Monday, August 4, 2014

Stevie Wonder's "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants": The Perfect Soundtrack for Your Garden

Photograph by Rio Brown

About the Album

Although "Garden Party" by Rick Nelson is a great song with great lyrics, it is more of a social commentary about the liberal, social elite than a tribute to any garden.  Yet, believe it or not, there is not only a song, but an entire album that is a tribute to plants.  Stevie Wonder'sJourney Through the Secret Life of Plants, released October 30, 1979, is the perfect soundtrack for your garden. Released three years after Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, it had initial popular success, but was quickly attacked by critics as being "vague and overambitious" Wikipedia.   However, that seems to be the normal reaction of critics following a major album such as Songs in the Key of Life.  U2 later received the same treatment with Rattle and Hum after The Joshua Tree.  Personally, I often like the album that follows the "masterpiece" better than the masterpiece itself.  Such is the case with Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

The album is the sound track of a little-known environmental documentary by the same name and Stevie, being blind, used an innovative process to score the film.  According to an entry in Wikipedia, "Michael Braun, the film's producer, [would] describe each visual image in detail, while the sound engineer, Gary Olzabal, specified the length of a passage [and] this information was processed to a four-track tape (with the film's sound on one of the tracks), leaving Wonder space to add his own musical accompaniment"  Wikipedia.     

Over time, an appreciation for the album has developed.  In a review for All Music, Andy Kellman has the following to say:

 Plants is a sprawling, fascinating album. Though it is dominated by synthesizer-heavy instrumental pieces with evocative titles, there is a handful of full-blown songs. The gorgeous, mostly acoustic ballad “Send One Your Love” was a Top Ten R&B single, while the joyous “Outside My Window” registered in the Top 60. Beyond that, there’s the deep classic “Come Back as a Flower,” a gently lapping, piano-led ballad featuring Syreeta on vocals. Otherwise, there are playfully oddball tracks like “Venus’ Flytrap and the Bug,” where Wonder chirps “Please don’t eat me!” through robotizing effects, and “A Seed’s a Star,” which incorporates crowd noise, a robotized monologue, and a shrieking Tata Vega over a funkier and faster version of Yellow Magic Orchestra. The album is not for everyone, but it suited its purpose and allowed its maker an amount of creative wiggle room that few major-label artists experience.  (All Music)

Personally, I think the album is brilliant and a perfect soundtrack for any garden.  And if you live in a dingy, one room basement apartment with leaking water pipes overhead, well the album is still brilliant.  And I just love the fact that it took a blind man to capture in music the world of plants so vividly.  Hell, I even wrote a poem and here it is.  I'm not sure how good it is, but Stevie's "Venus Fly Trap and the Bug," which follows, is amazing.

It Took a Blind Man to See the Journey
Through the Secret Life of Plants  


Man, you move me.

Light sparks,
speaker crackles,
dragon fly flickers
blue jeweled.

Heat heavy jazz
drips down
dazzling broad
leaves to drop


 in smooth blue

synthesizer pool.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In the Eternal Moment: Why I Garden; Why I Write


I have this strange need to begin each writing session in the moment, which is probably why I’m a poet, not a novelist.   It would be difficult to write a novel in the ever present now, as that is always shifting, both internally and externally—as fluid as a reflection in a slow moving river or even a lake.  Sure that image may return tomorrow, but it will no longer be the same:  different light, different current, different sky—the mirror recording something new with each passing moment.

If anything, I am a photographer who uses words.  That limits me.   But perhaps, that is alright.  There is something centering about a pink gladiola next to a soft yellow gladiola behind the grid-wire fence—the delicate, giving petal cropped by the rigid square.

That is why I garden:  surfaces, textures, reflections.

I couldn’t explain that a week or so ago to the permaculture guild visiting my garden.  Not only do I know so little in comparison to them about growing soil and growing plants, but we are not even seeking the same experience.

They seek harmony though action.  Eating right, gardening right to sustain the planet.  Very admirable.  At an abstract level, I want that too.

But that isn’t what drives me.  It’s the moment.  Here.  Now.  Dragon flies hovering above my pond.  Jack, my cat, softly meowing, as he prowls the garden and discusses his finds in a language I don’t understand but comprehend fully.

Life is in the grasshopper, which is why I felt like a murderer capturing one off my giant sunflower and feeding it to my chicken.  It’s not playing by the game rules.  It nearly made me sick.  I’d have no problem with the chicken getting it on its own, but to give a grasshopper the death sentence simply because it was trying to make a living in my garden doesn’t seem right.  In fact, it felt like sin.

Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but a storm of small birds, sparrows I think, swirled in on my yard to do my dirty work.  Call it what you will, nature, God—balance is being achieved without me having to destroy anything.  All I have to do is step back and enjoy light, patterns, flickering light, fluttering sounds--the hum of a fly and buzz of a humming bird, the soft sinking of day into goodnight.

I am astounded by life and only want to be transparent enough to reflect back light.  There is a pond and in it there is a sunset.  And the pond and the sunset and the bedrock beneath are the word, and anyone who listens deep will do right.

That is why I garden.

That is why I write.

When I’m fully in the now, if at no other moment, I do right, which feels good.  I soften, open.  Grasshoppers become sacred even while they devour my favorite sunflower.   Hate does not dance on the surface of a pond.  Only light.  Love.   God.

Winning dissipates with last light of day and I become whole with the night.



Gardens of Accommodation: Heinrick Harrer, the Dalai Lama, Seven Years in Tibet, worms, toads, Jonathan Livingston Chicken and parenting.

Tonight, I'd planned on writing about an all-day event that I attended, a communal building of an outdoor oven for a member of my brother's permaculture group, an occasion akin to the barn-raising scene in the movie, Witness.

Very moving.  But, as poet Naomi Shihab Nye explains, sometimes you want to go to church, but your writing takes you to the dog races instead.

Over the years, I've learned to follow my writing, rather than direct it.  And tonight, eating dinner out by the garden, watching thunderheads build while the wind kicked up and sent the pergola lights swaying, I felt an impulse to post instead about gardens of accommodation.

The pergola at the garden at Dry Creek at night

I'm so new to the sustainable-living lifestyle, I'm hesitant to claim authority about anything having to do with gardens, pastures or farm animals. Yet my garden, for its size, has been incredibly successful, and I purchased zero commercial fertilizers and used zero pesticides along the way.  In fact, from the garden's very inception, I've went out of my way to accommodate nature rather than control it.  Perhaps, that has brought good karma.  Anyway, I'll choose to believe that until life proves otherwise.

My favorite scene in the movie Seven Years in Tibet is when Brad Pitt's character, Heinrick  Harrer, complains to the young Dalai Lama that he can't proceed building the requested movie theater because the workers refuse to kill worms.

The Dalai Lama explains why all life is sacred to Tibetans and then says, "You cannot ask a devout people to disregard holy teaching."

Heinrick Harrer smiles in disbelief, "I'm sorry, but we can't possibly rescue all the worms if you want the theater finished in this lifetime."

"You have a clever mind," responds the Dalai Lama.  "Think of a solution and in the meantime explain to me what is an elevator."

The next scene is of monks gently sifting dirt dug out of the foundation trench and carefully covering them up with dirt in their new home.

I found myself in a similar position when I started filling in a garden bed by our back steps and my youngest son, Everest, protested, "but, Dad, remember that's where our toad lives."

Remembering the movie, I decided that although I needed that garden space I would not bury the our toad-friend under the stairs.  Therefore, Everest and I used river stones to build a series of stepped-back retaining walls that provided stairs to his house under our back porch.  While we were at it, we also decided to save the rabbit brush that had grown wild near by.

Because of our extra work, we've enjoyed many nights of watching our toad catch grass hoppers in the garden under the swaying lights.

The next accommodation I had to make is for our youngest chicken, Blackie, who I quickly nicknamed Jonathan Livingston Chicken for a couple of reasons:  first, because she's a loner who was persecuted by the flock as youngster; second, because for a chicken, she can really fly.  Our summer coup is a converted dog kennel which is over six-feet high.  Although, I put a roof over most of it for shade, I left openings as part of the Japanese-modernism design I desired.  It worked great, except for one problem:  one night, Blackie decided it would be nicer to roost alone up under the great spiraling Milky Way, rather than down in the cage with rest of the flock.

That would have been fine if we didn't have owls, hawks and eagles, not to mention raccoons.
Now, I could have easily strung chicken wire across the openings in the cage to keep Blackie in her place.  But, I thought of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, my favorite movie as a child, and one of my favorite books now:

What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and he was not sorry for the price he paid.

I would not keep Blackie, my Jonathan Livingston Chicken, from flying higher than any chicken has flown.   So, I spent two very long, hot days building a second story to my coup, an open-air screened room, so that she can roost up there under the grand sweep of the Milky Way, away from the flock, and still be safe at the same time.

Sky Nest added to the chicken coup for Blackie
Sky Nest (detail) addition for Blackie
And at some level, I think she knows that I went out of my way to accommodate her, because I've never gotten around to filling in the other holes in the roof, and I know she could fly out if she really wanted to.  But instead, each night she flies only into the penthouse I made her, happy enough to be high up under the grand firmament spiraling overhead.

Perhaps I'm just some wacko post-hippie, but not only do I believe that all animals from worms to whales have their own individual (not just as a species) spirit, intelligence and will, I also believe that by accommodating these independent wills the best we can, we gain grace that blesses our lives in unexpected ways--a garden that yields more than it should or a loyal chicken who follows you around, hops on your lap and stays--not because she has to, but because she wants to.

Now, if I could just learn to treat my children with that same grace.

SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012

How to Integrate an Outdoor Room into Your Garden Space

Marci's Birthday Present about 50% Completed

1.        Excuses for not Posting
This post is going to be difficult to write because it’s been a while.  The conversation with my self has stopped.  An awkward silence has set in.  The only way to write well is to start and then not stop.  Breaks?   Sure--now and then, a few minutes, a few hours, maybe even a day or two.  But to put the pen or keyboard away for much longer than that is asking for trouble, especially with a blog, since it’s basically an online journal.  Skip a day or two and you risk writing summaries--the deadest of all writing forms.
So, I won’t do that.  Or at least I’ll make the summary concise.  At first I worked 10 hour days to get the garden in, which is important, since we’re counting on canning and freezing our own food to cut the cost of living substantially as our income will also drop substantially next year.  And after the long days of work I was just too tired to write.
Then, one evening while watching TV and looking at the glass doors at the garden I had a vision--an outdoor room for Marci.  As her birthday was coming up in a few days, it was the perfect project.  However, if I wrote a post it would ruin the surprise, and so I didn’t blog for a few more days.  Besides, the new project required  working more 10 hour days, and so once again I was just too tired to write.
However, had I blogged as I progressed, the energy would have been current, the writing fresh.  Especially since I worked through weather extremes:  90 degree plus heat, 65 miles- per-hour-plus winds and temperatures plunged into the low 40s one night.  And that was just in two days!  (But again, climate change is only liberal propaganda aimed at destroying our economy.  No one should actually worry about July and April flip-flopping back and forth on daily basis).
What follows is a photo journal of the progress of Marci’s birthday present.  It’s still not finished.  For one thing, it needs a roof.  But it’s complete enough to get enough to get an idea of how it’ll look.
2.        Photo Journal--How to Integrate an Outdoor Room into Your Garden Space
1.        To recap:  The original railroad tie planting beds for the vegetable garden.

2.       Adding log rails with wire fencing to discourage deer and other animals.  Even though the rails are not high enough to discourage the deer by themselves, I've found that deer avoid cramped quarters.  Even though a low fence around a field is no barrier, that same low fence around a small space works fairly well.
3.   Watching TV one night while looking out the glass door at the garden, I envisioned an outdoor living space integrated into the garden.  Located on the west side, it would shelter the vegetables from the scorching afternoon sun while still allowing morning sunlight to bathe the vegetables.  It would also provide shade for humans.
4.   I wanted to blur distinctions between indoor/outdoor spaces, and so flower beds begin outside the garden room but circle into it, with plantings on both sides of the wall.
5.       Black iron fountain birdbath will bring the sights and sounds of water into the room, again to blur the distinctions between interior and exterior space.
6.       The finished room will have a wire fence roof with branches laid across and tied down. Lattice walls are raised above the ground level again to allow visual flow between the interior and exterior space.  Originally, I planned on having a brick floor, but decided it was nicer to have the prairie flow right into the partially enclosed space. 

MONDAY, MAY 28, 2012

Day 4 at Dry Creek: Climate Change; Dealing with Groundhogs; Composing a Vegetable Garden; the Curse of the Middle Way; Missing Marci and Writing Poetry


I arrived at Dry Creek Friday night followed by a strong, sharp wind from the south.  That is something relatively new to the west.  As a child, winds were predictable.  When they came from the north, they were always biting, no matter the season (freezing in the winter, crisp in the summer); when they came from the south, they were always balmy, no matter the season (warm in the winter, scorching in the summer).  When they came from the west, they were the temperature of the season.  Winds were predictable then.  About 2000 that began to change.  We now occasionally have fronts come with cold winds from the south. I’m not sure what causes that, although my guess would be an erratic jet stream.   I’ll have to research it.  The bigger question is why doesn’t such a major shift in weather make the news?  Except on the Weather Channel, climate change doesn’t exist even though we witness it all around us.

However, Memorial Day weekend is predictably cold here--winter’s last merrymaking before summer knocks on the door, enters, and kills the murderous party with sunshine and awkward pleasantries.
Therefore, I planted the vegetable garden Saturday wearing a heavy, hooded coat over a sweatshirt.  On an earlier trip, I’d made three large planting beds out of railroad ties, raised not for the convenience of harvesting, but rather because the soil where I wanted the garden was mostly a gravel and sand fill brought in when our house was built. 

One of the beds before planting
So, for the garden, we laid chicken wire on the ground (to keep the groundhogs from harvesting from below) and then filled the large railroad tie boxes with rich soil dug from the bottom of the irrigation pond.  The rectangular beds gave me three regular geometric shapes for the theme of my garden composition.  To add the variation, I used sandstone river rock to create a circular path inside the boxes--a quarter of a circle for each box. Then, because the final box is missing, I carried the circle out into the void with a three-quarters circular flower bed.  A round table will sit on part of the flagstone patio here.  The trick is to lock shapes into larger patterns like images in a poem--where they both stand separate and bleed together simultaneously.  It is totally collage.  Gardening and poetry require the same thought patterns--how do I group?; how do I separate?--how do I do both simultaneously?

One of the beds after beginning to frame in the trail
The vegetable garden with completed trail.  Next will come a rail fence.

The completed garden from the back.  A rail fence will frame it in and discourage deer.


Sunday morning was cold.  I went to sacrament meeting and meant to stay for Sunday school and priesthood, but during the closing prayer, I started to cry inexplicably over Joe, my step-dad, who passed away last winter.  So, I got up and went over to the cemetery, which is near by.  My mom has been so devastated she hasn’t ordered his headstone even though we buried his body back in January.  As there was nothing said in church to trigger the tears and I haven’t cried since the funeral, I think Dad was telling me to get this taken care of.

So, there you have it--my impeccable ability to alienate my audience.   I’ve alienated my conservative base with by mentioning climate change and I’ve alienated any atheists or agnostics by mentioning that I believe my stepfather (along with my father) talk to me from the other side of the veil.   The only possible audience I have left is the new-agers, but I’m sure I’ll get around to offending them sooner or later.

It’s hard to have a significant audience when your thoughts don’t fall into neat categories. Though I practice Mormonism because it is what I believe, I am a Buddhist by nature, for I always find myself in the middle.  For example, I can’t fully identify with either conservatives nor liberals, zealots nor atheists, artists nor laborers, and so although I would love to experience the camaraderie of agreement, which I’m sure must be the most pleasant experience in the world, I always find myself on the outside looking in--too connected with the group to walk away, say forget you, but not connected enough to fully join in. Buddhists say that enlightenment is the middle way.  I find it to be more of a curse, but they’d probably agree with that, at least in theory, if not in practice.


Last night I went to bed tired but dreading it because I’m here without Marci.  I couldn’t sleep, so I wrote two versions of a poem--the first, very quickly, a journal entry really.  The second version I pried loose from my personal life--hoping to intensify images by freeing it from actuality.  Right now, I’m not sure which I like best, perhaps the first, because it sounds less forced.

Alone (Version 1)

On the wall is a poem
about the cold, the road
and missing you.

Outside deer lurk
in the darkness
waiting for the light
to go out so they can attack
our vegetables.

In the cemetery they lurk also,
eyes set on the flowers
on Dad’s grave.

It’s been cold and gray.
I’ve been missing you.

Alone (Version 2)

Moonlight on lacquered lead paint.
The wall is a poem about the cold, the road,
the stale smell of the butane heater.  “Missing You”
dribbles out from the end
of the broken shower.
Minus signs bounce
off icy green

I want to hear you talk about feeding chickens
cucumber sandwiches under the warm willow.

MONDAY, MAY 14, 2012

How to Create Big-Garden Impact with a Few Plants or Reflections on the Creative Process

Mother's Day Garden--Labor, 4-hours, cost $50 (without the bench)
I was a writer long before I knew how to write well.  Although I wrote a few things in high school, the drive to create worlds on paper came pretty much all at once--the summer I first fell in love.  I’d had crushes in high school, but I’d never been consumed.  Then, while working myself though college, I met Shideh, a gorgeous Iranian, with long kinky black hair, a slender nose and a mischievous pirate’s smile. At least at first, she was also interested in me, but I didn’t have a clue how to deal with my new feelings and soon botched things up royally.
I didn’t have a clue how to fix reality.  I realize now being myself probably would have worked just fine, but at the time that didn’t occur to me, and so I was driven to correct the course of events on paper.  Even after I’d recovered from that fiasco, my compulsion to reorder my universe on paper didn’t subside until many years later when I found happiness.  Then all of the sudden, I had no reason to write.  For whatever reason that drive seems to have returned despite my contentment, which is good, because I’m not one of those artists willing to sacrifice happiness for the sake of art. If you have to stay hungry, so to speak, to be creative, I’d rather work at the bank, live in the suburbs and come home to a wonderful wife and kids.  Let someone else be driven to genius by their personal demons.  I want to live.
The important thing here is that I became a writer long before I could write.  Compulsion was the key.  I think some years from now I will look back at my new urge to landscape the same way.  At the time I recreated my world to where Shideh and I lived in a Le Corbusier-like glass and steel mansion perched on a sandstone mesa looking over Lake Powell near Bullfrog Marina, I thought I was writing well.  In fact, I thought I was a genius.  Only later, when I learned my craft, did I realize I’m only almost adequate.
I think I’m at the, I’m-a-genius stage as a gardener.  And since experience has taught me it won’t last, I’m going to enjoy my pompous, ignorant bliss as long as I can.  I’m going to assert, make recommendations, get on my high horse, and tell you what exactly needs to be done.  Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll have to retract most of what I’ve said and start all over again.  But, that’s how we create: first with unreasonable passion and then with restrained will.
So, here is my garden creed now:  1) when possible, work with the stone and plants already there; 2) use flowers as accents along the edges of nature, where you want to pop-up the borders;   3) use natural contours, paths and structures to consolidate textures and colors into larger patterns.

The site--Boulders and the shade from a tree
allowed some natural grasses to take hold.
Here, I created a mother’s day garden for my mother-in-law, Bonnie, using these principles.  My father-in-law, Wally, actually did most of the work over time by throwing rocks he liked under a tree.  The rocks and shade from the tree together altered the sandy, desert environment enough for wild grasses to come up.  Those rocks and grasses were all I needed to create a fairly inexpensive garden that took less than four hours to create.   Yet, the rocks and grasses were not a garden in and of themselves.  In the wild, they would have been beautiful, but on the lot, they just looked scruffy because there was neither a transition nor a border.  In the wild, the landscape would slowly transition from sand to savannah as the shade grew. Or, just as likely a creek or something would separate the two.  Here, neither happened.  So, my job was to make something happen.

The finished garden.  Path, rail and drive create an island.
A small ribbon of flowers pop the edges.  Black hanger and lantern tie in the bench.
Flowers--$25;  Lantern--$12; hanger--$9 

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