Balancing Act

For the past ten days, I’ve been enjoying down time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It has been part of the quest for balance in life. When we plan a getaway or vacation, it is that need to counteract the everyday demands of work and other responsibilities. An opportunity to press the reset button so we maintain an even keel and thus keep perspective of what truly matters. Nothing quite as effective as a healthy dose of nature to do the job.

It is heart-achingly beautiful here. Known primarily for the wild ponies that inhabit them, these islands are the last remaining undeveloped outer banks. And remain they shall, thanks to the designation of being a National Seashore/Wildlife Refuge under the National Park Services. Like all our other National Parks, they are priceless national treasures.

It’s a fragile, ever-changing ecosystem here. Between the waves and winds of the mighty and temperamental Atlantic Ocean, the terrain,flora and fauna are in constant flux. New ‘islands’ are built, old ones shrink or grow, shorelines shift, the resilient wildlife adapt and somehow, an equilibrium is maintained. Retreating dunes mark the island’s westward move and as the water in the bays rise in response to rising ocean water, the coastlines are redrawn. New habitats are created and old ones re-adapted. Plants and animals adjust to these changes. Rich in aquatic life, the bays provide a vital ecosystem. The salt marshes, defined by the ebb and flow of the tides are yet another complex, vital ecosystem in themselves. The plants that thrive in salt marshes may be few but they shelter a diverse number of wildlife. The dunes and upper beaches are in constant motion and support a different variety of plants and animals.

Even as eel grass is tossed up by storm surges, it is turned into a substrate that enriches the soil in the marshes. Ribbed mussels have a relationship with the long water roots of salt grasses found along the edges of the marshy islands. Egrets ride on the horses to see what choice morsels they might reveal as they plod around and disturb the wet land. In turn, they help the horses by dealing with the biting insects so prevalent here. The horses feed on the salty grasses and also the poison ivy – I found that latter item quite interesting.

In an ideal situation, these parts would manage fine and life would play out naturally. It’s a real gift that we humans get to visit and observe. But yet, we manage to upset the balance. Despite all the cautions and advice from the park rangers, people often try to get too close to the horses ( selfies!) or try feeding them. The horses, as a result can get too familiar with our presence and come to expect treats to supplement their diet. These are wild animals with strong teeth and legs – their bites and kicks are fearsome. Getting too close or goading them has unfortunate consequences for man and horse. Why oh why can we not stay away from our own worst habits?!

We got very lucky with Hurricane Dorian last week. A harmless tropical storm was all we experienced. Two windy days of which one was rainy. Some localized flooding but nothing problematic. I imagine this was however, a more serious threat for the wildlife as they were deprived of their regular feeding forays and had to seek shelter to wait out the weather. For me, it was enough to be made acutely aware of how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted.

When I return home shortly, I plan to carry this awareness in my heart and strive harder to stay centered, as always, taking my cues from nature in maintaining a balance.

P.S- I also plan to increase my annual contribution to the National Parks. In recent times they have seen major budget cuts. This is nothing short of a crisis of tremendous proportion with far-reaching consequences. I beseech every single one of you to do your part in preserving our national treasure – this beautiful, majestic land of mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and coasts that we call home.

See the images below for a glimpse of Assateague/Chicoteague beauty.

Note: I’m participating in this show. I hope you will see it.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Labor-less Days

I don’t care what anybody says, summer is still three weeks from being over. There’s plenty of time to sip and savor. Sunsets to watch, fruits and vegetables to pick and eat fresh, siestas to take in the hammock, barefoot morning strolls around the dew-drenched garden, al fresco meals to be had … summer is a state of mind.

Having recently returned from a trip overseas, I did go through a bout of whipping the garden into some order. Nothing drastic. Just to have it look sufficiently fetching and looked after. Apart from the ongoing tasks of weeding and watering, this is the window to loll about before the fall frenzy begins.

While others are in the back-to-school mode and getting their own schedules and agendas in order, I take this opportunity to extend my summer bliss. There are still books to be read and friends to catch up with.

Certainly, the signs of fall are there. The sun sets earlier, leaves are slowly turning, apples are beginning to blush and there is that barest hint of cooler days approaching. All of that notwithstanding, I see the turtleheads coming into full bloom, the Joe Pyes are abuzz and aflutter with pollinators, the phlox is saturating the garden in perfume, the cardinal flowers are beacons for hummingbirds and there are yet tomatoes ripening on the vine for summer salads and sandwiches.

For now, I leave you with my stubborn hold on summer –

I’m Taking Summer With Me

I’m taking Summer with me

into frost woven days of Fall

through Winter’s frozen pall

I’ll shine on frigid faces

throw color in all the places

blow soft kisses to dry ice drop tears

bring sunny warmth and spread good cheer

When darkness creeps in early

and moods get bad and surly

I’ll eclipse away the gloomy night

with blazing fires and candle light

For the season when nothing grows

I’ll force bulbs to spite the snows

Spring shall arrive before it’s time

so Summer will follow in all her prime.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Hummingbird at the Cardinal flowers
Turtleheads

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Back In The Garden

The weather this past weekend was nothing short of stellar. It could not be beat. Bright and sparkly, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70’s. After two weeks in rain soaked Mumbai, this was quite literally a breath of fresh air. What an amazing homecoming.

Taking advantage of this gift, I visited Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY on Saturday. If you’ve never been, you must. It was Frank Cabot’s home – yes, the man who helped found the Garden Conservancy. You can read all about this garden on their website. It’s quite a gem.

Summer’s end is not typically the best time to visit most gardens. But I was in need of it. Inspiration is always to be found and I was not disappointed. Big splashes of summer color and a seasonal untidiness abounded. I loved the fullness of the plantings everywhere. The realities of the season made apparent by burgeoning seed-heads, flamboyant flowers, plants jostling for space in their beds and a certain wildness to it all. This was Life at full throttle. In contrast, the verdant quietude found in the wisteria pavilion by the pond provided that pause to breathe deeply and free the mind from quotidian worries.

In walking around, I realized that the high point for me, was the general end-of-season mess and the sight of the ravaged leaves of kale and other plants. Critter(s) had gone to town and riddled the leaves so they looked like badly made lace antimacassars. I found that very comforting because it made me feel like my own garden was in good company. This is the reality. If you’re using organic methods, one cannot have a pristine, near perfect, neat and tidy garden at the close of the summer. Given the strange spring and summer we have had, it’s been particularly difficult to manage the garden as one has in years past. Weather fluctuations have been so erratic that my expectations were lowered sufficiently to protect my ego from too much injury.

By observing how lovely Stonecrop looked despite everything made me see my own garden with kinder eyes and appreciation.

Energized by that visit, on Sunday, I whipped the garden into better shape. A little cosmetic fiddling goes a long way. Weeding, deadheading, pruning and a general tidying up did wonders. I revamped the window-boxes and other urns and pots with a bit of tropical flair that I can only explain as the influence of my recent sojourn to India. Traveling has that impact doesn’t it?

And now, I’m set to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer with renewed enthusiasm. Salut!

Chilies in the window boxes
Pruned back espalier
Last rose(s) of summer?
Lemons
Note the banana plants standing sentry
New batch of cool weather greens
The meadow
Pink turtleheads in the meadow
Party ready

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Water, Water!

Water is in the news quite a bit these days. Too little or none at all. Too much, too soon is just as bad. Certainly this is predicted to be the biggest, most critical problem we will have to resolve in the not too distant future. Water will direct the next mass migrations of humans as they are forced to adapt to the changing weather patterns – a result of both natural and man-made acts. As a global community we will have to decide right now how we will deal with shifting populations/refugees, how we grow our food, utilize energy, reprogram our use of water and indeed our entire way of living. While government agencies and related organizations grapple with the big picture, if one has not personally begun taking steps towards this impending crisis, it is now time to start. As of this minute. I’m not being an alarmist – the snooze button to that alarm has been hit way too often already.

I’m writing this during a ten day stay in monsoon swamped Mumbai. It is wet, warm and muggy. The air feels spongy even when it isn’t raining. The dampness pervades everywhere. Without air-conditioning to lower the humidity, I’d be hard pressed to be comfortable and sleep would be impossible. This has been a particularly heavy monsoon season.

Despite so much rain, the city is still aware of the undependable nature of its water supply. It has signs all over asking her citizens to conserve, avoid waste and respect this life giving Adam’s Ale. And that got me wondering if those signs have any real impact on the mass. Does one read and/or pay attention to such ‘nudges’? As one drives through the generally thick traffic, is the mind even open to receiving any such advice? It then occurred to me that it was because of the stop and start, slow moving, thick traffic snaking along that I was able to notice the signs and ponder them. A seed, so to speak, had been sown. I can only imagine that a daily dose of ‘Don’t Waste Water’, ‘No Water, No Life’ will percolate into one’s conscience and guide the mind to the judicious use of water. Not a bad idea to have those signs put up after all. They certainly cannot hurt.

In my own garden back home, I’ve long collected rainwater to water parts of the garden. Particularly pots. To ensure that the plants do not get parched when we’re away or otherwise distracted, we have also rigged up a drip-system to routinely water the pots as some of the plants require a consistent supply. The mechanism is attached to a moisture sensor so that it will not release water if it has rained or is raining. That way, no water is unduly wasted.

Water from cooking eggs, boiling vegetables etc is also collected for watering. Often the boiling hot water is poured directly over the weeds trying to make their way through brick or flagstone paths. Kills the weeds effectively.

Still, in a particularly dry period when rain is scarce, there are areas in the garden that need a healthy splash. Thus far, it’s been okay but I worry that the time when watering our gardens whenever we see a need is coming to a close. There will be a need to shift to plants that do better in semi-dry or arid conditions. Fussy plants will have to be phased out.

It feels a bit sad. But, we gardeners are a resilient species. We will adapt. Indeed, we can lead the way. I for one have resolved to source interesting/beautiful native plants that do well under dry conditions and start introducing them into the garden. The process will be deliberate, mindful and with any luck, enjoyable. Learning is growth.

Postscript: Of the many drinks I have consumed in the many places I’ve stopped at ( fancy as well as hole-in-the-wall joints), I have not seen a single plastic straw. The only straws I’ve been served have been compostable. Often, they are elegant, colorful, sturdily constructed paper. This is what progress looks like.

Note: There’s still time to see the Inside Small art show!

Heads Up! The second annual Untermyer Symposium is scheduled for Saturday, October 19. Mark your calendars. I will be moderating the panel discussion. Stay tuned for more details.

Some images from Mumbai –

Plants for sale!
Decorative designs using flower petals, whole flowers and leaves,

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Freedom

Liberty is the freedom to do as one ought to do. I learned this definition in fifth grade civics class – it was how we started to understand what democracy meant.

A cornerstone of a thriving civilization, freedom is all about having choices. So one can chose their actions bearing in mind one’s moral responsibility. To choose to act after discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. To do what is ethically correct for the greater good.

Keeping that in mind, I take this power very seriously. Especially in the garden where all too often a gardener is inclined to play lord and master. It’s so easy. We have at our disposal so much control and power that all too often we forget that gardening is a privilege. The very notion that I can assume ownership of a piece of earth to do as I please is astounding. Arrogant even.

While I often kid that I’m the dictator-in-chief of the garden, in reality, I feel my responsibility greatly. I’m allowed to freely design, create and play in a this space in whatever way I please. Within good reason. And that is the key. To use good reason.

My principle commandment is to do no harm. Whatever action taken must have the least negative impact – on humans, animals, plants, soil, water or air. On that basis, only organic methods are employed. But, trying to control pests organically is not without cost. These natural products are not specific to the pest. They affect the good critters as well. So judicious application is imperative.

Compost is used as fertilizer and mulch. The plants enjoy it. As do members of the animal kingdom. They too thrive because they are not harmed by compost and hence roam free and make nests and homes underground and above, destroying root systems, chomping on leaves and flowers, girdling trees, ruining lawns with tunnels and burrows etc., Constant vigilance is required so action can be taken as soon as possible. Japanese beetles, red lily beetles and such are picked off and dropped into hot, soapy water. After years of battling those red devils, I’ve stopped planting lilies but since I still grow fritillaria ( their close relative), I must continue to keep a lookout. Mice, voles and other rodents are trapped. The fruit trees must be sprayed with dormant oil only under specific weather conditions and at a particular time of year. You get the idea. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.

Rain water is collected, a manual reel- mower cuts grass, since no herbicides are used, weeds are removed by hand, native plants dominate the garden and support native fauna and so on. Every one of those methods involves more work and effort. And there are times when I’m completely frustrated. However, my conscience is clear. I’m doing my part in exercising my freedom as I ought.

This translates very well to everything else in life. Relationships, raising children, at work, being a part of the community, a town, a city, a country, the world at large. Imagine how powerful exercising our liberties as we should can be.

Note: The reception to Small Works is this Thursday, August 8. I’d love to see you there!

A few images of the challenges in the garden:

Mice attack on the espalier.
Fully girdled trees were lost and had to be replaced.
Sanguisorba attacked by Japanese beetles

Subsequent damage
Evidence of voles under the front lawn
Lily’s under siege

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Just July

Our house is taken in possession

By him, while he enjoys a rest

July, with summer air and thunder-

He is our temporary guest.

July, who scatters from his pockets

The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud,

Who enters through the open window,

Who chatters to himself aloud,

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded,

Soaked through with smell of oil and rye,

With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves,

The meadow-scented month July.”

‘July’ by Boris Pasternak

July is coming to a close and what a month it has been in the garden. Hot, messy and erratic. That poem by Pasternak describes it so well.

Dictated by the weather, I’ve been negligent of my garden duties. It’s just really hard to get outside and work when merely standing still brings on the sweat and sends out irresistible invites to all the biting bugs near and far. Consequently, the chores get done in fits and starts, bits and pieces. A little weeding here, some deadheading there. The automatic watering system set up for the pots broke down and needed fixing – mercifully, the preceding days had been wet so the plants were relatively unharmed.

The heat wave put paid to the plants in the pots on the wall on the side terrace. Despite the daily watering, they simply could not take those high temperatures. I’ve decided to empty out the pots and not replant. With a very busy August schedule coming up, it’s time to simplify matters somewhat.

They say this June was the hottest one in recent history and July is turning out to match it. Who knows what August will do.

Sunflowers have appeared as happy surprises in one of the large bay standard pots. A lone sunflower grew in the vertical garden. I’d stopped planting lilies a few years ago because I lost the battle with the red lily beetles. Well, as though waking up after a long slumber, a couple of lily plants re-emerged this summer. Their leaves are ugly and chewed up but the flowers look fine and are busy perfuming the front garden.

The garden might look a bit unruly but it is fragrance heaven. Lilies in front soon to be followed by phlox, gardenias and orange-blossoms on the side and jasmine in the back. Heaven.

The meadow has been in serious need of attention. First, the jewelweed took advantage of my apathy and spread itself all over. Once they were deliberately reduced to more manageable numbers, a nettle of the sting-less variety moved in with a vengeance. It needs to be completely and ruthlessly removed all together. It’s been a real task trying to help the many new plants planted in late spring establish themselves. Fingers crossed …

The hydrangea are in bloom – they provide much needed color in the meadow right now. Elsewhere, the Echinacea in their brightness are drawing the pollinators. I really ought to plant more of these stalwarts and get rid of the fussy, finicky members of the garden. With harsh weather becoming the new normal, it behooves a gardener to rethink the plantings.

Tomato season has begun. We’re enjoying the golden cherry tomatoes and savoring the bigger varieties as they ripen. At this stage, each fruit is precious. Soon, there will be a glut and we’ll take them for granted as we make soups, salads and sauces.

It’s so easy to obsess over the disheveled state of the garden, complain about the heat in July. But, looking around, amidst the green jungle, I see heroic flowers splashing color and fragrance all over. The herbs, leafy greens and, early tomatoes grace our meals. Ripening grapes and pears hold the promise of an autumn harvest. The asters are coming up strong for a good showing to close out the summer.

Under stressful circumstances, the garden is working hard to deliver. I must move to do the same.

Note: Consider yourself invited –

My July garden –

Lilies. Note the hole-riddled leaves.
Echinacea
Late blooming clematis
Pears
Figs
Jasmine
The vertical garden with renegade sunflower
Sunflower surprise
Agapanthus
The meadow before the serious weeding happened.
Tomatoes
A harvest

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hot Topic

We’re just emerging from a brutal heatwave. Whew. This one was fierce. If it weren’t for air-conditioning I’d be a blob of melted flesh in migraine hell. I’m acutely aware of how heat affects me and I’m so grateful for everything that allows me to keep cool.

This got me to thinking about how the garden must cope when subjected to the stress of a heatwave. Do they sense when the temperatures are going to spike? I imagine they’re in better shape to deal with it if up until that time they’re provided with adequate water and decent soil conditions. Just as in humans, all other living things must face adversity better when they’re healthy. So, I figured my garden ought to at least be grateful for all the tender, loving care it receives all year round. Well, except when I’m on vacation, unwell, in the thick of other work or, being lazy. In general, the garden this year has little to complain about its human carers.

A timely thundershower just ahead of the heatwave saturated the ground handsomely. The roots must’ve plumped out and fed their above ground parts nicely. I was glad I’d deadheaded and cut back some vigorous growers recently. A round of weeding was accomplished as well. Therefore, at the end of the first super hot day, things did not look too bad. Some plants such as the Joe Pye appeared to droop but by late evening they perked up. I wonder if the roots slow down and measure out the water/nutrient supply when conditions are adverse. Then, when they sense that temperatures have dropped below the dangerous numbers, do they speeds up in damage control mode? Or, like me, do the plants have poor appetites when it is so hot? Perhaps when I’ve overcome my own heat related ennui I will research this matter – surely some laboratory must be studying the subject. The results could potentially help us deal with weather related challenges better.

I noticed that during the heatwave, there wasn’t much critter activity. I didn’t see many bees or butterflies and the birds seemed to be limiting their flights and singing. The heat brought on a quiet that seemed appropriate. I too was not inclined to exert much energy. The languor connected us all.

The potted plants received water daily. The high humidity kept the ground from drying out but, the soil in the pots dried out. Those plants must have been stressed so much more than their counterparts in the ground. A friend had dropped off two pots of sizable hibiscus a couple of days prior to the heatwave. Until now, they had always been kept indoors so the fact that they were suddenly out in the open must’ve been a shock. Despite being watered, within a day, the leaves on top were wiped out – they got totally dry. So ahead of the canicular days, they were given a cut back and moved to shadier quarters resembling the indoors they were familiar with. Fingers-crossed they will toughen up in due course. After all, they hail originally from warmer climes.

Given water regularly, the vertical garden and tropicals ( in pots) like the jasmine, gardenia and citrus seem unscathed by the high heat. The perfume of the flowers of the jasmine and gardenia are almost overpowering at the beginning and end of day. The lemons are coming along nicely. The pelargoniums have also come through very well. Ditto the tomatoes – we enjoyed the first crop of cherry tomatoes over the weekend. And the meadow looks none the worse for wear.

Any long term effect of the heatwave will no doubt make itself known. I’m hoping there won’t be any. And with any luck there will not be any more heatwaves either. But, I’m not holding my breath.

Note: I would love to see you at the reception to Small Works at The Stable Gallery, Ridgefield, NJ on August 8. 7:00 – 9:00pm. The show runs August 2 – 29.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Midsummer Musings

The slow, sultry sway of summer has taken over and it is sweeeet. I’ve taken my cues from the season and slowed my pace, lightened my load and simplified my days. I get work done but no new projects are started. Meals focus on fresh, easy to put together ingredients. Garden chores are limited to only what is needed – weekly weeding, watering as required and deadheading only what’s obvious. The garden seems to be enjoying doing its own thing – free-spirited, alive and lush. Kinda bohemian. I appreciate that. Heck, I aspire to it.

I finally got around to cutting back the asters and other fall blooming perennials by one-third and more so they will be fuller and less leggy at that time. During the cut back, I noticed that the Sanguisorba was under attack by Japanese beetles and there was also a general over-presence of slugs. All the beetles I could see were picked off and dumped into a hot soap solution and then a neem oil spray treatment was applied to the plants right after. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to deal with Japanese beetles. Let’s hope the neem does the trick.

An unexpected positive outcome – the allium sphaerocephalon were completely hidden until the asters were cut back. Now, their deep maroon-purple heads lend bursts of color amidst an otherwise overwhelmingly green bed.

Speaking of color, that maroon-purple hue is having a moment in the front perennial beds. The echinacea, alliums, acanthus, butterfly bushes and geraniums are all in variations of that shade. Soon the Eupatorium will join in. It looks like I planned it that way but no, I cannot take that credit. One of those happy accidents of nature that I’ve come to rely on.

The Swiss chard is showing up frequently at meals. Easy to cook and so delicious. The first cherry tomatoes and figs have been savored and now I’m impatient for a regular supply. Zucchini blossoms are the current favorite. Stuffed with mildly seasoned ricotta and fried tempura style, they are just soooo good. Using the flowers also prevents having the inevitable surplus of zucchini to contend with later in the season. We leave only a small number to reach fruition. Just enough for a few ratatouille meals and several loaves of tasty breads to sweeten winter mornings (the bread freezes well).

I made a big batch of arugula pesto last week. There was an abundance of the leaves and it seemed a good thing to make. I froze a large portion and refrigerated some of the pesto to use this week in pasta and also in sandwiches. With all the outdoor concerts and plays we’re attending, picnic meals need to be put together. Sandwiches of arugula or basil pesto with sun-dried tomatoes with or without fresh mozzarella elevate the repast.

And yes, the mojito mint is thriving and being put to good use! FYI – the leaves also make for an appetizing Indian chutney that we use in sandwiches and as a condiment to pair with crackers, samosas and such.

Watching the butterflies and bees make their rounds has become my go-to method for decompressing. It’s very effective – I highly recommend it. Ditto for spending some time taking in the show of fireflies at night.

Before you get lulled into taking it too easy, this is the time to order bulbs for fall planting. It might feel strange to think about next spring right now but take my word – you will miss out on bagging some special and/or unusual bulbs if you wait too long. It’s a nice thing to do when you’re indoors in air-conditioned comfort on a sweltering hot day. You will only be charged when the bulbs are shipped in the fall at the appropriate planting time for your zone. So just get it done!

Now, back to my summer reading and a tall glass of lemonade …

Note: I’m participating in two upcoming art shows in August and September. Do please mark your calendars to check them out.

Enjoy the images of my summer thus far –

Keeping it fresh and light.
Acanthus
Eupatorium getting ready to bloom
Echinacea
Arugula salad with shavings of black truffle.
Swiss chard.
Allium sphaerocephalon
The wall garden. Don’t miss that lone sunflower – a true maverick.
Young pears
Butterfly bush
Ricotta stuffed zucchini fritters with baby courgette attached.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Dancing With Summer

It’s July. Fireworks, fireflies, picnics, barbecues, beaches and books. In addition, for me, mosquitoes, mojitos, air-conditioning, heat, humidity and guilt. I have very mixed feelings about summer.

The light filled days promise endless hours of outdoor pleasures and the nights punctuated with bursts of firefly light and the fragrance of summer phlox and gardenias bewitch and yet, I find myself banished indoors for a good portion of the day seeking solace in air-conditioned rooms redolent with gardenia in budvases and rose-geranium infused lemonade. During the day, prone to migraines triggered by the heat and humidity, I succumb easily to those conditions. At night, the mosquitoes turn out in full force making it near impossible to sit without itching and scratching. I’m loathe to reach out for the only truly effective deterrent – a DEET spray. Using it every now and then is fine but slathering it on everyday makes me uneasy.

What works for me is to get some garden chores done in the cool, early hours of the morning. It is actually quite pleasant working at that time as the chorus of birds keep me company and the bees getting a head start to their day inspire me to get cracking with my own. At this mostly quiet period of the morning, I find myself occupied with what needs doing whilst still enjoying the garden in its rather riotous state of summer growth. A good couple of hours go by before I’m made aware that I’m hot, uncomfortable and quite ready to escape to cooler confines.

I’m certainly not inclined to deprive myself of the joys of spending summer nights watching fireflies and inhaling the sweet perfumes of flowers that I’ve grown for that very purpose. Spritzing myself with a blend of citronella and cloves I go forth into the evening. A fan is brought out to do double duty – deter all flying bugs and keep us relatively comfortable in the circulating air. The DEET spray is always on stand-by – it’s a love-hate relationship.

At a party last week, I was introduced to a new anti-mosquito gadget brought to the event for a test run by another friend. It seemed to work as I was not bitten that evening. So I’ve purchased one for my own use. Before I rush to endorse it, I shall use it a few times first. Stay tuned.

To take advantage of the warmer months, I ease up on chores and find myself slowing down my pace. More books are read, outdoor summer concerts and plays replace screen-time almost entirely. It seems only right to linger over al fresco meals and sip a cocktail or two slowly as one walks around inspecting the garden. Impromptu picnics, sunset viewings and star gazing stretch out the season. Time is taken to savor the bounty from the garden and farm stand. I love to slowly roast corn on the cob directly over the coals and then, with a sprinkling of flakes of sea salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper brightened with a splash of lime, it explodes in the mouth in a burst of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Divine. And how about a watermelon salad tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, feta and torn up basil? I think I even eat ice cream more slowly and mindfully in summer than at any other season.

While I’m reveling in the unhurried rhythm of summer, there is a fair amount of guilt that shadows me. The garden looks like a small child allowed to dress herself. Sweet but quite messy. I’m not keeping up with the pace the plants grow and need deadheading, staking and trimming. Weeds shoot up even as I work to keep them at bay. The tiny lawn looks ragged beseeching me for a regular feed of compost and the meadow quickly gets overrun by jewelweed smothering out less aggressive but more desirable plants. Still consumed with guilt, I’m determined to go on fully engaging with summer. It’s all too short and I know I will regret it if I have too few memories of it to keep me warm in winter.

And so I keep dancing with summer. Barefoot and guilty.

Note: Images of the neglected state of my garden – they should make you feel good about yours!

Wisteria in need of some grooming. But the geraniums divert your attention!
Wall pots straggling
Foxgloves need deadheading
Meadow could use some thinning out
Gardenia ready to be picked for indoor enjoyment
Sanguisorba ‘Alba’ having its moment
Asters waiting to be cut by one-third for better fall display
Acabthus in bloom but what’s that allium doing there?!
The pretty astilbe are being hidden by the overgrown asters.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar