The Daily Muse
Thoughts from an Austin Garden -- December 2007
Last update: December 27
Bigtooth maple leaves touched by our first hard frost.
December 5 - morning
There was ice in the birdbaths and frost on the grass yesterday morning as I made my inspection tour of the garden - our first freeze of the season. This weekend I will be busy cleaning up many of our tender perennials and annuals. I love this time of year, the garden seems to open up and the light takes on that crystalline quality that makes our winters such a joy. I am looking forward to a little quiet time during the upcoming weeks and hope that we will all have a chance to spend some time reflecting on the gifts of the year that is closing and the promise of the year to come. Cheers.
A little closer.
And speaking of the change of seasons... my sister, Diana, has been enjoying the winter light in North Dakota. Here is another beautiful image of the Missouri River - enjoy.
December 10 - morning
Scene at the Crossings.
I spent a large part of this past weekend at The Crossings for the "Common Ground" Conference featuring individuals profiled in the book, The Amazing Faith of Texas. It was an inspiring event with many wonderful individuals taking part. My thanks go out to Ken and Joyce Beck, the owners of The Crossings, who served as the hosts for the weekend.
I gave a short talk on Saturday afternoon where I shared some thoughts about the role of gratitude in my own spiritual journey. Leading up to my talk, I reflected on the nature of my gratitude: to whom am I grateful? And, for what?
A short time before my talk, Victor and I spent some of our free time strolling around the beautiful grounds. One thing you see all over The Crossings are cairns or loosely stacked columns made of the field stones that litter the hilltop campus. (There are so many of them that you wonder if a thousand Andy Goldsworthy accolytes had been set loose at once!) I am sure that these little improvised towers have been erected for many different reasons - as expressions of thanks, to mark a significant moment or conversation, or simply to say "I was here." Looking at the cairns reminded me that "lifting stones" makes a pretty good metaphor for the essential task that our spiritualities and religions call us to: doing good. Indeed, the entire hill-top campus could be seen as resting on the accumulated pile of good deeds that have been performed over the long history of our species. Each act of kindness, patience, love, and compassion adding another stone or pebble to the "uplifting" of humanity. In fact, as Ken Beck welcomed us to the conference on Friday night, he talked about The Crossings as being an expression of he and Joyce's gratitude for all of the gifts that had been given to them in their lives. After our walk I envisioned the wonderfully crafted limestone structures of the campus resting atop a small mountain of deeds. Aren't we all standing on just such a mountain? Think about it - isn't each moment of peace that we enjoy, each instance of civility, or act of compassion, resting on the accumulated acts of those who preceded us? Those who chose to do good when any choice was available to them?
To whom am I grateful? And, for what?
This morning I am grateful to my mother and father whose countless loving choices and acts have brought me to this moment in time. I am grateful to my sister who lifts me up by telling me that she believes in me. I am grateful for my loving partner, Victor, who shares my life with me. I am grateful to you, my visitors who encourage me on my journey. And, I am profoundly grateful for those who preceded us, the millions of our fellow humans who lived modest, decent lives - lifting one small stone at a time.
I must also add that this morning I am so grateful for my fellow-Austinite, Michael Benedikt, whose lovely and important new book, God is the Good We Do has added so much to my understanding of our calling.
In closing, I'd like to share (once again) a poem that I wrote for my father earlier this year. I think you'll understand why...
for Guy Spencer
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,
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 -
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
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.
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
An older image (my own attempt at a Goldsworthyesque cairn.)
Another image from The Crossings.
Bigtooth maples turning color in our garden.
December 11 - morning
Another scene from The Crossings - I suggested the building of this "council circle" along one of the trails. One of my happiest design suggestions ever. That is Lake Travis in the distance.
Just wanted to share two more images from my sister, Diana. She wrote that is was twelve below zero when she took these North Dakota scenes. Now that is dedication!
Cottonwoods - a sure sign of water (or ice!)
Meanwhile, back in Texas, one more scene from The Crossings.
December 16 - evening
Possumhaw holly berries.
A glorious day in the garden... the weather was clear, cool, and dry and I spent nearly the entire day raking up our harvest of leaves. After finishing with my work, I played a little... the following images are my homage to Andy Goldsworthy's leaf "sculptures." These pictures feature our Tex-zen garden and bigtooth maple leaves.
Stream of gold.
The architecture of the bald cypress allee really stands out in winter.
Close-up of the Savannah holly berries.
December 17 - morning
First light. The sunrise started beautifully - but wait...
I thought you might enjoy some images taken of our very spectacular sunrise here in Austin this morning... Here's to the early risers!
Mammatus clouds illuminated just a few minutes after the image taken above.
Detail of the mammatus clouds.
Outliers of the mammatus formation. Monet in the sky!
Is that God's thumb?
December 20 - morning
The Donkey and the Ox
for Sherry Smith
The donkey and the ox,
what a racket they must have made!
Munching on the straw
from the crib in the manger.
Such thick headed beasts!
How did our Savior survive
with all of His toes?
His swaddling free of slobber?
Imagine, if you will,
their warm grassy breath, forming
little clouds that were filled
with His radiance.
And pity poor Joseph,
asleep, off to the side , and Mary
For, while resting, they missed
what soft brown eyes sensed:
that before shepherd or angel
or wise man arrived, a feast
had been set for the taking.
- Tom Spencer
Merry Christmas everyone!
December 21 - morning
...and a happy winter too!
December 26 - evening
An underground tunnel connecting buildings at the Museum of Fine Arts campus in Houston. Titled The Light Inside, the tunnel is an installation by light sculptor James Turrell. Those are my parents, posing as silhouettes for me. This is one of my favorite places in Texas. Way cool.
On the Sunday before Christmas, I took my parents who live in the northern suburbs of Houston into the city to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. I have been to the museum many times but had never visited the sculpture garden which was created in 1986 by renowned sculptor and landscape designer, Isamu Noguchi. I was very impressed by the organization of the space and how sheltered it felt from the surrounding city. What follows are a few images taken there and over my Christmas visit to Houston.
In the Noguchi sculpture garden. Who says you shouldn't 'sculpt' crape myrtles?
A detail of one of the sculptures.
A Marini equestrian statue.
Beaded curtains inside the museum's gallery spaces.
The atrium of the museum.
Merry Christmas from my Mom and Dad.
On Christmas day my Mom and I took a walk at a nearby park that is surrounded by low-lying woods filled with palmettos. Spaces like these served as the inspiration for the central bed of my front garden which has sixteen Sabal minor palmettos.
December 27 - morning
A very chilly morning in the garden - a thick layer of frost is on the rooftops and plants. According to the forecasters, it wasn't supposed to freeze last night, but the thermomenter on our porch read 28 degrees when I went outside. I just came in from the backyard where I was overseeing a city tree trimming crew that was doing a little pruning on my peach trees (that are planted close to some power lines.) They saved me a the pruning that I intended to do later in the winter. Brrrrrr. It was cold out there!
The cats are climbing all over me as I am typing this out - they are trying to use me as a heat source! Speaking of cats forgive me this indulgence - the winter light in our bedroom makes for a great portrait studio...
Basho our smallest cat who also happens the mischievious tyrant of the pride. He is a Tonkinese and is super sweet to his daddies - a true velcro kitty.
Seventh inning stretch.
Fez, our biggest boy, joins the party. Fez is probably the only cat in our pride that we would trust if he was tiger sized.
Fez close-up. He is the most even tempered cat I have ever known - just a sweet heart.
Maya, one of our Bengals, napping in our study.
Issa, brother of Basho.
Luna, sister of Maya. Luna is our "Princess."
Xoxo - our old man.