Thursday, May 28, 2015

Walks in (Drizzle) Beauty

Walk in beauty: so the Navajo advise us, though it's not that easy to do. Yet sometimes it seems that beauty walks in us. Or all around us. We try to worm our way in.

Hilary had six or seven friends over for book club Friday night. That's a good time for me to get out of the house for a while. I hauled my bike down to Lake of the Isles and did a few circuits. Everyone was out in shorts and t-shirts, on paddleboards, in colorful kayaks and canoes, walking dogs, pushing strollers, sprawled on the grass reading books.

Then on to Calhoun, where I parked on the west side of the lake, just across from the volleyball courts, and pulled out my copy of Roberto Calasso's Ardor.

The Vedic world involved a cult, closely bound up with texts of extreme complexity, and an intoxicating plant. A state of awareness became the pivot around which turned  thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts. A mythology, as well as the boldest speculation, arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.

I was having a hard time concentrating (maybe you were, too) when suddenly it occurred to me that I was only a few blocks from a shop I'd read about in the paper that sold Minnesota-grown plants such as turtlehead and cup plant. Thus I abandoned the mysterious life of northern India circa 2000 B.C. and penetrated ever deeper into the equally mysterious life of the Linden Hills neighborhood.

The shop was nowhere to be found, but a few blocks down the way I passed 44 France liquor store, which I hadn't visited for at least fifteen years. I parked and went inside.

I liked the place. It didn't seem so Edina-esque as I'd remembered. I was looking over the bargain bins when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that my old friend Fran was standing right next to me. I play tennis with her husband from time to time, and I happened the know he was in Norway visiting his brother. She told me a little about how the trip was going, and about how much she was enjoying her week of solitude. Though she wasn't relishing it as much as she'd hoped. That horrible thing called work kept getting in the way.

When I asked her about the plant shop I was looking for, she said: "I don't think there's a business like that near here. But there is a woman who sets out some things on planks along the sidewalk on weekends."

Fran suggested we head over to the tasting table but I begged off. "I can't do that," I said. "I tend to like all wines. Stay within your price range and keep trying new things. That's my strategy."

The next morning Hilary and I headed back down to the lakes. We circled Isles and Calhoun by bike, wandered the rock garden north of Harriet, but turned back to the car when it began to drizzle.

Back on 44th Street, we found the woman with her small selection of plants out on the sidewalk and bought a few. (She only sells plants native to Minnesota, so she had the white turtleheads, but not the purple.) 

Passing  Sunnyside Gardens just down the block, we stopped in to pick up some zinnias and ran into columnist Lori Sturdevant. "What are you doing here?" I said. "You're supposed to be a St. Paulite now."

"Oh, I've always loved this nursery. And I'm glad I ran into you. I need some advice about a lilac bush at our new yard. It seems to be in the wrong place." So we chatted about that for a while.

The morning was gray, but the drizzle was a mere tickle—so light as to be non-existent. A perfect day to plant. And not only that. After a good deal of debate, we decided the time had come to repair the crumbling border to the garden.

It's been deteriorating for years, but I was holding fast to the idea that the best solution might be to allow it to disappear entirely, thus naturalizing the space. Once the logs had rotted we could create a far less boxy look simply by shifting a few plants around. One benefit to this plan was that it required almost no work. The drawback was that it might take a decade or more for Mother Nature to complete her part of the operation, during which time the garden would continue to look run down and ill-kept.

Hilary pulled a log out from under the deck that had been there since we moved in 1986. It was a little bent, but it fit the space nicely. My job would be to drive some spikes through the log to hold it in place. And that, I knew, would be much easier if I pre-drilled the holes. And that would be much easier, I was sure, if my drill actually worked.

Ninety minutes later I was holding a bright green Ryobi drill in my hand, with which I cheerily ground a few holes through the replacement log. (I found that the drill worked even better, and stopped emitting an unpleasant burning smell, when it was set on forward rather than reverse.) The salesman at Home Depot had done an exemplary job of explaining what was likely to be wrong with my old drill, and why it might make sense to get it fixed (they don't make them like they used to).

With nary a hint of condescension, he patiently reviewed the relative merits of the corded and battery-powered models currently available. In fact, he was so personable and articulate that I left the store absolutely convinced I'd made a brilliant choice.

The spikes I bought had looked a little big in the store, but they also proved to be perfectly suited to the task at hand.

The gray weather lingered throughout the weekend, and so did the unhurried pace, which added to the pleasure of planting things. You look over the garden spaces in a kind of mental fog as your mind reviews all the plants that have died or disappeared in previous years. You envision sure-fire winners such as zinnia and cleome. You ponder bee- and butterfly- and bird-friendly native choices and wonder where you might find them for sale. You wonder what you might divide, and what you might remove entirely. And there are always violets and ferns to thin and remove.

The weekend was pleasantly punctuated by a birthday party (it happened to be for me), dinner guests, and even a film—the appropriately rural Far from the Madding Crowd.

By Monday morning the sun had arrived. During a trip to the farmer's market (our second of the weekend) I picked up some pre-started morning glories, and on the way home I snagged a red-twigged dogwood at Cub to plant on the far side of the house, where two diseased elm trees are no longer with us.

Throughout the weekend we lived on tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil on toasted slices of bread. But this is a summer-time thing.

In Minnesota, spring lasts about three weeks. Summer is here.       

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