Inside Out

About a week ago, I had an experience that set my heart racing and seriously tied up my tongue. I met Dr. Oliver Sacks.
It was actually my second encounter with him. The first was very brief. But then, even if I met him a million times I’d be reduced to a blathering idiot – he has that effect on me. I have such a deep respect and reverence for the man.

Having read his many books and articles, attended some of his talks, listened to podcasts, avidly followed his newsletters and generally admired him for decades, I hold him responsible for affecting how I live. The word live is the key. Dr. Oliver Sacks is fully engaged in living. His curiosity and thirst to examine every aspect of this big, beautiful world is hard to match.

He observes and examines. He tries to understand or work out the mechanics of how things/people function. Then, he explains what he has learned or thought out to the rest of us, in language that is clear and easy to comprehend. His writings are seasoned with a wit that elicits laughter even as one learns a complex topic. Dr. Sacks is brilliant at exposing us to our own humanity and telling us that no matter what, it is all right to be just as we are. Reading him makes me feel smart. At least for a while.

For years I knew of Dr. Sacks as a neuroscientist but then I read his book the Oaxaca Journal. This was about going on a fern hunting expedition. Ferns? Turns out Dr. Sacks is passionate about them. Interestingly, that expedition was led by Dr. John Mickel, he who is godfather to my vertical garden. John once told me that whilst on that trip, every time the team took a break, Oliver Sacks sat by himself and wrote in his journal. He was shy and quiet. Soon after they got home and before John had written up his scientific papers on the discoveries made on the expedition, a package was delivered to him. It was the manuscript to Oaxaca Journal in which Dr. Sacks expounds on not just ferns but related topics like chocolate, culture and other earthly wonders in that part of the world! John jokes that he needn’t have bothered writing his own papers.
Just goes to show once again that great minds are invariably naturalists and/or plantsmen as well. Galileo, Darwin, Sacks …

Dr. Sacks takes big bites of life and chews each mouthful thoroughly. No matter what he does, he does so with almost an obsession. Then he tells us all about it. How our brains work explains how we feel and behave. What goes on inside manifests on the outside. This is true for anything.

The current status of his health is well known. The great man has terminal cancer. But, he does not ask for pity or even empathy. Instead, he shows us how to keep living. He is still writing, visiting friends and doing all that he can and wants to do. He continues to make visible the unseen and unknown.

So how has he affected my life? I’ve learned to remain curious about everything. To stay present, to pay attention and learn all that life teaches. In the garden, in relationships, in work both creative and mundane, in the ordinary, in the different, in the new and in the old. Nowhere am I more cognizant of Dr. Sacks’ instruction as in the garden when I’m always confronting the familiar in novel, new ways.

He presented me with a personally signed copy of his latest book Moving On – a memoir. It will be treasured for life. I’m about to embark on a journey into Oliver Sacks’ life and I’m tightening my belt. It promises to be a bumpy, glorious ride.

On the heels of meeting my hero, I saw the movie Inside Out – an absolutely wonderful film about our emotions. It is on neuroscience if you will! Coincidence? I think not. I do wonder if Dr. Sacks has seen it and what he has to say about it. I highly recommend you go see it!
For a neuroscientist’s take on the movie, click here.

To read about Dr. Oliver Sacks, his books and his blog, click here.

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels' garden

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels’ garden

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My most recent encounter

My most recent encounter

 

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Saving Face

Do you ever have that intense desire to completely do over an entire part of the garden? But before you can give in to this extreme act, sound reason gilded with just a trace of lethargy steps in? I hope you know what I’m alluding to because I’d hate to think I’m alone in madcap thoughts.

Each year about now when spring is transiting to summer and again, when fall is barely edging out summer, I can’t stand the front perennial beds. They look kinda meh! if you get my drift. The blooms of printemp that shone so gaily are dimming their lights but the flowers of summer have yet to hear their cue. There is no doubt a lush greenness present but the oomph is missing. In the broadcast world this would be described as dead air and something to avoid at all costs. In the garden design world this is not quite as serious but still a situation to prevent. If possible.

The problem is, nature has a mind of her own. No amount of careful planning will entirely eliminate the problem. In fact, my careful orchestration is happily ignored all too often. This year being no exception. Nothing followed anticipated patterns. It worked out okay except for now – unhappily, true to form, the perennial beds are pretty much doing nothing for my morale. I could use some annuals and maybe I will but, I’d still prefer to rely mostly on perennials.

I had high hopes for the rose on the front arch. Being late to bloom this season, for once, I guaranteed myself a seamless transition to summer. The arch would carry us till the phlox and acanthus made their appearance. But recent thunderstorms put paid to that dream. The cascade of soft pink roses now hang limp and tired, shedding petals resembling bits of brown paper.

Back to square one. There is nothing to hold ones attention in the front garden. The window boxes are trying but it is unfair to think they must carry the whole front. Clearly, something for this specific time is required. I’m flummoxed because in the past, everything I have planted for this purpose has turned traitor. They have all chosen an earlier or later time to bloom in my garden.

But, I’m not ready to surrender. I think I’m being challenged. If the garden has taught me anything, it is to never give up. As long as there is life, there is hope. A trip to the nursery is in short order. Stay tuned.

Perhaps I’ll run into some of you there?

The window boxes

The window boxes

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The beds are just all green. You see?

The beds are just all green. You see?

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Playing Cat And Mouse

The other day, just as I stepped out with the noble intention of tackling the weeds, I knew something was afoot. The birds were chattering at high decibels and appeared agitated. Just as I began to feel personally affronted, I spotted the neighborhood cat quietly making its way through the meadow to the stone bench where it likes to warm itself and observe the realm at the same time. Aha!

This black cat makes good use of its coloring. It lurks in the areas of dappled light making it difficult to notice. Clever. I don’t know who owns this feline and in principal have no strong objection to it trespassing on my property. I take the occasional dead mouse found around as its payment for entry. Quite appropriate.

Yet, I resent the way the cats presence upsets the birds. Its true that some of them don’t use any common sense and choose their nesting sites very foolishly. There are at the present, to my knowledge, at least four different pairs of birds tending to their young in the garden. Nature at work, circle of life and whatever else is all very well but the very thought of the eggs or babies in the nest coming under attack really bothers me. I’m irrational that way.

I got to thinking about the matter as I settled down to weed. Always a good activity to get the mind pondering on heavy topics like that. The conclusion is that I’m pretty much the prowling cat when it comes to hunting down the mousy weeds. For all I know, they too shriek at the sight of me. Obviously at a wavelength not perceived by my delicate human ears.

Given that there really isn’t anything natural about gardening and the whole endeavor is contrived, makes me, the gardener, the biggest bully of all. It is all about imposing my will. I exercise my dominance ruthlessly and the result is the garden I’m proud to call my own. Maybe using only organic measures and increasing the native plant population makes me a tyrant with a conscience but a tyrant nevertheless.

So coming back to the cat, I’m resolved to let it be. Live and let live. I hope it feels the same way.

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Babies in a nest

Babies in a nest

IMG_3912(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Rain Giveth And The Rain Taketh Away

We need rain! I’ll wager you said that at least once this season. Despite all that snow in winter, thus far, it has been an all too dry spring. Hence watering the garden has been a chore that took precedence in my neck of the woods. The emerging growth needed hydration if they were expected to put on any kind of show in the fullness of time. On the days we were blessed with rain, were happy ones – nothing like a good soak to replenish the spirit of the place. The plants really did look much better

The rain barrel took a while to get filled and is now fulfilling its purpose handily. As grateful as I was for rain, I must admit that while the foxgloves looked stunning, I secretly didn’t want any rain to beat them down. It was kinder to water them at the base with the hose.

And then, my early peonies which by the way, were late this year, began to bloom. I just knew right then we were in for thundershowers. It never fails. Peonies poised to look spectacular, time to literally rain on their parade. The result is invariably a miserable, soggy mess. So once again, I dutifully ran out to cut all the flowers in bloom before the skies lashed out.

The house looked rather festive with masses of blooms all over. Smelled good too. For perhaps three days. Then came the great fall out. I could hear the petals being shed. It’s a messy business and one I dislike attending to. The flowers last much longer on the plants. Yes, I do flame the fresh cut stem ends but it only seems to extend the bloom by a day or so. In my experience, if one wants peonies indoors, better to bring in buds that are just starting to flower – watch them slowly open and then linger on a bit once fully bloomed.

The American wisteria began blooming on time and the roses were rather late. So there emergence has coincided and the effect is quite delightful. But of course, just as I’m contemplating a day of painting under the wisteria covered gazebo, it has to ….. wait for it, … rain!

And so the cycle goes. Rain to make the plants grow. Rain to spoil the floral show. Sigh.

Wisteria

Wisteria

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Peonies

Peonies

'Heritage' rose

‘Heritage’ rose

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Bonica rose

Bonica rose

Gathering peonies before the storm

Gathering peonies before the storm

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Walk On The Wild Side

Last week, I took a walk that was all pleasure and wonder at every step. If ever there was a way to escape the world and still be completely present in the world, this was it. I was treated to a guided tour of Wildflower Island at the Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, NY. Guided by Leah Waybright Kennell, the curator of this magical isle, I learned how much there is to see and delight in if only one knew where and how to look.

As gardeners, we tend to focus on the showy and/or dramatic. All too often, we forget that beauty also resides in the diminutive and shy. Tiny flowers expressing their enthusiasm on ground hugging stems of Canadian Mayflower. Or bashful Chrysogonum virginianum permitting sweet glimpses of its sulphur yellow blooms.

Walking to the accompaniment of a rich chorus of birds, I saw yellow lady’s slippers skipping around while their more rare pink cousins tip-toed quietly. Hummingbird columbines shone like small flames and red Silene virginica darted in and out of the spring growth that spread all around.

Leah pointed out so many plants that I was not familiar with. Wonderful natives that ought to be included in our gardens and woodlands. Her love and passion for the plants in her care is infectious and her knowledge of them is plain impressive. I’m inspired and determined to get to know more of these plants and invite them into my garden.

My ‘meadow’ is perfect for Hypoxis hirsuta, Zizia aurea and several more of the wildflowers. I already have Anemone canadensis, Arisaema triphyllum, Rubus odoratus, Myosotis sylvatica, Taraxacum officinale, Camassia quamash and some others. Adding the aforementioned will prolong bloom time in this part of my garden. As such, along with the myriad bulbs in its midst, the meadow only blooms through spring. I would love to have summer and fall blooming plants here to properly sustain all the wild life it draws.

My meadow also supports Ajuga and Viola odoratus. Two rather attractive but invasive aliens. To be rid of them is near impossible and frankly, I’d miss them. They add a real dose of brilliance to the spring show. I have been somewhat successful in containing them to only this part of the property. Any such plant found elsewhere is ruthlessly removed.

If you live in the Tri-state area, I strongly encourage a visit to Teatown. A tour of Wildflower Island is possible only by appointment and you get a highly knowledgeable guide to lead your eyes to all the gems that are nurtured there. It is a comfortable walk and takes only however long it takes you to get your fill of the beauty and variety of our unsung, wild natives. There are always things to see but spring and the second half of summer have the most in bloom. I expect to walk with Leah many times this year!

This ramble was one of the best hour and a half I ever spent. A mindful meditation like no other.

Note: I’ve used the botanically correct names mostly because many of the common names are the same as some non-native species. I did not want to confuse those looking to get the native plants.

Yellow lady's slipper. Cypripedium acaule.

Yellow lady’s slipper. Cypripedium acaule.

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Pink Lady's Slippers. C. calceolus

Pink Lady’s Slippers.
C. calceolus

Zizia aurea

Zizia aurea

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hummingbird columbine

Hummingbird columbine

Silene virginicum

Silene virginicum

Chrysogonum virginianam

Chrysogonum virginianum

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar