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Reversions

Reversions

Bird Mansion photo by Todd

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

“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” Mark Twain

Something marvelous strange happened with our pumpkins this year. That is to say we are hopeful the strange turns out to be marvelous. Here’s what has happened so far. Four years ago, I bought two pumpkin starts at the farmers market in Mendocino and planted those starts in a raised bed rife with redwood roots, three miles inland from the coast. Those plants were supposed to grow small sweet pumpkins, half the size of bowling balls. I got one little pumpkin. Delicious. I saved the seeds.

When we moved to our new house a mile from the coast, I planted the seeds in a new bed, also rife with redwood roots, and got two little pumpkins. Delicious. I saved the seeds. The next year, last year, I planted the seeds in a bed less troubled by redwood roots, took great care of the plants, and we got six little cuties. Wonderful. Marcia made pumpkin pies and pumpkin soup. Yummy. I saved the seeds.

This year I created a deep rich bed, planted the seeds, and lo, the vines have set five pumpkins, four of which are much bigger than bowling balls. Where did these four mighty pumpkins come from? Why are they somewhat cylindrical? Are they reversions to an earlier type of pumpkin used in creating the hybrid little pumpkin I began with? Why did the reversion take four generations?

My research suggests these pumpkins may not be reversions to an earlier progenitor, but rather a new variety. If we like the flavor of these new pumpkins, I will save the seeds of the biggest and best ones, plant them next year and see if they continue to produce these behemoths, relatively speaking, assuming they turn orange or some other pleasing color. Could this be the birth of Coastal Toddkins? We hope so.

In other news of change, we are on the verge of completing the transformation of the smaller of the two bathrooms in our house into an actual room in which one can take a bath. The outer wall of this small room previously featured a skinny horizontal window near the ceiling that gave no view and was, we assume, for ventilation and nothing more. Replacing that narrow strip of glass with a large picture window gave us a view of a circle of majestic redwoods embracing a not beautiful and not majestic red outhouse with a crescent moon in the door.

This outhouse was there when we moved in and had not been used for decades. And though I wanted the outhouse gone because something about it gave me the creeps, we were not sufficiently inspired to get rid of the thing until we cut the hole in the bathroom wall for the picture window and found we had created little more than a frame for a three-dimensional rendering of an outhouse. I’m sure there are those who would find looking out a new bathroom window at an old haunted outhouse amusing, but I prefer looking at trees, so we gave the outhouse to a family of local homesteaders glad to get the luxurious pooper.

With the outhouse gone, we discovered it had been cradled in the lovely remnant of the burned out trunk of an old growth redwood, the mother of the four huge trees now forming a circle around her. I have subsequently cleared out masses of dead branches from the circle, and now when I look out my office window or out the new bathroom window, the scene is inspiring and inviting. Yesterday I looked up from writing and saw a doe and her two fawns exploring the newly liberated space.

We also excised forty shoes surrounding one of the massive trees adjacent to the outhouse. Filled with dirt, these shoes were once home to non-descript succulents, their desiccated remains tangled in the rotting leather and nylon. Tennis shoes, work boots, walking shoes, loafers, cowboy boots, bedroom slippers; these forty rotting pieces of footwear were a small portion of the several hundred such shoes the previous owners of our property deployed around shrubs and trees, and to line walkways. We hope the forty outhouse shoes were the last of the unsightly buggers, but something tells me there are more dirt-filled shoes lurking on the premises.

The previous owners also left behind seventeen large wooden birdhouses sitting atop posts scattered around the property. Some of the houses were a few feet off the ground, and some were as high as seven feet off the ground. No view from anywhere on our land was free of one or more of these birdhouses. These multi-story homes, featuring porches and shingled roofs, bird mansions really, were rotting and falling apart when we arrived, and when I dismantled them, I found they were filled with the nests of rats, not birds. Many of the mansions held spent packages of D-Con, an edible rat poison, and, yes, I found rat carcasses, too.

And there were large wooden archways standing here and there around the property, nine of them, no view of our two acres free of one or more of these freestanding vine holders leading nowhere and festooned with dying honeysuckle or dead potato vine or struggling wisteria. Oh, yes, and blocking the view from every window of our house was dense shrubbery, hundreds of non-descript bushes marching away in close ranks in every direction, filling the space between the house and the surrounding forest.

I’ve gotten rid of the archways and nearly all the useless water-sucking view blockers, and we have attained spaciousness and light and can now see the trunks of the big trees, fruit trees, and lovely Japanese maples. The rat infestation we were warned about by our neighbors has not yet materialized because we have removed most of the ready-made nesting facilities, and when we moved here we brought our cat Django, an excellent ratter, though our great hunting cat recently died and we will not get a new cat or cats until spring.

Now it’s time to take a bath with a view of trees and sky, perchance to dream of pumpkin pie.

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Mowing

Mowing Two

Mowed Down photo by Todd

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

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Henry David Thoreau

A friend called last week to ask if I was aware of the recent carnage wreaked on the Mendocino headlands from Ford House down to the land above Portuguese Beach. She said giant bulldozer mowers had mowed everything, except the very largest shrubs, down to bare earth. I said I would take a look.

“All those lizards and bugs and flowers and grasses just gone,” she said. “The official word from the state park people is they did it to control non-native species, but we know they did it to make sure there’s no place for homeless people to lie down or take a pee. No more privacy, no more wildness. I’ve been crying about it for two days.”

I walked to town the next day to check out the mown headlands. On my way I passed a favorite field that had just been mowed, and my first thought was what a pity the lovely vetch and clover that had been on the rise would now not bloom to feed the bees and bugs and birds. My second thought was how spiffy everything looked—civilized. The house attached to the newly mown field has been empty and for sale for two years, the price steadily dropping from the absurd to the upper reaches of plausible. Did the realtor think mowing the field would make the place more saleable?

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Albert Einstein.

I love the wildness of the unkempt headlands, as do birds, lizards, snakes, gophers, rabbits, bees, bugs, birds and people who like to pick blackberries in August and September. Seeing the south side of Main Street mowed down to the bare earth was a shock. I’ve written poems and scenes in novels set here among the wild grasses and poppies and renegade callas and wild roses that abound on this particular swath of headlands, or did abound until they were rendered unsequestered carbon by the whirring blades.

Now the place looks like a raggedy golf course or a field waiting to be plowed and planted with Brussels sprouts, kin to the coastal fields north of Santa Cruz. If not for the inconvenient water shortage hereabouts and the headlands being public property, condominiums could be built here with ample parking and lights blazing day and night. Damn that water shortage and the socialist conspiracy known as state parks. Hell, with a big desalinization plant, we could have a casino here. After all, Mendocino was once the site of a Pomo village, so…

 “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” William Shakespeare

Except we like that the only human construction rising on these slaughtered fields will be the music festival tent that comes and goes every July. We like the vetch and mustard and brassica, the poison oak and poppies, the seed birds, the bunnies, the lupine, the blackberries and rambling roses, some of which will come back eventually, now that the mowers are done and gone—assuming they don’t come back for another several years.

We doubt the mowing was done to eradicate non-native species. They mowed everything, native and non-native. I think they mowed to make the place inhospitable to homeless people and people who like to pee outside rather than suffer the slimy stench of the shameful public bathroom bunker, and because they, whoever ordered the mowing, are mean-spirited dummies.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein

On the bright side, we now have the opportunity to watch how Nature goes about re-wilding land that humans have trashed. Nature works fast around here, left to her own devices. True, she might reseed the new mown fields with Pampas Grass and Scotch Broom and eucalyptus, invasive non-natives all, but reseed the fields she will. I say lets help her by broadcasting a hundred pounds of wildflower seeds out there. Why not?

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Frederick Douglass

A stone’s throw west of the scalped fields we come to a multi-acre expanse where all is grasses and mustard and lupine bushes and renegade brassica, with no large shrubs to hide behind—a place where homeless people rarely venture to rest and pee. No, this is acreage upon which valuable turísticos tread to reach the scenic shorelines whereupon photogenic waves crash, and from where whales may be espied spouting. Here in this fairly bland ecosystem (bland compared to the one that just got mowed) a tiny section of the headlands has been cordoned off with flabby orange plastic fencing for the purpose of (so says the sign) Native Habitat Restoration.

This privileged chunk of native habitat seems to be mostly mustard, a few native and non-native grasses, and vetch. What’s really going on is the footpath tracing the edge of a precipitous cliff is about to collapse into the sea, and the aforementioned dummies are hoping to delay a trail collapse resulting in the death of a tourist or two. To call this operation native habitat restoration is plain silly, especially considering the destruction of fifty times as much native habitat right over there.

Meanwhile, the myriad creatures displaced by the mowing, those that weren’t killed, are adjusting to the new reality. Earthworms continue doing their thing, snakes and lizards and rabbits have moved to safer ground and keep up their relentless search for sustenance. Ditto bees and butterflies. Gophers carry on as if nothing has happened. The homeless and the desperate pee elsewhere for now. Locals continue to walk their dogs here, and their dogs continue to sniff and pee and poop and bark.

Seeds, native and non-native, are already germinating in the scarified soil. Life, such as it is, goes on.

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Nothing

jennysletter

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite stories from Joseph Campbell is of a wise man introducing his young son to one of the great mysteries of life. They are sitting together under an enormous banyan tree, which is a tropical fig tree, and the man asks his son to pick a fig and cut the fruit in half.

The boy slices the fig in half and his father asks him, “What do you see?”

“I see thousands of tiny seeds,” says the boy, marveling at the innards of the fig.

“Now take one of those seeds and cut it in half,” says the father.

With some difficulty, the boy manages to extract a single seed from the fig and cut the tiny thing in half.

“What do you see?” asks the father.

“I see…nothing,” says the boy.

“From that nothing came this great banyan tree,” says the wise man. “From such nothingness came the entire universe.”

I often think of this story when I am planting rows of lettuce or carrots, the seeds so small and seemingly insignificant. Of course I know there is something inside the tiny seeds from which will sprout, under the right circumstances, shoots of life that will grow into scrumptious heads of lettuce and sweet carrots, but that something is so tiny that until very recently in human history we lacked the means to see that something was there inside the seeming nothingness.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday as I was walking through the Harvest Market parking lot in Mendocino, I saw an astounding scene. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I saw a scene that astounded me. The scene might not have astounded someone else and thereby would not have been universally astounding. In any case, here is what I saw.

Parked between, and dwarfing, what I had theretofore considered a large Volvo station wagon and a large Mercedes-Benz station wagon was a humongous green pickup truck mounted on a massive tubular suspension attached to four gigantic tires such that the bottom of the behemoth truck was elevated a good seven feet off the ground. And as I was trying to imagine why anyone would want to suspend a truck so high off the ground, a man inside the cab of the truck opened the driver’s side door and climbed down the several silver rungs of the ladder/stairs used to access the cab from the ground and vice-versa.

The man—I guessed he was in his late twenties—was wearing camouflage fatigues, brown boots, and a green Australian outback commando quasi-cowboy hat. He was not a big man and seemed positively tiny juxtaposed to his enormous truck suspended high above him atop the massive tubular suspension affixed to the four gigantic tires. He came around to the back of his truck, pointed a remote control device kin to a television channel changer at the tail of his vehicle, and another ladder of silver steps was slowly extruded from a slot just below the bottom of the tailgate and came to a stop about a foot off the ground. The young man then climbed up the ladder/stairs and opened the tailgate of his colossal rig.

At first I thought his tailgate would open downward, as does the tailgate of my itsy bitsy teeny weeny pickup truck, but the young man’s tailgate was split in the middle and each half could be opened out like the door of a refrigerator. I stood in frozen fascination as the young man opened the right side tailgate door and in so doing revealed that the mammoth bed of the gargantuan truck held nothing but a small green plastic box from which the man extracted a big red dog biscuit. The man then closed the plastic box, closed his tailgate, descended to the ground, the silver steps were sucked back up into the tail of the truck, and the man returned to the driver’s side door of the truck. He then climbed the silver steps, opened the door to the cab, and gave the dog biscuit to a tiny dachshund.

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

I love how when we thank someone in Spanish by saying Gracias, the response is usually De nada, which means It’s nothing, but which might also be translated Of nothing, which suggests to me that embedded in the language is the humble acknowledgment that all the gifts of life spring from the same nothing from which the universe was born. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a simple figure of speech, but I don’t think so.

When I was twenty-one, I was the translator for a marine biologist and his family traveling from California to Costa Rica and back again. We were a low budget expedition, to say the least, traveling in a large International Harvester delivery truck that we remodeled to sleep eight people, so we only needed access to a bit of level ground for our nightly accommodations to be complete. Thus every day in the late afternoon, wherever we happened to be, my job was to find us a spot where we could bivouac, and I would do this by hailing someone I liked the look of and asking if he or she knew of a good place in the vicinity where we might camp.

I made this request of men and women every afternoon for the six months we traveled in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—more than one hundred and fifty times—and virtually every time I asked, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a dondé podemos acampar?” the person would reply without hesitation, “Yes. I will show you a good place.” or “Yes, you may camp here on my property.” or “Yes, come to our village.” Sometimes our hosts were poor, and sometimes they were wealthy, relatively speaking. Sometimes we stayed on farms, and sometimes we stayed on the outskirts of villages, but no matter where we stayed the people always brought us gifts, usually of food.

A man in Nicaragua invited us to camp on his beautiful farm and gave us as a going away present a huge bunch of green bananas that ripened slowly and sequentially so we had perfectly ripe bananas every day for weeks. A family in Mexico gave us a place to camp right next to their small adobe house, and in the morning before we departed they insisted we pick vegetables from their big garden. A fellow in Costa Rica took us to a camping spot on the banks of a crystal clear stream in which there were thousands of tiny silver fish, and that evening the fellow and his wife and children came to visit us, bringing with them a pot of delicious turtle soup to share. And once we stayed in a village where the people were very poor, yet two children were sent to us by their mother to present us with a little basket containing three freshly made corn tortillas.

We always thanked our hosts profusely, and we often invited them to join us for supper, though such invitations were rarely accepted. I also always offered to give our hosts a little money in thanks for their generosity, but very few people, even those who were obviously poor, would accept money for the help they gave us. And every time we took our leave and I said to our hosts Gracias mucho, the reply was invariably De nada accompanied by smiles and Buena suerte—good luck.

I know things have changed greatly since that expedition in 1970. Today, eight scruffy gringos in a yellow milk truck would probably not be treated so kindly and generously as we were treated in those countries forty years ago, but I still marvel at how willing so many people were to invite us into their lives. And I wonder what I would do if tomorrow a van pulls up beside my garden where I’m weeding and watering, and a scruffy fellow leans out the window of the van and says, “Excuse me, but do you know of a good place around here where we can camp tonight?”

I would probably suggest they try a nearby state park or private campground, though those places are no longer the bargains they used to be. Or I suppose I could invite them to make their camp right over there by that little stand of redwoods on the corner of our property. They wouldn’t be in our way and they’d be gone tomorrow. I could give them some vegetables from our garden, vegetables that came from nothing, and I could ask them where they came from and where they were going. I could do that, I suppose, though I would have to like their vibe. No, I would have to love their vibe, and only then would I open our place to them.

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Tenaya’s Kale Infinitum

Today I completed a process that has taken a year from start to finish. Last year our friend Tenaya gave us (Marcia and Todd) a single baby kale plant. I planted the little thing in the corner of a raised bed, and the little thing grew to be a hearty and singular kale plant in a bed of broccoli. After we’d gotten a dozen helpings of kale leaves from the plant, I let her go to flower and then to seed over the winter. Eventually, the plant grew to a majestic height of eight feet and made hundreds and hundreds of long slender seed pods. I only needed a hundred or so seeds for planting a couple new beds of kale, so I wondered what I might do with the surplus. I shared my wondering with our friend Marion who was visiting from England, and she said, “Well, people pay good money to buy little bags of kale seeds for making sprouts.” Voila.

I waited until the seed pods began to open of their own volition in the garden and then harvested them in a big brown paper bag which I left near, but not too near, the woodstove for a few days. When the pods were mostly yellow and dry, I reached into the bag and squeezed the pods and broke them and shook the bag and squeezed the pods some more and shook the bag some more, and then I dumped the works into a big stainless steel bowl and started sorting out the empty pods and opening up the less cooperative pods to release their seeds. Eventually, I got the bowl full of seeds you see in the accompanying picture. Close to two cups. From one kale plant. This will make many big batches of delicious sprouts. Yum.

By the way, the bowl in the picture was given to Marcia twenty-five years ago by the same Tenaya who gave us the kale plant, and we thought Tenaya would be surprised and possibly impressed to see what her wonderful gift has so far turned into. I say so far because fifty baby kale plants grown from seeds from Tenaya’s gift are on their way to becoming more food and flowers and pods and seeds. Wow! Isn’t nature wonderful? Truly the gift that keeps on giving.