December Flowers

In late October I hurried to plant some flowers before the cold weather hit. I expected them to winter over and then be lovely in the spring. Instead we had a brief period of cold and then we’ve had lovely mild weather. My pansies decided it was warm enough to bloom. So I have flowers blooming in my garden in December.
I’m certain winter weather will come and bury these plants in snow, but for today I have flowers.

Grape Arbor Update

Last May I built an arbor for my grape vines. It was a project I’d intended to do for a long time. You can see what the space looked like before I put up the arbor:
Before arbor

And how the arbor looked when finished:
After Arbor

Here is what the arbor looks like this morning:
Arbor in fall

Vines have covered it completely and trail off of it in all directions. You can see that the vines are funneling all their energy into making grapes and preparing for winter. The leaves have lost their new-leaf sheen. In only a few weeks the leaves will turn yellow and fall away. One of my tasks for this week is to collect grapes:

There are lots of them hiding in and among the vines. I’ve also got pears and walnuts that are ready to harvest. I guess I’m like the vines, storing up food for the months to come. But for a moment I can stand back and admire the arbor, which is finally what I pictured when I first planted vines seven years ago. Growing things takes patience. I need to remember that when I’m frustrated by parenting or writing.

Writing Retreat at Home

Two years ago this week I left my house and went to a writer’s retreat at Woodthrush Woods. That trip was both hard and wonderful as is chronicled by the blog posts I made during that week. I visited Woodthrush Woods again the following summer during the first Writing Excuses retreat. That time the trip was more wonderful than difficult, the hardest part being that my trip was more abbreviated than I would have liked.

I’m thinking about these retreat experiences because today is the beginning of the second Writing Excuses retreat at Woodthrush Woods. I will not be in attendance at all for an assortment of good reasons, none of which have anything to do with fear. Yet I find that a piece of my brain has traveled to Chattanooga with Howard. I’m thinking about the forest there. I’m finding that the feeling of being at a retreat is surrounding me even though I’m still at home. I’m going to roll with that feeling. This coming week looks to be a much calmer week than those which have come before. I’m going to take that calm and make a stay-at-home retreat out of it. I’ll do things that evoke memories of my retreat experiences. I’ll go for walks, light candles, cook food for fun, and take some pictures. Mostly I’ll put writing into the middle of each day rather than focusing on all of the other things first.

I don’t know how successful I’m going to be at this. It is hard to shift patterns and thoughts when I’m surrounded by all the trappings of normal life. Yet I’m helped by the photos and tweets I see from people I know who are there at Woodthrush. Those words and images evoke the retreats for me. I just need to capture that feeling and nurture it, even when my morning is spent prodding groggy kids out of bed and sending them off to school.

In the spirit of a writing retreat, I just went walking in my back garden. I took my camera and paid attention to the beautiful things that I saw. The space is much smaller than the woods around Woodthrush, but my garden does not lack for small beautiful things, or at least small interesting things.

Here is the sun rising over the mountains as viewed through the branches of trees in my back garden.


While walking the woods I took many pictures of the trunks of trees, often with vines or moss. I’ve watched the threes in my garden grow from saplings to adult. It is fascinating to me the way that the skin of a young tree starts to break up and become tree bark.
Tree bark

And then there is the long time resident of our garden, Winston.
Seeing him makes me happy, though of late I’ve looked past him more than I’ve looked at him.

My world is beautiful. I must walk in it more often.

Walking the Cemetery

I have a friend who often goes for walks in the Salt Lake City cemetery. I’ve seen her posts and it piqued my curiosity about the place, so I asked if I could walk with her one day. She said “Of course.” So we set forth one evening. The weather was a beautiful summer evening with a storm blowing in to cool the air. We had both rumbles of thunder and a rainbow.

I felt a tremendous peace the entire time I was in the cemetery. I could feel that it was sacred ground on which I was a welcome visitor. I loved seeing all the various styles of tombstones and grave markers. Even more, I loved that everything was jumbled around and lumpy. This was a place on the hillside and things moved after they were placed.

Stones were askew and sometimes completely knocked over. Many of them were so old it was hard to read them.

Some stones were damaged. Some had obviously been repaired.

Some were completely gone.

My friend assured me that there is a record of exactly who is buried in what plot whether or not there is a marker. This is good because there were several swathes where the graves were so old they didn’t have markers or where the residents were too poor to afford them.

I loved observing the different materials used and how they weathered over time. Sandstone, though readily available locally, does not make for a very permanent head stone.

Wood is not an ideal choice either, particularly not when there are sprinklers running constantly to keep the grass green. This family solved the problem by shellacking the wood to protect it. The technique seems to have worked since the marker was put up in 1850.

This other wooden marker is about the same age. It is sheltered by a tree, which may be why it continues to stand.

The one exception to the haphazardness of the graves was in a military section, which was in appropriate order.

We stumbled on an area labelled “Chinese Plat” whose stones charmed me.

There was even a brick oven nearby, which I believe was used to burn offerings to ancestors. It may still be used. It was in good condition.

Towards the end of the walk I began to be tired and wished for a bench so that we could sit for awhile. We spotted one and walked over to it, but carved onto the seat were two names, one with death information and one without. I knew I could not sit on that bench. It belonged to her, the woman who was still living though her husband had gone.

There was another bench not too far away and it welcomed me, delighted me even. Many of the graves, even the oldest ones, had flowers. This one was obviously the bench of a grandmother. Her grandchildren had brought her the usual assortment of treasures that children often bestow on their loved ones.

We sat for awhile with Grandma Johansen and then the sky began to rumble in earnest, so we left for home. I’m so glad I had those peaceful hours walking among the graves. Cemeteries are so often depicted as frightful places to be avoided, but this one was friendly. It was full of people coming to visit and people just out walking as we were. I hope to go back and visit again someday.

My California

I imagine that people who have never visited California picture it as beaches and palm trees. California = beaches and palm trees. It is true that the state has an abundance of both when compared to most of the rest of the world, but for me those are not the things which make the place feel like California. I suspect that every person who has visited there will have their own list and those lists will vary greatly depending on which part of the state they went to and what interests them. I lived in California for the first eighteen years of my life and this is a photo tour of my California.

The first thing I wish I could share is not photographable. It is the feeling of the air. I can sense the ocean in the humidity and mildness of the air even in the parts which are hot and dry. It is like a blanket, mostly comforting though occasionally stifling. When you get within a few miles of the ocean you can smell it and taste it in the air too, but further inland it just gives a feel to the air that is gone once you cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. That air makes me want to wear light clothes and put on sandals, even if I’m there in January.

Of course we must start with a palm tree. They definitely feature in my California.

But for me palm trees probably mean something different than most of the world. This particular palm sits in the middle of the next-door neighbor’s lawn. It used to be much shorter and there used to be two of them. They were constantly full of the sound of cooing pigeons, burbling, nesting, flapping as they flew in and out. I know my neighbor thought of them as a huge nuisance, but I liked them. There were other birds too. Sometimes we’d find baby birds that had fallen out of the nest and attempt to save them. It never worked well, but we tried. One year a pair of kestrals decided that the palm was a good nesting place. We got to watch them teaching the fledglings. The neighbor kids caught some of the fledglings and kept them in a cage for a few days before they were informed that holding birds of prey is illegal. The parents came and retrieved the fledgelings as soon as they were freed. But the coolest of all was the pair of barn owls who lived up there, one per tree. We’d see them fly out in the evenings and sometimes heard them. We sometimes searched for, and found, their owl pellets on the ground. I loved knowing that owls lived in the palm next door.

So for me a palm tree is a bird sanctuary. I love them for that, though they are, sadly, not easy to climb. Some time in the past fifteen years squirrels moved into the neighborhood and took over the palm tree. This did not please my neighbor, who put a metal sheath around the trunk to keep them out. So now the squirrels nest everywhere else instead. Once chased out, the pigeons have not come back. The palm tree is quiet now.

While I’m talking about trees, this is a pepper tree.

You see them all around the bay area (surrounding San Francisco bay.) They’re like willow trees in that the branches droop and trail. This one has been trimmed. By preference the branches will trail all the way to the ground. We had two of these next door as well. I loved the spicy smell of the leaves, it was particularly sharp when they were crushed. This meant that pepper tree leaves were part of many childhood potions. As pepper trees age, they hollow out in the middle. Old ones become something of a hazard because they split open or branches fall off. We knew that one of them was hollow because it was filled with a beehive. We called it the Bee Tree and stayed away from it. I have many bee tree stories, but that would be too long a digression for this tour.

This same neighbor (she had all the interesting plants) had cactus.

There were century plants, prickly pear, and that tall one. We used to go pick spines off the cactus for part of our games and she used to scold us and tell us not to. About four years ago one of her century plants finally sent up a tall spike and bloomed. Supposedly they only do that once per century, so I guess the cacti had been there for a while.

Further out than my neighbors yard, I have fond memories of these juniper bushes.

They have the weirdest looking berries.

People always complained when we picked things off their decorative plants. So we only picked a very few when they weren’t looking.

In our front yard we had a bed full of ivy just like this.

I think someone planted it picturing it climbing up the brick of the house. Instead it wanted to take over the ground. We didn’t like the ivy much, but the big snails who lived in it were pretty cool. We liked them. I think my parents finally got rid of the ivy on their third major eradication effort. The stuff was hard to kill.

The neighbor across the street had a bottlebrush plant.

She was a second mother to me and didn’t mind when we picked stuff in her yard.

So now it sounds like I spent my entire childhood filching plant matter from the neighbors and making potions with it, which is possibly true. Also I can see that this tour perpetuates the idea that California is filled with green and growing things. It is, so long as humans are willing to throw water around. The untended areas all look like this.

Rolling hills of yellow dry grass. (That row of trees in front is human planted.) It is lovely when seen from a distance, particularly when the wind makes the grass wave. It is also a significant fire risk, so most of the hills have fire breaks mown across them. There are also scraggly trees.

Here is an example of more natural landscape.

The trees in this photo are big because there is an aroyo right behind them. Aroyo = stream, many things in California have Spanish-based names because of the settlement history of the state.

You can see some of that influence in the architecture.

There are lots of buildings featuring stucco and slate roofs. Those clay tiles work great for managing rain, they’re awful anywhere it freezes.

This next building I have always loved. It is a feature of my home town.

I don’t know the history of the building. I’ve never even been inside. I’m not Catholic and I feel shy about asking to tour someone else’s sacred space. Maybe someday. I understand they have beautiful stained glass windows. Sometimes I got to glimpse them from outside if the interior was lit after dark.

While I’m touring man made things:

Yes it is a mailbox, but this one is my neighborhood mailbox. I walked past it every day as I walked home from elementary school. I remember the day one kid put a dead mouse inside it and hid to see if the mail lady would scream. Then he was told he’d committed a federal crime. He was terrified the police would get him so he ran away. I’ve noticed that California has lot of neighborhood mailboxes. Utah does not and I miss them. I know I can leave letters out in my personal mailbox at the end of my driveway, but somehow that feels less official than taking a short walk and dropping a letter into a tardis-blue box. (Are they bigger on the inside? Do the letters travel through time and space to reach their destination? I like mailboxes.)

I suspect the difference has to do with the fact that most California houses have mail slots on the house rather than mailboxes near the street. It is a solution to a problem. I see other solutions to other problems everywhere, the landscaping of houses for instance.

Those rocks are not a gravel drive. They are small river stones in place of a lawn. Many yards do this, have spot plants with decorative rocks or pavement. Utah is all lawns, which is somewhat silly in a high desert, but we have a huge watershed to support them I guess. Also that round tree, they are everywhere. I don’t know what they are, but the round shape is created by periodically shearing off all of the branches until you have a trunk with two or three large branches off of it. Then the tree freaks out and grows long whippy branches off of the branch stumps. It is not my favorite treatment of trees. Though the leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn and they’re great for leaf jumping.

Here is another example of California landscaping.

This yard has looked exactly the same since I was seven years old. Sadly the yard across the street removed their little decorative wishing well. They probably got tired of kids sneaking into their yard to toss things in it. Not that I know anyone who would do that. Ahem.

This landscaping was new to me, but I really like it.

They put some effort into creating a lovely scene rather than just throwing down rocks and calling it good. They’re going to spend the next 10-15 years trying to keep kids from wandering off with all those lovely blue rocks.

I could probably keep going describing the California I knew growing up. Each memory I write trails a dozen more in its wake. Instead I leave you this.

It’s a bird on a telephone wire. There are poles and wires everywhere, at least in my home neighborhood. In more modern developments they probably buried the wires. Or maybe they can’t due to earthquakes. I just know that as a teenage birdwatcher I spent a lot of time staring at birds sitting on wires. This one is a mockingbird. They don’t live in Utah and I miss them. California has lots more birds in more varieties than Utah. I miss that too. But I particularly miss listening to mockingbirds outside my window. I wish I could convince them that Utah is a nice place to live.

I visited with a friend while I was in California. She caught me looking up at a palm tree and swinging my be-sandaled foot.
“You miss California! You should move back here.”
I do miss some of it, but not all of it. I’m glad to visit, but it isn’t home anymore. I can tell, because I go to California and write a tourist-type post pointing out all the interesting things. I’m not sure I could do the same for Utah. We have interesting things, they feel normal for me and I hardly notice them anymore. California is nice to visit, but Utah is home.

Tending and Blooming

I used to be a gardener. It is still a thing that I love and someday I will again make time to tend the ground and grow flowers. Right now it is simply not as important to me as a dozen other projects that I have. I find time to get outside and beat back the weeds, but that is not the same as being a focused gardener. A tended garden is a thing of beauty. My garden is a wilderness where plants have a survival-of-the-fittest battle with only occasional intervention from me. I’m pleased that sometimes the flowers win.

Every year Thanksgiving Point Gardens hosts a tulip festival. I always intend to go. One year I even scheduled an outing to go, but then one of my kids picked that day to pretend to be sick. All of the other years, at least five or six of them, I simply missed the window. Somehow the two weeks in April when the tulips are in full bloom always were busy. I would look up at the end of the month and realize that I’d missed my chance yet again.

This morning, for the first time ever, I didn’t miss it. My friend said “Do you want to go?” and I said “Yes.” So we both ditched our piles of work and we wandered the gardens.

Beauty can be found wild, in untended corners, or even wide open spaces. Yet there is an art to a tended garden, I walk there and I know that it is loved because someone had to get down on hands and knees and dig. They had to get dirty, tired, and sweaty to make sure that all goes well. A tended garden takes a sacrifice of time. I’ve spent my last few years tending other things. This year I’m watching my children bloom when last year was life torn up, mud, and despair. Sometimes tending something is like that, you have to make a big mess before beauty can happen. I’ve also tended many books and last week I got to see them arrayed in a booth where others could see the results of all those invisible hours. My garden is full of weeds, but my life is full of things that are beautiful because of the effort I’ve put into them. So perhaps I am still a gardener, just not of flowers right now.

A Pocket Paradise

Bees are good company. This counts as surprising news to all of my children who tend to run screaming at the first sound of buzzing or glimpse of black and yellow in flight. But I have been sitting for most of the afternoon in the shade of a blooming wisteria and the bees have never once bothered me. They’re too busy digging into the flowers to find the sweetness hidden within. I particularly like the giant black bumblebees the size of my thumb because it seems like they shouldn’t be able to fly at all, but they do. I once followed one in it’s search along half the fence line. She sought nectar. I sought to capture a picture of her in flight. I think she was more successful than I.

Frogs are good company too, sort of. They’re the kind of company that I don’t know I have because they sit quiet right until the moment that I’ve come too close, then the cry out and leap into the water. At first that was all I saw as I walked along the edge of the pond; A motion, a noise, a plunk, and then ripples on the water. It made me laugh. I laughed because I was startled to not be alone with the trees and water. I decided to walk along the circumference of the pond, to see if I could spot a frog before he jumped. I never did. Twenty times I was startled by sound and motion. Half the time I laughed. The frogs were more wily than I. Though I did learn how to turn quickly and watch the frog stroke through the water to hide in the leaves on the bottom. I wish I could tell them not to be alarmed, that they need not fear me. But I’m not the only visitor here and not everyone just wants to look.

This place that we stay is only a pocket in the red rock desert. It is tucked between rock ridge and highway. At night headlights on the highway light the windows of our condo. While the kids swim I can hear trucks as they drive by. There are also other people here, which is sometimes nice and sometimes I wish they would go away. We have to share the space. Share the pool. Share the pond, the frogs, the fish, and the lizards.

We have to share the national parks too. This morning we drove into Arches behind a long line of cars full of people who’d chosen the same hour that we did to enter the park. Many of them turned off at the first big attractions. We drove toward the far end where our planned hike began. This time we carefully selected an easy hike. In fact that was a major feature of our selection process. Each kid wanted to know how this hike compared to that one long hard hike we did two years ago, the one we’re all glad we took, but none of us is quite ready to repeat. We passed people on the trail and listened to the music of their languages. Arches is filled with people who have traveled half a world to be there. It is three hours from my house, tucked into a desert that is mostly boring. A pocket paradise.

I overheard one older gentleman saying he hadn’t seen any arches yet and he’d been there all morning. He was pondering a walk to Sand Dune Arch and wondered if the walk was worth it despite his arthritic hips. I spoke with him for a moment, suggesting the double arch and windows arches as the most spectacular sites with the least amount of necessary walking. We saw him again at Sand Dune Arch. I congratulated him on making the walk. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up, then looked up at the arch. It is tucked in between massive fins of rock, a hidden arch, not often photographed. The man said “I thought it would be redder. I haven’t seen any that look like the pictures.”

Pictures, stories, and social media posts are all curated for point of view. We only see what someone else chose to put into the frame. That gentleman had traveled a long way, and he might never get a chance to see what he expected when he started that trip. I hope that he found ways to be happy with the experience he was having instead of always wanting it to be different. If someone came to our preferred vacation spot based on my descriptions, they might be disappointed at the smallness of the pond, pool, park. These things are not large. There is just a small green place created first by a natural spring and then later by people who wanted to turn this into a place to stay. It is only a pocket paradise, but it is sufficient for us. I notice that there is plenty of wisteria for everyone and no one asks me to share the company of the bees.

Feeling at Home While On Vacation

“This may sound strange, but it feels like we’re almost home.” Howard said at the end of more than four hours of driving. We’d traveled south from our house, made a stop in Goblin Valley State Park and were only minutes away from arriving at the rented condo in Moab.
“It doesn’t sound strange at all.” I said. “I’ve been feeling the same thing.”

This is our fourth year spending spring break at a condo in Moab. We don’t always get exactly the same condo, but it is the same complex with the same swimming pool, pond, stream, and park. I remember our first arrival. I was so tense because we’d never rented a condo before and I was terrified that it would be a huge mistake. The kids pinged all over the place and we were constantly telling them “don’t touch that, don’t jump there, be careful, we’re only renting this place.” It got dark and stormy that first night and Kiki was in tears because she just wanted to go home and be in her own bed with her kitty. We ended up calling the neighbor who had the cat meow into the phone for us. I hardly slept that first night, my head full of stress trying to make sure our vacation would work and stress because work email had followed me and I knew we had looming deadlines.

The next day we visited Arches and started to have all the things we hoped for when we booked the trip. Two days later we were happy to go home, but all of us wanted to come back. So we did.

We’d only driven a mile or so further when Gleek piped up from the very back of the car. “It feels like we’re almost home!” Howard and I laughed.

We pulled into the familiar gravel drive with the rocks popping under our tires. I directed Howard to unit 2, which will be our home for the next three days. We waved at the park and pool, knowing we’d go there soon. The kids all jumped out and quickly unloaded their packs. There were no arguments about who would sleep where, the kids just claimed their preferred beds. Then Howard and I sent them outside to catch fish in the stream while we did our survey to figure out what cooking implements this kitchen had and lacked. There was no need to follow the kids to make sure they were safe. We all knew the safety rules and boundaries.

Link wandered through on is way out to the back patio. “I like this place.” He said. I smiled. Link is not a person who is relaxed or happy if he is uncertain about how things will go. Coming to the condo removes so much of the stress from vacation because we have familiar patterns to fall into. There is real value in going new places and seeing new things, but there is joy in the familiar too. I watched Link, Gleek, and Patch swimming in the pool. The three of them were playing a cooperative game in a way that they rarely do at home, but they always seem to do when we’re here. It is as if the game waits for them along with the pool and the stream. I watched them as bees buzzed in the wisteria behind me and I breathed the scent of the blossoms. It is so lovely to go on vacation and feel at home.

Backyard Critters

There is a blue jay who frequents my yard. I watch him whenever I hit a pause in my day that allows me to spend a few minutes outdoors. He hops about, tapping his beak against things and peeking into all the holes he can find. I don’t feel bad about watching him, because he watches me too. He flaps from perch to perch, cocking his head to get a better look at the strange human who swings in a hammock from the trees. If our cat, Kikaa, makes an appearance, then the jay will talk to her. Sometimes Kikaa talks back and they have a strange half cry, half meowl conversation. After awhile the jay will fly away to take care of things elsewhere. I sway gently and close my eyes.

Our yard is also home to a garter snake. This is a new and exciting development of which I was informed this afternoon when I got home from grocery shopping. All the kids held the snake before letting it go. I never got to see it, but it is out there somewhere, catching small critters and generally living a snakey life. I told the kids that we’re glad to have a little snake in our yard, as they eat pests. So next time we see him, we can say hello and give him a name, but we probably shouldn’t pick him up. If he’s picked up too often he’ll likely decide to go live elsewhere. Also, I don’t really want my children in the habit of picking up snakes, but I didn’t say that part out loud.

There are nests in our spruce tree. I’ve no idea how many because the tree is too dense for me to see. I hear them though, little twittering sounds that change in volume depending upon if an adult bird has just showed up with dinner. I think they are mostly starling nests. The robins seem to prefer more open trees like the honey locusts. One year we had a little hummingbird nest in our apricot tree, but I’ve not seen any hummingbirds this year.

The apricots are ready to pick, I need to get out with a ladder and a bucket. If I don’t hurry the birds will taste all the fruit first. The grape vines are busy making a September harvest. Then I’ll have to maneuver around the bees and wasps who’ve discovered the split grapes. The walnut tree is heavy with forming nuts. At some point in the future a very happy squirrel is going to discover that tree and we’ll get far fewer of the nuts. Right now we only have to share with the occasional northern flicker. And the blue jay. He likes the nuts and often pokes around on the ground hoping to find one that was missed last fall.

I love the variety of creatures who have decided that sharing space with humans is just fine.

On the Thursday of a Writers Retreat

The walk along the creek here at Woodthrush Woods is familiar to me, but it feels different than it did in September. In the fall the trees were distinct and individual. I noticed mushrooms and the textures of bark. In June these things are obscured by fresh green growth and somehow the trees feel more like a backdrop. I walk the trails anyway, waiting to see what might catch my eye. Mostly I just get a sense of welcome. In no legal way do I have ownership over this forest. I am a guest who has been fortunate enough to be invited twice. Yet in some unmeasurable way it feels like this forest belongs to me, or perhaps I belong to it. The trees, plants, and land must stay here when I return to Utah, yet I take something home with me.

Howard and I walked together by the creek when the fireflies were out. They turned out to be more abundant on the lawns, but the creek walk was lovely on its own. We saw a pair of snapping turtles in the deep, slow portion of the creek. They’d not been there during the day. We only saw them because they swam away from us to hide under the roots of a tree by the bank. We walked through a spiderweb on the trail back. This was not unusual, but this one stuck itself to the front of Howard’s glasses. It could be seen there, glistening threads in a classic web pattern. Hopefully the spider leaped to safety. I have no argument with forest spiders. They can eat all the mosquitoes.

I am so glad to have Howard here, that he’s being able to do some writing despite the annoying computer he has as a writing machine. I have thus far done very little writing. Instead I have spent most of my energy as support crew, putting out food, putting away food, washing dishes, running laundry, and going grocery shopping. The spaces have been occupied with business email, conversations with my kids, and catching up on the sleep I missed during my travel delays. I still have time ahead of me in which I can write, but only a day or so of it. My trip is shorter on both ends than I would have preferred. It is what it had to be, but some other year I hope to come early and stay late. All signs point to there being another year during which I’ll be invited. I am glad. The company is excellent and I love this forest.