“Blue McQuary” heirloom woad among the daylilies.
The blog posts I’ve been writing this spring are a primitive narrative of garden preparation and planting, a spring ritual which seems to come simultaneously with garden cleanup. This post finishes the sequence. Gradually the bits and pieces come together. The new front garden gate is finished.
Imprecise but functional
Some nooks and crannies are beginning to come together.
The side garden is constantly mutating.
I was reminded, reading back a few posts, that we lost a lot of irises last fall. Heavy rain was the culprit. The surviving irises are mainly familiar heirloom varieties but many of the expensive modern irises were rescued and will get another chance.
It was an eventful two years, but this rhizome finally got to bloom.
I can’t bring myself to say much about the world beyond the garden, though I feel we are watching a change as profound as any of us have ever seen. I can’t say I’m surprised, after forty years of historical writing. At the moment I am just not sure what to say. I fear I may be turning into an old bore, just repeating that my novel Macaque was always serious. As for us, our fate is partly up to others, and I hate that feeling. A philosopher might say the world always seems to be ending and of course in some ways it always is.
A lavender mood. With orange fur.
Dutch irises voting to be part of reality en masse.
I think most Old Age and New Age gardeners would agree that it’s good to talk to your plants, or at least inevitable. Opinions might vary about the plants talking back, but I have seen it before. It’s not the commonest thing, but it is not entirely unknown.
But I won’t go on and on about iris-talk.
Unlike René Magritte’s "Ceci n’est pas une pipe," this really is a cement owl.
There are other things to look at in the garden, such as saxifrage, also known as rockfoil.
And this rose-breasted grosbeak, which was desperate to be photographed.
“Blue McQuary” heirloom woad among the daylilies.
I don’t want to end this post without mentioning woad. Woad is available from specialty seed suppliers. The ancient Britons must have grown it by the ton, to dye with and to paint themselves blue. A couple of years ago I grew a sizable tub of woad, but in the end the rigors of actually extracting the dye kept me from painting myself. By the time I had my woad it no longer seemed worth the trouble, and possibly it never was. But I had a new respect for the industry of the ancients who made this stuff. We sort of owe it all to them. Anyway, woad escapes. It is a friendly, long-blooming volunteer and it should have its place in any Belgian or Pictish flower border, at least for old times’ sake and to keep the ancient Romans on their toes.
The Treachery of Images, 1929, by Belgian artist Réne Magritte.
After temperatures in the 80s Fahrenheit, a couple of nights ago it snowed at the higher elevations while we received over three inches of rain in two days. I find this fascinating. Why? Because I’m stuck under it. This is all the weather I have. Animals and plants of course live out in it the whole time, so to a squirrel or a tree this is not so much weather as it is reality.
Snow on the Blue Ridge, April 15, 2020.
The conical hill in the center right of the photo above is Buck Mountain. The ridge in back is Bear Den Mountain. Our view of sunset on the Summer Solstice is along that ridge. My son Ted and I, several years ago, used an actual solstice sunset to calibrate the first scientific device either of us had ever actually built, a solstice-pointer with an extremely precise heel stone. We did not invent this. We used a proven and reliable public-domain design for it.
It’s a little unpolished, but it absolutely works!
In our upland garden, the roses and bearded irises are thinking about blooming simultaneously, which is two weeks early for both of them. The 80-degree days set their clocks off. They have to bloom. And yet, despite the unseasonable cold, even Mother Nature cannot fool lilacs. When the lilacs bud out, there is not going to be another frost after that. No idea how the lilacs know. We ourselves only know this local lore because of generations of observation passed down as a legacy that once actually meant something when people around here mostly lived by farming. Back in the day.
And yet the tulips are still at their peak.
Wild Tulipa clusiana.
Why an early wild tulip would bloom at the same time as a Chinese peony is something to ask the lilacs about.
.Just above, I remarked that some roses were contemplating bloom. Don’t know why I said that; the yellow Banksia wild rose along our abandoned lane is one huge puff of bloom. It usually blooms around May Day so it too is a couple of weeks early.
Yellow “Lady Banks” Rose.
Banksia, a native of Western and Central China, has been cultivated there for many hundreds of years or even longer. The wild form is a single with five petals per bloom, and the fragrant cultivated version is a double, as the picture shows. The English botanist J. D. Parks purchased the yellow Lady Banks rose in a nursery in China in 1824 and brought it back to Europe aboard the ship Lowther Castle, part of a celebrated haul of Chinese garden plants, shrubs and trees. Lady Banks falls somewhere between shrub and small tree, a formidable plant.
The least demanding rose I know of.
Bridalwreath Spirea (Spirea prunifolia) complements Lady Banks.
Along the abandoned lane.
Gardening is delving and toting, transforming our lives into Weed Bug Hell and living out God’s notorious warning, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” We did not really need God to tell us that; our grandfathers told us that much, as they heard from their grandfathers and the grandfathers before them. There is a long tradition of comparing gardens and Edens and using gardens as metaphors for divine encounters, but to those who actually make gardens, Jeremiah 12:2 is actually more like it: “Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root: they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins.” Of course Jeremiah was having a Jeremiad and speaking of the wicked specifically, not plants; “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1). But the gardener who has knuckled at Ragweed in the mud "knoweth" the answer and finds weeds wicked. Why are weeds wicked? Because they interfere with our Paradise, when all we really want is to let our tulips speak for us.
Oh were my tulips to speak!
In my last blog I mentioned the fight to keep nature from taking the garden back, and how rapidly weeds and weather overtake normal garden maintenance tasks, adding things gardeners must suddenly do to the other things the gardener was already doing. The sudden double-shot of work in late March and early April ultimately discourages more than a few home gardeners, or leads to hiring garden professionals to do the whole fun part.
Temperate Zone gardens change fast. The seasons can turn surprisingly rapidly. In winter the ground is a mixture of near-freezing mud and dead leaves and sticks. Then the hibernating winter soil, full of turgid roots and sleeping insects and larvae, changes to greasy spring soil exhaling its winter rot. The spring degassing is accompanied by a fantastic explosion of weeds in the disturbed soil of the garden. Weeds love disturbed soil. They must be pulled for both aesthetic and cultivation purposes, as competitors against the plants of our own choice.
Treena pointing out a rose bed weed explosion.
Weed explosions are caused by the creation of the bed itself. Weeds could be defined as wild plants that love freshly disturbed soil. The shallowness of weeds—both biological and intellectual—is the key to fighting the spring weed onslaught. But resistance is not victory. All other things being equal, the size of a garden is determined—brutally fixed—by the amount of weeding and maintenance you can do, or afford to have done for you. We still enlarge the garden every year, moving fence sections as we go to keep the deer out, but the limit of what Karen and I can realistically hope to take care of is somewhat close to hand.
Some deer—three members of a herd of ten, spread out along the edge of the woods.
Weeds and weather transitions aside, the structure of the ground itself—not just the surface of a few flowerbeds, but the topology, the structure of the subsoil, even geology itself, not to mention the question of water, matter a lot. The bedding itself, as garden soil, has liquidity and wants to obey water and gravity and migrate downhill. Keeping the soil from leaching out or migrating away is therefore necessary, and that is the reason for the hardscaping. Hardscaping also opens up the temptation to decorate. I prefer to decorate with stone, but tiling and paving also make weeding and cultivation easier—easier to do and easier to plan—so our garden, which includes slopes, seems to be fighting to climb up into raised beds and terraces.
The earliest gardens were human attempts to get something to eat. The cultivars in those gardens began as weeds. We hear that Paradise was tended. Ornamentation soon followed. Later the Babylonians hung their garden, making the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World list. It must have been spectacular. Gardens seem to have become overtly metaphorical—living and growing handcrafted metaphors for nature—very long ago. Metaphorical gardens abound in painting and verse. Why does nature need any such translation into metaphor? Some of the most aesthetically gratifying gardens are the most naturalistic—think of the Japanese garden and the Romantic garden.
But then there are Continental gardens, knot gardens, shrubberies and formalized beds, Dutch gardening, Versailles. Patterned gardens have been called metaphors for the conquest of nature. They could also be seen as humorous gardens, gardens designed to make you smile; or scientific gardens, designed to elevate landscaping to architecture and the mathematical. It is an awful lot of cost and work. Why do we do it?
Do we even have any hints about the answer to that? The best I can come up with is a parallel comparison. In our humanity we struggle high and low to make experience itself metaphorical. Poetry, song and story, music, sculpture and painting, the arts and sciences in general, are how we re-represent our physical presence in the world and our incidents and involvements large and small, whether with people or with plants and insects, to ourselves and others. We have to have these metaphorical structures. There is probably no one reason why.
Yesterday was wet, windy and chill. Despite the raw and emphatic weather, the redbuds reached full bloom, blooming directly from the bark as well as the limbs.
We don’t see this every year.
A couple of days ago I took a needed break from all the planned or suddenly necessary work and did something unnecessary for fun—recovering old shed foundations.
The skeleton shed and old worn-out gates.
The right side of the partly dismantled shed in the photo above had an animal stall at the back. This was dug into the slope and lined with big pieces of cut granite and some marble, topped off with stuccoed brick. I find this a truly odd use for such decent-sized pieces of cut stone, but all this was built by a construction contractor with lots of tag ends and leftovers to use up, an awfully long time ago.
Mortared brick and stucco over cut slab granite.
Some delicate teasing with a crowbar and a ten-pound sledgehammer enabled the stones to be eased out.
Cut granite, precious brick rubble, and even a beveled and polished piece of white marble labeled 90.
When I eventually finish uprooting the foundation on the in-ground side of the skeleton shed, there will be five times as much rubble and cut stone as the photo shows, and I hope for more marble.
I don’t know why the shed was built in this way but I like the legacy. These are the actual stones that the builders rejected, as sung in the Psalms and referenced in passing by Mark, Judy Collins and The Byrds among others, and many a corner will they make, freed to live again in the sun and the wind and the rain.
I’ve been blogging for a few years now with a seasonal emphasis and not very much consideration of longer spans of time. Recently, while shoving a wheelbarrow along, I noticed how large the trees are becoming on the little ridge behind our garden. It has taken years. Perhaps I could learn how to triangulate and figure out just how much higher they are than when we moved here 22 years ago. But I’m too busy for anything that intellectual.
Winter is the time for hardscaping in the garden. But tasks involving stock and stone take a lot of time, and have stages, and very seldom seem to be finished when spring arrives and the weeds pour out. The ground has to be prepared for planting in the vegetable garden and annual beds. The lily beds, roses and irises have to be cleared and encouraged. When it’s time to clear the beds of weeds and rake the winter debris out, the job can’t be put off or you’ll soon have a nightmare on your hands.
Many people who sort of want to garden are knocked out of the racket altogether by the inevitable conflux of spring work. I regularly stop and run my muddy fingers through my sweat-dripping hair and ask if what I go through is really worth it or not. But life itself is mostly a bargain. You can fill in the blanks in the following sentence in countless ways: “If you want to have _____ then you have to _____.” I find that I do want irises and lilies. To keep us working for delayed gratifications, a garden needs all-season reminders of why we do it. Because, believe me, I wake up stiff and sore every day. Today, March 23, as I write this, it is cold again and raining, so I’m only going to go out once and take a few pictures.
Camellia “Black Prince”— A much deeper red than this back-lit snapshot shows.
And yet, so nice I photographed it twice. Note weeds in foreground.
Returning tulips and returning weeds -- Weeds about to be pulled.
Nature is generous—everybody gets weeds. Weeds are there to remind us that gardening is contrary to the inclinations of nature. Of course some people like weeding. It is a mindful task requiring concentration, dexterity and thoroughness. There are tools to help. Weeding is also an excellent way to appreciate the loveliness and vegetal interest of so many of the weeds themselves. Weeding is one of the more Zen activities in gardening. Don’t worry about wiping the weeds out. You’ll be seeing them again.
The background in the tulip photo above shows three of our worst Central Virginia weeds: spindleshanks, grannyspackle, and plaguewort. Faintly visible in the upper right corner of the photo is a Scotch thistle, a noxious weed in most contexts. I think it might even be illegal to grow in Washington State. But butterflies love it and I generally allow one to survive so I can look at it eye to eye in summer when they grow to be my height.
However, I digress. This blog post was intended to be about work in the garden, especially the confluence of hardscaping and early spring garden bed prep. I finished some of the winter hardscaping, for instance the finished corner in the photo below. Some of the winter hardscaping is still desperately underway. I say desperately, because the time available shrinks in the face of pruning and weeding demands that cannot be put off.
A finished corner.
An unfinished gate is just an eyesore.
Gates and fences are a huge source of hardscaping work. The symbolic visual value of gates is a major thing not always taken seriously enough, but far more vital in Central Virginia is the fence, because we are overrun with deer. Not the little deer of Miyajima and Nara, but the big whitetail deer of Hell, which will eat ornamentals and gardens until there is nothing left. Deer live in our yard, herds of up to eleven or twelve at a time seasonally, and they would wipe our entire garden out in a day if there were no fence. We love the deer, but a deer fence is vital.
There are plants that deer won’t eat, a longish list including daffodils, narcissus, spirea, and peonies. A couple of days ago I planted a new peony bed, which looks small but required the removal of three wheelbarrows of dirt to accommodate five promising new peonies, a Christmas gift from Alex and family that just arrived from White Flowers Farm.
Peony root, “Eden’s Perfume”, sitting in a five-gallon bucket waiting to be planted.
In addition to flowers, we’ve got a vegetable garden which we started in 2014 and have added to every year since. This will be our seventh year tending the raised beds of our vegetable garden. The food value, in quality and volume, has been phenomenal. We still have a few squash and a good number of sweet potatoes that we harvested last September and October sitting on the shelves, and have not quite wiped out the tomatoes Karen froze last summer. We also have one jar of black raspberry preserves left, and it is refreshing to think the raspberry bushes will be fruiting again in only six to eight more weeks. And we are harvesting now, collards and kale planted last October.
Karen planting onions.
Siberian kale—so sweetly flavorful, and dig the cool red stems!
The vegetable garden is clearly the most work, compared to ornamental gardening. It’s a really good feeling to go out in the wet, windy chills of March and collect succulent and mouth-watering things and bring them into the house and eat them. To really make the truck garden yield up its produce, you need to have a dedicated gardener, and the master (mistress?) of this garden is Karen.
Karen saying “Don’t take my picture.”
I can’t speak for Karen, but the only possible way I’ve found to garden, taking into account all my natural limitations, is to do several things at once. If I set out to do any one thing, I will not actually finish unless it’s a very small thing indeed. The method that works for me involves staging the work of the season as sets of very large tasks to be nibbled at for days, weeks or even months.
Planned work, such as garden enlargements, rock features, paving and new flower beds, take up the most time and thought. These are the schemes one lies in bed thinking about at night, and they cause back-bending amounts of digging, hewing and carrying. Scheme-work has to be set aside regularly for the essential and the timely work that absolutely has to be done, first and in place of other tasks, to prevent nature from taking the garden back.
Then there is a particularly recherché category of work, generally neglected in the garden literature: managing the material consequences of one's own efforts. Pulled weeds have to be piled on the mulch heap, dirt on the dirt heap, scattered tools and implements have to be collected, things have to be stored. There may be transplants awaiting reburial, extra rocks set aside that will never walk to a better place by themselves, plant supports stacked “out of the way” in November that are now “in the way” in March. There is no convenient time for this sort of little task. Indeed the little tasks outweigh the huge tasks. Half a bucket of decayed saprolite—the chemically weathered rock working its way up from the subsoil—more usually defined as some kind of rock that lives in the local dirt—now there’s an easy bucket to set aside. Then it has to be moved again. Somehow, hopping buckets and barrows, tools and debris across the work site turns out to be most of what gardening is, physically.
As for me, I’m in it for the rocks.
The last crocuses of spring.
I am delighted to share my news that the first story in The Casebook of Reese Macaque, PI, the sequel to my sci-fi detective fantasy, The Adventures of Reese Macaque, Private Investigator, is now up on Amazon Kindle.
The Macaque tales are science fiction detective stories. Detective stories are generally tales of manners. A science fiction detective story is about social manners in a future world. In the case of this story, the society in question is descended from ours.
The first collection of Macaque detective stories took several years to write. From the first I had no doubt that the Macaque stories were a fantasy, specifically a nonsense fantasy not unrelated to Edward Lear’s The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World or John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, which was first published in 1930 and is still in print. Of course nonsense is a very serious business and I cannot emphasize that enough.
It took some time before I realized that Macaque was science fiction as well. At first the world of Reese Macaque seemed unlikely to be an accurate or literal description of the future, though it certainly felt like a possible one. But eventually I began to suspect that these little tales of mystery and detection were set in a more-than-probable future world—a world we may in fact be hard pressed to avoid. Macaque seems to be on the road to actuality after all.
I must thank Rhesus A. Macaque’s co-creator, my son Edward. In an act of imagination, or maybe just mundane psychic prescience, Edward envisioned and began to flesh out the world of Reese Macaque. Ted and I are its first citizens and in the years to come Macaque’s world may seem less like fantasy.
Click here to access The Adventures of Reese Macaque, Private Investigator on amazon.com.
Click here to access Reese's newest adventure, President Nero's Golden Palace.
In my last blog post, I described the beginning of another garden in an old field in Covesville. Squash and corn promptly sprouted.
Corn: Stage 1
To a garden, dirt, heat and rain are serious matters. Heat and humidity drive cycles of sometimes-violent electrical storms. The amount of water they dump is unpredictable, from a sprinkle to a “frog drownder”, as we used to call them. Drought and sudden flood are serious threats, along with insects and plant disease. We plant a variety of vegetables in our garden. Every year we lose a few varieties. Suppose a person lived on what they grew—what would loss of a year’s crop entail? It’s something to think about. As I mentioned in my last post, the new garden has helped me understand Rockfish, my own book, better.
The results of the new field garden continue to be interesting. I assumed the germination rate would be low. It’s not. Don and I planted this garden as an afterthought; we’d both long since started our usual gardens and did not plant this field until the end of June/beginning of July. At the time of writing July is drawing to a close and everything is up. The germination rate was 90%. The new plants are racing to catch up with the season. There have been plenty of thunderstorms and the clay field soil drains very slowly. So far, water has not been a problem in the field.
Corn: Stage 2
A long row of pumpkins and gourds in a sea of healthy weeds
One thing is clear: vegetables love this soil, stony clay or not. As the photos show, weeds also thrill to this disturbed soil. To keep a field this size weed-free without using poisons would require countless hours of hoeing, and we don’t have the time. Don and I each have another garden to tend. So we have to tolerate some weeds, cut the weeds back as time permits, and reflect again on the sheer amount of hard manual labor required by just one field—really, just part of one field, since the tilled area is less than half an acre and only a quarter of the entire field. To tend several acres like this, as a Rockfish farmer would have done historically, would have required all the daylight hours available, even with the assistance of draft animals and a couple of grown men to help. Old-fashioned non-toxic farming was not, and is not now, a job for a lazy person. The commitment required to produce the old 19th-century results would have been near absolute.
“I Pay for All” (Wikipedia Commons)
Vegetable gardening is interesting and fun, but my first love is flower gardening. Flowers are easier. Diseases, predators, water, sunlight, temperature take their toll, but we aren’t asking very much from flowers, compared to vegetables. The flower gardener is asking only for a view. The view can be spectacular; the big species lilies we grow are floral dreadnaughts, ships of the line loaded with pollen, dripping with scented fluids, hanging out in groves splendid with insect-attracting colors.
A tuxedo wasp investigating an oriental lily
A vegetable garden particularly singles out edible plants for food production. Leaf-eating beetles and bugs also love exactly that kind of plant. Many garden florals have not been altered to the same degree as vegetables have been by breeding. With obvious exceptions like roses, florals are more tolerant of their surroundings and less likely to be skinned by insects. Just for the interest of the thing, one would ideally want both kinds of gardens.
Sun, heat and humidity, soil, rain and night
There are no simple ingredients in a garden. Everything that comes into the visible world is a phenomenon from an invisible world, where our deliberate interventions are like hammer blows on a Swiss watch as we single out particular garden plants. The weeds wait in the background, clustering around the periphery, looking in through the fence, watching us “fix the watch.” At least that’s what it feels like for me.
Ripeness is all
My last post, with its afterthoughts on Rockfish, led me to some reflections on another of my novels, The Southern Skylark.
The Southern Skylark uses the picaresque formula of late 18th century novels, where a string of absurd and ironic episodes leads to a questionable moral of some kind at the end. My narrator, Mr. Hingely, who provides the novel's point of view, is a relentlessly British gentleman, educated, not rich, but well enough off to turn himself loose in the world, and is enamoured of the Romantic poets. He comes to America by mischance in the 1830s and immediately discovers 19th-century American slavery. He responds with disgust, curiosity and confusion. Even as a kind of early tourist, he is inescapably morally entrapped by even incidental contact with the sheer evil of the slave system.
Stories about wealth seem most often framed from above, the point of view being that of the wealthy, or from below, the poorer ranks of society. It may be that telling a story from the poverty perspective is generally easier for writers, for whom the topic hits close to the mark. The choice of an extremely simple novel form, told from a middling point of view by a single narrator, coming from outside the culture, seemed best for approaching race and slavery, two of the most radioactive subjects in American culture.
The episodic novels of the late 18th century were comedies, even when the hero was hung at the end. The Southern Skylark borrows from that tradition. It’s a comedy, albeit a serious one. Other inspirations include Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the comic stories of Charles Farrar Browne writing as Artemus Ward, and not least Edgar Allen Poe.
Oddity lends itself to humor, and the sheer oddness of Virginia in the 1830s is not easy to exaggerate. Virginia in the last heyday of slavery was technologically and scientifically little more developed than ancient Rome in many ways, despite the recent introduction of steam power from Great Britain. The match had just been invented, which made cigars much easier to smoke, but matches had to be imported. The society of the slaveholders was content with a technological and intellectual culture not much more subtle or advanced than the culture of the Caesars. The 19th Century had gunpowder, but the ancient Romans had better civil engineering, architecture and plumbing.
It seems that most slaveholders, slaves and non-slaveholders caught in the web of post-colonial Virginia civilization may well have been inured to the harshness of the slave system. They were no more self-reflexive generally than people are today in our civilization. Every class of person—slaves, slaveholders, family farmers, tenants, governors, doctors and lawyers—was built into the institutional wall. Tremendous imagination was necessary to escape the limitations of the age.
The intelligent citizens of Virginia in the 1830s knew that a society whose wealth was built on slavery could be compared to the needle of a precipice—no way off but down. Theirs was a wholly anachronistic world where flashes of medievalism seemed almost like progress, a horrific wonderland whose citizens still keenly felt the sense of an American destiny passed down just a generation before from the Founding Fathers. In 2019 we are still surrounded by the American rhetoric of this world, with its paradoxes of liberty and subjection. In particular, we are still living its race rhetoric. This needs to be written about, and thus The Southern Skylark.
Mr. Hingely’s Romantic Poets fell in well with this world, where individuals were sometimes forced to choose between irony or insanity, or perhaps inherited both. The poetry of Keats, Shelley and Byron offered a dream of release from the physical, the mundane and the laws of mankind. Likewise, emotion and imagination were balm for the slaveholder’s soul. The native Southern literature of the period was even soppier and more hysterically romantic than the nearest British or European examples.
The familiar pangs of the human emotions have probably never changed. They go all the way back. Emotions are always modern. However, in writing about the past, I try to recognize that the “feelings” of the people of the past were not exactly the same as ours. Feelings are not the same thing as emotions; human feelings are partly built up from social understandings, and include a mélange of routine expectations peculiar to time and place and tribe. This should be an obvious point.
The subjectivity of bygone historical time is fairly impossible to capture. Nonetheless, there are splendid reasons to try. People are still being killed today by the cultural aftermath of American slavery. There are things we need to know. An enormous amount of primary material from 1830s Virginia exists, especially newspapers. Over the last century and a half, generations of scholars have steadily produced history and interpretation of the economics and politics of the era. The Southern Skylark offers a novelist's attempt to understand and interpret.
My last post focused more or less on the sheer hard work of gardening. Summer in Central Virginia is normally hot and humid. The temperature easily reaches the high 90s F and feels ten degrees hotter; it's roughly as humid as a jungle. By 10 A.M. the ironies of dehydration while soaking wet start to combine with the odds of sunstroke. My new cement steps, pictured below, reveal only slow progress.
A Project: Early Crude Stage
The bottom line about work in an outdoor space is that sometimes you just have to let it go. You can take a few minutes off and notice the results of last year’s work instead.
Last Year’s Work
Phlox planted last year
This year’s exceptional display of lilies reminded me of an old World War One song I haven’t heard in ages: “I’d Like to See the Kaiser with a Lily in His Hand.” The refrain goes:
I’d like to see all mothers free from sorrow
I’d like to see poor Belgium free from pain
I’d like to see this cruel conflict ended
I’d like to see my Daddy once again
I’d like to see the Yankees win this battle
I’d like to see France get back her promised land
I’d like to see this whole big world United
And I’d like to see the Kaiser with a lily in his hand.
A stand of Orienpets
Lilies Can Be Intoxicating
I could blog living-color lily pictures for the next hour but I won’t. Instead I’ll doggedly revert to the subject of work. Never have I worked as much, as hard or as long as I have since retirement. The relaxed, goal-free, carefully rationed attention span of my pre-retirement career seems like a distant dream to me now.
In retirement I have understood some things about work that I never understood before:
I am at an age where I have nothing to prove.
No world record or even personal best needs establishing.
I could spend all day reading in my hammock under a tree, and that would be fine.
I can’t free mothers from sorrow, end cruel conflict, unite this whole big world, or fix anything, even for the people closest to me.
And it isn’t the Kaiser’s fault either. That is just how it is.
Tiger Lilies, a Wild Species, Have a Modest Charm but Somehow Still Feel Splendid
Some old work habits die hard. My main pre-retirement work, professional and amateur, has always been writing. Friends and relatives seem reluctant to ask why every serious project takes me ten or twenty years. Maybe they’re afraid I’ll quote Ruskin, and nobody wants that. I don’t want that either. I wouldn’t quote Ruskin. I long ago knew the real answer — it was the myth of perfectibility. Perfectibility easily becomes an idée fixe, an unshakable delusion, a literal misunderstanding of the nature of effort. We might even ask why such myths manage to survive.
The effort of servicing the delusion of perfectibility, however, has a valuable unintended effect. Perfectionism, always misplaced, still causes time to pass and time is an actual experience — and time is not an experience that can be rushed.
For instance, consider Rockfish, my longest book to date. Rockfish was repeatedly finished, and finally refinished in a second edition 250 pages shorter than the first edition, with all-new parts, as recently as last year. The two editions are different; the first edition was 800 pages long, languid, with concision sacrificed to flow. While I've long felt that concision is one of the most valuable attributes a piece of writing can have, an expansive sense of flow seemed appropriate for a book spanning approximately 250 years. I believe length was a fine choice. But the haunting sense that Rockfish was too long never left me and eventually I couldn’t resist the temptation to cut 250 pages out of it.
The second edition of Rockfish is accordingly action-packed, with incident piling on incident. Long transitions are gone. Dramas accrue fast enough to stack up. It’s a better book now for most adult readers. But nothing is perfect. In a book eleven generations long, nearly everyone dies. Begats and deaths come faster than in the first edition. The attention paid to religion also stands out more in the second edition, but religion was always somehow deeply important to the people of Rockfish, and they struggled creatively with it.
Maybe that’s appropriate, because Rockfish is in part a war novel -- although Rockfish is also, maybe above all, a story about generations of farmers. My personal experiences as a gardener began in elementary school but I have never been a farmer. Farming and gardening are different things. Rockfish draws this distinction throughout, but my personal experience of the stony red dirt farming Rockfish knew so well has been limited.
Reclaiming a field
This summer red dirt farming feels less remote than it had been. A few weeks ago my cousin Don and I started field-gardening a piece of his Dad's bottom land in the vicinity of Covesville, inside the Rockfish world. Already I find myself thinking, “What vivid descriptions I could add to Rockfish now!” The condition of this long-farmed but nearly abandoned field is wildly different from the gardening I know. The gardening I know is crafty, with hand-tailored soil drained by raised beds. The field in Covesville is red clay, which tends to form clods, and still spits up quartz rocks despite who knows how many years of plowing. This soil is not the fungal well-wormed earth of garden beds; it starts dry, with a guaranteed low germination rate. Only the hardiest squash, cucumber, okra, black-eyed peas, pumpkins, gourds and corn are going to sprout and survive. As of now we have no way to water this field. We are planting in 18th-19th century conditions -- except for the tractor. Either it will rain enough or everything will die, and that is the way things are.
Cousin Don in the background
Don and I look forward to the results with the gravest interest. I see it as an experiment, but this field has produced before. It is bottom land beside a creek, and in the bygone Rockfish centuries farmers called it good soil. Before that, Native Americans had the same opinion. The area is rich in stone artifacts that make it clear that Native Americans farmed in Covesville, possibly even on this same ground. Cropping this kind of dirt is how the ancestors survived. Still, to take a hoe to tilled earth and see it tumble rather than crumble seems odd and slightly frightening.
Of course, very likely farmers of the past worked in trepidation too — and they had a lot more at stake.
Presumably under steady cultivation, hopefully with some crop rotation, these old fields would have been considerably more friable, aerated, and manured. But after abandonment this red dirt soil quickly reverts to its original hard-packed character. This is the original dirt. We might be wary of it. It’s not as simple as organic garden dirt, collected and built up in raised or mounded beds. Digging, planting, in this dirt, one senses ancient mystery, human and non-human.
Surviving the way the Rockfish generations did is more vivid and incredible to me now than when I wrote Rockfish. In terms of crops and techniques, the old farmers were limited to plants that do well in red clay soil. The labor required to alter the dirt to better specifications was largely unavailable except to the Jeffersonian rich, who commandeered a reliable labor force to help. For red dirt family farms, there would have been very little spare time left in the year, and few spare resources.
I look back on Rockfish and wonder if I could have made that clearer. What happens when a person strikes red dirt with a hoe was one of the main things determining how the Rockfish people lived. There was nothing modern about it. The braided coexistence of mountain people with coastal colonists, with slavery, with civil war, with reconstruction and with segregation was weirdly predetermined in many ways by issues of labor and the nature of what could be produced from red clay dirt. That is easy enough be put in textbooks… but there’s still no easy way to explain what happens when a person with a hoe tackles a field of red clay.
May 28, 2019 -- Day 1
It’s been nine months since I've composed a blog. Right now, the topic on my mind is the amount of hard physical labor requisite for summer gardening in Virginia.
Elizabeth Lawrence once wrote, about gardening in North Carolina, that after spring anything requiring summer tending or watering had best be left to die. I don’t know what this says about weeds, which riot in the heat.
It’s still May, just barely, but we are getting into the 90s daily, which is breeding cycles of thunderstorms. One of last year’s iris beds, which drowned last year with the loss of most of the irises, sprang back with a dense crop of ragweed—a plant so soil-invasive I effectively lost the bed. I mean the soil in the bed. The soil can still be used as a dirt supplement for the lawn, but wherever I put this dirt, the ragweed will try to come back with it.
Actually lost the dirt.
Remains of the Bed's Stone Walls
I've now dismantled the stone walls, and I'm shaving the soil down to original ground level. This can only be done in the morning. I don’t necessarily feel that energetic in the AM, so I’m lucky if I get started by 9 AM. Somewhere around noon it becomes hard—and questionable—to keep going. Maybe the shovel will work itself, if I hang onto it. When an empty wheelbarrow feels as heavy as a full wheelbarrow, it’s time to quit.
At least one verdict is in. One can actually lose the garden soil itself, not just the plants. Weeds have been defined as “flowers nobody wants.” Weeds could also be defined as “most plants,” or every natural plant in the area. Gardening is about establishing a remarkably unnatural plant situation, often behind walls or fences, and then pitting it against the natural world in a life-and-death struggle. It comes as no surprise that even the Romans practiced gardening, as Vergil described in the Bucolics — selecting an imperial elite of plants, and marching them out to dominate the Italian world. But really everybody does it. It’s how we eat.
We have two gardeners here. Karen works in the vegetable garden. With two of us there is some economy of scale; we can garden more than twice the area either of us could conceivably manage alone. Karen’s vegetable garden is the back angle facing south. A portion of it is seen in the photo below, where the lens is starting to fog up in the noon humidity.
Part of Karen’s vegetable garden
The humidity on the camera lens renders this snapdragon somewhat mythological
A garden is meant to be in harmony with the universe. It is not usually meant to be a criticism of the universe, or an attempt by the gardener to show the world that he can do better than the universe. A garden is half appreciation, half offering, and half thanks — among many other things — as much as an act of naked aggression designed to enforce plantation colonialism.
Anyone trying the plant game will soon water the ground with her/his sweat as God ordained. Whatever one's garden dream is, it will not be achieved. Instead there are opportunities to notice what happens. There has to be time to sit and watch events unfold.
So in the way, jars
May 29, 2019 -- Day Two
It is now a day later than it was in the preceding paragraphs, and the dirt is gone from the salvaged garden space.
Raised bed removed
It is time to sit, as I mentioned above, and see what we see.
Warm seat, iced tea
There’s no telling what we might feel in the chair. We might experience “monkey mind,” an Anglicization of the Zen expression for ungoverned thoughts that leap from branch to branch chattering like monkeys. We might wish we actually had real monkeys in the trees, to entertain us. We might realize that real monkeys would tear everything up. We might realize how rich nature is in destructive things and Darwinian wastage. We might be just as happy reconsidering the fate-weaving, intermittently purposeful gods of western classical times and search for oracles. I certainly don’t know. I might not actually have any recommendations at all.
But I will say this is not necessarily the most comfortable chair.
Deep mahogany-red Asiatic lilies
May 30, 2019 -- Day Three
While I fantasize about nature, I know that every being in nature is implacably hunting for protein, minerals and water so it can express itself, generally at a cost to other beings. The plant/animal divide is stark, but there is a bridge between the two in fungi and mildew. One of the masks nature wears is the appearance of countless forms of life; another, that the forms are quantifiable by scientific observation and not countless at all; and yet another mask, the illusion that it just happened by itself.
The ragweed ravaged raised bed has been replaced. A miniature blue star spruce, a creeping cryptomeria, and a dwarf black dragon cryptomeria have been riskily rescued and transplanted from the raspberry grove that overtook them two years ago. Here is how it looks today.
Redone bed in the midday sun
Black raspberries rapidly ripening
I hope the miniature evergreens understand that their transplantation was kindly meant, and view it as an opportunity and live and flourish. Since they are plants attached to soil and water and air, it would be silly to credit them with beliefs like destiny, or emotions like irritation at being transplanted. But plants have an understanding, each to its kind; we might even say they constitute an understanding expressed in their forms. We humans actually have no idea what their understandings are like.
I’ve recalled a better definition of what constitutes a weed. I don’t recall whose definition this is, but it’s a very good one. Weeds are plants that thrive invasively (in effect, reproduce well) in disturbed ground. “Disturbed ground” could be used as a more pessimistic definition of what a garden is. Gardening disturbs the ground profoundly and keeps it disturbed, giving wild plants that like that sort of thing a real chance to flourish explosively.
Returning to yesterday’s chair talk, one of the things I sometimes experience as soon as I sit down is desperation. For example, I feel some real satisfaction at replacing the old iris bed. But my satisfaction is haunted by the other tasks that need doing in this garden. For instance, a large bed expansion I started last year was sidelined last fall and remains to be completed. Some very nice plants were planted in it, including purple-black hollyhocks from a nearby local farm, and an amazing dragon arum (dracunculus) that I ordered from a plant catalog. But this year, at least so far, this incomplete project has turned half jungle and can only be saved by removing the invading weeds. The time to do it is now. Summer gardening can be absurd.
Is it possible we have monkey mind when sitting in the garden because we actually are… nah, couldn’t be. Laugh if we must!
May 30. Black hollyhocks
A dragon aurum in the weeds
When I was around eleven or twelve, I used some of my lawn mowing money to join the Science Fiction Book Club. I still have the bonus volume that came with my first order. I subscribed for years. There’s no telling what impact Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination had on my social imagination. When The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere were published as twin novelettes by the Science Fiction Book Club in 1965, I fell under the spell of J.G. Ballard and never escaped.
The most generous offer ever made (Wikipedia).
Captain Edward Ruppelt’s long-lived UFO classic was up front in 1956, bookended with Asimov’s 1955 The End of Eternity. (Wikipedia)
Sci Fi covers were terrific (photo Gary Mawyer)
Science fiction is a way of exploring the future without going there, but science fiction is not all about futuristic machinery; it is a genre of social writing and often takes the nature and future prospects of Civilization as its topic. A capitalized Civilization, because in Sci Fi, civilization is frequently the main subject. Building, maintaining, losing, and if necessary rebuilding civilization is the huge theme taken in hand by countless science fiction works, short and long. Another great theme is an outrageous protagonist surviving in a dysfunctional civilization.
Or not surviving… (Wikipedia)
It’s a daunting tradition and I never imagined I would trespass in the haunted grove myself. But about fifteen years ago my son Edward thrust into my hands an untitled manuscript 30 pages long, framing the mad adventures of Reese Macaque. More than a few people saw Ted’s work and thought it was either deadly funny or too disturbing to be funny. It was a manuscript ambitious past the dreams of English majors, told from inside a startlingly real world, a world disturbingly like ours, and yet backlit with unjustified flashes of hope and aspiration.
For a time Ted and I worked on a short story version of the original manuscript, and Ted produced several more short passages that would most naturally go to other stories. The main artistic question about Rhesus A. Macaque was not simple. How is it that Macaque is a human? Or is he a monkey? As you can see, the main artistic question promptly split in half on us, but both halves pointed in the same direction: is there just one Macaque or are they a kind of thing?
That was how I found myself writing a science fiction detective novel, The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I. Detective novels are generally novels of manners. A science fiction detective novel of manners is (I suppose) about social interactions in a future world—and an obvious way to dissect social behaviors in our world. In the case of this book, the society in question is ours, in the year 2296. In this world Yeats was obviously quite correct: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”
That being said, iit was years before I realized that Macaque was science fiction. For a good while I assumed it was a fantasy, specifically a nonsense fantasy in the same genre as Edward Lear’s The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World or John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, first published in 1930 and still very much in print. Of course nonsense is a very serious business.
Edward Lear’s The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World.
(Photo by Gary Mawyer)
But over the last few years, I began to believe that the little tales of mystery and detection that Ted and I have laid out in The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I. are set in a more-than-probable future world—a world we will in fact be hard pressed to avoid. Though the world of P.I. Macaque didn’t seem likely to be an accurate or literal description of the future at first, I have come to think the present social moment is already close to it. Macaque seems to be on the road to actuality after all. So thanks, Ted. In an act of imagination, or maybe prescience, you created the world of Reese Macaque. We’re its first citizens but I have a notion that in the years to come just about everybody is probably going to have to live in it, whether they read this book or not.
I started Rockfish in 1995, substantially finished it in 2002 and published it in 2009. An entire American generation has grown up since I started this book and another generation will shortly follow. Nonetheless, the racial issues portrayed in Rockfish are still thriving in Central Virginia. As recently as the summer of 2017, Ku Klux Klan members and American Nazis violently invaded Charlottesville, causing many injuries and loss of life. Clearly, Americans and certainly Virginians still remain genealogically fraught with themselves, literally on a local level.
Reflecting on local and national events over the past year, this summer I decided to revise and re-issue Rockfish. To a considerable degree, Rockfish is a book exploring how racial identities were formed and originally came into tension in Central Virginia, starting with the British settlement period. The basis of the book is merely history. I wanted to go back and make sure nothing obstructed its original purpose, which is as important now as it ever has been.
Race has meant different things at different times over the last several centuries. Race has never been a fixed concept. Definitions of race have varied from generation to generation for many reasons and we can assume that race, as a concept, will continue to evolve and vary in years to come. Ironically, the characters in Rockfish do not always care very much about race themselves; they are naturally more concerned with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—as most people are. But no Virginia community could escape the scars of slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, eugenics and segregation. Race was forced to matter; and people adapted.
For more on this new release, see my Rockfish page, which includes some added photos of Rockfish, then and now.
The new edition of Rockfish is available on amazon in kindle and print.
Gary Dale Mawyer has been writing for over four decades, and to date has published four novels, Rockfish, The Southern Skylark, Exemptions, and The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I., as well as a biographical history, Sergeant Wolinski and the Great War, and a short story collection, Dark and Other Stories. Gary's writings draw on a wealth of history, lore and lived experience. He has a B.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia. Gary is a Central Virginia native with over 40 years of publishing and editing experience. His interests include American and Virginia history, military history, geology, hiking, travel, landscaping and gardening. He is the father of four grown children and has four grandchildren. He lives with his wife Karen and two cats in Albemarle County.
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