Grandiloquent and Riotous Whimsy. Sunday July 10

Imagine if you were a house plant, attuned to musical vibrations, terrified about getting fried as the planet heats up, suffering from neglect as humans fall like skittles from the Covid-19 epidemic. Imagine the ecstasy you might then experience when you are given the opportunity to attend the magnificent Barcelona Liceu opera house which reopened its doors for the first time in over three months on 22nd June to hold a concert – exclusively for an audience of nearly 2,300 house plants.

Is this not the most grandiloquently whimsical image imaginable? It summons the sense of isolated dislocation we are all experiencing as concert goers or audience members in these times of prohibitive social distancing. But also the untetheredness that performers of all sorts must experience without live audiences to play to. What a magnificent response to this dilemma, a response moreover that manages to speak at once to individual plants, to the perils of climate change and to thousands of people around the world looking and listening, but not expecting this.

About this “Concert for the Biocene” executive producer Eugenio Ampudio said, “Nature advanced to occupy the spaces we snatched from it.” After the concert, the plants were donated to frontline health workers.

The last month, the first month of this year-long CLL treatment, has been slow and tough. Weighted down by lassitude, attached to a magnet that inexorably tugged me back to bed or the couch or anywhere my body could find horizontal relief from the world of active doing.

In the garden so little achieved by me and so much by my enemigos, the Squarreling Critters. Though nothing so heart breaking as the destruction of Steve’s beautiful pond and water lilies and lotus – just on the verge of blooming – by the Marauding Racoons. As he says, well that’s gardening, but he needs some time for mourning before beginning again, taking more precautions. 

I did manage to slowly, with an immense sense of achievement, relocate a few small plants. About four years ago, on a whim I bought a lime nicotiana and planted it in the veg garden, thinking it might provide

an enchanting color contrast to the range of greens and yellows in the veg garden

Though perhaps the truth is it was just the smell and then the sticky tactility of the leaves that enveloped me in nostalgia. The tobacco farm I grew up on was, at a certain time of the year, filled with fields of tall plants festooned with pink and white flowers. Though it wasn’t the flowers that mattered. Stronger than the memory of the flower scent is the memory of heat and the acrid scent of the curing tobacco leaves in the big barn edged with flaming furnaces. The best known garden nicotiana is the white flowered variety, with a strong and delicious scent, often planted in night gardens. The lime hybrid has no real scent

but it grew into a spectacular plant, crowding out some of the veg. 

While searching for these photos I came across this one

The vivid yellow, thrown into relief by the purple kale leaves, is a bolting bok choy or cabbage, those flowers preserved for the seeds they will produce which will turn into more edible plants. The flowers are short lived and not prized as flowers. But look at them!

Recently when weeding the garden paths in the veg garden I almost pulled two small plants which had seeded themselves, inconspicuously, up against a raised bed. I would have considered them weeds

but for the fact that, as tiny as they were

they were struggling into bloom.

There is one more established plant in the front, though it is inhospitably located, so I moved this and transplanted the two babies in the hope of a drifting splash later in the season. I check on them everyday, willing them to survive. Then I read my weekly bulletin from Maria Popova, Brainpickings, and, in her quoting of  Rachel Carson I’m warned against the excessive projection of hope onto individual plants:  “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” 

I also managed to plant out some of the beautiful large white cosmos, Psyche, some marigolds, and a chimayo chile pepper from New Mexico. And a week or so later some red zinnias. I asked Craig if he could pick me up some from the nursery. I love the word, the sound of it, love saying it – zinnia – and I love the flowers, especially en masse. But this is what dominates the nursery market now: plants that have been bred to be polite, and charming; they are short and stubby, lacking all the tough brashness of  I associate with zinnias.  But actually they are tougher than they look and introduce a bit of spotty color to the front verge.

This makes it sound like I just upped and gathered the plants and tools and got on with the job, but not so. The fatigue in these first intensive weeks of infusion is intense. I was unprepared for how incapacitating. I suppose it is because this immunotherapy is working hard to kill off the tumors, or swollen lymph nodes, it’s harnessing the body’s own immune system to work overtime and to flood the body with dead cells. So the easiest thing to do has been to do nothing. Which anyway is a covid-inducing activity. But I have found that I can get into a kind of rhythm where I work in the garden for a short time, not too strenuously, come in and rest (i.e. stretch out on the couch, watching The Final Plate or the Big Family Cooking Showdown or Killing Eve) and then go out again, re-energised, and achieve some miniscule task like bringing a small bucket of compost from the back to the front yard. 

Just as I’m pacing my gardening endevors, so too with cooking. Actually cooking is easier because I can spend the day intermittently harvesting, washing, chopping, grating, peeling, roasting, sauteeing, blending or whatever, interspersed with television rest. 

More rather flat-footed flights of fancy with zucchini and tromboncini. Such as zucchini fritters with spicy tomato sauce which looks dull but tastes scrumptious (those curling crispy fried frilly edges)

and zucchini chocolate cake which looks delicious and could be considered dull only if you consider chocolate cake slathered in a rich ganache to be dull. The zucchini, which you can’t taste, makes for a very moist cake.

The centercut tromboncini has been a revelation. It is much tastier and also more robust than zucchini (or indeed the traditional tromboncini). You can grill or roast or braise it and it keeps its shape, as here, with chicken and turmeric rice

and it’s equally delicious delicious raw. as a salad, shaved and tossed very simply with olive oil, lemon, seasoning and dill.

It can also take a sturdier dressing – with garlic, anchovy, mustard and olive oil. It also loves mint.

But my epic adventure with tromboncini drew on almost everything growing in the vegetable garden, nestled in a velvety chèvre custard. In fact it was the chèvre which posed as the provocation and inspiration for this pie. There was a huge bowl of creamy tangy goats cheese in the fridge. Where did it come from and how would we ever eat it all? It came about through a gift from my friend and cheese-making buddy, Curt Wittenberg. He and Nan came for a distance visit, bearing two magnificently stinky oozing bloom rinded cheeses, made by Curt, as well as a gallon of fresh goats milk. To see and talk with them was a great pick-me up. You think your social aptitude might have crumbled into dust during the shut down. Somehow I managed to not photograph Curt’s cheeses, but here is triumphant proof of the cheeses made on a marathon day we spent at the end of last year in his and Nan’s kitchen

making a variety of cheeses.

My chèvre was the first provocation; the second was some pure butter phyllo in the freezer. Never having used phyllo before I really mucked it up, but otherwise it was a fun concoction. Not ideal for a hot kitchen, but it worked well for my rhythm of working and resting. Used a sheet pan (too big, as it turned out, for the amount of pastry). The onions – cooked slowly on top of the stove until perfumed and languidly caramelized – formed the base layer. The other vegetables I roasted separately (tossed in garlic-infused olive oil) in a very high oven for a fairly short time. Tromboncini – cut about a quarter inch thick on the bias – were laid over the onions. Sprinkled in between: eggplant diced in half moons, potato diced into a similar shape, and grape tomatoes dotted here and there for a splash of color, likewise some roasted red pepper found in a jar in the fridge. Finally, some olives. The custard I made by whipping 8 oz of chevre with three eggs and enough full milk to get the right consistency, seasoned, and added a good handful of chopped herbs from the garden – basil, sage, oregano, chives and tarragon. Why not rosemary you ask? It escaped, slipped out of view and out of mind. This is what it looked like before going into the oven

And this is what came out …..

Talking of rhythm, I’ve found great solace in the long long hospital days in audible books. Particularly the rhythmic syncopation of Mrs Dalloway. Read with amazingly sympatico verve by Juliet Stevenson (thank you Steve F), it has transported me into another world entirely. Put the headphones on, close your eyes, switch on the audible app, and all the hospital fluster and shennanigins and beeping and moaning subsides and disappears as you segue into London on one long day shortly after the end of the First World War. You sail forth from the house in Bloomsbury with Clarissa Dalloway, in search of flowers for her party, sharing the pleasure of walking in the city early in the morning. Perspectives shift to other characters encountered in her day, what is so marvelous, and marvelously amplified in the reading, is the cascade of memories, colliding and interspersed with acutely observed details of things, things in the park, on the street, in a shop, in the house. The words flow breathlessly, rhythmically propelled, and propelling the listening you into an active engagement of all the senses. The almost intolerable deliciously painful experience of unrequited love, the acute wounding of a slight tossed off so nonchalantly, the happiness of buying flowers, the smug stupidity of the upper class, how intolerable to feel nothing, trauma submerged, suicide. I recently read a more contemporary instanciation of this kind of stream of consciousness: Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newbury Port. I loved the playfulness, the way aspects of contemporary life insinuated themselves into observations ranging from the self-consciously profound to the trivial, but I gave up a third of the way through and in the end (the end of reading which in truncating the novel, gives it an ending unasked for) the language wasn’t charged enough – the words and their stringing together lacked rhythm or atonal dissonance, or resonance, something anyway. Perhaps it is Juliet Stevenson’s voice and reading, surely this works to the advantage of the novel, but I think too it is Virginia Woolf’s conjuring and orchestrating of words. I felt, lost in listening, like one of those plants in the Barcelona Opera House.

Turning raw ingredients into something delicious and unexpected (albeit rough around the edges) is a minor achievement, albeit less of an achievement than that of my squarreling enemigos. All the green grapes: gone! All the beans: razed to the ground! And the largest most juicy tomatoes, just beginning to ripen – turning from yellow to red – but not yet ripe enough to pick:

Our harvest has been gratifying

so I cannot grudge the enemigos a few bites. But am putting precautions into play as regards Paul Robeson, one of the very best of the dark heirloom tomatoes – a smoky rich taste that stays in your mouth – but not as plentiful on the vine this year, so every one is precious.

Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, actor, internationalist and activist was asked at the McCarthy HUAC hearings why he had not remained in the Soviet Union since he had an affinity with its political ideology. He replied, “because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!” He was hounded by the FBI and his passport confiscated. But it did not stop him. In an episode inspirational for us, today, he sang by telephone for a concert in London where 1,000 tickets sold out within an hour. Later he performed a telephone concert for an audience of 5,000 in Wales.

A grandiloquently whimsical gesture.

So it seems fitting to end with a whimsical botanist, by no means grandiloquent, but certainly riotous. Richard Brody lightened my world in these past weeks by a video presenting a handful of clips from “films of riotous whimsy.” His choices are inspired, they include short segments from A King in New York – Chaplin, Play Time – Jacques Tati, the Nicholas brothers dancing up a storm, and the mesmeric and brilliant Elaine May in a film she wrote, directed and starred in, playing a botanist, with Walter Matthau as her foil – A New Leaf. Standing alone, the word whimsy runs the risk of erring on the side of cuteness and archness – attributes which threaten to smother the primacy of wit. But when it is yoked with “riotous” you can feel the performative force of the whimsy, the energy. I was inspired to watch A New Leaf again last night and what an immense pleasure it was, and is still today, as the pleasure continues to ripple through me, erupting in gurgles, giggles, snorts and guffaws.

Sunday 21st June, 2020. The Ubiquitous Zucchini

Today, saturday 13th June, the strawberries are extra ripe and squishy. Because of being in the hospital for the last two days I didn’t harvest any and they appreciated the break. It felt good to kneel on the earth and forage. It’s as though you are stroking your hands through a horse’s mane, there’s a gentle swish swish swish as you leaf through the greenery to find the hidden ruby jewels. And then today my hands emerge red and sticky. Quite a few spoiled berries and others so ripe they almost dance right into your mouth. The gallinas were ecstatic, there were enough of the spoils for them all to enjoy, not just the greedy bullying Izzie. Though commandeering most of the spoils it didn’t deter her from dive bombing Gigi and Lorelei in order to tug strawberries right out of their beaks. When all the berries have disappeared all three stumble around looking for more, drunk on the juice, their beaks dripping ruby gore. 

This enforced rest from harvesting makes me realize how overzealous and parsimonious I’ve been. It’s better to wait a few days, the thieving critters are not massively on the attack this season, and the strawberries grow juicier by being given a few more days. They are almost as good as Tom Chino’s strawberries.

I have an image of some of Tom’s strawberries in a package that Alex Kershaw put together for me, mostly produce from Chinos farm stand, during an earlier treatment for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) back in 2013.

You can read more about Tom’s strawberries, sold at the farm stand, in my forthcoming book Diary of a Detour (in ch 14 ‘Strawberry/Fetish). Time passes, that was seven years ago, and here I am back in treatment again, but with newer and more focused drugs (and mercifully last year’s lung cancer has not so far returned). Alex must have been near the beginning of his PhD studies then and he has just graduated with a stunning dissertation and a remarkable film. He was my very last PhD advisee. Saddening for me, it marks the closing of an era. Working with graduate students you are always kept alert and learning new stuff. But these relationships endure. Today Alex sends me breath-taking images from his nine-day hike with our friend Dominic in the Southern Sequoia National Forest.

Here is Dominic in the forest, in the wilderness garden. 

Some might feel that it’s an act of appropriation, by a parochial suburban gardener, to use the term “garden” to describe this magnificent wilderness. We tend to think of ourselves as more educated than the early environmentalists and perhaps more respectful of the wild. The first Europeans to describe this landscape, and later environmentalists in the early twentieth century, committed to saving the Red Woods, used a familiar analogy; they described with amazement an environment that looked as though it had been gardened. Duh! It had been gardened. M. Kat Anderson in her remarkable book, Tending the Wild, describes thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and transplanting undertaken by Native Americans so that it was not in fact a pristine wilderness that early Europeans encountered but rather a carefully tended garden. Anderson’s book—by describing agricultural and gardening practices undertaken over aeons—rewrites much of the anthropological literature that considers precolonial Native Americans to have been hunter gatherers. In this move she is part of a more general international reconsideration of various indigenous peoples in their relationship to the land. In Australia Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating book, Dark Emu, contributes to this shift in perspective.

But back to my own small patch of earth, from which I have not strayed much in the last 10 days, nor indeed have I even been into the garden to do much more than potter. These infusions are draining energy, though mercifully have experienced no nausea. I have, now and then, however, stumbled out into the garden to gather what produce I could, and found it absorbing and therapeutic to concoct dishes. Today’s blog is thus more food oriented than usual, but the meandering path—literal or figurative—between the garden and kitchen, continues meandering.

I was craving color, freshness, simplicity. A simple thing to do is to make ricotta cheese. So I did that.  To the ricotta add color. Starting with a vision of the greenness of zucchini and the deep almost purply redness of raddichio I assembled the ingredients for a pasta

and then faded out of the picture

so Jeffrey threw it, elegantly, together

It is always a challenge, when you make ricotta, to work out what to do with the whey. I usually make soup, most often a cheesy white bean soup with rosemary, finished with a swirl of olive oil. Jeffrey did something new and utterly delicious. Here is his

Kaleh Joosh, a Persian soup, deeply colored and scented with turmeric

In the garden the beets are still growing. Some of them made it into a pot

and from the pot into my body; I imagine the borscht circulating like blood, helping along the chemicals to shrink the tumors, and countering the damaging effects of the chemicals by nurturing the body’s natural resilience.

Entering into the cascade of colors: tromboncini

with roast chicken, black rice and sumac sauce

This is the centercut tromboncini from Row 7 Seeds. While thrilled with the taste and texture, am very disappointed that so much of the fruit is dying on the vine as though it has blossom rot. Is it too crowded, not enough sun, not enough calcium? Anyway, enough are surviving and they are handsome, and the flowers huge and so inviting – not only to bees, I myself would love to turn into Thumbelina and crawl into that

velvety rich interior, waiting for the flower to close

enveloping me as the fruit grows

I wish there were more flores de calabaza, I wish I were back in Oaxaca, at the great market, scooping up handfuls

That sour cream and sumac sauce was left over from Ottolenghi’s turkey and zucchini burgers, from his and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. The burgers lasted for several meals. Here they are, cold, in a lunch plate

the lightly steamed beans are also from the garden, and lurking on the edge of the plate the remains of an eggplant (also from the garden) frittata

eggplants: what a delight it was to discover Ichiban, lurking among the marigolds

long and slender, pendulous and shiny

And talking of delight brings me back to Ross Gay whose poem gave the title to my last blog – A Small Needful Fact. Via the inestimable Maria Popova and her on-line journal Brainpickings I discovered a small book of essayettes by Gay, The Book of Delights. In the Preface he writes about how, finding something delightful one day, he decided to write a delight each day, for a year. He speaks of how the process of writing occasioned “a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle.” I loved reading about how he was arrested by the most unlikely things, how they provoked detailed attention and delight. In my on-again off-again relationship with Buddhism this is certainly one of the most rewarding suggestions i’ve been exposed to: to be alert to the world, the sensuousness of the natural world, and to let things speak, to refrain from talking back. Sometimes I am sympathetic to criticisms that see this as an escape from the real, a retreat from action and engagement, but in fact it is not an either-or situation. As Gay says, “My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.”

It is that time of year again – the time of the ubiquitous zucchini. It turns up everywhere. In Jeffrey’s ratatouille, each item cooked separately before being combined, and served with a tahini sauce; with butter fish which was on special at Catalina and Jeffrey smoked

It turns up in a salad of left-overs, and in its own glorious salad, just picked, shaved and tossed in lemon juice and olive oil.

Although I’ve been doing little that could be called cultivation in the garden i’ve been lucky in this time of retreat, of folding inwards, of slow breathing that new delights have appeared:

the first Juliet tomatoes

and strawberry figs

and shishito peppers, tossed in olive oil, charred and then salted when hot

But best of all, what we wait for all year, you wait until you can feel the ripeness as you feel the fruit and squeeze gently (sometimes, impatient, not so gently), and twist ever so slightly before it falls into your cupped palm. Spice Zee – It’s an ugly brute of a mutt – a cross between nectarine and plum – so ugly that it cannot be sold, and anyway it would spoil even before it reached the shops.

But what is the point of being a home gardener if you only grow varieties that are bred for commercial use rather than for taste? Best to bite into it over the sink and let it sit in your mouth for a few moments, let the flavor tickle all your taste buds and travel through your body, let the juice trickle over your chin.

It was John Clements who recommended Spice Zee to me, and I thank him for this and for so much else he has done to encourage me, and other San Diegans, in my gardening adventures. He is now horticulture manager of San Diego Botanic Garden, and I do so look forward to visiting, to seeing his innovations, when restrictions ease.

Over a week has passed since I began jotting this blog. Now it is Sunday again, time for a cup of tea and slow read. Tracy sent me a most delightful book by a Savannah friend, I Grew it My Way: How not to Garden by Jane Fishman. She also sent me some clippings from her grandmother’s succulents. These passed along seeds and cuttings — part of gardening life and sociality — are very precious, doubly so in this time of isolation. Sometimes what is passed along is not a literal seed or cutting, but an image or idea threaded into a story. For those who might have followed the fennel saga over several blogs, do take a look at Liz Sisco’s comment at the end of ‘One more day in the history of the U. S. of A.’ Whenever a comment appears at the end of a blog my heart races with pleasure – someone somewhere is reading! When a person I don’t know (I think a friend of Lesley Ruda’s), Fiona from London, wrote, “Today I’m putting up some Greek basil grown from seeds brought back last year from Antiparos island. A small triumph,” the communication felt as gratifying and celebratory as a plant exchange.

A Small Needful Fact. Sunday 7th June

A Small Needful Fact

Ross Gay

  • Is that Eric Garner worked
    for some time for the Parks and Rec.
    Horticultural Department, which means,
    perhaps, that with his very large hands,
    perhaps, in all likelihood,
    he put gently into the earth
    some plants which, most likely,
    some of them, in all likelihood,
    continue to grow, continue
    to do what such plants do, like house
    and feed small and necessary creatures,
    like being pleasant to touch and smell,
    like converting sunlight
    into food, like making it easier
    for us to breathe.

Before Brionna Taylor and George Floyd there was Eric Garner, and all those many many who went before and whose names we do not hear. They surely were spoken, those names, but did we hear those names?

I came to this poem yesterday, when it was quoted by Robin D.G. Kelley on a forum, The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point, hosted by the University of California Research Institute. I went into the zoom meeting feeling very low. Not for lack of gardening; on the contrary I’ve been working, hard, so that my muscles ache, hard so that exhaustion will eventually put me to sleep and block out all the despair and anxiety about the racial violence of the last 10 days, of the last 10 years, since 1619; about the pandemic; about my own health and the prospect of starting treatment this week with a series of very long infusions, no companions to sit by my side in the hospital. And the gardening seemed to make no difference to the look of things – all the weeding and pulling and thinning and trimming and pruning. It all looks more bare, less inviting. 

But the forum was fantastic, inspiring. 

Of course I know that spring in the garden is only possible because of this kind of stripping and weeding and nurturing. But for most of last week beauty seemed an abstract concept, it was hard to hold on to a vision of the future.

Rather than creating I seem to have been energetically engaged in activities like chopping down and reducing and shrinking. We had the dead tree 

at the back of the house

cut way back last week. This was a huge job. That tree, a kind of pepper tree, was one of the reasons I bought this house. The tree felt old, expansive and feathery, looming over the house, protecting it, spreading shade and providing support for an array of greenery and vines and flowers preferring coolness to the all-pervading heat. And birds sometimes made their nests in the high-up hidden recesses. But the tree has been slowly dying, though I kept believing it would make a come-back as each year it would tuft out on the extremity of one or two. boughs.

But as it became clear that it was really dead

it became a danger to the house, and also it dropped a sticky black sooty substance over the washing line. So we did the deed. Though I could not bring myself to cut it to the ground and yank it from the soil. So this is what we have 

I think it’s a beautiful shape, it still gives support, it is not so much a ghost as a testament to the after-life of trees. Yet I know that this is sentimental. It would be better to plant another tree in its place, to watch new life and greenery emerge. Part of me feels guilty, doubly so since this is not the first tree I have had cut down or removed. Seven years ago we removed a tree in what became the white garden so that

I could plant a mandarin in its place

The Hispanic guys who cut down that tree, before they began, linked arms, formed a circle and said a prayer. They told me they prayed for their own safety but also to honor the life of the tree.

I know now that I have to do more than make up for the loss of this tree – the loss is not just ours but a tiny loss for the whole planet. I have planted quite a few fruit trees in the front yard where I envisage an urban orchard taking shape, nourished by the grey water system installed prior to planting – a nectaplum, a nectarine, a pomegranate, a Surinam cherry, blueberries, a mandarinquat, an Australian finger lime, a curry leaf bush, and a persimmon. There are no fruit trees planted on the nature strip, though I have been half planning to expand the orchard across the public pathway. At the moment there is a duranta planted to contrast with the Altissima rose, a deep red single rose, that rhymes with one that grows against the house, outside our bedroom

I was inspired by a glorious site of intermingling red and purple at a wonderful Nursery that used to exist in Vista. The purple was provided by a butterfly bush, and so I planted one but it did badly in that spot, too leggy, not enough bloom. And so the duranta

In the forum, The Fire This Time, Angela Davis, by far the most famous person there – so many years of engaged activism, writing, teaching – was so unassuming, so gracious and deferential to the other panelists. And she was hopeful. Quietly she stressed the possibility of change in this moment, of the need to make alliances across political groups, to not think of this country in isolation as a special case, to be attuned to international resonances and possibilities for connection. Of course this moment will not last, she said, but the promises will and we must hold on to and act on those promises.

As my small orchard has been slowly taking shape – each year the little trees grow a bit and we harvest a few more fruit – I’ve been feeling pleased, even rather self-satisfied, prone to preening even. 

Then I’m caught up short by Lab Girl. At the end of her book Hope Jahren urges everyone who has any space, on owned or rented property, to plant a tree, just one tree and to resist the desire to make it a fruit tree. Make it something stronger and longer lasting. “If you do own the land it is planted on,” she writes, “create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down.”

Flooded with remorse I know I should have been more attentive to my deceased tree when it was still alive. But you can always teach an old dog new tricks (am thinking of including a small aside in the blogs called something like “the dog’s box” – mistakes I have made and new things I’m learning late in life. Like, for instance thinking I might get kabocha squash from some seeds sprouted in the compost, only to learn from Nan Sterman yesterday on the San Diego Gardener Facebook page that such seeds generally won’t produce true to type). But there is always the future. I will relinquish my plan for more fruit trees on the nature strip, I will choose carefully, first from what the city offers, to find trees suitable for the spot (the tricky part being finding trees that will not shade the garden in the crucial part of the day), or maybe I will even have to replace the brugmansia in the white garden with a proper tree, not necessarily with white flowers. Plus ca change. 

I’ve been lucky this week to receive some wonderful garden images from afar. I can’t reproduce them all here because of my limited skills with technology, but it made my phone buzz to see Helen Barnes’s maple in full autumnal splendor in Melbourne; Judy and Tracy are new to gardening but not to image formation.

This is Judy’s Australian hellebore

and here is Tracy in her new Wallaroo hat, watering her exotic (to us, in a semi-arid zone) Savannah garden                  

In Zimbabwe my very old friend Annette says that apart from the native trees few plants have survived the drought in her garden. She sometimes writes to me at 2 a.m, awake and haunted by the political persecution in the country. But during the day she says her favorite procrastinatory activity is to have her coffee on the verandah watching the birds and a small rat polishing off the mhunga (millet) on the bird feeder. Then she is in heaven. 

Of course I worry about her and other friends in Zim and in fact the whole country, facing the pandemic under circumstances hardly imaginable here. But when I do a bit of research on how African countries are coping with COVID-19 I’m knocked off my perch. In fact, thus far, many African countries – those countries we are so used to feeling sorry for – have coped remarkably well. My latest bulletin (25th May) on the political situation in Zimbabwe reports that the number of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases is 56, and the death toll remains at 4. Senegal, a nation of 16 million, by May 15 had only 30 deaths, each death acknowledged individually by the government, and condolences paid to the family, as reported in The Guardian May 21 by Afua Hirsch (“Why are Africa’s coronavirus successes being overlooked?”). Many Sub-Saharan and East African countries present similar profiles (not alas South Africa). Of course figures can change dramatically in the course of weeks and even days, but the significant thing is that these countries have not experienced the exponential increase in confirmed cases and deaths that we have seen in some European countries and the USA. There is much speculation about why, but in the end the concensus seems to be that it does not have to do with geography or climate, it has simply to do with an early and centrally organized (clear leadership) response.  These countries are mostly poor, they do not have extensive medical resources, but they shut down early and declared states of emergency even, in some instances, before there were any known cases. They worked creatively to track and to test. Why? 

Because they know what epidemics look like

During the Ebola crisis health workers in many of these countries were trained by disease-surveillance experts from the West, particularly from the U.S. C.D.C.. The irony is that the U.S. failed to follow the very protocols it had advocated. The reasons why are many, but a good part of it is that 

for the West epidemics were seen as something that happened elsewhere

 Because they reacted so slowly the medical systems of affluent white countries were soon overwhelmed, whereas many much poorer countries coped remarkably well with far few resources

The long-term view though is not necessarily optimistic. The West has sucked away skilled medical workers, and public health resources are meager in poor countries. If and when the virus escalates it will be devastating for a country like Zimbabwe, already so beleaguered.

Friends near and far. After seeing Kipps, my oncologist, on Tuesday Jeffrey and I decided to celebrate new more efficacious drugs rather than weep and wail, and so we made what for me was the first foray into the wider world, apart from hospitals

to have a distance lunch with Steve, and see his garden

We swung by our friends Jenny and Mike Eastwood who opened a café, Smallgoods, in La Jolla, just on the eve of the shut down. They sell fabulous American artisan cheeses and can tell you all about where they come from, how processed, by whom. Likewise with the cured meats they carry. They have been inventive – a farm sets up a stand twice a week outside their shop with fruit and vegetables, and they are supporting their farmers market colleagues by selling an amazing range of products.

For our picnic we got the best sandwiches imaginable made by Mike. We left too with some fresh and creamy buffalo milk mozzarella  to go with our second Flamme.

Steve’s garden at Stephanie’s house is like a Mediterranean vision.

Here he is cutting me some lemons  

Yesterday, Sunday, was another day of massive protests across the country. Something significant has shifted; as Angela Davis pointed out: where many people would say, a few years back, All lives matter (ie why black lives especially?) now you see the slogan “All lives will only matter when black lives matter.”

It is such a relief, after the horrific Trumpeting that goes on day and night, so heartening to see the ground swell, to see the crowds. I was wary, given my state of health, to risk being in crowds but Jeffrey went on his bike and came back with fabulous stories and images

Here he is, just returned, behind the Hollyhock which was on the verge of blooming in an earlier post

Buoyed up, we decided to watch the final episodes of Hollywood , a pretty cheesy mini-series, often drowning in the syrupy sauce of its own mawkish liberalism. But I loved it, for turning the tables on the ‘what if’ genre. Most ‘what if ‘ fictions are dystopian and run along the lines of ‘what if Hitler won the war?’ (recently we saw on TV the adaptation of Philip Roth’s The War Against America). Taking a very different tac Hollywood rewrites history in a utopian register. Spoiler alert coming up. It asks: What if a black writer could have had his name credited on a Hollywood production in the forties, what if gay actors could come out and still be stars, what if Anna May Wong got the part she deserved, what if a film could have been made with a black woman playing the romantic lead, and what if such a film cleaned up the Oscars in 1948? It mixes fact and fiction, real names with imagined characters. It’s hocus pocus. But it’s extravagantly performative and provokes us to ask:

How is history being written today? What if today the US of A could be a better place? how can we act on the promise of the moment?



Just one more day in the history of the U.S. of A. Sunday, May 31, 2020

Today I cannot write, I cannot write today breezily about beauty today. Today of all days. More black people killed by the police, a police force undisciplined, a citizenry complicit, a president stirring the volatile pot. Today I cannot write because the world is in turmoil, there are protests and riots all over the country over the death of George Floyd, including in La Mesa, just down the road. This turmoil recalls earlier uprisings, for instance after the Rodney King murder in Los Angeles. So why today? Today, alas, is not special, it is just one day in the life of this country, one day in the ongoing saga of legitimized daily deadly racism. One more day in which I turn to the garden to avoid the larger world.

A friend, younger than I, asks me, Did you know Lesley, have you ever encountered such hatred, such political evil? I have, I grew up in Rhodesia. But I still cannot grasp this or face up to it fully. I ask another friend, older than I: Where have they come from all the Trumpistas? She was a red diaper baby and answers me with a certain air of fatigue: the U.S. has always been two countries, this is nothing new. What is new, I think, is that Trump has lifted the lid and allowed free expression to the racism and violent hatred of that other country. Other, that is, to protected white liberals like me. But nothing new today.

Just one more day in the history of the U.S. of A.

40 million out of work, nearly 100,000 dead from the coronavirus, the economy crashing, police killing black people, cities burning in protest.

Just another day.  

So I pull myself out of the morass of incapacitating despair, the oppressive sense of futility, grab the shears that have long blades, and lay into the Mexican sage. Its bloom is over, just a few stragglers popping purple. It’s energetic and exhausting work, but eventually the huge tuft is lopped low. 

The edges still have to be wrenched out of the soil to prevent spreading, and the whole thing has to be cut lower.

And then in no time the stalks will grow back, the lovely greyish green foliage will emerge, softening the scene of devastation, like fur on a cat

and then, eventually, there will be new flowers. The white agrostemmas will hopefully reseed – they form a slow dancing partnership with the Mexican sage.

So this is why I garden. We live in dystopian times. I do not necessarily think there is hope, that things will get better in this country. But in the garden there is both the possibility of escaping and the simple fact of renewal. And writing? Who knows. To connect … that is an aspiration, and Tershia tells me, when we talk on the phone today, you write in order to find out what you think. But really who knows.

You garden and you cook things grown – knowingly or by chance – in the garden in order to be surprised. And because the seasons change. Sometimes those things, seasonal change and surprise, occur together. Like yesterday. Even though I had been peering at the cucumbers everyday I’d failed to see summer come barreling in – there were two kinds of ripe cucumber, two kinds of zucchinis, an orange tomato, apples, strawberries and shishito peppers (where were they hiding?).

From the garden to the plate, via the grill for some unfortunates.

The cucumber that looks as though it’s a pickling variety is actually the Row7 experimental, and after being grilled lightly was super tasty. The raw cucumber is green fingers, a small Persian variety. To eat super fresh cucumber, to bite into its crispness, well there is nothing like it, but it tasted simply of cucumber without the flavor of the experimental. The tomato is Flamme and the taste is heavenly. The grilled zucchini, cocozelle, loses its stripes when heated. Shishito – oh shishito we have been eating you frozen from last season and had forgotten how exquisite is the taste of fresh charred shishito tossed lightly in olive oil and salt. At the last minute I remembered basil, both sweet Italian and the zesty purple.

Luckily, earlier in the week I had made chocolate financiers (from a recipe given to me by Kristen Gallerneaux) though they are in the shape of small muffins. There was a little cream saved from the top of the bottle of Strauss milk I used to make yoghurt

so the strawberries did not have to fret and whimper, neglected and ignored

And what of the apples? you ask.

Well, it was not a great crop this year, they are rather small and the birds pecked away. But talk about juicy!

most of them, however, were lost to a villainous interloper who munched greedily, and after a bite or two, simply discarded its stolen meal, dropping it in the dirt

Who could it be? I put my money on The Squirrel, but it could equally have been The Rat or The Possum or The Skunk. Jeffrey laughs at the way I individualize the enemy, kind of incorporating them into the menagerie, along with The Chickens. I put my money on The Squirrel because it taunts me, enjoys sqaurreling, even poses, as though it were the Arc Angel Gabriel looking down on a world of paltry sinners, to have its picture taken.

I know it’s not a great picture, but it does constitute evidence. And talking of not-great pics there is another one but I’m going to risk posting it, because it made my heart crumble

the tiniest green bean emerging out of a purple flower

It is not so easy, though, to capture the crumbling of a heart

Nor to convey the anxiety attending scans, scanxiety we call it. This week I had to go to the hospital for scans for both the CLL (chronic leukemia) and the lung cancer. I more-or-less know what to expect from the CLL scans as blood tests have been a guide to how the disease is progressing. I know that new treatment is on the cards. But what really frightens me is waiting for the results of the lung cancer scans, I’m terrified of it returning like the creature from the black lagoon. And while my other hospital visits have been orderly and pretty stress-free the waiting room in radiology was a nightmare of disorganization. Although there was some tape on the floor it didn’t make any sense; social distancing seemed like a game of chance, many patients oblivious of the rules.

Unlike Jack the Dog in Tucson, who seems oblivious of the rattle snake in his garden, but is actually alert to distancing protocols

So a special mollifying treat was in order after the scans – something both luxurious and comforting. Risotto of course. We had two gifts waiting to be pulled out of the freezer: fish stock made by Heike, and some scallops from William next door, Mrs Tam’s grandson. Add to that a lurking lobster tail (from whence that hails I know not), and some chives from garden

and you have a seafood risotto

and water cress (from our farmers box), pear and walnut salad

The squirrel is not the only interloper. Every garden is full of things-out-of-place, most obviously weeds and marauding critters. But sometimes you can be taken by surprise. Imagine my astonishment when I went to check on the white foxgloves and saw this

A foxglove this color grew in the bed before it was a white garden and perhaps a few seeds have been lying dormant all these years and with a little cultivation sprang to life. Or perhaps I planted three, not two foxgloves, and by mistake a nursery worker included this beauty though at the time it was just a little green plantlet.

And what about fennel? Fennel totally lack discrimination, cannot be confined to a single bed, will lay down with any other plant – foxgloves or salvia or even tomatoes. One of the things I didn’t mention when I indulged in a fennel rave a few blogs back is that fennel supports the Anise Swallowtail, a large black and yellow butterfly with orange eyespots and blue markings on its hind wings. In the warmer southern parts of its range, such as in Southern California, the adults can be seen year-round if they have suitable plants to feed on. While it is relatively easy to keep the adult, or butterfly, happy with many kinds of suitable flowers, the caterpillar is much more picky. It will make do with carrots and parsley, and sometimes citrus trees if nothing else is on offer, but its absolutely favorite food is fennel.

And then there is the itinerant pumpkin. Or maybe it is a squash. It started growing next to the compost bin in the vegetable garden and draped itself over the bin (so Jeffrey was unable to get at the compost) and started twining its tendrils around the grape arbor. I tenderly repositioned it to get a bit more sun and to have its own path rather than sharing with humans so now it is going along the back of the shishito bed, in front of the apples, and I anticipate it will then go back on the ground and wend its way toward the Greek fig.

My fervent hope is that it will turn out to be a kabocha which i grew two years ago, but more likely is from some seeds in the compost, perhaps butternut squash which would not be such a bad thing. That’s if it survives at all. When these orphan seeds start growing they do not think about how large they will become and how hard it will be to find the amount of sunlight needed.

All week, as we worked away in the garden, as we went to the hospital, as we muttered in fury and wept in despair about the state of the nation and the planet, we were looking forward to the weekend, to the moment of unwrapping our farm duck. At last that moment came. This time I tried David Tanis’s recipe for roast duck with orange and ginger. Apart from the cooking method and time I followed his instructions and it turned out crispy, succulent, and flavorful. But just as pleasurable as the eating was

the experience of being in the kitchen as the duck cooked, of inhaling the scents, especially the smell of Chinese five spice.

Tanis suggested mashed butternut squash to go with the duck and as there was a good half of one in the fridge I complied. I love to mash this squash with walnut oil and smashed up walnuts

and since the sage in the garden is abundant and begging to be picked i added a good handful. It went very well.

The next day I made stock from the bones

and used some of this together with the left over glaze to make a sauce, which we had with the remaining duck on polenta

Finished up with a light cleansing salad, using the rest of the delicious experimental cucumber, slices of apple and avocado, festooned with borage and canary nasturtium flowers.

The poor climbing canary nasturtium is being crowded out now by the yellow grape tomato, and many of the weedy nasturtiums that grow everywhere are fading. They are almost by definition out-of-place, and yet you might think that every-place is their-place, even the kitchen. You can eat them, leaves and flowers, or just plonk them in a vase and feel, for a moment, happy.

Earnest, Anxious, Envious and Boastful. Sunday 24th May

The blog today is dedicated to George Freeman Winfield, who I did not know, but he grew things, and he died.

Eleanor sends me a photo of her first harvested green beans and a tomato, Lucky Tiger, planted at exactly the same time as mine. I bought us each a plant at Tomatomania, and mine hardly has any flowers yet, let alone fruit. Lucky Tiger is beautiful and she assures me he was tasty. This provokes in me a response of unmitigated envy and I can hardly bring myself to congratulate her. But, steeling myself and acknowledging how childish is this response I generously ask her if I may post it. I go searching for the photo and find that it exists nowhere on my computer. Somehow it has managed to erase itself.

Refusing to play tit for tat I don’t tell Eleanor that I have harvested my first zucchini. But let me humbly offer here am image of my tromboncini. Remember

this is what it was like not so long ago

and now

Come in closer and take a look at the fruit

This is the new variety bred by Row7 Seeds for flavor. I have high expectations, but must beware to pick the squash before they

get out of control, as a few years ago (pre-Row7)

I am always so earnest, anxious, envious or boastful about my garden. I wish I could cultivate sprezzatura; this blog should be a kind of playground for developing that kind of studied nonchalance, but somehow my baser instincts rise, unsummoned, to the surface.

Actually envy can be a great motivator in the garden. Nothing like a bit of nudging from the green eyed monster to move one along, to spur experimentation. Let’s face it, though, malice frequently shadows envy. And if you throw in a bit of money much can be achieved. Consider the case of Louis X1V who was so envious of his finance minister’s grand garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte that he had the minister put in prison and proceeded to appropriate his architects, his gardeners, and over one hundred of his trees. Included in the appropriated  staff was Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie (Quintyne) who so famously developed the vegetable gardens and orchard at Versailles.

One of the vegetables that La Quintinie grew at Versailles was artichokes. This last season I replaced the cardoon on the nature strip with artichokes, but the plants are still small. We were lucky, however, to score an abundant gift of small artichokes that Steve gathered from the garden of a friend of his

it began like this

some were stewed in a silky sauce and tossed with favas and lemon zest

the rest were pared down to their hearts and double deep fried (!!!). They are meant to look like roses, their petals opening out. In that respect the dish was a failure, but tasted crunchy and like nothing else imaginable on this earth

Speaking of envy and jealousy in the garden brings Peggy Guggenheim to mind. She made a garden with one of her lovers, the English poet Douglas Garman. In her autobiography, Out of this Century, she unashamedly revealed that when he refused to marry her, “I went out into the garden and tore up his best flower bed. It contained many rare plants and I…hurled them over the fence into the field next door. It happened to be the coldest night of the year.”

She wasn’t really a great garden lover, or perhaps she was indeed the best kind of garden lover – when one of her grandsons asked her what she most liked to do, she replied, “The best thing is to make love in the garden.”

And talking of such things I have been doing a lot of tying up this last week

the fig trees for instance

You wouldn’t really call this espaliering. But you should have seen the mess before i disciplined them. This way we get fewer figs but I can grow three trees against the fence and still have room for other plants. It’s enough. If only they can be protected against the varmin this year.

and some refining of the tepees, to assist the cucumbers

While working on the figs my eye was caught by the delphinium. So slowly it opened, every day adding some blueness to the world. Now it is beginning to fade, but a new spire on the same plant is shooting up

You can see the borlotti beans at the base of the delphinium. One day they will catch up with Eleanor’s beans ….. and maybe overtake her …

A highlight of the week in the kitchen was our tapas night. We have been hoarding and anticipating this for months now. My dear friends Katie in Austen and Susan in Santa Cruz sent me a mighty gift certificate for my birthday from Zingerman’s. They sent this before my planned party but there was a mix up in the mail and by the time it arrived shelter-in-place was well underway. So as well as some wondrous cheeses I chose a selection of Portuguese canned seafood. When Lyndal was here from Australia for Christmas 2018 I gave Jeffrey a bottle of grey goose vodka which we sipped with blinis and salmon. So in memory of absent friends we kind of reprised that night (not having touched the vodka since), extending it into a tapas affair. I made the blinis but where all recipes say add caviar and creme fresh, we went with a more modest but equally delicious option.

the cheese cubes are feta that i made ages ago, preserved in olive oil and chiles, discovered at the back of the fridge and amazingly OK and tasty still. The smoked cod in olive oil – mmm.

peppers stuffed with calamari and other stuff. The vodka glass was part of a set, a gift from my friend Jennifer Kitchener, who long ago lived around the corner in Bondi, Sydney

Returning to work on the white garden:

see how that single white sweet pea is turning pink, and how the hollyhock is slowly lifting its head, thinking about blooming, against the sky and the sheets hung out to dry

and the two little Mexican lions; one has lost an ear amidst the rough and tumble of the white garden

Meanwhile the strawberries refused to slow down, so I made a quick emergency jarlet of jam, and even though there is nothing like a fresh strawberry the alchemy involved in jam making is always surprising and magical. This is how it goes:

from here

to here

with a few sprigs of rose geranium, and a few drops of rose water, it finally lands up here

In case you think I’ve been neglecting the front garden here are some snatches of spring, the last gasp really.

up close

those frilly shirley poppies

and here an unlikely mingling, of the wild – california poppy – with the domesticated – sombreuil rose

To extend the spring I got out the extension snippers Steve gave me for my birthday, started dead-heading and also snipping a few beauties out of reach

The next morning I woke with a very bad back. Moreover it looks like a lot of work for a minute reward. The bad back, however, was no doubt a result of obsession (not pausing to stretch) and an accumulation of many ill- advised gardening malpractices and maneuvers. But the reward was hardly insignificant:

And it lasted.

the same rose a few days later

So I took a day off gardening and made some cheddar and chive scones which we ate with Jeffrey’s cabbage and blue cheese soup (yes, we like cheese)

Today, as I finish this blog, it’s Monday, Memorial Day. The neighborhood is horribly quiet. Yesterday, across the front of the New York Times was blazoned a headline: U.S. Deaths Near 100,000. The rest of the page is filled with names and brief descriptions, because “They were not simply names on a list. They were us.” Only 1,000 names are recorded here, just 1% of the toll. Jeffrey rings a name for me: “George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne Vt, could make anything grow.”