On Planting Peas

Peas

It is early March and I am planting peas. The wan spring sun is finding its heat and lays like a warm hand upon my back as I work. Signs of approaching spring fill my senses in the mild air on my skin, the scent of damp soil and the shrieks of children as they run in frenzied circles of freedom, much like the birds swooping and circling above whistling their mix of songs.

We have passed the first intoxicating days of air that does not bite, endless sun warm enough to melt the last snowfall into a composition of dripping and trickling, soften the soil and make one’s blood run with the abandon of a stream overflowing with spring thaw. The dawns have come noticeably earlier and the muted indigo dusks have lost the sharp quickness of winter and softened to a moist lingering evening.

Perhaps it is the phase of the sun or the moon, the proximity to the vernal equinox or some eternal voice that speaks to those who will listen about the time and season of things, or my own impatience to join in with the cycle that has been going on without me for a few months. Whether it is any of these reasons or all of them or none of them, I awaken one day in March every year with the knowledge that this is the day to plant the peas. It is as clear a yearly anniversary for me as any holiday, and can never be planned.

This particular morning, awakening with this revelation, I reviewed the process of planting and imagined once again the garden I had been planning since the previous autumn, fed my cats and stepped out onto the deck with one or another of them and my coffee in hand as the sun lifted above the horizon. I listened to what the birds said in their morning song, closed my eyes and caught the scent of a chill early spring morning to find its opinion, and felt the warm sun wash assurance over my face and thereby determined that, yes, for whatever reasons, this day was right for both me and the peas.

I sorted the packets of peas out of the basket of seed packets, found the jars reserved for this purpose and filled them with warm water, opened the packets and counted the peas into the jars, taping their names around the jars to keep them sorted. The peas would soak for a few hours, welcomed into this world with a gentle bath, softening their outer layers and awakening the seedling within.

Seedlings are growing under lights in my basement, but at this stage they could be houseplants for all that they represent food. Planting the peas is the real thing. Putting seeds in the ground is an act of faith and trust that both you and nature will do your parts, that neither will you plant your peas under the wrong conditions and expect them to survive nor will nature scramble the seasons and instead of turning toward summer, turn back toward winter and eliminate the growing season. It is a promise to honor the needs of the seeds you sow, and so be rewarded with their provender.

Going about my daily business of checking the e-mail and the fax and making and returning a few phone calls, I was really only biding my time until the sun warmed the area of the garden where the peas would be planted. In early afternoon I dropped everything else and changed my clothes, preparing to break my own dormancy, clear the debris and decay of inactivity and begin to set my own seeds for another year of activity.

I had fondly reviewed each step of the process of planting peas while I completed the other necessary responsibilities of the day, and the outline of my task for the day was clear, but it was also leading me to visions of the garden to come and my excitement was building. Dressed in a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, jeans and rubber gardening clogs, I opened the basement door and burst outside, the first of many days I would do so. I chose my tools and moved everything to the long, narrow planting bed along the fence. This bed gets full sun nearly all day and has the best drainage for spring planting, and as they grow, the peas can twine their tendrils through the fence wire, giving the plants themselves the maximum amount of sunlight on their leaves and making the mature peas much easier to find at harvest time.

A slight breeze rustled dry leaves stuffed into corners of the garden and caused bare branches to click and rattle together. The earth’s crust looked dull gray-brown and callused with winter debris and clumps of frostbitten soil heaved up as the soil froze and thawed through the cold, but as I cleared away and turned under a winter’s worth of last year’s remains from its surface the moist soil beneath looked as rich as chocolate cake. As I applied my spading fork, gently pressing, lifting and turning forks full of soil to loosen it for roots to sprout and stretch an early robin followed close behind me. She ignored my polite question about her health and comment on the weather, intent instead on being the first to grab the fresh treats upturned by my work.

While the robin, joined by others, continued diving at creeping soil dwellers startled by their abrupt turn of soil, I rolled the wheelbarrow to the compost bin. I lifted the layer of tangled plants and autumn leaves to expose the fine humus beneath, last year’s garden trimmings and kitchen vegetable scraps recycled by nature to fertilize this year’s harvest. The robins hardly noticed my approach as I wheeled the barrow back to the bed and only moved a few feet up or down the bed as I began dropping forks full of compost over the soil and turned it under in another pass with the spading fork.

The steady work warmed me, rinsing the winter’s cold and stiffness from my muscles and bones, and already I felt stronger, more balanced, with more purpose to life than when I had awakened that morning. Even though little puffs of cold air still rose from shadows, working under the warming sun I found I could stand for the first time in a t-shirt, letting light breezes brush my arms, imagining what, in just a few months, would feel like unbearable heat, and this barren landscape of a backyard garden would be a humming, buzzing, lush tangle of growing things.

My cats divide their time among prowling the yard, inspecting in every corner and under every shrub for messages from other animal visitors to their yard, helpfully supervising my work, watching with narrowed eyes, then walking down along the furrow to check its precision, and napping for the first time in the warm spring sun on a bed of dry leaves. Cookie, Namir, Stanley, Sophie, Moses, Allegro, Kublai, all my garden companions through the years join me for this annual event as I watch the ones who approach me for pets, and fondly remember the antics and habits of those who are here in spirit.

Then it was time to draw the furrow, one long, straight row all the way down this narrow bed. As the furrow grew I remembered pea plantings from previous years, envisioning little sprouts in the soil, dainty white blossoms all over robust vines, delicate tendrils reaching out and upward, fluttering leaves creating a complicated pattern in shades of green with sunshine and shadow. As the last act of preparation, I got three thick, short twigs and, visually dividing the bed into four parts, one for each variety of pea, I placed a twig as a divider.

In the kitchen, I put the jars of soaking peas into a little basket then took them down to the garden while trying to decide in which order I should plant them. I plan my garden pretty thoroughly, but always allow for some last-minute decisions. I could stand there all afternoon debating with myself the best order for planting the four different varieties while grackles and blue jays kept a running commentary on my activity and everything else around, their squeaks and whistles and pops thrown from one to another from tree to tree and sometimes joining together just to make noise like a crowd of boisterous people. I know there is no need for change in what I had planned. Everything was ready, and it only remained to actually put the pea seeds in the furrow.

My fingers slightly apart over the top of the first jar, I held the jar close to the soil and walked along the bed in the first section, pouring the peas’ soaking water into the furrow, then filled the palm of my hand with some actual pea seeds. The peas, softened, warm, nearly hummed with life as I pushed them around in my palm. Carefully balancing my handful of pea seeds I dropped to one knee at the end of the bed. Taking one pea seed and then another in two fingers of one hand from the palm of the other I placed them one after another an unmeasured inch apart as if offering a gift. Creeping along on one knee in a seemingly ancient ritual of supplication, I continued down the bed, planting each of the four varieties in the same way, suppressing the surges of my inherent impatience borne of a life adapted to automation, with the orderly, sustained labor itself, letting the job take the time it needed to take, enjoying the activity, enjoying the travel without concentrating on the destination.

Now the pea seeds stretch like a strand of irregular freshwater pearls, pale green in their rich brown velvet bed of nurturing humus, plump from their soaking, fully awakened and ready, as I was this morning, to rejoin the cycle that has been turning while we have been dormant. Each one contains the ability to sprout, sink roots down into the soil and push cotyledons up through it, grow leaf after leaf, branching, reaching and climbing, its intent to give life to potentially hundreds of progeny. These peas have so many odds against them in the immense challenge of bringing new life into the world and the responsibility of carrying on their species, and yet their only defense is to stand there and take whatever is spent on them and do their best to fulfill their biological obligation. Surely after so many generations of being tossed into the soil and left on their own they have learned some organic equivalent of fear, yet they show no concern at their position but seem excited, eager to get on with the process.

I know it will snow again this season, the soil will freeze again, clutching around each tender seed, the rains may fall too much or too little, the heat may rise to an unusual summer’s pitch earlier than is expected, all of these things and more have happened in other springs; the conditions for life are never perfect. And suddenly, as every year, I feel a rush of protective love for these brave little peas, and that bond between a grower and the growing thing is formed, and I know, and the peas know, and everything else I will plant and nurture in this little space I call my own, that I will keep my part of the bargain and protect and support them in any way I can, and they will do their best with what is given them, and in the end they will gladly give and I will enjoy whatever gifts they have to offer, be it nourishment or visual delight or practical necessity.

Birds flying overhead cast moving shadows across the warm dark earth as I work, their paths crisscrossing as if to bless my activity as I move back along the row with my hoe, gently piling loose soil over the peas, surrounding them with all the nourishment I can give them, and then again as I return with the watering can, soaking the bed from end to end in my final act of planting before I leave these peas on their own.

A haze of high, thin clouds has formed on the southwest horizon, dulling the sunlight with a gossamer veil. I can once again feel the chill of winter and put my flannel shirt on over my t-shirt, gather my tools together and begin putting things away. Still at its lower winter angle, the sun will soon fall behind the tips of bare trees, then behind rooftops, then behind the silhouette of the edge of the earth, bathing this newly-turned bed full of pea seeds in the soft lavender of an early evening in late winter to be followed by the encouraging glow of a waxing moon.

Later, when the lavender twilight has deepened to an indigo dusk, the moonlight faded behind clouds then dissolved into a cold blue-black night velvet with moisture, I will hear the first few raindrops tap against the roof and windows, weighted with sustenance gathered from the earth in this thaw. As the drops are joined by more and yet more until there are no more individual drops, I will imagine each drop washing the soil down around each pea, pressing it ever so gently into the hand of its mother, who will cradle it, giving it the divine spark of its new life.

And I have once again passed this anniversary and rejoined the cycle.

NOTE: In the scene in the first paragraph you will find the inspiration for the poem I posted yesterday, “Flocks of Children”.

~~~

In 2003, a group of us had founded a community development organization among business owners in town to help build up foot traffic and interest in Carnegie. I handled arts issues, and later flower planting, but for those first two years I really wanted to pull together all the creative efforts around town, three galleries, historical society, various artists, church choirs, and writers hidden among it all.

While planning quarterly gallery walks and encouraging businesses to stay open for the guests who would visit, I also decided to found a writers’ group to meet at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall.  We met once a month on Saturday morning. I had no experience in this but decided we needed one, and if I couldn’t guide it perhaps I’d attract someone who had more experience and could take it over.

At the end of 2003 I suggested we have a reading, each of us reading one or two pieces to whoever showed up to hear us. Then, after finding small books like this in bags of free books I suggested we all contribute one or two pieces of the writing we’d shared and I’d design and have a little folio book printed. We could sell them to help raise funds to pay for the printing and keep our group going.

And so we did. We had about eight people participate, and about a dozen gathered at a gallery to hear us in January 2004. I wrote this piece for that event and included it in the first edition of our book.

We continued meeting through 2004 until the catastrophic flood from Hurricane Ivan in September. We only missed one meeting and had another reading and another folio book in January 2005. At that point I felt I had to hand the organization over to someone else for new challenges with family member health and helping to clean up after the flood. The group kind of drifted, then quit meeting, but I am still thrilled for the two good years we had, and all the amazing stories and writing we shared.


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Poem for Saturday: Flocks of Children

Flocks of Children

Swirling, swooping clouds of starlings
fill the air
noisy, babbling conversation
flying about the neighborhood
flocks of children
run in circles, laughing
up and down the streets.

poem copyright 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

~~~

Working in the garden one sunny later winter afternoon I watched the shadows of birds flying randomly about over my head criss-crossing the soil as I worked, and listened to their babbling mingling with the shrieks and laughs of children running around for the pure joy of it.

I took the photo of the starlings flitting around one of my bird feeders, thrilled to catch three of them in mid-air. I cropped and filtered the photo to serve the mood.


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The First Geranium

First Geranium

My first geranium blossom started me out on an ode to spring:

Warm, bright, in wisdom,
nature signals it’s time for love
even in cold rain.

Then turned unutterably sad:

Will they never bloom
nor feel another spring rain;
so young now, lives crushed in mud.

Life begins, life ends, but not in a natural course.

~~~

Sadness for the lives lost in the Parkland school shooting.

After I published this post I changed the title to “Beauty Crushed in Mud”. I will probably continue working with this subject.


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Essay: We Are Still Here

We Are Still Here

I watched the late afternoon light moving across the back yard at that hour when it begins to turn golden and shadows develop a violet hue. The neighbors’ houses funneled it through the tall standing pine trees into long, bright beams moving more quickly as the sun began its descent below the houses, the hill, the horizon.

Like a spotlight a few of those beams quietly searched across my back yard and touched first this, then that, a dried stalk of asters in the garden, a sprig of yellow forsythia, as if each thing it touched was equal and deserved its literal place in the sun.

The daffodils had finally had the chance to bloom in full. They are early, ambitious old daffodils dug from a long-abandoned farm years ago growing in clumps along the road to the upper pasture, likely planted decades before that. Untended they had bloomed at will, and thrived. The alternating summer-like days and single digit freezes with ice and wind in my back yard this spring were nothing compared to the many springs they had risen once again from the soil, pushed aside the leaves and raised their doubled blossoms high above their slender green fronds exposed to wind and storms on the edge of a hill.

I photograph them each year, looking for a new interpretation each year, but this year open blossoms and good light hadn’t come together in a moment that inspired a good photo.

The blossoms were a bit tattered around the edges from beginning their bloom and then stopping when the temperatures dropped below freezing for a few days, but the warm gold of their petals now that they had fully opened was undiminished. I could see the one of the sunbeams moving across them and decided the moment to catch them was now.

By the time I got to the main clumps with my camera the sunbeam had passed, but I could see by the pattern of light and shadows on the periwinkle just pushing up above last year’s fallen leaves that another one or two sunbeams were headed toward these daffodils, a set of four blossoms. I would capture their proud gold tatters touched by golden evening sun rimming each petal and its curves and tears and browned edges in bright light.

A spotlight of sun passed near them, but did not touch the flowers. I could see that another one was near, and if I could wait five to ten minutes I would likely get my photos.

Should I wait? I had planned just a minute or two outside. It was a busy day and I had work to do. I had, after all, photographed these daffodils annually for at least the past 20 years. What if I was wrong about the sunbeam, if the sun dropped behind my neighbor’s house before the sun moved into position through the pine tree? Would I waste my time?

I would see to it that even if I didn’t get the photo I had in mind, my time would not be wasted. I could sit there and think, I could plan my garden, I could write a poem, I could plan my eventual photos and get ready because the sun would be moving quickly. Five or ten minutes would be gone like the sunbeams moving across the yard.

What did I want for the daffodils in this year’s photos? I thought of the daffodils and their history, and how each year they’d bloomed so early they were sure to freeze, and they did, and then they thawed and went on their way. Not knowing how long it would be until the freeze lifted, they simply paused, and waited as long as it took. I really had no idea now long I would wait for the sun to move over them or even if it would line up with them as I envisioned. A break from my work to turn my thoughts to something unrelated, with a creative spark, was just what I needed to actually finish the job at hand. I decided I could wait too.

While milling these thoughts I watched another long spotlight, not as bright as the others but full and warm, move toward the daffodils and stretch itself out, and knew this was the one. I planned three angles, turned on my camera and waited.

I took one early photo as a portion of the sunbeam touched the daffodils, one of the ideas I’d had. It was nice, and if it was all I got it would do, but it didn’t really capture the battered daffodils warm with sunlight. I would try again.

I photographed as the beam of light reached down to touch the edges of three daffodils, I shifted a little, then all four, then it filled them all with light. It was nice from those two angles, but too literal, still not really expressing the warmth and life I felt from these daffodils.

I moved on the other side of them so that I could capture the light falling through them, instead of on them, and then it was magic. The contrast of the flowers glowing golden, even orange like a flame in the deepest areas, darkened the background of the leaf litter, twigs and branches, and even the daffodils’ fronds. I felt I’d captured the ageless warmth of these vintage daffodils. Time well spent.

Until next year.

~~~

NOTE: The six photos in this post are in the order of the six photos I captured while waiting for the sun to move into the best position. The photo at the top was the one I felt was most successful. And when I came inside I took notes on my thoughts to share.

Read other Essays.


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Essay: The Cats in My Garden

Daffodils
Daffodils
Daffodils

The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.

I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.

Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.

Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.

Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.

I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.

And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.

~~~

I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat  in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.

Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.

But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.

There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.


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Poem in Progress: Spring Tonic

Spring Tonic
Spring Tonic
Spring Tonic

Dead nettle,
bittercress,
wild garlic,
once healing tonics
taken in spring,
today only weeds,
unwanted,
except by me
for my eyes and palette
served in a bed of vivid fresh greens.

A poem in progress ©Copyright Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Just getting a little sentimental about my garden.


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Poem: Angelic Morning

Angel Wings
Angel Wings
Angelic Morning

So much is wrong
So much is sad
So much cannot be fixed
The detritus of the past lies all about
But I find also diaphanous angel wings filled with eternal sunshine
Bright smiling eyes of faerie flowers
Reflecting the tranquil blue of the sky’s protective arch
The old daffodil has stories to tell
And joy appears in the most common of things
Beauty, good, exist in every moment
Like the stars in daylight
Always shining
But only seen in the darkest hour.

poem “Angelic Morning” © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Winter is finally is beginning to give over to spring after a few false starts, and I am finding flowers in my yard. We all walk through difficult times and feel as if spring as a metaphor for relief, healing, rest, or morning after a long night will never come, but it does because in fact is always there hidden by what we expect to see. Sometimes all we need to do is look around us, and there it is.

The words came to me inspired by the beauty in a humble spring morning in 2015. At that time this was a poem in progress, but now it’s graduated to a finished poem. Below is a slideshow of other photos that inspired these words.

Please feel free to download and share this graphic I made for social networking.

Read other poems and poems in progress.


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Poem: To Come Again in Spring

Tiny Spider

In this sepia scene
of late-winter twigs and matted leaves
I found the small tattered orb she had built that lasted the winter,
this tiny creature no larger than a grain of sand
now curled in the center, her spirit long
gone
from her desiccated body,
yet her tiny children,
awakened by a warming spring sun,
will emerge from all the crevices
in the plant she chose as their birthplace
and find that her final creation
helps provide their first meal,
delicate strands catch the earliest gnats,
though these too be
the children of other mothers
full of hope for the generation of children
they will never meet;

and so the returning songbirds will catch
the tiny spiders as they leave their web of safety
and find sustenance to begin their families
all life toiling through the year to grow and thrive
to prepare for the dark of winter
and to come, again, in spring.

Poem To Come Again in Spring © 2011 B.E. Kazmarski

As the spring unfolds with longer days and milder temperatures, we remember what has passed.

It was the tiny spider in the delicate, worn web that inspired this slideshow from 2009 and poem from 2011.

Each year I leave the plants in my garden standing for the birds, insects and other residents of my garden to use for winter accommodations. In spring of 2009 I began preparing the garden section by section and happened to see this spider and her delicate web outlined in the spring sunshine. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long, and her web held up against any number of storms.

Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web which would catch the first insects in spring, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in the web and use her web as a launching pad. I found it so moving that on that bright early March afternoon I went through my garden looking for other such images.

All the other native plants had left behind their skeletons, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or an unknown world.

I had to let them say their last goodbye. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details you might never notice to show the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells. The sepia tones are the natural coloring of the plants in the stark spring sunlight, that interim color palette between the blues of winter and the greens of spring. Here is a link  to the original slideshow of photos taken that day; when you view it, you’ll see that many of the plants I’ve photographed are criss-crossed with tattered little webs.

I read this poem at my 2011 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, but did not set up a web page for that reading, and it is not included in my poetry book.

In 2017 I found another inspiration in these “Winter Leftovers”: What Stays With Us.


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