The upside to the rainiest summer in my memory: the lawn and garden are more lush than ever before. My wife’s tireless gardening and newly cultivated photographic eye have made for some vivid scenery around these parts. I’m not sure why I never posted this before–but ain’t it pretty?
It’s been a beautiful week, in terms of weather. We’re at the tail end of a five days of lovely, warm weather–Summer’s last gasp, I suspect-=-a little warm, but blue skies and puffy clouds, regular but not incessant rains that have kept everything green and vital, and cool nights. I’ve been keeping busy in both my job (mindless labor) and my work (the novel), while ignoring this blog for several days because I haven’t had much to say that interests me. Sorry, but it’s not as if you missed me, right.
It’s not an excuse. I have 89 pieces in my “drafts” file, another file with close to 200 “found” internet photos and other questionably acquired tidbits waiting for their shot at greatness, but every time I sat down to do some writing this week I’ve either drifted off to sleep* or wasted all my time reading other blogs–your blogs.
The week didn’t start out great. We have a corner of the garden that is largely unkept, owing to the presence of a clump of what I’ll generously call “vintage’ raspberry brambles–spindly things that never produce fruit, but which my wife in her eternal garden optimism thinks may surprise us “this year.” On Monday (Labor Day!) I announced, string trimmer in hand, (“announced,” mind you, not “asked”) that the berries–and the entire corner of the garden, would be giving way to the future. I pulled the cord and bravely slashed into the brambles….
Five hundred really pissed off yellow jackets later, I was doing the “hornet dance’ down the garden path, slapping at my ankles and thighs and…that’s right–inside my shorts. I was lucky, getting only 7 stings and another dozen or so glancing shots. The little bastards. No, it was my fault. I’d remarked to someone just last week that I’d gone through the entire summer without a bee, wasp, or hornet sting and very nearly wrote a blog entry of all the various indignities I’ve suffered at the tiny winged terrorists–not to mention all my juvenile acts of vengeance. Not to gloat, but I survived to weed whack another day, and the pain was somewhat
There is plenty of stuff I could be writing–it’s football season and I love football, for example. Two of “my teams” that began play last weekend–Pitt, and the local high school–did well. Pitt clobbered Delaware, which I despise for no other reason than because it is the alma mater or Baltimore Ravens
Frankenstein Creature, er, Quarterback Joe Flacco**.
But I digress.***
When “my” sports teams win, it’s satisfying. I’m not one of those chumps who follow whatever team happens to be winning (just look at all the Seahawks gear out there–until last season NOBODY outside of the pacific northwest) so I endure plenty of suffering and disappointment. I’ve often thought about how pleasant it must be to simply switch loyalties when the chips are down, but I’ve bragged up my loyalty for so long that were I to do so the ignominy would be unendurable.
The local high school took out a highly ranked adversary, against all odds and prognostications, with the two young men who spend time with my daughters making significant contributions to the effort. It was exhilarating, inspiring, archetypical small town Friday night stuff.
Now we need to get my college alma mater, IUP, and the Steelers on the bandwagon this weekend–and the high school needs to lock down a team that won 55-0 last week. We’re a little stoked for the both games–we’ll likely listen to IUP on the radio while working in the garden on Saturday, but we plan on making the Steelers thing into an event. We’ve already got some Victory IPA in the fridge, and I’ll be making stromboli, from scratch. We’re playing the Browns, and even though the Browns have been terrible for years we love to hate them as much as the dreaded Ravens (who used to be the Browns, you know).
*Have you ever fallen asleep sitting and dreamed that you couldn’t stand up–your balance askew, you stumble, your knees go weak like you’re the Scarecrow from Oz?
**Flacco actually signed with Pitt, but he ran away like a coward little child rather than compete with Tyler Palko for the starting role. The baby–he’s playing for the wrong Harbaugh .
***I’ve been very intentionally trying not to use this phrase, but the heart wants what the heart wants, I suppose.
It’s been a good summer, and today is a good day: the outdoor work hanging over my head has been suspended by gentle rains and I woke this morning to discover the low clouds–fog, mist, call it what you will, have confined my visibility–my experience–to a few hundred yards. A gentle wind shakes droplets of water from the trees, a subtle hint of what was and what, as far as the meteorologists are concerned, will be. Rain.
It’s been a cool summer, but not overly wet. Something about that polar vortex thing that had the media’s knickers in a twist this past winter. The Infotainment Industry loves a good nickname. Cold weather is bland, but call it a Polar Vortex like it’s something Captain Kirk and the Enterprise had to keep from destroying Earth, and we’ve got ourselves a story, folks. That’s why we have wars called Operation Enduring Freedom or Noble Eagle instead of more precise appellations, such as Operation Expensive Boondoggle or Operation Enduring Frustration. It used to be that code names for military operations were random words picked by intelligence experts to give no hint of the mission objectives, but now they’re catchphrases selected by publicists and public relations experts. It’s the same with the weather–and that’s why we don’t have “last night’s heavy snowfall”–we have SNOWMAGEDDON. It’s all just a way to get you to watch commercials.
But I digress…(the official catchphrase of this blog, we’ll call it Operation Easily Side-Tracked.
Although…can one really digress from a column that lacks a defined point? Is a spear without a tip still a spear, or is it just a stick? (On the other hand, it’s much easier to club a guy with a stick than stick him with a spear, one just has to get closer to do it–so does the question really matter?)
It’s a beautiful morning–that’s the point–a reverse-beauty that reminds me of camping and hiking. It’s misting now–tires of passing cars hissing on the road. Days like this find me wistful in a way that demands reflection. I think of waking in a tent, holding off getting up as long as possible, then standing around in rain gear, clutching plastic spill-proof mugs of coffee, or tromping through sodden meadows, or scaling rain-slicked, moss-covered rocky trails. One remembers the uncomfortable moments within a lifetime of sunny days and blue skies, and those memories can be warmer and more brilliant than all the picture-perfect weather in the world.
One of the best memories I have of many days at the beach involves my wife and I mired for an entire day at the Oregon Inlet Campground at Cape Hatteras National Seashore near Nag’s Head, North Carolina. We’d begun the day with a swim, then a leisurely bicycle ride down the road to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. I’ve got this thing about Lighthouses–I’m not content to look at them: I need to climb every one I see. It was a great ride, and a great climb to a great view, but as we rode our bikes back south, the rain began to spit–big, widely spread droplets–and a headwind rose up that seemed to push back with double the effort of every revolution we pedaled. The distance back to the campsite couldn’t have been more than about 3 miles, but it took more than an hour and by the time we arrived at the tent we were soaked in perspiration (despite the wind) and rubber-legged.
And then the rain came. It was welcomed at first–our immediate neighbors had both run for it (a sign, in retrospect), allowing us to strip down in what began as a gentle shower and flop into the tent, butt first, so our sand-crusted feet would be rinsed by the weather. Young, naked, and in a tent at the beach–things began well enough, as you might imagine, but after a few hours were were sitting crosslegged, dressed in clean(er) clothes, playing cards. I loathe playing cards, but the backgammon board was in the van 15 yards away and the rain had evolved into a gray translucent curtain. It would continue, through the rest of the afternoon, the evening, the night, and the next morning. At some point, confined to a 2-person, 6’x7′ Eureka Timberline tent, we made a vow: we would buy a bigger tent, and obnoxiously big tent in which a human being could stand–or at least kneel–without pushing against the nylon skin. Late in the second day, the rain slowed to a gentle shower, and we crawled stiffly from our little cell in the sand to find the campground all but deserted–a mere handful of intrepid (stubborn?) travelers had stuck it out, and several of them were wandering around, semi-dazed.
We were, by that time, soaked–the tent, the sleeping bags, our clothes–but after 30-some hours of deluge the light rain was nothing. We walked down to the beach and strolled for hours, the place pretty much all to ourselves, and by the time we made it back to the campsite a light breeze had begun breaking up the low clouds. Cracks of fading sunlight gave way to twinkling stars. We’d stood our tent up on end to dry the floor, and hung our bags on a makeshift clothes line strung between the van and my bicycle, held in place by a few extra guy lines (yes, it was genius). We cooked noodles on the camp stove while the breeze dried our stuff, and stayed up late watching the stars.
In the morning, the sun rose early, hot and somewhat humid. We packed up and moved south to the campground near Frisco, which was equally deserted, and split the day between sleeping on the beach and floating in some of the most gentle, rolling surf I’ve ever been in. We would travel that entire summer, camping in North Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, and had phenomenal weather–only one other time in 2 1/2 months were we rainbound–in a gorgeously green South Dakota canyon that had been used as a scene in Dances With Wolves–and the irony, after such a long trip, was that those two days are the most vivid memories in a summer’s worth of adventures.
Is this where I say something about silver linings? Maybe. The truth is, I woke up this morning and wanted to write something about the rain, and I wanted to write something for the blog that actually came our of my head with some semblance of immediacy. After all, this started as a writing blog.
As a gardener, I have a lot of enemies to which you likely give little attention. At the top of the list, of course, is the diabolical eating machine known as Whitetail Deer. You know him as Bambi. He ought to be in a freezer, but you’ll find him–or, more likely, her in my yard at some point in the night, gnawing roses down to the quick, taking single bites out of each of a dozen cantaloupe. The squishy sappy non-gardening emotionensia (as opposed to the intelligentsia) blithely tell us to “simply plant enough for all,” but the deer don’t seem to understand–they won’t take one of two, but a just enough of each to render what remains useless.
Bunnies come next on the list–more sloppy eaters which gleefully destroy what they can’t consume, and the breeding is not to be underestimated. Nine years ago I spared a bunny nest with 7 tiny, squinting, squirming babies in it because my own children burst into tears when I went to find a bucket of cold water, you know, for drowning…? It took three years to get the population back under control via cat and bb gun. The gun is no match for our resident ground hog, who we’ve taken to name Morpheus not just because he lives in the “underworld” (under the road, in an old culvert) but because he can seemingly contort himself to avoid incoming projectiles. I’ve cornered him twice, and missed at point blank range both times–I raise the gun, press the trigger, the gun goes pffft! and Morpheus flinches, yet remains intact. I am certain, were I to possess slow-motion technology, that flinch would be revealed as lightning-fast gymnastics of Matrix-y caliber, like Neo but with better acting.
This year has been better–the cats did a nice job finding and cleaning out a rabbit den early on: nothing like the shrill shriek of baby bunnies in the morning. It sounds like…victory. Or, at least, salad. My wife saved one of them and delivered it to a kind lady named Ayn Van Dyke who runs Kritter Kamp, an animal rehab facility in our county. The others were delivered to our back porch in pieces.
The deer still ate the roses, alas.
Let this be a warning–it’s getting to be garden season, my yard is a disaster area of broken stuff, half-finished projects from last year, fallen stuff, stuff that got crushed by fallen stuff, an old fiberglass truck cap, some seriously maintenance-ready cold frames, and one highly abused trampoline that has really and truly seen better days.
Can you say “Appalachian trailer park?” I thought you could.
Right now, my driveway is partially occupied by a large installation art piece–a sculpture, really–on the turn-of-the-century awakening of the American automobile industry and it’s attempts to re-imagine and recover it’s international relevance, both pre- and post-9/11 petroleum inflation. It’s a compelling piece, though somewhat worn and weathered.
(On a related note, if anyone is interested in a 1998 Buick LeSabre with 170,000 miles–auto-adjusting rear suspension is shot, muffler bracket is broken from frame, and it needs either front brakes or bearings. It used to be fast–it swings the big 3.8L six–still has leather seats….just saying. But I digress….)
I might consider a trade for one of these…
Badass, right? Well, don’t tell me.
So, we garden–the front part of our .67 acre plot is somewhat presentable–flowers, trees, a chemical-free lawn–but the “back 40″ is under my domain and reflects my particular Appalachian redneck sensibility. At present, the lawn tractor sits in the middle of the lawn with a flat tire (as good a place to leave it as any). The trampoline, in its 7th year, has seen better days–nothing some duct tape, canvas thread, and an industrial strength stapler couldn’t fix, at least from an pragmatic perspective. Aesthetically…?
There are piles of salvaged materials that might be useful at some point–a stack of old bricks, a pile of river rock, the framework of an old trellis that had been standing long after I succeeded (no easy feat) in eradicating the virus-laden concord grape vines we inherited with the house. You never know when you might need some 10’x4″x4” posts, right? Two aged cold frames with broken lids (this is the year I’m going to fix those, right!) (right?), a big pile of broken shipping pallets from the massive branch (pretty much the entire top, actually) of Old Man Willow, that fell into our compost operation with a crack and a smoosh in the fall. There’s also our “legacy” Wen-Oh-Nah canoe, a sentimental favorite my best friend bought new in 1983 and in which, after I inherited it, my kids now ply the local waterways with their friends (which is really pretty damned awesome.) We’ve hauled away one trailer load of debris–to be the bones of a summer bonfire–with another to go. And a stack of newer pallets from which we’ll build the new compost bins. Eventually.
The Gardening Season actually started off poorly back in February, when I happened to glance out the window and notice a mini-van parked awfully close to the fence along the alley behind our garden–not really an alley, exactly, more of a grassy right of way onto which a neighbor delivered 20 tons of limestone so she could turn left and go downhill the one time a year she takes her boat out, thereby opening what had been a peaceful, utilitarian sward to all the traffic in the neighborhood–which primarily means a dozen or so young people who occupy a few apartment conversions on the street behind us. A lot of folks around town devote large portions of their waking thoughts denouncing and demeaning the university students who are the social and economic lifeblood of our community. I like having the students around–it adds vigor to the neighborhood; but I’m less keen on their driving. Or shall we call it careening? Although that, too, has it’s entertainment value–not to mention the fact that careless driving is hardly limited to their particular demographic.
We had a hard winter–almost daily snow in small increments, with snowfalls requiring shoveling on 27 occasions (yes, I counted)–and while there is no maintenance on the paper alley my neighbor graveled, a few folks braved it regardless of the accumulated snow, which predictibly turned to about 10 inches of compressed snow beneath a thick layer of ice. The driver of the mini-van I mentioned (remember that?) had decided to go up the hill, a feat I wouldn’t have tried in my truck with the 4/Low engaged. It just wasn’t going to happen.
By the time I slipped into my felt pack boots and shuffled up to the garden a tow truck driver was trying to winch the van off my fence by force, but the angle was such that all he could achieve was dragging the damn thing back downhill, scraping the van down the entire length of fence. The humiliated young driver sat sullenly behind the driver’s seat in his purple Ford Windstar, chain smoking cigarettes and refusing to make eye contact with any of us. The dick.
No, no, that’s too rough. He was young, he was embarrassed…its–just–DO SOMETHING to help yourself, or maybe roll the window of your van down and apologize profusely for parking your stupid ass van on my fence. Gagh! I hated the kid on principle, for not interacting…but also for the smoking, for how he looked–you know that rat-faced look people whose mothers chain-smoked while pregnant get? don’t tell me you don’t know that look! well, yep–that’s him–but mostly I hated him for the chrome on his van–a shitty old mini-van full of bench seats–because he’d removed the “Aerostar” chrome and replaced with letters that spelled out “SHAGWAGON”. An airbrushed license plate on the front bumper, like guys who owned Camaros used to get in the 1980’s–with swoopy cursive letters in glitter-infused script–only this one wasn’t a tribute to some girl named Rhonda–this said, you guessed it “ShagWagon.” In glittery, gold cursive.
Now, like you, I have some images in my mind of what a van that is dared to be called “ShagWagon” should look like–and it ain’t mom’s old grocery-gitter There are certain expectations that come with–that are obligatory to–the hubris associated with bestowing such a title, and in this case none were satisfied. Dude didn’t even have chrome rims! Or 8-Track.
Dude needed a slap to the side of the head, regardless of parking on my fence.
And no, before you take the next logical step, this entire article wasn’t merely an artifice through which I could introduce nudity to Old Road Apples (recall this is a blog that was originally created to be about old poems I wrote in college!). Just keep in mind that the Very Hot Woman in the photo above now lives in a retirement community in Scottsdale Arizona and spends her days knitting mittens (both of them lefts) for her grandkids back in Muskegon while watching CSI:Miami and bitching about that Kenyan-Irish bastard, O’Bama. As the second vintage photo demonstrates, it’s possible to make my point without scandalous photos of retirees, but not nearly as much fun.
So, that’s how the garden year started, even though I took considerable satisfaction in horrific scraping sounds elicited by The ShagWagon as the final, brute-force solution to it’s liberation was to drag it down all 50 feet of my fance–post and rail with 4″ steel mesh stapled to the outside, all of which took many small, but cumulative–and deeply rewarding–bites from the paint. The dipshit never did apologize–nor approach me, or even make eye contact, not even last weekend when my daughters and I spent an entire morning re-seating the connected portion of fence in the side yard, which had all fallen apart–and down–with the forcible misalignment of the corner post in the back. Grrrrrr.
Here’s what we need to add to the garden this year…
We’ve got a final, 12′ x 50′ strip of garden–once home to the concord grapes we inherited with the property, that had a virus and would tease us each year with a generous fruit set before every grape withered on the vine a few weeks before ripening, it now has a lot of weeds, one big pink rose bush, and some under-performing raspberry bushes that I’m going to transplant to a better location, and the pet cemetery. Located on the western side of the garden, it’s the perfect spot for a mix of edible and functional landscapes–fruit bushes and trees inside tall, dense stuff that will deter the neighborhood’s horde of mutant deer from leaping the fence. We’ve thus far managed to deter the deer only by fencing every individual bed, making it difficult for them to move around in the garden. We’d failed at a single fence around the outside of the garden–the big deer, led by the freakish “Cow Doe”–a deer so big, so fat on the riches of vegetable gardens, flowers, and shrubbery that it has grown to a frighteningly massive stature. It acknowledges not enemy, it fears no hazing and laughs in the face of scent-based repellents. I’ve shot it in the ass with a bb gun several times, to no avail–hence the build our landscape with so much stuff the deer can’t cross straegy
For the same reason, we need new strawberry bushes–while my wife will still go to the U-pick for her traditional 34 gallons of decadent bliss next summer, and hopefully every summer, forever, to the end of time, it’s nice to have some ever-bearers in the home garden to provide a jolt of summer bliss. While I like a cool berry, there is something about a sun-dappled berry, right off the plant, on a summer morning right before the dew burns off. So, we need about 50 plants–I think we’re going with Ozark Beauty. Why do we need new strawberries? The deer knocked the fence down and ate them.
The centerpiece of this new development will be plums. We’ve had a hell of a time ordering plum trees. Two years in a row I ordered trees from a nursery, and they were allegedly shipped, but never received. One order was sent to an address “1000’s less than mine”–pretending that I lived at 9995 my address was processed as 995, and the college students who lived there let the carton sit on their porch for 2 months, not great for bare root trees. Got a refund, and a discount, but by the time it dawned on me that they weren’t coming (I held out such hope) I was unconvinced enough time remained in the season for the trees to establish themselves. It happened again last year–but the nursery insisted the address was right. The nursery closed over the winter–I wonder why.
So, I’m shopping at Stark Bros. this year, since our local nurseries don’t grow their own plum trees. I’m looking at Fellenberg (pictured) which bears in September, and Earliblue, which bears in early August, for sustained harvest–all goes as planned, we’ll have plums, plums, plums for two months straight.
Doesn’t that make you hungry? I never ate plums growing up, but my wife did–her dad had a pair of plum trees in the back yard. She got me hooked on the sweet, tender fruit, and there’s been no looking back. Well, maybe a little, see, here is an interesting story about that–we were visiting, and I’d just eaten my first plum ever, only to find myself in the throes of a passion so fierce and fiery it consumed me. In the middle of the night I woke up with the munchies and ate two more…then another two…they were so good…I ate two more…and an eighth, a ninth. Do you see where this is headed? I woke up about 90 minutes later, and quickly became certain I was going to die. It hadn’t occurred to me that prunes are just dried plums. Lesson learned.
The final target for my fruit avarice is honeyberry–otherwise known as blue-berried honeysuckle–that caught my eye several years ago. I’ve finally decided that I want a few of these little bad boys–supposedly they fruit are wonderfully sweet, looking a lot like oblong blueberries. I’m eager to see what they do–how they do, and how they taste.
I’m tempted to try last year’s super-trendy fruit, the mysterious goji-berry, but the three items above are going to cost me about $80-$90, we want to add a few more ornamental trees (serviceberry and something else–but that’s for another post) as well as change another corner of lawn into flowers, specifically about 800’sq devoted to a mixed bed of pollinator-friendly perennials and self-seeding annuals, a sort of “butterfly garden” to keep the bugs happy–and gardening isn’t supposed to be an expensive obsessions–er, hobby–but the gojis are pretty dear, price-wise. Maybe when trends turn to the next unlikely exotic, goji will drop and I’ll buy them. To tell the truth, I don’t know anything about Goji, except that they’re pretty, packed with the kind of good stuff about which I should pretend enthusiasm (natural stuff), and tasty–the truth is, I’m in it mostly for the tasty, then for the pretty, then for the stuff that makes my bones strong and my organs functional, if not particularly efficient.