Nature’s Classroom

Of the various things that I do, gardening is the most satisfying and forgiving. By that I mean, when I paint or write, I’m forever questioning the quality of what I’ve just accomplished. It can always be improved. Or different. The work is right there staring at me asking for better. When I exercise or take a walk, I wonder if I’ve exerted enough. Invariably my conscience feels guilty and my body bears testimony to my sloth. I cook or bake and it ends up falling short of the perfect version begging for a re-do. But not the garden. It accepts whatever I do without reproach. I’m allowed to work sporadically or in bursts of zeal and energy. My mistakes are quietly endured and my successes are amply rewarded. It is my muse. No wonder I love to spend time in the garden.
I try to paint outdoors whenever the weather permits. The pleasure of creating to the accompaniment of bird songs, the steady thrum of bees and the gentle rustle of leaves as a breeze blows through is nothing short of sublime. Add to this the fragrance of flowers and herbs and you’re envisioning a work space that beats a corner office every time.
With Wi-Fi, I can do my writing, communications, reading and designing work in the garden. I admit that sometimes, I’m distracted by the beauty of what is in bloom, the visits of butterflies or the antics of the birds. But, I’ve learned to factor those moments in my schedule. And I’m all the richer for it.
For instance, cardinals thrill me. The sight of one instantly puts me in a good frame of mind. I think of them as good luck charms. Out of academic curiosity, I’ve been in search of their nests for years. They’ve always been honored guests in my garden but where they nested eluded me. Then a couple of years ago, whilst puttering in the garden, I spied cardinal activity in the ‘Heritage’ rose bush. In the fall, I went to inspect said bush and came upon the most loosely woven, delicate nest of thin peels of grapevine bark. I use grapevine prunings around the peony supports so, they had been very accessible to the cardinals as this rose bush sits right next to the peonies.
I don’t usually remove nests but there was simply no way this nest was going to survive the winter. So I brought it indoors to gaze and admire at leisure. Nothing other than the peelings were used. The cardinal is a minimalist! Such exquisite, sculptural work deserved due recognition. Since then, I’ve applied the same approach to my art – distilling things to the bare essentials. Thank you dear feathered friends.
More recently, looking up from writing, I watched a cardinal pair flit to and from the tangled canopy of Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose that scrambles up and drapes over an ancient apple tree. I sneaked under this ‘bower’ to look closer. Sure enough, there sits another filigree-like nest made solely of just one type of twig. I wish I could get a look at the eggs but a formidable dome of highly thorny stems thwart any such attempts. What a brilliant location. Perhaps once again in the autumn, I’ll try to get a more intimate look at the nest – from atop a ladder.
I wonder if cardinals have a preference for roses. It looks that way in my garden. More likely, they seek places that are not particularly friendly to inquisitive critters and certain humans. I could Google and learn all sorts of things from the proper authorities. But where is the romance in that? It is infinitely more rewarding to let the garden teach in its gentle, hands-on way. Much wisdom and wonder comes from merely hanging out in the garden.
Just this past Sunday, as I looked up from the newspaper, my eyes rested on the tall Angelica in the corner of the herb garden. For reasons I cannot explain, I decided to inspect it. Looking plump and content, rested a handsome Swallowtail caterpillar. It’s bright green color blended beautifully with the leaves of the plant. How marvelous is the human eye that is able to discern between the different shapes and hues of the same color. Similarly, we are able to spot weeds amidst similar looking plants. I was hoping the caterpillar would remain on the Angelica and form a chrysalis. It lolled on the herb two days in a row but when I looked today, I did not see any sign of it at all. Just some well molested leaves hanging off the main stem. No matter, I’ll patiently await the butterfly.
The learning never ends.

Cardinal nest of grapevine bark

Cardinal nest of grapevine bark


Paul's Himalayan musk rose bower over old apple tree

Paul’s Himalayan musk rose bower over old apple tree


Cardinal nest in the rose bower

Cardinal nest in the rose bower


Swallowtail caterpillar

Swallowtail caterpillar


(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 thoughts on “Nature’s Classroom

  1. Wonderful column! I also love cardinals and feel that they bring good luck. But I had no idea that they are such tasteful little architects. That nest is exquisite. And yes, let’s hear it for the gentle instruction of the garden as opposed to the lightning-speed and easily forgotten factoids from the Internet.

  2. Thank you for sharing images of the cardinal nests! We have families of them in our yard, but have never seen the nest!

  3. I look forward to your column, I feel like I am there with you in your garden. It’s amazing what you see, when you taker the time to enjoy!! I just saw some surprise lilies blooming….they always brighten my day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.