Friday, October 30, 2009

A Beautiful Day for A Beautiful Girl

Today, twenty years ago, I became a mother. There is no greater high in life than the moment the pain of childbirth ends and the child's life begins. It seems almost wrong to take credit for that child when she has worked so hard to define herself and to grow into the incredibly lovely and loving creature that she is. But just as one lays out the designs for a garden to grow successfully through the seasons, the mother looks far into the future and makes plans for a life well lived.

On that day when C was born, I could have turned cartwheels down the hall of the hospital. I felt superhuman in strength and I was giddy with excitement. That little, tiny swaddled child slept peacefully beside me throughout that day, her perfect nose and eyes and tiny lips mesmerized me. And when my mother arrived and took C into her arms, I felt as if I had delivered the perfect gift to her. I have never seen such joy (that was my mother's middle name) play across her face. And little C and my mother bonded like no others have, I am sure, in that sweet moment.

Would that my mother could be with us today to meet this fabulous girl with the raven red curls, the broad shoulders and the self assurance that is tougher and stronger than the granite substrate of the Yosemite cliffs and boulders she scampered over this summer. She would meet a young woman that would give her a greater thrill and pride than on that day she first held her. Our C was an extension of ourselves, a tiny child harboring a piece of each of us as part of her DNA infrastructure, seeds of our individual selves, planted so that all three of us could walk gracefully together into the future. The Putterer

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old Man Lear Sends Cordelia in Search of Herbicide

We humans are not perfect. The mistakes that we make are many and every one made becomes a tale for the telling. It's the opportunity that got a way; the road not taken; the deal that soured. It is our infallibilities that make us interesting. And in my case, I can embellish the tale and make my mistakes ever so deliciously entertaining.

But then there are those that never learn from their mistakes. These are the people that live angry lives. Sometimes they hurt others for no other reason except that they require your pain to soothe theirs. They are the toxic people of the world and to know or love one is one of life's trial. Like weeds in a garden, they persist in your life, wrapping their grasping tendrils slowly around your soul like bindweed curling around the stem of a hydrangea. You can yank on them, pull out their roots or spray them with herbicides, but they come back. I have a bitter, sad person in my life who tries hard to make his sorrow mine. His world is never hopeful. His disappointments are many. Even the highlights of his life are subsumed in his bitterness. And as he comes to the end of his life, his demons grow, and they wrestle with, and choke, every moment where a tiny bit of joy might seep in. Slowly, now he alienates one member after another of his family.

Recently, I let him have another opportunity. Ever hopeful that change would come, that a life lived should be about growth and learning, that eventually some wisdom and compassion might be his to own, I made the mistake of trying to forgive him. Maybe in the forest, he'll meet his Gloucester, but this Cordelia is in search of the herbicide and the weeding tool to banish him again from her world.

Another of my mistakes, but this one is a sad tale to tell and there are no embellishments that will make it any more palatable. The Putterer

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dahlia Daze and Squirrels Baffled

Productivity this week was at an all-time high. I was the master of the zen of get-it-done. And so no time for a Garden Putter post. Though I posted on Around the Mall this week--after previewing a wonderful show at the Sackler, "Falnama: The Book of Omens."

This weekend will rush by, I have no doubt. But for now, in the early morning, I'm enjoying a beautiful fall scene through my huge windows. The trees are a delightful copper yellow with burnt orange hints and still plenty of forest green. In the garden, the leaf litter is piling up and every time, we step outside, we bring inside a trail of detritus. The dahlias are in their glory. Mine are the size of your fist and they are swollen and heavy, but somehow their seemingly delicate stems manage to hold them high. They blaze with color as if they can sense that they have just about 20 days to strut their stuff before the first hard frost. It's unusually warm and wet, but not raining, so the air clings and smells deliciously like decay and fall and chill and cooking and family warmth and holidays and presents and shopping and everything all at once. Tomorrow, J and I will head up to Pennsylvania to Harper's Ferry for a hike with our friends, who are birders, and to see the leaves.

Speaking of birds. Last night, as I stumbled home with my friends from another fabulous Friday night party (I was hardly sober, slurring my words and laughing at the messy, silly results), we all stopped to marvel at the decidedly overbuilt, over engineered, over structured bird pole that I bought from a picture I'd seen on the Internet. When you buy on faith and hopefulness guided only by a picture, a testimonial and some barely acknowledged measurements, you have no idea really of the true scale of these things. When the enormous box (and the surprising shipping costs) arrives at your door, you keep the faith. So, a good idea at the time becomes, under the influence of many hours of scotch, tequila and gin, a huge giggle-inducing structure planted now firmly in my tiny front yard.

Now I had to defend my actions, bolstered by online testimonials, but undone by the lime-laced liquors I had consumed. Squirrels will hardly attempt to climb this behemoth. (And I must get a picture to share.) It comes complete with a patented squirrel baffle that hangs like an enormous cow bell from the pole. Rigged with a set of interior springs, it is an engineering marvel.

My friends, my husband, my brother and I stood there last night laughing so hard at its ridiculousness, we could barely breathe. The Putterer

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Think Like a Plant

Today, I'm going to try to think like a plant. I don't know what that means or how to do it, but it was advice doled out by gardening maven Barbara Damrosch in her newly updated The Garden Primer, which I just got in the mail yesterday. Presumably, Damrosch means that everything will just work out handily for you if you make like a plant. Incidently, I bought the Damrosch book because I enjoy her weekly columns in the Washington Post Home section. But I was a little disappointed because her book really is a primer, and a lot of the information in it was fairly basic. It's kind of rewarding, however, to think that I've moved up a notch in gardening stature.

But still, I liked the idea of thinking like a plant. I should think a plant would have a very sharp focus and clarity to it. Its goal simple: anchor roots deep, eye-gaze high.

I can't focus deeply anymore. There are so many small, superficial items that consume my time. Before we were involved in so many various ventures, I was an immersion girl. I would take on a topic and completely immerse myself in its complexity. I could travel in time to the places I was studying--the pit at Fort Pillow, the trenches at the Somme, the apex of a maelstrom. I'd pour over generals' reports at the Library of Congress, draw out diagrams of troops and cavalry, surround myself with Atlases and other reference materials. The immersion experience has its lingering effects. On Thirteenth Street, most mornings on my way to work, I can make out the figure of Abraham Lincoln on the parapet at Fort Stevens. His top hat is clearly visible as he surveys the enemy troops bivouacked just up the road by Walter Reed hospital. "Get down you damn fool," I always warn him, as we drive by.

I am completely engaged today in the pace that we keep. It feels like a challenge to be up for anything. Drop one thing. Take on another. The constant messaging, email, aim, Facebook, phone, cell. The multiple publishing opportunities, blog, newsletter, web page, video, photo gallery, and of course, magazine. It creates an excitement that curls around your spine and creeps into your neck and then, it turns to tension. And at the end of the day, there are small piles all over the desk, things started but not finished, ideas not pursued, emails unfinished. Little shoots and roots laid down in the soil, some will grow on their own, others will perish. But nothing big is really accomplished.

The picture was taken of my dwarf cavendish banana tree about a week ago. I bought the plant on a whim for $6.99 at Home Depot. It was a just a tiny thing when I planted it with maybe, two leaves on it. All summer it grew on the pot on my deck. I did yoga next to it a couple of times and I loved looking through its dense leaf from underneath when the sun was high above. Last weekend, I pulled it out of the pot, knocked the soil from its roots and wrapped them in a plastic bag and laid the plant on the back shelf of the garage, on top of the beach blanket. Its leaves are close to the heating duct that warms the room above. I'm hoping it will over winter there nicely and next year I'll replant it. Wouldn't it be cool if it grew some bananas? The Putterer

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Birthday

This is anemone, or Thimbleweed. It blooms throughout September and even on my birthday, which was yesterday, Columbus Day, a day off from work. It grows on a tall stem and it blooms from a tight formation at the tip that resembles a thimble. I have a large mass of them, but the deer ate a number of them. Mrs. Dana says they are "chiefly striking by reason of long, erect flower stalks."

Yesterday, P went to school. J went shopping. I went to the garden. And worked and worked and worked, for hours. I raked leaves and chopped them for compost. I put away stuff for winter. I clipped and cleaned up the brown stalks of the tall yellows (cleared out six bags of biomass). I dug up a hosta the size of an elephant and divided it in four ways with my bread knife, and replanted three and gave away one. I pulled the banana tree (dwarf cavendish--Musa acuminata) out and wrapped its roots in a plastic bag and laid it away in the back of the garage.

It was chilly, but I was sweating and ended up taking off two of my layered jackets. It was satisfying. And today it's back to the office.

P.S. I read that Katharine White, the fiction editor at the New Yorker from 1925 to 1960, used to garden in a tweed suit and Farengamos. She'd return to the house hours later, kick off her mud-caked shoes and then have to send her suit to the cleaners. Something about being out there, it's all-consuming.

P.S.S. I just went out to the garden this morning and the anemone have lost all their petals. They must have been hanging in there just for my special day. The Putterer

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Chill in the Air, Part II

My friend, Elizabeth, has correctly identified my mother's flower. Her comment on my last post sent me into a paroxysm of researches. After exhausting the internet, I turned to a couple of my favorite books.

Chief among them is a well-used (scratch that, I mean to say, it is practically impossible to use because its spine is cracked and the cover is falling off and the end pages are unattached) copy of How to Know the Wild Flowers by Mrs. William Starr Dana. My Mrs. Dana once belonged to J's Aunt Edna. It is dated 1906 and it is filled with Edna's footnotes ("For daisies--Indiana-Lincoln (#3) to Irving PR Blvd. Transfer West to Milwaukee Ave. Transfer South (Cicero) Ride about 5 blocks. Walk east.") The green volume is laced with dozens of botanical specimens pressed into the pages as if Aunt Edna was trying to collect one for one each and every of the book's entries.

I keep Mrs. Dana in a pride of place on my living room bookshelf. But these last few hours, I've been using the work in the way she intended.

Turtle-head (Chelone glabra) is of the Figwort family. It will grow one to seven feet high. Its stem is smooth, upright and branching. Its leaves are opposite, lance-shaped and toothed. Its flowers are white or pinkish, and grow in a spike or close cluster.

Of the turtle-head, Mrs. Dana says: "It seems to have been my fate to find the flowers which the botany relegates to 'dry, sandy soil' flourishing luxuriantly in marshes; and to encounter the flowers which by right belong to 'wet woods' flaunting themselves in sunny meadows. This cannot be attributed to the natural depravity of inanimate objects, for what is more full of life than the flowers? --and no one would believe in their depravity except perhaps the amateur-botanist who is endeavoring to master the different species of golden-rods and asters. Therefore it is pleasant to record that I do not remember ever having met a turtle-head, which is assigned by the botany to 'wet places,' which had not gotten as close to a stream or a marsh or a moist ditch as it well could without actually wetting its feet. The flowers of this plant are more odd and striking than pretty. Their appearance is such that their common name seems fairly appropriate. I have heard unbotanical people call them 'white closed gentians.' "

Well, Mrs. Dana, my turtle-head is thriving, rather flaunting itself, in a sunny spot, at the top of a berm and not anywhere close to where its feet could be wetted by a stream. Unbotanically, I thought it was a snapdragon. Thanks Elizabeth for setting me straight. And thanks too to you, Mrs. Dana. The Putterer

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Chill in the Air

Today, the kids are playing that perennial game that kids play in the fall. The rules are simple: run around like crazy and try to catch a leaf before it hits the ground. It's one of those instinctive games that kids are genetically programed to do generation after generation. And any nearby adult witness suffers an acute attack of nostalgia, suddenly jolted into a memory of what it was like to effortlessly hurl body around in the cool breeze, arms and legs loose, nose full of the scent of autumn decay. It's the kind of day to remember to call your sister and ask what she has in mind for Thanksgiving, or a day to consider mixing up the pie crust and freezing it for the festivities ahead. It's the kind of day for heavy cream-based soups, chicken stews and a college football game. Is it right for a former Badger to root for the Buckeyes, just because all her money along with her daughter goes there?

This is a plant that grew in my mother's garden. She called it a Monk's Hood, but I'm certain she was wrong. The Monk's hood has leaves that are differentiated into a number of points. I'm guessing it's some kind of a snapdragon. I've moved it around a number of times to try to find its optimal home and I think last season, I finally achieved that. It's now living happily at the back of the garden and multiplying itself into quite a display.

In the time it's taken me to the write this, the rain has stopped and a little sunlight is trying to shine through. Out the window a leaf is gently falling from high up in the tulip poplars. I'm taking P and her friend to a festival to shop for holiday presents and then we'll snuggle in tonight for some football and post-season baseball. The Putterer

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Love of My Life: Eggplant

I love eggplant. I can't get enough of it. Whenever we order out for our Friday night meals, my friends always pick out an eggplant dish especially for me.

This year, I stumbled across an eggplant plant at Behnkes. It was kind of late in the spring when I planted it and I wasn't sure if I'd have any success. But it has sweetly delivered about five good-sized eggplants this summer, or more elegantly in French, aubergine. This one is likely the last that the plant will offer me (though there is one blossom coming in now, and if I count the weeks until the first freeze--about five. Well, maybe she'll pop out another one for me).

Now, here is a funny story dredged from a long ago horrible time when I was smitten with my first real case of love. There is nothing worse than unrequited teenage love. The boy was in my third grade class and I fell deeply in love with him the first time I saw him. I harbored a painful passion for him for years. Maybe, as I recall, all the way through sixth grade. I did terrible things like phone him and hang up when he answered. I would sit starring at him in class. Sadly, he had no interest in me. I think he even called me Pyface. (I hated when the boys called me that.) So I made up a name for him. I channeled my love into a huge force of hate and loathing and worked up a powerful contempt for this boy, the former love of my life.

To ratify my contempt, I came up with a name for him that was certain to convey my utter and total disregard for him. His new first and last name were derived from the two most vile, repugnant vegetables that a mother could ever set before a kid to eat at dinner--"Broccoli Eggplant." Thus baptized one day on the playground, his moniker quickly caught on. The other girls on the playground and I used it to create a song, and later, a line dance to go with it. It was a chant that I'm sure unnerved him, and possibly caused his mother to phone the principal.

Today, the boy is a nice man who sells real estate. I wonder if he likes eggplant as much as I do?

My kids love eggplant, too. The other day, C. called from college and asked if I would please send her the recipe for her favorite eggplant dish. So here it is. The Putterer

Maccheroni Al Forno Alla Rustica

14 oz maccheroni
vegetable oil
1 aubergine, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 oz butter, plus extra for the baking dish
4 oz thinly sliced onion
12 oz tinned whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice, coursely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsps freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano chees
4 pz Italian smoked mozzarella (use fresh if smoked mozz is unavailable), very thinly sliced
1. Pour vegetable oil into a saute pan until it comes 1/2 in up the side. Place over a high heat. Once the oil has become very hot, carefully slip in as many slices of aubergine as will comfortably fit. As the bottom of each slice turns golden brown, remove from the pan and transfer to a plate covered with kitchen paper. Continue frying untill all the aubergine is done. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Pour 7 pints of water into a large saucepan or pot and place over a high heat.
3. Melt the butter in another saute pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens and turns a rich golden colour.
4. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper and cook until the tomatoes have reduced and separated from the butter. Remove from the heat and set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
6. When the water for the pasta is boiling, add 1 tablespoon of salt and drop in the pasta all at once, stirring well.
7. When the pasta is molto al dente (about 1 minute away from being al dente), drain and toss with the sauce and the grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
8. Smear the bottom of a shallow baking dish with butter and pour in about half the pasta, spreading it out evenly. Cover with all the aubergine slices and half the mozzarella slices. Pour in the remaining pasta, and place the rest of the mozzarella slices on top.
9. Place on the upper shelf of the oven. Bake for about 15-20 minutes or until a light golden crust forms on top. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Source: The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Plant with Attitude

This weekend was satisfying. I did an enormous amount of cleanup, fix up, put away and get it done. On Monday morning, I took the dog out and strolled through the garden and all was order. Nice way to start the week. (My hip hurts like hell, though, and I felt exhausted all day yesterday.)

I can't remember the name of this plant. I never can for some reason. It just won't stick. So I call it the Plant with Attitude. They are a mainstay in my garden and this time of year they come into their own. When we traveled to Africa, they were all over the place. If I only gardened with Maryland natives, I'd have to forgo this beauty.

I contend that the Plant with Attitude is a better name than whatever it might be called. I remember once I was in Behnke's with my brother. That was that unforgettable day that my mother died and C. and I just couldn't figure out what to do, so we went to the nursery. I wanted to buy one of these and of course, had forgotten the name. So I asked for the Plant with Attitude and the nurseryman knew exactly what I was talking about.

I'm all attitude as I march toward my 49th birthday. It's all good and it just seems to get better. My husband, my family, my friends. I'm going to close out my forties contendedly. And when I'm dead and gone, they might not remember my name, but everybody will know who that Girl with Attitude was. The Putterer

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everything that Dies, Some Day Comes Back

October and it's all done. This picture of my phlox David (white) and Veronica (lavender) is old, stored for a future post back in August. Outside this morning, the remnants of phlox petals are gently drifting away.

The 2009 garden might have been one of my best. The dependable rainstorms throughout the season meant I rarely watered (I think once or twice this whole summer). In fact, the biomass that I've raked and weeded out of the garden this summer is probably a record. The deer that came through must have encountered the deer resistant plants that I'd put in, and decided to graze elsewhere. His damage was minimized by a flush of growth. The family of wrens that took up residence in my birdhouse hopefully made it to adulthood. The goldfinches have moulted. Their gorgeous yellow feathers have turned an autumn brown. The banana tree in the pot on the deck is probably confused by the cool evening temperatures. (What am I going to do with it?) The apple tree never produced but at least it's not growing sideways anymore. The peach tree survived the gypsy moth infestation. The Fourth of July tomatoes delivered all through August. The herbs and peppers are still holding fast. And the eggplant plant gave me two or three lovely Aubergine.

Now comes the process of closing it all out before the first freeze in mid-November. The fall chores sometimes come with a self-imposed anxiety to rake and clean and put away. The crush of fall social obligations, sports games and school activities. The temptation to work late in the evenings and go in on weekends to meet the press deadline for goSmithsonian. All of this conflicts with garden work and chores. I have to remember that no one cares if the plants turn brown and fall over, and the leaves gather on the lawn. It's the way it is supposed to be and I need to move slowly, deliberately, one step, one season, at a time. The Putterer