The New Normal

 

photo bu Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We were propped up in bed watching House Hunters International—one of our ways of traveling vicariously while quarantined. The apartment hunt was in Amsterdam and we were torn between a small flat with canal view, and another with no canal view but a rooftop deck.

It was just after 1 am, May 15, when we felt it and heard it. A 3.0 earthquake eight miles deep on island, less than two miles away as a crow flies. It sounded like a sudden gust of wind, and indeed, our house did lurch a little.

“What was that?” we asked each other. We were suddenly out of Amsterdam and back on San Juan Island, Washington.

We asked each other this question, but knew full well. We didn’t live all those years in California for nothing. And so we continued with our house hunt in Amsterdam, my husband favoring the view, while I couldn’t imagine living without the outdoor space.

In subsequent days I inquired whether other islanders experienced the earthquake. Our social circle is particularly small lately due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but I asked our neighbors (there are only two), my book group, and friends on Mount Dallas.

“We didn’t feel a thing,” is all I heard from anyone. Everyone, it turns out, slept through it. And so everything returned to normal, or rather, The New Normal.

There is much to be said for The New Normal aside from the fact that the moon is brighter and there are far more stars in the sky lately. The friends on Mount Dallas are seeing islands beyond all the islands they ever saw before.

I have felt my hair grow over my shoulders and fall onto the small of my back. We’ve so many houseplants indoors now, they color the light in our home. And I take the time to walk them all out to be watered in the rain.

On clear days we step outdoors and hear nothing but birds, a symphony matinee every day. The keening of gulls carries for miles over salt water, from one bay to the next. A friend on island notes, “Something I never tired of, watching quail walk along the top of my rock wall.”

Businessmen are at home writing poetry. Children, learning to bake bread. More thank you notes than we’ve seen in decades are moving through the mail, followed, in many cases, by thank you’s on the thank you notes.

The deer and fox step closer to us now. On every walk I weed my way up the gravel drive, while my husband mows the long dirt road for all the neighbors not here yet. We keep an eye on the empty houses for them.

We are all watching seeds sprout, plants grow, buds open, and flowers bloom. At a time when we haven’t been able to see the children who have flown off, these are our children now. I am now planting Winter Blooming Honeysuckle for the hummingbirds. At a time when even an earthquake doesn’t rattle us anymore, hummingbirds move us immensely.

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The Flight of the Hummingbird

Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

 

“I can’t do this,” he said.

My father was a smart man. He may have figured it out. Coronavirus was sweeping through his assisted living facility outside Boston, and everyone was being tested, residents and staff alike.

A modest man, in his own quiet way he was extrordinarily accomplished in his life. But at ninety-six years of age he wasn’t up for something unknown that no one knew how to treat. That much he knew. He read The Boston Globe daily.

“Life goes on until it ends,” that’s what dad always said when he was trying to help me with my inconsolable grief in losing others.

Deeply worried about him, yet unable to be there, I ran off to the nursery to fill three large hanging baskets. I needed something to do. Tired of looking at last summer’s geranium mummies, I’d start over with fresh soil, and—on the drive to town I saw it clearly—hanging fuschia. A nectar producing plant with tube-shaped blooms specially adapted to accommodate the long bills of hummingbirds, my father’s littlest friends.

It was there at the nursery when I received the call. Hospice was by dad’s side now and this was my only chance to say goodbye. I think I said, “I’m at the nursery, daddy. You’d be here too, if you were with me, and we’d be extraordinarily happy.” Something nonsensical like that.

Looking back, purchasing plants at nurseries may have been one of my father’s only indulgences. Together we could spend half the day there filling our wagon, and often did.

I was crying so hard, I was grateful to be masked.

At the same time, my project remained important to me. Julie of Julie’s nursery helped me load trays of twenty-four fuschia starts, eight for each basket, into the back of my car. She advised peat be mixed half and half with potting soil, and an organic flowering fertilizer which looked a bit different than my organic fertilizer at home, so I purchased that too. Julie could have sold me the moon that day, anything in the rush to grow my beautiful baskets.

We set up the planting operation on the picnic table at home. The table Bill Maas built when we first arrived on island. Eight fuchsia starts per basket, hung, and watered gently. They looked so lighthearted and promising beneath the eave. In the evenings we covered the baskets with clear plastic, for it’s still cold. And every morning, the unveiling. There is something in that ritual too.

There are two species of hummingbird on island: Anna’s and Rufous. Native to Western coastal regions, Anna’s Hummingbirds are increasingly found here year-round, living in the branches of our coastal scrub. Rufous Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have the longest migration of any bird their size. Wintering in Mexico, spring in California, summers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and zipping over to the Rocky Mountains for fall before returning to Mexico. Feisty and territorial, the visiting reddish brown Rufous try to chase off the resident emerald green and gray Anna’s each year. So we just keep putting up more feeders and more nectar producing plants to accommodate every one.

When we moved onto San Juan Island, mom and dad’s place on The Cape was very much on our mind. Shingled cottages by the sea. Ragtag fleets of boats by the water’s edge in summer. Clams in the muddy sand. And a writing hut where Dad had had a garden shed. The baby mice that once fell onto the brim of dad’s hat when he was puttering around in the shed. He cared for them too.

Dad has always been with me in writing, in gardening, and now, birds. He wrote his memoir, which prompted me to write mine. He explained Master Gardeners to me as “missionaries of the gardening world, Jesuits for all their knowledge,” and I became one. He led by example in the garden, and now he’s got me loving birds.

“What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer…” Richard Powers

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Coronavirus, death of a father, fuschia plants, hummingbirds

Enhancing the Woods

Limekiln at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

My dog looks at me from across the room.

Something is not right, she says with her brown eyes. Don’t know what, but I’m here to make it better.

 We go outside to pick up fallen branches. Well, she meanders around and I pick up branches. Clearing the brush clears my head. Didn’t I once laugh when I read that one of the activities President George W. Bush most enjoyed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas was clearing brush? Anyway, live and learn.

A new purpose in life lately: enhancing the woods. I know of a man who does just that on his acreage on San Juan Island. A professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle, out on island he devotes himself to this, enhancing the woods. Married to a friend of mine, I have been hoping to meet him, talk to him, or simply trail him around. Our book group met there recently–he scattered, as husbands do—and when I turned onto their property I thought it a forested park.

The trees don’t know the Coronavirus. In North America trees have known The Dutch Elm Disease, Armillaria Root Rot, Anthracnose and Leaf Spot Diseases, Annosum Root Rot, Aspen Canker, Bacterial Wet Wood, Beech Bark Disease, Brown Spot in Longleaf Pine, Canker Rot, and Commandra Blister Rust, so their lives have not been without consternation. It isn’t easy being a tree. But trees today will live through the Coronavirus, just as many of them lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu global pandemic.

Our trees on island faced a fate worse than plague, the limestone mining industry. On islands rimmed with large deposits of high quality limestone on the shoreline, rock was quarried, blasted and shunted downhill to the kilns. And trees were felled to fuel the fires of the ovens. Converted to commercial quick lime primarily for the building industry, and sent off in barrels on fleets of ships, both sail and steam. All this was not without erosion, the gouging out of hillsides. Wetlands were filled. Shellfish flats buried.

Old growth Douglas fir was the fuel of choice. The voracious appetite of the ovens roared away for more than sixty years, from 1860 to the 1920’s, consuming nearly all our old growth trees, and with them, their stories. It must have been hell here. It took The Great Depression to shut down the massive limekiln industry in the San Juan Islands.

Roche Harbor, where I walk, had the largest lime works operation west of the Mississippi. The trees remember all that the earth in its dense biomass endured. The woods have memory. Today, there are only isolated old growth trees. Now as then, the Douglas fir is most abundant, just as most of the branches I am gathering are Douglas fir. Some trees remember, many are returning, and all we can do is stand beside them.

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The Tree Lady

illustration by Jill McElmurry from the children’s book by H. Joseph Hopkins

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We spent a month in San Diego. Shopping center after shopping center, parking lots, garages, and malls. What can everyone be purchasing, we wondered, as they sped about day and night in their shiny new cars? Where are they all going and what are they are so busy buying? Objects to furnish their homes, clothes to beautify their bodies, hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Meanwhile this piece of the planet has been plowed over, hardscaped with asphalt and concrete. I could hear it cry “RAPE!” What is needed is a new feminization of San Diego. A planner with a vision. Another Kate Sessions to turn things around and get the city back on the right path.

Barren and brown, that’s how Kate Sessions saw San Diego in 1884 when she first arrived from Northern California. The image of dirt and sagebrush must have burned into her consciousness. Her contract was to teach, but she left teaching after a short time to open a botanical nursery. Soon Sessions had nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, and Mission Hills. Recognizing her passion, the city leased to Sessions 30 acres of a scrub-filled mesa known as City Park where cattle grazed and garbage was dumped. The park became her growing fields. And the park became Balboa Park, one of the premier urban parks in the country today.

If all this sounds like a fable, it isn’t.

Unprecedented for a woman at the time, Kate had graduated UC Berkley in 1881 with a degree in Natural Science. With that she became a botanist, horticulturist, landscape architect, and in the process, an activist. She published articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals, was appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools, and supervised school gardens. “Her whole life and her whole interest was in horticulture,” noted her biographer, Elizabeth MacPhail.

“Sessions cut an extraordinary figure before women’s suffrage in California,” wrote Geoff Wade in the California Sun newsletter. “She kept her hair in a knot atop her head, and wore men’s shoes—perpetually muddy—and a twill shirt with a large inside pocket that bulged with pruning shears, a knife, and other tools.”

Growing from seeds collected around the world, Sessions planted thousands of cypress, pine, oak, peppertrees, jacaranda, and eucalyptus trees, where San Diegans didn’t think trees could grow. Blessed with a mild climate, plants thrived on the boulevards, in canyons, and public spaces.

And then, it’s almost as if San Diego became too desirable a place to live and everyone moved there. 

It’s no wonder we kept dodging into Balboa Park during our visit.

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Our Lady of the Perennial Garden

Photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A rundown fence runs across our property, and over the fence is the bay. When we moved in, I planted Leucanthemun superbum Becky, a 4’ tall growing Shasta Daisy along the entire fence. A reliable perennial of strong stem and a tendency to spread, every summer we’re more pleased with its performance than the summer before. Last week I cut them all back to two inches, one stem at a time. That’s how the plant comes back, year after year. That is all it asks.

It’s November now and dark and dreary, but something happened to me out there by the fence that afternoon, wrapped in a sweater and parka, wearing gloves and rain boots. As the stems toppled over, I could see spring in my mind’s eye. I could see what I couldn’t see before. I could see that spring is right around the corner and on it’s way. Gardening does this. We live in multiple seasons at once when we garden, and this I consider a miracle of sorts.

Today I climbed upon a steep little hillside to cut back more clumps of Shasta daisy I had planted, for I’ve become very fond of this flower. A shorter growing variety of Leucanthemun superbun known as Silver Princess. Deer hang out on this hillside, and here too, they leave my Shasta daisy alone. “Gifts from the deer,” I call it when I find deer-resistant plants. And again, this one too is a reliable bloomer late spring through summer.

Every year upon this hillside, I note I’m a little less steady. I’m incline now to topple and slide a little more, and I vow to take up yoga finally. A few years back when I first began planting on this slope, I wore my garden clogs. Today I wouldn’t even think of it. The fact is, I am practically on all fours, and dragging my garden tote behind me. And that is how I left my green kneeling pad upon the hillside. Such a metaphor for what I believe in and what my religion is now, I almost hesitated to fetch it and bring it in.

 

 

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The Geography of Home

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

In the city, nature has to be contained in a pot, a plot, upon a rooftop, a park, or in a conservatory. I started this month at The Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I had been in the city for some time, and in stepping into the garden everything was turned inside out, or right side up, again, for me. Suddenly woods where there’d been blocks of brownstones. Fields in lieu of pavement.

Oh right, I thought, I’m a country girl now living on bucolic San Juan Island, Washington with the birds and the foxes and the deer, where the trees meet the sea, and the air is so fresh it’s delicious—for I’d become acclimated to the city and was finding beauty there: in displays in store windows, in handsome pairs of planters at doorsteps, in art hanging high through the living room windows of illuminated brownstones, and all the gathering places: corner cafes and restaurants.

Not long afterward my Brooklyn daughter attended a conference in Laguna Beach, California. Gazing at the Pacific out the window of her train running up the coast from San Diego, she asked of the universe, “Remind me why I live on the East Coast….”

I can only tell my daughter that I go through this question all the time, coast to coast. This wanting to split myself in two—at least two—and live another life as well, somewhere else. The feeling that I belong there too, and that a ghost of me may indeed be living that life and I need only catch up with her. Hop into her shoes. Hop into her flat in Brooklyn. Hop into her little casita in California. All the places where ghosts of me dwell, walking with no footprints and sighing without sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Fern Named Fair Maiden

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

My daughter in San Diego has a 5 foot cactus in her home she calls Ole’. The air is dry, the light is bright, and the walls are white. Ole’ grows as proudly indoors as he would outdoors. It was on a visit to San Diego that I became enticed with miniature succulents. Growing in gardens, in mini-pots, on wall gardens or living walls, it was all the rage. Back home I got myself hooked, then I gave some away and got others hooked. That is how it happens. But here in the Northwest, succulents have to come indoors for the winter. My arrangements took over the dining table last year. It was cute for a while, but it wasn’t us. In anticipation of another long winter, I am regaining my senses.

In outdoor gardening we are mindful to go with natives, but what about our indoor plants? Travel through any nursery’s indoor selection anywhere and you’ll find predominantly tropicals: palms, dracaenas, rubber tree, snake plant, philodendron. We’ve all done it, we all do it, yet few of us live in the tropics either.

It started with the idea of a centerpiece. Did I really want to look at succulent creatures from outer space crawling all about my dining table again, or would I like something soft and calming, something greener, something that moves? Something indigenous like fern? They’re all over my house now, one type or another of fern.

I feel like my house has come home.

The Pacific Northwest coastal region is home to approximately 40 species of fern. They blanket the floor beneath the tree canopy in forests, or in my case, beneath a wooden ceiling. With fern for indoor plants my home is as at one with the woods as the day we cedar-shingled the exterior. I seem to be onto something.

It asks more of me to be the mother of fern, but as an empty nester, I rather like that. Thirsty creatures with a penchant for daily mistings, I’m not quite sure how I will ever travel again. But for now I’m not going anywhere. I have an impending deadline with my agent on my book, and in the meantime have rattled off another blog post on the natural world.

Because what other world is there really?

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