Grow. Grief.

It’s dark out which by no means means it is late. No. We have entered that time of year where the sun falls at 4:30PM forcing the chickens, ducks, donkeys, dogs, and heck even myself into an earlier, Pavlovian need to eat and bunk down for the night hours before they (we) otherwise should. I’m standing at the back window watching the patches of ground visible from the light by the lamp next to me. Leaves swirl and snap in all directions as the chimes outside my backdoor clash and clang. My phone griped earlier as a “wind advisory” alert was issued for my area and boy, they weren’t kidding. I could swear my house (though short and stout) is swaying.

Although I can’t see it, I’m looking in the direction of my garden. The weather forecast suddenly showed yesterday that tomorrow night, this swampy little corner of the world would welcome (well, maybe not welcome, but we’re polite in Texas so I’ll say it) the first hard freeze of the year. When I say hard, I mean low 20’s. To give you perspective, I wear a jacket below 75 degrees always. Low 20s is otherworldly. That kind of cold just isn’t in my blood. Give me heat, give me humidity, give me air like a warm washcloth. Like a fancy fungus, I thrive there. Maybe this means I’m cold blooded—I do sometimes think after I’ve eaten too much that I could stand to lay on a flat rock beneath a strong heat lamp like a pet lizard. Come to think of it, I’d do well under a heat lamp most of the time. My office. My kitchen. My bed…there’s an idea.

My garden also does well in this marshy place. It’s happy here. Hot sun, wet ground, pollinating bugs-a-plenty. But for the squirrels, this is optimum garden housing. Though I’ve pretty much always struggled with growing a cooperative garden (be it the soil, my technique, a one-off drought, or my inability to give it the attention it deserves), I have done really well with this one. I’ve become utterly obsessed with it. I spritz it. I fertilize it. I prune it. I talk to it. And for the first time in years (the last time being at my funny farm in north Texas with buck wild cucumber, onion, and pepper success), I’ve grown plants and achieved a small harvest. I enjoyed a bowl of my very own, homegrown edamame the other night. I’ve got a pile of green beans sitting in my refrigerator that I plan on frying in a couple days. And I had a dozen or so perky, little tomatoes that were a mere two or so weeks from reaching ripeness and I was really hoping I could slice them up and dash them with salt and pepper. 

Alas, tomorrow night, the hard freeze. Hours of it. Low 20s. That’s a death sentence for my last remaining growth out there…my sweet, sunny, perfect little tomato plants.

Sure, I’ll cover them with a warm blanket and hope that somehow, someway, they survive, although I’m not optimistic (in fairness, I am by nature not an optimistic person…so even if the conditions were even slightly different, I doubt I’d be at all sunshine and rainbows about it—further proof that maybe I am in fact, cold-blooded.) I’ve also decided that I will pluck some of the larger tomatoes from their stems, place them in a sunny window and hope they continue to ripen. 

Another gust of wind whips the window and I sigh. What will I do now when I become over stimulated or feel myself tumbling to a panic attack? For months, it’s been the ritual of escaping to my garden which has helped pull me down into quietude. My own, secret garden. Only I have known what lies within its boundaries and there, I have found peace. My fortress of solitude. 

Of course I have my donkeys and the barn and a place with them to rest, relax, remember who I am, and find grounding. I always do. I talk often about how those three, little peanuts are my tethers and that’s not changed. But there’s been a uniqueness to this place I’ve grown—this place that without my constant tinkering and attentiveness may have otherwise not succeeded and tomorrow, I must say goodbye. 

I feel streams of tears begin to roll down my cheeks and I have to laugh a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever shed a tear over plants. What’s wrong with me? But then the seal breaks and suddenly, I’m in a full on, blotchy, snotty cry. I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want to see it die. I want her to continue to grow and glow and reach for the sky. 

She’s worked and tried so hard. She’s overcome so much. She’s created incredible things and tomorrow, it ends.

I wipe my face and wonder if I ought to make some tea and turn on a dumb TV show to distract myself from this confusing and odd moment, but I stop myself and hold my place at the window, staring into the barely illuminated darkness where leaves are flitting chaotically. This means something. This means something because I don’t think I cry for no reason. I don’t think I spend my time doing things that don’t matter. So what does it mean?

I wonder if my compost will freeze? I do love composting and the whole idea of it: the death and rot and breaking down of once living things that over time, transform into unmatched nutrition for future growth. What a circle of life there. 

Maybe that’s what this whole garden thing is—a breakdown of something in order to make room for something new. A closing door. An end but also not really. My hope is that the soil will be healthier when I start a new garden in the spring. Maybe it’ll have held onto some of its nutrients that I fed it and maybe after a till and a fold in of compost, it’ll be ripe and ready to begin again.

Another gust of wind whips and although it’s barely past 5:00, I decide I might change into comfier clothes, take my contacts out, and stare at something for a while—the ceiling, outside, or maybe some random show that just makes some noise to fill space so that the only room that’s left is the consideration of my own rotting, breaking down, shifting, dying, grieving, and regrowing with something (hopefully) fuller, brighter, and more fruitful on the other side. I think we must all experience this cycle whether we realize it or not. I suppose the important thing is that we’re minding it. We’re giving it time. We’re trying and we’re taking care. Most of all, I think it’s important to admit that we, like the seasons and the things that thrive within them, change too. We till. We nurture. We grow. We die. We breakdown. We grieve. We start building again. 

Yup, I’ll make some tea. And there’s always Fraiser on Netflix, although that show is not dumb or random. Not even a little. It’ll forever and always be one of my favorite. That sounds good right now.

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Waiting out the Storm

It’s an East Texas downpour out there—the kind where I know that somewhere beyond the endless sheets of rain is a brown barn that inside, must be awfully loud beneath a tin roof, although I can’t see more than a blur of gray and swaying, green smudges that are the swelling leaves of new, spring life. I keep wanting to clean up and till the garden to start anew, but every time I find a few free moments to get out there and tend to her, storms move through with a fury, washing out the loose soil and feeding the rampant weeds that I can’t seem to get out in front of, no matter how I try.

Through a foggy window, I watch the rain switch directions over and over again as lightning flashes every few seconds and drum rolls of thunder barrel by almost without break. The forecast shows we have several more days of this and I keep thinking of the garden flooding, washing away any bit of useful dirt and leaving behind hard-packed, red clay that’s been beaten down into a calloused and impenetrable space.

I think of the donkeys in the loud barn, imagining their eyes staring out into the blurry forest that surrounds our house. With ears as sensitive as theirs, storms like this must be painful. Both of my dogs are hidden in a closet right now, terrified of the thunder that crashes through, full-bellied and heavy, every few seconds. It’s the kind of thunder you feel in your chest—ribs rattling with the rolls—a direct hit to the heart every time.

I worry I’ve missed my window to plant a garden that might have a growing-chance because after this stormy season comes that notorious, inescapable, Texas summer. Watching this storm, however, I suppose that even if I’d gotten those tiny, eager seedlings into the ground and meticulously arranged the mulch, cages, and cork-labels around them, they’d have rotted in the rain water by now or been washed away before establishing any real roots. How can roots reach out when every time those tiny arms try to grab at the spaces outside of themselves, their entire world floods and deforms, leaving nothing solid to latch onto or dig deeper into?

Still, here in early spring, bright, green life is blooming rapidly in all directions up in the treetops. Heavy with leaves, their branches droop down and cast dark and cool shadows across the yard. Along the edges of things, sunflower sprouts and sweet grass reach high towards the sun when she’s out and radiating while aggressive, spiky weeds slither and slap across the ground like an octopus out of water.

But it’s the little seeds in their tiny pods with thread-like roots: cantaloupe and cucumbers, tomatoes and hot peppers, sweet peas and turnips, that I want to gently transfer outside and tend to daily so I can watch them reach, swirl, and grow and witness the fruit they could bear. It’s just for now, they don’t seem like they’ll have a fighting chance as the rain falls harder and faster creating muddy pools that’ll take days to recede. I lose hope that my tiny, delicate seedlings will sprout and find their real roots in the ground outside: little seeds that started out so hopeful in little baggies, labeled proudly and waiting to learn what it feels like to reach into the warm, open air. I’ve read so many books and blogs that have told me when it’s the perfect time to plant around here, but I just can’t seem to land on that perfect time and as I watch the blurs of grays and greens whip and lash around outside, I doubt I’ll find that perfect time.

I’ve read about above ground gardening, seen pictures and how-tos, and have even been encouraged by some to take that route. Maybe I will. Maybe I have to. I guess that’s the problem with laying all your hopes down in the space you cleared up near your house where the sun would be perfect and the drainage seemed ideal because of the slant. You root for that space that you spent time clearing and turning with your hands, shovel, and tiller and fenced in to keep the rabbits out. You liked the idea of digging down a little deeper, where it’s cool and dark and full of strange bugs that tie themselves in knots when the sun touches them. The idea that the root’s paths were essentially endless without a bottom created hope for their strength and growth to be infinite. I’ve always thought that the deeper we dig, the taller we must grow.

But then these days, it feels like it’s all about building up. Building up, filling in, creating drainage systems, and using that cold, hard clay as a foundation….a base…a starting point that if you’re building up and up, doesn’t really matter if it’s too hard to breakthrough. You use the callouses as starting points from which to move forward, not to dig beneath in hopes they’ll ever soften enough to allow for real, fruitful growth.

The storm has subsided a bit now into a steady, straight-down rain that you can actually see through. There are some large branches scattered around the yard: branches without new, green leaves that the trees must’ve been ready to shed to make way for anew. Branches that had must have been overrun with bugs or rot or had simply just died off because their part was finished. The trees must feel lighter now—relieved, even—having rid themselves of their heavy, dead branches.

I don’t think I’m ready to give up on the idea of digging down into that now hard and calloused space I’ve created. It doesn’t feel dead to me yet and abandoning it, I suspect, would bring me no relief. It just needs more time. It needs more tilling. It needs to be fed and touched and rid of the sneaky weeds that grow faster than the fruit I intend to grow.

So I suppose I’ll keep waiting. Waiting. Waiting for the storm to pass and the for the sun to dry the puddles so I can get back to turning and digging and loosening the ground enough for roots to travel freely and growth to reach up full and tall.

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Roots

It’s a chilly afternoon and I’ve finally decided to clear the weeds and old roots from the garden in order to prepare for a new, spring crop. My fall garden was a bust: I didn’t do enough research on planting in sticky, gumbo soil and we had a bizarre, hard freeze in mid-November which killed off everything weeks before I was planning to harvest. My fall garden yielded three green beans. Three.

I suppose it’s fine—I was travelling a lot last fall, so my chances of upkeeping a garden with the love and respect it deserved and needed were probably low. Plus, I haven’t built up a proper compost heap this time around. The odds have been against it and for more than two months now, I’ve let weeds and grass overtake my sad, little garden.

I pick a corner and kneel down to begin pulling up weeds. Dampness from the soil soaks into the knees of my jeans, but I don’t mind. I start by raking the stringier weeds with my fingers which are tangled loosely across the top of the bushier and more deeply-rooted growth below. Rake, rake rake. Dirt gathers beneath my fingernails and what was a chilly afternoon has become quite warm with my repetitive movements.

The repetitious motions of backyard gardening is therapeutic. Row by row, whether planting or clearing, there’s a natural rhythm that guides the process regardless of your being a seasoned gardener or not. Rake the loose weeds. Dig around the stubborn ones. Pull the deep roots. Brush away the leftover. Rake rake, dig dig, pull pull, brush, brush. Rake rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. 

Bit by bit and breath by breath, I travel through my garden removing that which is alive with rapidly reproducing weeds and dead from poor management and unfortunate circumstance.

It’s a bit grim: the idea that death must occur and be grieved in order to make way for new life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to move on from things of the past and how to start the healing (replanting) process. Like all people, I’ve had my share of heartache, hurt, missteps, and much like my garden, have fallen victim to poor management and unfortunate circumstance. Neglect. Distraction. Habitually pushing care to the back-burner. All that.

So here, squatting down in the mud and the weeds that are here because of my neglect, I imagine that the soil is life-giving light and the weeds are darkness, swiftly crawling across and covering the richness and space from which life, love, and nourishment sprouts. Rake, rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush.

Gosh, there are weeds everywhere. It’d be easier to just let the whole thing go, I doubt I’ll have time for a garden this spring, anyway. My hands are beginning to hurt and the dampness from the ground has spread past my knees and down my shins. For the first time, I notice my fingertips covered in tiny, red cuts from small spikes in the seemingly infinite growth and holy moly they sting. Why didn’t I wear gloves? It’s so hot out here.

My heart rate has risen significantly and I can no longer find my breath. I try counting, but can’t hold my attention span to the count of four anymore. I pull my phone out of my back pocket and find the app which is connected to the USB-sized monitor implanted in my chest, right above my heart. It’s recording all the time, but I’m supposed to report when I can feel abnormal things occuring, which is often and especially when I do things like squat down for too long. I sit back, butt in the mud, and lean against the small, picket fence as the app begins to record my heart’s rhythm which is heavy and fluttering. The space around me vignettes itself and my fingers and toes begin to go numb. 

I close my eyes feeling the wet ground absorb into my jeans and try again to find my breath. Rake, rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush. One, two, three…One, two…One, two, three.

It’s like I can’t get the breath all the way to the bottom of my lungs: it stops halfway. I make a concerted effort to relax my gut, pelvis, chest, and eyes, and try to imagine sinking a little farther down into the wet ground. Instead of counting, I picture a jellyfish gently and repetitively pulsing through the water. My friend and teacher, Stacey Ramsower, shared this image with me recently and it’s since resonated quite vividly. I picture my diaphragm and pelvic floor moving in tandem in the same way a jellyfish propels itself through the deep: smoothly, rhythmically, and beautifully. Something about the image seems more accessible than the count right now. Blub, blub, blub she goes…soft, smooth, and infinite. 

Blub, blub, blub, through the blue.
Blub, blub, blub, held by water.

After a while and once the flapping wings of my butterfly heart calm down, I open my eyes and lean forward, placing my forearms on my knees. My fingers and toes prickle as blood begins to pour back into them and the world around is light once more. I submit the recording to my doctor and slide my phone back in my pocket. I figure I ought to be heading in to get some water and rest, but then something catches my eye. What is that?

I scramble to my hands and knees and crawl to a tall, bright green growth reaching from the weeds. I trace my fingers down the delicate stems and carefully pull up. Oh my goodness. I start to laugh.

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I stand, holding the small carrot ball and look around. This bird’s eye view has allowed me to discover that several other plants have inched above the weeds reaching for sunlight, so one by one, I trace their stems and pull their roots gently from the ground.

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Brave, little root veggies. My goodness, I had no idea anything could’ve survived multiple hard freezes and certainly not beneath the heavy darkness that’s blanketed their space for so long. They may be small and oddly shaped, but boy they are phenomenal (and cute!) I suppose small specs of light can indeed penetrate darkness. Maybe it just requires a shift in perspective.


I spent much of the rest of this day reclined on the couch with a big glass of water while imagining whole blooms of jellyfish pulsing together through the deep. How strange it must be to pulse endlessly through the darkness…strange but oddly encouraging. Blub, blub, pulse, pulse, on and on they go. Infinite, rhythmic movement.

I imagined the proverbial weeds that often stretch themselves across me and how somehow, someway, light manages to get through. Sure, sometimes, that light goes undiscovered for a while, but it’s there. It is. And certainly it’s worth the blood, sweat, and pain to pull back the darkness and make way for more light. Just start in a corner and see what happens. Darkness breeds in neglect. I’d say, get in and get your hands dirty.

Even if you don’t find anything the first few times you start raking, digging, pulling, and brushing, the process is still wonderfully meditative—the re-examination of a familiar space that’s gone untouched for a while is so helpful for growth. Afterall, you can’t start a new garden without first tearing up and dealing with the old, deceased one. In that death and chaos lies life waiting to bloom and be discovered. 

Black Chicken Bloomed

One year ago today, I posted this story on my blog. This was the story of the Unicorn and the first death of a chicken here and how King Ranch refused to let one of his own die in vain. It poured and it broke our hearts.

This morning, I decided to wander over to the spot beneath the rosebushes to pay my respects. I found this:

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Black Chicken is alive. She lives in her blooms.

Across the yard, White Rooster crowed on the fence. I don’t think he’s forgotten. Neither have we.

 

A World Within Weeds

It was a morning in the 7th circle of hell…er…I mean Texas summer heat. Barely into June and already, the ground was cracking from dehydration. I attempted to make sweet potato fries the other day and accidentally set the oven to broil. After only minutes, those squiggly root vegetables looked, well, pretty much how the ground looks now: burned, broken, and waving a white flag.

I’d covered myself in liquid blanket (SPF 50) and wore an over-sized sun-hat yet still, the sun bullied me. The garden needed weeding and trimming, however, so, outside in the oven with my gloves and hat I went.

On the edge of the garden is a wrought-iron fence. When I put this all into the ground months ago, I planted cucumber and snap pea seedlings at the bottom of it–both being vining plants. Not a week passed that those two pods were in the ground when I caught Psycho Brown, our Sex Link chicken, clawing them out of the dirt. After shooing her away, her squabbling and flailing in typical chicken dramatics, I was disappointed to see that the seedling pods were unsalvageable.

Not to worry, I still had rows of potential other plants ready to grow: tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant, and lettuce.

What I had done, regrettably, is allow weeds to occupy this base area of the fence in masses, not worried about pulling them because, well, there was nothing they could harm with the upheaval of the snap peas and cucumbers. They’d gotten so out of hand, however, that I decided this morning–this 7th circle of hell morning–would be the perfect time to go ahead and rid the garden, once and for all, of all weeds, regardless of their position.

If you haven’t tried pulling weeds taller than yourself, you should. It’s a fantastic workout. My shoulders, I don’t think, have ever worked so hard. It’s satisfying, too, when you finally get a good grip, the weed gives in just that way that you know you’re close to full extraction and then YOINK! Like a splinter finally fully removed from one’s fingertip after struggling with the tweezers, the roots slip out of the ground with a sigh of relief. You exhale. Toss it. And move on. Cheap therapy.

The pile of noodle-limp weeds behind me was also now almost as tall as me. I was soaked–literally, as if I’d jumped into a salty pool fully clothed–soaked through. I pushed the brim of my hat up and used the back of my gardening glove to wipe the sweat off my forehead. I was nearly finished, only the weeds right up against the rusted, wrought-iron fence were left.

I pulled the brim of my hat back down and sank to one knee to get a good look at my final weed-pulling challenge when suddenly, what the heck kind of vine was that?

Intertwined through the weeds was a furry, thick vine–about as thick as a thumb–with giant, plate-sized leaves. It was bright, green: margarita green. I backed up and realized that the furry, margarita vine had wrapped its octopus arms everywhere–up and across the fence and over into the back of the rosebushes on the other side. It tumbled down across the ground; curly fingers securing themselves around weeds and grass blades and sticks. I tried to lift one of its arms off the ground but its spiraled fingers had secured itself to too many things for me to tug it too high.

I lifted the large leaves that were at my face level–they, too, were furry–when my eyes adjusted and oh my gosh this was a cucumber plant! Dozens, literally dozens of cucumbers hung powerfully off the vines. Some were more than a foot long and others, barely noticeable.

Cucumber Vine in Garden

Elated, I pulled a few of the largest cucumbers off of the plant and examined them. Giant cucumbers. Surprise cucumbers. Little buggers, how you defeated the odds!

On the other side of the garden, behind the smaller, wire fence in which there were no weeds, the donkeys watched me curiously, both flicking their tails and chewing slowly on hot grass. I cracked one of the cucumbers in two pieces and held out a half for each of them. They smelled the cucumber intently and curiously. Bunny bit first and her eyes widened. She then took the rest in one, large bite. Tee followed suit.

Back at the cucumber vine, I traced each arm with my fingers to see if anymore were ready to be picked. There were.

For months, these weeds have strengthened intimidatingly, making the chore to pull them seem more and more daunting. I have, admittedly, avoided it because I knew that when I finally got in there are started cleaning up, it would hurt. It would be physically draining (which it was), I’d end up with splinters (which I did) and many, many bug bites (which I also did) and a few of my own dramatic flails when I ran across a pissed-off spider.

But my, how it was worth it. I’d found a whole, hidden world of cucumbers.

I wonder if the cucumbers would have thrived had the weeds not been there? Of all the plants I’ve been babying for months, the cucumbers are, by far, the most successful. The strongest. The farthest-reaching.

Maybe they needed the weeds. Maybe the weeds made them stronger.

I decided then to leave the remaining weeds that grew closest to the fence for now. Perhaps, they serve a bigger purpose that I realized. With my bucket of cucumbers, I marched proud and sweaty back to the house.

My, life is full of surprises. Even in the thickest, most vicious and widespread weeds, magic and miracles are happening. We can’t forget that. We can’t be overcome by things on the surface. We can’t be intimidated by things simply because we don’t understand them. We can’t be afraid to get uncomfortable and dig a little deeper if it means discovery of something you otherwise, had no idea existed.

Life and Death, Again. I Guess That’s the Way of Things.

It wouldn’t rain. My goodness, had it been trying to, but it just would not rain. The thing about late, Texas spring is that when the sky tries to rain, but can’t, we’re all left wandering through soupy, walking-through-a-warm-wash-cloth air that gets trapped around the middle of the rib-cage when you inhale. For those of us who wear glasses regularly, you can expect that they will fog up much like a car windshield does if rain has gotten into it.

Still, the property, the garden, the chickens, and the donkeys all needed tending to, so I slipped my feet into my work boots, grabbed the cowboy hat that King Ranch and I share, and headed into the yard. Over my shoulder, I had a red, 100 foot extension cord needed to power the tiller for the garden. In my back, right pocket, I had my yellow gardening gloves and in the back, left pocket, my phone. I keep it handy because, as many of us 80’s kids entering our 30’s do these days, I take pictures of my activities and post them on various social media sites to link up with other enthusiasts.

This is an introvert’s dream — social media. It’s connection without obligation. People have a lot of negative things to say about these social platforms and although I agree that we should all be careful in the kind of information we’re sharing as well as be careful with our time, I guess I don’t think we need to feel bad about using it as a way to connect. As long as you’re still getting outside and living life away from screens, I say, utilize the interwebs as you please. Just be smart and don’t become dependent.

Little Foot was in a hiking pack specific for babies and toddlers that I wore like a backpack and it made sweat pool along my spine — it ran down and collected at the waist of my jeans. He likes it though — riding in the hiking pack while I work around the yard. He even naps sometimes.

I’d opened up the well house to retrieve the tiller and a rake in order to start tidying the garden, when from out of the corner of my eye, I saw a few streaks of black move across the cloudy, heavy sky. Leaning the tiller back against the inside wall of the well house, I turned to see somewhere between 8 and 10 large birds circling the back parts of the property. I thought they could have been vultures, but I wasn’t sure. They circled like vultures do.

I stood there for a moment, watching the swirl of birds criss-cross back and forth over something that was clearly on my property, every once and awhile, diving down and then swooping back up. The donkeys were okay; they stood just on the other side of the fence from Little Foot and me curious, I’m sure, to know if we had carrots — which I did, in the front, left pocket of my jeans. I had planned on giving them to the donkeys when I was done with the garden and headed out to the rest of the property to mow.  

Once, about 6 months ago, I was out on the property and I found two vertebrae. I think they must have belonged to a cow or other large animal because they were about as big around as my fist. My only thought is that vultures dropped them there. We have a lot of them around here. Here’s a picture I snapped a while back of what I assume is their relaxing time:

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I closed the door to the well house and adjusted Little Foot’s pack on my back as I headed out into the pasture. The donkeys greeted me enthusiastically and nosed at my hips, probably, because they smelled the carrots in my pocket. I pulled out a few for them and continued walking to where the large birds were circling.

A few of the birds floated higher as two dove down quickly without soaring back up. This made me nervous. Then, one after another, they dove down. Every few seconds, one of the massive birds would dart into the sky, but then gracefully glide back down. I really don’t know how many there were.

My glasses kept fogging up, so I placed them up on the brim of my cowboy hat but of course, this made everything look like an impressionist painting. I had the thought that I really should finally call the optometrist and get a new prescription for contacts.

As I approached the back paddock, from behind me, Bunny let out a loud bray and shortly after, Tee squealed in his loose-timing-belt sounding bray. They were indicating to me that I should be careful. In my blurred vision, I could see the collection of birds swarmed around something, although I had no idea what. I’d seen some rabbits on the property recently and wondered if it could have been one of them.

I wasn’t sure if I should be worried — would vultures (if indeed they were vultures) attack Little Foot and I? As far as I knew, birds were pretty scared of humans. Still, the fact that Bunny and Tee brayed nervously was enough to make me halt and keep distance.

I pulled the glasses off the brim of my hat, cleared the fog from the lenses with the bottom of my shirt, and pressed them onto my face. There were seven of them, and most definitely vultures. They had bald heads and black feathers and were frantic in their consuming of, whatever it was. I found myself becoming angry that this carnage was happening on my land, but was nervous to get closer because still, I wasn’t sure if vultures could be violent to us.

In the front, right pocket of my jeans, I’d had a small spade in case I had any digging to do in the garden. The handle was shoved down into my pocket and the actual scooping part of it was sticking up. I pulled the spade from my pocket and threw it as hard and far as I could at the pack of feasting birds while screaming, “blllaaarrrrghhh!!!” I’ve got a pretty good arm — I did, after all, play 3 years of little league softball from ages 9 to somewhere between 11 and 12.

All but two of the massive birds scattered away without a sound but wing flapping, so I felt safer to take a few more steps forward. Plus, Bunny and Tyrion were three or four steps behind me, so I felt safe within their protective proximity.

It was then that I noticed what the birds had: the smaller of the two birds, although, not smaller by much, reached down with it’s nude beak and grabbed hold of something that it then stretched up and I immediately knew that it was the rubber-band texture of lean muscle. The pinkish, red bit snapped and dangled from the bird’s beak before the thing gobbled it up with only a few gulps. The other bird, pecked a few times and lifted the creature up to flip it.

It was a squirrel. A light brown squirrel.

One by one, the other birds landed cautiously, although they kept an eye on the donkeys, Little Foot, and me between pecks at the squirrel.

Little Foot said, “huh, huuuu” which, to him, means donkey. When King Ranch or I ask Little foot, “what does a donkey say?” — “hu huuu” is his response.

Both donkeys were only a step behind me with their ears straight up. They watched the birds like I did, curiously and cautiously.

I turned back towards the garden and decided I’d come back later for my spade. I didn’t want Little Foot to figure out that he was seeing creature consumption. I also worried that this was one of the squirrels that lived in the pecan tree in our backyard — one of the squirrels that constantly drives our dog, Tucker, crazy in the mornings.

Back in the garden, I tilled and pulled the larger weeds by hand. I also thought about the squirrel and wondered how it must have died. Or maybe the vultures killed it. I don’t know. What I did know was that I was angry. I was angry that a gang of big birds chose to spend their afternoon tearing apart the little guy. Surely, there was some larger carcass elsewhere that they could have fought over — but instead, they fought over a squirrel. A helpless squirrel.

As I pulled a few onions out of the ground, careful not to disturb the ones not quite ready around them, I realized I was crying. But I guess birds need to eat, too, right? Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorrow for that squirrel. What a way to go.

I noticed, then, that my poblano pepper plant had finally popped out some peppers after weeks of only flowering. They were still very small, but a deep, forest green and shiny. Life. It was sprouting life.

This made me so proud. Until I lived here at the ranch, I’d never had a garden. Of course, I’d never had a toddler or donkeys or chickens either. And all in one season, I’ve had tomatoes and peppers and onions and lettuce grow as well as a new chick hatch and become part of the flock.

Life and death. All here. Life and death.

The beginning and the end. And we’re lucky enough to be in the middle somewhere.

It’s a powerful thing: being in the middle. This is where we get to do something. Where we get to be someone. Where we get to stand up for what’s right. That doesn’t mean we have to understand everything, but we can be kind. We can appreciate that which is unfolding in front of us.

There is so much more than us. It’s right there — all of it. A whole world. Life and death and everything in between. How badass that we get the privilege of being in between right now.

Cherish it.

Growing Pains

When King Ranch and I decided to make the move to this property a year ago, one of the things I couldn’t wait to get going was a garden. I so desired the opportunity to build a homestead – to live off the land.

It’s taken us a whole year, but we’ve finally done it – planted a garden.

I’ve never done this before. I watched my mom and dad grow a small garden on the side of the house where we grew up in northwest Houston. I don’t remember much about it except for my mom in a big hat, my dad with a wheelbarrow, and a few fruit bats that started hanging upside down outside my window at night, peeping as I fell asleep.

My lack of experience has me a little apprehensive about this process. It’s so new and fragile. Although, thinking about it, this time last year, I was saying the same thing about owning a ranch – wondering how on Earth I could do this. Then I said the same thing about becoming a donkey parent – what was I thinking? Months before that, I said the same thing about becoming a human parent, too. I was responsible for raising a human baby?

I suppose all things are new and fragile until you’re used to them:

 – Parenthood, for example – I remember crying my eyes out one day (okay, more like every afternoon there for a while) because I was so afraid that Little Foot wasn’t getting enough to eat. And, seriously, I just knew he was going to die if I wasn’t there to pick him up the second he started to cry.

 – Lifestyle – city life to ranch life? The closest grocery store was how far away? And how often do we need our well serviced?

 – Relationships – I think they all go through a ‘polite’ stage where, you know, it’s all ‘yeah, I’m down for whatever because I’m so laid back and just want you to be happy’  and ‘Oh, it’s fine that you left dirty dishes in the sink for three days because you’re just so freaking beautiful that I don’t care.’

 – Pet ownership – donkeys and chickens?

 – Home ownership – a mortgage?

 – Even new jobs – right now, King Ranch is delicately stacking up the blocks of his days at his new job with the utmost detail because it’s all so…new and fragile.

DELICATE: Handle with care.

Nevertheless, it’s now in the ground: tomatoes, peppers (bell, poblano, and jalapeno), an eggplant, several types of lettuce, onions, snap peas, cucumbers, two types of grapes, and raspberries. Planted in pots on our back porch are herbs (mint, cilantro, basil, and dill) along with an over-sized pot filled with potatoes.

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I’ve been out every day to check on it – the new garden. The baby plants. I’ll admit, I’ve talked to them a bit. “This is your home, little lettuce. We’re gonna take good care of you.”

Gardening

 

—-

Last night, a severe storm pushed through the area. Springtime in north Texas, we’ve learned, is dramatic. Funnel clouds reach down from the sky like bodybuilders reach down for kettlebells in front of one another – glamour muscles flexed, veins popping – it’s intimidating albeit, impressive – but also kind of annoying because unless you’re into that kind of thing, you’re ready to move onto more peaceful scenery – like the repetition of an expert rower or the gazelle-like strides of an intermediate to advanced runner on a treadmill.

Massive gusts of wind that travel, I think, down the southern end of the Rockies and tumble, gaining speed across the Texas plains, don’t just push over pots, but tear major artery branches out of trees and toss them over houses – usually into expensive things like cars or brick mailboxes.

There are sometimes the lovely, Earthy, peaceful lightning storms that resemble the cover of a mediation album, but then there are the flashy lightning storms – sequined, spinning ball gowns underneath sparkling chandeliers at a rich kid’s high school prom – the music heavy with bass.

Last night was a perfect, kettlebell, branch tossing, expensive, fluffy dress, kind of storm.

As the thunder rumbled the foundation of our house and my phone screamed with tornado warnings, I mentally noted my list of major concerns.

  1. Little Foot and King Ranch – both in the living room with me, ready to take shelter in the hallway at any moment.
  2. Thing One – under my feet. See #1.
  3. Bunny and Tyrion – still trying to convince King Ranch to let them inside when weather like this begins. For now, I peeked, they’re in their shed, seemingly okay. They’d probably prefer the space outside instead of the walls of our guestroom, anyway.
  4. The chickens: Big Mama Red, Youpullit, Andre, Psycho Brown, Resurrected Zombie, White Rooster, and Last of the Mohicans (aka Rockstar Rooster) – All will be in the coop except for Resurrected Zombie and Rockstar. RZ is a mystery to us. She only seldom shows up on the property. She doesn’t lay eggs (at least not in the coop) and when she is around, she’s a safe distance from the others. I don’t know if she’s been shunned or is shy herself. Rockstar is a rooster that sleeps in the pile of firewood on our back patio. He’s also responsible for waking us up before dawn. Anyway, with the exception of RZ, I can assume our chickens and roosters are all safely sheltered as they are night after night.
  5. The garden. THE GARDEN. Absolutely NOTHING is sheltering those plants.

I laid there and worried about it – the tomato plants, especially, because they’re, so far, the tallest and I think, most likely at risk of dying in harsh winds. Remember, I’m a novice at this – these are just my own conclusions.

I could barely sleep all night thinking of my garden. Every time I heard the chimes clang nervously on the back patio, I cringed at the thought of stems snapping, leaves detaching, and hail pelting these eager plants.

Between the mini blinds, blue lights flashed like paparazzi.

—-

It’s morning and King Ranch has left for work and Little Foot is awake and ready to run everywhere. I pull on some pants and open the curtains in the livingroom. To my surprise, it’s a brilliantly sunny day – richly green grass and saturated trees are tangled with bouncing squirrels, fleeting robins, and disappearing dew.

It’s also quite chilly – for March in Texas, that is. About 40 degrees.

Bundled up, Little Foot and I head outside to check on numbers 3 – 5 on the worry list. Bunny and Tee bray loudly when they hear the gate clang and trot over to us with alert ears. With the exception of a little extra mud around their hooves, they look just fine. Mornings after storms like this, I get the feeling that the donkeys come running up to me to tell me all about the storm last night. They’re extra clingy and by now, you should know I love that.

All the chickens and roosters are accounted for, except for Resurrected Zombie – but that’s not unusual – and they’re extra-energetic and excited with the bugs they’re finding in new mud puddles.

The garden looks just fine. Soaked, but fine. I do feel, however, that I should put stakes by the tomato plants in preparation for the next storm so I don’t worry so much that they could tumble over. So I do. I stake them.

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I fluff the leaves a bit and call Little Foot over so I can show him what I did. I don’t think he understands my words yet, but he certainly seems interested in things like wood, string, tools, and most especially, dirt. 

This is, undoubtedly, the first of many storms this season. This is also, I’m sure, the first of many gardens. I imagine one’s first garden is much like one’s first pancake – kind of a flop. Probably still edible, but the subsequent servings are far superior. You have to learn the timing, the texture, the temperature, and most importantly, the patience, to perfect pancakes. And gardens. And parenthood. And homeownership. And pet ownership. And relationships. And life. And, well, yourself. It all takes time and practice and inevitable mistakes along the way.

Little Foot is not only alive, but healthy. As are the donkeys. As is my relationship. There have been many times I thought that I’d ruin each of those because of my ignorance and/or inexperience and/or stupidity and/or a million other reasons why mistakes happen. But I just kept going. I still keep going. One day at a time.

Be patient. Be cautious and smart. But be patient. You’ll figure it out. Stake that shit and keep going.

Now go watch your garden grow; your story unfold.