The Daily Muse

A Garden Journal -- September 2005

Last Update: September 29

Rock formation in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

September 6 - morning

I am concluding a long Labor Day vacation this morning and when it lightens enough for me to wander through the garden, I will inspect my labors. After a few weeks of waiting, I re-tackled the job of planting our new Savannah Holly tree and finally succeeded (after taking an axe to the old tree roots that had prevented me from completing the job last month.) I also lined our lawn  in the back yard with a limestone border to help prevent the zoysia grass from running into our granite walkways. Yes, I take Labor Day seriously. We also managed to slip away for a couple of days to visit my parents to help them celebrate my Mom's birthday.

Having just returned from one of our National Parks, I was angered to read of the Bush administration's no longer secret plans to weaken the Parks' protected status. I urge everyone to find out more about this national disgrace. Here are a couple of links: The New York Times Editorial that broke the story and a detailed accounting of the Bush administration's park failures from the National Park Service retirees newsletter.

OK - the garden is lighting up, I'll lighten up and go for my inspection tour. More pictures soon...

September 9 - morning

If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.

-W. Beran Wolfe / from Quotes - Volume Ten

It is very early and I have already been busy attending to our herd of cats and my other morning rituals. Yesterday, when I came home from work I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the flood of activity that I am engaged in... too many projects, too many meetings, too little money, and, of course, never enough time. And when I turned to my garden, it seemed out of control as well.  Having just spent several days working on big garden projects, the little everyday chores, like weeding, have been left undone. So, it doesn't feel like my perfect paradise. It isn't ready for inspection. (Though I forget that I am the only person who marches through it judging everything!)

It reminds me that when I was single, I used to keep my apartment just the way I wanted it... every picture was hanging in the right place, every piece of folk art displayed just so, and everything was dusted. Now, I share my house with a partner and seven cats, and well, let's just say that the toll on the folk art has been catastrophic.

We have to be careful about expecting perfection in anything. It strikes me that fixating on perfection is very much like fixating on the button under the radiator. We need to give ourselves approval to be works in progress or our boats, symphonies, gardens, and lives will never be sources of pleasure for anyone, much less ourselves.

So, my practice this morning will be to chill. To enjoy my cup of coffee tour of the garden without stumbling over the weeds and to accept a lapful of purrs without regrets for broken figurines.

To be a person of truth, be swayed neither by approval nor disapproval.
Work at not needing approval from anyone and you will be free to be who you really are.

- Rebbe Nachman of Breslov / from Quotes - Volume Ten

September 11 -afternoon

We are having a lazy Sunday - Victor is taking a nap with about half of our tribe curled up with him and I have been attending to a few mundane chores (while taking the time to enjoy the  light rain which has been falling nearly all day long.) The moisture is desperately needed, this is our first measurable rainfall in about one month. The garden had been looking a little weary - tired of the treated water and ready for a long deep draw of the real stuff. I am certain that  the coming days will bring a flush of new growth and renewed vigor, especially since the heat seems to have been turned down half-a-notch.

Last night, my sister called me from a lakeside campground that she and her husband frequent with a group of their friends (in North Dakota.) It was rather late, and I was surprised she called, but very glad that she did... apparently they were enjoying a spectacular display of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. She described ribbons of purple flowing across the horizon, and added "It looks like it is undulating in a breeze - like someone has tossed a silk scarf up into the sky."  It made me long to be outside, away from the city lights, in a place where I could really enjoy the night-time sky. I was happy for my sister, and a bit jealous. I have only seen the northern lights once, when I was a kid in New York, I'd love to see them again.

Speaking of seeing things...

I have spent a little time reflecting on the sad disaster of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and reminiscing about September 11, 2001. It strikes me that the greatest tragedy of both events has been our response to them. Following 9/11, the American people were so united, we stood ready to respond in any way that we could. All that our leaders needed to do was ask us to focus on a task and I am certain that we would have accomplished it. Instead, we were told, in effect, don't worry, we'll take our vengeance, keep shopping. What if the President had asked us to commit ourselves to energy independence? He could have called upon American industry to use its enormous creative powers to come up with entirely new businesses and technologies that would help end our  dependence on foreign oil, a dire strategic need if there ever was one. I believe that we would be half-way to that goal today if the question had merely been asked. It was a complete failure of vision. Of course, the military response in Afghanistan was essential, but in the long run it hasn't made us much safer. (In fact, with our troops bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan is now once again slipping under the Taliban's command.) So we continue to depend on oil that finances the terrorists and fuels global warming. Great.

Likewise, with the New Orleans situation, we are failing to see and grasp an opportunity for an important advancement of our national security. Many American cities, like New Orleans, are situated in precarious environments that are growing much more precarious everyday. Houston is sinking into the Gulf under the sheer mass of its sprawl, Phoenix and Los Angeles are completely erasing the water resources of the Southwest, and many other cities are vulnerable to rising sea levels that are a consequence of global warming. New Orleans is a tragedy, but it is also a wake-up call, we cannot afford to hit the snooze alarm again. A failure to act now would be deeply immoral. We can  meet these things challenges, this is America after all, but we cannot meet them with our eyes closed. The irony is that tackling these difficult environmental issues would help propel our economy into the 21st century, but our leadership seems intent on a pre-1930's economic ideology and assigning blame.

I like the dreams for the future better than the history of the past. - Thomas Jefferson from Quotes Volume Seven

I might amend that to: "I like the dreams for the future better than assigning blame for the past." Now is the time for dreamers and doers, I refuse to believe that the American people have become what our leaders are: whiners and petty schemers.

September 13 - evening

Oxblood lilies in our front yard catching the last rays of the evening sun.

Here are a few new pictures from the garden...

This wide shot of the back garden shows my new limestone border for the zoysia lawn and the Savannah Holly I planted a couple of weeks ago. (The large pyramidal shrub center left.) I think the holly is just the right plant for the spot... I wanted something that would remain very pyramidal in form and be an evergreen presense at the center of the garden during winter. I may even decorate it with Christmas lights! Eventually it should grow to twenty-five feet.


Oxblood lilies backlit by the evening sun.The fading light gives them an orangey glow.


One more Oxblood shot.

September 14 - evening

More pics from the garden...

Oxbloods in the back garden.


Some of our pink Oxblood lilies.


More pinkies.


This is Chubster, a feral cat that lives in our garden. He and I have known each other for at least four years, but he never lets me get closer than ten feet away. Here, he is munching on some purple fountain grass. His usual diet includes white wing doves - he is quite the hunter (as his name implies. )


Looking through the arbor behind our pond.


In the right light even bear grass looks magical.

September 18 - morning

The last days of summer have turned desperately hot, even by Texas standards. It is expected to hit 100 degrees today. I am longing for our first cool front and the promise of autumn. I am going to get my gardening done early today, then retire to the air-conditioning.

Here are a few pictures of a visitor to our garden that I took yesterday. I was pruning the faded blooms off of one of our roses when I felt a branch move when I reached in to touch it. Hidden inside the bush was a praying mantis. After I disturbed it, it climbed to the top of the bush to take my measure. Victor said that it was probably trying to figure out if it could eat me!

Checking me out.


What an amazing work of architecture!

September 20 - morning

Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour. - Thoreau, from Walden - Quotes Volume 10

I have spent a little time re-reading Walden this week, a book that completely changed my life when I first encountered it over thirty years ago. At that time, when I was a teenager trying to navigate my way through my own uncertainties and the normal societal pressures to conform, it seemed like a beacon shining in the darkness.  It pointed me back to the natural world that had been so meaningful to me as a young child and challenged me to trust myself - my instincts, my "genius." The experience of reading Thoreau when I was young was profoundly spiritual, though at the time, I probably would not have used that word to describe it. What struck me as being most important about Walden, at that time, was its incessant call for us to be true to ourselves. As a teenager isolated in a new town  with a new set of peer pressures, this was a very powerful message (we had recently moved to Texas from New York.) A short while later, I read Emerson's essay Self Reliance,  it reinforced Thoreau's message and I found myself wishing that I had been born in nineteenth century New England so that I could have rubbed shoulders with these two giants of American literature and immersed myself in their "transcendental" philosophy. (I also missed the snow!)

By the time I got to college and was exposed to philosophy classes and leftist-oriented social theories, Thoreau and Emerson seemed old-fashioned and out-of-date. Emerson, in particular, was disdained for promoting individualism (a leftist sin.) Thoreau earned a few points for being an "early environmentalist" but was portrayed as being an odd-ball anti-social spiritualist. Transcendentalism and individualism were out -  Existentialism and socialism were in (at least within the academy.)

It wasn't until I read Christopher Lasch's brilliant critique of theAmerican progressive movement, The True and Only Heaven, that I was forced to take a second look at Emerson. Even though he was an admirer of Emerson, Lasch down-plays the "transcendental" qualities of his philosophy. However, I think that both Emerson's  and Thoreau's work have a spiritual quality that the phrase transcendentalism captures quite well.

I have read many definitions of Transcendentalism, but the one that makes the most sense to me comes from Frances Tiffany,  in her work "Transcendentalism: The New England Renaissance." She says, "First and foremost, it can only be rightly conceived as an intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual ferment, not a strictly reasoned doctrine. It was a renaissance of conscious, living faith in the power of reason, in the reality of spiritual insight, in the privilege, beauty, and glory of life."

That sounds like the kind of philosophical "ferment" that we could use in our own times! We need an integrated spirituality that celebrates both "the power of reason" and the mystery and glory of life. Thoreau's words certainly rang true when I was reading Walden this past week-end...

...Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? - Thoreau, Walden

September 21 - evening

Salvia coccinea 'Coral nymph.'

There is a sense of dread and gloom hanging over Austin tonight as we try to maintain some semblance of calm in the face of the latest hurricane, Rita. Matching our mood, the weather has already been unrelentingly brutal. Our high temperature tomorrow is expected to be nearly 105 degrees fahrenheit (40.55 celcius.) I just returned from a shoot at the site of a benefit concert where thousands of Austinites turned out to raise money for the victims of Katrina, and now, we are facing the likelihood of hurricane force winds and torrential rain here on Saturday. Earlier today, I had several anxious calls with my parents who live in Houston, much closer to the coast, but the storm, hopefully, seems to be veering slightly west of there. The bad news for us is that the projections show the eye of the hurricane passing within a few miles of Austin before it has the chance to weaken. This city is now filling up with a new group of evacuees that is likely to dwarf the approximately 10,000 New Orleans evacuees already here. I hope that you will keep Texas in your thoughts in the coming days, pray that this latest hurricane weakens as it bears down on us. Thanks.

September 22 - morning

Very bad news, the hurricane is tracking further north and now seems to be headed straight for Houston and Galveston, a region that is home to over five million people including my Mom and Dad who have decided to wait it out in their home. Fortunately, they live on the north side of the city, well away from the projected storm surge, but they can expect winds over 100 miles per hour if the storm remains a category 5. They seem well supplied and reasonably calm. I begged them to leave this morning but the city is already one giant parking lot with all of the highways jammed. Besides, my Dad is stubborn as a mule. Needless, to say, I am anxious... even if I headed to Houston now to get them, I think we would all be trapped. Keep those prayers coming!

September 25 - morning

I am feeling a great deal of relief today - as everyone knows, the storm veered east of Houston and my parents came through relatively unscathed. They are without power, but we are able to communicate with one another and they are very well provisioned. My thanks to those who shared their concern. The weather here has been absolutley brutal... extremely hot, dry and windy. They say that our first cool front of the season will reach us mid-week. I cannot wait!


The picture above was taken thirty years ago along the banks of Big Cow Creek in Newton County, Texas. That particular image has always meant a great deal to me. It was taken on my very first roll of 35 mm film, and when I received my package of prints, this one convinced me that I had a possible future in photography. It also had a symbolic meaning for me - I imagined the flood bent water oak in the middle of the stream  to be pointing off into the mist as if it were a sign suggesting a life-path that would be out of the ordinary. This photograph also reminds me of the hours I spent along the banks of that creek as a high school student and during the first few years of my college career. For me, Cow Creek was a place of solace, friendship, and adventure where I escaped from the dreariness of Port Arthur, were my family lived at the time. This past weekend, I thought about it as the eye of Hurricane Rita passed almost directly over this spot. I imagine that there are thousands of trees down in the area and the poor families that call this place home are that much poorer now. I wonder if the little shack my friends called 'camp' is still standing? I once pictured myself living there a la Thoreau, if you could picture Thoreau surviving on catfish and Coca-Cola! It all seems like such a long time ago and yet so near... Southeast Texas is a rough area with gritty oil and lumber towns, wide-spread poverty, pollution, and the lingering burden of racial separatism and inequality dragging  it down like a lead weight. Yet, even here, you can find enchantment. I did thirty years ago and I wish the region well tonight.

P.S. - The power is back on at my parent's place. Thanks again for your concern.

River birches and pine reflected in Big Cow Creek.

September 29 - morning

Just a brief not to celebrate the first "cool" front of the season... Our weather has been unbearable for the past week: extremely hot, with temperatures well over 100 degrees everyday, and very dusty. This morning, when I went outside to collect the newspapers, a northerly breeze was blowing and the air felt fresh. I won't say that it is actually feels cool, but at least there is the promise that it may feel that way soon. This has been the hottest and among the driest Septembers that we have ever experienced, and frankly I will be glad when it is over. As the band Green Day says, "Wake me up when September ends."

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