Echoes of Eden, whispers of Paradise

(Christian Courier column, June 22, 2015)

IMG_0001By the time you read this, I’ll be almost recuperated from two months of extreme gardening. Last fall we left for Florida without accomplishing much cleanup, so this past April consisted of endless days of raking leaves and clearing debris. May was all about weeding, planting and pruning. But June is sheer gratification. Time to sit back and marvel.

I recall last year’s June. Abundant spring rain had given my garden a turbo-boost of energy that resulted in lush exuberance. It was intoxicating. Vivid colours — the bright lime green of emerging tendrils on the elderberry, the sparkling yellow of marigolds, deep purple clematis, royal blue lobelia. The textures – fuzzy moss, waxy hens and chicks, the spidery veins of the caladium. Everything shone, except for the tiger sumac Mark decided to prune on a hot day, promptly killing half of it. Apparently, tiger sumacs don’t take well to being sliced and diced in the middle of a growth spurt. The real satisfaction last year, though, was the maturity of the garden, a five year project completed. It was so rewarding to see those rough original landscape sketches transformed into the artful vistas I’d imagined so long ago.

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It will always be a work in progress, naturally, as gardens are. There are plants to relocate, holes to fill. We pulled out eight old cedars last spring, and suddenly, wow, the pear tree in the far corner, which had languished since we planted it, neither hot nor cold (something biblical there), started to shoot up like Jack’s beanstalk.

But truly the most edifying thing about the garden is simply how much time Mark and I spend there together. He enjoys all the things I don’t … filling the bird feeder, installing gadgets like wand attachments to hoses and setting up the rain barrels. He takes care of the gruesome tasks like disposing of the occasional dead bird or scooping the poop left behind by some rascally dog off the leash. One night we heard a rustling in the patio pot behind us. I dropped to one knee instantly, ready to sprint away like a mutant superhero. He calmly lifted the trailing bacopa to reveal a toad. He wondered if I wanted to kiss it. Oh, yes, we have fun in the garden.

He likes to tease me by offering opinions on my aesthetic choices: I think those cabbages would look better in rows, don’t you? That marijuana plant there needs to be pruned, doesn’t it? Of course, I have neither cabbages nor marijuana in my garden. The cabbages are sedums. The marijuana plant? Sumac. He makes up new names for the plants every day, so I’m never quite sure which one he’s talking about. It’s fun to show him new blooms that are emerging, or how much weeding I’ve accomplished that day. He makes a commendable effort to appear interested.

We like to watch the birds together. Of course, as I’ve already confessed in a previous column, I’m terrified of them (ornithophobia). Much of Mark’s enjoyment doesn’t really come from the birds, but from witnessing my fear in action. Do you know how aggressive a mama grackle can get if you (inadvertently) get too close to her baby? She will swoop right at your head! Squeals from me. Peals of laughter from him.

Every evening a neighbourhood cat slinks along our fence on some stealth mission of his own. The resident blue jays go insane. One night they all dive-bombed the cat! It was quite the melee. Better the cat than me, I say. Mark gives ridiculous names to the birds and squirrels, too, some of which are funny but not edifying, so I can’t share them here.

When we sit on the patio and have our coffee, watching the sun go down and waiting for the solar lights to flash on, we can be quietly content for long stretches. I might break the silence by telling him that the fence looks fantastic and thanks again for building that, honey. I might point out that our shed is the second-best one in Wyoming (bested only by our neighbour’s which has French doors and a porch). Thanks for building that, too, dear. I might mention that I saw a hummingbird today. We’ll talk about the weather, now that, as he says, I’m pretty close to being a farmer. We’ll discuss tomorrow’s plans. Golfing? I’ll ask (he golfs every day). He’ll say, “Yep, I might, for a change.”

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God in my garden

(Christian Courier column, Sept. 24, 2012 issue)

Gardening is the one thing I do for myself. I don’t garden for food; I don’t garden to improve our property’s market value; I don’t garden to impress the neighbours. I simply garden for my eyes – for an instinctual love of colour, texture, and shape. And in that joyful impulse to create something beautiful, a living composition, I discover a kinship with the Lord God himself who planted a garden in Eden. Gardening just might be the most devotional thing I do.

For me the proof of God could very well be the colour green. The balsam of my cedars turns acid-washed when wet, the lime of my citronelle heucheras flashes neon, the new growth on my Japanese barberry defines chartreuse. Every hue unfolds in the foliage of my garden – olive, sage, jade. But I also adore the “look at me” audacity of orange marigolds and red geraniums. Blue rings the accent bell – like the aptly-named morning glory.

But there’s something about texture that also makes my throat constrict. Maidenhair grasses are rapier-thin, slicing the breeze with finesse. A stand of massive Chinese grass evokes a corralled cluster of javelins aiming skyward. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the soft and furry grasses. The kitten tails of purple fountain grass bounce playfully against the air. Hamlyn grass flaunts fuzzy caterpillars on stalks arrayed in a miniature carousel. Clusters of white phlox beckon like popcorn balls at the fair. Begonias border my beds, their waxy apple-green leaves and pert white blossoms tidily bundled like so many perfect bridal bouquets all in a row. 

Wind and light are transformative. An April wind gusts, bending trees at the waist, and I see the Holy Spirit, invincible and irresistible. On a scorching motionless August day, the grainy heads of the Reed Foerster grasses still vibrate imperceptibly, and I see that same Spirit, covert, mysterious. When the summer sun spills its evening rays over the garden, everything is glazed, dripping with liquid incandescence, a baptism of light. The glossy wine-coloured leaves of the redbud cradle the glow, dark green veins holding the radiance like leaded stained glass windows. The smokebush ignites, maroon flaming to crimson. Japanese flame grass flourishes seedheads like burnished bronze standards. Lustrous white hosta blossoms nod and wink with a knowing air. God is here.

Love is made visible in work. I’ve turned over mountains of clay dirt, sweat dripping, blisters on my hands, gashes on my calves from rusty shovels. I’ve wrestled tangled roots out of the ground, lugged rocks, shovelled mulch off the bed of our pickup truck, bundled branches and pruned hedges. I’ve had to conquer my fears to garden. I’m afraid of, in no particular order, birds, snakes, bats, voles, bees, wasps, mice and the occasional sneaky frog that suddenly hops away, centimetres from my face. Beauty comes at a price. It’s unequivocally worth it. And that, too, makes me reflect on God and the price he paid to redeem his handiwork, love sown in sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, but also the incremental sacrifices, watching his pristine creation daily wrung to tattered ugliness by sin.

 I’ve learned something of that divine patience through gardening. This year I’ve nursed a Rheingold cedar that sustained significant winter damage. The blight was an eyesore, but rather than discarding the shrub, I kept watering and fertilizing and waiting. It’s coming back, slowly. I feel like God, who doesn’t break a bruised reed but cherishes us despite our rot and mildew. We Christians often display glaring blots on our witness and character, but I don’t despair. I’ve learned forbearance by tending this broken plant. God isn’t finished with us. He’s not finished with me. Having woven us in the depths of the earth, as the Psalmist says, his hand is still upon us.

I love the old dependables – the no-name hostas and faithful perennials that function as backdrop for the showier specimens. They also make me think of God’s master design. There are always those individuals in the church or institutions in the broader kingdom that are in the foreground of service or acclaim, but the grinders have their integral place. The volunteer who stacks chairs after a meeting or the son who makes time to visit his mom in the nursing home are as beloved of God as the Rob Bells or Albert Mohlers who put Christianity on the front page.

Annuals, too, remind me of God’s providence and planning. Petunias and impatiens add their giddy flamboyance to the garden for a brief season; then, in October, they are ruthlessly ripped out. In the face of the sorrow that Christians endure when churches or Christian schools close or ministries come to an end, annuals declare that passing splendour counts.

I’m well aware that this column is a bit anthropomorphically excessive, but as summer draws to a close, it’s that once and future resurrection embedded in gardening that is the most extravagantly emblematic of all, that keeps young gardeners seeing visions and old gardeners dreaming dreams. Next spring, after the dead of winter, will come a triumphant and glorious rebirth, orange tulips dancing and yellow daffodils skipping, and I’ll believe again and testify that God will redeem his Garden.

The Garden Chronicles – June 15, 2012

Bad Bird Day

OK, my heart’s actually thumping a bit. It’s a beautiful sunny day in June so why am I inside typing instead of fertilizing my annuals? BAD BIRD DAY! This morning I had an experience so frightening, I almost peed my pants. Sorry to be so graphic – no other way to convey the depth of my terror. I’m going along, tenderly watering my begonias with Miracle Gro, sweet-talking them, admiring their strong growth and cheering them on. OK, I wasn’t actually speaking aloud to them. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have startled the baby mourning dove camouflaged in the dirt. It’s fairly dense with foliage in that part of the garden – there’s a luxuriant purple heuchera nestled beside some nicely-blooming Stella d’Oro lilies. More cover is provided by a maturing clump of false sunflowers. The canopy of my prized redbud keeps the soil shaded and cool.

I must have gotten too close for comfort.  With a massive crash and bash, and a whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop that sounds like the Three Stooges guy with the bowl cut, the youngster tries to fly up out of the flowers away from me. Somehow, in its spastic fright, it couldn’t quite take wing, so it shuddered, gibbered and whirligigged like a spinning top and then nose-dived into my weigelas a few feet away. I’m gibbering like an idiot over in my corner, too, my hair standing on end like that other bozo of the Three Stooges, but try not to linger on that picture. 🙂

Now it’s afternoon and I’m ready to tackle the other side of the garden. But I have to go back to the day before yesterday for a moment. Step into my time machine (you can do that in comedy). I’m watering my garden with the long hose that has a neat new gun nozzle with all kinds of settings. It was on centre spray, a steady forceful stream of water. It’s early evening, the breeze is soft on my face, the sun’s slanting rays painting long leafy shadows on the lawn. I’m thinking spiritual thoughts, writing a blog post in my head (I do this for fun and because my brain won’t turn off even on demand). A sudden whir of wings directly overhead, so close that I duck and swing my hose wildly to defend myself, a new method of baptism called “sprinkled from north, south, east and west.” I didn’t even see what kind of bird it was! I was seriously unnerved! Still, I didn’t assume it was a personal attack. Birds fly from my neighbour’s garage roof to our roof all the time to get a drink from the eavestroughs. It’s a regular flight path of grackles, doves, robins… you name it. Nothing further untoward happened. I put it out of my mind, attributing my over-reaction to another of those phobic brain twitches I can’t control.

Back to today. I’m watering, but a persistently squawky grackle is right above my head in the maple tree. It’s loud and obnoxious and doesn’t shut up for a minute. At first I pay it no mind. Then I hear a few timid squawks from just over the hedge in the empty lot next door. Now I’m sure – that momma grackle is directing her annoyance at me! This is probably the very same stealth attacker from the other day!

Now I’m tensing up, realizing that I’m a tad vulnerable when I bend over my annuals with the watering can.  (Also, I’m presenting an expanding target every time I bend over, too, but don’t linger on that image). Anxious and, well, cowardly, I decide to “have a coffee,” a well-known euphemism for “retreat.”

In a little while I’ll go outside again and see if the coast is clear. I have to cut the grass. I think swinging the lawnmower at a dive-bombing grackle is pretty much an impossible feat, even for me, but I’ll definitely be mowing the lawn with my head on automatic 360 degree swivel (you can do that in horror films), checking the atmosphere for “incoming.” Wish me luck.

The Garden Chronicles ~ Oct. 15, 2011

 “Nature is the living, visible garment of God.”  ~ Goethe

This was a bittersweet day. A strong gusty wind, kind of drizzly in the morning, cloudy with sunny breaks in the afteroon. The wind was invigorating. It whipped the trees around and made everything seem as if it had come alive. The trees and shrubs and grasses were all bowing to the east. I was in a Van Gogh painting, the landscape swirling with energy around me. Or maybe a kind of Pentecost reverberation. You could imagine God on the move, a wildness in the air.

 
It was definitely a fall day. I wore a jacket and two pairs of gloves. A knitted pair of finger gloves inside my leather garden gloves. The leather gloves were going to get wet, so I needed the knitted gloves to keep my fingers warm. First I picked up five or six pails of walnuts. They were mushy from the rain. For some reason, this year we had a bumper crop of walnuts. I theorize that the six weeks of spring rain might have had something to do with it. Mark thinks it’s just cyclical. Every couple of years we get a ton of walnuts dropping down. They make a mess on our laneway as Mark’s truck and my car crunch over them. They start out hard and green; by this time in October, they are yellow and squishy, many of them already brown or black with rot. Most of them were lying amongst the fallen leaves. I pick them up in case I still have a chance to cut the grass one more time this fall. I need to do some serious raking, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.
 
I spent about three hours filling four gigantic clear plastic bags with ripped-out annuals. This is sad because so many of them are still lush and growing – like the orange and scarlet celosia, the bright yellow dahlias and marigolds. But I know cold days are just around the corner. I don’t want to do this job when it’s freezing! It’s easy work for the most part. The alyssum and begonias just slide out of the ground, hardly taking any soil with the roots. The impatiens are slimy and messier. I pull weeds out while I’m at it. I leave all the grasses and the clematis and the sedums because they look so magnificent with the snow on them in the winter, and I leave the coneflowers for the birds to snack on. 
 
What’s good about a day like today, though, is thinking about spring. Thinking about the 90 tulip bulbs I’ll plant next week in the west garden where I’ve cleared out all the annuals. I got them cheap at Costco… a pastel mix of purple, pinks and soft creamy white. I make mental notes about which annuals did well and about how many I’ll need to get next year, and whether to go with alyssum or begonias as my border plants. My niece’s wedding will be in our backyard next August, so there’s lots to plan for… 
 
It was also a good day because I didn’t have to go anywhere. I had no errands to do. The whole day was devoted to being outside, having the occasional coffee break with Mark, who was working in the garage, refurbishing our stair railings. He’s re-staining the hand rails and painting the spindles white. It was a good day because I’m most thankful and peaceful when I’m in the garden. I pray. I pray for people who need prayer. But I also thank God for stuff, too. I thank God for my garden almost every day, for the joy it brings me, for the solitude I find there that is never lonely. My mind quiets down. Even though the garden is already starting to look messy, stems and stalks drying up and curling brown, and moist and sticky black leaves gumming up the beds, it still has a kind of last gasp dignity.   
 
It was also a good day because I had time to reflect on it and share it with you. 🙂
 

The Garden Chronicles ~ July 28, 2011

Gardening is edifying for me. I never seem to tire of it. Or reading… but that’s another post.

This spring’s six weeks of almost constant rain seemed to give my garden a turbo-boost of energy that’s resulted in lush and exuberant growth. Everything is doing amazingly well, except for my tiger sumac which Mark pruned on a hot day, promptly killing half of it. Apparently, tiger sumacs don’t take well to being sliced and diced in high humidity in mid-growth spurt. The colours in the garden are vivid and lively: sunny marigolds and dahlias, pink nicotiana, purple and white clematis, the new lime green growth of the black elderberry shrub, royal blue lobelia in the hanging baskets, and every other colour in the rainbow. The textures of garden delight me, too… the feathery plumes of the grasses, the waxy hens and chicks, the spidery raised veins of the caladium. The real satisfaction this year, in addition to the heady growth, is the more or less mature condition of the gardens in the backyard, a five year project finally completed. It’s the pinnacle of gratification to see my dreams come to life, a reasonable facsimile of the sketches I made when I retired five years ago.

It will always be a work in progress, though, as all gardens are. There are plants to prune or relocate. We pulled out eight older cedars this spring, and, wow, suddenly the pear tree in that corner, which had languished since we planted it, neither hot nor cold (something biblical there), started to grow like crazy. Sadly, my weeping cherry gave up the ghost. (also biblical). It was my second one at that. I’ve surrendered all hopes of having this exquisite and dainty tree be the focal point of my backyard. Our dense clay soil was declared the winner … and heavy-weight champion of the world! But another graceful tree with a multi-stemmed trunk and pale green variegated leaves has taken its place and looks just as flouncy and perfect. I don’t know its name, because it was given to me, but it’s doing just great. I love it. 

The most edifying thing about the garden, though, is simply how much time Mark and I spend there together. He enjoys all the things I don’t… removing baby rabbits (we won’t say how or in what ontological state… sentient or insentient), filling the bird feeder, buying and installing gadgets like solar spotlights, water sprinklers, and special wand attachments for the hoses (a new one with every trip to Home Depot). One night we heard a rustling in the patio pot behind him. Instantly I was down on one knee, ready to sprint away like a mutant superhero at Beast speed. He calmly lifted up the trailing bacopa and discovered a toad. He wondered if I wanted to kiss it. Oh, yes, we have fun in the garden.

Mark likes to encourage me by offering opinions on all my aesthetic choices… I think those cabbages would look better in rows, don’t you?  Or … that marijuana plant there needs to be pruned, doesn’t it?  I hasten to assure you that I have neither cabbages nor marijuana plants in my garden. When he says cabbages, he means my sedums, and the marijuana plant is my sumac. But he makes up new names for my plants every day, so I’m never quite sure which one he’s talking about. It’s fun to show him new blooms that are emerging, late growth on tardy plants, or how much weeding I got done during the day. He does a great job of pretending to be interested.

We like to watch the birds together. Of course, I’m terrified of them, so some of his enjoyment (OK, most of his enjoyment) comes from waiting and watching to see if any of our five resident blue jays will fly close enough to me to elicit a panicked squeal. He finds that amusing. Every night a neighbourhood cat tries to slink incognito along our fence on some obscure epistemological trek. But the blue jays always see him and dress him down with some seriously manic trash-talk. One night a couple of them actually dive-bombed him. It was quite the melee! Better him than me, I say. Mark gives the birds ridiculous names and the squirrels, too. Some of which are funny but not edifying, so I can’t share them here.

When we sit on the patio and have our coffee, watching the birds and the solar caps on the fence posts come on in uncanny conjunction with the fireflies, we can be quiet for long periods at a time. He’ll have a cigar (something I don’t like, but I don’t nag) and I will look at the garden. I might tell him that the fence is fantastic and thanks again for building that, honey. And that shed is the second-best one in Wyoming. By the way, thanks for building that, dear. I might tell him that I saw a hummingbird today. We’ll talk about the weather, of course, now that I’m a farmer, as he says, and what his golfing schedule will be… not that it ever changes. Golfing tomorrow? I’ll ask, and he’ll say, “Yep, I might, for a change.”

Mary Abma: art from dirt

(Christian Courier, July 11, 2011) 

When the 19th century Peasant Poet John Clare was asked, “Where do your poems come from?” he aptly replied, “I kick them out of the clods.” Mary Abma’s latest art pieces also derive from the dirt, the dirt in her own backyard. As the Agricultural Revolution fenced the commons, drained marshes and exiled peasants to textile mills, Clare mourned the loss of the traditional English landscape. Mary mourns a similar loss – Ontario’s dwindling Carolinian forest, the extinction of native plants and the near-obliteration of a vibrant indigenous culture. Her most recent work, soon to be exhibited at both Redeemer University College (September 24-November 30, 2011) and Calvin College (January 6-February 18, 2012), ponders these losses. In My Own Backyard is a monumental effort in its conceptual framework, its comprehensive research and its profound respect for the natural world.
 

Mary’s art springs from a curious mind: “I visit themes that relate to universal experiences that are present in our own life narratives. I am especially interested in exploring the bridges that bring us into a connection with our past, those that identify our relationship with the natural world, and those that lead to an awareness of God.”
 

The spark of this exhibition was Norway’s Doomsday Seed Vault, underwritten by mega-corporations like Monsanto. Intrigued by this so-called bio-diversity preservation project, Mary wondered about its ethical ramifications. “Food” seeds were being stored, a hedge against some future apocalypse. Was that diversity? Seeds safe in a sanctuary … but for whose profit? With what moral safeguards?

Researching the word origins of “sanctuary,” Mary honed in on a Latin definition: “private cabinet of a prince.” Pursuing the history of cabinets led her to the “apothecary cabinet” and to her own ancestor, Louis Hebert, an apothecary who settled in New France in the 1600s. Hebert had brought medicinal plants from France to his new home, a commonplace practice. Mary was struck by the possibility that the non-native plants in her own backyard could actually have been the result of her ancestor’s unwitting eco-meddling.

Cultivation and conquest
Mary’s reading of primary sources about early Canadian settlement led her to a fresh awareness of the “cultivation and conquest” imagery of colonial language, a vernacular that included the subjugation of the indigenous populations as well as the land. In some texts, native people were referred to as crops to be harvested or weeds to be exterminated. The settlers viewed their “cultivation” of the New World as beneficial, even heroic. Mary inscribed their ingenuous remarks, culled from letters and diaries, onto antique farm implements that were specifically used to cut land and crops. The irony is exquisite. Then, the blades were useful, the intentions, admirable. Now, we recognize that both the blades and the intentions had unforeseen and injurious consequences. The artistic meld of text and artefact forces the viewer to ponder the future. How will our present practices appear to generations yet to come?
 

It’s easy to point fingers at corporations or to judge previous generations. Norman Wirzba’s book, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, confronted Mary with her own obliviousness to the biological habitat just outside her back door. Was her ignorance leading to carelessness? Her lawn was overgrown with weeds and other plants she couldn’t identify. She decided to create a herbarium of all the plants that grew unbidden in her yard. Enter scientific research, cataloguing, assistance from botany professors and the meticulous journaling of her process. With a sense of wonder, Mary discovered an incredible diversity in her lawn, over 75 plant species in all, the vast majority invasive and non-native.
 

Mary’s research alerted her to the curious fact that early botanists often recorded their observations on paper covered with erasures. Perhaps they were merely dismissive of previous “old” knowledge, or, self-interested, they were seeking to convey discoveries as their own original work. Certainly much of their “new” knowledge was acquired through contact with native peoples, but, given the colonial mindset of cultural superiority, such “borrowing” was not credited. This covering up of old knowledge with new information inspired Mary to explore the idea of a “palimpsest,” a recycled papyrus manuscript with the previous script still faintly discernible. Mary’ series, Herbarium of Lot 161, Plan 150, grew from this concept. She created 120 panels of pressed plants from her backyard. First, she spray-painted the plants a metallic silver, purposely “altering” the plants, creating an artificial homogeneity to signify human intervention. Then the panels were layered with embedded fragments of historical text about each plant, including songs, recipes and medicinal attributes, and, lastly, painted with acrylics.

Mary noted that previous generations had far greater familiarity with native plant species and their properties than we do today. In 1750 all children could identify sow thistle because they fed it to their rabbits. Today, information about plants is readily available on Google, but divorced from daily experience. Do we take responsibility for knowledge if we assume it is readily accessible? Do we treasure knowledge, or is it disposable, a casualty of our drive-through culture?
 

Such questions led Mary to wonder about the plants that might have been flourishing in her yard today had it not been for settlement. She decided to create lumens, ghostly images of native plants made with technology through a completely natural photographic process. These ethereal silhouettes become evocative reminders of a native plant life that has been decimated by human ecological intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

God’s intelligent design
And that, finally, brought Mary to a consideration of transcendence. Wirzba wrote, “We are, in short, bereft of a sense of the cosmos, the sense of an ordered whole that envelops and enables life.” God’s intelligent design for the interconnectedness of life, whether plant, animal or human, is often overlooked or ignored. Mary explored this idea artistically with an installation piece, a triptych. “I wanted this piece to embody the sacred, somehow, and this ultimately led me to reference the Christian sacrament of Eucharist because, first of all, it is very honest for me. The Eucharist is all about communion with God. It is a reminder of the sanctity of life and the importance of ritual. It puts us into a context in which we are thankful and humble. I also felt it was an appropriate reference because those of us who have inherited Christian beliefs and traditions need to take a close look at our history and move toward reconciliation where we have confused our own desires with Divine intention. This reconciliation includes how we treat the environment.”

 

Mary collected seeds from her yard, storing them in an antique printer drawer, another allusion to the transference of knowledge. Similarly, she also collected rainwater, a full year’s worth of precipitation. 365 communion glasses, carefully shrink-wrapped, contain a proportionate amount of water for each day’s rainfall. The presentation emphasizes the life-giving potency of water, both physical and spiritual, but the packaging alludes to the current commodification of this critical resource. The third panel of the triptych features a soil monolith with exposed strata from her yard, as well as wafers created from the dirt. The installation welcomes the viewer to the Lord’s Table — a Eucharist fashioned from the earth for a humanity created from dust.
 

Mary has been personally transformed by her work: “My whole notion of what constitutes a beautiful garden has changed. I also recognize my own responsibility when it comes to ecosystem degradation. I will not close the book on this project. Already we are in the process of redeeming our own little patch of creation: our yard. As I walk around it now, I can identify the vast majority of my weeds. I know what to nurture and what to pull out. We have designated two distinct areas of our yard as native plant gardens and hope to expand these over time.”

In My Own Backyard  is a mature show. The art is singularly elegant in its own right, but the exhibition as a whole is unified by an invisible coherence. It’s the coherence of repentance and renewal offered in the chancels of our own backyards, where, as Martin Luther said, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

The Garden Chronicles ~ September 12, 2010

Paint by Gender

Last summer Mark built a handsome fence for my garden.  He dug the post holes by hand. He lugged two by fours and four by fours and mixed quick-set concrete in the blazing sun. He screwed everything together so it would be sturdy and last forever, unlike our neighbour’s fence which is already warping because it was “nailed and not screwed.” He put solar caps on the four by four posts. They illumine the night with a cool blue glow. The evening ambience is worthy of Style at Home, so you know I’m happy. The fence provides structure and a sense of enclosure to the garden and is the perfect natural backdrop for the plants and trees.

It seemed only fair that I offer to apply the weatherproofing sealant. I don’t mind painting. Not so fond of digging. 🙂 But, because Mark used wolmanized lumber, I had to wait a year for the wood to weather enough to accept the new finish.

The day finally came a couple of weeks ago when I was ready to paint. I made the mistake of mentioning this to Mark. He didn’t say too much, and disappeared into the garage.

In the meantime, I got ready. I had to change my clothes, of course, and don my painting outfit, a pair of shorts and tee-shirt already covered with the spatters of previous painting projects. I had to switch glasses. I wear my old frames when I am painting so as not to get any paint on my Vogue glasses with the trendy bling. I had to put sunscreen on my nose because, alas, it’s my own personal oversized facial solar panel that attracts UVA rays and UVB rays and every other evil alphabetized kind of ray looking for a landing pad.

Then I had to gather my implements and accoutrements. I had to go down to the laundry room and find the small brush I like to use for painting because it fits my hand well and prevents me from getting a sore wrist. I had to find my gloves. Wearing a glove on my right hand also supports my wrist and prevents “wrist fatigue.” I’m pretty sure that’s a genuine syndrome. I think I read about it in Divas Don’t Paint: The Style Guide to DIY. Furthermore, gloves are necessary for brushing away spider webs, pulling weeds away from the bottom of the posts, and basically keeping the stain off my fingers. I had to find my small dustpan brush which I would need for two reasons: first, to sweep away bird droppings, crumbled and dry (not so bad), or recent (gross), and caterpillars (both the smooth green ones and the fuzzy white ones … neither of which I want to touch), and, second, to flail wildly at bees, yellowjackets, and wasps. I had to put a few Kleenex tissues in my pocket because I was going to sweat and I don’t like perspiration dripping into my eyes.  I”ve discovered that if sweat drips in your eyes, your mascara starts running and that’s not really a flattering look, especially in the harsh mid-day sunlight. So a dainty wipe of the forehead occasionally with a tissue forestalls that eventuality. (This is not my first time working outside, as you can tell). Finally, I went to the garage to find the step stool which I would need to do the top of the fence since it’s seven feet high. I couldn’t find it.

I thought the step stool might be in the shed, so I headed outside. There was Mark with the step stool, a gallon of sealant, and an oversized paintbrush that he tried to hand to me. I said that I had a brush, thanks. He pointed out that his brush would be more efficient. It would cover more area with each stroke. I politely responded that the smaller brush fit my hand better. He gave me what can truthfully only be described as a patronizing look. He then asked me what took me so long. He’d been waiting for me. I described all the things I had to do (see previous paragraph). He laughed.  Uproariously.

I got to work. After about two hours Mark came out to check on me. “Is that all you’ve got done?” he asked. There was only the slightest hint of condescension in his tone. You probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but I’ve had some practice.  “You want me to spray the fence?” he offered. “It would be quicker.”

“No, that’s OK,” I replied sweetly. In spite of the aforesaid withering glance and scornful comment, it’s best, I find, to remain conciliatory. There’s always another garden project in the future.  🙂

I certainly did NOT want him to spray the fence. The stain would end up all over my plants and the coverage on the fence would be drippy and uneven. I wanted a neat and carefully applied finish, precisely covering all areas with as consistent an application as possible.

I’m still not done.  🙂