Category Archives: Gardening

Looking Up

THE LOOP AROUND Nat’s Farm field dips down through a scrubby glade along Old County Road before it takes a roughly 90-degree turn and begins to rise again. If you’re walking the trail, as we were this weekend, you’ll hardly notice the gentle incline passing under your feet as you make your way from shade to light, swinging left, then right, to skirt an evergreen bowing the path.

There’s a point, though, when your eyes – at least on a brilliant September day – will likely send a message back to mission control to put the brakes on your forward motion.

Before you, at the crest of the path, is a vast swath of blue sky painted across the horizon, a brilliant counterpoint to the rich golds and greens of the wildflowers and grasses in the pasture beneath it. It is such an open and expansive view that you could be out West, not on Martha’s Vineyard. 

That sky, that color! To me it is Carolina blue and always will be. It’s a deeply nostalgic color, the color of childhood and the happiest of warm summer days. The field is glorious and nurturing, too. As we keep walking, I bend down to catalogue the latest declension of wildflowers signaling summer’s end. Tiny star-shaped purple asters, random Black Eyed Susans, and clutches of scarlet Sumac berries have replaced the Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch from a few weeks back. And everywhere, knitting sky to field, those yellow fronds of goldenrod. 

Looking down on a walk is routine. Looking up is different. It requires stopping.

I have been looking up at the September sky a lot lately. Not just on our walks, but in the garden, too, where nearly everything that is still alive and thriving towers over me.

I have to turn my camera up to photograph the tithonia, the dahlias, the zinnias, the pole beans, the return of the cherry tomatoes, the sweet peas, the sunflowers, and the cosmos.

Once my eye is trained up there, I can’t help but linger on the brilliance of the sky. Some mornings I just stand in the garden, close my eyes, tilt my chin to the sun and bask a minute. Maybe say a little prayer.

Looking up, after all, is a form of reverence. I remember being astonished when I saw my dying mother-in-law, a deeply religious woman completely at peace with moving on, reach up from her bed with her frail arms several times during her last hours, as if she was greeting someone on the other side.

It’s not been lost on me as September 11th has neared how blue the sky was on that day 20 years ago. We woke up that morning and looked up at that cheery sky, naïve and grateful for the sunshine, only to watch with horror as it turned gray a few hours later.

As I was reading my colleague Paul Schneider’s poignant essay in the Vineyard Gazette yesterday, Waves of Grief Roll in Twenty Years Later, all of my own memories of that day flowed back to me. Strangely that blue sky is in most every vignette I recall.

The scenes are vivid, starting with my sunglassed drive up through the Connecticut hills to my office. But of the many frames from the September 11 reel in my head, one stands out most.

By midmorning, our office in Newtown had closed, and when I returned home, driving down eerily empty roads to the coast, it was just me and my 85-year-old father-in-law to huddle together. We decided to walk down the street to a small park on a point jutting out into Long Island Sound. We stood together looking over the water at lower Manhattan, and there against that azure sky was a plume of grey smoke, visible from so far away. We wondered aloud about all the commuters from our town who were likely right there. Some of them friends. Would they be on the train coming home that night? We didn’t know then that the trains weren’t even running.

The last frames in my film memories are all grey, of course. Everyone’s are. The smoke erased the blue sky at Ground Zero, and it would be a long time before it would reappear.

This morning I wanted to post a photo of a distinctly tower-esque 12-foot helianthus salicifolius (perennial willow sunflower) on Instagram for #day70 in my #100daysofflowersandveggies series. This crazy plant was a gift from Polly Hill Arboretum director Tim Boland, and I had no idea it would get so tall and branch so much. It is covered with hundreds of green buds, and we have been waiting for the flowers to bloom for weeks. This morning the first bud turned to bloom and many more showed hints of yellow – against a deep blue sky.

I took my photos and came inside to crop the images. To my surprise, in every frame a looming daddy long legs was smothering the top bloom. Not that I can blame the daddy long legs, but it was a little creepy. The things you don’t see with your naked eye!

You just never know.

Look up, look down, look all around today. Grab the moments of beauty and hold on to them.



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Hidden in Plain Sight

USUALLY my partner wakes up before I do. He pulls on his slippers quietly, grabs his book and heads downstairs to turn the coffee on. When I finally open my eyes, sit up, and swing my feet to the floor, I lean over to the windowsill and peer outside, sometimes pressing my head against the screen so that I can see the back deck below better.

There he is, moccasin-slippered feet crossed and poking out from plaid flannel pajama pants, that grey tattered zip-up sweater hanging loosely over the mustard-yellow West Tisbury tee shirt. He fills the Adirondack chair like he means it, left arm draped over the ample chair rail, hand clutching his coffee mug, book on his knee. The tousled bed-head of silver Christopher Lloyd-ish hair belies gravity.

This is comforting to me. Not only that he is there, but that he is allowing himself this time of peace and quiet outdoors before the day begins (and before I start a nonstop stream of chatter). 

The very next thing I do is putter around the bed and into the bathroom, where another set of windows along the back side of the second story of our house offers a different view. From this vantage point, I can see the perennial beds along the walkway below, the mounds of catmint and lamb’s ears and sedum and Russian sage bunched together just as I drew them on paper two winters ago. Better still, I can look up the hill to the fenced vegetable and flower garden.

The garden faces east, and since it sits up on a rise, it draws the early morning sun like a magnet. Right now, the garden is almost completely enveloped in bean vines, with the occasional sunflower or cosmos poking out here and there. I planted the Rattlesnake pole bean and sunflower seeds halfway through the summer all along the bottom of the semi-circle of fence on the east side and all across the back of the west side, where the peas were in June and July. 

I always forget that the vines race up the six or seven feet of fence in a few short weeks. After that, in an effort to keep growing, they travel sideways, up, down, and around each other, twining themselves into a massive heavy canopy that bends the top of the wiggly deer fence in on itself. The effect is dramatic, essentially creating an outdoor room within, almost like a secret garden.

Inside, the zinnias and cosmos are pushing six feet tall, reaching up for the midday sun now that the vines throw so much shade at sunrise. In the shadowy paths between the beds, bits and pieces of light that manage to filter through the vines dapple on bouncy nasturtium leaves and flowers, picking an occasional chocolate lace flower or snapdragon to spotlight. A few winter squash vines have taken off in the oldest bed on the north end of the garden, forming a horizontal canopy that matches the vertical bean vines in mystery and abandon.

This morning when I looked down on the back deck, my partner was not in his chair. Moving to the bathroom window, I looked out to see him padding down from the veg garden.

Hello!

Hello!

He paused, a broad smile bridging his face. 

“I’ve been in the garden,” he said slowly and deliberately, looking up at me, the smile widening. “It’s lovely in there. Did you know the zinnia blossoms have these little tiny yellow star-shaped mini flowers in them? And that Tithonia — it’s magnificent.”

He went on to say that he thought of me up there, and understood why I like to visit the garden and linger inside it every morning. It is serene and beautiful and magical, he admitted. But something you have to appreciate alone. (Usually his visits to the garden – since spearheading the construction of it and occasionally venturing in for infrastructure repairs – are on my urging when I’m busting to show him a new dahlia or a heavy branch of ripening tomatoes. It’s fun to share my enthusiasm, but not the same as enjoying the serenity the place brings in solitude.)

A hummingbird has been visiting me frequently in the garden. It’s almost as if it wants to communicate, hovering as it does three feet from my face until I hear the distinctive thrumming of its wings and look up to greet it.

Yesterday afternoon the hummingbird appeared on the back deck and visited my partner, choosing to greet him first, hovering to say hello before spinning off to poke around some salvia along the walkway. My partner loves hummingbirds and was thrilled at this gesture — a tiny messenger from the land of serenity reminding him not to forget what he gleaned that morning. An acknowledgment of what comes into focus if you stop to observe. And a sheer delight, if nothing else.

Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but his is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.

This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.

Wendell Berry

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A Body in Motion Stays in Motion. A Body at Rest…

“Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully and you will be doing everything at the same time.” 

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I AM NOT known for my ability to stand still or pay attention for long periods of time — my default setting is constant motion. And my brain is even worse. A nonstop game of ping-pong is going on inside that cavern. 

At this particular moment, there are 45 windows open in the Chrome browser on my laptop. There are 10 books and 12 magazines on and below my bedside table. I am ostensibly working on this blog, but in reality I’m thinking about a friend’s sick dog, another friend’s illness, an event I need to wrap my head around, a telephone call I’d like to make, two appointments I have tomorrow, and a recipe I plan to test today.

Getting my thoughts to settle in one place seems nearly impossible sometimes. Worse, sometimes (many times), I verbalize them: Words come streaming out of my head in the form of a Faulkner-esque soliloquy which my partner must listen to with patience. (God bless him, he has that ability.)

That may be why I am drawn to gardening, to photography, to cooking, to arranging flowers, to writing. These activities require extreme focus, and inevitably when I am deep into one of them, my anxieties drop away, my whole body slows down, and I feel peaceful and content. I’m still energized but the concentration of the energy on one thing is very freeing.

“Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing.” 

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I’ve gotten pretty good at turning to one of these activities as a natural way of calming down. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a hedonist, seeking out pleasure, but most of the time I identify this impulse as one of the ways I manage and maintain both physical and mental sobriety. It may not be the thing that someone else has to do to get through life, but for me these pursuits are essential.

Late in the day on Friday (after our internet returned from its fifth hiatus this week), I decided to press the button and sign up for a gardening photography class happening the next morning at Polly Hill Arboretum. Naturally I didn’t sleep well Friday night and after a cup of coffee, I was still regretting my decision when I got in the car to head over there at 8 a.m.

Bear in mind that Polly Hill is only a couple miles from my house, the place is gorgeous, a front had blown through leaving us with much cooler air, and the class promised to be laid back. A couple hours of wandering around outside in a beautiful place with a camera — how hard is that?

Of course, it turned out to be a good call, sleep or no sleep. The teacher – Dan Jaffe Wilder, the author and photographer of Native Plants for New England Gardens – was lively, articulate, and down-to-earth. The class was small, we moved through almost the whole arboretum, and we photographed a range of subjects. Best of all, I stimulated the learning part of my brain, which I always enjoy. It’s not that we covered a lot of technical camera things (which frankly make my brain short circuit), though I did push myself to use the camera in ways I don’t normally.

It was more about making art ­– looking at scenes from different angles, moving around rather than shooting straight on, framing a shot in different ways, dividing a shot into thirds to find the interesting off-center spots to focus on, noticing unusual interplays of texture and shape.

It was very freeing since I realized that I normally tend to dive straight into the most colorful or most graphic object in a scene — the flower, the bee, the rusty door, the moss-covered pig.

But that means I often miss the more interesting and dynamic contrasts of shapes and textures — the place where the meadow meets the stone path, where the climbing hydrangea begins to take over a stone wall, where the flowering branch interrupts a stream of light spilling through the opening in a hedge. Just the hint of a barn door through a veil of foliage.

I took literally hundreds of photos. That is a little bizarre – all photographers, especially in the digital world, do this to some extent and cull out much of what they shoot. They “bracket” a shot by changing the aperture and shutter speed and the distance from the subject so that they have lots of options of one scene. But I don’t think they are wasting shots the way I do – I still take way too many photos without really changing much in each frame. Ironically, I might need to move around more!

But taking so many pictures yesterday was helpful as I was able to look at them last night knowing why I had 20 versions of one thing…that I had been concentrating (as instructed!) on framing, on depth of field, on the flow of a photo, or the location of the subject.

I think that may have been the biggest takeaway for me from the class: Work on one thing at a time. (Ha! Difficult for me.) Break photography down into components. Work on just composition or just light or just depth of field. Instead of randomly firing off a million photos and hoping for the best, focus on one thing and slowly consider different approaches to it.

 Doing this requires stillness.

“The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body are full of noise — then we can’t hear beauty’s call.

Thicht Nhat Hanh 

Well, it’s something to aim for anyway, even if I never quite get there.



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Hello, Henri. Goodbye Fair-Weather Neighbors.

THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better. 

Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.

You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.

There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.

Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.

You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows. 

Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.

You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.

The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.

Not heading for the nearest exit.

It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)

No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.

P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!


BOOK RECS THIS WEEK


I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.


I recently discovered Sarah Raven through her Instagram account @sarahravenperchhill and through an interview she did with flower farmer Erin Benzakein. Once again, I’m not sure how I missed this talented and accomplished British flower maven, but I’m glad to be on board now. I just got her newest book in the mail and I am over the moon about it, especially her tips, her suggested color palettes and her lists of favorite flower varieties. Beautiful photographs by her collaborator Johnathan Buckley featured in a compact book with a lovely design make A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for All Seasons one I will be reading from cover to cover.

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Releasing the Pressure Valve – Now Off to the Fair

NOTHING LIKE RELEASING the pressure valve to flood the system with endorphins. I’ve been sort of floating around the last couple of days, freed from the anticipation of the event I moderated Wednesday.

It was a marvelous day all around, successful on all counts. You can see a handful of photos by my dear friend Jeanna Shepard over on the @cookthevineyard Instagram site. All three panelists were amazing, and Dr. Jessica B. Harris dropped some big news on us too, about another season of High on the Hog, and about the groundbreaking subject of the newest book she’s working on, which will weave the three threads of American cooking – Indigenous cooking, European immigrant cuisines, and African-American influence – into a historical narrative.

Me, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Sam Sifton, Dawn Davis, Jane Seagrave 
Photo by Jeanna Shepard

Anyway, with that behind me and a short (very short) break in the constant deadline schedule, I have spent the last couple of days sleeping late, eating buttered cheese toast (Swiss levain from our Vineyard Baking Project bread CSA), catching up on garden maintenance, reading a good book (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — I never read it!), taking a little ride off-Island on Thursday with my partner, and, most importantly, obsessing about my Fair entries. 

The ride on Thursday was just the thing. It’s funny how hopping on the ferry and going for a quick off-Island jaunt can change your mindset when you live in the middle of what has become a pretty intense vacation destination. It’s nice to get away from the crowds on the Island, and a change of scenery is always uplifting. We took a drive along the coast (Buzzards Bay) through West and North Falmouth, past Snug Harbor and Old Silver Beach – so pretty.

But then once you’ve been in a big-box store or two (the budget toilet-paper-and-laundry-detergent-run which every Vineyarder does when off-Island), you can’t wait to get back on the ferry! 

But about my Fair entries. I was chatting with my co-worker and fellow gardener Steve at our editorial meeting Friday morning. I told him I entered way too many categories (14 in total), and he looked at me with his deliberate gaze and said, “You said the same exact thing last year!” Oy, so true I guess.

Anyway, this year I have entered more flower categories and less vegetables. I won’t have enough green beans, but I will enter cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100 and Sungold), roma tomatoes (Midnight), eggplants (Fairy Tale), and peppers (Shishitos).

But not only am I entering two size categories in zinnias and dahlias (as well as cosmos, marigolds, and coneflowers), I am also entering two arrangement categories. One is the “tea cup” arrangement, which I’ve always wanted to do, because how cute is that? But the other is a more standard arrangement, which of course terrifies me, as I am still in pre-school (maybe kindergarten) when it comes to flower arranging.

And once again, I am entering everything in the commercial (not home grower) categories, partly because I am a former farmer and mostly because the requirements suggest that if you teach or lecture about vegetables or flowers, you must enter commercial, and technically I do that through writing and occasional demonstrations.

Being in the commercial category in vegetables used to be an advantage, as busy farmers would often not enter, and even if they did, there were far fewer of them than home growers.

But these days we have so many young farmers on the Vineyard that I bet the categories will be crammed. And I can’t even begin to tell you how talented the flower arrangers are on this Island. So I won’t feel bad if I don’t get a ribbon in those, though there are opportunities where I might have a shot. (For instance, I doubt commercial flower folks will enter the marigold category!) We’ll see.

My friends on the Vineyard Dahlia Collective Facebook page are gearing up for the Fair so it should be interesting. The crazy humidity and the short window of time to put everything together puts a bit of pressure on the whole flower thing. I’ll probably pick as late as I can on Wednesday evening and put the flowers in buckets of water in the cool basement. Then I’ll get up super early on Thursday to do the arranging. Perishables are due at the Fair grounds by 8:30 a.m.

Delivering is always a fun event; you see your friends in line and get a peek at what everyone else is turning in. Then you go home and hold your breath until the hall opens later on Thursday.

We usually go over in the evening, cruise through the hall to check the ribbons and see all the beautiful quilts and pies and artwork, visit the magnificent teams of oxen in the animal barn, eat BBQ and french fries and ice cream at the picnic tables, and watch the Tilt-a-Whirl light up the night sky.

I’m just hoping this crazy Delta variant doesn’t throw a wrench in the Fair. Not so much for me, as I get a lot of joy out of my flowers every morning when I go out to the garden. (Those dinnerplate dahlias – OH MY!). But for the sake of the Ag Society. The Fair is their main fundraiser and they really need this to happen. Last year the Fair was virtual, and that was a bummer.

Plus, we all want it to happen simply for the good will it generates. From the pet show to the Firemen’s burgers, from sheep shearing to prize-winning pickles, the Fair is classic old-school Vineyard. To me it represents everything that I love about living here.

See you at the Fair!

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The Edit

I AM HAPPY to be home. I was sorry to leave Delaware. I am loving the cool breeze, the dry air, the deep blue sky and the rustling leaves here in our backyard on the Vineyard. I am missing the enveloping warmth of the hot, humid, languid days of last week.

I am happy it’s the weekend and that we could splay out on the back deck this morning, books and phones and coffee and toasted cinnamon raisin bread strewn about, freshly clipped flowers stowed in mason jars of cool water in the shade. I am wishing I didn’t have work to do, many hours of it, inside, and bills to pay and housework to do. But I am looking forward to a long walk and grilled chicken for dinner. And maybe a game of Scrabble if there is time.

I was beside myself with excitement and joy to see all the flowers blooming in my garden when I got home. But bummed that a critter has apparently eaten the first ripe beefsteak tomato. And sad when I think of my father outside in the sun, dutifully pruning and hauling and replanting his garden plants, but with no family dinner to look forward to tonight.

I’m happy for the quiet day here with my partner, but missing my Dad and sister very much.

It occurs to me once again how much influence the narrator has over the trajectory of a story. (Just think of the impossibly fictional creation of a social media feed…even my own, where I mostly show the pretty flowers—not the rotten or bug-eaten ones.) Amazing how details are carefully plucked from life and arranged in a row to advance one (white-washed) story line over another. 

But real stories are never linear, and real emotions are never constant.

I craft my own stories so that they lean positive, mostly because I do want to share the joy I feel like I’ve worked hard for, and because I think it’s especially great to show how life smooths out in sobriety. But also, I probably don’t dwell on the negative or the controversial as much because I’m not as confident there. I have to be very very sure of my knowledge of a subject before condemning an action with opinion.

But on a given day or in the space of an hour or a minute, no matter how much joy I’m experiencing, there are always moments of malaise. Mostly they pass quickly, and I am back on the bright side. But sometimes they linger on in the background, naggingly present, even though I’ve made every effort to stash them.

Living in joy is a good place to be, but it isn’t possible all the time and even difficult for some people to do most of the time. (Understanding that is called empathy.) I like to think of it as a choice, but it isn’t – at least not in the moment. Though it is a series of a zillion choices, starting with making the decision to be honest about what you feel, which can change like the wind direction in a nanosecond. And sometimes you feel two ways at one time.

All the little choices that move you towards the light matter. I chose to live on Martha’s Vineyard because the suburbs of New York were too frenetic for me. I chose to quit my job as editor in chief of a national food magazine because, in sobriety, I discovered that I actually don’t handle stress well. I’ve made a lot of bad choices, too, over the years, but they are surprisingly less frequent now that I listen to my gut (whenever I am quiet enough to hear it). (And choosing to plant a lot of flowers this year was definitely a very fine decision.)

I have a good life, interrupted by occasional bad things, like everyone else. That’s my story for today.

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Hugs Are Free (No Matter What Snoopy’s Sign Says)

MY PARTNER AND I share a home office, which works out surprisingly well, all things considered. It’s a big space, and I have my cluttery cubby-ish space at one end (it’s kind of a nook under the front eaves) lined with bookshelves and filled with baskets of magazines and other Susie-stuff.

Every surface is covered with little ceramic dishes, old family photographs, oddities like dried straw flowers and pressed pansies and packets of seeds, and more books. Inside the little ceramic bowls and cups (mostly handmade, given to me by my best friend over many years) are the usual things like paper clips and rubber bands, ear buds and USB drives, sticky notes and colored markers, and more personal things, like a collection of all the anniversary coins I’ve gotten in sobriety.  

The walls are lined with bulletin boards which I’ve covered with favorite quotes (a lot of Wendell Berry, I realize), more old photographs, photos of beautiful gardens and flowers I’ve ripped out of magazines, and other odd bits of art.

On the floor, nestled in the nook behind my desk chair, is a fleecy blanket that Farmer settles into on cold days.

On the other side of the office, the lawyer has a tidy desk, neat piles of manila folders, and stacks of cardboard file boxes filled with case files.

An assortment of odd throw rugs winds around the furniture from here to there. An orchid blooms improbably under the north window. My desk faces east. His, west. He gets the sunsets and the garden view, I get the sunrise (not that I’m ever at my desk to see it), the crows (hanging out in the roof gutters), and the treetops (tall oaks strewn across the field in front of our house). Bonus: I can see cars turning into the driveway!

In the middle of the room are two low credenzas pushed together. They neatly divide our space; technically we split the surface area on top of them. But my half is covered (currently) with a stack of African-American cookbooks, a bag of camera equipment, two framed photos I’m hoping to hang, a West Tisbury Farmers’ Market tee shirt, an old grey wool sweater I’ve had for 20 years, six Fine Gardening magazines, a box of art supplies, and a stack of Vineyard Gazettes. There is also a coffee cup and a sandwich plate waiting to go back downstairs.

On his side, there are three pieces of paper and a stapler.

He is a very good sport about the differences in our office décor.

Every once in a while, I get up and go over to his side and give him a hug. Every once in a while, he does the same. (He is an excellent hugger.) He also brings me a freshly brewed cup of Tazo tea every night when I return to my desk after dinner. Coffee in the morning, too. He deserves a lot of hugs (not just for the coffee and tea, but for many, many reasons).

The other day, I thought he really needed one (a hug, that is), so I devised a way to let him know that one (or more) might be available.

I still have my old blackboard-painted farmstand sign, currently propped up against our outdoor shower. I use it as a surface for photo shoots, but I’d been toying with the idea of drawing on it.

I started thinking about the Peanuts comic strip where Lucy sets up a booth and a sign that says “Psychiatric Help: 5 cents” on the top and “The Doctor is IN.” on the bottom. Snoopy thumbs his nose at her (she isn’t getting any business) and sets up his own booth that says, “Hug a Warm Puppy, 1 cent.” “The Puppy is IN.” So I figured I’d advertise free hugs on my sign and see if I got any (particular) takers.

Yup, it worked.

Corny, I know. This compulsion I have to write things down and collect neat little sayings and quotes to sum up what I’m thinking is not going away any time soon. In fact, it’s getting worse. A few months ago, while off-Island shopping with my sister at Target, I bought a letter board – you know one of those things with changeable plastic letters like you see outside of churches and barbecue joints, only smaller. A home version (only $15!).

I unpacked the (cheesy) plastic letters and figured I’d put a favorite quote up and change it out every so often. The act of spelling it out would help me remember it, and then I’d look at the board for inspiration from time to time. I decided I’d channel Amanda Gorman for starters. “Be the Light,” I spelled out.

I put the board on top of one of my bookshelves facing in my partner’s direction. When he gets cranky I point to it. He does not appreciate this.

But I haven’t changed the quote because I think it is going to be a very long time until I feel like I’ve soaked that up. Actually — probably never. I need that reminder every day, not only to keep my head up for other people, but for myself, too. Some days, life can be so complicated and frustrating that all I can really do is offer a hug. Or ask for one.

And pick flowers, of course.

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A Little Rain Must Fall

THE COOL RAINY weather following the heat wave is a bit jarring.

Returning to work at the office for a few hours here and there this week and last has been disorienting.

The explosion of traffic on the Island is jaw-dropping and completely unnerving (today, a 5-mile backup on the Edgartown-West Tisbury road).

The summer work schedule is relentless.

I feel somehow like I am wasting time on all the wrong things. And I’m having trouble getting excited about what I should put my energy towards. I guess I’m just a little out of sorts. Not hugely. Just bitly. Well maybe more than bitly. Moderate-ishly. Certainly in that place where inventing words seems appropriate.

With my energy low, I’m happy enough to be inside on this rainy Saturday, curled up in a chair, with my partner reading nearby and Farmer snoring on the couch. Right there is pretty much all I want in this life, and yet somehow I am feeling that little devil on my shoulder, the one who’s sole purpose it is to remind me that I’m not doing something I should be doing.

I know enough to recognize the devil and start working my toolkit to banish him. My first sponsor years ago reminded me to “move a muscle, change a thought” to get out of a bad headspace.

Normally I would head straight into the garden, but the weather is not cooperating. That may be half my problem – I’ve missed my gardening time this week. Or most of it. I’ve still gone out most mornings to snap a photo for Instagram. For me, just the small act of capturing a pretty flower or a baby vegetable in a photo is joyful. I like the cropping and photo correction, too. It’s a mini distraction — a pleasurable, creative way to start my day.

Recently I decided to revive a little personal Instagram challenge I did years ago on the farm. I posted a different vegetable variety for 100 days straight over the summer. The next year I did 100 different things on the farm for 100 days straight. This year I decided to do 100 different flowers and veggies. Even though I’m growing in a far smaller area than the farm, I have managed to cram in quite a large variety of flowers and vegetables. (Follow along @sixburnersue on Instagram if you like.) It’s fun for me to see if I can find a different one blossoming or newly fruiting every day.

This afternoon, I am going to distract myself by writing down a complete list of what I’m growing in the veg and cut flower garden. That might sound tedious, but for me the mental concentration of organizing, going through my plant tags, looking up names and pictures online, and typing it all out will be productive and distracting – even if it isn’t the work I really should be doing.

Maybe you have some trick like this to turn your mood around when you need it. If not, think of something you absolutely love and go do it. I find when I’m down, it’s usually because I’m directing my energy towards something I don’t want to do, or I am feeling bad because I’m not doing what I am “supposed” to be doing.

More and more I’m inclined to do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to clean the house (which I don’t do enough but when I do, I feel satisfied) or go to the dentist or pay bills or whatever. It just means I’m going to keep seeking out joy, wherever I can find it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day (attached below). I know many, many of you have read it, and love it, and the last two lines have sadly entered Hallmark territory. But I still treasure them, keeping them nearby and reading them over and over. The ability to live life fully seems more important every day, as it seems I get news of an illness or passing on of someone I know more and more frequently. I don’t like it, and I don’t have any control over it, but I owe it to myself and to them to embrace life, even when it means (metaphorically) sitting in the rain, stepping in the puddles, getting soaked. I think I’ll put on my galoshes and go check on the garden.

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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Texting with Dad (at Almost 91)

An old summer photo of Dad, undoubtedly taken while he was working in the garden.

MY DAD TURNS 91 in three weeks. My sister and I were worried about him this morning, because he hadn’t responded to a three-way text that we keep pretty active – a very 2021 kind of way to stay in touch with your family. When he first got his IPhone, he’d been shy about texting. He never learned to type; the idea of struggling with that little keyboard seemed like too much trouble. But once he realized his busy daughters were apt to communicate more often by text than by phone, little by little he joined in.

But in his typical way (he is a wordsmith and a careful thinker), he has fashioned a style of texting that is uniquely his. Every text is carefully worded, in complete sentences, intentionally witty, and warmly and articulately expressed. Usually with an emoji.

These are not texts he can bang out in rapid fire; response from him takes a little time.

This morning, my sister was in a board meeting, and since I had just finished wrapping up a publication to send to the printer, I offered to call Dad so that I could reassure my sister that everything was fine.

He picked up after a couple rings and I could hear outdoorsy noise in the background. So right away, of course, I realize he’s fine. I’m thinking he’s in the backyard.

But no, he’s over at his friend’s house – one of the nice ladies he plays bridge with – installing a garden he designed for her over the winter. Actually, he wasn’t installing it himself – one of the only concessions he’s made to being almost 91 is that he can’t put as many plants in the ground as when he was almost 90. (Last year during the pandemic he occupied himself by redoing all the planting beds around his house with hundreds of perennials. That’s a lot of digging.) This time, he had help in the form of his friend’s gardener. But having drawn the design and traversed the length of Delaware several times visiting nurseries in search of very particular plant varieties for his friend, he of course had to be there to supervise!

He apologized for not answering the text. But they had started the installation project yesterday and had been at it ‘til late. When he got home, he laid down for a nap and fell asleep. In the morning he had to dash back over there to help finish the project.

One of many birthday celebrations with Dad (in plaid pants), Uncle Rodney (right), Uncle Doug (left), and my grandmother Honey (and her famous chocolate cake).

I let him go back to work after a brief chat about the dates in late July that we’ll be driving down to see him. Three months is about as long as I can stand to go without seeing him these days. And if possible, we like to celebrate our birthdays together. We’ve been double-celebrating for a mighty long time, sometimes with my grandmother’s chocolate cake, sometimes without. (My sister made it last year, complete with 7-minute boiled white icing.)

As I was watering my garden tonight, I kept thinking about Dad and how much he loves plants and gardening and how thoroughly he has passed that love on to me and my sister. It is a true gift. I’m never more content (the opposite of anxious) than when I’m working in the garden.

Last weekend, during a three-way Father’s Day text, I sent along some photos of our progress in the garden, including the newly expanded veg and flower garden with the little retaining wall.

His response was effusively complimentary (with emoji). He also offered support and empathy to my sister for some work she is trudging through.

But my favorite part of the text?

“Thanks to you both for your loving messages. The best thing about Father’s Day is…well, being a father!”

This Dad just gets better and better with age. I can’t wait to see him. I think I’ll bring him a plant for his birthday.

The Dad Chronicles:

Beam Me Up (or Down), Scotty! (April 24, 2021)

My Father the Instagram Star (January 28, 2021)

Cooking with Dad (Vineyard Gazette) (March 22, 2020)



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The Tale of Bunnykins Rabbit and Ms. McMiddleton’s Garden

Carding Mill (a David Austin English rose) sat out 2020 in a pot but is happy to be in the ground this year. It greeted us in full bloom upon our return from Georgia.

I call him Bunnykins. Which is ridiculous on many levels, I know. Why come up with an endearing nickname for a creature who is singlehandedly destroying your vegetable garden? And if you’re going to call him something, a sappy name doesn’t seem quite appropriate. Peter would be a more suitable moniker, since our resident rogue rabbit has taken a page straight out of Beatrix Potter’s famous tale, a copy of which I happen to keep on my shelves. (Apparently bunny – and human – behavior hasn’t changed much in 100 years.)

But look, Bunnykins and I get to talking most evenings, and I have to call him something. He’s a little guy, so that’s the name that came out of my mouth when he and I first found ourselves in the garden together — with the gate closed. (He was as surprised as I was and began to bounce off the fence in every direction, looking for an exit, any exit, the likes of which he seemed to have forgotten after his feast of lettuces and French beans. Just like Peter.)

How did Bunnykins get in?

Earlier in the week I came home from Georgia to many beautiful surprises – roses and other flowers in bloom, dozens of peas to harvest, garlic scapes curling, tiny green tomatoes forming on the vine – and one unpleasant surprise that took awhile to completely reveal itself.

First I noticed the tops of my baby bush bean plants had been lopped off. My struggling little snapdragons were beheaded too. Birds, I thought, those damn crows!

Then I noticed a whole row of lettuce, heads nibbled neatly all the way around into jolly rosettes – rather pretty if you didn’t actually care about eating your lettuce.

Maybe not birds, I thought.

Worst and last: I noticed some of the pea vines were withered. I followed the clues right down to the base of the plants and found them cut off at the knees (so to speak) – completely untethered from their roots, ripped in half by some jagged teeth. I looked up at all the beautiful pea blossoms and newly forming peas at the top of the plants and thought this was just not going to be a good thing if the vines continued to be chewed. I’d lose dozens, maybe hundreds of peas.

Still there was one reason to hope – the vines were clinging to the back fence and it looked like whatever (whomever) was gnawing the bottom of the vines was doing it from outside the garden, grabbing the vulnerable vines that had meandered outside the fence.

However, the very next night I found severed pea vines inside the garden, parts lying around like Lincoln Logs in the path in front of the bed. Not an outside job. Critter (please, please, don’t be a rat) was working on the inside, under the cover of darkness.

Critter had found an easy way into the fenced garden, so I began to scour the fence. I was worried because I knew our fence was not as secure as it should have been. We’d had to leave for Georgia in the midst of a garden expansion project. (Thanks to a small retaining wall and some fill, we have been able to nearly double the size of our little vegetable garden to make room for my cut flowers.) We’d quickly erected the deer fencing but hadn’t added the chicken wire around the bottom. I soon discovered that our critter had taken advantage of this and simply chewed through the plastic deer fencing in a few places. I’d certainly seen that before back on the farm – and it was almost always the work of a wily wabbit.   

It’s not like I hadn’t already noticed Bunnykins in our yard. He – and his appetite – were quite evident in the perennial garden. I often saw him out around dusk, and in the morning the coneflowers were another inch shorter. (I’ve tried really hard to plant deer- and rabbit-proof perennials, but apparently I was asleep at the wheel when I added multiple echinacea to our beds.) 

The night Bunnykins and I met face to face in the garden was the night after I began a harried effort (this was during the work week – the real work would have to wait for the weekend) to run as much chicken wire along the bottom of the fence as I could, and to barricade the rest with bags of mulch and bricks.

I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but now here I was inside the garden, and who should I meet? I caught him right in the pea bed. The only good news was that now I could be 100 percent sure I wasn’t dealing with a rat. 

I can’t say that I really chased Bunnykins with a rake like Mr. McGregor chased Peter, but I was anxiously following him as he rushed around looking for an exit – I wanted to know if he was going to find a secret spot to get out. Darn if he didn’t disappear, squeezing between the raised tomato bed and the back fence into a space I never really would have thought of as wide enough for anything other than a slug to transgress.

By this time, both my partner and Farmer were on the scene. Thinking Bunnykins was hiding – that there was no way he could have gotten out – we shined the flashlight in all the nooks and crannies. Honestly, it was like the final scene in The Sound of Music when the Von Trapps hide in the Abbey cemetery. I pictured Bunnykins with his back up, trying to be vewy vewy quiet and not move a muscle as the flashlight flooded back and forth.

In searching we found that, in truth, the narrow space between the raised beds and the back fence , obscured by clumps of grass, was actually a perfectly fine little rabbit tunnel. A great place to hide or move around under cover (but not escape, since this older part of the fence was locked in with chicken wire). But Bunnykins was not in the grassy tunnel, not anywhere. He’d found a way out. We left, shutting the gate, and I went back again before bed with the flashlight to make sure he wasn’t inside.

It was only in the morning when I scoured the fence again and looked for places just big enough for him to squeeze through (remember, he’s pretty small), that my eyes settled on the entrance gate, not the fence. It’s the only gate into the garden, an old baby gate turned on its side, covered with plastic hardware cloth. The baby gate has 2-inch openings. The plastic hardware cloth has only ½-inch openings and is plenty sturdy enough to withstand chewing. But that morning I noticed we’d never completely attached it to the bottom rail of the gate. Essentially, I could see now by lifting the hardware cloth up, it could act as a kind of bunny door (a flap, like a cat door) if you ran through it from the inside. (Though I don’t think a bunny could lift it to enter from the outside!)

I’m pretty sure that’s how Bunnykins got out that night we were tailing him, as the end of the little tunnel along the back fence brings you (if you’re a little rabbit) right to the gate. I think he got IN to the garden that evening when I was working in there with the gate open.

I quickly devised an instant temporary solution to the gate problem by jamming a roll of chicken wire against the bottom of the gate when I left. (Yes, you could call me Ms. MacGyver rather than Ms. McMiddleton. No one ever said I was the queen of infrastructure, and luckily I have help from my partner with the real work.)

The last two nights, I’ve greeted Bunnykins outside of the garden. He’s been hanging out up on the hill where the garden is, near or under the garage steps (a favorite hidden lookout spot for him), clearly baffled by the newly fortified fortress. Inside the garden, there’s been no pea damage and the lettuce is growing back. And we set to work on finishing the fence this weekend. 

Perhaps Mrs. Rabbit (Bunnykins’ mother) will put him to bed with some chamomile tea, reassuring him that another day will come, another human error will occur, and by then the carrots will be ready for digging.

P.S. You may wonder why I’m so sure that Bunnykins is one rabbit and not one of many. Well, I have no doubt that it’s a virtual Watership Down around here, but most of the rabbits we see out in the field in front of our house are large, mature rabbits that would have trouble getting through small holes. Bunnykins is not a baby, but he is small enough (a teenager?) to be distinctive, and tends to favor a particular schedule and favorite grazing spots. Alas, removing Bunnykins from the premises, as some have suggested we do, wouldn’t solve much. I’m sure there are more Bunnykins in Mrs. Rabbit’s warren.

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