Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Why Eugene Schieffelin was a jerk

It's November and as the leaves fall from the Harlequin glorybower tree in our garden, the bright magenta calyxes and vivid turquoise berries become more apparent against the grey sky. They're pretty, but only stay so long now that the starlings have found them.

Flocks of these invasive dirty birds descend upon the tree, gobbling up their fading fall beauty, the last show of color in the garden for the year. I raise the window to shoo them off, hoping to keep the starlings at bay for a few days.

I usually welcome birds to the garden, putting out food and nectar to feed and attract songbird and hummingbirds. I've seen bright yellow chickadees, red breasted robins, Northern flickers and the resident blue jays, to name but a few.

The European Starlings are nasty, brutal birds, known to snatch songbirds and their babies, like cannibals and to bully birds out of their nests in hostile nest takeovers. Not native to the United States, starlings were brought here by Eugene Schieffelin when he released sixty of them in New York City's Central Park. It was part of his effort to introduce all of the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare to the United States.

When I see the starlings devastating the beauty of my Harlequin glorybower tree, I throw up the windows and shout "dirty, dirty birds" and they fly away. What I should be shouting is "thanks for nothing, Eugene Schieffelin."

I've written a lot about these trees over the years. You can read more here and here and here too.  
You can read more about jerkface Shieffelin here

Monday, June 12, 2017

When someone is damaging your garden

She was the last person I expected. Someone was damaging our garden. Breaking off branches. Lopping off flower heads. Pulling plants out of the ground. And then leaving them on the sidewalk or on the ground to whither and die. I imagined it being done facetiously by kids passing by. Maybe showing off to their friends, or just being inconsiderate and always needing to touch things.

But I learned it wasn't kids. And it was being done with anger and maliciousness.

I'd been working in the garden on a hot summer morning when she walked by with her dog. A neighbor woman I didn't know by name, but I knew her dogs name and recognized her from her daily walks. Never friendly, I always take these ones as a good challenge. To engage, open up, and find a little common ground and break through a gruff exterior to the sweetness underneath. I waved and said good morning, pausing in the waist high flower bed I was in, weeding, welcoming the opportunity to stand up straight for a moment, stretch my back and squint into the sun towards her. "It's a jungle in there" she said. I didn't note any humor in her voice, but instead, disdain. I laughed and agreed, because I really love jungles, and living in one would be a dream. I offered that in the hot weather we were having (weather is always a good safe topic) it keeps our house nice and cool.  She scoffed a bit, and complained how hot her house is. I silently reminded myself her house is bare of trees and shrubs, but lots of asphalt parking and creosote timbers forming beds for strongly pruned hybrid tea roses. She continued on her walk and I returned to my work, bent over deep in my jungle, attempting to rid the flower bed of unwanted spindly weeds and grass.

A few weeks went by, and the damage to our street trees and plants along the sidewalk continued. It was frustrating. I wondered if pedestrians were being harassed by our plants, and took it upon myself to better prune and clean up along the walkways. We mowed, edged and blowed it clear. It cleaned up nice. It was nice before, in my opinion, but I wanted to be a good neighbor and make walking by good for everyone.

But then one day I heard it. The breaking off of branches in the garden. I caught my breath. This was the moment I'd catch the kids red handed. I'd march out there and give them a piece of my mind. Jerks. But then I saw her and her dog. The gruff neighbor who had scoffed at our jungle was the one doing the damage. I couldn't believe it. It was malicious and my hunch was right: it was being done on purpose. My heart sank a little. With sadness for what I thought was such a beautiful place, our garden, for all people to enjoy. It's a respite for wildlife, for visiting kids, and for us. And sadness for a person who walks this world with so much anger she rips at the things she passes. She wasn't a happy woman.

I was getting into my car the following week, and there she was on her walk with her dog. She saw me but pretended not to. I called out "hello there!" and waved, cheerily. She was forced to mumble something in return. I continued to engage with her. "We cleaned up the walkway really well over here! I hadn't realized it had become overgrown. And you know, I saw you the other day," I said to her. I imagined the blank stare coming my way from behind her sunglasses. I gestured to ripping and breaking while I continued, "I saw you breaking off our plants here in our garden, I want you to know I saw you, and I need to ask you to not do that again. If we need to prune things back, just let me know, but please stop it." She was dumbfounded. I smiled and wished her a good day as I got in the car. I meant it. I hoped she could find some beauty in her day, because her life must be pretty hard being angry all of the time. Can you imagine the dialogue that must go through her head? I wish her peace. The garden gives me enough of it to share with others, I'd just rather not do it through broken branches and lopped off flower heads, but instead through kindness, shared conversation, or a simple hello, neighbor.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A gift the garden gave me today

I wrote a little something the other day to a friend, about the gifts the garden is giving this time of year.

 So much to be done. 
Having longer days, full of sunshine, to do it in.
It's coming alive, and so am I. I breathe deeply, hold, and exhale deeply.

If I do a long scan on the garden, the list of to-dos is endless. When I begin to pull weeds and unwanted seedlings (aren't unwanted seedlings weeds, et tu brute?) I can feel the anxiousness rise in my chest. My eyes dart a little further to the left and right, and the work is overwhelming. So much. How can I possibly get all of this done? In the past, I've just given up and walked away, telling myself my garden is a cottage garden, meant to be imperfect and flouncy. But that's giving in to it.

Yesterday I found myself head down in a bed full of weeds and errant tall grass (ugh!), and I talked myself down. "Stay in your lane, stay present, stay right here with only what's in front of you." And I smiled. These are life skills. When my workload is full, I stay with just one item on my list and focus only on that. And so it is in the garden. I stayed present. I smiled to myself. I only did what was immediately in front of me, and not with anxious frustration, but with gratitude for recognizing what was going on. The gift is to be present, right then and there. To rid just that 3x3 foot section of the numerous seeded daisies, grass and unnamed weeds (those ones with elastic roots). To feel the sunshine on my shoulders, the needed stretch in my tight lower back, and a life that affords me a work break to spend this time in the middle of the morning on a weekday in my garden. This gift was so much better than this morning's gift a stranger left in our parking strip: an overflowing dirty diaper.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

When karma delivers the unexpected

Two weeks ago one evening, AdRi jumped from her chair in the living room and out the front door. Two boys had ridden their bikes through our front garden, and not carefully, either. Of course they didn't stop when she called out to them, and the fritillaria that was preparing to bloom was toppled and smashed, plowed over by their flying-through-the-air BMX bikes. She brought in the blooms and they've been slowly opening in a vase on the kitchen counter.

Fast forward to last evening.

We were working in the garden, and heard the familiar sound of a lawnmower being pushed down the street. Two kids were offering their services, door to door, for mowing lawns. Funny thing, they seemed to not be coming up to our house with a sales pitch. Hell yes I want someone to mow the exterior of our house: it's a pain. We live on a corner, and beyond the garden, the only grass besides a small backyard patch is the unwieldy green mane in the front and side along the sidewalk. Being Spring in Portland, it grows about 5 inches a week. And I'm not overstating that. "$20?" they offered. "$10" AdRi countered. And they had a deal.

After they finished, they may have been asked if they were the same boys who had ridden their bikes through our garden. They may have looked stunned and like two deer caught in the headlights of a car at midnight on a dark country highway. They may have said of course it wasn't them. We may have known it was exactly them. And we may or may not have two BMX bikes smash through our garden again. We'll see.