The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- January 2007

Last update: January 30

January 2 - morning

We're about 75% of the way there with our new patio and planting spaces.

New Years greetings to you! As you can see from the photo above. we are making a great deal of progress on our big garden project. By this time next week we should be finished with everything but the planting of the black bamboo and other species we will be using in the new beds that will border the patio. There is still a lot of stone work to be done - we will be topping the patio spaces off with a looser grade of crushed granite and cut limestone, and, of course, the shade sail still needs to be installed. We are also creating a new fence that will screen the patio off from our utility area near our garden shed. So, my back is not out of danger yet!

We have actually broken the patio in already - on New Year's Eve we had a dinner party for some of our friends which ended up on the patio at midnight. We had a rather unconventional celebration - one of our friends, who is from Ecuador, helped us celebrate in Andean style.  The rituals involved champagne, a piñata, and an effigy burning - but I'll leave the rest to your imagination! We hope to use our new space to bring our friends together many, many times in the future. When we planned our garden we made room for a variety of socializing spaces with different levels of intimacy - it is always one of our greatest pleasures to see the garden filled with people enjoying those spaces. I hope you have similar gathering places too. Gardening is never a solitary activity - we are always working with - and it seems to me the greatest harvest we can hope for are the moments we spend in the garden with family and friends. Rilke, in his famous 'Letters to a Young Poet,' says, "As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him."

My New Years hope for you is harvest of that kind of honey. Start building. Cheers!

January 7 - evening

Progress has been made.

What an exhausting few days! But, I am pleased to report that all is going well with our giant patio project... As you can see we have back-filled the patio with pink "crushed" granite, and have used our cut limestone pieces to create a checkerboard pattern that frays at the edges a bit. The shade sail is in place and all that is left on our project is to finish the fence that will separate our utility / work area and shed from the patio and plant the new beds that border it. Everything should be finished by next week or so. Then, I intend to use my new Japanese inspired patio to be a place of relaxation and meditation. Right now, however, I intend to collapse! Thirty square yards of granite gravel have taken their toll!


The view from inside our covered area.


The raised circle.


A slightly elevated view.


A little touch of Kyoto in Austin.

January 12 - morning

My life has been a rush of projects for the past several months... at work,  I am finishing one documentary project and gearing up for two new ones - including a 13 part series on spirituality that I hope will be a natural extension of the Soul of the Garden series I produced last year. At home, our construction project has monopolized my time. This weekend, the forecast is calling for cold rain - possibly turning to sleet and snow by Monday, and I am delighted! I intend to unplug for a day or two and enjoy the accomplishments of the past few weeks. I will try not to make plans, though that is very much against my nature. Even as I sit here I find myself planning to unplug - how I'll do it, the best means of accomplishing my goal. Funny, isn't it?

Meanwhile, the goldfinches have returned to our feeders and bird bath. Their stout little beaks dripping or crunching as they help themselves to our offerings. There is a Mary Oliver poem that describes their noisy communions at her bird bath - it ends with the following line:

Then they fly off, their dark wings opening from their bright yellow bodies; their tiny feet, all washed, clasping the air.

I wish I could be as present and as at-ease as they are - even when I am simply  "clasping the air." After all,  do we ever really accomplish much more than that, despite all of our noisy plans?

January 15 - morning

Well, just as advertised, it is bitterly cold outside and there are predictions of an almost certain ice-storm of significant proportions later in the day. I've done my best to prepare the garden and we have a small supply of firewood if the power goes off, so I am not too alarmed. I've had some experience driving on icy roads here in Austin and I think it best to stay put. We're just not well prepared for wintry conditions.

This week-end we saw two exceptional films, Pedro Almodovar's latest, Volver, and Pan's Labyrinth, by Mexican Director, Guillermo del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth is a dark and mysterious meditation on fascism and childhood innocence. Set in Spain during  the 1940's, the action in the film revolves around two narratives that intertwine at the end. The first narrative is a rather frightening childhood fable that leads the central character to a fatal choice, and the other deals with Franco's fascist military hunting down remnants of the democratic resistance in the countryside. When I was watching Pan's Labyrinth I was reminded of the thin line that divides a civil society from the brutality of a fascist regime. The "bad guy" was a sadistic military commander obsessed with the idea of his child being born in a Spain "cleansed" of its impurities and that was as well-ordered as the pocket watch he compulsively cleaned and repaired. Of course, his idea of "cleansing" involved implements of torture and rivers of blood. With the level of heated vitriol that separates "red" and "blue" Americans, it isn't too difficult to imagine that we could find ourselves at war with each other much like Spain was in the 1930's and '40's. All that it would take is a one devastating terror attack and our nation would be filled with people clamoring for a good "cleansing." It is a dark thought, a nightmare really, but I know that I am not the only one that senses its possibility.

I'd like to hold onto the promise and hope of 9/12/2001. The day we all stood united, knowing that blind-dogma and blood-thirsty violence  were our shared enemies. Despite a few twisted prophesies from deranged preachers  (remember Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9/11 on America's tolerance of gays and our abortion laws?) we stood together as a people ready to do what was necessary. Unfortunately, that moment seems so long ago. Our unity and determination were recklessly exploited and gambled away by small men betting on our fear.

Who knows what the future holds? Our enemies seem more numerous than ever - urgent world-threatening problems confront us - yet we are distracted, amusing ourselves with hyperbolic rants and crass entertainment, congratulating ourselves on how much better, or purer "our side"  of the red / blue divide is than "those people" across the street. It all seems so tragic, and, frankly, un-American. Where is the optimism, confidence, and pride we all should share? I believe in an America of possiblilities, of  action, and when it is called for, self-sacrifice - and I see examples of these virtues in my community everyday - why do they seem to be missing when it comes to our most vital national interests?  I salute the young men and women who serve our nation in the armed forces, but where are the leaders whose wisdom matches their commitment? When I was young I listened to my Father and Mother tell me about America's great accomplishments in the Second World War and beyond. I knew I was growing up in the most privileged and most prosperous, the freest, bravest, most inventive society in the world. Now, we can't even muster the energy to free ourselves of the oil-addiction that is funding the terror machine that wants to annihilate us. Are we simply tired of our freedom - or have we reduced freedom's meaning to the choice between a Pepsi or a Coke and no longer care?

Forgive me for adding my voice to the din that rattles the echo chambers of this land - it's just that I had a nightmarish vision the other day while watching a film... It was set in a foreign land  in a not-too distant time. It portrayed a pathological world-view that our father's fought desperately to keep from our shores -  it would bring us lasting shame and the condemnation of history if we were to betray their sacrifice by embracing that pathology today.

There are dark days ahead and we'd be fools not to see them coming - fascists of various denominations and stripes are planning to sow a maelstrom of  fear fierce enough to make us turn on one another. Our only hope is that we will face that storm together, as Americans, unafraid of our freedom and our differences. For while we may be an "unclean" and dis-ordered land, we remain the world's last best hope as long as we remain free.

January16 - afternoon


Well, it is happening! Ice, sleet, and snow! The snow was heavy for a short while - with big fat flakes. We'll keep you posted - it looks like we're in for at least another day's worth of winter precipitation. We've got our fireplace going and the cats are all piled up like the fluffy heat-seeking missiles they actually are. Hope you're snug and warm too. Cheers!

Be one with the snow...



January 23 - morning

I went to a writing workshop at Dharma Yoga this past weekend led by Jeff Davis who lives in Woodstock, New York not far from where I grew up. The focus of the class was on writing about place. Jeff led us in a series of yoga movements and guided meditations designed to elicit some specific images about places that were meaningful to us. I focused on the front yard my father created for my childhood home in the Hudson Valley.  Our front yard was outlined with stone walls and terraces which my Dad made from field stone. Here is what I came up with:


Gathered Stones

For my Father


I had not been born yet.

Still, I can see you at your labor -

alone, scouring the meadows

for the stones -

lifting their gray shoulders

from the moist earth

pulling them from the

green grasp of briars,

goldenrod, and

Queen Anne’s Lace.


The smell of the earth

must have filled you with

your own childhood memories -

of plowing fields

and cold mornings -

trudging across barn yards

mud thick on your boots -

promising yourself

that someday you would leave

and never return.


I can hear the pick axe -

the sharp strikes

against the stones,

and the dull thud

when the earth

swallowed the blade -

and the deep exhalations

when the stones tumbled into

the old wheelbarrow – new then -

that now leans rusting

against my garden shed.


Some of the stones were so large -

far too large for one man –

how did you move them?

I look at the old photographs

and you seem so young –

so much younger

than I am today - and so thin –

staring off-frame beyond the camera.

What were you looking for

in those fields?


I can see you sorting the stones,

stacking them -

building and unbuilding

and rebuilding the walls

and  terraces

until the walls were true

and the terraces level

and planted with dogwood,

birches, soft grass for bare feet,

and bordered with roses.


Did you know

that you were building my castle?

That the highest terrace

would be my tower and keep?

I remember calling out to my

knights, my legionnaires,

and tribesmen –

rallying them in defense

of the citadel –  ready for

the coming siege.


I also remember looking out

across that verdant kingdom

for the last time -

no longer a king or a boy –

and miles away, across the river

to the west, I imagined

the new home that awaited us.

I couldn’t know

how far away it would be

or what it meant to leave.


This morning,

as I looked out across

the garden that I have built,

I felt the weightlessness of time

and its gravity

settling me into place.

For a brief moment I had

the sensation that I was standing

on the shoulders of

gathered stones.


January 30 - morning


We have enjoyed beautiful weather for the past few days - a much needed break from the dreary rain that has dominated the month. While I do grow tired of gray skies after a few days, I hope my fellow Austinites appreciate the gift that we have received: the wettest January on record in Austin. I can't say exactly how much rain my garden has received because my rain gauge overflowed on several occasions! After the drought conditions of last year this has been exactly what we gardeners (and a few ranchers out there) have been hoping for. If the moist conditions continue we should have a spectacular wildflower year in the Hill Country.


This past weekend, I took advantage of the nice weather and worked the soil for one of the planting beds that adjoin our new patio space. I find great pleasure in blending soils together in that way - what was densely packed clay is now a nice loose mix of clay, organic matter, and lots of mineral sands - the perfect home for the new tree that we intend to plant there. I am leaning in the direction of using one of the National Arboretum's crape myrtle cultivars, either Natchez or Muskogee. Both grow very rapidly and form trees of 25-30 feet. Natchez has white flowers and beautiful brown, exfoliating bark. The Muskogee has pale lavender blooms and one of the longest blooming periods of any crape myrtle. Both have very good disease resistance and fall color. I look forward to the day when our new tree will provide morning shade for the office that I am sitting in as I write this.


Our other new planting bed is already completed and is home to two large clumps of black bamboo. We had to dig a trench two feet deep to insert a "bamboo rhizome barrier" that will prevent the roots from spreading out everywhere in the garden. I am crossing my fingers that it works! Black bamboo is not quite as aggressive as the more common golden form, but it is still a monster.


I'll keep you posted on the our progress - in the meantime, peace - and happy gardening.


Continue to February 2007

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