The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- January 2008


Last update: January 31


My Christmas present to myself - a tall glazed pot with a Texas persimmon tree and 'Bath's Pink' dianthus.


January 1 - afternoon


Happy New Year! May the days ahead bring you much peace.


I spent most of the past three days working in the garden. The weather has been clear and cool, cold at night, and the light has been absolutely gorgeous. Most of my time has been spent on cleaning up frost burned perennials and grasses, though I did allow myself one indulgence... a new container for one of the focal points of the garden. I chose a tall blue glazed pot and planted it with a Texas persimmon and 'Bath's Pink' dianthus. I intend to trim the persimmon like a bonsai and allow the Dianthus to spill over the edge in a grassy cascade. The hardy perennial forms of dianthus are among my favorite plants - they are very xeric (I almost never water mine) and they make a great ground cover for containers or very well drained soils. The foliage is wonderful, a fine silvery blue, and the blooms are fragrant and attract butterflies. I think the silver foliage will compliment the bark of the persimmon as well as the blue pot very well.


Again, best wishes for the New Year!


A close-up view of the dianthus.



A telephoto view through our labyrinth.



An older persimmon bonsai.



A celtic cross on our raised patio.




The steps of our patio in the morning light.



Possumhaw berries...



...against the blue sky.


The allee.



The wide view from our patio.



A little closer.


The paving of our patio - cut limestone and crushed granite gravel.



Rufous missed out on last month's portrait spree.



Basho and Issa napping.





January 10 - evening


Reflected sunset, North Dakota.


Greetings friends. I hope your New Year has gotten off to a good start! I am writing simply to say that I am sorry about my absence for the past week. I have been extremely busy working on a book project and have had little spare time to spend in the garden. I am looking forward to a little quiet time this weekend and hope to post some new material at that time. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this picture from my sister. More soon, I promise.


January 18 - morning



The colors of sunrise reflected on the Missouri River,  in North Dakota.


Rain! For the first time in what seems like many weeks, a surprise line of showers is moving through the city leaving us with a measurable rainfall! Yeah! I was beginning to think that we would go from last year's bounty directly into a drought. It still may happen, but for the moment, I am relieved.


On other fronts, if you live in the Austin-metro area, please mark your calendars for February 14. On Valentines day a piece that I have created will be airing on KLRU's new local program Docubloggers, featuring Michael Benedikt, author of God is the Good We Do, a book which I have touted here in the past. I think you will enjoy the piece, it also features the photography of long-time Austin photographer, Alan Pogue. I have some other exciting news to share but must wait a few days  before I do - keep posted. More soon.


January 20 - morning


In our back garden, the round discs on the fence were taken from old video tape reels. A fun "homage" to my years at KLRU.


I had a good work day in the garden yesterday - the weather was cool and bright and I was able to get quite a bit done. My big project was  dividing out dozens of agave "pups" from one of the circular beds in our front yard. When I created the bed about five years ago I planted three agaves, each a different species. Yesterday, I removed approximately forty pups, some quite large. My neighbors were the lucky recipients of the plants. I put out a sign saying "free" and they were all gone in a matter of hours. I am now thinking about how to replant the bed, I am considering changing it completely and adding a tree. The location of the bed is well suited for a large tree that would block the late afternoon summer sun on our patio space so I am very tempted. There is large Chinese tallow tree nearby that keeps shedding large limbs, not to mention branchlets, leaves, flower spikes, and seeds. It would be nice to have a native replacement waiting in the wings should the tallow need to be removed.


I have also been working on the bed that surrounds our "conversation room" at the center of our garden. When we first created that space just a few years ago it was in full sun. Now, our allee of bald cypress trees is shading the bed out for more than half of the day. I have removed many of the herbs that were growing there and have replaced them with cycads and shade tolerant forms of agave. The bed is unirrigated so these new plants should perform well.


It is amazing to me how quickly our garden is changing in character - from dense shade to full sun and back again. I guess that is one of the reasons they say a garden is never done!


Agave parryi truncata in our back garden (with recycled glass mulch.)


January 25 - evening


Winter mist rising along the banks of the Missouri River, North Dakota.


This morning I am proud to introduce a new item at Soul of the Garden, a page solely dedicated (get the pun!) to the photographs of my sister, Diana. As you can see from the image above, she has quite the eye. I hope that you enjoy and will be a regular visitor to her page.




On other fronts, I have been thinking about the tensions we have in our lives about "getting stuck" versus "growing". Back in November, I wrote a few thoughts about the importance of not getting stuck, of not allowing ourselves to be buried in the avalanche of cultural and commercial messages that course through our lives. This overload of disorienting messages exhausts and confuses us. To use a Buddhist phrase, we are paralyzed by illusions. Every day we are urged to choose between thousands of competing narratives, each carefully crafted to bind us to them, we reach for one only to find the next more enticing. The end effect is that we allow ourselves to be batted back and forth, but "grow" nowhere. We get stuck. In November, I suggested that the antidote to this barrage of messages was the counter-cultural practice of "paying attention."


Paradoxically, a huge percentage of the messages directed at us warn against the perils of getting stuck, whether it is with bad jobs,  relationships, homes, neighborhoods,  income levels, mindsets, even the bodies we were born with! We are always continually being urged to "accept no limits" and to "reinvent ourselves." Modern Americans are the most fiercely individualistic and "independence-minded" people in human history and these messages reinforce those characteristics at every turn.


There is a lot to be said for not being content with the "way things are." In fact, it is one of the strengths of our national culture and I see it as the driving force behind our enormously creative and productive economy. However, it can also the source of a great deal of despair for some facts do not change. The rebellion against limits has its limits too. In fact, I think we rebel against the notion of limits to a dangerous degree. The most tangible evidence of the dangers we face can also be seen in our economy. Shouldn't we be more than a little bit worried that our economy absolutely depends on our willingness to spend more than we actually make, or that we tolerate robber baron-like levels of economic greed (and the growing political disparities that come with it) because we all dream that we will be the next ones to join that club, to fly without limits above our poor "stuck" compatriots? 


I am not an economist, and shouldn't lecture about debt since I am as "active" a consumer as most (curse those nurseries and their enticing blue pots!) However, there is a another side to the rebellion against  limitations that has a profound spiritual component. I believe that spiritual and personal growth stem from gratitude. Not just the gratitude that involves a "thank you" for the good things we enjoy, but a gratefulness for life itself for everything - the blossoms of spring as well as the bare branches of winter. We cannot grow without being rooted and the Buddha himself often reminded us that to be human means that we are rooted in limitations, in suffering. We grow old, we get sick, we lose friends and loved ones, and, eventually, we die. Yes, this is suffering, but what is worse is the pain that comes from refusing to come to terms with these facts. Rebelling against our own nature and inevitable destinies just makes us crazy on top of everything else.  The real paradox is that we cannot grow until we make peace with the fact that we are stuck!


One of my heroes, the great Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr , was the author of what has become known as the "serenity prayer."  I am sure most of you are familiar with its opening verse:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

One of the most popular critiques of religion is that it is the "opiate of the masses" the soothing palliative for the anxious flock of benighted "followers." Niehbuhr's prayer could be read by critics as an exhortation to keep the fearful in line - dangling eternal rewards in return for bended knees. I see it very differently, however. While I am not an orthodox Christian, and do not believe in a "next" life, I read these words as a challenge - not a placebo. To me, they are a call to action, not passivity. "His Will" was for us to love one another - hardly a passive activity!

Melville wrote, "We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results." We are ensnared by invisible threads, we are stuck, but we can grow. The gratitude and good deeds we send out into the world return to us as moments worthy of "heaven" itself, they lift us up and help us grow. Living one day at a time; enjoying each moment; advancing down the difficult pathways to peace - this is the way of gratitude and of genuine hope.


Out of what we truly are, the hope for what we may become must grow. - Paul Tillich


January 31 - morning


Just a quick word about an exciting new chapter in my career... later this evening I will be introduced as the new Chief Executive Officer of AAIM - Austin Area Inter-Religious Ministries. I am tremendously excited about this new opportunity and by the great work done in this community by AAIM. After 25 years in Public Broadcasting, this will open an entirely new chapter in my life. (But don't worry, I will continue to host Central Texas Gardener!) This news will be announced this evening at AAIM's annual meeting. I will be making short remarks tonight about our theme for the coming year "Planting the Seeds of Hope." I hope you will join us this evening at 7:00 PM at the King-Seabrook Chapel of Huston-Tillotson University. More importantly, I hope that you will become involved in AAIM itself - we have a unique mission, "AAIM unites faith and cultural communities to foster respect, partnership and transformation in service of the common good." To learn more about tonight's event, click here. To join AAIM as a member, click here.


Blessings and peace to you all!


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