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...


Gathered Stones

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,

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.


An older image (my own attempt at a Goldsworthyesque cairn.)




Another image from The Crossings.



Bigtooth maples turning color in our garden.



Leaf litter.



Autumnal Buddha.



More leaves.


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.



Savannah holly.



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

completely exhausted.

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.


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