This morning I went to my garden to water and weed, just as I do most other summer mornings. It’s early August, and the hot, sunny weather Portland has been getting the past few weeks has caused both my vegetables and the weeds to engage in furious growth. While I hate having left the weeds to get as big as they have while I’ve been gone for festivals, I do have to admit it’s more satisfying to yank up one weed and clear a six inch wide patch of earth than to scrape dozens of tiny weedlings with my trowel and hope their roots don’t regenerate quickly. I’ve managed to make enough space to transplant crowded parsnip and beet seedlings, and these appreciate the cool water that soaks into their new soil.
The other evening when I visited my garden with a friend, we found a dead honey bee still clinging to a calendula bloom gone to seed, entangled in the drying, withered petals. While dead-heading the flowers today, I noticed the little deceased was still there in spite of the human-brought rain from the hose. A few specks of soil clung to her fur, kicked up from watering and weeding. Her wings, slightly torn, stuck out at odd angles. I broke off the flower she lay upon; she looked almost as though she were merely taking a nap, one front leg tucked under her head.
There was no sign of trauma or injury. Perhaps she was a casualty of neonicotinoid pesticides outside of the community garden’s organic boundaries. Or she may have been too old, exhausted on her last flight, a spring hatchling now matured far into summer. She might have just come from her hive after being relieved of a burden of pollen and honey.
Had she died at home, there’d be no bedside elegy; bees are much too efficient for that. Her corpse would have been dragged from where she fell, then dropped unceremoniously into a refuse pile outside the hive. Here, nestled on the edge of a fertile calendula blossom, she was afforded a bit more peace, a few days to lie in repose. Probably no one but I and my friend took note of her passing; certainly none of her hive-sisters would have noticed she was missing. There is no room in the hive for sentimentality when life is so brief to begin with.
I’ve brought her home with me. For now she’ll rest on my work bench, off to the side. I have ideas on how to honor her with my funerary art, but for the moment she’ll lie in state, a reminder of so many of the reasons why I do what I do–and a warning against working too hard lest I, too, only find peace when my own work is at an end.
(Honey bee on mullein flower, community garden, Portland, OR. Image by Lupa, 2014.)
Ever since I moved to Portland in 2007, I’ve spent every summer solstice at Sunfest, a local pagan festival west of Portland. I’ve collected many fond memories of the event, and last year I led the opening, closing, and main rituals, an incredible experience with an incredible group of people on beautiful land. This year, though, I opted to stay home, not because I don’t look forward to Sunfest, but because every so often it’s good to take a break, and I intend to go back next year refreshed and rejuvenated. (I heard people had a great time, there, too!)
So what did I do instead? Well, I’d been out of town the previous week, and while I was away it rained much of the time. This meant that upon my arrival back home, my community garden spot had a healthy crop of weeds popping up amid the more intentional plants. So a good bit of my weekend was spent with my hands in the dirt, digging up crabgrass and Russian thistles and a host of other unwanted invaders. I ended up with scraped fingers and sore shoulders, but by the time I was done things were looking a lot better (if not perfect).
I also took the time to plant out my little balcony container garden, which I admit I’ve been neglecting some as I’ve wrangled with the weeds down the street at the larger plot. But my herbs were all doing just fine, and the volunteer marigolds and petunias that sprouted from last year’s dropped seeds all ended up gathered together in one long planter box. Soil was freshened up, fluffed, and fertilized, and I planted out beans and arugula and other seeds. I also made my yearly pilgrimage to Fred Meyer’s clearance aisles in the garden section, where I brought home eight tomatoes and two unlabeled squash in sad condition which I’ll be attempting to resurrect with some TLC. Along with these I bought a very marked-down hanging pot of petunias; I thought the hummingbirds might like it.
Still little. Still lovely. My balcony garden <3[/caption]Wait. Hummingbirds?
Okay. For those of you familiar with my work, you may have noticed that I've historically been against feeding wildlife, birds included. Putting out food where raccoons and possums can get it, for example, encourages them to be less afraid of humans and causes them to be more of a nuisance (we see this writ large in the black bears at Yellowstone). However, I was researching something on the Audubon Society website, and discovered that some of the things I had learned about feeding birds, to include the risk of interrupting migration and causing them to neglect natural food sources, were actually incorrect. I figure if the Audubon Society says it’s okay to feed birds, then there’s probably something to it. So I’ve had a bird feeder on the porch for the past couple of weeks and have entertained several scrub jays, crows, and house sparrows at it. (I figure two native species out of three isn’t bad, especially in this urban a setting.) It’s located where I can look right out at it while I’m working at my computer, and it’s been beneficial for both me and the birds. They get food with minimal effort and no threat of predation, and I get to watch their daily tiny-dinosaur dramas play out at the feeders (will the sparrows get a full meal before the scrub jays chase them off? Can the crows cope with the fierce competition for sunflower seeds?)
This, then, was my ritual. I haven’t formally celebrated the Sabbats in years, but if I were to call this summer solstice anything, it would be a harvest festival. I’d been picking beet greens all month for salads and pulled up and stored my spinach, which was threatening to bolt, just before I left town. But this weekend’s haul was even better–a nice big handful of bush peas, ten nice-sized (but not too big) red beets, and a bright bouquet of calendula for both eating and prettying up the apartment a bit. This is my first year really getting to use my garden, and I don’t think I could have envisioned how lovely the harvest would be back in February when I first sowed the seeds. (The beet roots roasted beautifully, by the way, and the leaves and the rest went into a glorious salad.)
All in all, it was a good time to renew my bond with the land through this direct contact. I try to spend at least a little time with my garden almost every day, but the timing worked out that a lot of effort needed to be put into it right now, and instead of being a chore all the weeding and harvesting and replanting was a celebration of gratitude. I’m grateful for my little gardens and the life they support, including my own. I’m grateful that I have the time and schedule flexibility to be able to devote to them. I’m grateful I can invest a bit of money in seeds, starts and other short-term needs in order to get a long-term payout. I’m grateful the weather has cooperated (mostly), and that my plants have survived spring hailstorms and hot days to thrive. Most importantly, I’m grateful for the lessons my gardens have taught me, not just about necessary care and potentials for change and growth, but about what draws me so near to the land here. We give to each other, and I vow once again to be a good caretaker of my tiny corner of the world.
Recently, my fellow writer, Rua Lupa, posted to No Unsacred Place about her goings-on for Transequilux. This is the time of year that many pagans refer to as Imbolc, Candlemas, etc., midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In her path, Ehoah, the spring equinox (or Equilux) is the new year, which I feel is a more fitting time than the middle of winter. She described a variety of projects she was undertaking as the equinox approached, including a lot of eco-sustainable activities, but also some personal endeavors as well. It reminded me something of the time-honored tradition of “spring cleaning”, in which the detritus of winter is shucked out the door and everything is organized anew to greet the arrival of warmer, sunnier days. And as the land is waking up in here in Portland, this shift to greater activity and improvement seems especially apt.
Winter has historically been a tough time for me, some years moreso than others. Start off with the fact that I am a warm weather kind of person (despite, or perhaps because of, growing up in the Midwest where winters get harsh), and winter just isn’t the best season for me. And this past winter had a lot of particular challenges; I spent the entire summer into fall working a day job in addition to my usual art and writing schedule, and so I spent a lot of beautiful, warm days stuck indoors. I hardly had time for hiking, and camping was a distant memory; I was going through serious wilderness withdrawal. As soon as I got my time back, fall was settling in, and the leaves began to fall while I recovered from the exhaustion. By the time I was ready to engage with the world again, the skies were gray and I couldn’t go outside without at least four layers of clothing. Add in that I had a lot of other deadlines and obligations to corral and deal with , with not a lot of breathing room, and I was one very knotted ball of stress.
But over the past few days (the chilly weekend notwithstanding), the temperatures have been climbing up into the upper 50s and even low 60s, and the sun has made appearances amid the much-needed precipitation. On the way back from a hike with my dear friend Emily on Friday, we got a good look at Mt. Hood, the sun shining on a coat of snow that draped much lower than it had a month previous thanks to February’s snow and rain. I felt much like that mountain, staving off drought with a longer hem of white–given more leeway than before, suddenly feeling more like myself.
And it’s resulted in a greater burst of energy than I’ve had in months. There’s the push of urgency that I used to get through running Curious Gallery, followed by trips to PantheaCon and FaerieCon West back to back, but so many mornings all I wanted was to go back to bed, dredged up from slumber much too early, and frenetically chasing commitments hither and yon. In the warmth of the first days of March, though, I feel the sunlight soaking into my skin, and the layers of fatigue and angst fall away like heavy clothing off my shoulders.
Like Rua Lupa, too, I’ve been taking that energy and putting it to good things. You’ve seen how I revamped my website, clearing out old HTML whose roots are fifteen years old and paring down links and sub-pages like husks on corn. Offline, when I arrived home from FaerieCon West weekend before last, I came to the realization that I’d let my art room go to utter disarray in the busy-ness of events and preparation and stocking up. So I took the time to not only put things back in their place, but to go through the bins and crates and destash the things that needed new homes, projects I probably wasn’t going to get to, supplies that may be better in another artist’s hands. We’re preparing to do the same to the garage, all of our extra stuff that we do need now and then, probably not valuable to anyone but us, but worth hanging onto despite the space it takes up. In fact, the entire apartment is due for a deep cleaning anyway, and now’s as good a time as any.
And in clearing away the old, there’s room for fresh growth. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks saving my community garden plot from weeds, and I’ve been left with full, rich soil that benefited heavily from the minerals and bone meal I put on it last fall. It abounds with life beneath the dead plants; the presence of overwintered cutworms signaled a need to find an organic solution before my fresh seeds become tasty sprouts, and a survey of one cubic foot of soil found fifty-five earthworms when I turned the earth to prepare it for planting, though the opportunistic crows that swooped down to the turned earth as I left probably reduced the population a bit. I even discovered a few daffodils that I transplanted to the northern edge of my plot where a bunch of of mystery bulbs are due to reveal their identities in the weeks to come. (I inherited this spot last summer, once all the bulbs had bloomed and died back, so I’m looking forward to pleasant surprises.)
I rewarded all my weeding with seeding; for roots I have turnips, two types of beets, two varieties of radish, and a newcomer to my garden, parsnips. For early greens I’ve laced the earth with the tiny seeds of spinach, arugula and kale, and rounded out the lot with peas and onions, both personal favorites of mine. I realized too late that I was planting some things in the same spots as last fall–radishes and turnips and kale in identical rows–which means greater vigilance against disease and pests. But it’s only the second time, and I’ll remember to rotate next time through.
So it is that I make my own preparations for changes and developments, and clear away space for growth and evolution. I always look forward to spring, but this year I can almost feel myself growing, plant-like, toward the windows even as I carry about my business indoors, and every trip outside feels like the biggest, most satisfying stretch in the world. I need this shift now, more than in most years, and the sweet smell of cherry blossoms and tender grass studded with little brown mushrooms can’t get here soon enough.