Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sweet Peas, Sunflowers and Grrrevillea

It was a big work day in the garden. But the showiest, most abundant plant in our garden right now is the sweet pea bush, for which human hands cannot take credit. It was a volunteer: it showed up unannounced, we gave it some water, it repaid us with masses of purple blooms with a sweet, almost grapelike fragrance. I can see it from my kitchen window when I do the dishes. It humbles me. I like to give a bouquet to my friends when they are feeling low.
What the human hands did today was thin the sunflowers, repot the aloe plants, weed, and dig out the dirt under the new gate. My husband and I don't garden together much, so it was nice to be part of a team.
The sunflowers have been needing to be thinned for a couple of weeks, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's a classic mistake of the beginning gardener, according to Amy Stewart's "From the Ground Up," the story of her first garden. Joyanna recommended her book about earthworms to me (thanks Joyanna!) since I have been enjoying the worms' antics, so I got both books at the library and am reading them at the same time. I will share the revelations about earthworms in a later post. The book about Stewart's first garden is inspiring and comforting to read: inspiring because she is passionate about the joy of learning how to garden and comforting because I'm not the only one to make mistakes. She agonizes over the spacing of her seeds, hoping to avoid having to thin them at all later. "After all," she asks, "how could I waste any one of those seeds, those beautiful, zany seeds?" I felt the same way. After all that attention I had lavished on them--all those saucers of beer, all the smashed slugs, the hand-watering--how could I cast them upon the compost heap?
My husband ended up chosing which ones to go, and spaded them up for me. It was obvious, actually. Healthy, knee-high sunflowers alternated with spindly ones that reached only part way up my calf. The runts had to go. But I couldn't abandon them. I found a spot for them on the side of the house and staked them so their puny stems wouldn't blow over in our stiff onshore breeze. We'll see how they do. But the tall ones looked better right away. They seemed to be sighing and saying, "Finally, some room to breathe!"

Now I confess the really dumb thing I did. I bought a Grevillea that didn't look completely healthy in a lapse of impulse control. I really really wanted it, it was the last one, and, since it was from a highly respected nursery in Berkeley, I disregarded my doubts about its condition. That was on Tuesday. Today the leaf tips are curling and yellowed and it has patches of what I suspect is powdery mildew and it looks terrible. I feel stupid. I will probably have to drive over to Berkeley next week and ask them to take it back.
My husband and I saw a different species of Grevillea at another nursery but they wanted over $100 for it in a 5-gallon pot. So I determined to look around to see if I could find a smaller, less pricey one. Grevillea are native to Australia, and many species have these amazing red or pink tube-shaped flowers that are irresistible to hummingbirds. In fact, the one I bought is called Hummingbird Bush. They have Grevilleas at Home Depot, but not the species I wanted. My Grevillea adventure will have to be a lesson in patience for me. I will get the one I want, but just not this instant. Grrrr.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Still Life with Lemons

Our house painter--who is also an artist--said these lemons looked like a Dutch still life, sitting on my kitchen counter. I liked how they looked lined up on the tiles of our deck. Oddly, he did not mention their monstrous size. Maybe they have mammoth lemons like these in Bulgaria. I have only seen lemons like these from one place: the tree in the Berkeley backyard belonging to my father and his wife. My sons were over at their house, while we were at a surprise party for my mother. Besides playing Mexican Trains, a sort of domino game on steroids, they harvested two paper grocery bags full of these lemons. My stepmother was mowing the lawn the other day and one of these lemons fell on her head. She said she saw stars. So I guess behind the generous impulse there was a survival instinct in harvesting the lemons. Just in case the colossal nature of these lemons is not apparent in the first picture, I have included a second one with a normal, ordinary lemon next to the Godzilla lemon.

Despite their thick skins, these giant lemons are surprisingly fragile. After only three or four days out on the counter, they began to mold. I had to do something with them. I thought of making lemon marmelade, especially since the skin has a slight grapefruit-like fragrance--perhaps they are some kind of cross between a grapefruit and a lemon--but in the end I juiced them and froze some of the juice and made lemonade with the rest. There was no trace of the grapefruit flavor in the juice, but it seemed particularly sour. It was freakily refreshing.

Postscript: According to what I could find online, my dad and stepmother's lemon tree is probably a Ponderosa lemon, which some think is a cross between a lemon and a citron. My mom actually has a Ponderosa lemon tree, but her lemons never get as big as those monster ones. I like to think some UC Berkeley botanist gave the earlier owners of the house some rare, unnamed, experimental hybrid. How about "Bowling Ball" lemon?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Love and Hatred

I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. It is composed of two novellas about WWII France, the first (“Storm in June”) about the exodus of civilians from Paris when the Germans were about to occupy the city, the second (“Dolce”) about a small French village during a short period of time when it is occupied by a regiment of German soldiers. There were to be three more sections, but the author was unable to complete them because she died in 1942. To explain why would be a spoiler, I think, even though it has been discussed extensively in reviews. The novellas stand on their own as a story about the effect of war on ordinary people. The circumstances of the book’s writing and rediscovery (described in the appendix) are both devastating and miraculous. The novellas were not published until 2004 (in English, 2006).

Several pages from the manuscript are reproduced as the endpapers of the book: they are filled with lines of tiny cursive script, some of which are crossed out and rewritten. The two novellas are essentially a first draft. It is hard to believe that, reading them. She did not have the luxury of cut and paste, of revising and changing. She wrote the stories sitting outside on her coat in the French countryside, while waiting for things to come to the end she saw clearly.

There are many loving and beautiful moments in the book, also funny moments and brutal ones. Mostly the focus is on the everyday lives and concerns of the characters, who are loosely entwined and overlap in the two novellas. One of my favorite chapters, in “Dolce,” describes the fantasy of a bitter, lonely older woman whose son is a prisoner of war. In her darkened bedroom, she pretends her son is sitting by her side, a chubby toddler, and acts out stroking his hair. She is not crazy, just creating for herself the solace she needs. She imagines him returning from the war and sitting by the fire, while his wife (whom she resents and tyrannizes) reads to him. Involved in her fantasy, she gets up and starts downstairs to greet him. Could that be the voice of her daughter-in-law reading? She opens the sitting room door to see her daughter-in-law reading aloud to the German officer billeted in her home.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ripening Grapes

We're staying in a house in Sonoma with a large deck covered by a grape arbor. The grapes are still hard and green, but they are ripening in the hot sun. We are draping ourselves on the sofas with cushions on the deck. There are grapes growing all around us, in all directions. We are soaking up the heat, listening to the quail rustling in the bushes, smelling the sulphur sprayed on the vines, tasting the wines made from these grapes (only two of us are doing the tasting). My younger son took this photo.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Apricot Galette

The apricots at the store were just crying out to be made into a galette. Around this time of year, I'm always on a quest for the perfect apricot. These weren't perfect, but they were pretty good, and they made a good galette. This galette reminds me of the galette my mom and I made together from memory five years ago when we were on vacation in Italy. Despite the strange oven, different flour and butter, etc., it turned out wonderful! Thanks to her, I learned how to make a pie crust, and from there galette dough wasn't too much of a stretch. She gave me the cookbook (Chez Panisse Fruit) that has the recipe I like to use. Thanks, mom.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Transition Moment

On Monday, my older son graduated from eighth grade (they call it a “promotion,” not a graduation). I was worried I would start to cry once “Pomp and Circumstance” began to sound, but I didn’t. That's because I already had my transition moment at his Orchestra concert a couple of weeks ago. I don’t particularly like crying when I hear “One Hand, One Heart” in the West Side Story medley, like I did at the concert. But I've got to cry sometime. I always have these moments at some point when my kids go through a transition: from home baby to nursery school, from nursery school to kindergarten, from fifth grade to middle school, and so on. My eyes fill with tears and I want everything to stop at that moment, that very one in which everything seems so right. Why does it have to change? In that moment, quivering between the old and the new, I see my son at his peak. He's at the top of his hill--however small. He’ll never have it so good again, I think. I cry because I recognize these moments as steps in their slow and steady glide away from me. End of the school year is a pretty obvious marker. And I look back and see myself at that same transition point, eager to move on to the next stage, innocent of the experiences I accumulated after it.

But my son's graduation was a celebration. The kids were giddy, clapping for each and every of their 437 classmates enrobed in red gowns as each and every name was called. Even the principal, usually somewhat wooden, warmly described the exit letters each student wrote to her about how they have changed since sixth grade. It’s been a gradual saying goodbye process for my son and his friends: the last music concert, the eighth grade picnic, the eighth grade dance, the graduation. I heard a lot of kids cried at the dance, so by yesterday they were ready to party. And party they did. Afterwards there was a lunch, play on the beach, another dinner and dance, and a sleepover. By the time I picked him up at 1 pm the next day, he was quiet. But it was a satisfied quiet.

Today, after three days of rare sunshine in June, it feels like summer. Graduation already seems a long time ago.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Night Garden

I have been getting to know the night life of my garden. According to my husband, the only really foolproof method of ridding the garden of slugs and snails is to hand pick them at night (preferably by moonlight, with a hissing cauldron of hemlock to douse them in, but I haven’t found hemlock at the garden center and most nights have been overcast, so there is no moonlight). The slugs’ and earwigs’ beer habit was getting tiresome. So for the last week, I have bundled up with hat and jacket, put on my gardening gloves and hunted for the creatures with a flashlight. I would have been concerned that the neighbors would think I was up to no good, except our neighbor does this, too. (At least, that’s what I prefer to think he’s doing out in his backyard with a flashlight at night.)

Most nights I have caught at least two or three slugs. The last several nights, however, the only slugs out were no longer than my pinky fingernail. A pearly white, these slugs were almost cute, but I killed them anyway. Earwigs are always out in great numbers and all sizes, from one inch long to a quarter-inch. About the killing: Slugs I pick up and move to the top of the garden wall and mash with a rock. The earwigs are harder to kill, since they cling to the leaves. If I shake the plant so they fall off, they scurry away, sometimes before I can catch them. But those I can catch I squish between my (gloved) fingers.

I can’t help noticing all the other activity around the sunflowers at night, though. A great many ants are doing errands: carrying away bits of dead slug, moving grains of earth out of the crack in the garden wall, tracing their paths back and forth, ignoring the sunflowers. And the worms! They loll on the surface, half out of their holes, as if bathing in the moonlight, or rather, in the city’s glow reflected off the cloud cover. When I shine my flashlight on them, they slip back into their holes instantly, like a spaghetti noodle being sucked up into a mouth. I never knew worms could move so fast. The first time I saw them move, I jumped. They make me laugh. The garden is not peaceful at night. Maybe it's because the sounds carry more at night, or because I'm less distracted by visual information, but it's noisy. I can hear the freeway, five blocks away, and the busy street a block away.

The flower in the photo is a marigold, a jumbo pack ($1.99 at Home Depot) of which I planted between the garden wall--where the earwigs have their dens--and the sunflowers. There is an earwig on the leaf in the center of the photo, caught with her (or his) jaws open, chewing (hard to see unless the photo is full size). My plan was that the earwigs would be distracted by the marigolds and eat them instead. They are eating the marigolds more than the sunflowers now, although a few still sneak past and go for the sunflowers. The marigolds make me hopeful for future golden sunflowers.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Water Music

My sprinkler makes a sound on the anti-cat, anti-bird barrier for my raised bed: a plinking, plunking sound like unseen fingers stroking a loosely-strung harp.

Once at the Discovery Museum I saw and heard a sound sculpture that I have always wanted to recreate. Forks, knives and spoons were strung with fishing wire across an area about 5 feet by 5 feet. Suspended above them was a block of ice with small stones frozen into it. As the ice melted, the stones loosened and fell, and dropped onto the silverware, creating a random as they fell. I loved that thing.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Keeping it Simple, Continued

Ta-da! The table, freshly painted by my son. Pretty nice. Okay, the paint cost $17, bringing the grand total to $32.

Teaching At Its Best

This is a shout-out to Ms. Lucero, my eighth-grader’s social studies teacher. All year they have been studying U.S. history, with some frequent digressions on The World As Ms. Lucero Sees It. She is notorious on the 3rd floor for pacing the halls in her red, white, and blue lace-up boots, wearing a confiscated baseball cap and blowing her whistle at people who are socializing too much during passing period. My son says she’s his best teacher this year, even though she made them all memorize and perform Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, with feeling. Mostly, they studied the Constitution in depth, relating it to current events through weekly news reports. In her class, the students actually had to write essays, and she actually wrote written comments on those essays. This is not something to take for granted in a class with more than 35 students.

Now they have made it through the grueling three-day Constitution test and the eighth-grade history STAR test. Many of the other teachers are taking a well-earned break, abandoning any attempt to give homework for the last few weeks of school. Not Ms. Lucero. Two weeks ago, each student had to turn in a thorough personal scrapbook project complete with photos, copies of primary documents, a family tree, several personal essays, and a migration map tracing where their family members came from. Then, finally, over Memorial Day weekend, the students had to memorize Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

The Gettysburg Address is not an easy thing to memorize. Mr. Lincoln uses few words, but many of those words he uses more than once, so it’s easy to lose your place. The word “here” appears 7 times, “nation” 5 times, “dedicated” 4 times, and so on. But it is a moving speech that expresses in the simplest terms some of the noblest ideals of our country. As a nation, we may not have lived up to all of those ideals, but at least some of the time, we have strived to do so. Especially now, when our country is at war for the most confused and ill-considered reasons, I feel compelled to consider what kinds of ideals are worth fighting for.

All day on Memorial Day, my son was walking around the house, trying to burn the speech into his brain. It’s now burned into my brain. And I still get a chill on my neck when I hear my son repeating:

“…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Thank you, Ms. Lucero.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Keeping it Simple

I have been looking around online for a new outdoor table for our deck. They're not cheap, at least not the ones that have a hope of remaining rust-free in our damp and foggy climate. One I liked was $1,000. Then the other day I went to a potluck lunch with a group of school mom friends at one of the moms' house. We ate on her back deck, surrounded by fragrant climbing roses, at two very funky, rusted, flaking, warped tables. They worked fine. So today on a whim I stopped at Urban Ore to see if they had any funky, rusted, flaking, warped tables. They did. It cost $15 and I strapped it on top of our 1997 Mercury Sable station wagon and drove home across the Bay Bridge. On the way I had to pick up the boys at school, where my sixth-grader was very excited to see a table strapped to the top of the car. By the time we got home, he had talked himself into helping me sand, wash and paint it. He spent an hour in the backyard wearing yellow dishwashing gloves, vigorously sanding and then enthusiastically scrubbing down the table. After some thought, he decided we should paint it silver, to match our Ikea aluminum chairs. I will get the paint tomorrow so he can paint it. By the time he finishes painting it, he will have gotten more out of that table than anything I bought ready to use. And think of the $985 we saved!