Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Garden Ahoy!

Each year as frost gives way to budding grass, and the stark shells of the trees get fleshed out with foliage; we begin to plan the garden. It's a favorite late-winter past-time, a ritual my husband and I have re-played for years.

In our early life together, we had big dreams. Back then, we didn't merely wish to grow a couple of vegetables, a few herbs and shrubs. We wanted to live off-the-grid, to be self-sufficient. At 19 and 24, as we ourselves were just starting to grow, we read everything we could find about passive solar heating, grey-water septic systems, composting toilets. We read how to build pole-and-beam straw bale houses, earth bermed houses, and tire-rammed earthships aligned to face the south so the long, angled windows running across the front would let the most light in during the winter months to grow indoor vegetables and the least light in during the summer-time to keep the place cool. In between planning and dreaming, life moved on. We worked our day-jobs, and one baby, then two and then two and two more came along. Somewhere on that journey, the dream slipped away, lost to the reality of raising six children.

But, the love for gardening never budged. Each year, as February drew to a close, we would haul out the seed catalogs and plan out our garden. Many years, that was as far as we got and the dream of the dirt patch of veggies remained a dream as every Saturday was given over the Soccer games and grocery shopping, clothes shopping, and trips to the mall. We let go because we had to; stretched as thin as we were, even one more thing would have been one more thing too many.

Even though we didn’t have a physical garden, the love for it remained, dormant like a seed over winter, waiting for the right conditions to spring forth.

Once in a while, extreme stress is the greatest catalyst for change. Raising six kids is not easy. It is constant hard work. Rewarding, yes, but close to all-consuming. Anyone who has worked at that kind of pace knows, eventually, the foundation begins to crack. You can only give up everything you love to do for so long. As the stress builds up, it wears you down and like a small animal trapped in a hole, you begin to look for ways out of the rut. In our attempt to survive the pressures of our lives, we remembered gardening. We recalled plotting out the land, ordering seeds, and those long hours spent in the early spring sun. It had been years since we’d had a proper garden, but last year, we decided to plant again.

Last winter, we plotted, last spring we planted. We were still over-worked, over-tired, over-stressed, but when we stepped out into the yard, things were growing and we were eating them. Fresh basil and tomatoes off the vine, two kinds of squash, more pole beans than we knew what to do with. We had cucumbers, kale and collards, a few brave carrots and beats, and a spattering of spring mix as our earliest crop of the season.

It was inspiring to see things grow, to feel the cool of the earth and the warm sun shining. It was encouraging to see we actually had time, if we made the effort, that we could take at least a little of that long ago dream and weave it into the lives we led now. Our garden was a success!

This February we began, even more inspired.

As of this day, May 14, 2010 we have planted: spring mix, carrots, kale, collards, spinach, tomatoes, bell and jalapeno peppers, three kinds of squash, corn, potatoes, watermelon, peas, beats, turnips, radishes, onions, sunflowers, cauliflower, basil, oregano, cilantro, chamomile, rosemary, strawberries, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. We’ve been eating fresh greens and radishes for a couple of weeks now and everything else is coming on well.

I don’t think either of us are seriously considering a life off the grid at the moment—at least not before the kids leave home. These days, our garden is haven, a sanctuary of peace and contentment. It is a chance to remember our dreams. Moving through life, so many things fall to the side, pushed away by responsibility. Doing this one thing, simply for the love of doing it, makes our lives better. There’s simplicity in gardening: when weeding, we weed, when tilling, we till. There is nothing else beyond these simple tasks, nothing to worry over or plan for, there's just the dirt, the green things growing and the bright sun overhead.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Patagonia Dreamin'

If I could, I would move to Patagonia where the mountain air blows clean down the hills and the sun sets in angles over the steppes. I found this place through fantasy-escape-mode, a very handy mental tool I employ when things get bad in my real world, such as being an allergy-sufferer in the worst pollen season in recollection. It was on a Monday that I hit the search engine and typed 'pictures of mountains.' I wanted something lofty and majestic to put as my desk-top background so that, in between my clerical tasks, I could escape to another land. I searched for mountains and that is where the love-affair began.

A picture popped up: low steppes with a herd of horses grazing and snow-tipped peaks rising into the sky. I can't explain what happened to me when I saw this place. My mind stilled, settled into itself. I imagined cool, dry air flowing into my lungs. I imagined lying on the stony ground, the wind rustling the grass around me, the sky stormy-blue overhead. This picture called to me. If this were Star Trek, I would have said, "Beam me over, Scotty." Even the soles of my feet wanted to walk barefoot over those stones.

Still, it was just a picture. I had no real idea where this was. However, I did want to know.

I have the kind of imagination that, once activated, is a bit like a baking soda and vinegar project. Once two things combine (place and longing) a chemical reaction occurs that cannot be stopped; it has to run its course. I did a new search to see if I could locate to origin of my fantasy-picture. Did I mention determination and persistence as part of this potion? Once my mind sets to a track, it does not deviate until the mission is accomplished. It was easy to discover the picture was taken in Argentina Patagonia. Patagonia! A word of legend, buried in my psyche like a forgotten bicycle in an old garage. Did I actually know anything about Patagonia, or was it the romance of the name I found alluring?

I searched google maps and found Patagonia as the southern-most region in South America, bridging the mountains between Argentina and Chile. I looked at the map and asked myself a question. Where, along that mountain range, did I think my fantasy-picture was taken? Of course, I had no reference beyond the photograph, so I opted to utilize instinct and see where it got me. It got me to El Chalten, a tiny town located in Los Glaciares National Park, population 200. I pulled up pictures from the region, which is now heralded as one of the fastest growing tourist spots for back-packer, hikers, and mountain-climbers, and recognized a distinctive mountain peak from the photograph: Mt Fitzroy. I had found my dream destination!

El Chalten is a rare town, situated within a national preserve. There are few year-long residence, but they host a rapidly growing number of tourists each year. Being at the more southern sphere of the globe, they have alternate seasons to the ones we have here in Virginia. Their peak summer season is in January and February, when we’re bundling up around wood stoves and under blankets. From the little I have learned, they have a cool, relatively dry, unpredictable climate. Wind is a near-constant companion and the weather can change in a flash. The hike to give you the best view of Fitzroy takes two days and is, by the accounts I read, not too strenuous and worth the effort. Their winters are cold, and windy, but not as harsh as their far northern counter-parts. And the park is stated by all who visit to be spectacular year-round. I say, what’s not to like?

Aside from the notable absence of over-abundant greenery, other things appeal to me about Patagonia. I like extremes of light, like the high-northern slant of sun seen in Scotland. I like unpredictable weather, perhaps because I’m used to unpredictability from a life of living inside my own head. I like rolling steppes, sparse population, and strongest of all, I like the Andes Mountains. I can't say what draws me to them; they exert some pull over which I have no domain. They call to me by name. In the center of my being, I feel their echo. Is it because I grew up under the looming presence of another mountain range, the Colorado Rockies? It is something imbedded in my Native American genetics that makes me wish to live in close proximity to their majesty?

I can't answer these questions. I’ve never been very good at explaining myself to myself. The best I can say is I know I want to be there, that, part of me, while sitting in Virginia, smelling the first of the Honeysuckle bloom, longs to be far away, living in Patagonia.


Mountain air
sweeps down the hills.
Sun sets in gold angles
over the steppes.
Horses mill, grazing
in the shadows of snow-tipped peaks.

Cool air
breathes rustling grass
over stony ground,
scatters horses before
the wind.

Howls echo down the canyon;
phantom hunters
chase the cries of their prey
from the tip of Fitz Roy
down sheer cliffs
into the breath in my mouth
ice caps behind my lips
that clack in the dusk
like tumbling stones.

At home
in this barren expanse
of isolation
where bright stars
a thousand dead dreams,
my heart
over peaks and into
impossible sky
tumbling into desire
and longing.

Even the souls of my feet
wish to walk
over the stones
of Patagonia.