cob bench gatheringcob bench and roofcob bench service friendship

From the time I was a little girl, the plants and trees growing around my house have always been a part of what makes my house feel like home. In my childhood, it was my father’s pomegranate tree outside my bedroom window, and the specially grafted fruit tree in our backyard, lovingly created by Mr. Scoccia, on old Italian distant relative. It was a cherry plum tree that also grew larger plums, cherries and a few nectarines. It seemed like magic in my own backyard.

Later it was the Japanese maple my parents put in after an addition and when I was a teenager I would come home from school early on Fridays to tend my own strawberries and daisies planted in a corner designated for me. In each house I’ve owned, the garden in summer is truly like another “room” for me–a place to commune, rest, fret, laugh and hopefully reap the benefits of the harvest–and share it with a bunny or two and a few goldfinches.

So it’s not at all surprising to me that when I accepted the fact that I needed a smaller place to take care of, my heart instantly warmed to my condo when I saw the lovely little patio, beautifully landscaped with a weeping pine in a stone grotto, a huge honeysuckle vine crawling up the fence, and other treats like ground cover in the cracks between the pavement stones and a beautiful plant I would learn was called a hellebore, or lenten rose.

Even though there didn’t seem to be much room for vegetables, I insisted my tomato plants make the trip to Portland in a big pot, along with a portulaca I especially loved. I’m happy to report that in November I harvested 8 tomatoes, and the portulaca, even though it’s supposed to be annual, at least in Idaho, is “miraculously” coming back.

During escrow, I was overjoyed to tears one morning when I decided to walk over to look at the outside of the place I had made an offer on, and on the way home “accidentally” discovered the little haven known as The Emerson Street Garden. I was on the opposite side of the street from it, but something unspoken told me to cross just then, even though I didn’t need to. I opened the lovely little gate, and fell in love instantly. I took it as a sign that I could indeed live peacefully and happily in my new neighborhood.

It wasn’t that the garden was in tip top shape. As a soil reclamation project, it was still a work in progress. But someone was definitely tending the raised beds and writing colorful messages on the chalkboard, inviting neighbors to get involved. I attended a garden party there about a week after I moved in to my new place, and it’s there that I met some of the people who became my newest friends.

But after that summer party, the organization facilitating the maintenance of the garden went through a lot of changes in staff and budgeting and once the paths were cleared and the back soil was remediated, no one came around to organize or help with heavy labor. My neighbor and I each continued to stop by separately, and by good fortune we met each other one morning and discovered that we were neighbors. We spent the late fall and early winter and then early spring hearing about possible meetings or work parties that never came to be or got canceled at the last minute.

Grass has grown up high around the raised beds and the tomatoes, collards and greens were left to go to seed. I picked greens all winter off and on, and there’s still some, though the plants are now bolting in earnest. I bought a few small herb starts for the new herb spiral an intern built last summer before returning to college in the midwest–chocolate mint, lemon thyme, flat leaf parsley and marjarom–and I’ve made it my “job” to check on the spiral from time to time and do as much paramedic weeding as I can to keep the plants recognizable. On Martin Luther King’s birthday, my neighbor asked me to help her repaint the words of Martin Luther King near the garden gate that read “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” When Spring came, I bought a pansy for the small planter next to these words, and when I walk by I deadhead the spent blossoms or try to find something to water it with if it’s getting too dry.

But although some other neighbors have asked what’s going on, by and large the garden is empty of regular human visitors except for my neighbor and me. At least until about a couple of weeks ago. Romeo and I stopped in to weed the herb spiral and inside the small makeshift greenhouse where no one is starting plants I noticed a bundle of blankets. i wondered to myself if anyone was sleeping there, but I didn’t see anyone.

A few days later my neighbor told me she had been to the garden early in the morning and discovered a young man asleep on the cob bench you see in the photo at the top of this post. She said he simply lifted his head up to look at her for a moment, then put it down and went back to sleep. She wasn’t comfortable with his presence, so she left, and wasn’t sure she wanted to return. I stopped by myself one afternoon but as Romeo and I entered I saw there was someone back at the shelter. I asked if he was working in the garden. He said no, he was picking up trash. I asked if he lived in the neighborhood. No answer. So I left.

Hoping to rouse interest in the issue and find out if a work party was a possibility I messaged the people again at the non-profit that had created the garden. The next week my neighbor went by the garden to find a volunteer from groundwork Portland cleaning out the shed and planning activities for April, though he put no dates on the board for when these things would be happening.  I was so encouraged by this, I decided to stop by later that afternoon myself.

My neighbor had also found the blankets, and hoped to discourage the “camper” by leaving his blankets on the ground outside of the greenhouse.

Although I genuinely laughed at her pique, privately I wasn’t so sure it was the best tactic, or that it would even work. It turned out I was right. That late afternoon, Romeo and I walked by, and I determined I would go in and see what kind of work schedule had been written on the board. Since there is a large fig tree at the front entrance to the garden, and further down the midline of sight, a large raspberry patch, it’s nearly impossible to see the covered cob bench until you’re well into the garden.

As I walked around the raspberries I saw there was a young man settling himself in on the cob bench with his damp blankets, about to eat a red delicious apple. He had the same hat on as the guy I had spoken to from the gate a few days ago, and he gave me a sleepy look. I said hello, and so did he.

I told him I had come to see the work schedule posted on the white board just beyond the shelter. I told him people were planning on coming to work in the garden and that they probably wouldn’t let him keep staying there. I asked him if he liked to garden and invited him to come help us.

He was young. Maybe 20, but maybe younger, and certainly not over 25. As I turned to leave, I thought to introduce myself.

“My name’s Maria,” I said. “And this is Romeo. What’s yours?”

It had been raining a little and the wind was kicking up so I had this ridiculous safari type visor hat on under the hood of my rain slicker. When he answered me I couldn’t hear him properly. I asked him again and the same thing happened.

Frustrated, I made a face and a remark about having too many things covering my ears as I peeled them off, and that made him smile.

“Jeremiah.” he said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I hope you’ll come back and help us with the garden.”

As Romeo and I walked on for a few blocks, the thought came to me that if I didn’t have a place to sleep or a roof over my head, I’d sure like to sleep on a bench that has things like “friendship” “peace” “support” “gathering”  and “rest” written all over it, in the middle of an overgrown garden.  At least if I knew where it was I would. And that made my heart go out to this young man, who wasn’t high on meth, who wasn’t drinking whiskey out of the bottle, who treated me with respect, and was even sheepishly afraid I was going to somehow cast him out that very minute.

I couldn’t shake the feeling, either, that he somehow looked familiar. Later that evening, the association I was making hit me: back in November, at the same time of day during our late afternoon walk, Romeo and I had come to the garden, and found 3 young people there, sitting on the cob bench and talking about the garden: two young men and a young woman. One young man, I’ll call him Adam, had been involved in the garden a few years ago and was extemporizing to the other two about what a great place it was and how much he had loved his time of involvement here. The young woman seemed to be a friend of his and joined in our conversation about the future of the garden, since I invited them to come back and help us out once things were organized (ever hopeful am I about this coming to fruition).

But the other young man was quiet, listened and watched us with silent eyes. Adam introduced him as his brother, and when we shook hands and said hello was the only time he spoke. He was a light skinned African American young man with dreamy blue eyes. His name was something biblical that started with a J. Could it have been Jeremiah? Could this be the same young man I had met in November? If so, he knew the garden was there, tucked in off the street, a safe place to crash and not be bothered. My heart went out to him. And as crazy of a long shot as it might be, I found his articulate brother’s e-mail and wrote to him, just in case it was indeed, his brother.

I don’t expect to hear back. And there are lots of other reasons someone who reminds me of that young man I met briefly could be there: a medical marijuana facility just a block away, a history with the neighborhood, good luck, or even happenstance.

In the meantime, Groundwork Portland has posted a preliminary sign listing The Emerson Street Garden Rules. This replaces a handmade notice my neighbor put up that said “No Camping–thank you, The Management,” which I loved her for thinking to write. Among the garden rules is, of course, no camping, with the added force of saying if it is reported the police station down the street will make extra patrols.

I am glad that Groundwork has begun again to help us clear the space for its intended purpose–to be a garden the neighborhood can share where people feel safe to gather and grow plants, but can also be assured there will be no camping, drinking, smoking, dumping litter, etc. Yet I can’t help but wonder where the young man with the name of the prophet Jeremiah has gone to. I’m no biblical scholar, but I did read that when Jeremiah received the call to prophecy, he complained that he was only a child and did not know how to speak. God wasn’t having any of it, and simply told him to get himself ready.

The Jeremiah I met in the Emerson Street Garden this month, and possibly back in November, was also a  youth with few words. But his power to remind me we all need to belong, to have a safe place to rest and restore ourselves, and to allow me to identify with him rather than shun him, seems a kind of prophetic gift by spontaneous example. We can keep telling people with no place to go to go elsewhere, but if we don’t try to help them find a good elsewhere, or at least have compassion that those elsewheres may be few and far between, then we need to keep being given the example again and again.

I like to imagine it was his brother I wrote to, and though he didn’t answer me, he went to find his brother and bring him home. Or that if he didn’t, that Jeremiah finds another safe place to rest even sweeter, and also warmer, than that sweet little garden. My wishes for him, and for us, are many: that he comes back, to help us, and the garden, grow; that some day we all learn the deeper meaning of the word “service” together; and that when we all get frustrated with the behavior of those we don’t understand, or who get in the way, that we also remember to do our best, however imperfectly, to live by the words of the modern day prophet Martin Luther King–the ones my neighbor and I repainted on the garden wall.

 

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

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peas with cherub

All the attendant adjustments to the complete change in environment my move to Portland entails have activated what I call “52 pick up.” It means that every orientation point my nervous system has habitually relied on is getting rearranged and so all orientation points are almost literally “up in the air.” This makes for a lot of confusion in executing the most basic transactions, such as finding my glasses while in the store, paying for groceries, going to the post office, etc. Slowly, over the last several months, life is gradually getting more grounded.

Thankfully, what I fondly refer to as my “Mrs. Magoo Aspect,” also kicks in. She is delighted by everything around her, ping ponging around to admire each thing that catches her eye, while all the while making missteps, mistakes, and blunders. But she doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, they make her giggle, and they don’t dampen her enthusiasm in the least.

One of the activities I’ve  tried to keep going as a “grounding” force since the moment I moved in is my love of tending a garden, or at least helping things grow in it. I immediately fell in love with the  Emerson Street Garden down the block, and volunteered to water at Bakari Garden, a few blocks away, so I could participate in the Urban Farm Collective Farmer’s Market each Monday evening.

I am also blessed with the sweetest little patio in my small complex, at least to my way of thinking. The woman who lived here before me landscaped it with lovely, easy to take care of flowering plants like hellebore (Lenten Rose), and beautiful honey suckle vine climbing up a trellis, some bamboo and a graceful feathery evergreen tree. The flagstones are lined with moss and small green ground cover, and it is, in short, a delightful place to be. The room for plants was almost non-existent in the u-haul my son and his friends packed my belongings in, but somehow I managed to bring a pot of portulaca and some tomatoes grown from my friend Eric’s heirloom seeds. (I had about 8 of them by November and saved a few seeds from those, too.) I carefully placed the few things I managed to bring and hoped, with the longer growing season, that I might get to have some fall greens.

Everything came up, but lo and behold, that is how I discovered that I share my patio with huge snails and slugs. They ate absolutely everything green thing I started.  Then I read somewhere they don’t like copper, so I started lining the dirt in my pots with pennies. I also did this in a small space of dirt I cleared along the back fence behind our parking lot, where blackberries have mostly taken over, but where a woman who once lived here obviously had created a two tiered garden. There is even a peach tree and a cherry tree. Unlike the gardens in my neighborhood that immediately caught my eye, only gradually did I see the garden that was once flourishing literally right in my own backyard.

The pennies did the trick keeping the snails at bay, but by then it was cold and winter had set in. The few starts I managed to get in pretty much stopped growing and when it got warmer a month or so ago, they have started to go to seed. But that’s fine with me. Next Spring I will have LOTS of arugula in the first bed, and, I hope, by then, more, in have more space I have slowly cleared.

I am also a bit of a guerilla gardener. I like to sneak things in where I hope they might grow. My condo mates have various planters outside their respective patios, but no one is growing much of anything in them. Back in February I couldn’t resist planting some early Alaskan green pea variety I had left over all around the cute little cherub you see at the top of this post, which I later found out was a gift to my next door neighbor from her mother. But my Mrs. Maggo aspect forgot all about them.

Not far from this cherub, there is a wooden planter directly under a trellis. I discovered the planter was completely empty, and that the vine growing out of a barrel container next to it took up only part of the trellis. Slowly, each day, I would add dirt to the planter until it was full. Mike took me to Fred Meyer to get enough organic soil to top it off and there I picked out some Sugar Snap Peas. I soaked them over night and the next day in the off-and-on drizzle, I labored to somehow afix copper tape to the edge of the planter and weight it down with pennies and small rocks. I built a trellis to the trellis with sticks and hemp cord, and I planted the peas.

sugar snap peas planted

This process entailed a lot of muttering to the copper tape, and the snails that might be watching, and the wind that I prayed would not blow everything down. In the middle of one of those mutters, I looked up and over, and my eye caught the planter with the cherub in it. Were those PEAS in there? And then I couldn’t stop giggling. Not only were they peas, it took me a while to remember they were peas I had actually planted and they had somehow come up amidst the snail population and without copper pennies to guard them.

My neighbor seemed happy enough to see them sprouting around her cherub, and I took it as a good sign for the future my sugar snap peas. Muttering and then giggling, that’s how I spent my first day of Spring.

Resurrecting the former garden beds from the blackberry bramble is a, well, thorny process. But as you may recall from my post Elegy for the Blackberry Bramble, I have some experience with blackberries. So any time weather permits and I have energy, I try to make a little headway, coaxing them to share the space wtih me. In that process I discovered a huge rhubarb plant, from which I have made some easy and pretty healthy vegan rhubarb crumble. Perhaps I’ll share that recipe soon. There’s also a giant artichoke plant, and comfrey coming back up. (Good for when Mrs. Magoo trips and falls or runs her toe into the couch.) All this bounty has started up a curiosity in me about the woman who did all this before me, and gratitude that there is a treasure trove of a garden underneath the bramble because of her efforts.

Buoyed by the sprouting peas and the success of my make shift trellis (so far), I turned my attention to a barrel planter on the outside of the fence of my other next door neighbor. She is a young woman busy with work and school and when asked, she said, oh go ahead, plant whatever you want. I had designs to put some nasturtium and basil seeds together in it, but first some weeds and what looked like quack grass to me from a distance had to be pulled out.

Imagine my surprise when I went to pull the first handful out of the planter and found, not quack grass, but green onions!

my green onions

Not since years ago when my neighbor down the alley from my Asbury Street house thinned his green onions and gave me what he was only going to throw away have I been in such serendipitous bliss of green onion plenty. I LOVE green onions, and I LOVE not having to buy them at the store. . .

For a moment I worried that someone else may have planted them and would come looking, but then I realized that was not likely at all. Instead I ascribed them mysteriously to the phantom woman gardener who came before me. I ate a couple just by themselves and chopped some up on my stir fry for dinner. I put the green ends in the freezer with my kale stems, carrot ends and squash seeds to make broth with. And when I talked to my dear friend on the phone for our full moon phone call, I told her this woman must have planted the onions and that I had found them.

My son has started a tradition of video taping me a hilarious good morning, which he sends on FB each day. Today he had also asked me how my Wednesday went. So I started to tell him about the discovery of the onions. And as I typed, I realized, all of a sudden, that  was the one, desperate last fall to be able to plant something, anything, to make me feel grounded, who had dumped a packet of old green onions seed into that barrel. am the phantom gardener I have been thanking of the last 24 hours.

All this morning I laughed out loud every time I thought of it. I think my Mrs. Magoo Aspect should get an award for this one. And, in a way, she has: these beautiful green onions, which I could barely ever get to grow in the dry Palouse climate. Welcome home, Mrs. Magoo. You have arrived in Portland, where they like to keep things weird, and where you can dump a packet of old seeds in a planter and have onions in a few months, whether you remember you planted them or not.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

{ 15 comments }

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (and Crunchy Millet Cookies for the journey)

March 11, 2016

For weeks now I’ve thought it might be a good idea to share this version of my classic oatmeal millet raisin cookies, but I haven’t been able to make myself write the post. Instead I’ve been stuck at a quirky road block: I’m stymied by a perverse tendency on my part to stop making whatever […]

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In The Room

February 27, 2016

I have come to realize that my life operates beyond the idea of what I think I should be doing or any plans I make to be fruitful or productive. Even when I think of myself as slacking off, the meaning or growth I apparently need is presented to me effortlessly. It is the acceptance […]

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Signs of Spring

February 23, 2016

Be on the lookout for them! And if you’re in the southern hemisphere, signs of Fall:

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The Continental Divide and The Boomerang

February 10, 2016

Shortly after moving to Portland, I began a quest to get an appointment at Oregon Health and Sciences University Neurology Department. I knew them as the department where Dr. Roy Swank had once been chair and also as the place that had conducted a study of patients with MS on the McDougall Diet. I had […]

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Baked Tempeh Sticks with Mustard Marinade (and A Dog’s Life)

January 24, 2016

Before I tell you the story of the little transgression that gave rise to this recipe post, I want to remind you that my nutritional choices are based on my own subjective experience, which is dynamic, and can change over time. Therefore, it’s not medical advice, or even advice that strictly conforms to any one […]

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On The Street

January 16, 2016

In the short time I’ve lived in my neighborhood, it’s given me a lot of vivid lessons, both in its history, and in the now of its very sharp contrasts. Earlier in the year I expressed some preliminary insights into the experiences I was having in a couple of previous posts. Here are a few […]

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Gateway to the Sixties

January 12, 2016

The last time I can remember seeing the ocean, my son was just 8 years old. We had only been in Moscow a couple of years. My friend Joe knew I missed the ocean, so he suggested a weekend camping trip out to the coast. Brave man that he was, he was also willing to let […]

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Eight is the Magic Number

December 28, 2015

Back in the days when all of us little girls were read Cinderella over and over many times, shoe size was a marker for femininity. Small feet were considered dainty and especially feminine. I remember wondering what it might be like to have a tiny foot simply slide right into a beautiful glass slipper, have […]

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