Reading the News – Publication Day

August 9 – Wednesday. — to Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing. Thoreau, Journal, 1854

This morning’s poem is Ode to Enchanted Light, one of Pablo Neruda’s poems to the usual, or to the extraordinary everyday. And, for me, it must be in translation. Still, its long vertical line invites me forward; the pages pass rapidly, satisfying the little workman inside me, who likes to get things done.

But, perhaps to the workman’s chagrin, my eyes and mind keep snagging on apt phrases, on insights, and then, I slow, often lay the book back and gaze out into the early light of the backlit yard. A mourning dove wings down and begins hunting seeds, which, in this season, seem numerous; then, the bird stops, appears to contemplate something and pecks down, lifting then a stalk with a dead, brown clover flower on it. The dove lifts it up and down, looking like a pump handle after the morning’s water. “What’s this?,” it seems to ask; then it struts a little – such a fine find; I am the bird.

Like reader-me, the dove gives up the task of finding seeds, of getting on with it, and seems fascinated with the stalk and its browned flower. It struts some more, turning as if to show its prize in all angles and lights. I become convinced – the dove is the bird. My little workman frowns.

Then, suddenly, the dove arrows off. It is swift and gone, though still holding tight its brown flower. I am about to read a next poem, when today’s date flashes in my mind – 8/9; ah, it is pub-day: Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, is 162 years into its world tour, and it shows no signs of flagging. I go to the bookshelf and pick a copy from the line. It has a brown cover; I hold it aloft – my brown flower discovery. I check its angles in the morning light. I resolve to go “to the woods.” Then, I arrow off into the day.

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Summer Lesson

“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” Thoreau, Journal, 12/11/55. Note: Though this lead-in entry from Thoreau’s Journal comes from the other side of the year, it’s phrasing seems perfect for what I’m seeing now. Just so with Henry, I think – he could see all the way to summer even on the shortest of days.

Early August: my daily negotiation with the squirrels and birds continues. From the deck of the breakfast table, I watch the blueberry bushes. Last month they looked as if they bore hundreds of little white candles to summer’s birthday; now, they offer a slow genuflection as their green-going-purple berries swell a bit each day and pull their branches down. It looks to be another good year. Albeit a contested one.

Here, for one, is a gray squirrel. He is well fed, amply rounded in this season of abundance, and he has an eye on my berries. A few don’t bother me, but if he picks to pack that rounded belly full, I will rise from my chair, open the window and hiss/bark at him – some hybrid threat intended to make me sound like trouble.

A few minutes ago, on of Henry Thoreau’s “striped squirrels,” known to us as chipmunks, emerged from beneath a branch facing me. “What a fat face you have,” I might have said if I were in nursery-rhyme frame of mind. Instead, I gawked and then began calculating: that must be at least four berries per cheek to get such a bulge. The chipmunk made for the yew bush in looping hops, and perhaps I imagined that his heavy head brought him down from each hop a little faster, but I don’ think so.

No-picking peace resumes. But only for a minute. Then, the catbird returns. He or she is a choosy sort, given sometimes to plucking a berry, rolling it in beak, and then…gasp…flicking it away over winged shoulder before seizing another. Scandalized then, I half-rise from my chair.

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But this time, the catbird has junior in tow, and, as I watch, adult-C gives junior-C a berry tutorial. First she – let’s call our adult the mother of our backyard trio – hops 360 degrees around junior, getting, I suppose, his attention. Teachers will recognize this behavior. Then, with junior focused, she leaps/flies up a foot and nabs a berry from a low branch, settles back by junior and shows him the berry…which she then eats. Good bird.

Junior hops a bit and then waited. Where’s mine his head-tilt seems to say…mine, and mine and mine…it’s always appeared. In answer, the lesson gets repeated, even mama swallowing the plucked berry. Really? Junior seems to say. But then in somewhat ungainly imitation, he leaps at a berry…and misses. Ah, I think, it does take teaching and learning; even catbirds aren’t berry-adepts. The whole he’s-a-natural argument often hides the natural’s teachers, but there she is.

The lesson goes on, and mama-catbird must be working up a hunger with all her hopping because she eats more berries than I’ve ever witnessed. Finally, Junior nabs one.

Even I fluff my feathers with pride. It takes a whole berry-bush to raise a catbird.

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A Deliberate Garden

by Deborah Bier

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Gardening Deliberately

Gardening deliberately is how we manage the 1878 Kitchen Garden at Thoreau Farm, the birth house of Henry David Thoreau.

Such gardening is also one way to live deliberately and to become more present to all that is unfolding within and around our garden.  A garden is a place of constant change, and, If we are conscious and aware of its nuances, we can be more responsive to its needs. Here at the birthplace, we explore all garden choices carefully, making decisions reflective of our deepest values and principals.  I do not follow any single practice or school of gardening, no pre-set protocols. Instead, through study and experience, I’ve equipped myself with a wide variety of approaches, using the each one to meet the challenge of the moment.  I rely strongly upon observation and experimentation, and, in turn, the garden regularly reminds me to be open and aware, present to the moment.

Thoreau Farm’s garden is entirely individual – it will never be exactly replicated anywhere else, not even in the same spot from one year to the next. And so, no famous book, gardener, farmer or horticulturist can know what to do with this kitchen garden better than those who tend and visit it often.

Like any type of deliberation, gardening deliberately is the opposite of living on “autopilot.” It is responsiveness, not knee-jerk reaction. It involves being fully alive to the experience, not being distracted, numb or deadened.  The sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes of the garden … the patterns and colors, the scent of the leaves, the feel of the wind – these are a source of much of my joy as I work here.

From the garden

From the garden

Deliberate laziness
“The true cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life that is required to be exchanged for it.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

And so I ask:  Is “the amount of life required to be exchanged” for these garden tasks really worth their cost in time, energy, money, and opportunity? And from the sunflowers, from the squash, I hear answer – “Yes, they say. Yes.”

What is truly the most important task in the garden today? What is really not crucial, or even a waste of time?  How much is on the list because it’s what we think must be done – because that is what we have been told to do by others?

Such deliberation almost always leads to simplifying, throwing out some hallowed methods in favor of ones that more closely mimic the processes we discover. In doing so, we have ended up with what we think are some very effective gardening methods that also are a lot less time consuming and exhausting.

Let me give you an example of deliberate laziness we’re practicing during this nearly rainless and hot summer. Wild animals are desperate for water. Baby ground hogs and rabbits amazingly fit between our one-by-four-inch fence wires, and have eaten all of our beans and brassicas down to nothingness.

We could spend a lot of time and energy replanting multiple times, and go to all kinds of extreme measures to exclude, trap, or kill these animals. But we realize humans do not depend upon these particular crops to survive, and that replantings will end up being eaten by the next litter of baby rabbits (rabbits produce up to three litters per year; woodchucks, just one). We could also get very upset and angry at the animals, declaring war on them. But that, too, is likely a waste precious human resources.

So we are instead choosing to be happy with the crops we have that are growing well, despite the weather. We’ve chosen instead to exercise our “citizen scientist” muscles and learn from observing the garden under these conditions. Now we’re noticing what crops thrive best in the dry heat, and which are struggling. We’re also seeing which parts of the garden are doing better than others due to variations in soil quality, identifying areas we should improve this year or next. This is all important to learn as more extreme weather patterns become the norm, and gardeners need to adapt to varying unexpected conditions.
There are as many trends in gardening as there are other here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions. There are also sound gardening practices that become overblown into rigid, unbending systems with dozens of rules that adherents demand be followed exactly. You must, you should… you cannot, you must not. Adhering to so many pre-set rules is not being responsive to your garden, your conditions, your abilities.  Too many rules can actually create failure, not success, because their requirements are often complex, and there are too many to follow dependably. Such complexity also risks feelings of failure and anxiety in the gardener, which intrude on the joy of putting hands into warm, fragrant soil.  How often do we end up feeling that we can toil all day and never get everything done, much less done correctly or well?  Such work is not gardening deliberately, though it is a form of gardening.

It turns out that deliberate laziness was deeply intertwined with Henry Thoreau’s life and philosophy, though he never used the term.  He wrote that he became rich by intentionally reducing his wants. By living simply, he determined he could meet all his needs by working a mere six weeks a year.  In 19th century American terms, he was considered extremely lazy.  In 21st century terms, unlike so many of us, Henry was not too busy to pursue his self-created life path.  Only six weeks of work annually – think about the richness of life you could experience in 46 work-free weeks every year!

Reading about kitchen gardens in the 19th century suggests they were not the place for laziness, deliberate or otherwise.  Mostly tended by women who toiled endlessly, these kitchen gardens leave me utterly depressed and discouraged. But by applying the standard of deliberate laziness to Thoreau Farm’s kitchen garden we’ve updated the form to one that is far easier for 21st century denizens to embrace.

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