Category Archives: Naturesque

The Day the Deer Ate Our Rose Bush

Our friends brought us a rose bush –our first and only. They said they chose it because it spoke sweetly. And it did. (Not all roses do). We planted it in our fledgling garden. Dug a deep hole in a suitably sunlit corner, gently persuaded this beauty out of its pot, fragrant soil still clinging to its roots, placed it carefully in the ground. Then we proceeded to water it, with tender admiration and irrational optimism. Picture a rose bush, the size of a toddler, lush with emerald leaves, and studded with sunset blooms. Roses with rouged orange petals, brilliantly colored and just big enough to lose yourself in. Also fat buds swollen with gossip, teetering on the brink of gorgeous indiscretion. Some rose bushes are stand-offish, regal but removed. Ours was charming, unpretentious, easy to love.

It is relevant at this juncture, to remind you that we have deer in these hills. Herds that you will chance upon, poised prettily in driveways and front yards, sometimes even on sidewalks, like uncannily realistic garden statuary. They frequent our home with some regularity and are welcome here. I will look out the window and see them stepping delicately up the little path that leads to the tumbledown slope of our backyard. They arrive with a polite and expectant air, like customers walking into a restaurant where they’ve made a reservation.  “Party of five,” I will sometimes murmur to my husband. Almost I am tempted to greet them with a tray of water glasses, pass out menus for their perusal. But they do not need menus. Our backyard, with its towering cypress, it’s unkempt bottlebrush shrubs, it’s berry bushes, ivy covered fence and crumbling, uneven stone terraces, is their buffet. Sometimes they come when we are fast asleep in bed. A loud clattering will temporarily rouse us from our slumbers and then, “It’s just the deer,” one of us will say, and we will tumble back into dreamland, while our four-legged friends stroll across our wooden deck, towards the immovable feast of our aspiring garden.

Roses, we had been informed are a much sought-after delicacy in the Kingdom of Deer. To make your rose bush unassailable involves encasing it in fencing or netting. But there is something about these sensible approaches that is too cage-like for my liking. My taste in gardens runs towards the tangled and wild. I admire, but do not aspire to manicured lawns and neatly ordered grounds. I prefer gardens that are loosely choreographed, spontaneous. Gardens that lean towards the green edge of chaos. Looking for alternatives I turn to the wisdom of the internet. A quick search reveals that in this battle of wits between gardeners and deer, humans do not often emerge as victors. The preventative measures we have evolved, while wonderfully creative and occasionally even successful, are far from being reliably effective. But some have the saving grace of being entertaining. For instance, there is the Irish Spring technique which involves suspending bars of this cheerfully named soap from tree branches, and tying them onto stakes. There is also the Stinky Spray method which involves boiling a mixture of garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, dish soap, apple cider vinegar and spraying the resultant concoction over your garden plants (while being sure to stand up wind). Is it just me, or is it a trifle absurd, and also a little bit adorable, that as a species we have put a man on the moon, we have figured out how to break the sound barrier and are on the verge of popularizing self-driving cars, but when it comes to protecting flowers from deer raids, our most advanced response is stringing up bath soap, and mixing inconceivably horrid-smelling potions over the kitchen stove?

Not being drawn to the aesthetic of soap bars a-dangling in the backyard, I went the olfactory assault route. I boiled up an unthinkably awful smelling concoction, out of a series of individually benign ingredients. In combination they resulted in a far from aromatic brew that managed to waft its way into every nook and cranny of our small home, prompting us to hastily open all the windows and depart for a very long walk — but only after I had filled a spray bottle and liberally sprayed our ethereal rose bush with this anything-but-ethereal potpourri of Awfulness. As we propelled ourselves speedily away from the garden we wondered whether our strategy was going to prove over-effective, keeping not just deer at bay, but any and all creatures possessed of a nose. Ourselves included.

A day went by, then two, and three, and our ornamental garden shrub stretched new leaves into the sun, opened the tight flushed fists of its buds into ridiculously generous blooms. The deer were nowhere to be seen and I rejoiced at the sage wisdom of the internet that had so sagely been applied. Feeling self-congratulatory and complacent I neglected to respray the bush at the end of a week, figuring the deer would have no way of knowing if I were to delay by a day. I underestimated their vigilance. The next morning I gazed out our window and wondered why the rose bush looked so much smaller than it had the last evening. And why there were so many stubby little branches sticking out in all directions, devoid of any leaves, and why were there only two roses left when yesterday there had been almost a dozen. It took a full minute for me to comprehend the obvious. The deer had visited. But why I wondered had they left the two roses? Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at compromise. “We take the bush, you take these two perfect flowers.” All is fair in love and war and gardening. I sprayed the bush with less conviction than I had the previous week. My faith in its powers, like the rose bush itself, sadly diminished. That night a rustling sound from the garden roused me from slumber. I flicked on the garden light and peered through the slats of our blinds, straight into the delicate face of a young deer with her mouth full of roses.

As a child I would sometimes save up the last bite of chocolate, the last sweet in the jar. For later. I would say to myself. And through the course of the day I carried knowledge of the stored-treat, like a shiny pebble in my pocket. To be fingered surreptitiously at various intervals, releasing the thrill of anticipation. Every event in childhood is experienced more than once. There is the event itself and then the innumerable times it is lived prospectively. And so perhaps it is with other creatures as well. I imagine the young deer in our garden the previous night. I do not think it is unlikely that this train of thought played itself out in her sleek head:  ‘Today I will eat all but two of these delicious rose custards. Tomorrow I will come back when the moon is full and the birds fast asleep, and I will eat these last two delicacies with unhurried grace, and strong-jawed determination.

To have a rose bush in your garden is a sweetly scented gift. But it is also, and this fact may surprise you, a gift, to find in your garden, a deer, haloed by moonlight, gazing at you with soft, attentive eyes, as she thoughtfully partakes of the very last of the last of your roses. Velvet orange petals, lush green leaves, woody stems, crimson thorns all pulled into the fearless cavern of her mouth. An appetite for life that strikes you as remarkable, and unequivocally deserving of all your pretty roses. Yes every last one.

And perhaps we can all learn to be such unflinching connoisseurs. Perhaps we too will someday stand, in a sliver of moonlight, feasting on the jeweled and thorny gifts of our world.


Mockingbird

Mockingbird, how well did the scientists name you!  Mimus polyglottos. You marvelous many-tongued mimic. You clever, feathered virtuoso. Who was it who informed you that you were here to sing more than one song? Who encouraged your reckless plagiarism, and gave you permission to ransack the repertoire of the bluejay and the blackbird, the cricket, the creaky gate, and the car alarm, then advised you to stitch them together in a crazy patchwork quilt of sound? You oddly arranged chorus of one. You auditory sampler, you relentless composer. You impudent thief, you conspicuous performer, you bewildering talent! How can I make you understand how you held us in thrall? Perched high on a telephone wire, singing for love and invisible gods. Animated by an intensity and vigor that seemed not entirely of this earth. No, divinely inspired. How you delighted in your own music! As if it were a thing aside from you. How you fluttered up into the air, and then down again, as if lifted by the sheer, unfettered genius of your song. How striking and unmistakable you were in flight! With those broad white stripes on the pleated fan of your dark gray wingtips. How you did not stop singing to fly. How a river of sound streamed uninterrupted from between your beak. As if you could not help yourself. As if songs swell and pour out of you of their own accord. Heedless of your better judgement. Careless of your will. What is the secret of your enthusiasm, that your songs burst forth so cheerily, even in the black velvet depths of night? What powers your nocturnal serenades (up to a thousand songs in the span of an hour!) when most of us, worn ragged by the cares of day, are fast asleep and dreaming? Is it your specialized diet of barberries, beetles, hawthorn, and grapes, grasshoppers, and rose hips, pokeweed, and sassafras, blackberries and true bugs? [And excuse me, but how do you know, really, whether a bug is true or fraudulent? Is it the shifty eyes that give them away, or the nervous clearing of a slender throat, a tendency to fidget?] But I digress. The real question before us is this: who is it, or what, within you, that improvises with such verve and daring? You perched pandemonium. You bird-shaped tower of babel. You hue and cry, you miniature hubbub, interspersed with arias and anthems, and chants and lays and lullabies. Were all the wheezy and the raspy notes of the world, all the molten trills, and high, clear whistles, the indignant squawks, the chitter and chatter, the murmurs and babbles, and operatic asides lying patiently in wait for one such as you, to come along and recognize their deep kinship to one another? Waiting for one with courage and class enough, to say, ‘This too belongs. This too is part of my song. This too I will sing, and surprise you. With my gravity and wit, my playful juxtapositions, my sly brilliance, my magnanimity and keen ear, my drollery, and lack of disdain.’ You discerning birdling. You singing sleekness. You wandering minstrel. We who are wingless and earthbound, we who are sometimes proud and often petulant and regrettably stuck in the one same song, look up at you and listen. And listening hear, just how much more we have to sing about. Had we but courage enough and class. To admit it all.


Springtime

And now there is a blue lilt to the air, a gauzy greenness an unmistakable shimmer that runs through the days. (I have lived the taste of this before in another time and place — but when and where?) Just around the bend in the road lies that fairytale ball, Spring. Every blade, every branch, every blossom in the kingdom is invited. Who can resist such excitement? See how the world readies itself for festivities with ribbons and jewels. Young oak leaves unfurling from tight casings hypnotic green, camellias tossing ruffled candy pink skirts, queenly irises yawning purple and gold, tremulous tulips breaking like dawn, jonquils and daffodils nodding dainty heads, straight-backed lavender spearing the air, starry faced jasmine bursting out of sharp-tipped buds, brilliant poppies catching sunlight like a lucky penny, wisteria with its tumbling grape-like clusters scenting the world with wisterious allure. I stumble amidst the incandescent beauty of this neighborhood in the hills. These domestic paths so familiar and full of wild surprise. I am taken by the paradox of this spontaneous orchestration. And its grand scale! The thrill of rising sap, the delicate aura of ripening, the extravagance of an indomitable force animating the particular and the universal, propelling the one and many in an ancient cycle. And why does this feel both searingly new and hauntingly accustomed? One night I wake from a dream and the darkness is a riptide of memories that pulls me back to the wide staircase of a convent college on Cathedral Road in a seaside city in Southern India. If you do not know it it does not matter. If you do, then you know how we streamed up those stairs like an improbable river of flowers, a river of stars. With our books and our timetables, our handwritten notes, our unruled foreheads. How we sat on the wooden benches of higher education as the world rained down upon us. How our minds broke casually into blossom. How we thrived on canteen samosas, coffee and conversation. The sky a brilliant blue tent of possibility. The future a languorous cat. This life an all-absorbing romance. How we floated through that time and space like dust motes, like winged seeds, like dragonflies, in a ray of sunlight. Gleaming with energies that arced far beyond our single selves, charged with prolific dreams, and inchoate ideas, untethered potential. How we lived that springtime of our lives unbeknownst to ourselves with such dazzling perfection. And now we are where we are, scattered across the world wrapped in cherished roles, older yes, wiser perhaps, another bend in the road before us. Another springtime beckoning. And who can resist such excitement? Only those who overthink it. The flower is always the bud’s undoing. Let go then. Step into the river lean into the wind let the strength of the earth rise through you. Watch your fingertips burst into bloom.


Magnolia Tree

There is something arresting and unearthly about a magnolia tree in flower. Something that dances between divinity and dementia. A whirling dervish of a tree. Bursting with grace and an utter lack of restraint. See how it holds up its leafless branches. A candelabra, extravagantly ablaze with lunatic blossoms and zero sense of rationing or self-preservation. See how these flowers, some the size of your clenched fist, some the size of your whole hand, yawn open, with such unrestrained ardor it nearly turns them inside out. See how they do not bloom so much as detonate, in a series of soft explosions. See how like the fleshy tongues of dragons they are. These enormous creamy petals streaked with sunset shades. How their thick scent drugs the air. Drowns all thought in sweetness. An ancient tree architected for prehistoric times. Magnolias have bloomed on earth for 100 million years. Yes. These flowers opened above the heads of dinosaurs, long before humankind was a twinkle in the eye of the universe. And because they predate even the bees, their propagation across time and space was left to outsized beetles, who stricken with wanderlust stumbled across these velvety inner chambers. Kicked up a dusty cloud of pollen and unleashed a long chain of events that unfurled across the last Ice Age, and into the Stone Age and alongside the rise and fall of nameless tribes and civilizations, and the creation of the printing press, the steam engine, frothy cappuccinos and the birth of the internet, leading improbably to this very tree. Here. The one directly in front of me. The one my husband strolls under at the exact moment that a little lick of wind decides to kick up its heels. A handful of petals drift gently over him like a benediction. An origami instant that folds itself into my palm. Dear and delicate as a paper crane. Later I will look up what magnolia flowers symbolize. Nobility, beauty, dignity….Dignity…I think about the word. How it stands tall and runs deep and how much it has to do with integrity and how little with being — normal. I think about this outlandish tree that traces back to Time’s cradle, and its flowers that open alarmingly wide as if to swallow the sun, the way it gives itself madly to the moment. With radical generosity and no reservation. And what wouldn’t be possible — if we could learn to live like that.


The Forgetfulness of Squirrels

A woman on a November morning is watching a squirrel beneath her window. In a small patch of dirt and grass and sunshine she sees him foraging. If asked she would be hard pressed to describe the color of his fur. It is a shifting landscape of grey, brown, white and black. His tail is a dancing plume. Everything about him is quick, alert, vigorous. He is alive, she thinks to herself, in a way that it is hard to be alive if you have been sitting in front of a screen much of the day instead of sprinting up and down tree trunks scouting out the choicest acorns and burying them in secret caches. Every so often he stands up on his hind legs and looks around to ensure that neither the government nor the blue jays are spying on him. [Just to be safe he relocates his stash a couple of times]. When he stands up, his front paws that functioned until that moment as legs, instantly become hands. In this stance he looks, astonishingly, like a little person. He picks things up, examines and eats them in a way that is quite human. But his jaw works more rapidly than any person alive. She marvels at his resourcefulness and pragmatism. This ability to find food in backyard flora and the foresight he has to put aside a portion of it for leaner times. She has read that squirrels, while admirably meticulous about burying their acorns, have a less than impeccable track record when it comes to retrieval. Lost in the myriad details of the squirrely life they are known to foolishly forget where they left their loot, in the way that humans stumbling out of airports and shopping malls, have trouble remembering where they parked their cars. But squirrel hoarding is not the same as human hoarding. Squirrels for instance have not been known to open Swiss bank accounts or shop at Costco. Also their hoarding habits frequently result in the birth of oak trees. It can be said with reasonable surety that human hoarding has yet to yield any such magnificent outcomes. And it occurs to her suddenly that human greed and negligence have destroyed forests that the squirrels’ acquisitive and forgetful nature helped plant. And it is at this precise moment that the squirrel beneath her window looks up. With a gaze so clear-eyed, vibrant, and empty of accusation, that she feels at once chastened and forgiven on behalf of her kind.

 


Bird In The Mirror

I wish you could have seen her as I did, in the early morning light. A little bird perched on the rearview mirror of our parked car. Alone and utterly unaware of her audience. She tips her body over the edge and for a brief moment thoughtfully surveys herself upside down. Then shoots up into the air like a firecracker, a feathered bundle of urgency, and attempts to fly directly into her reflection. Over and over again she repeats this sequence of steps. Undaunted by the obdurate glass or her head-on failure. Perhaps the sight of the slight, bright-eyed being in the mirror has moved her to admiration and compassion. “Don’t worry you beautiful creature,” she seems to be saying, “I see you — and I am coming to get you!” Standing there, I am captivated by how captivated she is by the bird-in-the-glass. How fiercely determined she is to make contact, to establish a birdly bond with the mythical “other”. She is oblivious to the situation’s impossibility. And I wonder if she is getting dizzy in the head. I wonder what her beak is made of. I wonder if she is driven by loneliness, nobility or a bit of both. “You sweet, silly bird!” I whisper. Close to an hour later she is still at it. And I wonder suddenly, what would happen, if you could catch a glimpse of yourself in this world and not know that it was you. I believe you too would be transfixed by the fragile beauty you saw. I believe you too would try, against reason and hope, to befriend the breathing miracle that you are.


Time-Sensitive

Footsteps in the hall and the familiar sound of a key turning in its lock. My husband is home. He drops his lunch bag by the door like a schoolboy. Hurry, he says, there’s something time-sensitive you need to see. I am pulled to my feet by curiosity and the urgency in his voice. We hustle into the cool, dark arms of a January night. There, he says, pointing. And I see it. Low in an ink black sky, a glowing vowel. The incandescent moon. Floating in the valley like a delinquent bauble, barely skimming the tip of an ancient pine. I want to stretch my hands out to it like a child. How many millennia old is that impulse? How old is the relationship between mortals and the moon? …Time-sensitive… Like falling leaf the phrase flutters and gleams in the moonlight. I consider its truth and poetry for the first time, unsettled by awe. Hurry (whoever-wherever-whenever you are). There’s something time-sensitive you need to see.