Making Peace with Gophers: How Personal Transformation Can Transform a Garden

 

 

In May 2015 I went to a Mindfulness Meditation retreat in the tradition of Community of Mindful Living, where I was reunited with old friends and made some new ones. The road to Ukiah was a long one, as it led to the journey within, to an interior of long-untouched places. There were many surprises, many unexpected openings, and even more healing and flowering of possibilities. Among my awakenings, I learned to care for my inner child with both historic tenderness and fierce protectiveness, both long overdue for my little girl. In the fertile ground of introspective work born of being thrown into close proximity with many people, the idea of equanimity both challenged and unfurled in me, holding my attention as I grappled with the realities of the concept as it applies to my emotional, physical and mental bodies. The question arose in me, What is it to make room for the other, the beloved?

 

I borrow from Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book, Embracing the Beloved, for their work of naming the conscious relationships that can unfold and are encompassed when one allows for and embraces the “beloved”. They write that the “Other is the basis of every cruelty, all bigotry and war” for it is a practice that permits us to dis-identify as connected, a state wherein we are “nonfamily, nonfriend, nonrelationship, nonhuman, nonfeeling.” Indeed, these are all the many ways we separate ourselves. We can see this behavior and thinking everywhere. It is the most terrible disease of our modern times. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into this casual Othering and judging. For one, I am the Other, and two, the Beloved is me. The Beloved is all of us, our neighbors and those we don’t wish to hold close or dear: The shooter and the shot. We cannot chose. We must hold all in our center. That is equanimity.

 

As I breathe into this new-found understanding, I touch hesitation and resistance, discomfort and relief. When we hold the Beloved, the precious one, we hold ourselves all the more tenderly: Our adorable screaming infants, as well as our well-behaved and compliant studious children, held with the same love. We don’t get to choose any more than we select our skin color, birth order or origins. When I get angry, I aim for a smaller tilt and less unraveling. I come back to myself with purpose.

 

The mindfulness retreat was a place to practice all the things I’ve been studying in Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies for six months. With most of the day spent in silence, the focus turned naturally inward. I found myself utterly depleted after Dharma talks, crying uncontrollably after meditation, enraged by a benign comment. Could I really be carrying all that unclaimed emotion around with me? Yes. In fact, I have been moving in the world, unconsciously acting on a lifetime of unacknowledged feelings, sensations and urges. When feelings are not taken care of properly, they act out on our physical and mental bodies. They will be heard. They will kick, scratch, ache and strain to be seen. By opening the door and committing to my whole self, experienced in the full breadth of my existence on earth, I have felt more than I ever imagined. Part of my work was also attending to my needs: To cry and be held; To laugh and share joy; To risk shame; To open and be rejected; To stand firm in my own convictions. I had no idea of the degree of capaciousness in me, that I could feel so much and not explode, and I found myself alive like a newborn star, delicate, bright, precious.

 

This process is not surprising to me, since as the years pass, I’m more inclined to look for and invent the path of least resistance. That is not to say that I’m afraid of conflict and confrontation, for I’m learning to deal with both, as they arise, with skillfulness and tact though it is not and has not been easy, and they will doubtless continue to instruct and inform me as firm and loving teachers. Still I look within and without for solutions to the habitual patterns, some destructive, some not, that have kept me from growing spiritually and emotionally, and these are surely the treasure troves of my own renewal.

 

Even before leaving home for the retreat, some calcified, implacable obstinacy in me had already begun to give way. Perhaps tired of the hunting, I had asked Hal to construct some cages from chicken wire we had in the garage. I had the idea to bury the cages to protect the dahlia bulbs and the broccoli roots in the garden, favorites of the gophers, who seemed to have voracious appetites and greedy spirits for my own favorites. As I returned home to my full self, the container of violence in me seemed to crack open, if only a hairline. I saw the chicken wire as protecting the gophers from me, from my need to control and contain the order of the universe represented as my garden, according to my plans. The chicken wire, then, has become the symbol for my own countermovement away from fighting toward boundaries that allow and invite. After all, what is an organic garden for if the gophers cannot roam there as well? Why has so much hate and violence been activated in me and directed to a creature whose own natural habitat I have cultivated with rare and delicious delicacies?

 

Through meditation and the observation of the land and my own habitual reactions, my own vigilance and anger have subsided, and I have begun to see fewer signs of the gophers’ presence though they’re clearly still in residence. The furious hiding, tunneling and unearthing seemed to have quelled into a gentle, beneficial tilling of earth and dirt. With less resistance, I have found that our gophers have eased up on their devouring, ravishing hunger and have become the tunneling resident foragers they’re meant to be. Could this all be my imagination? I don’t think so. I hope not. Hal now puts in shallower cages as we consider the needs of vegetable roots. There’s enough here, a whispering says.

 

I’ve stopped worrying that the dahlias will be eaten or that the blueberry bushes will disappear one morning. This is life, the very reason I garden, to witness the cycles of life up close, participating in the dance of seasons with the Beloved.

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A Tomato Story: The Adventure of Growing Heirloom Tomatoes in San Francisco

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By now it’s clear that every seed that we put into the ground is a grand experiment. So too is the question of what will grow in our micro-climate. One, albeit gorgeous, cucumber is simply not a harvest. As we test and shrug off false starts, we learn what we don’t know about our ecosystem. We listen and try to respond to the soil, the weather and the plant’s energy. Among this year’s unforeseen treasures are our tomatoes, which have us nodding with pleasure and delight.

 

Tomatoes, a plant we fully expected to fail, are not only thriving but are proving to be extremely prolific, prompting us to go out and buy tomato cages late in the growing season. This year we planted only Black Krim and Speckled Roma—both hearty and tasty heirloom varieties. Here’s what we’ve observed about growing these beauties so far:

 

  • They are slow to get started in the early summer, with little stem growth
  • They respond well to manure fertilizer about 4 weeks after planting
  • Regular water, at the roots only, keeps them happy, but they are also hardy in drier conditions
  • Get a cage for each plant. You will need them, as Roma and Black Krim are both heavy fruits
  • Trim wilted leaves and low-growing suckers early and often
  • Prune unwanted fruit by pinching off flowers or removing branches with late starting flowers, or let them go wild for canning

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While we still have a few weeks to go before we’re eating tomatoes in earnest, it’s already obvious we’ll need to share, can and eat them daily—and we only have five plants in the ground . Remarkably this hot, dry San Francisco summer has given us an unexpected bumper crop. What’s more, our two potted plants are prospering despite relative neglect, producing two small tomatoes by the front door, a cheery reminder of what gardening is all about.

 

Gazpacho, anyone?

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What Fear Teaches: Lessons from the Cliffside

I remember a day in a Colorado canyon, on the side of a 750-foot cliff. I had taken a less experienced climber up a route that would take us a few hours. We were near the top, resting at a belay together before the final stretch of climbing, an exposed section that lead out on semi-rotten rock. The only protection against falling in this part of the rock wall were small metal nails, called pitons, hammered into the rock what looked like decades earlier. They appeared very old and rusted.

Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton
Old piton

There would be a lot of empty air under our heels as we made the moves. We were thirsty and out of water. The view was spectacular, but despite the fact that I had led us to this place, the anticipation of the next part sat very heavy in the pit of my stomach. I asked my friend if he wanted to take the lead on the final section, but he didn’t want it and I didn’t blame him – it was a daunting prospect. I had got us into this and I had to get us out.

I sat there considering the options. Retreating from our location would have been at least as risky, if not more so, than going up. Daylight was waning. I had to go on. I checked to make sure my gear was in order and steeled myself to move. The first part was mostly sideways, angling up a little past those ancient pitons. I didn’t look at or think about anything except placing my hands and feet, testing each hold gingerly before fully committing my weight. Everything held and at the end of the traverse, I looked back at my friend, only 20 feet away, but with hundreds of feet beneath us. He was holding my rope and paying full attention to the situation. We were bound together by that thin cord. Our eyes met, but we said nothing and I smiled a little as I headed up over a vertical section of rock to easier ground and, eventually, to the top of the climb. We made it without mishap.

For me, climbing is a form of meditation and an art form. It is a practice that requires discipline, focus, and strength, both mental and physical. It is about the objective hazards of putting your body in places that your consciousness says are not okay and dealing with the emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of that choice. It is also about solitude and the wilderness and bonding with a friend.

I have been a rock climber for 27 years. At 47 years old, I’ve climbed for more than half my life, putting in thousands of hours and miles of vertical distance. The lessons that I learn are often hard to put into words, but it is part of my life now and I celebrate every opportunity I have to practice.

So much of what we do in life is about trying to keep calm in the face of challenges that literally make us sick. We would do anything to avoid painful circumstances that, if we face the truth, we put ourselves in. When climbing, there is no avoiding the situation. You must deal with it or the consequences will be immediate and severe. You must face your fears head on.

This does not mean you ignore your fears. As I climbed past those old pitons, I connected my rope, and thus my body, to them. And I was afraid at the same time. That fear was justified, because I had little confidence that they were strong enough to hold me if I had fallen. At times the fear of a particular climb has caused me to avoid it and even to head home early. Who knows what would have happened in those cases, but there is little doubt that the fear is rational and should be headed sometimes. As I like to say, a good day of climbing is a day in which you arrive home safely.

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What a Garden Teaches

 

 

This month we have uncharacteristically hot weather after a particularly dry and warm winter season. This means that the garden is a riot of purple and burgundy exploding pea bushes, passionflowers and curly kale. We’re taking out a large colander and collecting vegetables for the table every day. This unexpected bounty feels overwhelming at times, almost like too much. That’s why we share.

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I nip a bag of lettuce and throw in kale and broccoli as toppers and give that to a colleague. We eat salad and greens in the same meal. We juice enormous cauliflower leaves before they turn brown and make green smoothies with store-bought fruit. The blueberries are a pluck-and-eat treat, since it’s us or the birds for those jewels.

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Even with all the giving and eating, there are times when it feels as if we’ve just got too much, but my heart tells me, Waste Nothing. I lop off the onion flowers low to the bulbs. They’re nearly three-feet long. I decide this unusual seedpod will look very nice in a bouquet of flowers. The compost bin is temporary lighter as we sit around admiring crazy onion flowers that I never even new existed before.

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Now, what to do with all those peas?

The Real Joy of Backpacking

 

Recently two young women from Chicago, students at our college, approached me surreptitiously about going backpacking. The situation was comical and unexpected. When Lulu pulled me aside at that dinner, I didn’t know what to expect, but was amazed to learn she and her friend want to go on a camping trip with us. While she had my attention, she hastened to add with a firm look into my eyes and a hand on my forearm, a real one. While this made me laugh, I knew exactly what she meant. You want to go backpacking—with us? Yes, she said.

 

Lulu doesn’t want to drive in the car for two hours, park and walk ten feet to a campsite. She wants to feel challenged. She wants to hurt and experience something she never dreamed of in her city life. She wants to answer the call of the wild with aching feet, a sore back and weathered skin. I recognized the look when I stepped back to take her in fully. She nodded.

 

The word is slowly getting around that we are crunchy folks, perhaps because we tell stories about nature and our garden during check ins. It could also be the odd photos and posts on Facebook or Instagram that tell a story we can’t control. What is clear is that the more we do it, the more the people in our community want to join in. Even our eight-year-old friend told us she wants to go camping with us when we got back from our most recent trip. People are beginning to sense what we know: that something magical happens when we hit the outdoors.

 

Among the many benefits of backpacking, conquering oneself while facing down obstacles is the greatest. For the most part backpacking is not a dangerous endeavor, not like a trip to the Himalayas. Of course, nature commands respect and discipline, but we can mostly coexist for a few days. Out there, the wild creatures are in charge. They take over the demands of the day with their songs and rituals. One learns to fall into step and quiet the body and the mind. It’s amazing just how much noise we make: tin clanking or a zipper flapping and the swish-swish sound of synthetic clothes. I sound like a 200-pound elephant out there. The real conquering is letting the rain hit your face for hours; eating only what you can carry; and, leaving as little trace of yourself behind as possible. In a world of large egos, this is a test in humility. If I want the luxury of a wet wipe, well I’m going to pack that around for three days and 32 miles or for however long it may be. There are few toilets and trashcans in the wild. We even accumulate the odd lip balm or lost strap left behind by some other hikers. As you slip the found object into your pocket, you wonder, How much does this weigh? The answer is, it doesn’t matter, because unlike in the city, there’s no way to casually step over it without a pang of shame. It’s all a test.

 

The last few miles of a long trip are powerful portholes into one’s interior workings. You begin to see more people as you get closer to base. Personality becomes the focus. In contrast, there are generally less creatures of the wild. Your mind begins to wander, thinking of to-do lists or something you missed. Your heart may quicken while your pace slackens because you are finally returning home. We have a rich infrastructure in our country, with running fresh water, sewage that also flushes clean water, unfortunately, and heating that does not require chopping and hauling. These comforts, so often taken for granted are the very details that become illuminated in the return. The basics seem more precious than ever: a soft bed, soap and a shower; the telephone, Internet and mail; comfy chairs and lunch dates. For most of us, when we’re home again, life is pretty sweet.