Athena’s owl

Posted by briggs in Genera on May 11th, 2011

Over a year has passed since I last wrote in true dirt and much has happened in that time–not in my garden but in my life. A couple of weeks after the last entry, my father died, suddenly but not unexpectedly, and left me a house, and another garden, on the other side of the bay. Soon after, I received an unexpected diagnosis–a serious threat but a treatable one–which sent me reeling into a chaotic realm of clashing emotions but gradually settled into a more measured pace, a slow cheek-to-cheek dance with my mortality.

Amidst all this my spouse took a new job, and shortly after we took a long-awaited vacation on a little island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. One late afternoon I took a walk down a gravel road that looked out to the turquoise sea and meandered past a small cemetary shaded by cypresses. Behind its whitewashed walls, gleaming marble tombs clustered like a miniature city. I sat by the road overlooking the sea and, as the fading light turned imperceptibly into shadow, a soft “kee” sounded near me. Perched on the archway of the graveyard gate was a small owl. We sat for a while, the little owl and me, as the moon rose over the sea, and then she “kee-kee’d” and flew off to her hunting, and I walked back to an altered life.

From the beginning this journal has been an attempt to describe what it feels like to be a dirt lover, a gardener, a plant-o-phile, and a person with a very deep attachment to certain places on earth, mostly, in this case, the landscapes of California. For me, writing about “the garden” was a way to sort out, distract myself from, and engage with the changing landscape of my life. Since this project began in 2002 my tiny rented yard in Oakland has become transformed from a bare plot of commercial sod and cement to an exuberant overgrown wonderland of constantly changing shapes and colors, many California native plants, a wealth of climbing roses, and an entire forest of trees contributed by a commune of squirrels and resident birds. I will miss this garden deeply.

Sometime this year we will move ourselves and all our clutter from Oakland to Palo Alto. There, another yard awaits transformation. Instead of a north-canted slope with a view of coastal hills, this yard lies flat as the marshland it once was, along a remnant creek that flows to the bay through cemented channels kept free of habitat by vigilant authorities. There is a view only of the sky, and the neighbor’s trees, and a dilapidated fence. Nearly a foot less rain falls in the year, and there is no fog. Birds seem scarce in this yard, except for some crows who seem to take great interest in my activities. Somebody, likely rodent, is eating the mandarin oranges, and raccoons have left a fragrant compost of scat piles along the fence. Children can be heard playing in the neighbor’s yard in the afternoons, and on some days the whine of leaf blowers and lawn mowers is a cacophonous orchestra along the creek. This old garden is threadbare, tired, and harbors memories of a family long gone in it’s untended beds, rotting fences and ramshackle sheds. My mother’s ashes are scattered in its soil, and my father’s will soon be. It is a sort of graveyard.

A year has passed while I pondered whether or not to say goodbye to true dirt just as I must say farewell to my Oakland garden. I feel as if I am sitting once again by that shadowed cemetary on a small Greek island, before that tiny, feathered goddess….”kee kee”, she says. “It’s your life.”

 true dirt’s farewell to all this photoset

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it’s hopey changey time

Posted by briggs in Genera on April 20th, 2010

And how exciting is that!

The pale green squibbly things on the Scarlet Oak’s naked limbs are brand new, never before seen leaves; the dead-as-a-doornail looking wisteria is changing right before my eyes, from gray twigs to purple cascades to coppery leaf canopies and green spirals of new vine; sage buds are re-swelling, creeping thyme is re-creeping, the lily has pushed up new feathertops six inches high that will grow to five feet and regale the air with sugary white trumpets.

The new babies are here: Buffy the Brown Towhee is still hidden in the hedge but out of the nest; Baby Hummingbird is already aloft, and a multitude of colorless new Goldfinches are flocking with their brilliant yellow daddies. New newts are under the birdbath and flower pots.

The blue-eyed grass, California poppies, jewel flowers, and roses are all blooming. New, new, new! Fabulous new colors for Spring! Bees are busy, crane flies are flopping like crazy, a new swallowtail butterfly flutters by. The live oaks are two-tone, old dark green and new light green.

Fresh green elderberries nod on their new green stems. The ancient rhododendron is primped like a school girl, all pink and floozy with flower. Raindrop bling on fresh rose petals, and buds, buds, buds!

It’s nature’s best ad for itself… Spring: that hopey changey thing that’s workin’ for ya!

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light snow in Ukiah; orchids in Marin

Posted by briggs in Genera on March 31st, 2010

It’s spring. A heavy barrage of hail last night and 49 degrees this morning, mountains of clouds are scudding across the East Bay hills, southward, and rain is expected. A light snow has fallen in Ukiah, two hours north of San Francisco Bay, which it does every other year, usually in March. But in the high Sierra, deep in snow, spring won’t come until July. Here at near sea level, the wildflowers are beginning to spread in carpets across the hills greened by abundant rainfall–this year an inch more than normal.

My friend Sylvia prevailed on me last week, when we then wallowed in sunshine and warmth, to take a day trip to Marin and Mt. Tamalpais across the bay. It’s not far but it’s easy to forget about the pleasures that are slightly farther away than the ones that are near. Her enthusiasm for a hike in the spring hills infected me and we planned a midday jaunt on the coastal side of the mountain.

After a stop at the Juice Bar Collective in Berkeley for lunch fixings–polenta lasagna with black beans, tomatoes and cheese–we head west across the Richmond Bridge toward the Sleeping Maiden’s shadowed bosom, the distinctive rise of Mt. Tamalpais that is said to have been named for a mythological slumberer. The actual name is a decidedly Spanish hyphenation (tamal + pais) that more likely described the land of the people the Spanish Mexicans found when they arrived here.

Barely 40 minutes later we stop the car on the slopes of Mt. Tam and sit down on the edge of the gravel turnout to eat our lunch. The mountain rises on our right, and the nubby dark green of the steep ravines and razorback ridges spread out before us to the still invisible sea. The faint but distinctive aroma of wild lilac wafts by and the air trills with birdsong. We are headed to the Pantoll ranger station barely a mile down the road but the road winds and dips and plunges through the wooded canyons for what seems like nearly an hour. Finally, rounding a bend, we see the broad blue horizon and, far away down, the hazy coastline.

We pay the shockingly high fee of $8 (recently raised due to state budget woes) to park in the tiny lot of the ranger station, and head across the road to the Matt Davis trailhead.

Within minutes I spy a single shooting star–the wildflower Dodecathon–along the dirt trail. Mounds of wild lilac drape the rocky outcroppings which are themselves brightly painted with orange and blue-green lichens. A lizard basks on a chunk of serpentine rock, blending invisibly with the mottled stone. Before us the open path plunges into the shady woods and, as we near them, a tripod- and bag-laden photographer is coming out. He greets us and, probably having seen the copy of “Marin Flora” in my hand, is quick to inform us that the Calypso orchids are out. He tells us to look along the sides of the trail, in the pine duff and fallen tree limbs. We forge ahead happily with expectation.

As instructed, we find the tiny fuschia-colored orchids on the steep wooded slopes, their bright petals like a cockatoo’s crest, rising from the clutter of fallen leaves and rotting wood, over a delicately spotted pouch–the “slipper” of Lady Slipper, the orchid’s common name. We scramble down soft slopes that are more like new snow than old detritus, sinking into the leaf litter and crouching low for the perfect snap which largely will result in blurry photos, but we are intoxicated with the hunt and can’t stop our shutters.

Finally tiring of orchids, I begin to note the other wild flora: sky-blue Cynoglossum or Hounds Tongue, a few unfurled buds of Douglas iris, barely opened crimson Larkspur, and the ubiquitous ferns: brake, chain, deer, goldback, maidenhair, sword, shield, and more. The nearly vertical creeks spill their thin silver ribbons down narrow clefts and briefly level to cross our path before plunging down and down to unseen destinations. We meander, constantly distracted by a potential orchid sighting. Peering at the low banks of goldback ferns along the trail my eyes rivet on a gleaming golden blob. Banana slug. Inert, huge, strangely appealing in it’s edible coloring.

Emerging abruptly from the dark woods, the trail opens on a bi-color landscape of velvety neon green and robin’s egg blue: treeless hills undulate in grassy roller coaster waves against a cloud-printed sky. We are stunned by the light. From within cavernous tree-gnarled shadows we step into the Plains of Oz, a brilliant, primary-colored landscape where our yellow-dirt road curves into the horizon; no Emerald City at the end but a sapphire ocean. The fields of grass brim with a million tiny buds, leaflets, and fiddlenecks on the verge of their spring debut on this green stage, this perennial production of earth’s primavera.

Winding my way up the hill to a craggy eruption of a gold and russet rock I wade through silvery scrolls of last summer’s bracken fronds, the new green fiddleheads still crouched in the grass. A blast of blinding orange from the rock cairn is a solitary poppy. Along the path one sapphire blue larkspur, one satiny pink hollyhock, one blue-and-white lupine, one blue brodaeia, and a single stem of blue-eyed grass signal the masses of bloom yet to come.

Sitting on my rock throne I can see to the four corners of my little world. To the east the hills roll up to the maiden mountain, perpetually dreaming. West of me is the sea and white hem of beach in the curve of Bolinas Bay; the misty ridges fade away to north. On my south, the alabaster city spreads out upon low sandy hills beyond the iconic breach John Fremont named Chrysopylae and we call the Golden Gate. It is impossible not to slowly turn and wonder, in this moment, how near is paradise.

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a geography of rain*

Posted by briggs in Genera on February 5th, 2010

In Chiloquin barely an inch fell
on fog draped cedars of the Siskiyou mountains,
Twice that at Red Mound
on the Oregon coast.
At Sawyers Bar
on the Salmon River, half an inch
dampened the remnant saw mill and graves of gold miners
in the old Catholic cemetary.
An inch and a half on the Trinity River,
homeland of the mighty Hupa,
on huckleberry and silver-leafed manzanita
where, after a nine-day journey among cougar, owl and coyote, Nish-Fang became a woman of her tribe.
Nearly a finger-length of rain at Honeydew
where the Mad, Van Duzen, Eel and Mattole rivers
rush through the dark corridors of redwood and sequoia.
A teacupful fell in Sand Flat
high in the Shasta Lake watershed,
Only a thimble’s worth at Devils Garden
on the flanks of pioneer farm stock,
bred for work but wild now, grazing sagebrush plateaus
and bitterbrush groves.
Half an inch watered Cottonwood Creek,
tributary of the great Sacramento,
and on the farmlands of the Great Central Valley.
Torrents filled the Feather River
in the northern Sierra,
and nearly three inches fell at Four Trees,
two at Humbug, De Sabla, and Grizzly Ridge.
Raindrops joined with snow melt
in the cascades of the Yuba and American rivers
hurtling down to Grass Valley, Sugar Pine and Hough Springs.
In the orchards and farm fields of Woodland,
Walnut Grove and Citrus Heights, a gentle downfall
plinked on corrugated shed roofs and stacked irrigation pipes
in empty tracts of brown

everything depends upon

* the italicised place-names are locations of official hydrology/meteorology data collection stations of the National Weather Service

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pandora is earth

Posted by briggs in Genera on January 18th, 2010

tree of souls
Originally uploaded by true dirt

The Vatican has spoken: the movie Avatar substitutes worship of nature for religion, though the Pope’s newspaper concedes the movie has “extraordinary visual impact”. In spite of the largely negative review, I think the Vatican might be a little envious; James Cameron’s animated plant kingdom might get more viewers than the Pope’s Sistine chapel ceiling.

I thought the movie was truly a feast for the eye – the eye of a plant-o-phile in particular. The “natural” world James Cameron created, with the assistance of 3-D glasses and cracking art direction, put my mind to work thinking about all the many wonders of Earth’s flora and fauna, though mostly about the flora.

If I hadn’t just recently traveled to a continent (that would be Australia) where the plants and animals are so different, so “exotic” compared to what I am familiar with here in western North America, I might not have been able to think that the fantastical world of Avatar’s Pandora was not so far from the fantastical reality of our own.

On the most basic level, Pandora is Earth. Those filaments of the Na’vi’s neural network are a stand-in for the DNA/RNA information networks of life as we know it. But that’s not really what matters to me so much as the fact that so much of the artistic vision of this movie was about the “background”, the landscape and the living organisms that we humans are so often so oblivious to in our daily perambulations.

In fact, Pandora is all around us.


small worlds

Posted by briggs in Genera on October 27th, 2009

There is nothing quite as clever as a garden of necessity. And, as I am discovering, nothing quite as beautiful as a gardener’s desire to create their own Eden within often daunting constrictions of space, or soil, or weather, or time. A writer I knew took up gardening by moonlight as there was no other time to get away from work and small children.  She chose a preponderance of light reflecting and white blooming plants for her night garden. I read once of a garden on the coast of Brittany where the soil was simply gravel, and a constant wind precluded a garden of plants any taller than a rabbit’s ear.

Recently I went to visit a friend who has created, and had to abandon, several gardens around Berkeley. His current garden is contained entirely within a tiny wooden deck off the back porch; it’s mostly succulents and aloes, all the plants are in pots, and two rabbits live underneath it.

DW's garden

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obituary for a garden

Posted by briggs in Genera on June 16th, 2009

We notice when a garden is born. Enthusiasm and anticipation beget the patch of fresh dug earth with string-rows of vegetable starts, or a grandly schemed installation of lawn and flower borders. Gardens are constantly being created in the gardener’s mind and in the garden dirt. But do we know or notice when a garden dies?

Gardens are not so immortal as we might think. Yes, some live beyond the lives of their creators. Colleagues and fans take up the challenge to extend and renew a friend’s garden, and even institutionalize it, making it a monument to the garden creator. And though some gardens persist after the gardener has gone, eventually little or nothing will remain of the original’s personality.

Though gardens live in nature they are not nature, and time will erase nearly every trace of human intent. The stone-paved path and perennial border will gradually succumb to the churn of time and weather, seeds that scatter may persist but in their own obscure design, and the work of the gardener’s hand will pass into dust as the hand itself. Gardens are human in birth, and die as we do, inevitably. Sad it may be, but as I observe the decline and demise of a familiar garden I am also revisiting the days of its birth, its youth, and its prime of life.

Some years before my mother died I wrote, “Mother’s roses are old, the canes gray. Her Victorian knot garden of clipped herbs is now more of a labyrinth, with bare spots in the hedges.” She rejoiced in fulminations of color, big blowsy rose bloom and confetti of flowers, purple and pink dahlias, floppy yellow bearded iris and stately blue flags, bright red and yellow striped tulips that had to be dug out and replanted each cold and muddy November; her lavender, sage, rosemary and lemon verbena knot garden took years to mature into visible geometry, and to completely enclose her signature sundial, “I count only sunny hours”. It did and she did.

Now that she is gone, the garden shows less and less of my mother’s hand and more and more of my father’s, who lives on alone. He prefers the solid perpetuity of non-blooming and, frankly, non-living things in the garden: jade plant, cement, redwood bark, and non-deciduous trees. The albizia and paper birch trees, once venerable and immense towering over the bird bath border and spring bulbs, are now stumps, brittle and decaying monuments in a bell jar of empty space that once contained their canopies.

So my mother’s garden has been hastened toward death a little faster than if it had been allowed to dwindle peacefully toward oblivion. Still, some life cannot be chain-sawed away or die of thirst, and survives because that is it’s nature – like the iris bulbs buried and forgotten until winter rains rekindle them, and the fountaining verbena fronds in June rising from their twiggy border of senescent rosemary. Or the rosemary itself, leaping out of its knot-edge confinement in one more rebirth of verdant pungency.

I note these changes as I walk the yard that, increasingly, appears to me in double vision–the garden I remember and the garden that I see. A brown and brittle camellia replaces the pale pink-studded shrub of last year. Jade plants sit like green gnomes where orange poppies use to crowd. But again Persephone has worked her magic and the garden’s lifeless forms of March now flourish in June: garish pink geraniums, tufts of Spanish lavender and pale blue salvia, wandering sweet alyssum, and the popsicle rainbow of tea roses are smaller islands than before in a sea of chunky redwood bark. The terra cotta pots are empty or host to twigs and bare soil. The gazebo awning is frayed and fading and the canvas chair seats torn. Nobody sits at the patio table to sip ice tea and gossip anymore. Family gatherings are done. But for the wind and a rasping wren the garden is silent.

Yesterday, pondering the weeds in the cracks of the brick patio, I looked up to see the old queen of Betty’s garden. The massive Rosa Madame Alfred M. Carriere, fallen over in a winter storm, has engulfed the raised border, the dwarf peach, and half the path and patio. Jutting out from its border, unfurling pale porcelain blooms, the old rose tilts into the sky like a maiden on a galleon’s prow sailing out to sea. My mother would have re-righted the old dame and pruned her to sobriety. But I rejoice in Madame Carriere’s sly refusal to accept either boundaries or death. And here, at last, I can put to rest the mortal remains of my mother’s garden. It is not a final resting place–there is no such thing in nature as every gardener knows. But on the imaginary tombstone it is written:

Here lies Betty’s Garden
Born 1962 Died 2009
“I Count Only Sunny Hours”


goodbye to all thatch

Posted by briggs in Genera on January 27th, 2009

I finally did it. My weed whacker and ten-dollar spools of nylon twine are history. So are the rampant armies of exotic weeds–bristly ox tongue, burr clover, Bermuda grass, cutleaf geranium, and who-knows-what–that send in understudies to replace them as fast as I can remove them. The cascades of Eugenia berries from the neighbor’s untended giants will no longer mound in unmown winter grass tufts to sprout a million little Eugenias each spring; goodbye to hours of knee-aching grubbing out of the tenacious tree-lets until my fingers are numb. Farewell to hidden cat plops that unerringly locate my unsuspecting shoe soles. No more prostrate tug-of-war with Bermuda grass rhizomes in a race to claim every inch of garden soil. I am done with all that. Today is the last day of Lawn.

For years I have imagined the digging up of the green sod, smashing through the green netting embedded in grey adobe soil that allowed the grass carpet to be sown in a land far away, carried on a flatbed truck many miles, and deposited on my front slope over a decade ago, when we first moved into our little bungalow on Bayview Avenue. Being renters we had little say in the matter. We did not have to worry about home resale values or whatever it is that requires homeowners to roll out green carpeting on every available surface of their property.

Of necessity I ignored the front yard for years, concentrating on making of the small enclosure at the back of the house a gardener’s retreat and folly. But as the years went by the front yard, with its southern exposure and lack of obstacles–rotting garage and old metal clothesline, cement driveway, precipitous incline, and chainlink fencing–grew into an oasis of native shrubbery and pleasing cycles of seasonal beauty. All except for the useless patch of lumpy lawn in the middle of it all. Nobody sat on it or played on it or even noticed it. It was just something I had to attack once a month or whenever the neighbors made comments, or the “mow/blow/go” guys pestered me to pay them to blow my eardrums out with their gasoline mowers. I’d suit up in long pants, ankle boots, long-sleeved shirts, gloves, bandana head-wrap and plastic safety goggles and let loose with the electric weed whacker, two spools of heavy green cord snaking from the front hallway to the far corners of the front yard. And whack away until the nylon string was gone. $9.99 and an hour later the lawn would look about the same except for the mounds of whacked stuff that I would then have to rake and haul to the green bin. You couldn’t even compost the stuff – it would just go anaerobic and slimey.

In my wildest dreams the front yard would become an extension of the living room, french doors replacing the picture window and opening onto a terra cotta tiled patio with tinkling fountain and potted dwarf citrus, all enclosed by a low wall over which the ceanothus and live oak tree would drape their canopies. Such is the stuff of garden magazines, not the Bayview gardening budget.

This is a drought year. We have had barely five inches of rain since last July – and almost none this January, the most reliable rain month. The front lawns of Oakland will go brown by late spring and it will be a struggle to keep most garden plants alive unless they are genetically tuned to the dry cycle – the wild lilac, manzanitas, buckwheats, oaks, and California buckeye trees will be fine. The rhododendrons and azaleas will struggle. The old roses will survive. The hydrangeas may not. It just seemed like the right moment to exorcise the green demon and make magic with a bit of crushed granite, a few tumbled bricks, and a nice rock for contemplation–a little space under the wild lilac tree for a simple bench where somebody might sit and watch the sunlight play.


Betty and Arlene

Posted by briggs in Genera on October 27th, 2008

 I was being stalked by a chicken. I kept seeing her (a hen, I think) out the front window but she disappeared when I ran to get my camera. Nobody believed me. Then I see her again as I’m getting out of my car in the driveway. I try to follow her but she runs a fast clip down the sidewalk and vanishes. Then there are two chickens. And this time I get my camera in time. I’m calling them Betty and Arlene. They are very 1940s chickens. Big, red-feathered, yellow-footed hens. A friend looked at my photos of them and said, “Rhode Island Reds.” They do look classic. And the Red is a classic American chicken. The official bird of the state of Rhode Island where it was first bred in the mid-nineteenth century, it appears to be the only chicken commemorated with its own monument
Betty and Arlene seem attracted to the culinary opportunities of my front yard, an admittedly unkempt landscape of hardy and drought-tolerant native shrubbery and ersatz “lawn” that regularly elicits advice from my neighbors about how to clean it up, or remove the vegetation entirely.
Betty and Arlene showed up in my front yard the other day, utterly blase about my chasing them around with a camera, and the wary observations of Fraidy the Cat from the safety of her front stoop.  They stayed for a thorough inspection and bug-eating tour of the lawn and borders and then trottled off down the sidewalk. I am happy they find my insectary pleasing to their palates.
Maybe I’ll find a big brown egg out there someday…


for the birds

Posted by briggs in Genera on September 11th, 2008

 My friend Brenda, a dedicated birder, found a yellow warbler on the sidewalk in front of her office in downtown Oakland the other day. Hoping the bird was just stunned, she picked it up. But it was dead, likely the victim of a high-rise office window. Oakland, California is no different than any other city with multi-story buildings with large windows and often 24-hour lighting. An article by Gail Swainson in the Toronto Star tells a familiar story:

Every year, more than 10,000 migrating birds crash into Toronto’s highrise towers, then plunge to the sidewalks below, where a heavy-hearted Michael Mesure helps scoop them up in the early morning hours for disposal.

Studies show that window glass, mostly in high-rises, kills more birds than any other human-related factor, anywhere from 100 to 1000 million deaths worldwide each year. Accidental death from power lines, lighted communication towers, cars and trucks, and of course, pesticides, affects several 100 million more birds each year. It is a problem that one individual has little power to do much about.
But there is something entirely within your power to do to help the birds, and it could save a lot of them. In your own back (or front) yard, you could save 15 to 18 birds in a year. Nationwide, we could save perhaps a 100 million birds every year. All we have to do is keep our pet cats from roaming outdoors, and making a real effort to rescue stray cats and give them permanent shelter.
If you think your perfectly sweet, well-fed, even aging, Tabby wouldn’t hunt, or kill, a bird, here are some facts:
Cats kill prey regardless of whether they are hungry.In one study, six cats were presented with a live small rat while eating their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food. (Adamec, R.E. 1976.The interaction of hunger and preying in the domestic cat (Felis catus): an adaptive hierarchy? Behavioral Biology 18: 263-272). Just substitute “bird” for “live small rat” here; I’m guessing that live bi is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.