Saturday, May 31, 2008

Making lemons into lemonade

Richard and I drove to Denver last Tuesday to prepare for his surgery for bladder cancer. First came a day at the VA Hospital--a wonderful place despite the many difficult cases it serves, because the staff has a culture of caring and competence. (It's what healthcare should be, with equal emphasis on "health" and "care.") After six hours and lots of tests, we found out that he's very healthy, but for that "beautiful" carcinoma with its filmy petals waving gently in the current of his bladder and for the fact that his blood is too thin--it's not clotting well. So he's got to give up his daily pot of green tea and give his blood time to thicken up, and his surgery has been rescheduled for July 1st.

Hearing his surgeon say that she was pushing back the surgery for a month was like sucking on lemons. We just wanted it over with. But you can only feel sorry for yourself for so long. So we made lemonade: We spent the rest of the week we planned for his surgery in Denver with my folks and Molly, our daughter, who had already flown in from San Francisco. It wasn't a vacation. But we did take all five of us in our Subaru Forester on a picnic to Barr Lake, northeast of Denver, where we walked a boardwalk over a lapping marsh--my Mom clumping along in her special boot after foot surgery and my Dad spotting birds passing on the breeze. We saw more orioles in the spring-green cottonwood trees lining the shoreline there than I've ever seen at one time in my life. And Molly and Richard spent a morning exploring art galleries. We took walks through the Capitol Hill neighborhood where we stayed, admiring the architectural details in the old stone mansions and 1920s apartment houses. We smelled irises and roses and lilacs in gardens growing from spring into summer.

And when we returned home, our kitchen garden was bursting. We picked a huge bag of spinach along with the first harvest of mixed lettuce. When we sat down to dinner that night our thoughts were not of bladder cancer or postponed surgery, but of the culture of caring at the VA Hospital, the chatter of orioles, and of tender new greens flavored by our very own patch of ground.

It seems to me that being healthy is not just about the technology and pharmacology of modern medicine. It's about how you take what comes, whether you use the lemons for lemonade, or let them lie bitter on your tongue. It's about taking joy where you can, and never forgetting to stop and smell the lilacs drooping over the garden wall, to walk hand in hand with the people you love, and to savor the taste of new lettuce, fresh from the soil.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Love does make the world go round

Last Friday we set out for Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado, bound for Colorado Art Ranch's third "Artposium," a weekend devoted to exploring what art has to say about some subject important to life in rural Colorado. In this case, the issue was land conservation, and the weekend's doings took place at The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch twenty miles down the Yampa River west of Steamboat, in the shadow of the towering stacks of the coal-fired Hayden Power Plant.

I wrote right up to the time we left, putting my computer to sleep with just enough time to whip up a picnic lunch, including steamed asparagus spears, sweet and fresh from the garden, and then hop into the car. It took me the half of the drive to decompress. As we headed out of Kremmling, passing through stunted sagebrush shrublands on the gradual climb up Muddy Creek toward Rabbit Ears Pass, I looked around for spring wildflowers.

I was scanning the high desert when I noticed what looked like clumps of wet snow on the bare, crumbly soil between the twisted sagebrush. Only it was a warm afternoon, in the mid-seventies; what I was seeing couldn't be snow. Then I realized: phlox! It was Hood's phlox, a mat-plant that covers itself with starry white blossoms in spring if winter snows wet the soil.

I pointed the "snowflake" phlox flowers out to Richard as we whizzed along; he pulled over and we got out to look. Wandering among the sagebrush, we spotted other wildflowers not visible at 60 miles per hour: clusters of ball-cactus with pink flowers, a ground-hugging locoweed with ivory blossoms tinged with purple, and a desert-parsley with lacy green leaves and tiny sulfur yellow flowers. All were flagrantly advertising their availability to passing pollinators, whether flying or crawling, all gambling their energy on reproduction. I stopped to photograph a particularly nice pairing of phlox and ball-cactus and as I was composing the shot above, a steady chorus insinuated itself into my awareness from the wet meadows across the highway.

It was peepers, western chorus frogs, calling for mates from the shallow ponds created where the winding creek, full with snow melt, had overflowed its banks. I stood up to listen, and grinned.

"It's spring," I said to Richard. "The peepers are calling for mates, and the wildflowers are hollering for pollinators. Everybody's focused on reproduction."

As we drove up and over Rabbit Ears Pass, where the high country was still deep in snow, Richard reminded me that a quarter-century ago, I had first shown him his first glacier lilies somewhere along this very highway. We dropped down the west side of the pass, and I spotted bright yellow flowers on a hillside.

"Glacier lilies!" I said.

Richard braked, whipped a u-turn in the highway, and drove back. We parked and dashed across the road, hand in hand. Sure enough, there on the road-bank were unmistakable glacier lilies, sunshine yellow atop grass-green stalks above wide lily leaves. I stopped to photograph one clump. Crawling all over the flowers with their reflexed petals and yellow anthers dripping rich pollen grains were small beetles. The insects were alternately gathering pollen--thus fertilizing the flowers--and copulating. The whole landscape, it seemed, was in the mood for love.

What does art have to bring to land conservation? Just this: like the snowflake blossoms of the Hood's phlox, the western chorus frogs, and the pollen-gathering beetles on the glacier lilies, it reminds us to stop and pay attention. It shows us the same old world in a new light. And sometimes it shows us that love, whether for one wildflower or a whole landscape, does indeed make the world go round--or at least parts of it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My annual Mother's Day planting orgy

Yesterday was Mother's Day, or in my household, plant-the-pots day. Here at 7,000 feet above sea level in our valley in the southern Rocky Mountains, Mother's Day marks the date after which hard frosts are very unlikely. So my tradition is to visit the local greenhouse, choose from the enticing offerings of annual flowers, and spend the day wallowing in soil, potting my collection of planters to decorate our various porches, patios, and decks.

Between our cottage across the alley (the historic brick duplex where we used to live, which now belongs to a friend, although I still tend the landscaping for him) and our new house, we have one deck, two terraces, and five porches--plenty of space in which to indulge my Jones for planters! After the crocus, daffodils, and tulips scattered here and there around both yards have finished blooming, and before the wildflowers begin their summer riot of color, I put out pots of annual flowers, partly to give migrating hummingbirds and early-hatching butterflies nectar to feed on.

This year for the first time, I grew some of my own annual flowers: in March, I planted seeds of alyssum, a spring-blooming mustard with clusters of small white flowers and a fragrance that draws bees and butterflies; a mix of salvias, relatives of mint with fragrant leaves and spikes of flowers in shades of red and blue; sweet william for its spicy scent; and cosmos, favorites of butterflies. On our trip to the greenhouse to buy the rest of the annual plants, I told myself I would be restrained. And I was--mostly. Richard helped me pick out petunias in a mix of vibrant colors, verbenas with their lacy foliage and clusters of pink and purple blossoms, sapphire blue lobelias, ivy geraniums in crimson and white, a collection of coleus with wildly patterned leaves, and some dwarf zinnias in magenta and fiery orange.

I look for annuals in colors, shapes, and scents that will appeal to the nectar-feeders I love to watch: hummingbirds go for red, tubular flowers, while butterflies like orange and yellow blossoms, and evening-feeding sphinx moths are attracted to flowers that advertise their nectar with scents that carry on the night air.

Back at home, I gathered the first batch of pots, dumped the potting soil they held from last season into a wheelbarrow, and added organic aged cow manure to renew its nutrients and water-holding capacity, and filled the pots again. Then I began to arrange plants, designing the collection in each pot to suit the environment where it would sit (hot and sunny, shaded most of the day, morning sun only, and so on) and to offer colorful and textural vignettes through the season.

By the time I straightened my aching back and went inside to scrub the soil from under my fingernails that evening, I had planted two dozen--yes, 24!--planters, windowboxes, hanging pots, and big architectural pots.

This morning, I heard the trilling wings of a male broad-tailed hummingbird as he zipped by overhead, migrating north toward summer breeding habitat. His trilling did an abrupt about-face when he spotted the pots on our front porch and winged down to check them out. At lunch, Richard and I watched the first western black swallowtail of the year flutter through the yard, pausing to inspect the pots of annuals for sip of nectar.

I garden because I love plants, and I love fresh food. And because I can choose plants that provide my neighbors, the many other species that make up the community of the land, a place to call home too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Gardeners: optimistic by definition

"It's easier to deal with crises like this in the spring," a friend said today after hearing about my husband Richard's cancer. "It's such an optimistic time."

I puzzled over her remark all day. This evening, I stepped out into the kitchen garden. The wind was blowing hard up the valley, the air temperature was plummeting, and the storms that might have brought us moisture had passed without dropping the rain or snow we sorely need. It's been an extraordinarily spring dry so far. Today marks seven weeks since our last measurable precipitation--and two weeks since the doctor scoping Richard's bladder said cheerfully, "And that's a big carcinoma."

There's nothing optimistic about this spring, I thought with distinct grumpiness.

Then I looked at the asparagus bed--and counted six fat new spears poking up through the dry soil.

Not only is our valley sliding into drought, the season has been bitterly cold too. Last week the nighttime temperatures dipped to 22 degrees F--twice.

And still the asparagus spears are pushing up from their octopus-like skirts of roots a foot deep, headed unerringly toward light and the chance to produce more food and make new life as surely as their kind have done every spring for millions of years.

As I turned to head back into the house, I passed the tomato bed. One of the plants cocooned inside the insulating tepee-shaped walls-o-water caught my eye--a costoluto, for you heritage tomato fans. It boasted half a dozen tiny flower buds, readying itself for the warmer weather and the buzz-pollinating bumblebees it is sure will come.

I shook my head in wonder. That's optimism, I thought.

And then, as if a light had switched on in my brain, I understood my friend's comment. Spring is an optimistic time: here in the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, life awakens from its frozen slumber, and pushed by instincts far more experienced than mine, sprints into the lengthening days, aiming for light and renewal.

I'm a gardener: I should understand optimism. I'm the one who presses tiny tomato seeds into damp soil of seedling pots in early March, when here at 7,000 feet elevation in the Southern Rockies, the days are still short and dark, and the nights long and frozen. I'm the one who watches the rows of pots each day for the first sign of green, exulting when the pairs of slender cotyledons push their way out of the seed. I plant in the belief that spring will come. And it does.

It occurs to me that I can rely on that same optimism that leads me to plant tomatoes in late winter to cope with Richard's cancer. Only in this case, it's not a seed I want to sprout, but a carcinoma I hope will be destroyed. I'm after stopping that growth, not encouraging it. But that's gardening too: cutting off a diseased limb to save the tree it grows from.

The optimism my friend meant, I think, is about believing in the continuing cycle of life. It's not hard to apply that to Richard and his bladder cancer. He's blessed with caring people dealing with him and they're upbeat about his prognosis. So I'll just press my seeds of hope and rejuvenation in the soil of the universe, in the belief that spring will flower for him, time and again.