Edges & the middle

My spouse told me of how he once interviewed a woodworking craftsman, renowned for his “perfect” furniture finishes, and asked about his technique. The craftsman advised, “Take care of the edges, and the middle will take care of itself.”

This phrase came to mind last week when I decided I had better tackle the weeds in my strawberry patch. Still hobbled by a foot injury, I figured weeding the berries was a task I could manage sitting down. The job seemed daunting, however; I have neglected the garden and permitted all manner of invaders–perennial and annual–to colonize the strawberries’ bed and twist around and root beneath their superficial root systems. Frankly, most people would not have recognized it as a berry patch.

It’s the equinox and the weather’s wonderful so I heaved a sigh, grabbed a few tools, and started to work. A garden bed has little in common with a French-polished tabletop, but I kept the idea in mind: tend to the edges, maybe the middle would “take care of itself.” Bermuda grass and galinsoga pull out easily, but there were also deep-rooted clovers, thatchy crabgrasses, English plantains, pigweed, ladies’ thumb…too many to name, though by this time I am pretty good at identifying the weeds of eastern Pennsylvania. I worked from the inside edge southward to the corner, then westward.

So far, still a pretty nasty-looking affair. After a few sessions of working along the scrim, though, I did begin to see progress; and–yes, the middle was much easier to finish weeding after I’d taken care of the edges.

~

Sometimes, I find motivation in a good analogy. I wondered whether I could transfer the French polish/strawberry patch concept to writing. Could that be one way to draft or rework a poem? What if I spent my efforts taking care of the poem’s edges–would the middle sort of take care of itself? (And what would be the edges of a poem? Its closing and opening phrases or stanzas? Its end-of-line words? Its beginning-of-line words?)

My gentle readers may recall that fringe landscapes and edges are a major inspiration for me–just type edges into this blog’s search bar, and quite a few past musings will show up. I will try working on my poems’ edges intentionally and see what happens.

Meanwhile, as the cooler weather approaches, I’ll cover up my berry patch with straw and promise to check the weeds a little more regularly next year, so I can get the results below in June of 2020:

high angle photo of strawberries in strainer

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

 

 

Tending, clearing

According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, between now and the late April rains one should tend to the graves of one’s ancestors. This period goes by the name 清明, or qīngmíng, and the weeks are designated “clear and bright.”

In my part of the world, we experience a mix of rainy and clear; but the days are warming and the grass greener. The annual winter weeds pull up easily, and the tough perennial weeds emerge before the grasses. The moist, newly-thawed soil makes levering those weeds less difficult now than later in the year.

I, however, do not live anywhere near my ancestors’ graves.

~

Clearing

Clear the patch that yields
to memory
clutch the hand hoe
and the trowel
disturbing early spring’s
small bees and gnats
beneath the plum’s
blossoming branches

Weeds encroach here
grasses grown too high
a nearby stone
toppled and broken
tells us about
forgetfulness

Insects surround
the quiet morning
active each year as warmth
moves into earth
the newt that curls
under last year’s leaf
finds sustenance

As do we
in our earnest effort
clearing as skies clear
each handful of chickweed
representing thanks
to those whose efforts
and accidents
brought us into
the world

~

getPart-1

photo by David Sloan

Parsing the garden

To parse is to analyze components–in linguistics, we parse a sentence, in computer science, we parse coded commands. In the literary analysis of a poem, a reader may divide a line or phrase into its parts of speech and then analyze the components (or look at an unusual expression or syntax in a line) to try to interpret meaning or to expand on possible readings or meanings…the semantics behind the tokens of image, grammar, metaphor, allusion, sound, punctuation, placement upon the white space of the page.

Today, I pushed the metaphor by parsing my garden.

The weather from July onward has been hot, humid, and unusually wet. The corn and the beans in local fields were happy; but much in my vegetable garden reveals, with parsing, specific summer details of stress and the gardener’s neglect.

IMG_5601.jpgToo much rain during ripening time led to cracked tomato skins and viruses in the vines. The zucchini did well for a time, then succumbed to powdery mildew. The beans didn’t mind the weather, but I had a plague of voles whose small depredations worked some cumulative damage–they nibbled a number of plants at the stem base, which meant a slightly less abundant yield, of course. Cucumbers offered lots of fruit initially, then downy mildew set in. I harvested one of the two cabbages with only minor slug damage, and the fat variety of carrots grew well (with no sign of whiteflies); but there were lots of bugs on the kale this summer and, given the intense heat, I had a short lettuce season.

And then, there are weeds, which offer many details about the weather conditions…and the fact that the gardener gave up and stopped pulling weeds when the soil devolved into heavy mud and who then refused to brave the task in the numerous over-95 degree F days that weren’t rainy. Today, I began a list: nutsedge; crabgrass; English plantain; pigweed; puncturevine; bindweed; galinsoga; creeping thistle; multiflora rose; horseweed; knotweed; spotted spurge; rabbitfoot clover; virginia creeper; japanese stiltgrass; wintercreeper; mugwort; solidago; wild aster; chicory; poison ivy; not to mention various sorrels and clovers and Queen Anne’s lace…and others I have yet to identify.

If I were to parse each weed, I could detail its likes and dislikes as to soil, growing conditions, root systems, pollinators & pollination strategies, seed dispersal methods, attractiveness to birds or rodents (see seed dispersal methods), and eventually could compile a meaningful ecological and environmental semantics for the little plot that is my backyard truck patch. No doubt I’d learn a great deal about the garden, but no doubt I have done so already–if less exhaustively, less “scientifically.” Would the garden then become more meaningful to me?

It’s a thought experiment; I’ve no intention of trying it, though I do think it would yield interesting results. In the many years I have worked the soil, I have written poems that, perhaps, do parse the garden. That will have to be interpretation enough for my part.

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Interesting sky above the garden.

Pruning, weeding, & poetry manuscripts

Gardening has been a dismal endeavor this past summer; I just did not devote my usual energies to the landscape, the perennials, or even to the vegetable patch. For a number of reasons I will not enumerate here, I did not even get to the weeding. I wish I could say I spent my energy on writing, revising, and submitting my poems–alas, no.

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

Tangle of weeds & blossoms

After a weekend of trying to catch up (in two days) on two months of garden neglect, I caught up on my reading a bit and found this delightful and appropriate post on Lesley Wheeler’s blog: “Restlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry manuscript.” Her analogy is to a closet and wardrobe, but the underlying concept of assessing and culling works for perennial beds and poetry manuscripts (and attics, and basements, and garages, and…)

This post appeals to me because, in addition to rallying myself to the cause of deadheading and pruning and weeding in the great outdoors, I have also been working on cleaning up two manuscripts. Wheeler asks of her work:

 

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project?

Wise questions to ask of a book of poems; also see Jeffrey Levine’s Tupelo Press blog for his exhaustive take on the process.

Clearly, reorganizing and evaluating my collections are not the kind of work I could accomplish in two days.

In that way, weeding and pruning the gardens offers more immediate satisfaction, though it left me with some scratches, rashes, and a sore back!

 

In the Garden

Redbud leaf in fall

“[T]o be worldly… is to be outside the gift of poetry, to be, in some measure, too human for comfort.” Peter de Bolla

A teacher of mine once defined a nature poet as a writer whose subjects and metaphor are nature-based. The majority of my work does fall under that definition, though not all of it. At a recent meeting of my writing group, one member who considers herself a beginning poet asked me, “What do you do if an idea for a poem comes to you while you are gardening?”

As in my work, her poetry often centers on images and inspirations that visit while walking, weeding, sowing, and so forth. So it was a simple and sensible question. Generally, I keep a small journal and a pen nearby when I work. There’s a porch swing near my garden gate, and often I keep my writing tools as well as my gardening tools on the swing.

But today I forgot. I was drawn to the vegetable garden by a break in the soggy weather, a glorious day before first frost, zinnias and marigolds still in bloom and all the weeds going riotously to seed. I pulled up undesirable annual grasses, polygonum, crabgrass and queen-anne’s-lace, wild asters, elderberry stalks, and vines along the edge of the fence. I’m fond of goldenrod and chicory in the meadow, but they make poor companions for asparagus; out they went. A northern mockingbird heading south stopped to perch among the walnuts trees and trilled as cheerily as it would have done in spring.

And I had ideas. And I forgot to write them down.

I cannot recreate that pleasant hour now, but the time spent among the weeds and the late bees and the big spiders catching their last prey and hanging their egg sacs in possibly-safe places while the hawks cry high overhead is comforting and inexpressibly valuable to me. But being in the world—what we tend to call “the natural world”—keeps me from becoming too worldly. Keeps me attuned to the gift of poetry, and keeps me from becoming too human (too rational) for comfort.