Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Beautiful Songs

Sitting on the deck this morning, i listen to birds singing. My forester neighbor, Lynn Levine told me yesterday how to distinguish between a wood thrush and a hermit thrust. The hermit's song begins with a solitary note before moving on to a complicated and then melancholy flute trill. The wood thrush sings, "Ee-oh-lay."

We also distinguish among beautiful states of mind--loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy--in order to become more familiar with them. Loving-kindness is the heart's natural response to another person. Think of 3-year-olds at a park. They immediately make friends with one another, without even knowing each others' names.

Compassion is the heart's natural response to suffering. Think of 1-year-olds who start crying when they hear another child crying in the grocery store.

We all still have these natural openings of the heart, these divine emotions, but now our beliefs often clog their expression. "Big girls don't cry."

It's time to listen closely to our hearts to hear these songs of love. There's no better place to hear these quiet songs than the calmness in our gardens

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Fragrance of the Silktree

While on retreat last week, i tried not to practice random acts of gardening, but sometimes i just had to reach out and deadhead a tiger lily. By the fourth day of 95 degree heat in Virginia, i couldn't bear to look at the wilting impatiens under an oak tree. I poured my 20-ounce water bottle over it that evening, and it looked considerably better the next morning.

My greatest joy was to walk in the cool of the early morning or the late evening as far as the silktree with its pink powderpuff blossoms (stamens actually) that emitted a delightfully sweet fragrance.

This tree is native to northern India and ranges from Iran to China. Like the silktree, Buddhism is now naturalizing in the United States, spreading the sweet fragrance of the Dharma.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Favorite Varieties

Driving home from teaching meditation at the assisted living facility, i stop at Kindle Farm, a farm school for troubled adolescents. Their single greenhouse is 3/4 full of overgrown and blooming plants. The eggplants are a foot tall and already have tiny fruit. I gave up on eggplants a few years ago, but i can't resist these well-muscled plants that might do very well in the full sun of my community garden plot.

I also buy my favorite Italian tomato--San Marzano--a long meaty paste tomato. And there's Marble Arch! A lovely purple and pink annual salvia. And Lemon Gem marigolds! (Also Tangerine Gem.) I love these gems because you can eat them in salads. These are exactly the varieties i used to grow from seed, but they're hard to find, even at the Farmers' Market.

I buy 2 flats, even though i know i've said it's too hot to transplant. Today is overcast and sprinkling, so I conveniently forget my own advice, my own words of wisdom.

I buy these 8 dozen plants because i know i'm supporting a good cause--young people with an interest in growing things (including themselves). Plants and young people--i'm doubling my joy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mosquito Repellent from Thailand

We went to Thailand 3 years ago, and one of the things i brought home as a souvenir was mosquito repellent. I figured that if anyone knows how to deal with mosquitoes, it would be people who live in a tropical country that has monsoons for 3 months and flooding for another 3 months.

I couldn't read the label that had a picture of lemon grass, but the spray bottle and the citronella scent appealed to me.

In May and June, i close my eyes and spray around my hairline, which is where the tiny blackflies like to bite me. Now that deer ticks are rampant, i also spray my cuffs at my wrists and ankles.

Mindfulness has the effect of repelling bothersome thoughts. Sure, you can still hear them buzzing around, and they may even land for a while. But soon they take off of their own accord without you swatting them.

Who knows? Maybe they're on their way to bother someone else.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Valerian. Or is that Heliotrope?

At the garden club meeting last evening, we watched a florist arrange flowers for about an hour--amazing things she did with such simple materials. Then we tried arranging the buckets of flowers we had brought.

"What's this?" someone asked holding up a tall stem topped by tiny, tight, white flowers.

"Does it smell good?" i asked. "It's valerian."

She continued to walk around with her stem and ask other women what this flower was. Someone else said, "Heliotrope."

Valerian is sometimes called garden heliotrope because of its sweet smell, even though it is not related to heliotrope.

I collect factoids--such as flower names--because it's easy for me, and because i like to be right. I do not like being wrong. The duality of right/wrong is an abyss that, as we know, can lead to war. A more skillful duality is harm/harmless. Do these words or this behavior harm someone? Or is it harmless?

It is actually harmless to call a flower by an inappropriate name. There may be a mix-up of understanding, but it is kinder--more harmless--to allow others to express their opinions. It may feel unpleasant to me, but that is a passing feeling, unless i proliferate about it and wallow in the unpleasantness. That's just me making myself uncomfortable.

Whatever its name, the sweet-smelling tall stem with a white flower looks beautiful in a bouquet.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Avocado Squirrels

As i walked toward the compost last month, i saw a red squirrel jump out of the compost bin and on to a nearby pine tree with an avocado shell in its mouth. Up the tree it dashed, leaving me with the image of a red squirrel in a sombrero eating guacamole and chittering "Ai-yi-yi-yi."

This train of thought, or free association, is called proliferation in Buddhist psychology. In fact, all i saw was a red squirrel carrying the husk of an avocado. The image was pleasant (a "feeling" in Buddhist lingo). Desiring (or craving) more of the fun "feeling", the mind proliferated into a story about the red squirrel that also felt pleasant; then i desired more of the pleasant; etcetera.

While this may seem like over-analysis of a mundane situation, it clearly shows just how the wheel of samsara--the great mandala--turns and keeps turning. No train of thought has the destination of nirvana; all trains of thought are headed toward samsara.

Still when i go out to the compost pile and see 3 avocado shells on the ground nearby (instead of in the compost pile where i put them), i begin to proliferate about the culprit. I wonder how that avocado pit from the tropics, with all the fresh chew marks on it, tastes to a northern squirrel.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Artificial Flowers

I attended a day-long retreat yesterday with Taraniya (Gloria Ambrosia) on the subject of clinging. The first of the 4 different forms of clinging is sensual desire.

The retreat took place at a church on a rainy day. During walking meditation in the big open multi-purpose room next to the kitchen, the end of my walking lane brought me face-to-face with a big bouquet of flowers--daffodils, lilacs and pink hydrangeas, interspersed with tulips. The arrangement was artificial, of course, as i mentally labeled the month each flower blooms--April, June, and August.

In real life, such a combination of flowers from our own garden would be impossible. A florist might do it by having access to flowers from the four corners of the globe. With artificial flowers, we can artificially arrange the world just as we like it, without the mess of water and leaves today or drooping flowers tomorrow. We can put our bouquet on automatic pilot and be pleased by its beauty for years to come.

Life is messy sometimes. This is the first noble truth. Wanting only beauty, desiring sensual pleasures is part of the second noble truth.

"So what's the harm of a few artificial flowers?" you might ask. "They're neat, clean, beautiful, and they last for years."

This is the seduction of delusion. What's the harm in that?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pine Needle Mulch

The white pine trees are shedding their golden needles like a shaggy dog shaking off water. A uniform layer of pine needle mulch carpets one side of the driveway. The driveway itself shows parallel tire tracks leading through a snowfall of tan needles.

A fungus is causing this unusual--for June--shower of pine needles. Now i see why Southerners prefer pine needles as mulch. They're so soft and natural-looking.

Like us, these giant trees of our northern forest are of the nature to become sick--this year with fungus. Perhaps some other year with some other bug. Dis-ease is unavoidable.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I'm writing to you from my peony-colored office. I've never been able to describe the color of the 4 walls that surround me, but now that peonies are blooming, i see their color is an exact match. You might wonder why i didn't realize this before now?

The one-word answer is "mulch." Over the years, soil built up around the peonies as a result of mulching every year. Peonies are very particular. Their "eyes" need to be 2 inches below the ground. Any more or any less, and they won't bloom. My neighbor who never mulches has consistently beautiful blooms on his 30-year-old peonies.

Two years ago i moved my peonies out from under a redbud tree that i had started from seed. Although the peonies originally stood in a sunny location, after a few years, they were shaded by the spreading redbud.

Now peonies line my garden path. They are happily blooming, and i am happy that they are happy.

Stress is the incompleteness of not having what you want--like not having blooming peonies.

The end of stress is not wanting things to be different than they are.

The peonies bloom, i'm happy. Then it rains, and the heavy blossoms fall down. What shall i choose? The stress of wanting things to be different? Or the release of accepting things just as they are?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Beautiful Arbor Ages

Several years ago i saw an arbor at the garden center, but before i could commit to buying it, it had disappeared. Oh darn. I had especially liked the sunrise pattern on the sides--a half-circle of wood with thin, wooden slats of sun rays radiating out to the uprights. The sun had set on the opportunity to buy that beautiful arbor. Sigh.

The following Wednesday morning, i went to writing group, and there stood the arbor. Margot had bought it! I came over a few days later and took measurements and photos. Then i went to the local fencing company and asked the owner to make me such an arbor. Two arbors, in fact, plus 4 sections of fencing with a sunrise pattern. Eventually the job was completed and installed on summer solstice.

Now i'm in the Wednesday morning writing group again, sitting outdoors at the picnic table and looking at Margot's arbor. A pink rose has clambered over the top, each flower's simple 5 petals gazing at the morning sun that shines warmly on them this June morning.

I also see that 5 or 8 of the wooden sun rays on either side of the arbor have pulled out of the weather-worn gray suns, like broken spokes of an old wagon wheel.

The entire arbor stands somewhat off-balance, as if gravity is pulling it toward the east. In 10 years, this arbor has aged from shiny, smooth, brown to dull, rough, gray. Its youthful beauty still imaginable through its cracked age.

We too are of the nature to grow old and gray, our bones thinning, not visibly and only noticed in the triennial bone density scan. We too begin to favor one leg due to painful knee or hip joints.

Those who love us look deeply and still see us as beautiful. Those new to our acquaintance simply see graying hair and wrinkled face. They may notice the creping of the skin on our arms, and our general unshapeliness, as if gravity has pulled breasts down to belly and everything else down to hips.

If someone bought this house tomorrow, they'd throw the arbor on the brush pile and burn it to a pile of ashes.

A pile of ash or dust is what our own bodies will turn into. The life of our original material form mere specks in the eons of cosmic dust.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


One of the funniest landscape terms i know is ha-ha. I first saw a ha-ha in British gardens, particularly at country manor houses.

The backyard is level and grassy, and the eye moves farther away to little white sheep in a pasture. But the sheep never come into the back yard. Why?

Because the back yard goes out and drops off suddenly. From the sheep's point of view they are hemmed in by a 4 or 5 foot tall stone wall.

The stone wall is invisible to the person standing in the house or the backyard looking out upon this pastoral scene. Unless she is a careful observer, she won't notice the ever-so-slight difference in the green of the yard the green of the pasture. The view from the manor house is vast green.

The Green River Bridge B&B in Guilford, Vermont ( has just such a ha-ha in her backyard. The lower yard doesn't have sheep, but it does make you want to walk down to the lower yard and play a game of croquet.

A ha-ha tricks our eyes into seeing a single expanse of green.

Delusion tricks us into seeing our mind-bodies as a self.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Death in the Garden

I have a tiny fishpond in my garden, about 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Over the years, i've learned a few things about fish. In order for them to survive the winter and 10 inches of ice, the ice needs to be broken every day. Otherwise, autumn's decomposing leaves on the bottom use up all the oxygen in the water and create anaerobic conditions. In the spring, i find dead fish and dead frogs among the dead leaves.

Six years ago i stocked the pond with 4 fish, and a month later they died. Six weeks later, we found a hundred tiny fish babies in the pond; they had survived because their parents hadn't cannibalized those tasty fish eggs. I gave dozens of fish away, and watched as, over the past 3 years, the population attritioned from 19 to 9.

Now this week, i've been finding a dead 5-inch-long fish every day. I've gone through all my theories: Ammonia build-up in the water due to fish waste? Algae using all the oxygen? Ick (a fish disease)? This morning's dead fish had traces of blood, so now i'm beginning to suspect the feral cat i caught napping pondside last week.

Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: Death. The only uncertainty is the time of death. We may die today, or 30 years from now.

In the time that remains to us, can we glimpse the Deathless? This is one reason to practice meditation. The physical body dies, and with the body dies the self.

Unless there isn't a self anyway.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Hospice Memorial Garden

Our local Hospice has a memorial garden, and every June offers a planting ceremony service to the community. Nearby garden centers each donate a flat or two of annuals, so the bereaved can plant a petunia in memory of a loved one. Some people bring their own perennials to plant. My neighbor, for instance, is taking daisies from my garden to plant in memory of her Aunt Daisy.

There's something primal about planting something in the earth to remember the dearly departed. Their bodies have either been planted in cemeteries or had their cremains sprinkled over earth or water.

At the Hospice garden, people can write on flat rocks, as big as the palm of their hand, the name of the loved one, and place this "tombstone" next to the plant. All the while, a dulcimer plays softly.

Now in the season when plants are practically leaping out of the ground, we take time to remember where we came from ourselves as well as those we've planted in the earth this past year.

Now in the season of birth and blooming, we recall those who have already returned to the great recycling machine of Earth.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Too Hot to Transplant

Transplanting season has come to an end. As we enter the hottest 90 days of the year (June 9 to September 9), the weather becomes too hot and dry to safely transplant.

Oh, you can still transplant if you really want to. You just have to watch that plant like a baby--water it daily, or maybe twice a day, perhaps shade it from the sun, and prune off one-third of its growth so that the leaves aren't demanding more than the roots can deliver. If you can, only transplant on an overcast or rainy day.

This prescription may fit into your daily routine, but my life is way too busy to reliably babysit all the transplanting i would like to do. So i just make myself stop. I renounce transplanting until September.

It's hard to quit; i love rearranging the palette of the garden into pleasing color combinations.

The time to transplant a meditation practice into your life is now--particularly in the spring or fall of your life. The summer of your life may be totally booked up, so it can require extra determination, but it is possible.

On your deathbed--in the winter of your life--the conditions may be too tough. Earth, water, heat, and air will be all out of balance. Coping with that discomfort may be all consuming.

Plant, water, and feed your meditation practice now, while you can. Now while it has time to establish a good root system, flourish, and produce some fruits (or vegetables!) of the spiritual life.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Rare White Violet

My friend Barbara and i went out yesterday to look for a particular endangered violet. We are Plant Conservation Volunteers with the New England Wild Flower Society. I had been to this Lily Pond 7 years ago with another volunteer/friend, and we found the Bog White Violet (Viola lanceolata) growing just where it was supposed to be--3 feet above the water line. This year--nothing.

Barbara and i traipsed back and forth along the edge of the pond and found lots of evidence of beavers--an old dam; dozens of chewed sticks with the bark stripped off of them; several beaver slides leading into the pond; birches as big as 8 inches in diameter felled by beavers and then "sawed" into log lengths. Fascinating to see the tooth scrapings on the wood.

This often happens in the hunt for rare plants; it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. We searched and wondered how to explain the disappearance of 300 plants. Was the water level higher?

We were just about to resign from our task. Near the beaver dam, I was standing on one foot and then the other, waiting for Barbara-the-naturalist to identify various sedges. I looked down. "Well, here at least is a white violet," i said.

Barbara came to look; i looked more closely at the long pointy leaves. Viola lanceolata! About 35 plants, growing 3 feet above a little mud flat behind the old (and leaky) beaver dam.

Our actions and the results of our actions reseed themselves in this manner. Even after we are gone, like the rare violet no longer growing near the water's edge, the results of our actions will have reseed themselves elsewhere and taken root.

Let us do our best to act as beautifully as the little white violet.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bird Branch

A few feet away from the bird feeder on our deck, i have attached a dead branch to an upright post that supports the railing. The dead branch may not be very attractive to humans, but birds love it. They perch on any of its various twigs before, and sometimes after, grabbing a sunflower seed from the feeder.

Eating dinner on the deck, my sweetie and i sometimes proceed in freeze frame. Fork halfway to mouth stops in mid-air in order not to scare away the rose-breasted grosbeak. The situation calls for mindfulness. Sometimes i move, millimeter by millimeter--a form of mindful movement.

But I don't tell the chickadees that i'm having chicken (i.e., bird) for dinner.