gardening. or, backyard warfare.

In my quest to learn new things I have taken on gardening. I am pretty sure it was a decision my subconscious made in protest of acquiring additional survival skills like trapping and butchering wild game. Because when someone you love gets cancer you don’t really want to focus on surviving, you want to focus on living.

So in March I visited the used bookstore down the street and went directly to the section on gardening. I pulled the lone copy of The Vegetable Garden off the shelves. It was yellowed with age, but well preserved otherwise. I opened to the first chapter.

“The last decade has seen America make rapid strides in a deeper appreciation of the home vegetable garden.”

I flipped to the copyright date. Published in 1929 for the National Garden Association.  In my mind, back then everyone had a garden, composted, and recycled out of necessity, rather than because it reflected your political and environmental ideology. You did it because you always had. Or so I thought.

I began wondering when people started replacing veggies from the garden with those in shiny canisters of convenience. Was it because of cost? The novelty of the new? Laziness? Or were we just working so hard we forgot how nice it is to pour a glass of ice water, throw on your gardening gloves after work and attack the weeds bragging about their resilience in your backyard.

There are a number of reasons I wanted to learn how to garden, but mostly because I like good food. And I am cheap.

I hate overpaying for apples that crunch but remind you of something that used to have flavor. I am tired of being duped by perfect looking strawberries whose taste doesn’t quite match their fire engine red exterior. I like the idea of eating lettuce that does not come prewashed, precut, and prepackaged. Basically, I want to eat how we are supposed to: by consuming real food. Not items disguised as it. I want my meal seasoned with the satisfaction that I grew it myself.

The other reason is because I have three raised planter boxes in my new home and no excuse. In previous posts I talked about wanting to learn new things. Well, my opportunity came with the house. And I want to see what I can put into the earth and nurture into being if I just try.

My efforts had to wait longer than I hoped. We had a long cold wet spring in Utah. D and I turned the soil in April, preparing the ground for our first domestic experiment. I joked that we were dirt farmers. By early May the snow kept coming and I worried that the growing season would never arrive. But eventually the snow in the valley melted. The rain eased. And I was finally able to put my seeds in the ground.  This is what happened since:

May 15 – I plant. I chose a Sunday because that is when our neighborhood is in church and there is no one around to watch me consult my reference guide on planting depths and go back and forth to the house to search online for ‘which direction do you plant onions?’ And such. I spend hours combing the dry soil, pulling out rocks and breaking clumps as hard as rocks with my fingers. I add peat moss and compost to the beds. Still, it looks inhospitable to life.

A few nights before I mapped out the plots. In theory, this worked. However, I neglected to account for the spacing between rows and didn’t realize until examining the chart after dinner. I think I focused too much on the planting depths of the seeds to notice my mistake. It just didn’t seem possible that my carrots would germinate only a quarter inch below the surface of that cracked desert dirt. But I guess life is always looking for a chance to climb out of unlikely places and announce that it can be done.

May 22 – D and I depart for Germany. We (he) programs the sprinkler to water the garden while we are gone. I worry that they will not turn on and my seeds will roast in the Utah sun. At 4am, I inspect the ground and find three onions pushing through the topsoil. I check the forecast and am relieved to see rain on the horizon. Just in case.

June 3 – We arrive home at 10pm. I bend down in the moonlight to see if there is anything to see. The onions are standing tall in the back, and what I believe to be the spinach sits in elegant bouquets on the surface. Our 88-year-old neighbor Jack greets us in the driveway. “Cache Valley welcomes you back,” he said. Perhaps I am finally understanding what it means to put roots down.

June 4 – I visit the garden in daylight. The peas look strong. I look closer and notice that someone else has been appreciating them too. Tiny bite marks mar their leaves. I flip over the leaves and examine between the folds. I find nothing.

June 6 – “Look at you!” I squeal upon the discovery of three new green patches pushing through the topsoil. This is replaced shortly after by confusion. I already have potatoes and chard growing in this box. I cannot account for the new arrivals. I know this box contained squash the year before. Are new plants emerging? I decide to leave them and see if they get along with the other vegetables until I can figure out exactly what they are.

June 7 – My potatoes are not actually my potatoes. They are weeds. “The nasty kind,” my landlord says as he looks at the planter. My new additions are actually my potato plants. One is missing. I pull out the weeds and make nasty faces at them wondering if they are to blame.

June 8 – The culprit eating my peas remains at large. However, my fourth potato plant showed up. It broke through the topsoil overnight. The leaf stems are bright red and orange. They change to green by the evening. Until today, they have never formally met the sun.

June 9 – Something is very wrong. The leaves of my apple tree are bumpy. Much of the fruit, although tiny, is also scarred. And the apricots look worse. At least the apples are still green. Patches of brown cover the apricots. Sunshine sparkles through hundreds of holes in the leaves fluttering in the wind. I bring samples to the local seed supply store. The man at the counter shakes his head as he hands them back. Its blister mites on the apples. Cosmetic damage only, he says. But the apricots are in trouble. They are infected with a fungus called Coryneum Blight. Without treatment the tree will eventual stop producing fruit and die. I buy two bottles of fungicide and oil spray and recruit D to help (do) the spraying.

June 14 – The potatoes look healthy. So do the peas. No pods yet. Although I did catch a bee checking out their progress. I take this as an encouraging sign that he has high expectations too.

June 16 – The first items from our garden appear on the chopping block. Green onions. The victims of thinning and the flavor in our quinoa. I can’t say I really noticed a difference, but I was grateful to have them in my recipe just the same.

June 17 – My spinach plants are squished. I have known this for some time, but until now have done nothing about it. I consult my book and the author chides me for waiting. “The seedlings must be thinned to give ample room for the unhampered development of the individual plant. Everyone sows them too thickly. The result is crowded rows, spindly seedlings, a war of ‘survival of the fittest,’ a waste of plant food on the unfit and permanent injury to the crop,” he writes. It has to be done. Choosing who was to be sacrificed wasn’t easy. But I left the strongest and claimed the rest for a salad of boiled eggs and feta. Yum.

June 21 – Summer solstice. My peas look drunk. They are beginning to drape over one another as if they can’t stand up on their own. I go online and find that they need to be staked. No one told me about this. The problem with beginner gardening books is that they never really start at the beginning. I go back to the seed shop to buy some wooden stakes. The store is out of chicken wire. I will buy some this weekend and build paneling for the peas to climb.

June 22 – My mother gives me the following gardening advice. “I never give up on the plants. Even when they are shriveled and look hopeless. Because there’s always a chance they could come back.” I write it down. I think it applies to people too.

June 25 – I stake the peas. I build trellises using chicken wire and wooden supports. I am a hero.

June 26 – July 5 –  I am at war. The garden is under attack. Slimy brown stomachs first began appearing on my peas. I pulled the slugs off the leaves and crushed them on the planter boxes, leaving their carcasses to shrivel in the sun. I was trying to send a message to their friends. It failed to register. Every morning I find slugs raiding my peas plants. Every morning I shred them with sticks. The tactic of using beer to lure them off the plants comes up empty. They do not imbibe. I think my slugs are Mormon slugs. Or else, they are in recovery. Then came the ants. They attacked the root system of a few of my beets. However, one dose of ant killer appears to have knocked their forces back. Grasshoppers invaded on the fifth. I find aphids covering the tops of my carrots.  I am growing weary of battling these pests. I do not think pest is a strong enough word for them.

July 6 – I thin the carrots, spinach, chard and beets. I pull out an onion just to see what it looks like. Small, but definitely developing layers. I put it back. I love bulbs.

July 7 – Every morning I take roll, finding out who is still with us, who is missing, and who doesn’t belong. Every morning I look for something to kill. I take out seven slugs and one grasshopper. D applies the Neem Py oil and insecticide. It is a good day.

a garden. or. just a process.

I am a storyteller. At least, that is what I do to pay the bills each month. Sometimes I meet interesting people who do interesting things I will never do. Like excavate 10,000 year-old ruins or pursue extraterrestrial life forms or build satellites to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. Their work will push academic boundaries and be written about and discussed, criticized and remembered.

And then sometimes I meet ordinary people. Who will never publish a paper. Own a patent. Start a company. Or balance their checking account. And they will say something during an interview that makes complete and perfect sense and forces me to think: you.  are.  a genius. Like the woman I interviewed yesterday.

She is an artist. And we were talking about weaving.

“Not everything is a completion, sometimes it is just a process,” she said.

She was talking about finishing a rug. And how sometimes your vision doesn’t always translate into reality. How sometimes you may want to remove your work from the loom and accept that it was never meant to be more than what it is. And that that is okay. She was talking about her creative process. I was thinking about how I could apply this to my garden. Because I do that sometimes.

“Whatever I do, I need to take something away. I need to learn something,” she continued.

I took notes. I smiled. And I underlined what she said.

Not because I am going to use it in my story. The story isn’t about her creative process. It is not even about her art. It is about sheep. I wrote it down because it was a tangent that took me somewhere.

It is my belief that tangents are inevitably what get us where we need to go in life. They remove us from what is supposed to happen. Instead, they deliver us to a location we never expected, causing us to pay attention and consider whether we are where we are supposed to be.

And I think I am.

I just returned from a trip to San Francisco. I was visiting my best people in my old stomping grounds. And it was like I never left. Only I did. I now live 900 miles away in a town that requires you to show up in person to transfer your electric bill. Where almost no one locks their doors. And you can’t buy alcohol on Sundays.

And I am here because I have some learning to do. This winter, I learned to knit. I am still a beginner. This weekend, I will take my first step towards becoming a beginner gardener, too. I am buying seeds. And some gloves. And I will prep the soil. Because right now, there are vegetables rotting in the boxes that no one bothered to collect in the fall. There are dried out corn stalks bending for cover from the spring rains. And there are pumpkin seeds going nowhere on the ground.

In reality, I may not produce anything in my garden this first season. I may not plant things deep enough. I may overcrowd the planter. I may expect too much from my vegetables. Or. I may do everything perfect. I may create the best environment for my salad fixings and a cruel frost may come and take it all away in August. Because that happens sometimes. And if it does, I will survey what never made it. Salvage what remains. And begin again.

wilderness first aid – part 2

You do not always get to play the part of the rescuer in life. At least, not in my wilderness first aid class. You don’t always get to be in charge and call the shots. You don’t always get to be the hero. And that’s a good thing. Because sometimes you learn more by being the patient. From watching your rescuers make mistakes, make assumptions, and go to pieces over you.

D and I took a 16-hour wilderness training class at UCSF last month to learn how to take care of ourselves and others when we go play out in the woods. In modern day healthcare, there is a concept known as “the golden hour.” In urban environments, patients are transported to emergency facilities where medical professionals, machines, and medicines abound. In the wilderness, help is not just a phone call away. It may be a canoe ride, a 3,000 foot descent, a 15 mile hike, or a low tide away.  The golden hour is the window of time that determines whether a trauma patient will be treated at a hospital by physicians, or will be at the mercy of the people with them, and in some cases, themselves.

Think of the moments on an airplane before takeoff when the flight attendants begin their spiel about emergency procedures. You know the talk, it’s given as you’re flipping through the trashy $9 magazine you splurged on at the gate and mentions oxygen masks falling from the ceiling. No matter which airline you fly, the message includes the same instruction: put your mask on first. It reinforces the concept that you need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.

That is step one of wilderness first aid.

The first class I was sold when the instructor leading us through the gritty world of wilderness medicine was Bobby – a woman my mom’s age dressed in hiking boots and flannel. She began, “We’re all here to try things. To make mistakes. And to learn from them. If you can get yourself into a calm place, you can make good decisions.”

I jotted that in my notebook and thought, I like her already.

Now, I won’t recap each of the four classes. In part, because some of you are bored already. But also because I spent much of the early classes feeling awkward. I felt weird about kneeling on the floor, having a stranger’s temples pressed between my knees and repeating, ‘don’t move.”  I felt odd splinting my fellow classmates, pushing on the purple makeup dotting their arms, asking ‘Does it hurt?”  I found the only way I improved was by getting over myself and my discomfort and just playing along. And most importantly, separating from D so I could learn things for myself.

Over the course I learned that the key to helping another person is staying calm and protecting yourself with gloves or whatever barriers you can improvise. It is asking questions and reading between all they do not say. It is looking beyond what is in front of you, beyond the superficial wounds, and feeling for a problem unseen. It is getting to the skin, finding the source, and going from there.

It is checking your surroundings for something more to determine what went wrong. Asking yourself, how did this happen, and could it have been prevented? It is not letting something small grow into something you can’t handle. Not letting wounds fester, but addressing the problem when it arises. Doing things right the first time. And not giving up when you don’t.

Helping someone is applying pressure. Pushing hard when the bleeding is heavy. And harder when it doesn’t stop. It is waiting for what you know will happen, trusting yourself, not rushing their healing. It is knowing what your resources are and when you have nothing left to give.

It is making decisions based on what is best for you and the others in your group. Forcing yourself to step back and acknowledge when you have done all you can for someone. It is realizing some things are out of your hands. That you are not out of your head, or your heart for stopping. And knowing that sometimes, there is nothing left to do but wait.

“And then, pray for a miracle,” Bobby says.

wilderness first aid – part 1

One of my favorite childhood activities was exploring the woods behind our house. Because I didn’t like adventuring alone, I would force my younger brother Matty to go with me. I enlisted him to help me assemble first aid kits filled with Dixie cups, Q-tips, band-aids, gauze, and ointments from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, and to help make sandwiches for our lunch boxes – his Ghostbusters, mine Strawberry Shortcake. Then I would pack a notepad and pen and we’d set off along the well-worn paths.

Every few feet we stopped to flip over rocks and roll logs to discover what type of nature was living underneath. Sometimes we poked at it with sticks to see how it moved. Dug holes just to watch the soil change colors. Or pulled apart flowers to find out what made them pretty.

After a few hours (or more likely 20 minutes) we set up camp and I would make up answers to his questions because I was older and supposed to know things he didn’t. For some reason, saying, ‘I am not sure’ was never an option. Once we got to wherever it was I decided we were going I’d leave notes in the trees and under stones. I’m not sure who I wanted to find them, or if I really expected a response. But sometimes I’d go back alone and recover the messages to no one and find them waterlogged or lodged in branches nearby. I still wonder if anyone ever read one.

When we returned home I often embellished the hike crafting danger around every bend, like the time we were shot at by unseen enemies, and the day we were almost kidnapped by teenagers. Two decades later I live 3,000 miles from Matty and still love walking in the woods. I’m not sure how old I was when I stopped packing a first aid kit and started simply hoping for the best. At what age I stopped pretending danger lurked behind every tree. Maybe it was because I didn’t have anyone else to look out for anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that not everything that can hurt you is hiding in the shadows.

While I am grateful for all the years Matty played along when I’d make up stories that could never be true and for all the times I got us lost and he found our way home, I realized this winter that I was taking unnecessary risks. And not only with myself, but with the health and safety of my friends I convinced to go wandering around in the woods with me. I realized that if I don’t know how to take care of myself, I will never be able to take care of anyone else.

So this spring I signed up for a wilderness first aid class so I could stop making things up as I go along. Because the truth is, what worked for you in the past is not always enough. There are some problems you can’t fix with bandages and kisses alone. Because at some point you realize there is no one out there with all the answers. And that if you lose sight of your path, you have to be able find your own way out of the woods.

bike maintenance: part 3, some things you cannot fix

I prefer quiet birthday celebrations, if anything at all. Maybe some ice cream. Perhaps some cake. I think it stems from childhood when my birthday often fell over spring break. There was no bringing cupcakes to school, no special day set aside for summer and school vacation babies. And having grown up in New England, my birthday often coincided with the largest snowstorm of the year – a day most people elected to stay close to home. I guess I never really grew out of that.

This year I spent my birthday at the final class of my bike maintenance course, learning how to repair my brakes and true my wheel – an act requiring patience, and the ability to listen to what your bike is telling you. Truing a wheel is locating the point most out of balance and making fine adjustments. Listening and knowing that improvements are only halfway. They are about meeting in the middle – the right way to compromise to become stronger. Truing a wheel is restoring balance to something that can never be perfect, to something that struggles to remain unified under the pressure you put upon it.

Over the course of my class I learned that bicycle maintenance is whatever you need it to be. It is teaching you how to remain upright, teaching you how to be safe. It is teaching you that even if something isn’t pretty, isn’t just so, that it doesn’t mean it’s not good enough, that it can’t get you where you need to go. You just might have to pedal harder to get there.

I needed bike maintenance to be about getting me into shape. To be about putting me up on a rack and looking my chains in the eye and recognizing that parts of me are rusty, parts of me are broken, parts of me need fixing. I could ignore them. Could ride it out until the spokes fail, until the wheel gives out beneath me. Or, I could make some changes. Test my limits. Recalibrate. And set myself true. Make small adjustments and expect incremental changes.

On the way home the streets were deserted and I smiled thinking about how I’d spent the evening. It was only fitting that I would catch up with my past on Church Street, at the point where the rails of the N Judah intersect. Although I have tried avoiding it for years, the fact is, there are just some people you are supposed to know in this life. Some people that you constantly find yourself crossing paths with even when you don’t want to. People who you listen to their stories, and know their wheels are out of true, even if what they say is nothing at all. Because there are some things you must feel to know. And some parts you cannot fix.

So even though you can see the spokes beginning to pull away from their wheels, even though you can tell they really need to participate in the life of their bike, you part knowing they are going to risk it, while you are stopping, flipping your bike onto its back, and watching as they pedal away, seeing how far they can get without you.

bike maintenance : part 2, hoping for the best

If I was actually graded on my performance in bike maintenance class I would never have signed up. Mainly because I would fail. The truth is, I’m not good at getting my hands greasy. I don’t like the feeling. I only do it because it’s the right thing to do. Plus, I kind of sucked at physics in high school. While it’s not as though we are exploring the concept of anti-matter or the bending of time and space in The Bike Kitchen, altering the tension of my bike cables may as well be the same thing.

After tinkering with the rear parallelogram pretending like I really understood why I was moving the metal thingie from left to right, it brought me back to seventh grade shop class when my instructor came over to my station and shook his head at the mess that was my lego bridge and announced: my 8 year-old does a better job.  Any dream I had of becoming a civil or mechanical engineer died right there on that work bench.

Luckily, my instructor Alex has much more patience for my ineptitude. After seeing me struggle and wearing the why-are-we-doing-this face, he informed me when it was secured in the proper spot, then clamped it himself while I stood back and nodded. As he made the final adjustments another volunteer turned to me and said a bit too cheerfully “You did it!” I laughed and responded. “No, he did it. I watched.” Now, I may be helpless. I may never fully grasp the concept of cable tension. But there is no sense being a liar as well.

And although I didn’t actually do all the work myself, it doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything. The second part of the class we discussed chain upkeep. Now that is some knowledge I will actually use. For instance, just because you spot some rust on the chain it doesn’t mean it’s toast. It just needs a little love and care to bring it back to life. And like people, chains physically change over time. They stretch. And there is no fix for that. Finally, you get out of your bike what you put into it.

I realized this while examining my chain. I don’t keep it clean. I don’t lubricate it. And then I wonder why it’s noisy.  In short, I was not listening to what my bike was telling me. I was neglecting it and hoping for the best. This is not the best strategy for what has become my primary mode of transportation.

After learning how to properly clean the chain, there was something rather satisfying about tipping the grease onto its end and watching tiny beads nourish the steel. To thread it through the sprocket and see it start to glisten slightly. On the ride home I heard nothing. Or almost nothing. Just the cars beyond the parkway and the wind whipping across my jacket. And for a few minutes it was just me and my little pink Schwinn together under the stars, spinning our way home in the dark.

bike maintenance : part 1, good as old

I signed up for a bike maintenance class because I wanted to be able to fix my own problems. Or at least those you can tweak with a basic Phillips head screwdriver, a canister of grease, and pair of plastic tire levers. I wanted to learn how to care for my chain, change a flat, and adjust my brakes. Eventually, I aim to learn to true my wheels and build my own – acts of ungodly patience and time.

I took the course at The Bike Kitchen – a San Francisco nonprofit run by bike enthusiasts, mechanics, and newer riders like myself who share a garage space with tools. The idea is that you can build a bike from scratch using new and recycled parts. Not that I am actually going to do that. I just wanted to be able to be my own hero in case of emergency. Because no one else is going to.

At the beginning of every class you lift your bike onto a rack where it remains suspended at eye level. There is something about staring at the pink Schwinn that is your bike and noticing for the first time the flecks of dirt on the seat stay, the pieces of hair and debris wound around the back hub, the hints of orange rust staining your chain – and acknowledging that there are some things you both need to work on.

From the first class I knew I was going to like learning how to maintain my bike even though I remain terrible at it. Trust me. When the three teachers surround your station while the other eight people in your class are happily motoring along it is not because you are the star pupil. Still, I was sold when my instructor Alex began the first lesson saying: A patched tube is as good as a new tube.

Although I know he was only talking about a $5 piece of rubber, for some reason I smiled when he said that. Perhaps it’s because sometimes in life it’s easier to think new is better. Is stronger. That what is new won’t fail you. Not like your old tube. You forget that it, too ,will get old. Take you down the wrong roads. Get you lost. Slip when crossing train tracks. And spray you when it rains. That it, too, will become routine. And eventually let you down.

It’s easy to forget the days and rides it did not. You won’t remember all the moments it made you feel like you could fly. All the moments it showed you something beautiful. With $5 you can just replace it and move on. Or. You could spend 20 minutes and examine what went wrong. Separate the tube from the wheel and feel the tire for a hole. Search for the scar and try to piece things back together. Salvage what remains.

Starting over is easy. Salvaging requires you find out what failed in order to address the problem properly. You must investigate the tire to make sure nothing sharp is still caught inside. You need to check if there is a corresponding hole in the tube. You do this by pumping it back up. Once inflated, you have to note where the hole is and pay attention. Because once flattened, the puncture is harder to mark. It can leave you second guessing and pull you back to the pump where you need to fill the tube back up and listen for the air to talk back, listen for where it hurts.

Once the puncture is located, you scratch over the hole with sandpaper. You do this so the patch has something to cling to. You do this to prep the surface to make it stronger. Afterward, you cover the hole with a thin glaze of vulcanizing fluid. Next you wait for it to dry until the liquid loses its sheen. Then place a clean patch over the spot and press. Good as new. Except exactly the same. Just reinforced. And ready to go out adventuring with you again.

In the end I couldn’t pump my tire with the 100 psi required to run efficiently. Once I hit 60 psi, I was only pushing myself off the ground, my feet dangling over the pump’s pressure gauge. One of the volunteers looked over and laughed.

“This is where you get your boyfriend to help,” he said.

Wrong. That is precisely why I am here, I answered.

Alex came over and told me other women had difficulty with that same pump in the past.

“I think it’s a girl thing,” I said.

“No, I think it’s a tough thing,” he said. “I know a lot of girls who are stronger than me.”

And that comment made me smile too. Even as he pumped the remaining 40 psi into my tire.