“Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” Friday, July 24, 2020

Bad news is everywhere: streaming on your phone, the radio, delivered by your friends as though they’d discovered it, it’s on headlines everywhere and also in the small print, don’t forget the small print, it’s in the walls and on the floor and in the fridge. Lucinda Williams has a great song, “Bad News Blues” that captures perfectly the sense of paranoia one can experience in these times of escalating crisis. But she pushes the repetitive refrain into hyperbole so that disaster eventually morphs into hilarity. You can see and hear her play this song, in dialogue with Steve Earle. She introduces Bad News Blues by asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” I like even more the other song she performs as it’s more familiarly Lucinda Williams – “When the Way Gets Dark.” the refrain is “Don’t give up.”

While some are asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” others of us, gardeners that would be, are asking “what can be done about the plague of rats that is here already?” Murderous thoughts fuel my nights and days. I go out in the morning to discover they have chewed great holes in the bags I foolishly and laboriously tied around the bunches of black grapes, and have demolished the crop. 

I knew that this was likely to happen so why did I even try? I suppose because it sometimes seems like a bit of a crap shoot. They haven’t, for instance – so far –  gnawed through the bags protecting yellow and orange tomatoes. And they haven’t yet attacked the plastic clam shells. But perhaps this does not indicate color or taste preference so much as the fact that they have been obsessively absorbed in the project of demolishing the grape crop. Now that’s done, they will move on. My fear is that they will move on to the figs, first the strawberry figs, swelling and turning a deep purply pink, promising succulence

I’ve done enough research on rats to know that they are unrelentingly invasive. I wrote a little piece for a fabulously frightening on-line project that Anna Tsing (who wrote the wonderful Friction and The Mushroom at the End of the World) and a group of colleagues are about to launch, called Feral Atlas. In initial discussions I had with Anna she kept gently reminding me that I was adopting a typically Humanitstic position which goes something like: of course invasives are terrible but in the end equilibrium and balance prevail. She was interested in invasives that have really done irrevocable damage, most often damage initiated in the post industrial world and spread through the paths of empire and colonialism. Rats, I discovered, actually started migrating and wreaking havoc much earlier: on the first boats to sail between continents. And they have never stopped. The bottom line is this: it’s almost impossible to eradicate rats except on islands, small ones preferably, like the Edenic Ulva Island we visited on the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

But you can wage a vicious war that will eradicate their presence for a while. 

Of course they are not the only critters to threaten my little Eden, but they are the most difficult to contain. When Louis lent me his infrared camera last year three invasives were caught on film: Roxy our cat, the resident possum and a RAT. The video files are too large to download here, but here is Roxy occupying a wicking bed that has just been planted (more about wicking when I do a blog on water saving technologies and techniques).

You have probably wondered about the rather ugly structures that surround my raised beds in the vegetable garden. Not to mention the netting that in the past would often spoil a good photo. 

When I developed the veg garden and built the raised beds we were visited frequently by raccoons, as well as skunk and possums and squirrels, cats and chickens, some of which critters would get into the beds and create havoc

Some would eat the produce but on the whole they seemed more interested in digging up the grubs growing in the compost rich soil – they were just as happy with what they found in the pathways as in the beds. Not so chickens and cats and raccoons. So I concocted these rather ugly structures over which I would lay netting (until the plants grew too tall). Basically, it’s plumbing tubes and elbows. It would have been a good idea to paint the starkness of the white plastic, as I saw done in the water-wise garden so that the structures merge more into the landscape. In recent years I’ve stopped laying the netting. My dream is, if say by some miraculous means my next book made a bit of money, to build the kind of enclosure that Nan has – protecting her whole veg garden, so that you can walk in, and so I think can butterflies and other pollinators fly in. Though what about rats, I wonder. They devour produce and can weasel their way through any barricade. Rats rats rats – they gnaw at my fruit, they gnaw at my dreams. 

The chickens had a small run attached to their house and so we would let them out during the day to freely range and create havoc. They were deliriously happy

tossing the compost about

sneakily purloining tomatoes

and pulling up tender plants in the veg garden. So the structures kept them out, but still they were in heaven, churning up the white bed, and scattering mulch all over the backyard.

Eventually Matthew built a lovely run along the side fence, to extend el palacio de las princesas. My old beloved cat Elvis is buried in there and his spirit watches over the gallinas, just as he himself watched over them when they were young

“where did they come from? Whose land is this? … you have to admit, though, more tasty looking than rats …”

Rat cake, rat sorbet and strawberry tart with rats in it – these are some of the delicacies offered in a gruesomely hilarious Monty Python sketch. See if you can detect the rats in any of these salads we’ve been making to keep cool.

I first saw this salad – combining sweet, sour, spicy and herbal flavors – made by the Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam on Milk Street TV. Mango and avocado with cherry tomatoes make a stunning combination, marinated and tossed in Rof, a mixture of parsley, scallions, chilies and garlic. I got the layering confused here, so you can’t really see the avocado. But believe me, it is a wonder to behold, and to to taste

celery, fennel, radish, apple, celery leaves

smashed cucumber

and here comes that tromboncini again

Mulling maliciously over the nuances of rat sorbet I muse as well on the question of whose land this is. Who has rights to the fruits of the land? Why should humans and domesticated animals be accorded greater respect and a bigger bounty than the feral and urban-wild creatures that roam far and wide and no doubt know the landscape better than any of us? I’ve been imagining how this land once was, before the Spaniards came, who lived here, who roamed and cultivated the land. Also, what will it become? If I die soon and J chooses to move, can I ensure that a like-minded person will buy this garden-with-a-house-attached, that they will keep alive the trees and nurture chickens and understand how grey water works and how water moves through the soil? Then I catch myself: What preposterous pretension. Once gone you have no say, why try and control the future, let it be, let it be whatever it is in other hands. And yet, and yet. History, the history of land, the association – not necessarily ownership – between people and creatures and land and place, this matters. And though we cannot change the past we can try to better understand it and thereby wiggle the future. 

I know the Cuyamaca Indians lived in this region, and some still do. I do not, however, know the no-doubt gristly details of how their land (of which my land, my garden, is now a part) was appropriated. I attend occasional workshops or lectures on Cuyamaca medicinal plants, for instance, but to my shame I do not know which particular group lived around what is now the city of San Diego. And about the rest of the U.S. I’m as ignorant as most of the population about the Native American heritage, and the land that was stolen from the various First Nations.

A few years ago Jeffrey and I drove to Marfa and stopped overnight in the town of Wilcox so that we could visit the Chiricahua National Monument, a spectacularly mountainous area composed of pinnacle-like rock formations. We knew a little about the Chiricahua Apache Indians, but not much. I’m reading at the moment Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a marvelously intricate novel in which one of the characters is researching the Apache Nation. I’m provoked, now, to read more. To visit the Chiricahua mountains again, with greater respect for the history of the land.

The town of Wilcox now faces different sorts of battles, battles over water. There is only ground water in the region, and the water is running out. This is primarily because of mega agricultural corporations which have moved in and can afford to sink bigger and deeper wells than locals in the town and small farmers. Now only the aquifer remains, but for how long?

While there is no simple causal link between The Apache wars and the Water Battles of today, there are nevertheless threads that criss cross and shape the environmental landscape in knotted ways.

It has always rather shocked me the indifference shown by North Americans to their settler colonial history. On tours there is seldom a formal acknowledgement made of the original inhabitants and custodians of the land. This is now pro-forma in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Of course one could, and I know some people do, append to their signature on emails and articles and posts a statement saying they honor the original Owners of the land they are on. Something stops me from doing this. I’m not entirely sure what. Perhaps it is because of a sense that it has to be more than gestural and an individual declaration of good will, it needs to arise out of a collective engagement with the past, and with the surviving communities. We need to confront the thorny truths, we need as a nation (or even as a state, or a county to start with) to make reparations, to acknowledge sovereignty, to acknowledge the genocide. Perhaps, though, I am being horribly fastidious. Anything that raises consciousness is going part of the way. I could add a line or two to my garden placard that says This is a Certified Habitat Friendly Garden, that would say something like: This Garden is made on land taken from the Cuyamaca Indians. But let’s face it, the Garden placard is somewhat fraudulent: all you have to do to get one is fill in a form asserting what a good person you are and how you respect the habitat, and hand over $20. And so too, good liberal sentiments, are often fraudulent, motivated more by wish fulfillment rather than active engagement.

Strawberry tart with rats in it – that is a definite yard-to-table possibility. But first I have to gorge on all the foods that will be verboten in a few days when the low potassium diet, dictated by the new drug regime, kicks in. Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes that fall out of the sky and into our laps, is on the danger list. And so an itching began, uncharacteristically, for a robust meaty tomato sauce with pasta.

I crumbled hot Italian sausages, producing a good fond, added fennel and fennel seeds to the usual sofrito, upended the remains of a bottle of red wine, and when it was cooked down stirred in a bit of tomato paste and loads of fresh tomatoes, a few bay leaves and a stalk of rosemary picked from the garden. Let it cook down slowly into a darkly unctuous sauce. It was deeply satisfying and I don’t believe I will feel the itch again – for at least a year.

But the best meal of the week did not come from our garden or kitchen. My gardening friend Connie, who lives close by but whom i haven’t seen since the lock-down, came across a cache of vidalia onions – enough for two quiches! So we got one. Caramelized onion laid over the most flaky buttery pastry, and topped with goats cheese and roasted garlic. I have made a lot of quiches in my time, but never one this glorious.

Look. Imagine the taste. Say no more.

To mellow out a scary day. Sunday July 19.

My feeble excursions into the garden in these last weeks, luckily when there is less to do than at some times of the year, have been mainly to harvest and give extra water where needed (to the Astia zucchini at front in the pot, for instance. Incidentally this is a great variety for small gardens, and pots – it grows in a circle, doesn’t meander, unlike the heirloom Cocozelle, which, being stripey, is so pretty but also greedy, stealing space, ploughing into squashing and flattening all other meeker plants in its path), to tie up bunches of grapes and tomatoes to protect them from the beasts. 

Or to put that more correctly, I should say: to preserve the fruit for US. No doubt the critters see this as stealing fruit from them. And if they could tie us up in bags they would.

Talking of this relation between animals and humans, between the wild and the domesticated, or the wildness within the gates of domesticity, within urbanity, here is a most unusual and unnerving novel about species interactions: The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay. Although written before the pandemic it eerily prefigures our current situation. Set in Australia it begins on a wild life preserve just as an epidemic is striking the country and everyone is masking up. A most peculiar effect of the virus is that those who are afflicted acquire the ability to hear animals speaking. They do not speak, though, through their mouths, but meaning emanates through their bodily parts and smells and sweat. Is that meaning immediately accessible? No. And so communication is not automatic or serendipitous. The novel charts the relationship between a foul talking drinking fornicating grandmother and her kin, which gradually narrows down to a Dingo she saved as a pup. Their journey is extraordinary, slowly the tables flip as the dog cares for and guides the increasingly sick woman, but as the role of carer is adopted so too many of the attributes that come with The Carer are put into play: domination and punishment as well as patronage. Remarkably unsentimental, the novel – even through its humor – explores a larger-than-human world and casts a grim spotlight on human presumption. Although it is a very different kind of novel, it echoes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.

It was Helen Barnes who recommended The Animals to me and who also sent this image from Melbourne, which she described as

grevillea robina doing ikebana all by itself.

Though it’s winter in Melbourne, here summer has really arrived. It’s hot and dry, all the spice zees and all the nectarines have been eaten and the strawberries, exhausted by their own fructosity, are slowing their production.

Though there are some last gasps of strawberry magic:

And This is Jerrelle Guy’s strawberry spoon cake. The recipe popped up out of nowhere and made a beeline for my taste buds, so I made it immediately and wow is it good. Especially if you like puddings, as it’s a kind of hybrid cake-pudding.

See the curly crispy bits around the edge and the sense of sogginess it exudes

It’s a very friendly recipe, easily accommodating of variations and substitutions. I used quite a lot more strawberries and also, before popping it in the oven, poured over the top a bit of cream remaining in the fridge.

Way to go – with ice cream

The front garden is transformed from the bountiful colorful and variegated splendor of spring. Though streaks of color remain: 

between Peggy’s agapanthus and Steve’s sunflower the little frog keeps watch

and the bee works away

these photos were actually taken a few weeks ago and by now that sunflower is dusty and deadish looking but the seeds remain – for the birds.

And the fennel, sprawling and bushy now, remains for the caterpillars, but also to provide structure for other plants to grow through

Some mornings I wake early, as the sun is coming up and the air is cool and am tempted to throw on my gardening clothes and get out there; but the temptation is weak, the serpent in the garden of Eden is somnolent, and so am I and so I slither back to bed. Then, a few hours later, I rise to face the day, though by then it is too hot to work in the garden.

Breakfast, slow and lazy – minimal maybe if you are feeling slender and the day ahead looks streamlined, or extravagant and luscious if you need to be tickled into the day – breakfast always slow and lazy, this is one of the perks of an involuntary slowing down. It’s also a way of keeping the terror at bay. 

That chevre I wrote about in the last blog, well it turned up everywhere, in many guises

on toast, unsullied by any accompaniment, its creamy tartness opening your sleepy senses to the world

with honey, on fig and walnut soda bread

Through my absorption of cooking shows during the last month I discovered (among many other useful things) soda breads as a quick and easy solution for those breadless days when I have either forgotten or been too fatigued to make dough in the evening.

here’s s seedy one

And here, heaven on a stick: freshly made strawberry jam with fresh chèvre on delicious toast. The textures: crunch and slinkiness, chunkiness and sticky sweetness.

Chèvre, however, isn’t the only cheese in the world

Some days fruit and tomatoes and a few varieties of cheese – oozy and chalky alike – is all it takes for breakfast

to mellow out a scary day

and when you want nothing but simple perfection: Paul Robeson on an oat cake

Then there’s burnt cheesecake. What a revelation! Nilo baked this for us

I remember Nilo as a little kid, and his sister Sabina, at a Thanksgiving dinner, intrigued by the food and amused by the whimsy. When we are hosting Thanksgiving we usually construct a meal around a single seasonal fruit or vegetable – every drink or dish has somehow to contain or refer to the chosen item. That year it was quince. And now he is an adult, cooking and experimenting with all sorts of ingredients, spinning tradition.

On Sunday mornings a different sort of breakfast, when Jeffrey delivers endless variations on the humble egg. Here he lets the Persian tomato rice star.

This came as a gift from Nilo’s Dad, Brian, and Parastou. She knows I love her rice, particularly the burnt crispy bits.

This is what it looked like when it arrived

oops, slight mishap as it was unmolded

but somehow the mishap makes more evident the contrast of crispy exterior and fluffy inside. It lasted us through many meals.

Part of me feels fraudulent, being the recipient of such generosity, when I am not so ill or bereft of food. But a much larger part of me feels pure delight when these unexpectedly rich tokens of friendship appear, dishes so lovingly prepared, dishes I would not make myself. I have been very drained going through this initial phase of the one-year treatment for the return of the chronic lymphocytic leukemia, particularly since most of last year was taken up with treatment for lung cancer. It sometimes seems never ending just like Covid-19. And now I’m about to embark on the next phase, adding in the next drug which for the first 5 weeks involves an intensive blood testing regime (lots of trips to the hospital), and a low potassium diet for the whole year. No potato, avocado, oranges, white beans and countless other things. Millions of people manage this diet as it’s what people on dialysis have to opt for, so I dare so I will too, though it will test my imaginative limits. Hopefully I can keep up the colorful pics! In the next week, before D Day, I plan to gorge on all the forbidden foods. This morning for breakfast: egg and bacon accompanied by utterly delicious fried potatoes with tarragon and rosemary left over from last night’s dinner. Jeffrey eventually revealed the secret ingredient that secured that deliciousness: duck fat!

One day the whole Alsidnawi family turned up, all in their masks and bearing beautiful flowers, a bottle of Holy water from the Holy Land, and a complex perfumed dish of stewed okra that Merfet knows I crave, as well as her distinctive Syrian rice with vermicelli.

But the greatest gift was to see them all, albeit at a distance. Huda calls regularly but I miss her and her sisters and parents. Neither J nor I have family in this country, but they have become kin. To actually share a physical space of laughter, even if muffled by masks, is amazingly energizing.

That round squash on the plate is my attempt to instantiate a childhood memory from Zimbabwe. We called them cricket ball marrows for obvious reasons, but such a name does not exist in the seed catalogues of today. These are called Eight Ball and I’m guessing they are a hybrid development of those childhood squash. We would eat them boiled, cut in half and filled with butter, salt and pepper. Describing them brings the taste to my lips! Eight ball are pretty nice but not as nutty and the squash are not as fleshy. But this might be about memory and the tricks it plays. Do any of my Zim friends remember these squash?

Thank you too to Doris for the mujadara; Marivi for the whimsical concoction, looked like a chocolate cake until you cut into it and it was bright orange – a carrot cake covered in ganash; Nancy for flowers and Lesley R for the marvelous Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

It is with some sadness that I end today. Two deaths: an old friend in Australia, Tom O’Regan, and the other a person I did not know personally but who has been an inspiration, a public figure so impressive in his dedicated “staying with the trouble”: the great John Lewis. May his legacy live on, and guide us in the days ahead.

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.”

Fuck the bread … the bread is over. Sunday May 17th.

There are days when I don’t get out of my pajamas, don’t brush my hair, hardly speak a word to any living being. Though I am able to enter into muttering and grunting exchanges with inanimate things like my laptop, the stove, cookery books. Some books are good for reading, other books are best for hurling across a room, aimed either at someone’s head or simply hurled for pleasure, for the gratification to be derived from launching something heavy into the lightness of air, listening to the whoosh, followed by a thump, thump, thump.

It is best, on such days, not to look in the mirror. On such days, when bumping into the mirror, I either go back to bed and pull the blankets over my head, or go out into the garden. There lies salvation, so you might think. Not always. Last week I came up against the dishevelment and chaotic overgrown

disaster

of the white garden

“White Garden” is a grand and preposterously inflated term for what is merely a large bed in the middle of the backyard, between our offices and the chicken run. I was originally inspired by the idea of the alluring night scents of such famous gardens as Vita Sackville West’s at Sissinghurst in England. I’ve written about the development of “my” white garden in the book I began many years ago and am just picking up again, Gardening in a Strange Land. Suffice to say now that this “garden” was a misconceived project in many ways, but one that I have never quite been able to relinquish. Like those grand passions that have seized and consumed and derailed one from sensible existence, and that somehow won’t go away, even after years of therapy and self reproachement and rapprochement too, even then they won’t go away.

When the chickens were let loose to roam the the backyard, before their run was built, they laid waste my little oasis of gentility. After they were confined by the stylish run that Matthew built, rather than seizing the opportunity to begin again, differently, I couldn’t resist, I just couldn’t stop myself from buying six packs of tiny white flowering plants and even now and then a four incher foxglove, and I even inveigled Steve to start me some white hollyhock. I began dreaming.

But neglect turned my dreams to dust. So I turned my back on the white garden and gazed upon the mass of Brazilian plume flowers

Jeffrey keeps reminding me (ironically, but i can detect an undertone of alarm) of what his mother would have said – that in these times (behind closed doors, unseen, unsocialized) we must not go to pieces. Or as Alexandra Fuller’s family would have said, in her marvelous Zimbabwe memoir, Let’s Not go to the Dogs Tonight.

So I pull myself together, reach for the beautiful ceremonial green bowls hidden away from quotidian life on a top shelf, and make a dish of marinated egg yolks with sushi rice.

And along with it:

steamed bok choy

The bowls, combined with the use of chopsticks, seem to introduce a modicum of etiquette into the low-key savagery into which the house- and-garden has descended.

We eat the sushi and eggs while watching Baby Face. Barbara Stanwyck, in this gratifyingly wicked pre-code movie (i.e. before censorship) plays a woman on the make, who manages to rise in the world by seducing and using, with immense joi de vivre, one poor man after another. She tries reading Nietzsche, but tosses him aside in favor of a manual on Etiquette.

my I-phone caught her in the act

Baby Face revives me, and I get to work on the white garden. The bulbs – mainly different kinds of Paperwhites and some ornithogallum – are gorgeous when they bloom. But then the long green leaves loll and languish all over the bed and can’t be cut yet because as long as they are green they are supplying nutrients to the bulbs underground. And then the brugmansia which smells so divine at night drops its flowers and leaves which get tangled in the rose bush which in its turn is growing into the mandarin tree. Craig prunes the mandarin and cuts back the Iceberg rose – a daschund that thinks it’s a great dane.

I start by tying up the bulb greenery to at least make some room,

clean up the Brugmansia debris, pull the far-from-white nasturtiums, and wonder about the maderense geraniums that have migrated from the chicken run, small now but destined to be huge and purply pink blooming.

All kinds of forgotten wonders emerge as I squirrel away:

a closer look reveals phlox, antirrhinums, dianthus and diamond frost euphorbia. The dianthus is so shy that it’s blushing.

sweet peas

and most miraculously

the two foxgloves are there, beginning to open, reaching skyward


Exhausted by all the renovating work but battling a self-satisfied cheshire cat grin that has settled in to my face I stagger into the kitchen and bake a triumphant

pound cake

that we eat with strawberry compote and freshly made yoghourt

Jeffrey took me to Thornton hospital the next day and dropped me at the front. I negotiated very easily through several stations, several questionings, until eventually I made it to the Jacobson wing for Outpatient Surgery. The hospital was quiet, none of the usual hustle and bustle, and because the nurses were less harassed (though no doubt stressed by Covid) they were very genial and chatty. The bone marrow biopsy this time was a dream, after feeling pleasantly drowsy I drifted off and then was woken, not having felt at all the drilling through bone.

At home I walked through the arch of scented Sombreuil and onto the porch, where

the jasmine is now blooming

I stop and breathe, give thanks that we remain safe and alive. On the other side of the porch

the purple mandevilla

almost the sole survivor from when I bought the house, Annie must have planted it.

There are days when I don’t get out of my pajamas, and simply can’t face mixing up the dough for another effing loaf of bread. My friend Patricia Montoya posted a link to an article by Sabrina Orah Mark in The Paris Review (May 7, 2020). I stole her title today by way of homage because it resonated so precisely, the cackling it induced made me feel so much better. When Orah Mark called her her mother to complain that, like most of us, she couldn’t find either flour or yeast, anywhere, her mother retorted: “Fuck the bread. The bread is over.”

And then the Strawberries started Whimpering. Sunday May 10th

Lovely cool day. Woke at 5 and read a little of Hard Times – so dramatic, marvelous oratorical speeches, and magical conversions of villainy. The inventiveness of the language is breathtaking, like discovering a new plant that you could never have imagined

This week have been throwing myself into cooking and heavier garden work. First up fish pie After all that work in the garden needed some comfort food. Heike went to the fish market and got us some fish

An orange-hued fish pie! Because there weren’t enough potatoes I added in some yams (which looked fun but rather overwhelmed the subtlety of my oh-so delicate white sauce and the fish itself). Also, didn’t have enough fresh fish so added in a can each of salmon and tuna. That worked well. Somehow fish pie, like shepherd’s pie, always does the trick; like Dickens it can turn a hard or dull day into a marvel of festivity. It’s partly about texture – the merging of mashed potato with more gooey delights, and the surprise of comforting blandness shot through with unexpected tastes and aromas.

And of course I added in

fava beans

In the mornings I worked in the front garden before it was sun drenched, where the ongoing project is the pathway where I have been trying to keep the weeds out so that the dymondia

can grow between the stone paving.

Grass is the worst culprit but there is another alien moving into the territory: dichondra.

I suppose I will let them battle it out

and wait to see which survives best, with least pampering. Both of them, however, spread beyond the pathway and I suspect that the dichondra will be harder to keep under control. When did I plant it? I have no memory and suspect it’s wandered in here from some other garden. But I’m constantly amazed when I look back at photos and notes to recall the plants that once grew in this garden which I have entirely forgotten, or they have been edged out by the obsession of the moment.

Every so often I stand and stretch and then am deflected from the chore in hand by the need to pull grass and dandelions growing as high as the flowers. The wretched weed we call hydra is back, I think it’s ruella, it has a pretty purple flower, though I am trying to expunge them before they flower this year. The approach I take is one of attrition – with these plants that have  spreading rhizomatic roots it seems useless to try pulling, they just spread more aggressively. The way we finally conquered the bamboo was to cut cut cut, as soon as the shoots appeared, and eventually the roots were starved and died away. Eventually, however, can be  a long long time and attrition can wear down the perpetrator as well as the victim.

As well as grass and dandelions and other hopeful vagrants I thinned and wrenched from the earth a lot of fennel. The way it seeds and spreads would seem to assign it to the category of weeds. And it’s true that I seem to spend almost all the year thinning and pulling. Yet still I love to have it in my garden, front and back. As gardeners know the distinction between a flower garden and vegetable garden is not clear cut. All vegetables produce flowers. And many flowers can be eaten. One of the reasons for growing flowers in among the vegetables is that they attract pollinators – the butterflies and moths and humming birds. And one of the reasons for letting the fennel grow in the front yard, among the flowers and fruit trees, is that the foliage is fabulous – feathery and flowing, a willowy green. Then, when they bolt, they grow pretty high and bold and the flowers appear – large yellow umbals. 

Posh restaurants charge a lot for dishes mottled with fennel pollen, and here we have a meadow! But this is the real clincher

the roots


fennel grow long tap roots so they are great at breaking up and conditioning clay soil.

Then the strawberries started whimpering: After harvesting so many beautiful luscious squishy berries I felt remorseful for the way I have neglected them. I cleaned up the bed, getting rid of the dead leaves, composted, watered (the irrigation doesn’t seem to be working, tho it hardly matters now as they have mostly escaped the bed and put down roots all over) and then a jug of diluted fish oil and seaweed. I haven’t grown strawberries for about thirty years, so am kind of winging it. After this summer I will do some research and divide them properly.

After the renovations I felt better about eating the strawberries, gathered a bowl and on my way in to the kitchen, stopped by the chickens. They love strawberries even more than we do if that’s possible. I throw them the damaged berries, but not in any random fashion, it’s a skill to make sure they each get one, especially Lorelei the most timid. Isadora is the greediest and a bully to boot, and Gigi is the smartest. To begin with you have to know how to hoodwink Izzie, and then it all flows smoothly.

The strawberries we ate with some quickly made scones (or what, in this country are called biscuits) and a drizzle of cream

While weeding and cleaning in the front my frenzied mode would subside every so often, I’d sit sit back on my haunches and look around. And saw some surprising things growing in the garden

like a cat, hiding in the shadows

or a single remarkably late exhibitionist freesia

Suddenly while my back was turned, hunched over the weeds

Graham Thomas burst into bloom

and the first pomegranate blooms

turned into small fruit

Last year was the first fruiting year for this small bush and it yielded precisely ONE pomegranate, that was plucked and made off with by some villainous poacher, before it was even fully ripe. Growing fruit in the front yard I am happy to share, but that is just plain mean. Though of course it could be that the poacher was just seduced by the glorious shiny ruby-slippers quality of the fruit and imagined that, if in possession of the prize, they might be transported to the Land of Oz, or perhaps to somewhere rather more lascivious.

I was happy to hear last week from two gardeners in other parts of the world. My friend Liz Sisco, who has moved to Tucson with her husband Charlie for part of the year, sent me images of her developing garden. When I visited her in the New Year of 2019 (a great road trip with my old friend Lyndal Jones, a performance artist, who was here from Australia and keen to visit Biosphere which also intrigued both Liz and I) there was no garden. Tucson has such a different climate from San Diego. It snowed while we were there and now the temperature is over a 100 degrees. So Liz’s vegetables are growing in pots, very productively, and she has planted trees (fruit and others) and natives of various kinds. I particularly love this photo which shows

a very different garden

from what you have been seeing on my site. And here’s a close up of that elegant Parry’s penstemon, a wildflower native to the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

The other message from afar came in the form of a posting from Judy Annear, who moved last year from Sydney to a town in the country about an hour from Melbourne. She writes, “As someone who never, until 6 months ago, had a garden I am slowly learning the nuanced lives of plants.” Not so slowly, I think, her description of the plant life in her neighborhood is so vivid. I believe that all her years as a photo historian and curator have trained her powers of observation to the nth degree, and close observation is a good part of gardening. I laughed at the way her quite lyrical posting ended thus: “The new romance with plants is somewhat back breaking, and I am deeply annoyed that the possums come in the night and shit in the birdbath.”

You can read her full posting as a comment at the end of ” Turning Something Sweet into Savory Delight,” Friday May 1st.

Oh what a difference a few hours, or a day, or a month makes. Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Here are the chamomile flowers, early in the day

And then, as the sun comes up, they elevate their petals 

and lift their game

Other changes take a little longer. Look at these poppies slowly, over days, lifting their heavy heads. 

You wonder how those slender necks can ever do it 

But they do. And then they open. They do it every year, and they come up all over the yard, back and front. Although they have changed color over the years, their purple hue grown more dusky. They grow from seeds, blown hither and thither, are not perennials, although they appear so.

Just as predictable as the return of the poppies is the return of my chronic cancer. A telehealth visit today with my CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia) oncologist, Thomas Kipps. It wasn’t a surprise, I knew it already from the way my lab results have been trending, and fatigue creeping into each day. It wasn’t a surprise, but still it was a shock: time to start treatment again. It was a shock in that I was unprepared for how depressed this would make me feel. I think it’s the sense of being confined to the category of “sick person” again, and by this I don’t just mean “being sick” but rather, all the time and management that goes into being a patient: spending hours on the phone, endlessly making appointments, waiting for calls, investigating insurance, making sure that my different specialists confer and that treatments and drugs don’t clash. Scans and labs ahead, but worst of all, as I really dread it, is a bone marrow biopsy.

The Covid nightmare had fairly successfully brushed the phantom of cancer under the carpet. In the context of the pandemic my own little dis-ease is trivial. So many people affected in all sorts of devastating ways. But today they seem compounded, my own miseries and the misery of the planet. 

Analogies between human and plant bodies, or between the human body and a garden can only take you so far. But those analogies can, nevertheless, take you somewhere, somewhere better than a deep dark hole. Particularly when you harness the imagination. I sometimes imagine that my chronic cancer is a bit like a perennial plant. It comes and goes but never really disappears, sometimes it seems to have disappeared because it stays away for longer than usual, but then it pops back stronger than ever. Or, like the annual poppies, it turns up in a different place, slightly mutated. 

To cheer ourselves up we plucked and ate 

the first tomato

for lunch. The insects had wormed into part of it since it grew so low on the ground, but we had more than half and although it wasn’t zinging with full flavor, since the days have not been hot enough, it still tasted of summer.

I planted two seeds of the Row 7 Centercut squash (tromboncini), less than a week ago. 

Here they are, bursting through the soil, tiny but strong

When they are established I’ll snip one of them at soil level. Pulling could disturb the fragile roots of the one destined to remain. And in any case I usually prefer to cut plants at ground level rather than pull, so that the roots can rot in the ground and add to the fertility.

If a few hours can make a difference, or a few days, so too a few months. Fruit takes time. Here are the fejoa (pineapple guava) flowers

The two trees grow outside the kitchen window, on each side of a short path, watered by grey water from the laundry. If you took the Welcome tour you will have walked between them as you transitioned from the side of the house to the back yard. My idea is that when they grow tall enough they will meet overhead, forming an arch that you walk through into a different mini-world. Actually the idea of the arch came from my friend Tershia who has a great eye. The flowers are gorgeous, the fleshy pink petals edible. And when the flowers fall the bulbous part under the flower, the ovary, grows into fruit. 

we have not yet had fruit from these young trees but this year looks as though it will be bountiful

I love every part of this tree: look at the bark and the color of the leaves, deep dark olive on one side, soft grayish green on the other other. In the breeze it shimmies and glows.



We ended the day with comfort: a kimchi ramen (that same kimchi whose making was documented in The Duck and I), swimming in Jeffrey’s great stock and padded out with bits of chicken left over from his Sunday night roast

From Murder Hornets – Shock and Horror – to the Balm of Baking. Monday, May 4, 2020.

Each morning you rush out to the garden with your cup of coffee and then tiptoe around the beds where you’ve direct seeded, or approach quietly those plants that might be beginning to show signs of fruiting. You tiptoe without reason or rhyme, hold your breath and gently move a leaf here and there, searching for signs of emerging edibles.  You do not want to disturb them, you speak coaxingly in low tones, are inclined to break into a lullaby. 

look! look! the first tiny zucchini

It’s such an exciting time of the year, as the summer crop starts revving into life. My Doctor, MM, tells me that the quarantine has been so long that her kids have learned to plant a variety of seeds and actually seen them sprout and grow! I remember as a little kid the excitement and fun of watching maize seeds in a jar, captured between glass and blotting paper, sprout. And everyday at this time of year, for a short time each morning, I enter again that childhood zone where curiosity and revelation fuel the everyday, radiating wonder.

Here is the Jetsetter tomato I’ve been watching ripen day-by-day.

Almost there!

Slow planting continues – in the front yard: a cactus dahlia and green sunburst sunflower. Also some spreading vines, a bit of an experiment: an eight ball squash, and a sweet passion melon, one on each side. Also have a delicata squash to go in. Normally it’s not such a great idea to mix these snakelike creatures in with flowers and fruit trees, partly because they take up so much surface room and are likely to displace the more modest and delicate flowering beauties. Plus, they are greedy feeders and their requirements are different from the predominantly floral denizens of the landscape they are now inhabiting. Reading Lab Girl today Jahn reminds me that any plant is as big below ground as above. Moreover, I’ve never succeeded in the past – mixing in the squash and melons in the front. But this year I’ve made sure to situate the plants at water outlets, and will watch and nurture them closely. As the summer progresses the front yard becomes more and more bare as only the most sun loving flowers persist, therefore as the melon and squash expand so will the space around them.

Certainly it’s no option to leave the garden purely to its own devices. There is always a struggle between the stronger and weaker plants. And often those designations of ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ are not intrinsic qualities but have to do with climate, the soil, what kinds of nutrients are available, how strong the sun is, how long or short the days are. Take the African Blue Basil, planted between the fruit trees and the veg at back, mainly because it is a bee magnet, and also because it is beautiful and smells divine.

It is crowding out the little citrus tree it’s meant to be nurturing, and needs to be severely cut back. It’s a reminder to me of how invasives can thrive in certain environments and crowd out other plants, most injuriously, natives. Neither of these plants are native, it’s true; the environment I conjure into being is artificial, but equally we might say that most environments are stochastic and even the most apparently wild, if they have been traversed or occupied by humans and touched by their baggage at some stage, require constant vigilance.

After feeling the bush vibrate with the whirring hum of bees I come inside and read, horror-struck, about the ‘murder hornets’, an Asian insect that has hit US shores and is beginning to decimate bee populations. The report is grueling to read, detailing scenes of savagery and carnage. On top of everything else they have to contend with, namely toxic sprays, the bees now have to face this. And the repercussions for our crops if the pollinators disappear is devastating. The story is all over the media, reported in all major newspapers. I go to my ‘go to’ site for further information – the Facebook group, San Diego Gardener, started by Nan Sterman and John Clements. This is an amazing resource, composed of experienced gardeners and professionals as well as absolute beginners. People post fascinating photos and snippets of info and links to useful sites, and people ask questions and get helpful responses. I don’t even have to start searching for ‘murder hornets’; the topic comes up straightaway. Someone posts a link to an entomologist, Doug Yanega, from UC Riverside, who has worked on the hornet, and states categorically that there are no living murder hornets in the U.S. Suddenly all the panic stories are discredited, the hype dies down, and the fear of invasion is put on hold. Though the paranoia simmers away. While it certainly behoves us to be alert to the invasive patterns of particular flora and fauna, the irruption of the hornets panic suggests a displaced form of the xenophobia that exists not far below the surface of this country’s hospitable ethos.

To recover from the shock of the murder hornets I turned to the balm of baking. Gathered chard and oregano and eggs from the garden and using the goats cheese that came our way via Heike I made an easy tart. Deborah Madsen has a  recipe for a yeasty rustic dough which I often use – you simply press it into the quiche dish and don’t have to prebake. The pine nuts got a little burnt but still tasted delish.

But not all my baking works. A loaf of bread emerged from the oven

looking and feeling like a heavy discus

Jeffrey’s suggestion is that we use it to hurl at the squirrel – cackling and purloining with shameless impunity – that torments us.

However, I can’t resist posting a better looking bread. Even though I know that by so doing I enter, cravenly, into covid-one-up-manship, the puerile posting of feeble achievements in domestic adaptation and ingenuity.

Turning something sweet into a savory delight. Friday, May 1, 2020

In the morning  Steve brought around a tray of plantlets and a bag of lemons for me to preserve as we are almost at the end of the current jar. Here is an image of his potting shed. I’m lucky that he brings plants to me, but this photo does beckon me into the space, it’s so seductive, a gardener’s delight—so many unusual plants, so carefully tended.

And what about those beautiful old fashioned watering cans, so elegantly designed and gloriously preplastic.

Before Covid and after he retired Steve used to come around early on Thursday mornings and weed for an hour. What a friend!

and then Jeffrey would make each of us a poached egg, gathered freshly from the three generous harpies

today we gave Steve a slice of the savory matza brei J made for lunch. It was delicious.

By this gesture – turning something sweet into a savory delight–J managed to turn the tables on a malevolent ghost that has haunted our relationship. When we first met J tried to seduce me by an offering of matza brei, which needless to say he did not know that I hated. Really hated, to the extent of feeling queezy when faced by its stickily sweet lumpishness. Needless to say the seduction did not work, and we’ve muddled along, but this barely suppressed failure (on my part, to overcome sticky earlier marital associations; and on his part to misjudge my taste and person, imagining me to be a much sweeter person than I am) has existed as a sort of ghost at the table, a bit like Elijah, never there but still taking up space, and always threatening to materialize. So, when J was inspired yesterday to turn matza brei into the most delicious savory concoction, he banished the ghost, and I guess it means we will stagger on together into the twilight.

There is a covid ritual to these exchanges: We all wear masks, Steve deposits his gifts on the stoop and steps back at least six feet. I bring in the bag of lemons, wearing gloves, and then put out his wrapped slice of matza brei and step back again, and we exchange the day’s news.

In the vegetable garden I planted out another green fingers pickling cucumber to make up the trio at the base of the tepee, a pepper from Craig, and three marigolds, and tied up the tomatoes, reusing the twine that was holding the favas upright.

Lesley Ruda, my oldest friend in the world—we grew up together in Zimbabwe, and she now lives in San Francisco—sent me, even before she saw my last post about delphinium color, a pic she had taken walking in the Golden Gate Park

true blue

And speaking of color, look at the foliage on the Persimmon; it seems that it was only a few weeks ago that it was a bare scraggy twig sticking up out of the ground

now: vivid chartreuse foliage, which will darken and drop as the fruits ripen, turning densely orange

Secret is in full bloom again, the most lovely and most highly scented of the roses that still grow in the front yard 

You can also see, also in full bloom, and dwarfing our house, Mme Alfred Carrière, an antique climber, released in France in 1879, considered to be a Noisette though its blooms are more Bourbon-like. It has nearly thornless canes, is a repeat bloomer, and seems to suffer no diseases here. There is a fun story of how I came by this rose, but that must wait for another time. The salvia is Indigo Spires that has been growing in this garden since its inception, though it meanders around, always returning, however, to roost with Secret—an harmonious pair.

In the evening I cut the fat fennel from the cucumber bed, chopped it into tiny pieces and used it, with onions, as a base for my version of Sicilian pasta. Fennel and sardines, pine nuts and raisins, tomato paste and saffron. When I lived in Sydney I would use fresh sardines, but they are hard to come by here. We were lucky, however, to have a can of large succulent aromatic sardines from Portugal – part of a package of rare cheeses, luxury canned fish and ham that arrived as a gift from Katie and Susan for my birthday. I only wish we could have shared the bounty with them. But we will do some sharing when we are released.

With a final scattering of snipped fennel fronds.

We ate the pasta with a bright green salad from the garden, one of the last of the season.

It is too hot here for lettuces to grow, in the summer, without a great deal of coddling 

French Flounce. Thursday, April 30, 2020

Last night, looking through old photos, I came upon one that was unlabeled, devoid of color, ugly and obscure.

What is it? 

Then suddenly I realized: it was my amateurish documentation of digging a hole for a tomato. Why bother to document such a widely, ordinary and much-repeated garden chore? Then I remembered: it included the vital ingredient of calcium in the form of ground-up egg shells! In that same moment a realization of disaster hit me between the eyes. In my panic about getting the tomatoes into the ground before the party guests started arriving (and to whom I would need to turn my attention) in mid-March I clean forgot this vital ingredient.  Why is it vital? Because tomato plants are prone to blossom end rot (where the end of the tomato rots), and planting with calcium prevents this (gypsum works just well, we use egg shells because the chickens give us these in return for regular feedings of cherry tomatoes with which they play soccer before devouring). How could I forget, after so many years, such an habitual routine? And the story only gets worse. When it came to planting the later tomatoes – the yellow grape and Dad’s Sunset my body remembered not the years of accumulated wisdom, but the month or so of cretinous mistakes.

It is a weird thing this question of body memory and gardening. I do believe the body remembers, better often than the conscious mind, but sometimes, it seems a whole lot worse. And yet, maybe I needed this shock to shake me out of routine unthinking behavior. Some of the practices I try and maintain regularly, but mostly fail, stress the breaking of habit, the retraining of body memory – Tai Chi and Xi Gong and Feldenkrais and Meditation. And so with gardening too it is possible to slip into repetition and maintenance of the status quo rather than exploring new processes and plants and combinations. So now I must explore what to do to when you haven’t included calcium in the planting. I remember Brijette telling me about an organic spray which you need to apply to the flowers, before the fruit suits. What is it? How does it work? It is also of course possible that there is enough calcium in the compost since Jeffrey includes ground -up eggshells.

Spent some time in the morning preparing the potting medium to welcome for the first time Astia, a French zucchini developed particularly for container growing and small gardens, and a Patio tomato, always very productive for me in a pot, and surprisingly tasty. They are now sitting in the driveway.

Surprise in the front yard: sunflowers

and poppies galore, including scarlet Delos poppies grown (by Steve) from seeds collected by a friend of a friend on the Greek island of Delos. The foliage is gorgeous, but the flowers a real knock out. They are growing on the Tam side, by our driveway (used for pots, not cars) so you can see them if you are out for a walk in the neighborhood and heading north.

At the front everyone walking by can see what we call Milane’s red poppy, as it grew in her garden when she was alive and Steve saved the seeds, along with a few Heirloom carnation poppies called, in a name that matches their show-offy exuberance, French Flounce (from Renee’s Seeds). 




Flouncy

In among the Delos are a couple of very flouncy in their own way, but much more ostentatiously modest, frilly Shirleys

more like the Victoria Secrets of the poppy world

I have had more conversations with neighbors in this time of lockdown than ever before, and all the conversations are about the garden. People do venture out from their homes to walk, generally being vigilant about keeping a safe distance. Because the nature strip is developed with plants and bushes people have the sensation of actually walking through the garden, of being enveloped by a variety of sensations, especially at the moment, because of the sweet peas and roses. One elderly couple paused to look around and the man grudgingly asked, How do you ever find anything in here? But the woman told me how much she loved passing through. The colors! she said, Oh and the smells, and she squished up her nose, sniffing, reminding me of my dear departed cat, Elvis

who would patrol the garden everyday smelling every plant

even ones that seemed to me to have no scent or to be unpleasantly stinky

Another woman told me, yours is my favorite garden in the neighborhood. Then she added, No, in the world! The world, for everyone, has really shrunken in this time of sheltering in place. So for us, the neighborhood IS our world. For those who can venture out that is. For others it is much more restricted, frightening, and without the pleasure of distracting sensations. My hope is that this blog might reach not just my gardening friends but gardeners I don’t know and even more, people who do not have access to gardens or space. So if those of you who read this blog could forward the link to one other person I’d be most appreciative

Last night Jeffrey put together the remainder of my (predominantly) veg and bean stew with the left-over mashed potato from my gnocchi dish to make a sort of shepherd’s pie, which he served up with an orange salad (oranges from Eleanor) with daikon, cabbage, and cucumber. 

A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers. Wednesday, April 29, 2020

I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly … a memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.

I came across this quote from John Donne in a racy article by Katherine Rundell called “Night Climbing.” It seems so contemporary in its detailing of the quotidian distractions that deflect one from concentration. Although I do not grieve for neglecting God the experience resonates, is something I experience everyday when meditating. And many people, during this ghastly pandemic, are experiencing difficulty in concentrating – on anything at all. 

Surprising things are blooming, like this delphinium, just beginning to unfurl



I planted it in the fall and it bloomed eventually in a rather half-hearted manner and when it faded I cut it to the ground. I know this about delphiniums here, they like a long growing season through the fall and winter when they slowly put down strong roots and the roots send sustenance above ground, nurturing the flower which eventually blooms in the spring or early summer on a strong tall stalk. I’m fascinated by the way flowers start to appear at the base and each day a few more unfurl.

This is not the bluest of blue, its shading is delicate, its powder blue softness melting into lilac

it’s a little overwhelmed by the vegetables and fig tree and African Blue Basil bush that grow adjacent to it (there it is hiding on the extreme right)

Some delphiniums are a much deeper blue. When I was writing The Smoking Book, back in Harare at the time, I was struggling with the description of a certain character, and suddenly it came to me – from out of nowhere – that his eyes were “delphinium blue.” It was a fabulous moment, everything clicked into place, the story began to write itself, to unfurl. I can still recall that moment of elation and surprise. Where did the delphinium come from? Was it an angel who sent it from a secret land where magical words grow, like fruit, on trees and can be plucked merely by the force of desire or frustration? Or perhaps it just slithered out of the chains that tethered it to all redundant sentences in the great big Writer’s Block in the sky. Or perhaps it came—travelling as straight and as fast as an arrow—from the past, from the garden of colors I knew as a child.

So while it’s not really the best flower to grow in among the veg I can’t resist it, I love watching and waiting for it to bloom, watching the blooms creep up the stem, anticipating the joy of experiencing again that ineffable CLICK.

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Many apologies for those who might have already tried to sign up using the form that was on the right. It seems it doesn’t work. Am new to this blogging/webbing business. But here is a way that DOES WORK. Click the comments button at the end of any blog, and you can enter your email to get alerts every time a new blog is posted (you do have to enter a comment I’m afraid, though you can just enter your name; however, you’ll make my day if you do say something).