The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- August 2008


Last update: August 25


Sabal texensis after the rain!


August 6 - morning


A terrible disappointment - the much hoped for deluge overnight did not materialize. The tropical storm that continues to move west across Texas passed to our north, leaving Austin on the dry side of the circulation. We had a trace of rain in our garden,  no more than two tenths of an inch. We are expected to head back into hundred degree heat starting tomorrow. Well, at least we had a day with overcast skies!




On an entirely different topic - the upcoming Olympic games have left me thinking a great deal about China, a nation that has always fascinated me. When I was in college I studied the history and culture of East Asia and took several courses dealing specifically with Chinese history.  I have long been drawn to the philosophies and arts of Classical China, in particular the poetry of the T'ang Dynasty (618 - 970) which most scholars regard as China's "golden age." When most of Europe  was mired in the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, T'ang Dynasty China was the real center of world civilization and was enjoying over three centuries of relative peace and calm. Chang'an, the capital city of China at the time had over one million inhabitants, more than twice the size of Constantinople (today's Istanbul) which was the sole surviving metropolis of Christian Europe.


Today China is once again one of the dynamic centers of world civilization having emerged from a long and difficult period of internal decay, western imperialism, warfare, and stifling authoritarianism. Its transition is still not complete, but its people are enjoying unprecedented economic growth and a real expansion of personal freedom. Some argue, that China is still a dangerous police state and express justifiable concerns about human rights. However, I think we should careful about lecturing others about human rights when our current leadership is touting the merits of torture. To me, it appears as if China is standing on the precipice and faces two possible futures - it can continue in the direction it appears to be heading and become one of the great world powers and an invaluable partner for stability and peace, or it could once again turn xenophobic and suspicious of the west and its neighbors. If this happens, the 21st century could be a very bleak time. The youth of China, who have worked so hard to help create their nation's current prosperity, are rightfully proud of their accomplishments, but there are some who conjure a western plot to "contain and suppress" them. It seems to me that we should be extremely careful not to supply these angry nationalists with the propaganda they need to win over the hearts and minds of their countrymen. Americans are no strangers to the dark side of pride. The arrogance and hubris of our recent past is not a healthy model for others to follow.


 My web reports indicate that this website has a small but fairly steady stream of visitors from China - I would like to let them know that I am praying for their  success and for the success of the Olympic games. The world needs a China that is strong, open, and welcoming and I believe that a successful Olympics could help achieve those goals. There will always be differences between large and powerful nations, but our relationship should start from a place of respect. Someday, I would love to be able to visit China and let the people I encounter know that not all Americans are ignorant of their great history and their profound contributions to the world.


But, in the meantime, best wishes. May the Olympics be safe, beautiful, and thrilling for all of the world.


The following poem comes from the T'ang dynasty and is from one of the great world masters of the written word, Du Fu. Du Fu (also known as Tu Fu) and his contemporaries created a vast catalog of incredibly humane and surprisingly modern-feeling work. One of the reasons I love this poetry is that it reflects a strongly Buddhist world view. The T'ang dynasty was the period in Chinese history when Buddhism was at the peak of its cultural influence on the country.  It was at this time that Buddhism was blended with Taoism to create Zen (known as Chan in China.) The following poem isn't very Zen-like, but it felt appropriate to share today.




Autumn Meditation - Du Fu


I've heard them say that Chang'an seems like in a game of chess,
A hundred years of world events have caused unbearable pain.
The palaces of the noblemen all have their new masters,
Civil and military dress and caps are not like those before.
Straight north over mountain passes, gongs and drums ring out,
Conquering the west, carts and horses, feather-hurried dispatches.
The fish and dragons are still and silent, the autumn river cold,
A peaceful life in my homeland always in my thoughts.


Classical Chinese Poetry translated by Kenneth Rexroth


August 18 - morning


Still waiting for rain! The TV weather forecasters have been talking up our chances of rain for the past few days, but still no more than a brief drizzle in our garden. Despite that, I took the opportunity of replanting one of my drought ravaged beds yesterday in the hopes that we will receive some portion of the promised deluge. One corner of our garden absolutely fried this summer - an area that had been shady until last year when we removed a tree. With all of the rain last summer it sailed through without a problem; but this year, with over 60 days breaking 100 degrees, it looked like someone had walked through the bed spraying death. So, out with the old shade loving plants and in with some true desert species. I planted a "Red Bird of Paradise" shrub (Caesalpinia pulcherrima,) two Tecoma stans (one yellow and one orange,) and some salvias and eupatoriums.  In three or four years the bed will be shady again, but until then I have some sun loving toughies that won't be begging for water! Now we are sure to get a flood!


In other news, I am proud to report that my personal diplomacy effort from earlier in the  month bore some fruit - I received several emails from China and now have a few acquaintances there. One shared with me the lovely poem below:


A Tranquil Night
(Translated by许渊冲, from Peking university )

Abed, I see a silver light,
I wonder if it's frost aground.
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing, in homesickness I'm drowned.

Chinese version:


August 21 - morning


After the rain.


Finally! We received two inches of rain on Tuesday - the heaviest rain we have experienced since last summer. The garden responded as it always does after such generosity - with its own form a generosity in kind... new growth, new green, an exhalation that is almost palpable - like a soft breeze coming from the ground itself. Yah! I hope it rained on your garden too!


Agave parryi truncata.



Rain drops on a Mexican sunflower.


August 23 - evening


The butterfly migration has begun! Two of the hundreds of Queen butterflies that have been mobbing our mist flowers.


The rain has brought us rain lilies, butterflies, and hope! I spent a fair amount of time photographing the new blooms and visitors today - I hope that you enjoy the following images...



A white sulphur butterfly (perhaps a "dogface"?) with a Queen in the background.




A matched pair.




Close-up of a Queen.



And another.



Still one more.



My "Brandy" Desert Willow has been spectacular all summer long. I have watered this plant only one time since I planted it three years ago!



The Queens are mobbing the Desert Willow too.



Pink rain lilies and a stone frog planter.



Yellow rain lilies.



Rain lilies with an Agave parryi pup.



Pink rain lily close-up.



Yellow rain lilies.



"Bird of Paradise."


August 25 - morning


Working it!


It is almost cool outside - I just returned from my early morning inspection tour and there was the vaguest hint of the season to come in the air. We are still enjoying the benefit of last week's rain, though I did some planting yesterday and the ground was rock hard and dry beneath the mulch. I hope there is enough moisture to sustain the lycoris and oxlood lilies that are popping up everywhere! More pictures soon...



In silhouette.


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