because that’s what a breach in the social contract of suburban lawn care suggests: something is wrong. The canada thistle had taken over stage right — sending an advancing legion toward the front of the house and into G’s dominion — the lawn. The ferny coreopsis was filled with broad leaves of grass and the rudbeckia that I had planted turned out to be a fast growing giant cloud of an invasive — bending low over the garden and as if the need to be staked and thinned weren’t enough it was sending out colonies — into the place where the coneflowers died and the dahlias had been neglected and rotted in the earth (there are supposed to be plucked from the ground in fall and overwintered here).

In the span of a week I bent over the garden — plucking and pulling, digging and rearranging, tearing up turf and cursing the rabbits and wondering what kind of creatures were so hungry they would eat the thorny bayberry — which poked me through my gardening gloves and I viciously pulled it out. I tore out yet another hydrangea in a line of four — the spot now looking like a gap-toothed child where there once had been large blue nikko — which had steadily given way to endless summer — and I had tired of supplementing the dirt with aluminum (and wondering if by coaxing those brilliant blue blooms for a few summers in a row I had ultimately sacrificed the long term health of the plant.) I looked at garden plans and heights, and zones and bought relatively low-maintenance plants — salvia and yarrow — a dwarf juniper and coneflowers — dark leafed penstemon and tuberous stalks of hollyhock. I reclaimed the front garden — not the spot stage left where I’d first spotted aster coming up among the yellow irises and left them to grow — a mistake I’d learn when the wild aster three years later had spread six feet in each direction — falling over the street in clouds in the fall — covered with so many bees that the neighbors walking their dogs would give it a wide berth and cast disparaging glances our way — a plant that horrifies my Austrian MIL — a woman whose hometown is defined by its tidy gardens and well-tended private spaces. (Recently when my husband had gone weeks without mowing and the grass had grown so long it had seeded and you could hide yourself in it — higher than the hood of the riding mower as he dutifully traversed the lawn — my MIL made a point of saying that neighbor’s had approached her asking if my husband was ill and offering their services). My gardening fury didn’t solve the other spot mid-lawn stage left where the lines heading to the utility pole cut a diagonal, covered in ugly yellow tubing — a place where I’d tried grasses — which didn’t stay compact as I’d hoped –but went wild taking over the russian sage and the black-eyed susans that had been there — now it was a thicket of wild lupine transplanted from the ditches of the upper peninsula of Michigan — an ugly junk tree that is a bone of contention between G and I — he lovingly transplanted it from the place in the city where we’d lived — its one of those junk trees you see sprouting up in alley spaces — behind garages and in untended places — a horse chestnut maybe, or an Ohio buckeye — anyway I eye it with resignation and a deep understanding that marriage is about these type of compromises. In this thicket a mallard nested in the past few weeks — she would come to the place under the pines on the side yard where we’d built a platform for feed — to our birdbath half dug in the earth so she could reach it — and she would waddle back to the front — her nest hidden by the last year’s canes of salvia.

It rained all week last week — more like the pacific northwest than the upper midwest — and I noticed two white globes which I thought were mushrooms — sprouted overnight in a patch of winterkill grass that is mostly mud now (between the lupine/grass thicket and the crabapple that is mid-yard stage left) — and as Z and I approached them we saw that they were eggs. Emptied eggs. It bothered me all day — and Z kept sadly pronouncing how sad the mother duck would be — that there would be no ducklings — and I kept saying “but maybe they hatched” — knowing that the crow G had seen earlier that morning had cracked those eggs open and drained them of their contents. She had me walk her to the pond to see if there were any duck families (which sounds more bucolic than it is — a holdover from what used to be wetlands here but it now behind an retirement home bordered by railroad tracks and a commercial road on one end — the last stand of wild woods on the other that leads to our neighborhood park — this place all used to be truck farms and asparagus fields — even when G was a child there was a feed store and a horse barn not far from here — its now all houses and strip malls and the occasional park with slides and swings and sometimes tennis courts (like ours — cracked and long fallen into disrepair) and sometimes hockey rinks.)

We bought this house in 2006 after a shooting kitty-corner from us in the four-plex in the city where we lived. This house is down the street from the house where G was raised — and its a house where the original owners had ten kids and a giant saint-bernard and didn’t believe in trees (except for two stands of pines on the north side of the house — three in each cluster) or landscaping, or even grass. “He always said he was raising kids, not grass” the neighbors laugh. When we moved in it was a concrete-hard mass filled with crabgrass and dandelion in an undulating half acre on the corner lot — which sounds like more land than it is — the other feature of the house is its unusual courtyard (again, not grand at all.) The wife was Spanish and so it makes a bit of sense –the tradition of enclosure — the husband was a builder and so needed room to house his equiptment — and in the late 60’s he petitioned the village (as my MIL calls it which makes it seem quaint, but it isn’t) to have a detached garage that would be two cars wide and three cars deep. They refused saying the city by-law required an attached garage as they currently had a two-stall tuck-under — he remodeled the basement (presumably to accomodate his growing family) and at the end of his driveway built his garage — slapping a wall from north side of the house to extend to become the front of the two stall garage — that is a hulking white brick square that matches the house — flat-roofed with seven panels of the kind of spancrete that they used in middle schools from the 60’s — including a spancrete that runs from the door of the garage to the house to shield us from the rain — but it is ugly — and its concrete haphazard — having never been fully poured as a courtyard but rather just added onto from the previous incarnation as driveway — we stained it in 2008 — but its in need of another coat. We have pretty wrought iron planters that the previous owner’s wife must have stared at and imagined her home. The south side that borders the neighbors yard provides a shaded corridor that I’ve always intended to put flagstone on but never have. It doesn’t grow grass well and becomes thick with fallen mulberry that makes the squirrels drunk and the dog sick.

The first year we buckled under our previous environmental stance and got chem lawn — or as they call themselves now trugreen. We got a sprinkler system and a large fence that looks like brown wrought iron. On the west side of the lawn at the corner we planted three popple (as they call Aspen here) which have grown thick and lush — and just last spring we planted four apple trees that barely survived the winter — the snow getting so high it lifted the bunnies high above the bark guards where they happily stripped the trees of most of the bark all the way around. They blossomed and leafed out but there’s still a question of survival. We planted vines year after year and have finally gotten them to take — Boston Ivy covers the garage — with four of my prized clematis vines — though I was heartbroken that Lucy and a cavorting neighbor’s bulldog named Atlas — chewed through the autumn clematis that had grown this wide wedge shaped and cascading architecture — I’d still like to replace it. That’s on my list along with my Project Dreamcatcher goal.

The week my friend was dying G bought hundreds of dollars worth of cedar and built three raised beds for a vegetable garden I’ve always wanted to put on the west side of our hulking garage — at the top of the sloping yard. I’ve been bugging him for years about a vegetable garden and a chicken coop — imagining turning this yard into an urban farm. I didn’t have to say anything to him — in those nights as I was visiting the hospital — he just knew in a way I didn’t that digging my fingers into the earth — in the zen act of weeding — that I would find solace.

We want chickens — but that will be next year –this year a vegetable garden and a coop.

G has made the beds — now its leveling the land, getting the right soil mixture, sectioning off the square feet/planning the crops — and then buying the plants (sadly I won’t be doing from seed this year.) G will be making the coop to go in the courtyard and we’ll set up the chicken run that goes down the shaded part of the lawn — heading to the garden/walking paths. Part of the reason that chicken coop is year two is that our neighbors have a territorial rottweiler (super) that menaces us from the relatively low chainlink on the south side of the yard and so that side of the yard will need a tall plank fence next year.

On top of this I want to keep on top of my prairie garden, the general landscaping — plant a few more flowering bushes, bulbs in the spring — blueberry bushes and raspberry canes — and maybe even a strawberries.