For nature lovers who enjoy audiobooks, Strange Company is now available on Audible. Listen to a sample, narrated by Nikiya Palombi. I am delighted to hear my essays rendered so beautifully. And thanks again to Mark McNease of MadeMark Publishing for believing in me and this venture.
Spring in the nursery is a happy time. The bedding plants are a riot of color and the eager young vegetables grow right before your eyes. Flushed with hope and fresh resolve, shoppers load their carts with more than they can use, for who can resist the tangerine zinnias, the deep blue delphiniums, the baby stalks of corn, the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, each one promising something special. The is “The Year,” customers vow; they have learned from past efforts and this is the year they will have, at last, their dream garden.
Because people are impatient, because we must keep pace with the box store down the street—that heartless, hulking nemesis—we bring in spring stock sooner than advisable. Despite our cautions, many folks will buy cartloads of these greenhoused plants and plunge them into cold soil on a promisingly sunny day, and that night, or maybe the next, a hard frost will steal into their gardens, blackening the basil and wilting the watermelon. The disgruntled patrons will then return for replacements, digging into their pockets a second time, albeit not quite so cheerfully.
Eventually the soil warms and winter unhooks its talons and we assure everyone that they can garden with abandon. Plants stream into the nursery like fresh troops and are cleared out the same day. We take special orders—for Tati’s Wedding tomatoes, Jersey Pickling cucumbers, Golden Calwonder peppers. The bounty! The joy! There is no stopping either.
Busy shoving more wondrous things into the earth, gardeners fail to notice the tiny green aphids in the broccoli, the tunnels forming in the Swiss chard leaves, the shroud of white fungus creeping over the zucchini. Not until their gardens are riddled with trouble do people perceive a problem. How they react is who they are. Some, blaming nature, will turn on it. They will buy the most deadly products they can get their hands on and they will turn their gardens into battle zones. Others, blaming us, will storm back into the nursery, brandishing their sickly specimens and demanding a refund. They will cite the return policies of the box stores and they will threaten to take their business to them.
And then there are those who blame themselves. They will come into the nursery shamefaced, holding plastic bags of evidence and asking us what went wrong, why are they such bad gardeners. While gardening is supposed to be a restorative pastime, too often this is not the case. People are intimidated by plants, intimidated and aggrieved. Their gardens get the better of them, and, disgusted, they give up. There are too many variables, they complain, too much they can’t control.
Which is true. Nature will not be controlled, not for long at any rate. The more you resist her efforts, the harder she’ll work to thwart yours. Eventually she will find a way to get around your weapons and give her varied progeny a toehold. Broccoli, aphids, roses, mildew—it’s all the same to her. Balance is what she’s after.
We have removed the most devastating munitions from our shelves, anything containing neonicotinoids (the bee killer); soil drench versions are the worst as they contaminate soil and ground water for years to come. We have also eliminated herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup, KleenUp, Remuda). Not only is glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, it has a lethal impact on aquatic and terrestrial amphibians. We encourage gardeners to make their own herbicides and pesticides using household products like Epsom salts, cooking oil and dish soap—recipes for these remedies abound on the internet.
Even organic solutions should be applied judiciously. Medicating plants week after week can erode their health, in the same way that too much medication weakens human patients. Plants, like people, defend themselves when threatened. To save its strength, a Ficus benjamina will drop its leaves after the shock of relocation, then tentatively grow them back. In response to beetle attacks, a conifer will release wads of resin, sealing its wounds and embalming the marauders. If ground ivy loses its shade, it quickly gets to work toughening and thickening its leaves.
The most important thing you can give your plants is a good start: amended soil, a roomy bed, the proper light and water. A rose will not appreciate a shady location or the overspray from lawn sprinklers; cannas relish both. You can save yourself a great deal of time and money by learning what plants require, preferably before you buy them.
That said, your yard will never be perfect because nature isn’t perfect. Accepting this will make you a better gardener, one who slows down for a closer look in an effort to understand. There are reasons for almost everything, like why your doublefile viburnum hasn’t bloomed. Plants moved from their pots into the open ground will often take years to flower: They are spending their energy below, in the establishment of roots. This is why a lemon tree in a container will produce fruit sooner than a tree in the ground: the roots meet the boundary of the pot and, and running out of room, signal reproduction. And that sticky black coating on your orange tree? Look close. You’ll see tiny brown ovals attached to the leaves and doubtless a few ants. What your plant has is scale, in its armored form. The scale are steadily sucking the sap; what they can’t digest they secrete as honeydew, which is then harvested by ants. The sticky residue promotes the growth of black sooty mold. And those skinny leaves on that one nandina? No, it’s not sick, it just needs more water—check the irrigation.
Sometimes a plant is destined to fail, and no amount of scholarship or coddling will make a difference. Maybe it was weak from the start; maybe it was neglected too long; maybe it simply grew old and frail, no longer able to fend off attackers. Removing it does not mean you failed; it means you cared: There are few things more dispiriting than a derelict yard.
If you want to be a good gardener, start with humility. You are, after all, asking this earth for miracles: giant sunflowers, golden watermelon, crimson peony blooms. You are bound to lose a few things, to bugs or blight; think of this as giving back and plant anyway. Make peace with your garden and arm yourself with knowledge. Above all, dig gently.
As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.
Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?
These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂
Today I wish to give deep thanks to editor Ilana Masad for featuring “A Sea Change” in The Other Stories podcast. This story is part of my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press.
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/daugaard/2687998731/”>DaugaardDK</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-SA</a>
“For small creatures such as we, the vastness of the cosmos is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/shadowstalker/27828525491/”>The Whisperer of the Shadows</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>CC BY-ND</a>
“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.
Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.
No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?
It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.
Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>
I am honored and delighted to have won second place in this contest for my story “Savages.”
On The Premises is an online fiction magazine founded in 2006 by Tarl Kudrick and Bethany Granger.
Stories published in On The Premises are winning entries in short story contests launched each December and June. Each contest challenges writers to produce a great story based on a broad premise supplied by the editors. Winning stories are published in each April and October.
I am grateful to editors Tarl and Bethany for this opportunity and distinction.
The quiet world of cuttlefish.
“I lingered in front of the kelp forest, eerily beautiful in the morning light, and as I watched the leathery brown ribbons swaying in the currents, the chains of bubbles and the silver fish, I could imagine the relief a diver must feel: a single plunge, and all history is banished, blame lifted, anguish ended.”
Excerpt from “A Sea Change,” one of the stories in SURVIVAL SKILLS