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.

6 Comments

Filed under clearing brush

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.

15 Comments

Filed under city planning

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.

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under living in multiple seasons, nature as a religion

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under ghosts

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?

2 Comments

Filed under indoor plants

Something Blue

ChagallAutour D’Elle by Marc Chagall (1945

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity. We cannot live without the others, without the tree.

–Pablo Casals

 

I can’t seem to step away from trees. I move; they stay. And I keep coming back to them. In Philadelphia it was the gingko tree. On San Juan Island, where I live, it’s the Pacific Madrone. In Massachusetts recently, dogwood trees spoke to me. We were there for a wedding and I fell in love with dogwood trees, their draping boughs abloom in big full skirts—looking to my eye like brides, up and down every green leafed well-appointed street in town.

Our younger sister was getting married, and my other sister and I were falling all over ourselves trying to fill our mother’s shoes for the bride. This wedding was, after all, mom’s last wish. Anyone gathered around her hospital bed in those final days was witness to it. Having lost the ability to speak after suffering a severe stroke, she nevertheless made her intentions known. Pointing with her finger and darting her eyes, back and forth from our youngest sister to her beau, over and over. He got the message alright, and five months after the funeral he proposed.

Now the stage was set for the wedding in a Wedgewood blue manse outside Boston, at the home of the great grandson of Pablo Casals—which has nothing to do with anything, but just knowing that made it all the more heavenly, I thought. On a day in spring so temperate, it should have been bottled. All the dogwood trees, as I mentioned, in full bloom and finery.

There was something about the light that day. Anyone could have told you, it touched us all.

Fifty-five guests filed up the front steps entering a high-ceilinged foyer, which led to a grand dining room, which led to a grander-still living room. A house that told the story not only of its past, but of the vibrant people living there today as well. Accompanied by an acoustical guitarist, the guests took their place in folding chairs facing a staging area. Our father sat quietly up front in his wheelchair. And what held him for hours–all afternoon–we now know.

There was something about the air that day too, it touched us all. We were all drinking in the scene as we breathed.

The ceremony began, the officiate standing to one side, bride and groom to the other. Between them a tall window looking to green, light through the leaves. With each word and each vow exchanged, the breeze which had been so gentle became a declarative wind. The window treatment puckered, billowed, and ultimately blew straight out to the side.

Something was coming in.

In my family we’d all been wondering when our mother would appear. It had been a long time for us since her death, but we had to understand she was trying to find her way around. And until now, mom had never been on her own. But how else can we explain that it all went so flawlessly well, our youngest sister’s wedding?

It had to have been our mother.

 

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Welcome! Bienvenido!

Balboa Park  Balboa Park, San Diego. Photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When I first laid eyes on Hunter he was smaller than I had imagined. I realize now I had been enlarging every photo his parents sent to us until his eyes were the size of walnuts, and his hands and feet humongous. I remember looking at those mitts and crowing, “our grandson is going to be a baseball player!”

Then we are in San Diego and he is in my arms and, to my surprise, holding him is one part scary. On one hand I fold right into position. On the other hand, I’m all elbows and thumbs. It is his parents that are best with him. I like being seated with pillows to help brace his rolling head. Seems half the weight of a newborn baby is in the head. Now I see him as cerebral—and this little boy is brilliant. In a gush I promise him an education and a drafting table, for I see AIA beside his name.

In truth Hunter mostly sleeps. His eyes dream and dance in his skull, and his little mouth moves with the memory of milk. Like a frog he keeps his legs tucked in, and his arms don’t know where to go or what to do with themselves. We are doing newborn babies a favor, I have learned, by swaddling them in a blanket or cloth. An old idea that’s come around again.

Like a procession we move into his nursery and out of his nursery. His parents, grandparents, and an aunt who flew in from NYC. A procession wherever he goes. If he has his days and nights flipped, we wouldn’t know. We’re with him. We venture out, bags and baggage and carriage. A procession to Balboa Park.

I once knew what it was to raise babies in San Diego. As my son-in-law says, my life is passing before me here. I know of no place better for being outdoors 365 days a year. Even now I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sky so blue—not for a long time anyway. But San Diego in our day had fewer cars on the freeways. No one had air conditioning, and no one saw the need. The Safari Park was called The Wild Animal Park, and as members we nearly had it to ourselves. Pushing a stroller we hiked out on the mesas, the savannah, while herds of animals roamed. Do my daughters remember those days as I do? It was a part of me then, and a part of me now.

One more memory returns to me of the earliest days. Shut in, home alone, and hormones raging. I am nursing my newborn baby and crying uncontrollably. Across the room a small black & white television set is on softly. Public Service Announcements, particularly “Save the Children,” air frequently between daytime programs, and I lose it every time, day after day. I am holding my baby and weeping over the fact that she is one of the lucky ones born on this side of the border, when just a few miles away can be all the difference in the world.

Little has changed.

But this time I have to go, I can’t stay. So long, Hunter. You are in good hands and in a good place. From the vantage point of the plane there’s one long coast between us, one beautiful stretch. One ocean alongside us. And a kayak in the bay up here for you, always.

12 Comments

Filed under The US/Mexican border