Monday, May 28, 2012


It might be surprising to realize how seldom you purchase wheelbarrows, but when you do go out and buy a wheelbarrow it's pretty straightforward, you generally just go right out and... buy a wheelbarrow.  When I recently came up against the gardener's curse of sudden wheelbarrow inadequacy, I gave it a bit of thought and realized that in over seven decades, I had purchased only one wheelbarrow! Talk about frugal.

So, I thought on, why not make the most of such a lifetimely rare occasion and buy the best wheelbarrow in the world? That would require young granddaughters, who are the goddesses of small things. Luckily, I would be blessed with the Trio of Brio on Sunday, who would be at the house ready for some gardening and general handiwork.

Being only 11, 9 and 9, the Trio have never bought a single wheelbarrow in their entire lives, either collectively or individually, so I figured this was a unique chance to spring it on them, put their inborn skills to work. I was surprised, though, to see how jumpy-up-and-downy they got as soon as I said "Let's go buy a new wheelbarrow," somehow triggering instincts the Trio didn't even know they had.

They had loved using the friendly lunky old one, getting rides in it and carrying each other now and then, until only a week ago, when old Wheelie, held together with cotter pins and baling wire as the bottom rusted out, had been on its third or fourth tire with its second inner tube and got a major flat just when I was doing the most important thing in the history of the world; isn't that always the way. The metal recycling guy was glad to have the remains.

Wheelbarrow purchase being one of life's special experiences for little kids, they are super great to have along when selecting which wheelbarrow to buy from among all those on offer, with all the different colors, depths, weights and materials, handgrips and other features that the tired elderly gentleman in some kind of hurry is willing to overlook for the sake of just getting this business over and done with it's too hot and crowded, a cool drink in the shade would be nice, but those new minds will not stand for weakness at such a crucial moment in life, which is good for said guy, who will be using that wheelbarrow, which is why in the first place he selected his young granddaughters as wheelbarrow advisors.

They didn't look at the rows of wheelbarrows, or the groups of wheelbarrows, or the categories, models and prices of wheelbarrows; they looked at each wheelbarrow. All over. Pulled them out and tried them. Tipped them. Said this one's got plastic here, this one's scratched underneath, this one has a dent on the front, this one's yucky blue, this is a nice green though, and has cute yellow handles, besides it's not too heavy, no scratches or dents, easy to push, this is the best one.

That's how I got the best wheelbarrow in the world.

It looks really perky at home in the garden.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


I was outside around dusk tending to an old potted flower as my good botanical deed for the day when I heard the noise: an odd, seemingly random, yet somehow intentional noise, an attention-getting noise, an insistent rustling in the duff among the cedar trees just upmountain--

Normally such sounds are naturally irregular, like a thrush hunting for bugs among the leaves, the hopping, leaf-scattering noise varying in incidence and intensity with the hunting action, like the wind. This noise had a slow, scattery but rhythmic incidence and always the same loudness. That never happens naturally, except perhaps with water. But this was animal. Attention getting. Huh? I kept looking to see what it was; it sounded kind of large; then on the third or fourth try I saw between the trees that it wasn't a bear or a fox or a deer or a wild pig,which don't make noises to attract humans anyway; it was only crafty Crow. Who...doesn’t... make... noise to attract humans either...

He wasn't doing anything specific, he was "as though" just sort of randomly shuffling along in the leaves, not stopping to feed as a thrush or other hardworking bird might do, no: I could read him like a dark book, he was making all that noise to see if I moved, and if it was really me, because I was near where he wanted to go, i.e., the compost pile, his favorite dining emporium in these parts, like Capone had in Chicago. Here, though you can get fruit peels and other impossible luxuries, you name it-- pineapple crowns, even, and if it was me Crow would have to wait, and who knew how long; Crow does not like waiting (Al didn’t either), let alone abandoning his reservation to another crow.

Anyway, when I turned my head and stood a bit, the better to see him, he had achieved his immediate purpose: it was me and I was there. With no longer any need to move, Crow just stood still in dark impatience. He knew it was me now, and I now knew it was him (we have our history): he was The Mighty Titan. He knew it, I knew it, he knew I knew it and so on down through the infinite maze of crow/human intermentation. So as he stared at me darkly, mulling over the fact that I had moved and so was real, I said to him in the deepening silence - in a voice to scare a crow and so gain the psychological upper hand - if there is such a thing with winged creatures - that I knew he’d done the plastic bag job and was The Mighty Titan the authorities are looking for; he should come clean, he'd feel better.

From out of the darkling forest came that icy look, you know that look, you’ve seen it a thousand times after dinner in any of the smoke-stained questioning rooms on any of that relentless crime show that replicates with all those different titles, where at some point you’re expecting repentance on the stony face of some non-beaked thug across the table from a hard-boiled detective not holding an old potted flower at twilight and saying that if the thug just confessed the detective would do his best to try for a minimal sentence, maybe just one of those electronic monitoring bracelets or something, but instead he gets that look, that icepick look that says: "You can’t hold me, you ain't got nothin'!"

And Crow was right, I had nothin. Purely circumstantial. He flew away in recidivist disdain and I went into the house with some lettuce I picked instead. As I was rinsing the leaves in the sink, Crow and his moll flew into Chez Compost for dinner, selected a nice long golden apple peel and wafted it to their reserved loveseat in the cherry tree, where they shared and squawked sweet nothings like all the innocence in the world. 

There are countless crime stories in nature too, where justice takes care of its own.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


You could maybe see it their eyes, if they were potatoes, but they're of the squash family, so in their leaves and postures: that longing for a bright, warm sun like there was before they were seeds, sun that their forebears enjoyed day after day, as their Mediterranean heritage led them to expect... 

Thus it is that, following days of half-hearted, cloudfiltered sun, just when the teenage vegs need to head for the open road, take off doing their natural equivalent of surfing at Malibu or cruising the route in fast cars-- instead I get zoned zucchini, touchy tromboncino, rankled radicchio-- they hang, stand or droop around moping like teenagers who can't have the car keys. What's a parent to do? It's all my fault, I'm a vegetable internationalist.

I got the sullen trio from sunny Italy, and not one has a visa, none speak the language, they come up one morning, look around and say in that tacit sprouty way: Where the hell is this? What's going on? Why am I here? The kinds of things we all wonder about at that age.

So this year I've got problems from the start with interest and discipline, botanical gangs expecting golden sunny Tuscany and instead getting misty mountainside mornings in Shiga in Japan-- where's Japan? Freshly germinated foreign vegs don't know anything about this country and its weathery ways-- which aren't bad, comparatively, but totally wrong in terms of genolocation. This is not where that veggie DNA was designed for, the radicchio is practically saying where's that warm golden sun, where's that spicy dialect, as it shrugs its tiny emerging leaves in that Italian way and will not be uplifted or accelerated...

My Italian is crude, at best, even though I grew up in an Italian-rich NY neighborhood and picked up a few things, but mostly swear words from Italian teenagers, so I can't say much to encourage an Italian vegetable except in a negative way. I also for some reason took two years of Latin in high school, but it's not much help to explain to sprouts and seedlings that Gaul is divided into three parts-- even though they're of Roman heritage - that's Caesar talking, kids - the laid back zukes just look at me like I'm deranged, even in botanical terms, which I suppose a Japanese farmer passing by might also conclude upon seeing an American speaking error-filled Latin to traditional Italian salad vegetables in the morning mist of a Shiga mountainside, but hey, those foreigners can be strange anyway, like a lot of their vegetables.

Given my own history, I'm certainly no exception.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


This morning, noticing around the goat pen down behind the station (a family down there keeps goats), how the weeds outside the fence around the goat pen have all been eaten down by the ruminants except for one lush plant, which thrives there, temptingly green, right beside the fence, but is never touched...

Got me thinking as I waited for the train about how plants that taste bad therefore not propagated via their seeds by browsing animals, whereas other plants taste good and so use animals to propagate them, with a little bit of fertilizer to boot...

I wasn't directly, decisively thinking this; rather, it was an almost natural attitudinal pattern to my thought, and at some point I realized that I was thinking comfortably along lines that implied that the plants were intelligent, decision-making creatures, exercising some kind of intellect in propagating this way, i.e., assessing the survival advantages they might obtain by doing this or that etc., when it was a matter not of intelligence and botanical decisiveness, but of Darwinian probability, genetics, environs etc., in an evolutionary process that pertains in all times and places, and that has led over thousands of eons to all life that exists on earth today.

Then it came to me that this was exactly how early humans had looked at and thought of their surroundings, it was their natural perspective on the situation: that there was an intelligence immanent in the world, a perspective that lives on in us today, as witness my own instinctive thought flow (there are those - and they are many - who believe this view to be the true and only one). Then came the sudden corollary thought that maybe this is also true of what we call thought in ourselves: isn't it possible, even likely, that as self-deemed sentient beings we are misguidedly attributing innate intelligence to our “own” thoughts? Ask any poet, inventor, physicist, thinker where they get their revelations, they cannot say, and know better than to try.

Traditionally the creative act is attributed to “inspiration,” or being “breathed into” by the gods; that's the best they could come up with in the old days, and we still use it today, for we can do no better. We can look at the brain till we're blue in the face, but we'll never get to the root of an idea, because it's not of the world we can know. So where is it rooted?

What we deem intelligence in ourselves and what we attribute to the muses, the thoughts and insights that occur to us from we know not where, are also necessarily in some way integral to this comprehensive unceasing evolution of being that we are a part of, that I call “The Big Push.”

This fundamental inability to detect and control the genesis of our thoughts and ideas, coupled with our ability to generate, express and delight in them, even to be in awe of them (Eureka!)-- could it be that the templates of our respective minds are in fact reacting to and filtering aspects of the “Big Push” through them (of which the elements of thoughtstuff are a part) just as the universe “pushes” through the timebound organic mesh of all else that is (to put a quick hypothesis to it), of which we are a distinct yet integral part, carbon-meshed, pattern-catching synthesizers that we are...

Just a thought...

Saturday, May 12, 2012


In their standard grammar school education, the three grandie girls (now 11, 9 and 9) get to follow the prescribed path for a prescribed time in age-segregated classes, learning to read and write, add numbers, sample science and social studies, acquire a national history, absorb the essential received ideas that bind a society together.

After school they sometimes play with their friends, in forms of play that are increasingly virtual as society edges further into deferred existence mode, but for years now, when the Trio of Brio come here to our house on the mountain by the forest above the Lake they get outdoor jobs to do, they get boots, gloves, big tools and - at first - necessary guidance on how to use shovel, rake, axe, hammer, pick etc.

So for some time they've been using mauls and wedges to split firewood, axes, saws, clippers to prune trees and bamboo, they dig holes with shovels, they want to learn to do all of it, use all the tools, now and then taking impromptu discovery breaks, e.g., one of them found a frog under a rock, they decided to name it by committee ("Oompa-kun" was the unanimous choice) or they play with long boards and log sections (an interesting sort of rock-and-rolling seesaw - for children only, btw) then back to work raking the garden, scything underbrush, tending the fire (with a brief sports break, dipping long, curvy windfall cedar branches into the fire to catch the firefish that swim in the flames), raking leaves into big piles, sweeping cuttings, clearing culverts, lugging buckets of leaf mould, planting seeds, pulling weeds, harvesting stuff etc., in the process acquiring considerable and increasingly useful counterweight to the virtual. It's a real lift to see how much they get done, how naturally comfortable they are with physical labor and how proud they are of what they achieve in the heavy realms.

By now, when we adults have to go inside to do our indoor work, we can leave the girls  in charge of everything: the fire, the wheelbarrow, all the tools, the tasks to be done - it's all up to them - and a bigness fills their boots. Tugging on their work gloves, they set out to tend to everything, and how they change, then; they become their full selves, walk around with authority and intention: straight, tall, assertive, wasting no kiddy time, getting the things done, taking the tasks to heart and taking care doing them...

Proud delight it is, to watch them from the upstairs window, see them find reward in being responsible, a character strength of great importance for the future of humanity, though not as important as firefish.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


As the only foreigner on this portion of the mountains, maybe I shouldn't lean back at times during a hardworking day with my feet on the camphor stump and talk aloud to myself out about my firewood plans, respond to those ducks quacking by overhead or remark at volume as to how the shape and texture of that amazingly sunlit cloud up there reminds me of George Washington's hair in that unfinished portrait I used to stare at a lot where it hung on the wall at the front of the class in first grade at St. James Academy back in Albany NY, because local folks come by suddenly at odd times walking their dogs or themselves, and I have the international image of foreigners to uphold. Most of us should at least appear to be mentally stable.

Sometimes I also necessarily address whatever task I might be doing - for example, some bucked oak has a knot nearly half the way through, so the wood and I must dialogue colorfully and in depth, as happened not long ago, when a dog-walking newly retired couple from somewhere further along the mountains came strolling down the road with their dogs just as I was chewing out a large chunk of oak with some sharp-edged words I'd learned in the military, which often do the trick. Fortunately those folks probably don't speak English to that depth, though the general message was clear, as was my in-that-moment relationship with oak, one of the harder woods (generally, we're old softies together).

I've since noticed, though, that that couple don't anymore walk their dogs down the road past my woodsplitting stump, they use the roads further away across the mountainside. They could be oak sympathizers, but more likely prefer to avoid sharp-tongued yet opaque English conversations between man and wood.

Like I say, I should at least try to hold up my end of the foreigner image, and keep my natural conversations to a low volume, insofar as possible, though I can't cut them out altogether, often being involved in such laborious tasks; as well, natural surroundings can be eloquent, and one must respond.

So if you happen to be strolling by one afternoon and there's a guy talking barracks talk to a tree, just be aware that there's nothing mentally wrong here; likely as not he's responding to something the tree just said.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


Just at the edge of dawn this morning, from deep in the fathoms of firewood-splitting tiredness where I was casually exploring the fascinating streets of a wonderfully appointed dream city - an astonishing experience in itself, when viewed from our pinpoint of time in this ‘waking’ world - I was suddenly thrust alert into this pinpoint world upon hearing in the forest outside a mighty clash of titans - going on, as it seemed to me, much like the battle I’d heard a few years ago when two fully antlered bucks went at each other in a fierce dawn battle for turf, sharp tines slashing the air just outside that same bedroom window.

I got up and squinted out into the dimness to behold the source of the massive sound that was tearing apart the country silence - maybe the guys battle generally in the same place - but no: all was calm there, not a leaf was moving but for the lightest dawn wind; no, the big ruckus was over there! - I went toward the sound - No, it was definitely back where I'd just been! So I returned to that window, outside which there still were no heavily muscled Spring bucks churning up the undergrowth, but boy you could hear them: what a racket! Where was it coming from? How could such a massive battle go unseen?

I dashed across the hall to the other side of the house and looked out-- I gotta get a sight of this before it ends... From there I could hear what sounded like the clacking of antlers, but there were no deer out there either, gasping and slashing for dominance-- all that noise with nothing happening was the weirdest aspect of it... A mystery, up here in this quiet place where you can see everything from the windows...

So as the racket went on close by outside I went downstairs (surely one of the horned warriors must be injured by now and about to yield!) looked out a north window toward the paddies - no battling deer - then out the east window toward the Lake - no grunting, thrusting antlered titans over there either, but the crashing noise of their massive clash continued as before; I was going to have to actually go outside - put myself in the line of ire, so to speak - to find out what was happening.

So, bracing myself, I went to the big glass south door in the kitchen, beyond which the vast collision was clearly under way, pulled back the curtain to get at the door handle-- and there, right on the other side of the shatterable pane, just an antler's length away, was the entire scenario unfolding all over the deck: a battle-sized pile of trash (from a stuffed bag we’d forgotten outside last night), with a big and way surprised Dr. Crow at the center, pinning me with dark eyes for one of those interspecies moments that last as long as dreams do, his beady gaze seeming to say to my fuddled mind: Heh-heh-- Sure fooled the hell out of you, hey? Before big black wings flapped him fast and far away, leaving behind in the brightening dawn a vast and mighty pile of the trash of titans.

Friday, May 04, 2012


The possibility of using bamboo as a protective element in the garden (not to mention decorative and otherwise practical purposes) has been mentioned in PLM comments now and again, but because of my own local experience I've always had reservations about the idea; however, there appears to be a solution, as offered here:

"I have read that commercial kiwi growers, owing to the sensitivity of the kiwi vine, are obliged to plant large hedges around their plots to protect the plant from excess wind and weather, but I don't know what they use for the hedges. Personally I am a fan of bamboo, a superbly useful and attractive plant, also very hardy (at least, most varieties are) and if you plant a "clumping" variety and not a "runner" it won't invade your garden and ruin your carrot patch. I have a fine stand of Black Bamboo (bambusa nigra) that hasn't spread more than a few inches in 15 years, and I generally cut four or five 10 foot canes from it every year for use as lash-ups and trellis supports. A nice curtain wall planting of this bamboo would not only make the place look beautiful but cut down the wind problem and provide you with lots of material to harvest along with your veggies; if you cut the newly sprouted growth, you can even eat it, too! There are plenty of other plants to consider for windbreaks, though." --JB Reynolds
[Excerpted from Lehman's excellent (and free) forum newsletter]

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


It’s that extravaganza time of year, that speed-of-light time with the cherry blossom fireworks and the perfumed air, when Spring is getting serious about returning with a bigger show than ever, and around here that means the paddies are being readied in their turn, all down the mountainside.

Flooded one by one, faceting the mountain to set the stage, the skymirrors are then left idle for a heartfelt length of time while the rice seeds make their ancient way to planting size, but despite all this activity with all these focuses, these Spring days do not belong to the farmers or to the rice; these days belong to the frogs. All the frogs. Big frogs and little frogs, of all the froggy dispositions in the land about.

Stirred from the rain-softened mud, warmed by the sun and prodded by the primal mood, at dusk when the big silence falls, the male frogs begin their vocal warmups, and do they ever sing at this time of year, sounding their best against the plush background that is country silence, silence as there was the other night when I was coming up the road into the deeper deeps of quiet and darkness, all topped by the white spark of Venus above a thin slice of floating moon about to set behind the mountain, as the frogs tested their repertoires and began to sing with all that natural sincerity you get out here.

What an a capella group, performing in the Pure Land Mountain Amphitheater. If you stopped still to listen, and focused your ears, you could make out the individual frogs - the little one over there in a corner of a paddy trying out a rapid tremolo peep, and over there a veteran profundo laying down a thick, slow bass line, as a whole mountainside of song began to build, swelling and waning then swelling again, like a vast flock of birds turning and turning as one in the air, all the courting songs swirling together on waves in the night, serenading all the frog ladies with one of life's greatest hits.

The aftershow party went on all night.