Strange Landscape

Photo: Palm Trees 1No 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.Photo: Palm Trees 2

The Garden Rejoices

photo montageRespite is the thing we all crave at times. Too much of a good thing is still, when all’s said and done, too much. Having spent the majority of my life in climes of plentiful cloud and rain, I was quite pleased to experience the practically perpetual sunshine of north Texas, but learned that with it can come garden-blighting and spirit-dampening heat and even drought, so when it rains, as much as it might make a few things more inconvenient or messy, it can also make my heart glad.

And the way that the leaves plump up, flowers loosen and uncurl their fists and stalks and stems stretch instantly taller toward the sky, it’s also easy to see that the garden rejoices. It’s as though all of nature around me is sighing and relaxing every tensed-up, coiled tight thing with grateful relief.

A moment of quiet in the heart of a rushed day or a busy week is rain for my spirits as well. Whatever the cause of the busyness, however pleasurable the things that do clamor for my attentions, I find that a brief pause to lower the speed of thought, to quiet the relentless insistence of life’s siren calls and cool the heat of its demands–this one small thing–has wonderful power to relieve and renew me, too.

This is how I remember the kindness of the rain in the midst of unyielding heat, the shelter of low clouds that break the relentless glaring sun. And I look for my tiny bits of solace in a meditative mode, feeding my roots and encouraging me to let go, expand, release the tensions I am in and carry on, better able again to bloom and grow.

I Fall for It Every Time

Autumn, that is. I’m kind of a sucker for all seasonal changes, but there’s something a little romantic in the sweet melancholy of seasonal natural decay and the nostalgia brought on by the beginning of each school year and cultural season that catches at my heart every year anew. Even here in the Texan climate, where autumn is likely, as this year, to arrive no sooner than winter is appearing farther north, once the Fall comes it’s a welcome joy.photo

I love the bold colors of the wild grasses and the few leaves that turn to flame before falling off the branches, and the flocking birds pausing to fill a whole grove of trees with raucous whistles and laughing chatter on their way south. I adore the loamy scent of the finally cold air tinged with wood smoke from nearby chimneys, and the perfumed indoors redolent of clove and cinnamon. I am enamored of the grey spray that airbrushes the sky on a frosty morning and the crunch of dry stems and seeds underfoot during an afternoon’s ramble. And I feel the sting of pure joy in me whenever I look up at the blazing blue of the bright autumnal sky stretching brilliantly in the spaces between the craggy oak and the spiny acacia and the hedge-apple festooned bois d’arc branches as they reach up to draw back those cerulean velvet curtains and reveal that winter’s just ahead.photo

Call me sentimental, but maybe it’s precisely this sense of brevity that makes the autumn seem so desirably rare and refined to me. Carpe diem, I think, for only in the very moment can I hope to revel in such ephemerally earthy happiness. Still, while the moment may be infinitesimal, the falling for Fall appears to be endless, and repeatable, for as long as I live.

Wishful Gardening

 

photoIf you haven’t already guessed it, gardening in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can battle long, murky, cool, overly rainy winters that seem to last seven months of the year, so the easiest things to grow are mold and mildew, possibly between your fingers and toes. You want a green roof? Get yourself a rooftop Japanese moss garden without even trying just by positioning your house close to any healthy shade tree. I can’t promise you’ll feel very Zen about it, because like the fiendish imported English ivy, such moss is mighty hard to stop let alone kill, and eats buildings faster than you can spell ‘plague’. Mud is perhaps a given, but so, in the territory of a once quite active volcano is the euphoniously named glacial till that means Rock Picking becomes a competitive sport among gardeners and anything larger than a teacup had better be excavated for with vigorous pickaxe action and the tenacity of a Welsh miner. Slugs grow to mythic size and are believed by small children to be capable of swallowing their pint-sized innocent selves without chewing.photoBut the mildness of temperature and plentiful rains also mean that one can practically put a piece of two-by-four in the ground and grow a tree, or at the very least, can make greenery and flora proliferate in an almost jungle-like exuberance. Heck, though outsiders might doubt it, you can grow big healthy palm trees and citrus and big fat figs right there next to the cold waters of the Puget Sound, mere crawl strokes away from the chilly dark not-really-Pacific Ocean. So the P-Patch allotments of Seattle are rich; why, even a parking strip along a city street can support a dandy raised-bed vegetable garden full of tempting green and vitamin-packed leafy goods.photoOne of the things I’ve missed greatly since leaving the west coast is an incongruously tough plant, one evolved to withstand the vagaries of coastal wind and salt and coastal dwellers’ neglect with remarkable stamina and glamor. The Ceanothus, sometimes known as Farmer’s Lilac, is one of my very favorite plants for this combination of ruggedly handsome looks and ease of care. I am fairly certain that an experiment with one or two of these heady-scented, blazingly blue delights is in my Texan future. They come in such a variety of heights and breadths, leaf sizes, shades of blue and purplish, and even both deciduous and evergreen types that there’s sure to be a sort that will withstand even north Texas trials. Now that I’ve been back amid them in full-blast bloom, I know I can’t keep going sans Ceanothus without giving them a good old Texas try.photoThe other thing I miss most, perhaps, about Northwest gardening will likely be much harder to replicate in my newer, ahem, digs: cottage gardens. Besides that native-born northwesterners are not much inclined toward formality, their access to easy growing conditions make them quite fond of that crowded, colorful and slightly overblown style of gardening, not least of all because it leaves less room for weeds, which of course also love the mild and friendly weather. But in hot and dry climes it can be a little too stressful on the water meter and long for greater shade than is easily procured by the average gardener. Clearly, it’ll take some tricky thinking to overcome those obstacles. Our recent negotiations with the fellow who will likely supervise our landscape overhaul when we can manage to do it have been a solid reminder not only of the limits of NTX nurseries and their resources but how much it’s going to cost us to do any adventuring in the fuller development of our patch of ground. Our recent house plumbing near-disaster and a couple of automotive ones, not to mention the trip we are making just now, all send pretty clear signals to our budgetary brains that it’s yet a while before we can tackle much renovation or revivification in our happy little greenbelt-hugging home zone. So for now it seems all the wiser to me to store up all of the brawny, brainy yet beautiful garden ideas I can and savor my short stay back in cottage-garden country to help me suss out just what I can do to bring a semblance of it back home with me when the bank account has been fattened up a bit more again.photophotophotophoto