Posts Tagged ‘A.A. Milne’

Bumble Buzzing

Monday, May 8th, 2017

spider web

Spider Web photo by Todd

“That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without it’s meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.” A.A. Milne

Yesterday I went out to the woodshed to get firewood. The shed is fourteen-feet-wide and sixteen-feet-long with a high ceiling and a plywood floor. When I picked up a few pieces from the Small Log section, I heard the sound of small waves crashing on a distant shore. Then the sound stopped. So I picked up another couple little logs and the sound came again, only this time it sounded more like a choir of Tibetan monks singing far in the distance.

I carried the wood into the house and wondered what could be making those strangely beautiful sounds. So I returned to the woodshed and removed a few more small logs, and the sound came again, but only for a moment; and for the first time I thought the makers of the sounds might be bees. I then retrieved wood from another part of the shed, and this removal did not cause the bees to sound. Thus I was able to say with some assurance that the hive, if that’s what I had disturbed, was located in the southeast corner of the shed behind firewood created from a few small redwood trees we had felled last year.

Thinking Marcia might enjoy hearing the strangely beautiful sounds, I fetched her from her studio and we went to the shed where my removal of a log caused the loudest humming sounds yet. Marcia backed out of the shed and said, “I’m scared.”

And the moment she expressed her fear, a bee flew in through the open shed door and disappeared into the stack of wood. I was fairly certain this bee was not a honeybee or a yellow jacket, but a bumblebee of some sort. Yellow jackets and wasps are extremely aggressive defenders of their nests, whereas these buzzing beings seemed fine (for the time being) with my getting wood from the shed. However, we need to get at the wood where the hive is, so we called the local pest-control folks to come have a look.

The friendly woman who answered the phone at the pest-control place explained that they did not exterminate honeybees because honeybees are an endangered species. If they determined our buzzers were honeybees, they would refer us to a Beetriever who would come and capture the hive and give the bees a new place to live. I feared our bees were not honeybees, though they were probably valuable pollinators.

In the early afternoon, a pest-control guy arrived and I led him to the woodshed and demonstrated how moving a log or two caused the bees to sound. Thinking our bees might be carpenter bees, the pest-control guy asked if the bees I’d seen were solid black. “No,” I said, “the bees I saw were definitely yellow and black.” With that in mind, the pest-control guy began removing handfuls of little logs from on top of where the buzzing sounds were coming from, and out flew two bumblebees. This emboldened the pest-control guy to remove a few more logs, which allowed him to shine his flashlight onto the outer edge of a small hive of bumblebees.

By this time, several irate bees were zooming around us, so we stepped out of the shed and the pest-control guy said, “Here’s the situation. These bees are not usually much trouble. They don’t want to sting you because if they do, they’ll die, so they really have to feel attacked to attack you. If you’re not allergic, I’d suggest you just gently harass them a couple times a day by removing wood, and they’ll probably leave in the next few days. If they don’t leave and become a problem, we can come back and treat them.”

So that is the plan: daily gentle harassing and avoiding being stung.

Shortly after the pest-control guy left, Marion dropped by for tea, and when I told her about the bees in the woodshed she said, “That reminds me of a story Ann told me.” The story goes something like this.

One day when Ann was living in Oakland, she opened the kitchen cupboard where she kept her tea and found a large spider in residence there, a non-poisonous kind of spider. Rather than remove the large spider from the premises, Ann decided to let the spider live in the tea cupboard. She then informed the human members of her household about the resident arachnid, and the humans named the spider Lipton.

Lipton lived contentedly in the tea cupboard for several years until one day it became necessary for the humans to have the house fumigated to eradicate legions of voracious termites. The day before the exterminators were to arrive, Ann opened the tea cupboard and said to Lipton, “Dear friend, due to unfortunate circumstances and our desire to keep our home from turning into sawdust, we are having the house fumigated with a terrible poison that will kill you if you stay in the house. So I am going to open the window right here over the sink and hope you will skedaddle so you can keep on living.”

And Lipton did, indeed, skedaddle out the open window before the exterminators came to douse the house with poison.

With this story in mind, I now speak to the bees in the woodshed whenever I go to gently harass them. I say, among other things, “As you may have surmised, we’re starting to clear out the wood in here and I’m hoping you will take advantage of the lovely spring weather to find a new place to hang out. We greatly appreciate your pollinating efforts and want you to continue pollinating and proliferating—just not in our woodshed. Many thanks.”

Ganesha

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Ganesha

Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.

Bird In Hand

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)

“For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.” D.H. Lawrence

Three days ago I was settling down on the living room sofa for a much-anticipated afternoon nap, when a bird smacked into one of the seven big windows that make our living room feel so light and airy. Alas, this sickening thud usually presages a dead bird or one so stunned that our cat, if he can get outside in time, makes short work of. And so it was with some trepidation that I got up to look out the various windows to see what I could see.

To my surprise and chagrin, the bird in question had not smacked the outside of a window, but had flown through our open sliding glass door and struck the inside of a pane; and there she was, a little gray sparrow with pretty white markings, standing stock still on a window sill.

“Hello beautiful,” I said to the bird, hoping to catch and release her without hurting her and without causing so much commotion that our cat would come running to capture this high protein snack.

But how could I catch the bird without scaring her into frantic flight? I picked up the big straw basket I use for shopping and thought I’d somehow put the basket over the bird and then…then what? Wouldn’t the bird just fly out from under the basket and zoom around the room and smack into another window and break her neck or bring our cat running or…

Yet even as I was entertaining such unpleasant scenarios, I got closer and closer to the bird until I was right beside her and she remained standing absolutely still. So I slowly reached out and gently encircled her body with my fingers, carefully gripped her just tightly enough so she couldn’t escape, and carried her to the doorway where I opened my hand and she sprang into the air and winged her way across the meadow to the forest.

And two seconds after I released that little bird, our big gray bird-killing cat came sauntering into the living room and gave me a most disparaging look, or so it seemed.

Then this morning on my way to get the newspaper that magically appears at the mouth of our driveway every Sunday morning, a bird who was the spitting image of the bird I saved, accompanied me along the drive, flitting from branch to branch and staying close to me for the entire hundred yards, fluttering her wings and chirping away as if trying to communicate something to me, or so it seemed.

Was she the same bird I rescued? Was she thanking me? Or was she perhaps trying to repay me with information she thought I might find useful—truths about the universe we humans have overlooked or forgotten.

“Probably not,” says my logical mind, but “Maybe so,” says the part of me that believes Nature is far more fantastic than we can possibly imagine, so that a bird wanting to thank a person is every bit as likely as the evolution of a gigantic tortoise or elephant or human from a single-celled predecessor scrabbling around in the primordial soup. After all, if whales saved by people from entangling fishing nets frequently hang around after being rescued to express their gratitude, might not that little bird have been doing the same?

Indeed, I think animals and trees and insects must be hollering themselves hoarse trying to get through to us humans, hoping to set us straight about how to live on the earth without wrecking everything. The indigenous people of North America certainly believed animals and insects and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones were talking to them, teaching them the laws of nature, and that if a person listened and observed carefully enough, the animals and insects and fish and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones would reveal everything Great Spirit wanted us to know, Great Spirit being their name for God or Nature or Universe.

The funny thing to me about the idea of our existing within the body of a vastly intelligent universe, and by funny I mean both amusing and perplexing, is that so many people find the idea idiotic and even dangerous. Yet assuming we do actually exist, we do so within the body of the universe. Right? So the perceived idiocy of the idea must be about whether or not the universe is intelligent; and before we can answer that question we would have to agree on a definition of intelligence, and since we will never be able to agree about that, the discussion ends here.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. A.A. Milne

I was once saved by a bird, and for all I know I was saved again by that little sparrow I saved a few days ago, my saving of her being my salvation though I didn’t know it was my salvation at the time and don’t fully know it now, though I have an inkling. The bird I know that saved me was a ptarmigan, a large pigeon-like bird I encountered in the Canadian Rockies.

I was in my early twenties and living as a vagabond, running away from my parents and the material trappings of American society, living out of a backpack, working as a laborer and dishwasher and playing the guitar and singing on street corners. I was also running from a deep dark depression born of feeling like a worthless piece of shit for not bending to the will of my parents and succeeding on their terms rather than my own. However, I wasn’t keenly aware of harboring such depressive tendencies because I was always on the move, always trying to make enough money to get food, always searching for safe places to spend the night.

I had heard from others of my kind that the Canadian government (this was in the 1970’s) had set up a network of free hostels for transients all across their vast country, and so I spent the better part of a summer staying in those hostels and hitching west from eastern Canada to the charming hamlet of Jasper, Alberta on the banks of the mighty Athabasca River. I camped by the Athabasca, drank good cheap beer in the Athabasca Hotel, played volleyball in the little park in the center of town, saw an excellent performance of The Fantasticks, and spent my days fly fishing and climbing mountains alone and without rope or climbing equipment, bagging several peaks that rose from the valley in which Jasper lay.

I was foolish to hike alone, the wilderness there vast and unforgiving, but climbing mountains alone was truly idiotic, even suicidal, and I think I knew that on some level of my consciousness, for I was often afraid on my climbs, yet went on climbing nonetheless.

So at last there came a moment when I found myself balanced precariously on a tiny ledge on a cliff with nothing below me but air for thousands of feet down, with thirty feet of sheer cliff above me and no apparent way to go up. I was hot and tired and terribly thirsty, and I remember looking back the way I’d come and seeing no possible way to return. Then I looked the other way and saw that the ledge I was standing on came to abrupt end at a large nose of granite protruding into space.

I truly thought I was going to die. There was no way back, no way forward, now way down, no way up. And on the heels of the thought that I was going to die came another thought: Good riddance, you failure, you loser, you useless piece of shit. And as that deep dark depression I’d been running from finally caught up to me and grabbed hold of my spirit, I honestly think I was about to step off into space and end my life.

At which moment, on the aforementioned nose of granite at the dead end of the little ledge I was standing on, there appeared a large pigeon-like bird I would later identify as a ptarmigan. Now this bird did not fly out of the sky and land on the granite nose. No, she hopped up there from some place out of my view, and then she hopped down onto my ledge and waddled right up to me and pecked the toe of my boot. Then she looked up at me and said, “Oodle oodle. Oodle oodle,” which not only means “Hey, Buddy, you’re blocking my path,” but also turns out to be an incantation for dispelling suicidal tendencies in depressed people stuck on tiny ledges on cliffs.

I know this to be true because by the time she uttered her third oodle oodle I was laughing and climbing that last thirty feet to the top, finding handholds and footholds I’d never imagined could be there.

At the top of that cliff I crawled away from the edge into a gently sloping alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and transected by a burbling brook of the sweetest water I have ever tasted.

So maybe life is a random meaningless crapshoot, but I have my reasons for thinking otherwise.

Another Year

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

(photo of Mike Leigh)

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

According to the on-screen credits that introduce Mike Leigh’s latest movie Another Year (available on DVD), the backers included agencies of the British government, including the national lottery. So…not only do the Brits have excellent and free healthcare, but their government provides money for cutting edge artists (be still my heart) to make major motion pictures about people so real that Marcia and I have been talking about Another Year for days on end, as if the characters in the movie actually came here and spent several days with us, getting drunk and driving us batty with all their imperfections and beauties and sorrows and strengths and frailties attendant to being human, as opposed to being cartoon characters.

The Sunday following our viewing of Another Year, I leafed through the Pink section (movies, music, theater, dance) and Insight section (books) of the San Francisco Chronicle and felt painfully embarrassed, as I often do, by our so-called culture. Books so badly written (my teeth ache thinking about them) fill the bestseller lists and garner slobbering reviews of such transparent falsity there can be no question this nonsense was planted by the publishers, those New York-based mouths of multinational corporations that would never knowingly publish a controversial sentence, let alone a truly original work of fiction. And this is the mediocre gunk that fills our bookstores; these are the made-for-dumbed-down-adolescents inanities that fill our movie theaters; these are the live sit-coms passing for plays that clutter our stages.

Which only makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year even more astonishing, not only because his movie is a great original work of art, but because it was made at all (without interference from the backers), and, miracle of miracles, made available in America to anyone emotionally capable of sitting through a movie that isn’t predictable, has an extremely subtle plot, features brilliant actors who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, has no overt violence, and causes us to examine our own lives in light of how this movie makes us feel. Escapist fun, no. Great art, yes.

Here is a Mike Leigh quote that gives a bit of insight into his way of making movies, an insight that applies to any art employing improvisation as a means of creating the first draft, as it were.

“The whole thing about making films in an organic film on location is that it’s not all about characters, relationships and themes, it’s also about place and the poetry of place. It’s about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across.”

In my experience as a writer and artist, and as a teacher of writers and artists, “the accidents of what you stumble across” turn out to be the primary catalysts of the creative process. And what I learned was that a terrible fear of stumbling and accidents and saying/writing “the wrong thing” was endemic among Americans longing to exercise their creative muscles; and if I wanted to make any headway with my students, I had to devise processes for overcoming this enormous blockade to free flowing creativity.

Ultimately, I invented hundreds of non-analytical writing exercises that circumvent our inner judges, critics, goblins, parents, and teachers who continue to shout so loudly in our brains that we can’t hear the muses trying to speak and sing and create through us. Many of these exercises are collected in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path (published in 2000 by 10-Speed Press and now out-of-print) which you can find copies of for pennies on the interweb, and from which I do not make a dime. I recommend the book to you and anyone wishing to establish a writing practice that takes full advantage of “the accidents of what you stumble across.”

Working first with teenagers and then with adults, I found that nearly everyone, even professional writers, suffers from what I diagnosed as plotitis, the primary symptom of which is the bizarre and ridiculous notion that a writer must have all the story elements (plot, characters, locations, etc.) figured out before he or she begins to write. In my quest for an antidote to the obvious cause of plotitis, an operating system error lodged in the left (analytical) brain, I stumbled on a process that not only cures the disease, it empowers everyone to write wonderful stories, a process I dubbed Arbitrary Story Structures. Here is a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Path introducing the process and two of the story structures.

*Arbitrary Story Structures

To help writers overcome one of the fundamental obstacles to successful story writing, we devised a simple and effective story-generating technique that frees the writer from having to invent the structure of a story before she begins to write it. When a writer is relieved of the need to invent a plot, her intuitive talents are free to emerge.

Arbitrary Story Structures are not detailed plots, but rather bare skeletons on which to hang an original tale. Following the brief instructions, we present eight structures of varying complexity. Each of them is written in a particular person and tense, but feel free to use any tense or person you prefer. Some of the structures provide slightly more specific suggestions than others. Use the ones you find most appealing.

Basic Exercise.

1. Read Part 1 of the Arbitrary Story Structure and write the first paragraph of your story.

2. Read Part 2 and write the second paragraph of your story.

3. Continue this process until you’ve written a paragraph for each part of the structure.

4. Read your story aloud.

5. If you like your story, refine or expand it.

Arbitrary Story Structure 1: The Journey

Part 1. You are on your way somewhere.

Part 2. You see something that strikes you as extraordinary.

Part 3. You think about what you’ve seen.

Part 4. You encounter another person.

Part 5. You have a brief conversation with this person.

Part 6. You fall asleep and dream. Tell the dream.

Arbitrary Story Structure 2: The Turning Point

Part 1. Someone is somewhere.

Part 2. He thinks about something and decides to go somewhere.

Part 3. He reaches the destination.

Part 4. He experiences a strong emotion.

Part 5. He has a vivid memory.

Part 6. He does something uncharacteristic.*

Now you might think that if eight people were to write stories based on the same story structure that eight similar stories would result. Yet that never happens. Indeed, the abstract nature of the suggestions ignites something unique in everyone, and no two stories will be alike.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last,

‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A.A. Milne

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is divided into four sections of roughly the same length, the sections corresponding to the progression of the four seasons. In The Writer’s Path we call this a Natural Story Structure. To quote from the book again:

*The human life cycle—birth, life, death—is a grand story structure to which many of the world’s most famous novels adhere. Within this most familiar structure, countless story lines wait to support your unique visions. And beyond the human life cycle, in the patterns of all things, myriad story structures await you.

What, for instance, is the abstract story structure of a day? Here is a seven-part abstract structure based on one of many possible interpretations.

Part 1. Darkness

Part 2. Dawn

Part 3. Morning

Part 4. Noon

Part 5. Afternoon

Part 6. Evening

Part 7. Night*

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis

I think it is truthfulness suffused with empathy expressed through Mike Leigh’s mastery of the cinematic art that makes Another Year so memorable and challenging and original.

Happiness

Friday, December 10th, 2010

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.” Edith Wharton

November thirtieth. The weather report said Mendocino could expect rain tonight and for the next several days, so in anticipation of the deluge I spent an hour giving my three garlic beds their second mulching with some well-aged horse manure. I planted my garlic on October 17, my birthday, and now all but a few of the hundred and forty cloves I inserted into the friable soil have sent up sturdy green shoots.

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Mark Twain

Both garlic and humans gestate in their respective wombs for nine months before arriving at the optimal moment for emerging into the light. The poet in me finds this similarity delightful and significant.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Colette

I am sixty-one and have grown garlic every year for the last thirty years. I began growing garlic while living in Sacramento where I had a large vegetable and flower garden in the backyard of the only house I ever owned. I have grown vegetables since I was six-years-old, but waited to sew my first bed of garlic until I was certain I would be living in the same place for more than a year.

Before I planted my first garlic crop, I consulted pertinent chapters in gardening books and interviewed an elderly Italian woman who grew gorgeous garlic plants in a large circular patch in the center of her impressively green lawn a few blocks from my house. I gathered from my research that in the event of an early and persistently wet winter I might not need to water my garlic until spring, but if no rain fell for some weeks at a stretch I would need to give my garlic periodic soakings. This meant I could no longer blithely ignore my garden from December to March as was my habit before I undertook the growing of garlic.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” A.A. Milne

China produces 77% of the garlic grown in the world: 23 billion pounds a year. Zowee! That comes to more than three pounds of garlic for every person on earth. India grows 4% of the garlic, South Korea 2%, Russia 1.6%, and the United States 1.4%. Which suggests that though Gilroy, California claims to be the garlic capital of the world, it is not.

“The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” V.S. Pritchett

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life was making groovalicious pesto from garlic and basil and almonds I grew in my own Sacramento backyard. My two almond trees, planted adjacent to a tall wooden fence, began to produce nuts in their fifth year; and every single one of those firstborn nuts was devoured by squirrels before those nuts were ripe enough for human consumption.

Indeed, until my almond trees were eight-years-old I despaired of ever harvesting more than a few pathetic almonds from my trees. Then one day I noticed that those ravenous arboreal rodents had left untouched a concentration of almonds growing low in the tree and near the fence on which my cats liked to perch. Thus enlightened, I thereafter pruned my almond trees to encourage the growth of several more low down branches so that these branches and their bounty could be easily patrolled by my cats, while the yummy prizes adorning the upper branches were sacrificed to the incorrigible squirrels.

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Eric Hoffer

Since fleeing Sacramento in 1995, I have never again grown such rampant and mammoth and exceedingly juicy basil, and may never again harvest such delicious almonds from trees I nurtured from bare roots into towering prolificacy; but here in Mendocino I grow garlic that surpasses the best I ever grew in those inland lowlands where the summers were cruel to the likes of me, and the winters were not much kinder, for I was bred and born in San Francisco where Hot is anything over seventy-eight and Cold is anything below fifty.

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Thomas Merton

After fifteen years of growing garlic in Sacramento, I moved to Berkeley and rented a house that afforded me only a tiny garden plot, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a quarter of which I devoted to the cultivation of garlic. I had honed my garlic chops, as it were, in a climate very unlike Berkeley’s, and so it took me a year to adjust my gardening techniques to fit that cooler coastal clime where lettuce and kale and chard grow year round, Aloe Vera can spread like Bermuda Grass, and hedges of Jade plants are not uncommon.

“On the whole, the happiest people seem to be those who have no particular cause for being happy except that they are so.” William Inge

I usually harvest my garlic bulbs at the end of June or in early July, and from that happy pile I set aside a few dozen of the largest bulbs with the biggest cloves for the next fall planting. I grow two strains of hard neck garlic, one strain descended from spicy white garlic sold to me by a Chinese garlic grower I met at a farmer’s market in Sacramento, the other a pinkish garlic given to me by a woman who said the garlic had been passed down for generations in the family of an Italian man she was dating. And when a fresh shipment of garlic appears on the shelf at Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino, I will go through the lot looking for outstanding bulbs with large firm cloves to add to my arsenal.

“Happiness is a how, not a what. A talent, not an object.” Hermann Hesse

One day an elderly man with a thick German accent stood in the middle of my Berkeley plot and proclaimed, “I zee by your garlic zat you are real gardener.”

I know several gardeners who don’t grow garlic and are far more zealous and prolific than I in the ways of growing vegetables and flowers and herbs, so I certainly don’t consider the growing of garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener. I suppose this German fellow may have labeled me a real gardener because of the beauty and enormity of my garlic plants and my fastidious care of their beds, but in remembering the tone of his voice and the twinkle in his eye, I think, actually, he did consider growing garlic a prerequisite for being a real gardener, and though I may not intellectually agree with him, in some ineffable way I do agree.

“Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” Kahil Gibran

The aged manure I use to mulch my garlic comes to me courtesy of my good friend Kathy Mooney, her horse Paloma the manufacturer of the blessed poop. Paloma is a gorgeous, white, blue-eyed Tennessee Walker, friendly and intelligent and possibly clairvoyant, for she always seems to be expecting me when I arrive with a bag of apples for her.

Prior to my coming to collect her manure, my interactions with Paloma were conducted over a fence between us, I feeding her apples and petting her, she allowing me to do so. Thus my entrance into her corral with my wheelbarrow ushered in a new phase of our relationship and gave me a firsthand appreciation of how strong a 1200-pound horse in her prime can be.

Having followed me to the area where she generally deposits her fertilizer, Paloma gingerly fitted her large and beautiful snout under the front rim of my big blue wheelbarrow, and with a flick of her mighty neck flung the wheelbarrow fifteen feet through the air (thankfully not in my direction), as if to say, “Thank you so much for bringing me a new toy. Fetch it, please, and I will toss it again.”

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

As I was mulching the many green spikes with Paloma’s manure, I realized that this fabulously rich organic matter was in part composed of apples I’d brought to Paloma, and those apples came from Joanne’s trees, Joanne being our gracious neighbor and landlord. One of the perks of renting from Joanne is a profusion of apples every fall from her well-tended trees, apples we share with several other households in the watershed.

“The man who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Vita Sackville-West

Earlier this year, a consortium of scientists decoded the complete genome of the Golden Delicious apple, which turns out to have 57,000 genes, the highest number of any plant genome studied to date and more genes than the human genome, which only has 30,000 genes. Think about that the next time you eat an apple.

“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half. Examine the centers of the halves. You will find that the seed cavities form five-pointed stars. Now take a large rose hip and cut it in half in the same way you cut the apple. Voila. You will find similar five-pointed stars, for apples and roses are close kin.

“What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Marcia’s Fresh Garlic Dressing (for salad for two)

In a glass jar or ceramic bowl mix together 2-3 large cloves of grated fresh garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar, and a healthy splash of tamari. Now dress the lettuce—a generous handful per person—and for an extra treat throw in half an avocado.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)