THE ATTRACTION OF FERNS

As I said at the time …

It took eight springs in this household before we were finally greeted by a sequence of designed abundance. First, the pussy willow cuttings. Then the succession of flowering: snow lily, crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, forsythia, marsh marigold, tulip, forget-me-not, sweet woodruff, rhododendron, iris, mountain laurel. Accompanied by asparagus, rebounding after a season of root virus.

That’s not to say that any of it’s as orderly or magazine perfect as my wife would like. One neighbor jested our style’s too organic for that. Actually, it’s more like our budget.

Still, it’s quite an improvement over what we encountered when we first moved in and discovered most of our property was wet clay and neglected. Some portions had been landscaped with black plastic covered with gravel, which only worsened the water problems – extending to our cellar. Other portions were heavily shaded, with several nasty box elders and then a dead elm to be taken out.

While most of the garden has been my wife’s project – leaving to me the actual construction of raised beds and pathways, as well as the composting – I lay claim to a few exceptions: the asparagus bed and two small, heavily shaded panels behind the lilacs. The latter, each about forty square feet, are separated by a wood-chip passage. In our first year here, I shoveled off the gravel and dug up the plastic on one side of the pathway and began our attempts to plant ferns in the beds. Later, I dug up the pathway itself, removing the plastic and replacing the gravel with wood chips. The other panel would follow a year or two later.

I envisioned the footpath leading between two lush expanses of fiddleheads – woodland greenery right at home. A taste of deep forest.

The reality was that nothing wanted to grow there. We enhanced the soil repeated. Bought a few commercial fern varieties, which never quite caught on. My wife stuck in some other plants – lilies of the valley, wild ginger, lungwort, jack-in-the-pulpit – and they’ve taken hold. We transplanted ferns from the woods behind our best friends’ house at the time. Next year, I dug up more from along my commute, as well as the first of several seasons from another friend’s forest. Even so, come springtime, squirrels or slugs would mow down the rising green scrolls, while the surviving fronds remained tenuous and “went down,” as they say, earlier in the summer than I would have liked. In other words, forest undergrowth is hardly as natural as it would appear.

But this spring was different. In the older bed, the ferns came in thick and gorgeous – and after a few of the first fiddlehead stalks were leveled, we encased the plants in chicken wire to ward off predators. It worked. In the newer bed, which still has plenty of room to grow, one can see progress. “It’s where the other bed was last year,” we say, meaning we expect it to catch up. No, it’s not the uniform deck of fiddleheads I expected, nor is it the waist high ferns of a forest where a friend lived last year. Rather, it’s a celebration – at least six varieties (we’re not technical; fern identification is quite tricky) – with Rachel’s other plants and a few star flowers and Solomon’s seals thrown in.

* * *

What fascinates me is the variety of the fronds themselves, and how they now spread through in the bed. Some are fine-toothed, while others are broad. Some are bright green, while others show more blue or red. Some shoot upward, while others spray outward. If some are finely etched, others are painted with a broad brush. There are degrees of delicacy, fragility, and geometric interlocking arcs and angles. While the asparagus comes to replicate a tall fern with its feathery fronds, it spikes from the ground, unlike the uncoiling fern stems. This unfurling, in fact, seems to suspend time in space, especially in a few precious weeks when spring is taking hold. There’s something modest in the way ferns float only a foot or two above the ground or the way they crowd in along a wall or fence; something amazing, too, when they take hold in a boulder or cliff. When I gaze at my two fern beds, I must acknowledge that despite all my labors, this is what I have, or at least what’s survived. It wasn’t the plan, exactly. Maybe that’s what makes it all the more remarkable in my eyes.

A bigger question asks just where my fondness for ferns originates. I don’t remember them from the woods in my native Ohio or boyhood backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. I acknowledged them in the glen at the back of a farm I inhabited while living Upstate New York, and later at the ashram in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. I do remember being stung by the scorn of a Californian while hiking in southern Indiana, and then being enchanted in the array within rainforest in Washington State. Returning east, I kept Boston ferns in my apartment windows, vowing if I ever owned property again, I’d have ferns.

So memories and associations fit in here. Tastes of the past, and souvenirs of discovery. A reminder, too, of how forest touches my soul. My wife is moved more by flowers. I, by the gentleness of ferns.

Advertisements

ASPARAGUS

My fondness for asparagus arises in the years I lived in an orchard in the Yakima Valley, where, thanks to an earlier agricultural disaster, asparagus seeds had gotten into the irrigation water and spread everywhere. The green sprouts were often touted as “Local ’Grass.” As a consequence, we had about a month when we could take our knives and, being careful to avoid areas of pesticide use, return with a basket of stalks for lunch or dinner. I learned to glut out in season, realizing it would be another year before we’d indulge again.

Now that we have our own asparagus bed and repeat the ritual, albeit on a smaller scale, we’ve also come to regard the damage asparagus beetles inflict as well as the miracle appearance of lady bugs to the rescue. That, in itself, has convinced us of the value of organic farming.

As for Shiva, he’s the horny Hindu god of creation and destruction, and he wields a wicked blade.

GETTING BEYOND LIKE OR DISLIKE

One of the secrets to living a richer life comes in learning to evaluate experiences beyond a simple like or dislike – especially on first encounter. So many of the delights of living are found in acquired tastes. Returning to a challenge for new insights. The critical examination and perspective.

So it’s been with the opera, so much classical music, visual art, beer and wine, even literature I’ve come to love. To say nothing of Holy Scripture. Or the places I’ve lived. To be honest, there are often stretches in a long hike I might admit I don’t like, especially if the insects are biting and the incline’s steep, no matter how much I’m enlivened by the entire outing.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve learned to distrust what comes easily. In living with a piece of art, you may realize fatal flaws behind the initial flash, or to your continuing delight you may find the revelations expanding.

Part of the transition comes in learning to see value in ambiguity and paradox, or to find riches in the shadings of gray beyond simple black and white. It’s not an argument for self-torture or meaninglessness, but rather a willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to consider many other dimensions.

Yes, I like pizza. But, as an illustration, I never would have discovered the joys of manicotti if I’d insisted on the familiar pie that one night.

At the moment, I’m cracking open the Bartok string quartets by means of repeated listening and finding such beauty beneath their outward gruffness. Any examples you care to add the list?

PRACTICE AS A PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE

As I said at the time:

Along the way, the “creative process” is a phrase I’ve come to detest. “Poetic” is another, especially when applied to another art. Whatever “creative” really means or as though the resulting work always occurs in a given sequence. Perhaps “artistic problem-solving” or “artistic exploration” comes closer, except that “artistic” still carries too much excess baggage.

“Process” sounds too much like ritual for my taste. Or a formula, “If you add L to M you’ll end up with an original poem.” Which sounds too much like a dogma or a creed to recite. Like a corridor through a shopping mall. Like a secret code to be disclosed, a joke to be retold in some variation.

For universities, “creative process” can even be seen as the teaching of mistrust and technique. “Absolute skepticism is one of the powers,” Richard Foster writes in Money, Sex & Power. “Absolute skepticism is so pervasive a belief in university life today that it must be considered a spiritual power hostile to an honest search for truth. The task of a university is to pursue truth – all truth – and yet precisely the reverse is happening today.” Creation, however, requires a foundation. Affirmation – a critical embrace of what remains holy. However we want to define that.

In the periodicals, the accepted pieces are typically of a certain length and idiom – that is, they are those lacking the obvious signs of amateurism; they’re idiomatically correct. But do they say anything meaningful, especially to the general reader, much less the populace? Do they speak to others’ conditions? I sense not: at least, seldom my own. (Leading to literary journals read by exclusively by other poets or short story writers, a particularly ticklish incest.)

Meanwhile, when I look at Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan work jumps out in its freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art. Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here: transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too. On into unending depth.

When I first set forth, I believed to be truly creative, something had to spring out of nowhere – a bolt of lightning accompanying work thoroughly unlike anything before it. Similarly, my girlfriend at the time thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a language all our own?” One unlike anything before it. Slowly, however, I realized how difficult it is to understand what’s said and written in an existing language, with all of its nuances and roots waiting to be fathomed. The fact is, creative acts happen through building on existing tradition, evolving at the edges and frontiers. The artist or scientist or inventor or entrepreneur is indebted to all who have come earlier, and is responsible as well for those who will follow.

Often see those who start out are filled with an experience/awareness they want to share but cannot because of deficiencies in technique. By the time they master technique, they’ve lost the freshness. Yet I most admire those who have acquired technique the hard way: hands-on, original, primitive, perhaps without any of the accepted shortcuts.

~*~

The term I’ve come to love, by the way, is “practice.” The way a doctor or lawyer practices. Or even a football team or a choir. It’s never really done. It’s just a way of living.

THE IMAGE, AFTER ALL, OF A WRITER

As I said at the time:

I suppose every writer will have had an image of what an acclaimed author would look like. Maybe the impression comes down through a tour of one of those great hushed houses of history – Longfellow or Twain or Whittier or James Whitcomb Riley come to mind. Hemingway’s Key West, as well. Or from the book jacket portraits or a magazine interview or critiques. Then there are the novels and movies themselves about literary struggle and the inevitable success. So much for the myth – and myth it is, with the superhuman vision and divine blessing accompanied by the Guide’s intervention and the visitors’ awe. And just where does each of us place ourselves in its manifestations?

My own expectations have changed greatly. When I set forth from college, I still envisioned an urban life – a stylish high-rise or a federal era townhouse or a loft in some variation of Greenwich Village – accompanied by a suitable social circle. Or life in a quaint college town, as an alternative. Within a few years, though, I was willing to swap for a rambling farmhouse in the mountains or on a lake, with my studio set out on a ridge. Shades of Kesey and Kerouac, of course. All the while, however, I was employed full-time and trying to work in serious writing in my off-hours – the evenings and weekends while my colleagues were raising children, picking up overtime (“OT”) to buy the house and car of their dreams, going off to professional ballgames and rock concerts. My frugal sabbatical year changed the vision, and publication of my first novel delivered a hardened sense of reality. Now I realized how many writers with a string of books to their credit still drew their main paycheck elsewhere. When they met for lunch, the discussion was likely centered on mortgages, medical problems, and mutual friends rather than literature. I could still hope that a breakout novel might free me from the newsroom, but there was no guarantee it would suffice. There had to be a crack in the wall, of course, someplace, if I could only find it and break through. None of this has lessened the compulsion to write; if anything, that has intensified as I turned away from the management track and, thanks to Newspaper Guild union membership, could afford to live a modest life away from the basic hours at the office. (No more sixty- and seventy-hour workweeks.)

Now I imagine it intensified in official retirement. At the moment, I do not sense another novel in the works – not with seven or eight still awaiting a publisher, in addition to the volumes of Quaker history and spirituality, the genealogies, and the poems. So there is plenty of revision to do, plus correspondence and submissions. Perhaps there will finally be time to attend conferences and workshops, to travel, to give readings. I see it continuing where I am, in Dover, where I’ve established friends and community. Maybe the loft of the barn will be finished into a year-round space, as I’ve longed dreamed, but even that’s not necessary; now that I can access it via attic stairs, it serves nicely as a three-session rustic retreat with room to spread out papers and manuscripts. Besides, as long as the children are gone, there’s a bit more room in the house.

What has changed is that successful author has become simply an active writer.

~*~

And to that let me add, Thank God for Smashwords! As well as WordPress!

 

AFRICAN VIOLET

Simply lovely.
Simply lovely.

Can’t see an African violet in bloom without thinking of the calm reading room at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana. You had to be buzzed in from the museum displays, and the difference in air pressure was noticeable. And there, in the midst of some of the rarest books and broadsides ever printed, a librarian kept potted violets on the thick sills of its windows.

At the time, I was reading a lot of Samuel Johnson in the original. Pinpricks, coffee stains, and all.