The Back Yard

I hope my tendency to make pictures with words translates well to an internet where pictures kind of make up the large part of pictures. This is the way I work. I like to add clip art or something along that line sometimes. Other times, I just have to ramble a bit before plunging in. This piece will be familiar to close friends. It is the result of a writing assignment to describe my back yard, which, as I like to say, I utterly failed at. But the title stuck. I hope the images do too. They will be unique to each reader, which is pretty cool when you think about it.

The Back Yard

The back yard spreads all the way from the farmhouse to the Rainbow Cliffs of the High Dragon Seas. The ideal time to see the namesakes of these dangerous waters is after a storm. The churning from the winds tends to rouse them up from the depths. On occasion a dragon will appear, restless and grudging, spraying great salty flumes about himself, stretching his cold wet wings, and ruffling his spiky head with a shake, all the while watching the swirl of unending skies above him. Rarely do any of them venture onto land or beyond the beach. They may slumber in the depths of the ocean, but the sky is their kingdom, the wind their throne, and the sun their god.
A little farther inland, our pasture grass is clipped by a herd of friendly miniature horses. They roam about, sensible of the cliff hedging them on one side, and on the other side the stone wall winding along a timeworn byway that passes through our farm. At night they burrow into mounds of fresh straw inside the old wooden barn. Each morning one of us will walk out to the gate and usher our fuzzy, snorting herd across the public byway into the pastures on the other side. When it is my turn, I usually pause beneath the drooping wisteria tree to look out over our home. The pastures provide the finest view of sea and skies beyond the land. There is always the background music of whispering trees, singing birds, and what we call mini-whinnies. When I walk back inside, the perfume of the wisteria blossoms clings to my clothing like soft colors you can only just see.
The farmhouse is built from white stone quarried centuries ago, and has a recent wooden addition, perhaps only two or three hundred years old. This time of year it is surrounded by blossoming fairy bushes, and the meadows are colored as much by blue violets and ripening strawberries as they are by grass and sweet clover. The land is magically tended by the grateful fairies in return for our protecting the flowers that are the source of their favorite nectars. Most people find it a nuisance to abide fairies on their property, not that there’s much chance of keeping them out should they extend their preferences. We find them helpful, because no matter how regularly our little herd foals, no matter how much they graze, their home pasture remains thick with flowers and many other sweet nibbles. The fairies and the ponies have come to love one another very much, besides. To tamper with that communion of half wild hearts would only result in grief and trouble, so we do our part to encourage the way things are.
The orchard is faltering a bit these days. There are fewer golden apples and more fallen limbs. The suffering of the trees in the face of wild, pressing sea winds throughout the year has worn on them. But in the orchard is a strange, new tree. We recently learned it was a mimosa tree: an exotic, feathery looking thing apparently made of fern leaves and impossible looking wispy flowers on thin sweeping branches. When the tree appeared, however it appeared, the apple trees seemed to rally themselves around it. All of the orchard seemed to regain a fresh sense of hope as revealed in the renewed surge of blossoms, leaves, and hanging fruit.
The mimosa flourishes right in among the apple trees because the fairies wish it to. It somehow glows in the moonlight, the apples providing strings of tiny reflected lights all around it. At Midsummer’s moon the orchard looks like a garden party in full swing for it attracts the fairies, who crowd together, curtsying and bowing, turning in pairs, strolling through waves of music that carry a wisp of scent or a flash of color or the ripe rich fruits of the imagination with it. Only at the hint of coming dawn will the music fade and the dancing shadows slip away in the rising mists of morning.
Our family has run this farm for centuries. People have sprung up and died away on this land for a long time, and their roots are deeply felt even if they remain unseen. Livestock has grazed and blossoms have opened beyond memory. The sea winds have been carving the stones of both house and wall long before hands ever stacked them in their place; the unsteady blow of sand and salt have smoothed the stones in place, mortaring them with sunshine and the slow fertile thoughts of the land.
There were more fairies and more dragons, long ago. However, no one had yet encountered miniature ponies. They are relatively new to our sighing old world, and their particular magic in all its quiet glory remains to be seen. They breathe a fresh kind of sweetness into the salty air around us. As the animals munch away at grass the fairies spend their time braiding those long manes and sweeping tails. They have their mysterious conversations as the sun follows its familiar path across all sorts of skies: blue and grey and golden and wispy. Even Time in our lands is as much a season here as the harvest or the Autumn storms. It fluctuates in lives and loves, passing from eye to eye and heart to heart. It hovers gently as the blossoms drip and the butterflies dance, as dragons snooze for years on end, and as the wind blows over, around, and through everything that has ever been here, and everything that will ever be.

Book review: Life is a Miracle

It’s been a while since I posted. I want to do creative writing, but haven’t had enough creative urge. I was tempted to add another older write of mine on here, and I will get to that eventually. But I took down a book from the shelf this morning and started reading through just for the parts I had underlined. This can be a real relief when a person wants to read but can’t focus at the moment. The book is Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: an essay against modern superstition. Here’s the cover:

Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Here are some of the extensive underlinings I wandered through as I revisited this book:

“To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.”

“To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.”

“For things cannot survive as categories but only as individual creatures living uniquely where they live.”

“The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, or if in any meaningful sense it is to exist, is that of responsibility.”

“One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.”

“We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability.”

“Resist classification.”

“An idea of health that does not generously and gracefully accommodate the fact of death is obviously incomplete.”

And those are the short ones. I have plenty of paragraphs marked all the way through as well. Berry is either a naturalist poet or a poetic naturalist. He uses reason without ignoring emotion and in fact embraces emotion as part of the overall compass we use to navigate through life. I rarely hear this kind of respect towards listeners or readers from environmentalists or scientific minds. Berry is organic. He has a well rounded completeness to him that I don’t observe in many people engaged in the large public discourses over humanity, Earth, the individual, and freedom and responsibility. Berry also does not try and define my life by his rules. This alone makes me want to cry just from relief.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic book, one long essay with many facets. This is the kind of stuff I think about and this is how I think about it, except Berry expresses it so much more clearly. His is a vital, prophetic voice in our nation, and I cannot emphasize enough that everyone should become familiar with his writing. Not only does he present urgent warnings as a naturalist (not as an environmentalist!) but his writing by its very style breaks with resounding thunder the frantic rationalizations of our media-soaked Molotov cocktail version of democratic discourse.
Anyway, some of the absolute best writing I have encountered in a very long time. His writing will prove timeless as well, because it discusses timeless themes: man, nature, woman, seeds, soil, seasons, thought, writing, imagination, freedom, responsibility, connection, and so much more.
Stunning writing. He always makes me cry, or lose my breath, or want to run down the street shouting quotes to the neighbors.
A short book, a big keeper.

The Mimosa part 3

I hadn’t expected to have an update on my mimosa tree so soon, but things are afoot, my friends. This morning I discovered three flowers on my tree, all on the same branch. Here is a picture of one, and while it is a rather poor picture, I can also state that this is a bit of a poor flower, as well:

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And here is another picture:

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I hope you can imagine how the tree would look if it were covered in hundreds of these. They look like some sort of tuft on the head of an exotic bird strutting its way through the grassland or jungle. Heck, it looks like a hat suitable for a fairy out for her summer tea at her friend’s house the butterfly.
I really did not expect to see any flowers this year, this being mid- August and all. Our first frost is only about a month away, after all. But there’s a lesson here for the Christian gears that turn my thought processes, and it is this: it is never too late. There is always hope.
I am happy.

The Mimosa, part 2

It is now 2014, and my mimosa has taken a bad hit. It was fine in 2013, but this last winter was a hard one for it. We had deeper cold spells that lasted longer. They came earlier in the season. The winds were harsher, the ice heavier. It was hard on man and beast, but little did I even consider the trees. The closest I came to recognizing a problem was during the deepest cold spells when I could hear branches popping, splintering, and falling through the woods.
Finally the softer side of Spring made its appearance. The woods showed some holes in its canopy where dead wood had fallen down, letting the sun shine in. Since my mimosa is always the last tree to wake up each year, I wasn’t too worried when it was still stark and empty at the end of May. After all, this thing can wake up one day and by the end of the week be in full leaf, or so it seems. However, in June I began to be aware of a problem.
The tree began with a few shy leaves curling out after the month had already begun. Then the leaves stretched rather slowly and the tree came into its new, pitiful version of full leaf. Which this year meant that at least a quarter of the tree is bare branches. And by the middle of July it became obvious that there would be no blossoms. This tree suffered trauma last winter. The live parts seem very much alive, but the tree has a bit of a reserved feeling about it now, as if it must rest and gather its strength, so no flowers this year, so sorry. Which means a lot less for the butterflies and hummingbirds to rely on. In fact, this year I have only seen two hummingbirds all season. One of those looks thin. Whatever their challenges this year, the lack of mimosa flowers hasn’t helped.
I’m not sure what will happen this winter. If it’s a harsh one again, it may very well damage more of the tree. If it’s a mild one, it may still do damage to an already damaged tree. I find it comforting that there is no sign of disease, per se. If it flowers next year, then it is feeling better. If it doesn’t, I will watch for decay. Perhaps its recovery will take longer than a year or two. I can’t find much information on healing your tree.
In the meantime, we have a house rabbit who is supplying plenty of fertilized mulch for the mimosa. I’m hoping this is a good shot of nutrients and vitamins for my tree. It will also ease the roots and help the tree have one less worry when things get cold again. If trees worry. I really am that big of a softie to wonder if trees have feelings. I once read that the tree rings of a tree show some of their history- thin rings for drought times, thick charred rings during times of forest fire. Of course, being cut down so that tree rings can be read, well, there’s no chance of that experience being recorded within the same rings, now is there? Not in the usual way, I expect.
I miss several trees in the neighborhood that have been cut down over the years. When I look at old family photos of our suburban homestead, I notice the trees in the background almost as often as I see my kids romping around in the grass. I see this, as well: our yard was bare when we moved in. It now has trees, a variety of berry bushes, two gardens, a fort, and most recently, the grave of a loyal dog. This yard is a deep-rooted record of our own lives. We have feelings here. We sometimes call the back yard our ’healing yard’, but that should wait for another post I suppose. Maybe our mimosa will take advantage of what our yard has to offer.
I hope my mimosa recovers. It is a beautiful tree. I have since learned that the blossoms can be used in a tincture to ease sensations of depression. I fully believe it- the tree does that just by standing in my yard; I wouldn’t be surprised if it somehow held that essence within itself.

cropped pic

Mimosa 2014

The Mimosa, part 1

In my intro to this blog I mentioned an old blog that had gone feral, or weedy, or what have you. There are some good articles on there I will be bringing over here. For the first, I want to edit an old post about my mimosa tree, and then update the condition of the tree. This is because when I decided to grow a mimosa in Pennsylvania, everyone told me it was too difficult. Yet I had seen them around, here and there.
So I did some research and drew together information, mostly hints and tips, that formed my hypothesis on how to successfully grow a mimosa. So this will be a two part post. This part is the old post. Part 2 will be the update. It’s my hope that folks may stumble across this in their own pursuit of knowledge. It might apply to mimosa trees, or other out-of-habitat growing. Because while we tend to think of such an action as detrimental to the natural ecosystem of a locale, the fact is, sometimes it is practical information. For instance, I accidentally bought tomato seeds that are meant for desert climates. I’ve decided to take a whack at that challenge. We’ve had some hot dry summers and some cool wet ones. The very land itself is capable of major changes, and we need to be aware and be adaptable. So, without further rambling, here is the initial ramble:
(originally posted Septmeber 2011)

I have a mimosa tree in my back yard. It is nearly due east of the house. I planted it there to be protected from the fierce winds that come from the west. The west side is the colder, more exposed side of the house, where even small rocks have been blown against our west windows during some storms. This summer the tree has come into its own. It is about twenty feet tall now and spreads out overhead like an umbrella from a single willowy trunk. Most of the branches tend to grow away from the house, towards the woods- towards the east. The mimosa has an uneven canopy as a result, but it more than makes up for this with shade, flowers, and now pods. The flowers of the mimosa are difficult to describe. If a person is familiar with fiber optic strands, I tell them that is what the flower looks like. The pods are only one way this rampantly fertile plant spreads its genes. It also seems to send little trees up from its roots when the weather is warm enough. Between the pods and the root sprouts, this plant is banned in many southern states as an invasive species. Here in Pennsylvania, the cold seasons keep them under control. In fact, they can be very difficult to grow here. Using the house as a shield has worked, as well as mulching the roots the first few years against the winter cold. It also helps that this tree grows near some water. Ours has a kind of vernal pool directly behind it to sink its roots into. Every time it rains that pool forms, a temporary watering hole that actually appears more often than just in the Spring.
The mimosa opens its frond like leaves during the day, and closes them at night or when there is a strong storm. If a child breaks off a frond and leaves it on the porch, the frond will continue to open and close for a few days before it finally wilts. The flowers get pretty ugly when it rains, all sodden and flat and sticky as heck. Many mimosa owners complain about the mess these things make: dropping sticky fronds, flowers, and pods, over cars, benches, or houses. My tree is far enough from all of those that I only need to place a chair there, enjoy myself, and then take the chair away again. It has a heady perfume, as well, a cloying scent that comes off the tree in waves and which I can only take so long before I have to move farther away.
With the tree in the east I have had the most wonderful effect in my own yard. Not only does this tree bring a splash of the exotic to my yard, but at dawn it re-enacts the Garden of Eden for me as well. In the morning the tree is literally dripping with dew. The entire yard is fog grey as if a roving caravan of water fairies came during the night and made themselves at home. The fronds of the tree shimmer at every feather and edge. The sun breaks through the surrounding woods and shines directly through the uppermost leaves of the mimosa, lighting every dew drop on every open frond and making the tree dazzle and shimmer. It is a spectacular light show. Sometimes when I admire this, I can hear in my head Cat Stevens singing “…Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Other times I recall scriptural accounts of Eden and the Creation, the verses about that trouble making tree, dontcha know. We all know which one that was!
As simple as the act is, stepping outside to enjoy this fleeting light show brings me out of the world of chores and school and into the world of nature and beauty. I think many of us have realized this opportunity as we squeeze a garden into one corner of our world, or spread it across the yard. I may have to live in the suburbs, but I can make my back yard feel wild and woodsy. Not that it’s hard to do- there are woods up behind the house. It is packed with animals that have been displaced by construction in other areas around our neighborhood. They like my garden.
The critters like my mimosa, as well. When it is in bloom with hundreds of pink flowers, both butterflies and hummingbirds crowd around it. I like to sit outside and watch the mimosa sustain life. All the trees do that, of course. The Trident Maple is best preferred by those who desire well hidden and solid nesting. The gnarly old pine tree drops cones that the squirrels carry away. The Pin Oak feeds deer, turkeys, rodents, and my daughter’s acorn collection. The peach tree actually gives a couple peaches once in awhile. I love my trees. But none can compare with my sentimental attachment to my mimosa. When I was a child living in Virginia, we had one. I often stood under it, waiting to catch a glimpse of fairies. I didn’t believe in fairies, of course, but at the same time I was so sure they lived in those magical flowers. How can such a contradiction exist in one’s head? In my experience, how can it not? People seem quite comfortable living with contradictions in their heads; this one just seems so obvious. I know now that the flowers float down like feathers, and any breeze will spin them as they fall. The tree is teeming with hummingbirds and butterflies, each with its unique way of flying and hovering among the fruitful branches. Out of the corner of a child’s eye, this could easily look like very busy, very magical, Fairy Traffic Central.
My mimosa is not a practical tree. I haven’t learned yet of any edible parts. It does keep the stink bugs away from the house while it is in flower. Mostly I just enjoy it.
As the weather turns colder, the tree will suddenly drop all its fronds in one day. It will stand bare like most of the other trees, only a little more scraggly. Next Spring it will send out fronds again, and grow at an amazing speed if the heat and moisture are enough for it. It did that inside the house, when it was a baby. For its first year it was a stick in a pot beside the kitchen table. It grew in that year from three feet to about seven or eight or more, and brushed against the ceiling with its fronds, a fun bit of jungle in the house while it lasted. That is one part of mimosa-keeping that I miss: the fronds above my head at the breakfast table. It turns out that I am not the only one. My daughter is angling for a banana tree.

mimosa

My mimosa tree in the morning, 2011

I wish I had some pictures of the mimosa in bloom for you to see, but those pictures were on my old computer which died. And in part 2 of this post we will see that flowers are not in this tree’s near future, even though we are already in August. I recommend that all two of my readers go do a search for images of the mimosa, or silk tree, in bloom. Very exotic.

Summer Storm

Drifting in and out of the house one day, I paused to enjoy the green world off my back porch. The Trident maple and mimosa tee we planted have grown tall. Their dark and light greens, respectively, make deeper and shallower shades; they block much of the view into the rest of the yard. A carpet of lawn sweeps uphill between them and past the garden. Swaying behind that is the curtain of woods that serves as the back drop to our outside lives.
It is summertime, thus the opportunity to drift. The humidity is rising and the air presses against my skin, my face, and eventually my lungs. Everything feels like the surface of a pond.
The first clouds of the afternoon whisper white across the darkening sky. I drift inside and the air conditioning slaps like a cold wash cloth across my heat sleepy senses. Before dark I am back outside again. Now the clouds are huge, high, and bunched up like the gods of fluffy white sheep. A rising breeze stiffens and bends branches to its will. All day I have seen light green flashes as leaves flipped upside down, and now the single leaf warnings grow into whole trees waving. The woods bend and murmur.
Still no rain: only its promise, or its threat.
The official sunset is blanketed by cloudy darkness. When night arrives, it is simultaneous with the storm. The two wrangle like rambunctious kids. Will they fit in the space available? Not in my yard! During the day I can measure the sky in a glance; not so with night. Night feels bigger than day because my imagination fills in the visual gaps. The winds sweep through our property with the same energy that rivers pour down to the sea. The congealed air is finally flowing. In the dark it is hard to see anything but much easier to feel. It feels crowded.
Lightning blinks in the distance. When it gets closer it stretches and lingers overhead. Rumbles of thunder growl everywhere at once, rolling from hill to hill. At last, sheets of rain fall in heavy waves that obscure pavement and grass alike. All else wavers under the weight of water. Sound is the thunder of the storm in lightning, waterfall, and wind. Sight is long sheets of blackness with strips of quick brilliant light. Energy pounds the house and the senses. Inside feels safer, but doors shudder from the storm. ‘Safer’ is as good as it’s going to get for tonight. At least the showery hot day is cooling into a chill damp night. The house proves itself once again by holding out through another night.
Heavy and wet, the storm trundles away, crossing from west to east. In the distance it sounds tired and grumpy. The air smells of electricity. It smells of rainwater. In the dark there is no rainbow; only the chirping of awakened frogs.