As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 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