The faintest, mildest, least-noticeable of all things can still have tremendous impact. Take lichens, for example: the most wonderful of flowers, even gardens, on a microscopic scale. Strong enough to wear down stone itself over time, but so delicate and dainty and fairylike that they are rich and glorious even in their seeming fragility.
No matter what the reasons, the weather is different these days than both what I grew up with (all those centuries ago!) and what the locals in most places call ‘the usual’—really, really different. It’s not that Toronto has suddenly become the center of the tropics or San Salvador is now an iceberg floating along the edge of a glacier, it’s just different. The highs and lows have become both more pronounced and more prolonged in many places, from what I can see.
Where I grew up in Seattle, for example, its mythic status as Rain City and the region’s fame as being constantly wet were exaggerated, much of the truly soaking rain happening on the Olympic Peninsula as a result of the mountains’ effect on traveling clouds, weather fronts, and so forth, and thus less of it eventually reaching Seattle’s sheltered spot on Puget Sound. Instead, there were lots of grey, overcast days and light drizzling ones, but the measurable rain was moderate. In fact, the region generally has had plenty of rain to sustain, in its temperate climate, a stupendous variety of plants year-round, from the great towers of evergreen trees to their tiniest replicas in forest-like carpets of moss.
There were, as anyone anywhere knows, secrets and surprises in this unique climate. In the neighborhood where my grandparents had their apartment when I was young, right next to the shores of the Sound, I was awed by a few yards sporting healthy palm trees. These were not native to the northwest, nor even the slightest bit common—hence, my amazement at their exotic punctuation of the expected landscape—but they grew there without requiring any particular magic, because the microclimate along the West Seattle shoreline has remained remarkably sheltered and coddled by Mother Nature.
Now, it’s a more frequent phenomenon to see all sorts of semitropical plants creeping into the Seattle area landscape, and at the same time, more and more xeric plants. The hot weather of summer does, in reality, get a little hotter and stick around a little longer than it did in years past. It also tends to be drier. The total annual rainfall average hasn’t fallen into a chasm, but it’s creeping lower gradually, and this winter-spring cycle has been a record-setter for low snow pack, sending a fair number of ski resort owners into early and/or even permanent closure and more than a few homeowners into rethinking their home sprinkler systems and dispatching lawns in favor of water-saving raingardens. A few years down the road, it wouldn’t surprise me especially to see yards that look remarkably like the iconic ones of Las Vegas popping up on many northern properties as well.
Some of this change in nature’s attitude toward us is bound to change how we can and should live our lives. The watersheds that once supplied an abundance of cheap, readily available drinking and gardening water and hydroelectric power to wide swaths of the country are shrinking and already being bargained for more aggressively, even disputed. The world is already water-poor, despite newly over-watered and flooding regions, and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if at some point water becomes the basis of more wars than oil and politico-religious reasons are today. I hope I’m not around to see the day.
Meanwhile, it’s still something of a novelty, never mind those long-ago days of perhaps two or three landmark palm trees in West Seattle, to see what’s happening in the gardens and seasons of this changing world. Never thought I’d see things the way they are, and that’s not just talking about the weather. Maybe I’ll get a grass skirt and celebrate it with a neon-colored summer drink served with its own paper mini-umbrella while it lasts.
Short bursts of breeze in the long leaves,
the slightest of eddies as though
their pulse were pumping actual red cells
through the tall margins of the field—
Likelier that their real nature as flammable,
short-lived bursts of vigorous and
violent life, destined to flame
up, out, leap to cosmic oblivion, and die—
Are these our guides, or are
they mirrors of the flimsy, volatile existence
that we share? Only there, in
the margins of the field, do the flames
and shadows of our being have
a moment’s sway, for better or for worse,
of honesty out in the sun. Only there,
where the grass grows tall and yet
has not the strength or
depth of root to thrive, do we
see how little of the energy
with which we’d credited ourselves
really shines for longer than
a short, weedy season, bending
this way, bending that, and sparking
into sudden flares of incandescent
before returning to earth,
having distinguished ourselves, yet still
flying a bold red flag as if
Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.
Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.
Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.
This strange new climate we’ve been experiencing in north Texas lately, never mind on the west coast where drought has reentered the vocabulary for the first time in eons and the northeast where winter and massive storms have ruled in a newly lengthy way, makes me think I’m on another planet. Or perhaps a parallel reality. Whatever it is, it seems a bit surreal and decidedly unfamiliar.
In the last number of days we’ve had more rain, more thunder-and-lightning, and more windstorms—even a small tornado or two touching down not far from our home—than many past years have seen altogether locally. We’ve driven along what are normally pastures and meadows and bone-dry fields and low runoff gullies and seen what looks like it should have the iconic airboats of the southern swamps speeding through: trees and brush sticking out intermittently from extensive marshes where we’ve only ever seen dry land. The phenomenal density and lushness of the grasses and trees, wildflowers in rampant carpets blooming for weeks on end instead of days, and swarms of early insect madness all explode around us in unprecedented extremes.
Then, today, a brilliantly sunny, rather hot, almost cloudless day; it was exactly as I would expect here in a typical mid-May. The rosebush behind the kitchen, shorn before the last storm of its spectacular but doomed bucket full of blooms lest they be beaten to death by the ongoing rain and hail, decides to pop out a couple of fireworks to celebrate the sun’s return. The birds are sunning themselves on every branch and power line as though to soak up rays as quickly as they can. The local lawn crews dash madly from house to house.
Because the weather forecast says we should expect about 7 or 8 days, at least, of rain and thunderstorms to begin again tomorrow.
And isn’t that the way things go? We decide we know how the world will operate, how we expect life to move forward, what we will do within it, and immediately we are given a firm reminder that nature will do as it pleases, that change is inevitable, and that we are small jots on the map of history. The sun will blast its way through a wall of weeks-long storming and then the storms will drop their dousing movable sea back down over the landscape for another round. We make our predictions and forecasts and duck and weave to move through it all as best we can guess we should, and it all changes again.
For now, I am content to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. All of it is rather exciting and surprising and even, welcome. And there’s nothing I can do to stop change. So I’ll just enjoy the weird phenomena as best I can, soak up the rain and then stop and smell the roses between times again when the opportunity arises.
It’s springtime, and that means I look at my yard with an especially keen eye. Toward eating, of course.
You should find it dazzlingly obvious by now, if you’ve been visiting here for more than a week, that I am not a Baker. Exactitude is a form of patience that I lack, so much so that following a recipe to the letter—an important characteristic of baking’s central processes, whereby the necessary chemical and physical elements are able to perform their required duties and make the food do the particular tricks it’s supposed to do—is impossible for me, or close enough to it. As a consequence, I have made many, many baked goods that were not entirely, well…good. So many dishes that should have been light and fluffy come out more suited to supporting a truck while a mechanic fiddles about underneath it. What could and should have been moist and dense is instead frequently crumbly and dry and better designed in texture to use as kitty litter than as dessert, despite pleasant enough flavors. [Disclaimer: if you think this is an admission that I have eaten actual kitty litter, you have either greater faith in my scientific daring or even less in my common sense than I deserve.] Disappointing, these results, but enlightening, if I pay enough attention. Sometimes even remediable. There may be hope for me yet.
Maybe that’s why I don’t stop meddling with what should be fairly straightforward recipes. I trust that, at least some of the time, what doesn’t turn out best on first effort might be rescued by a further experiment or two.
This winter I was given a gorgeous, huge, tree-ripened lemon. My friend hand-carried it from her mother’s garden a couple thousand miles from here, and it was so big and juicy and magic-laden and perfect that I wouldn’t dream of letting it go to waste as a mere additional squeeze on dinner’s salad or a piece of fish. I sliced it thinly; not very evenly, because as I have surely mentioned before, my knife skills are less than impressive, but I gave it a go, and I did slice it fairly thinly. Then I layered those slices with cane sugar in a tight-fitting jar and filled all of the remaining space with plain, high-octane white alcohol (vodka, probably) and let it sit for a couple of months, just giving it a shake or tip once in a while to get the sugar to melt in and absorb and the lemon flavor to be intensified. When I opened the jar last week: Elysium! A rush of deeply floral, lightly sweet and highly lemony perfume bursting from the jar with the reassembled fruit in it. A whiff made for fainting over, if one breathed it in long enough. A liqueur not to be spent lightly, either.
I’d had this fancy, for a while, to try my hand at making some sort of citrus-cornmeal torte. I’ve read recipes for various kinds, particularly olive oil enriched ones from Sicily that sounded uniquely tempting, and decided to give my own version a try. Oranges and/or lemons, olive oil, corn meal. Not too sweet, not too bland. Just honest and refreshing. Sigh. None of the recipes I found was precisely what I thought I was salivating for at the moment, though. I still wanted moist and slightly dense texture, almost a steamed pudding character. What to do, what to do…. Of course: experiment, again. Knowing that baking still requires some commitment to precision, I did as I always do and turned to a tried-and-true basic recipe of somewhat similar character and substituted this for that and these for those. What resulted was not precisely what I’d had in mind, but not too shabby, either.
Lemon Cornmeal Torte (Take One)
Preheat oven to 450°F/232°C (or whatever approximates those temps in your oven). Mine, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, is old and unreliable, so I must needs watch it like the vultures watch I-35.
I decided to use my springform pan. I lined it, inside and out, with heavy aluminum foil because, given the experimental nature of all of this, I was a little worried about leaks and other non-ingredient surprises. Not to mention that that uppity oven of mine might explode in a fireball or something. Probably wasn’t necessary, in the event, but still. On with the recipe:
I mixed about 3-4 T melted butter with an equal amount of cane sugar and spread it in the bottom of the pan, and then laid the lemon slices out across that syrup base.
Combine dry ingredients with a fork or whisk: 3 cups cornmeal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1-1/2 tsp salt, 1-2 tsp ground cardamom, 1 T citrus zest. Since I’d macerated the Queen Lemon, her zest wasn’t fit for the task anymore, so I grated the peel from a couple of the clementines I had on hand.
In a separate bowl, beat together the wet ingredients. [These are where I think I would have done well to go a slightly different path.] I combined about 2-3 Tablespoons’-worth of flavorings from the following: liqueur from the preserved lemon, fresh lemon juice, and ginger syrup. I added enough buttermilk to the flavor mix to equal 2 cups total. [In retrospect, I would have bumped the flavorings’ amount to a full half cup and used 1-1/2 cups of the buttermilk.] Whatever the eventual “design” of the recipe, on this occasion I rounded the wet ingredient list with 1 cup orange juice, 2 large eggs, and 2/3 cup fine extra-virgin olive oil. I suspect I could well have added another egg at the time with good success, too, but I didn’t. We shall see!
Combine the wet ingredients with the dry and stir until mixed. Pour the batter in the pan over the lemon slices, set it in the oven, and bake just until set, the center not quite visibly moving anymore when you bump the pan, somewhere around 35-40 minutes.
Served with a very lightly sweetened whipped cream, it was pleasant and tasted of spring. But it wasn’t quite what I was craving, just yet. I wanted brighter, juicier lemon flavor and yes, this torte was still on the fragile, crumbly side. Onward, I say! The next day was good enough for reevaluating and rethinking. And rebuilding. That night we’d had a table-full of guests, but there was also another cake, so both desserts stretched beyond our needs. That left me, on the next day, with half a torte, or more accurately, a big quart bowl brimming with lemon-ish torte remnants. Make a trifle with the remaining whipped cream? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t fulfill my fancy, still, of that zingy, moist dessert I was imagining. Instead, I made:
Steamed Lemon Pudding (My Re-Torte)
I put the torte crumbles, sliced lemon topping and all, into my food processor with not only the almost-equal amount of leftover whipped cream but also a very hefty splash of lemon juice and three large eggs, and blended everything into a new, thicker batter. I poured it into a greased, covered casserole and steamed it until, again, it was just set. [It could easily steam in your oven or pudding steamer in the traditional way, but with my oven being so recalcitrant, I opted to steam it, covered, in the microwave instead.]
When I let it cool to room temperature, that iteration of lemon-cornmeal dessert proved to be more what I’d had in mind all along. It was just about the texture of a good Christmas pudding, but of course more seasonally fit in both color and flavor for what we did when my visiting friends returned for our afternoon coffee: we sat on the patio and spooned it up while sipping, chatting, gazing at the explosion of roses, and enjoying one of the nicest bits of outdoor-friendly weather we ever get in these parts.
A raindrop is a small enough thing.
Millions of raindrops together, they can do something.
While other parts of the country and the world are thirsting desperately for even a few good rains, we in north Texas have been surprised with a gift of enough rain in the last few weeks to break the spine of a few years of our own drought.
We human sorts aren’t the only grateful living things in the event.
Wildflowers have been blooming in special profusion this year, even in my own backyard.
For all that we think of lives as finite and fleeting and time, constantly racing by, I don’t think we take it so seriously when we tell someone who’s waiting for us, “just a second.” After all, so much can happen in a second or less, yes, evening in a millisecond, as we can now measure it. Races are won and lost by the tiniest increments of time. On one side of the little mark signifying a clock’s second-long increments is the Now, and before the very thought of it is completed, Now already resides on the other side of the mark.
No matter how protracted the process leading up to it, one nanosecond is the last one I will spend alive, and the next one will be the first one in which I’m dead. The thought has no moral value one way or another, and not much emotional value either, since as soon as it is likely to seem fully important to me in the most urgent of terms, it’ll be all done.
The only real value for me, in practical terms, is if I invest enough thought in this very moment of being still alive to commit to being wide awake as well: deeply present, and grateful for all of the good that is in my life at every piece of time I’m granted along the way. Whether it’s thanks to honoring spiritual values in the practice of mindfulness or it’s because I’m keenly aware of those lives that, however brightly they’ve burned, were far too short, it matters little unless I take advantage of the perspective these afford me and live my own life more richly because of it. Regardless of how I choose to spend this magnificent currency of breath and sentience and health and hope, even if it’s on sitting on a park bench and holding hands with my beloved (one of the highest and best things I know how to do, to be sure), making a conscious and committed choice is well worth the effort, and following through, all the better.
Just now, the value of mindful living in the present is particularly lovely because we are on the cusp of spring here in north Texas. And if you’ve read even a few of my locale-related posts, you can appreciate just how fleeting and tenuous is the very idea of springtime and how ephemeral its joys. I would be a fool to be so encumbered by longing for things past or worrying about things yet to come that I don’t pause, however briefly, to savor the wonder of what these treasured nano-joys can bring to my existence.