Winter Gardens, 2013, New York

The urge to grow things is an urge to create.


Tenth Street Planter

IMG_3941                                                    The ghost of a tree going to church

IMG_3944                                                     In the metrolpolis, the tree grates

IMG_3951                                              And fences are part of the integral design.


Even a row of stacked chairs are a garden’s delight.

IMG_3583                               And so is Ron Canal’s kitchen window cactus extravaganza.

Messages From the Earth

  When upstate in the mist at a house called The Ledge

IMG_3817        I make the rounds through the magnificent and miniscule



 Always searching for new ways of seeing


   And softness on which to rest my mind,


Maps from those who have gone before me,


  Until I reach the walkway where thousands of feet have tread  the last  hundred years,



Into the home of my beloved friends who have generously made theirs, mine.

Ol’ Fuzzhead


In the fall, my eighty-nine year old father ended up in a rehab center in Kansas City with another cardiac issue.  There was only so much normalcy that one could bring into that room.  So I did my version of what our family is known to do in tough times: get in the car.

But there was no way to lift him safely into any vehicle by myself because as frail as he is, he is still very dense.  Instead, I put a jacket on him and rolled him in his wheelchair through the door of his room, down the hallway, past nurses, doctors and other ‘inmates,’ into the elevator, down another long series of hallways, right by the front desk, and out the sliding doors.

Hitting fresh air like we’d just dug through a mile long tunnel, we quickly crossed the parking lot into the vast acreage of the surrounding hills.  Going up, I pushed with every ounce of strength I had, arms stretched way out and body at a total slant.  “Steph, you’re panting down my neck,” Dad said.  “I hope you don’t die of a heart attack doing this.”  Downhill was even more labor intensive.  Keeping him in his chair and a good grip on them both involved more strength than my life normally requires.

Twice we made variations of the same rounds, but the third day I decided to cross Nall Road, a six lane major thoroughfare.  From there we went into an upscale neighborhood.  As I pushed, we talked, more than usual.  We talked because we weren’t face to face and it was easier to communicate through the grief that hung between us like a wet wool blanket.

“I miss Gretchen, Steph.  Do you ever think about her?” Dad said.

“Every day, Dad.  I miss her too.”  Gretchen, my youngest sister, died eight years ago in a fire.  Even from behind him, I could tell Dad was softly crying.

“Getting old is not for sissies,” he said for the hundredth time.  “But that’s life.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  What else can you do?”  I could feel my heart breaking in two.

By then we had reached a small man-made lake.  When we came to a little footbridge, I nearly dumped him in the gap between the sidewalk and the wood planks.  Halfway onto the bridge I thought to myself, I need to document this one.

“I’m going to take your picture, okay?” I said, stopping.

“Make sure I look good.”

“It’ll be from the back, Dad.  Your face won’t even show.”

“Okay, but take one from the front too and be sure you get my good side and don’t make me look toothless.”

I took the two photos under his direction.

“Ol’ Fuzzhead,” he said when he looked at them on my camera, images his eyes could barely see.

“Yeah, Ol’ Fuzzhead halfway there,” I said, through a sheet of blinding tears.



Yesterday at the local health food store, as I was being rung up by a young woman, I had my head down, rifling through my purse for a tote bag .  I heard the breathy prep for a sneeze.  The check out girl disappeared from the corner of my eye and there was a big moist explosion.  “Bless you,” I said absentmindedly.  When I looked up, a middle aged, male manager was standing in her place and from underneath the counter came the sounds of a squirmishing struggle.  He resumed ringing up my groceries.  Since the store had once given me a free tote, I searched my bag one more time.  “It’s at home, on my desk,” I said, looking back up.  The girl, red faced, was standing there again.

“I fell down,” she said in operatic giggles, “from that sneeze.”  As we laughed together,  an old boyfriend came to mind.  When the sun hit his sinuses, it never failed to trigger a juicy sneeze.  Walking down the streets of New York, his arms would fly out to his sides like he was stopping traffic.  That was my signal to halt and witness his often violent reaction to an innocent ray of sun.  At first, I found this amusing, like an orgasmic little death in a public arena.  But after too many of these conspicuous bodily functions demanded my embarrassed audience, I learned to continue walking, as if I were alone.

The Urchins

A sparking juju for the natural world gets set off when I visit my friend, George, in upstate New York. We once went reptile and amphibian collecting at a state park in an attempt to populate his newly built pond. The only frog he was fast enough to catch, a move that had my graceful companion hopping right behind his target, was lost when I slipped in the mud.  It flew out of the paper cup I was carrying.  We were forced to pay five dollars for a couple of freshly caught frogs and a tiny turtle to a local kid who stood in a muddy lake up to his waist. It was shameful to not have the prowess of the hunt but while standing at the water’s edge in transaction, the boy squeezed one frog so tightly I feared its belly would pop.  It felt good to take them off his dangerous hands.

Frog in New Home

Frog in New Home

This past summer, I was at The Grove, George’s property. The Echinacea, commonly referred to as Coneflower happened to be in full bloom.  Out admiring the lush beds of pink flowers, without much thought, we committed to making the extract from the plants known to boost the immune system.

While still in their prime, the first step requires pinching the pink petals from the living plant; a very genteel past time.  But not all the parts are as soft and lovely as they.  In fact, the name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echino, meaning sea urchin, referring to the prickly center, the seed dome, which we planned on harvesting later in the season.

Pretty Pink Petals

Pretty Pink Petals

The Urchiins of Echinacea

The Urchins of Echinacea

As if dealing with flower petals was too delicate a task to sustain,  we balanced our botanical efforts by marching into a simultaneous agenda: war on the natural world. The conflict was over George’s tomato patch, and the enemy, the chipmunk.

Alternating laying out feathery petals in a pretty basket to dry, we ran through the garden like banshees, clapping, yelling and chasing the rodents to their side of the fence.  We checked and tightened fences, securing every inch of the perimeter.  When a chipmunk scurried over my bare foot, I said, while wiping the sweat from my smeared face, “This isn’t working.”

Under normal circumstances, neither of us would pick up a flyswatter.  But upon another discovery of a bushel’ worth of green tomatoes lying all over the ground with teeth marks in them, we activated an elaborate defense program to save the fruits of his labor.  We drove to the nearest hardware store for some heavy artillery.  George already had two big live traps, which no living thing had visited.  Back and forth in the aisles, we tossed phrases like ‘unusually mild winter,’ ‘global warming,’ ‘population explosion,’ ‘koyaanisqatsi,’ all justifications for what we were about to do. George paid for the biological weapon, a three-pound bag of sunflower seeds, and drove us back to The Grove.  By then I was referring to his pastoral acreage as The Killing Fields.

George dragged the garden hose from the shed and noisily filled five-gallon bucket two thirds of the way.  He sprinkled a thick layer of the dark seeds over the surface and carried it to ground zero.  Back inside where the newly picked Echinacea petals were already hanging in place from the drying rafters, he shuffled through a stack of boards in search of the perfect width and length.  Jamming one end into the ground, I watched as he rested the other on the rim of our bucket.  Before my eyes, George built a miniature model of walking the plank.  But it was for chipmunks instead of blindfolded, weighted down sailors.  If things went as planned, they would dive head first into a seedy sea never to destroy again.  “Diabolical,” I pronounced when the contraption was in place.

Living inside murderous intentions is, as my mother would say, ‘God-awful.’ In the morning, George awoke in a shuddering sweat from intermittent rodent nightmares. Our consciences forced us to dismantle the construction and abandon the mission, before we were able to face breakfast.  The only hope was that one night of shock and awe was enough to send the army of chipmunks running for the hills.

I took the train back to The Grove in early November for the final phase of the harvest: leaves, the urchin seedpods, gnarly root clumps, and the dried petals of August.  We brought all the ingredients back to my kitchen in the city AKA, The Lab.  I scrubbed the roots while George chopped them.  They were fibrous and difficult to penetrate.  He ended up with a nasty blister from the effort and later that night I found a tick stuck to my side.

Gnarly Roots

Gnarly Roots

George dismantling the Urchins

George dismantling the Urchins

The Fresh Brew

The Fresh Brew

For six weeks of daily shakings, as I wrote and lived, behind the closed door of a kitchen cabinet, the colorful concoction brewed.  A friend standing in my kitchen when I was making Roibus tea caught sight of the jar and said, “What’s that?”  By then it was really dark and looked more like tar than a medicinal extract.  After she left, I called up George and said, “It’s time.  That stuff is putting me under suspicion.”

A few days later, George came back to The Lab and we sterilized the squeeze rubber tops and brown bottles, strained out the plant material from the final brew in cheesecloth, avoiding all metal because it has an impact on the contents of the brew.  We put some in a little in water and tasted it, gave it our official approval, and poured it through a tiny antique glass funnel that has been floating around my kitchen for years.

Sterilizing Process

Sterilizing Process

Separating Liquid from Solids

Separating Liquid from Solids

A reason to own this funnel

A reason to own this funnel

Finished Product

Finished Product

George’s two contraband frogs grew and prospered.  But the endeavor did not turn out exactly as we planned.  One morning, we took our tea outside to the pond and discovered the horror of a reality we had not yet heard of: a frog eat frog world.