Midnight in the Garden

Superstition has never figured in my life; so it didn’t really alarm me one recent day when a black cat crossed directly in front of me on my favorite garden path. With all the sinewy grace and confidence of a panther, it surveyed me with menthol green eyes which were extraordinary even for a cat. It had never been seen in my favored green spaces; or at least, it had never made me aware of its presence.

I, who pride myself in knowing the habits of particular chameleons and salamanders, their identifying marks, their times and places of hiding and stealth; the number of buds on my climbing roses; the day of fullest flavor to harvest my herbs just before bloom; the very cardinals who sing me awake and tap at my window, surely I would know if the rhythm and balance of my little symphony were in some small way altered. But it was improbable that a cat with such deliberate airs and purposeful movement could be finding himself in this, my very private, place for the first time. Perhaps he had viewed me often from behind those green agates, his blackness blending low into the shadowy spaces, leaf thickets concealing his steady gaze. I am the watcher, watched. This time, I know it; but how many times and places do our footsteps leave an impression on ground we thought was impervious, or certainly ours alone?

What does it mean to say “mine” or to claim ownership? We stake a claim, pay good money for a plot of ground. Then we go about “cultivating.” We think and plan, study and work, make all sorts of improvements to shape it to our will. We toil until we are sore, sacrifice pleasure and rest to ensure its health. We deserve to reap the flowers, to bask in beauty. (Are we talking gardens or children here?)

It’s so natural to think in terms of ownership. It’s such a human thing to desire a tangible reward. We can blame Ben Franklin and a good many enterprising immigrants for our American work ethic. Franklin’s almanacs are filled with aphorisms we live daily, mostly suggesting the equation of diligence + industry = success, i.e. material gain. But all it took was one sleek little tomcat to remind me about how much, if anything, I really own.

My garden landscape may have been claimed, variously, by sea life, dinosaurs, pirates, Indians, French trappers, black bears, and who knows how many others through the vicissitudes of natural development and physical science. I should probably feel more lucky than amazed at the realization, once more, that I am merely part of a succession, that the black cat has improved my vision.

Am I to chase away this dark intruder in the name of defending the dozen species of regulars at my bird feeders? He is not part of my overall plan. I didn’t sketch him into the blueprints of my carefully designed walks, beds, lawns, pond, and patios. I didn’t say to myself, “A sleek black cat would be a nice touch, roaming the ground cover, brushing the mint border with his serpentine tail.” But roamer and brusher he is. Meower and lounger and charmer he is, daily insinuating himself into and complicating the life of this bird lover.

What to do, then? Of course, find him a suitable home. He looks a bit thin. (All young animals and children look a bit thin to someone who loves to cook and feed.) He wears no collar but bears the countenance of a free spirit as clearly as he might a scarlet letter. He adores albacore tuna. That was clear from the second day. A consultation with my friend, Sylvia, yielded only three words of advice, “Accept your destiny.” But he looks longingly in the direction of my doves and cardinals. It’s the tuna-tasting look.

Phone calls and inquiries were made to the vet’s office, the local school, and around the neighborhood. Rumors and false leads abounded. Meanwhile, “Midnight” seemed to establish “squatter’s rights” in the garden. He perfected the most exquisite languishing countenance whenever I opened a door. Every scolding word died in my throat; silent scowls had no effect whatever.

News of my latest dilemma spread through the neighborhood with the speed of native drums. There is a diminutive bicycle brigade which is as reliable as any newsletter, and much more creative. They carried my concern that this small, seemingly homeless creature needed a caring family who would assume responsibility for medical care, food, and love. My worrying days were few.

Two mornings later, Midnight appeared atop my fence, resplendent in his light green, jewel-studded collar. The morning sun danced in his eyes and glinted off the tag that dangled beneath his soft neck. He resumed his station under my chaise lounge and punctuated my thoughts about our relationship. If we aren’t greedy, we can share all the good things, actually end up having more. We don’t own a darned thing. We can’t fence in butterflies, but they come to well-tended places where love grows. It’s like that with kids, and cats and gardens.

The Birds and The Bees

When most parents think of the birds and the bees, they dread THE TALK. There’s a whole other meaning to this conversation which needs to begin with pre-school, and that is the role of pollinators in our food supply. To a curious, mind-wide-open pre-schooler or elementary-age child, the drama of the pollination process and how it relates to people, directly, is utterly fascinating.

Imagine a world without pizza. If we begin to explain to our kids how the birds and the bees help us get our favorite pizza ingredients, we get attention. Tomatoes, peppers, onions and other vegetable toppings require pollination to reproduce and grow. There would be no pizza crust without wheat to make flour for the dough. Every fruit and vegetable is part of our diet because of the vital role of pollinators. They are responsible for every third bite of food we put into our mouths. Bees are the superstar pollinators, but many others such as hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths, ants, flies, wasps, and beetles carry out the transfer of pollen among plant parts. This pollination enables seed production, without which we would face widespread crop extinction and a major shift in our food supply.

We are halfway through National Pollinator Week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the small winged creatures we often take for granted, but who make our very existence possible. Loss of habitat, pesticides, and disease have been responsible for declining pollinator populations. For those of us along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there is still a good bit of animal habitat, but agricultural practices as well as building and clearing land are responsible for diminishing pollinator populations in alarming numbers. Pollinators need us to provide cover, water, native plants for food, and a place to raise young. The National Wildlife Federation website has information on how to plan our gardens or even very small spaces to attract and protect pollinators. When we create habitat for our pollinators, we help prevent loss of plants we depend upon for food, as well as help our gardens bloom.

There are many books for children which spark their desire to nurture their surroundings and understand the interdependence of plants and animals. Some of my favorites are MY GARDEN by Kevin Henkes, ON BEYOND BUGS! All About Insects by Tish Rabe, and A SEED IS SLEEPY by Dianna Hutts Aston. My book, LEMON TREES AND BUMBLEBEES, was inspired by watching the bees in our garden. When my little great-granddaughter, Sydney, was six months old, we spent hours of adventures following, watching, and falling asleep to the humming of bees. Now about to celebrate her fifth birthday, Sydney still loves bees and enjoys telling about all the pollinators, plant parts, and the process of pollination. It’s so exciting to plant the best seeds early in a fertile mind!

Surprise for the Eyes

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A writer must create pictures in the minds of readers, so exacting word choice is vital. For a long time, I have kept these words taped to my desk space. I do not know who wrote them, but they’re great:

         The written word is clean as bone,

         Clear as light,

         Firm as stone.

         Two words are not

         As good as one.

Some early mornings, I walk a garden path to find my word-pictures. My cameras go with me, and the surprises found out there often give me the words and the illustrations.

I look high into the wax myrtle and meet the gaze of an eye on me. She wants me to move along, but I return when she flies to the courtyard for a sip from the fountain.

The pine straw shifts slightly in the flowerbed, and a familiar shape is lapping rainwater in a brick crevice. He has a rival in one of the many garden turf wars. I am usually the loser in the assault on leaves and blossoms, whether we meet face-to-face, or I catch a mere glimpse of the offender.  

Doves and turtles share resting space in their pine straw bed, co-existing peacefully with other species.

The copper and brown of the wood thrush melds with the woodland floor or leafy undergrowth where he forages. He zooms out to scritch, scratch with with one foot and then the other, like a comical chicken, and turns over leaf after leaf to find insects. Then he races back under the shrubbery to hide. Perched on a limb, he looks a lot like the bark.

Here’s a fledgling wood thrush, but he’ll watch Mom and Dad and learn quickly.

Green on green is hard to be seen!

Whether fledging or spinning, the smallest creatures must find their way quickly to avoid predators.

I don’t know why this little chickadee looks so forlorn, but he finally seemed to find some purpose.

Wolf snails are cannibalistic and devour other snails, and even each other. They move much faster than other snails, and it’s not hard to imagine that they could terrify their prey with those “horned” heads.

A hummingbird snugs down over her two white pearl-sized eggs in the hanging cradle she has woven around a plant stem.

This walking stick and her offspring have found a perfect hiding place in a woven basket beside my back door. Their camouflage can get them into trouble if I don’t see them before I drop yard shoes into the basket. They are there often, so I look out for them now.

Back inside, I’m ready to write, but my garden friends have a little more to say before they leave me. I can’t resist a few more shots of them from my side of the windows.

It’s wild kingdom where I live, and I’ll return with more photo stories about my adventures. I agree with Thoreau that I can never learn everything in just my own square mile!