Doing and not doing the thing
Updated: Mar 2
"If productivity narrows our days, then creativity expands them. Creativity doesn't follow a plan but it has its own ebb and flow...Creativity can be the antidote to the anxiety, guilt and shame we encounter because it responds to what arises in our day rather than prescribes it." Madeleine Dore in I Didn't Do The Thing Today
After pouring hot water onto the frozen birdbaths to avoid stinkeye from the conference of birds, most mornings recently have found me contemplating productivity and creativity while working a few hours each day on a slight remodel of the front garden.
This is my fourth year of serious cultivation of this south facing space which, in late 2018, when first I saw it, looked very different.
Though three pomegranate bushes and two rosemary were planted in 2019, the first season of full food cultivation started in March 2020 when, abruptly and without notice, the Covid pandemic sent me and half the world home from paid work. It was time to pick up my garden tools and turn the earth. Time to see if I could discover meaning in a new milagro: a front yard corn and chile field.
Over the next few months, evolving into several seasons, the earth responded, pouring forth an overwhelming abundance of flowers and food. Some of the sunflowers reached to ten or twelve foot high completely dwarfing the house.
Plants like the sweet scented petunias (?) above, appeared out of nowhere while those sunflowers seeded and reseeded themselves across two then three years.
But here's the thing: (one of them) average annual rainfall in this little piece of northern Chihuahuan desert is 11 inches. Mostly it has fallen below that in recent times. For comparison the entire continental US average rainfall in 38 inches per annum. Of course I watered heavily for more than half the year to achieve this fragile and temporary lush garden look. Capturing moments in photographs makes it seem like a permanence but it's an insect in amber kind of permanence. In truth nothing in nature is eternally fixed: change is always happening.
Monsoon season here is typically brief and comes in the form of sudden, short storms of magnificently forceful deluge (bye bye 12 foot sunflowers) with strong winds and high rainwater runoff.
Desert vegetation is resilient and often stubby or even stout to stand always defensive: against months of searing heat with no moisture, bitter cold winter nights and sudden short bursts of rain. A few seasons of looking around me in this desert and it all makes sense, some of the wisdom as harsh as the landscape. Not for nothing is the above cactus family commonly known as Horse Crippler.
After three years of gardening as if I were in the misty, humid, subtropical, 50+ inches per annum rainfall rolling hills of my childhood on another continent, I was becoming increasingly aware that, beauty and agricultural productivity notwithstanding, that gardening style, harking back to my past, is not sustainable in this place and this climate. It requires way too much water.
And so the plan to remodel the garden. Harnessing myself to productivity. Digging daily. Moving rocks around. Trying to sever the ties that bind me to anachronistic notions of what a garden is, how a garden should look.
And yet. And yet. I still have a lot of viable seed packets and am turning all this lovely earthwormy earth as the days slowly lengthen and warm again. Without planning it, in fact while deliberately planning NOT to, I discover that something, someone (me?) has planted seeds for food again. Fava beans have sprouted, yes! this early in the season. Radishes and poppies are showing signs of germination today. Something ungovernable snuck in and planted seeds, while the planner self was focussed on enacting The Plan, methodically putting one foot after the other on the garden fork, squatting down and pulling grass out by the long, invasive roots which reach on and on underground from here to the ocean (which I crossed for a heart of gold) and back .
I might just not xeriscape the whole front garden this year after all. Productivity undermined by the ebb and flow of impulse, of urge toward creativity? Or an inability to stick to The Plan? What plan? Whatever. Where is Robin Wall Kimmerer when I need her steady gaze on all this seasonal instability.
The impulse to vitality is the milagro. The seed is the milagro. The earth is the milagro. The sun, moon, wind and rain are the milagro.
Outback the shallots and garlic are looking good.
Dutch Iris too promise some spring blues. Fingers crossed.
Allium tuberosum (garlic/Chinese chives) are waking up after winter dormancy.
What I purchased as a little South African Aloe aristate (Lace Aloe) while not looking completely happy, seems to be surviving its first Chihuahuan desert winter in the moving-to-xeriscape bed (at least I achieved that much last spring) outback.
Similarly this Euphorbia antisyphilitica, which I introduced in spring of 2022, shows signs of enduring the cold nights, and hasn't given up on me. Yet. Though I acquired this at a plant nursery, it is native to northern Chihuahuan desert. On a recent west Texas road trip I saw quite a bit of what looked like Euphorbia antisyphilitica in winter garb, in its native setting. Kinda red purple bruise coloured sticks. Like mine but with less green. Maybe mine is greener, because I have been putting a bucket and fleece blanket over this plant on those nights when temperatures promise to dip below 20. But then again maybe mine is different because I've come to distrust plant nursery labels in this country.
There are signs of Nepeta (catmint) regenerating in the xeric-ish area too. This one does not get flattened by the neighbourhood felines. I'm resolved to get more of it for its blue and grey loveliness and because those pesky pleasure seeking goofball cats don't need any encouragement.
A great avian busyness of chirping and cooing provides background soundtrack to my garden labouring and contemplations, after I have defrosted the birdbath of course. Seems they too feel the stirring in the air or just below the surface, around the corner. Nascent.
Dream on little Inca doves, basking with tails in the water. There's another season coming when you will seek out the shade not the sun.
What everyday milagros will it bring forth from this sleeping earth?