Richo's World of Seeds, Weeds and Deeds

Dusk found me hunkered in my office, sorting Wasabi seeds again, moving the plump, bright green “keepers” into a little pile at my elbow, sweeping duds and bits of chaff into my lap, listening all the while to “The Incredible String Band,” humming along in the moment.  Perhaps called out by the far off cry of a bird half heard, or lured outside by the chortling of Munger’s Creek as it swelled between its verdant banks, I abandoned my little pile half sorted  and stepped out for a breather.  I’d irrigated that day, the first irrigation of the season, and the plants and trees glowed, thankfully turgid.  Heavenly fragrance greeted me, and then overpowered my other senses.  Breathing deeply with delight, I cast about for what flowers might be responsible for such an Elysian aroma.  Was it coming from the Hawthorn tree, all decked in white from toe to top?  Not likely, they are actually kinda stinky.  Perhaps it was the Cramp Bark emanating this heady aroma?  She had been thinned last year and was feeling mighty perky as a result.  Was it the Paulownia, buzzing with the activity of a million bees?  They couldn’t all be wrong.  Was it the Black Elderberry, with her flowers like cream?  Was it the Wisteria hanging so invitingly at shoulder height, grapelike clusters beckoning a kiss?  Or, maybe it was one of a dozen other flowers, from the lowly Wild Calendula that begged attention at my knee, to the Lilacs that leaned heavenly on the fence line, to the exotic Belladonna, her dark purple flowers beckoning from shadows where frogs now tuned up their nightly concert?  My eyesight then followed a swirling moth as she made her way up into the tree canopy, and I noticed that a Honey Locust, a wayward volunteer that had managed somehow to survive lawnmower and windstorm to grow taller than all the other trees in the garden, had gifted us with cloudlike garlands of leguminous inflorescences, now glowing brightly against a darker backdrop of evening skies.  I sighed.  Yes, the scent of Honey Locust was definitely palpable.  I then realized that there was no one tree or flower responsible for this enticing fragrance–it was all of them combined, and it was–the smell of spring! 

We escaped the depredations of frost this spring.  Cold showers came daily in April, and kept the frost away.  We had a price to pay (shivering in our rubber boots!) for the undamaged Devil’s Club flowers, for the complete floral set on the Apple trees and for the Asphodel flowers, which developed completely and normally for the first time in my recollection.  Now, in seasonal retrospect, it was a price worth paying.  There will be Devil’s Club berries for the bears, apple cider in season, and plenty of Asphodel seed for the first time ever.  The sun has reappeared and dried those cold tears away.  We’re getting yang, and looking forward to planting Corn and Beans.  Great nature has propped open the planting window for summer crops, and now that the soil has warmed, well, let the fun begin!

I know, I know, I’ve not written a blog for a long time.  We’ve been busy!  There has been a lot of activity around our new land–planting comfrey and getting the big field up and going, watered and fenced.  The first Dandelion seed head appeared, and according to my tradition the blessed seeds were blown across the land.  Soon the Dandelions bloomed in concert and thousands of transient puffs had to be captured and bagged.  There have been  myriad seeds to send, robust and ready plants to wrap and ship, and “Queen Wasabi,” oh my, she still demands an undue amount of attention!  What with a seed pick every evening, followed by the abovementioned seed sorting,  it is now clear to us why Wasabi seed is so rare.  In the process, we’ve learned a great deal.  For one thing, the “fresh seed” requirement does not mean that the seeds should be kept completely fresh out of the follicle and undried.  If this is done, the seed is likely to turn out too soft.  Instead, the seeds need to be partially dried and thereby stabilized.  Thus prepared, we know from experience that the seed remains viable for months.  Seed such as this, planted during the spring or summer seasons and kept cool, moist and shaded, will germinate quite reliably the following spring.  It was the Wasabi that finally encouraged me to write this.  Signing off for now!  May your dreams be rendered earth centered by the song of the frog.

Richo

Richo demonstrates seed sowing techniques.

Mandragora turkomanica

Entering the greenhouse on a dark and gloomy evening I was drawn toward an eerie violet glow emanating from one of the Mandragora turkomanica plants.  With this photo, I endeavor to capture this phenomenon.

 

Botanical Reflections

December 31, 2011

December being the month of my birth, and when night casts its longest shadow, is also a time of introspection. I had recently been thinking about the unique ethnobotanical knowledge of children. Not usually one for extended nostalgic reverie, I now find myself pondering aspects of the first ten years of my life. Consider what follows a Solstice offering if you will, a nod to the past, a small sharing of self. Perchance you will find it entertaining or it will inspire your own cascade of recollections.

 My early memories are a kaleidoscope of sensation, incandescent joys and virgin melancholies. This is still mirrored to me when I hear the early 70s music of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Janis Ian. Like that music which wove itself through my initial years and in some way gave form to who I am, I’ve come to recognize that there was a whole panoply of plants that also infected me with their enchantments, infusing something potent, deep within the roots of my being. Bear with me as I meander through memories from my first decade that still exude an aura of magic, yet to be washed away by the cleansing flood of time…

Around the age of 3 we lived on a farm nestled in a valley south of the city of San Luis Obispo in Central California. It is here that my vegetal initiation began. I remember watching my mom transplant small seedlings from paper cups into mounds of sweet smelling freshly tilled dark earth. Becoming cognizant of how I could help, I carefully followed behind her pulling the tender young plants out of the soil. It wasn’t until she got to the end of the row and turned around that she discovered what I was doing and gently set me on the right track. Sometime later that year I recall the joy of struggling to pull the serpentine garden hose over to water sunflowers that were beginning to tower over my head, a feeling of gratitude emanating from their large leaves that waved to me in the warm summer breeze.

The next year in preschool I was introduced to the miracle of sprouting beans, inspecting them each day, snuggled warm and moist in a bed of paper towels on the windowsill. The timeless wonder of life’s spark as they swelled, their skin split and the roots emerged, then cotyledon leaves, pushing up, seeking light. The distinct earthy-sour aroma of this process. The excitement of filling cups with dirt and carefully planting the naked seedlings within. This was undoubtedly the single most valuable lesson I learned in school. Germinating seeds is still one of the great passions of my life.

Growing at the edges of the school playground was a lowly mallow plant with rounded leaves and small pinkish flowers. What all the children appreciated most was the little rounded immature seed clusters which inspired the name “cheeseweed”. We would collect these miniature rounds of green veggie-cheese and when enough were in hand we’d gobble them up, relishing the mucilaginous texture and vaguely cheesy flavor.

Around this time someone demonstrated to me how to select the tender young fennel stalks and peel the fibrous skin back to get to the crisp and juicy sweet flesh. The flavor was beguiling and I could spend many a happy moment peeling and crunching stalk after emerald stalk. This became one of my favored snacks, no patch was safe from my ardent ravishings.

When I was around the age of 5 my mom moved to an old sprawling house on a farm in the rolling hills south of Arroyo Grande, about 20 miles from San Luis Obispo. This we christened Ft. Avocado on account of the large avocado trees that ringed the property. It was something of a wonderland for my small self and I came under the almost tutelary influence of many plants there. The small purple-black skinned avocados were in excess much of the year, hundreds littering the ground, slowly decaying into a sugary smelling sticky mulch. As well as becoming projectiles for my reenactments of epic battles from Star Wars or Thundarr the Barbarian, they were a constant source of nourishment, most often sliced in half, dashed with balsamic vinegar and spooned into my eager mouth. My mom was continually churning out guacamole and more experimental but highly successful creations like avocado pie and chocolate sauce. In the diffused light of the kitchen windowsill we were perpetually sprouting avocado pits by piercing them with a few toothpicks to suspend them partway in a jar of water, gifting the resulting treelets to friends and family.

Just outside the kitchen door was a shrub with large velvety leaves and huge, double trumpet, white flowers which exhaled an exquisite scent. This plant seemed to exert some spell over me. I recall many times staring at the shrub, enthralled by the scent of the flowers, sitting on the kitchen steps carefully peeling away the outer blossom to examine the convoluted one within, a heavenly pillowed landscape for hundreds of tiny insects. The plant seemed vaguely mammallian to me, associating the soft down of the leaves and blossoms with the fuzz on my slender arms or the skin of the pink babies that my pet rat, Rattie-Tat, had recently birthed (and soon devoured in a cannabilistic nightmare!) I now know this bewitching shrub to be the white angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia x candida, well respected by horticulturalists and shamans alike.

In the large open living room of the house there was a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I found utterly fascinating and disturbing. I spent a good deal of time lost in the pleasures and horrors of that wondrous and deranged landscape. In the shady areas outside the house dwelled another plant that seemed an unmistakable hybrid of vegetal and animal. It evoked the same fascination as Bosch’s art, in fact looked like something right out of the painting, a confrontation with living ambivalence. An Arum species whose obscene fleshy purple flowers erupted from the ground to emit a noxious stench akin to rotting meat with delicate overtones of excrement. All manner of flies and beetles found this irresistible and performed curious dances upon the blossoms. As the vaginal spathe withered, the phallic spadix swelled lewdly into what looked to me to be a devilish bright-red corn cob. This I knew instinctually to be toxic.

Out back of the house in the shade of the avocado trees were a series of ornate shallow cement ponds with small cement bridges connecting them, probably the creation of someone’s faery-infested nostalgic Victorian longing. The bottom of the ponds had cracked many years before, so they never held water. Surrounding the ponds and often scrambling within was an extensive patch of nasturtium, their large round leaves providing shade for the various insects and toads that I was always on the hunt for. My mom showed me to eat the regal orange and red flowers whose spicy flavor was a strange delight. The rounded green seeds were a small treasure to me, a faery jewel, the way they rolled between my fingers, fit in the palm of my hand, filled the pockets of my overalls.

Scattered around the property were patches of Oxalis pes-caprae, which we knew as “sour grass”. The clover like leaves I identified with shamrocks, leprechauns and Irish ancestors. I thought that the bright yellow flowers were a clear signature of an affinity with citrus, the intense sour juice running through the stalks was surely the same juice that swelled the lemon. This ubiquitous weed was a refreshing snack that appeared to grow in every suburban backyard, even at school. All the kids around my age highly esteemed chewing the stems. I still ponder what it is about the sour flavor (oxalic acids) that children find so magnetic (my own son Shannon went through a phase of coveting an Andean species that is semi-weedy in our greenhouse). Most of us leave behind the craving for intensely sour flavors with adulthood, by my mid-teens it had lost its appeal.

There were several large Canary Island date palms on the land. I would imagine their massive columnar trunks to be the lumbering legs of a brontosaurus or wooly mammoth. The small yellow dates that showered the ground beneath the trees were mostly pit and no one paid them much attention, yet I found the thin stringy layer of sweet chewy flesh delectable and would squirrel them away for snacking.

There was a large castor bean bush that I found a little intimidating, the deep blood-red new growth, the spiky seed capsules, the veins of the huge palmate leaves radiating from a single point that appeared to gaze at me like the eye of the cyclops. My mom mistakenly tied our goat, Rosie, near the plant one day which led to the demise of both bush and goat.

I loved to accompany my mom on the short walk to check the mailbox because of the large honeysuckle vine that ran rampant all along the dilapidated, lichen-encrusted fence bordering the property. The small glistening drop of nectar to be found within each yellow and orange flower was an ecstatic lesson in sweetness.

There was a small shaded stream that ran through the lower part of the land, the cool domain of polywogs, waterbeetles and nettles. It was here as well as San Luis Creek that I first discovered the sharp biting kiss of nettles, bringing tears and a persistent sting, yet for some reason I was continually drawn to experience this, even long for it at times. A good satisfying pain.

Just up the hill from the creek at the edge of the property was a hole in the fence where I could climb through to an open meadow and make tunnels in the aromatic green grass that towered over my head. In the middle of that field was my secret fort: a large poison oak bush with a hollowed cavity in the center of it. I remember laying in the embrace of its womb, feeling snug and content watching the dynamic play of sunshine amongst the leaves…it seems I was immune to the plant’s wrath, I never developed the rash, though others may have gotten it from me more than once…

During the school week I lived with my dad in suburban San Luis Obispo. From him I learned of the necessity for houseplants and how to care for them, mostly varieties of Pothos and Monstera and the small tree that inexplicably shared my name, Ficus benjamina. Occasionally, with my insistence, we’d venture into more exotic territory. The local Safeway periodically stocked those chlorophyll-deprived grafted cacti that were so popular in the 1980s: Gymnocalycium and Chaemaecereus mutants. How could a child resist the strange geometric forms and flourescent pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of these monstrosities? Appearing more akin to a grotesque pez dispenser than a living entity. They never survived more than year, the Hylocereus stock inevitably shriveling brown and the scion slowly losing its luster and turning to mush. The other houseplant I repeatedly convinced my dad to bring home only to perish were those amazing hybrid Begonia (Rex Cultorum group) with the crazy wrinkled and serrated leaves aswirl with exquisite color and patterns, disappointingly ephemeral in our hands.

My dad and I spent a good deal of time exploring the golden hills, granite capped mountains, oak filled valleys and expansive coastline of SLO County. We tried eating many feral foods: cattail rhizomes and flower stalks, miner’s lettuce, spicy wild mustard and salty salads of New Zealand spinach. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) provided the signature scent. Even today the smell of these aromatic plants invokes a wistful echo of my youthful wanderings. The dominant tree throughout much of the landscape was the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). There were so many of these charming noble trees that I spent time with, the gargantuan sprawling branches a welcoming playground, offering cool shade in the heat of summer, the architecture of their limbs and rough bark perfect for climbing and building tree houses, the leaf litter the abode of all sorts of interesting insects and the worm-like slender salamander. The acorns were always finding their way into my pockets. I tried eating the meat raw on numerous occasions, they looked so edible to me and I could never quite accept the astringency that greeted my tongue when I bit into a carefully peeled acorn. In the denser woodlands large colonies of pitcher sage, Salvia spathacea, carpetted the ground beneath the oaks, emitting a fruity smell when trampled. The hundreds of erect flower stalks with their large globose whorls of bright flowers hypnotized me. After observing the frenzied affairs of hummingbirds in their midst I was thrilled to discover that the magenta flowers secreted a delicious dollop of honey-nectar within.

Occuring throughout the foothills of San Luis Obispo were large patches of prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. These were most likely introduced from Mexico during the time of the Spanish missions, but may have also been part of Luther Burbank’s great “spineless cactus” debacle in the early 1900s. These colonies would often spread over several acres, the spiny pads forming a labrynthian fortress through which I would carefully traverse. The golden yellow flowers produced egg-sized red or orange fruit that I highly prized for their delicious flavor. Collecting and eating the fruit was a bit of a challenge. A small proportion of the plants were nearly spineless, but most were clothed in long vicious spines. I’d usually try to spear or knock off the fruits with a long stick. Once I had the fruits, I had to be especially cautious of the glochids, those miniscule barbed spines that armed the fruit. I did my best to avoid these by carefully slicing the fruit in half and scooping out the flesh, but many times I ended up with glochids in my hands or even my tongue and mouth. Because of this I had a strange relationship with the plant, and on several occasions, with a sturdy stick in hand for a sword, I waged war upon the cactus. Hacking and slashing the pads, the satisfaction of feeling the juicy innards splatter with my blows. Perhaps my later fascination with cactus was atonement for these violent acts or perhaps the plant had compelled me into what was ultimately a creative form of propagation rather than destruction… the pads I whacked to the ground would have simply rooted and grown more plants, like the severed heads of the mythical hydra.

When I was 8 my mom returned to the area after living in the mountains of Montana and Colorado for 2 years with my step dad and infant brother. For the next decade they lived in a house on 20 acres outside the small town of Nipomo, situated on a large sandy mesa about 40 minutes drive south of the city of San Luis Obispo. This is where I spent most weekends and stretches of summer. One of the most striking features there was the hundreds of acres of Eucalyptus globulus trees that surrounded their homestead. Of Australian origin, these trees were planted in 1908, perfect rows laid out in large grids. The tree denied the hopes and dreams of that era, they were not suitable for telephone poles or lumber in general, so the acres of planted trees became neglected and grew into the dense towering forests that I came to know. The large older trees with many side branches were superb for climbing. Big trees with younger saplings growing near them provided an opportunity for a unique experience. After climbing 15+ feet into the mother tree I could leap out through the air and grab hold of the sapling which would arch under my weight and rapidly lower me to the ground. I spent hours performing this joyous feat, feeling myself a primordial monkey-boy.

These anthropogenic forests were a perpetual source of discovery. In the shade of the sickle-shaped leaves with their menthol aroma and underneath the bark that sloughed off the trunks in large sheets I would find a plethora of insects and their larval infants, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes, toads of impressive size, slender salamanders that curled themselves into tiny spirals, sundry snakes, bluebelly and alligator lizards, the rare and coveted blue tailed skink, kangaroo mice, savage shrews and fantastical fungi. Scattered between the trees during spring and early summer bloomed pink, yellow and red flowers I never encountered anywhere else, still a mystery to me. Further up in the embrace of the trees there’d be Pacific tree frogs hiding beneath the bark or occasionally the yellow speckled arboreal salamander that squeeked when discovered. Climbing even higher would reveal all manner of intricate woven nests that cradled delicate eggs or the freakish fledglings of a considerable variety of birds. A great many moths and butterflies were also to be found but none quite so impressive as the migratory monarch. This large butterfly, vibrant orange with bold black veination, would arrive in autumn at select trees by the thousands to perch in dangling masses and overwinter. It’s hard to capture with words the wonder and strangeness of this phenomenon, standing beneath a tree in exultation, half of the branches scaled in their overlapping orange and black wings. How they all periodically moved their wings in unison, as if to one heartbeat, the inhalation and exhalation of one organism. How I would feel this pulse manifest in my own body. Tree, butterfly and boy as one. Grace.

Eventually I heard the grumblings about how Eucalyptus didn’t belong here, the forests somehow harmful to other plants and wildlife. This contradicted so much of my experience, but it’s a complex issue and I’ll leave my thoughts on this to another time. The popular maligning of the tree led to the 10+ acres of forest adjacent to my mom’s property, where my younger brothers and I had spent countless hours in play and rapt discovery, being clear cut and bulldozed. I was deeply saddened, like the loss of a whole group of friends, a vital piece of my childhood suddenly, irrevocably, gone. The acreage lay fallow for many years, a few forlorn stumps the only reminder of what was. Eventually a monocrop of strawberries was planted, black plastic and poison covering the once fertile earth…

Peering into this reflecting pool of memory I glimpse myself in sensual dialogue with the world, not so much a language of words, but of emotions, touch, sounds, smells and tastes. An immediate intimacy with the flux of life. Perhaps it is our maturation into the world of words and the concepts they construct that blurs our recollection of those early years, diffusing a little our relation to life in all its myriad sensuous forms. Yet, paradoxically, words are what I now have to capture and share these echoes of childhood.

The Aymara peoples of the Andean Altiplano acknowledge that the past lays not behind us, but before us, our entire history stretching to the horizon, yet clearly visible, the future always to our back, just over our shoulder, only seen as a glimpse. Coming from a culture that turns its back on the past, chooses instead to look for what is yet-to-be, I find it useful, at least for a time, to reorient myself and view my history. Gazing out across the geography of myself it is evident how integral and present the botanical realm was in my childhood, though it wasn’t until my late teens that I became acutely fascinated with plants. In those early years what really captured my greatest attention were all the creeping, crawling, scurrying, slithering, hopping and flying creatures. The plants were more an aspect of the sustaining matrix of the world, known as distinct living entities, but almost background to ambulatory life. Yet it now appears, from my current vantage, that the plants were an even greater molding force for me than the fistful of toads or pockets of rolly-polly bugs. We inhabit a scandalously fecund planet, teeming with life of every imaginable form. The more I consider it, perhaps facing always to the future engenders a fevered dream state, a phantasmal farsightedness, a turning away from who we are, longing to be more. This has allowed our culture to overcome great obstacles and manifest unparalleled wonders, but often at great cost. In looking out to distant stars for life we miss much of what is right before us. Living is coexisting, children know this instinctually and recognize sentience all around them. We have much to discover from children and from our own childhoods.

((((((((((Ben Kamm))))))))))

Because I find this content both entertaining and enlightening, I have included these musings of my friend Ben Kamm here on “The Seed Screen.”  Ben and his wonderful family run “Sacred Succulents,” a wonderful place to get seeds and starts of a really unusual selection of botanicals.  Here’s the link

http://sacredsucculents.com

Big Love, Richo

Making Elderberry Syrup

Making Elderberry Syrup

The motivation for inventing and testing this recipe comes from my wish to help people who are suffering from colds or flu, or wish to avoid same.  I’ve noticed that many children balk at taking bitter medicines yet many of our best cold and flu medicines are bitter ones.  So I set out to find a strong antiviral and immune enhancing herb that would be agreeable to palates young and old.  In this I settled upon Elderberry.  Having experienced its protective influence, therapeutic value and finding it very tasty indeed, I even took to lacing it with other herbs (for instance the great antitussive, elecampane) and administering it to children, who gleefully took it, and much to their benefit.  Being convinced, I proceeded to learn as much as possible about the diverse methods of preparation.  Once we in our family started producing a syrup made of our fresh berries cooked down and preserved back with honey or glycerin, it turned out to be so needed that our supplies soon dwindled.  Unflummoxed, we knew we had a reserve of dried berries in stock.  In the old “Making Plant Medicine” tradition I then set out to determine the best process for producing a superior black elderberry syrup from the dried berries.  Here it is step by step, in word and photo!

 1) Use 1 cup of dried berries (weighs appx 100 gram, or 3.5 oz.) 

2) add 2 cups boiling water. Cover with plate and let sit overnight.  Volume now shows over 2 cups. 

3)  In the morning, pour the softened berries into a blender and blend them vigorously.  They will vortex and mush up.

4) Pour the berry mixture into a fine sieve and press it through, or put in a pressing bag and press out in a tincture press (not shown).  (Compost the seeds.)

5) Volume of juice is 2 cups. Simmer the juice on the back of the stove at low heat.  Stir occasionally.  Keep reducing juice until  it reaches half volume (1 cup).  It’ll take an hour or two.  The juice is now  very concentrated, thickly loaded with pectin and bioactive compounds.   By the way, reduction time when using reconstituted dried berries (as in this recipe) is much faster than when reducing down the pressed juice of the fresh berries, which pretty much takes all day.   

6) Measure the reduced juice.  It should be 1 cup.  Licking pan is acceptable.

Very thick!

7) Add 1 cup of glycerin or honey to bring volume back up to 2 cups.

8)Stir with a Zebra spoon from Kenya.  Sorry about the dirty thumbnail its good honest dirt.

9) Filter through 4 layers cheesecloth

10) squeeze out cheesecloth by hand into the ceramic bowl, or press in a tincture press (not shown).

11) Pour filtered juice back into clean pyrex.  Should measure a little less than 2 cups.  Have some!   (Kenyan spoon tastes a little funny.)

But overall, Deelicious!

Endnotes)  Very nice syrup, properly preserved and very clean, having been filtered of impurities.  Honey preserved syrup probably best kept in fridge.  The glycerin preparation is suitable for bottling and dispensing pretty much like a tincture.  Dosage of the syrup is 1 tablespoon each dose, taken 2 or 3 times daily.  If exposed to cold germs, consciously avoid touching nose.

 

Good News!  Richo

By giving we receive

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Right in the center of the farm, what some might consider the heart, and others might envision as the belly button, but actually is acting like a digestive tract, a potent potion is brewing.  Its the yearly compost pile, composed of fresh organic cow manure layered with all the chopped remains of this year’s growing, and its smokin’ hot.  What goes in there?  Hay and poop from Joey’s stall (bless his soul, our last goat, now under clover), water sprouts from the orchard, corn stalks, sunflower stalks and mullein stalks, the chaff of a thousand winnowings, dry seedheads from every plant aconite through zanzibar, every kind of carbon that will break down–in it goes!  This is the gold for next year’s growing!  The more you break it down before putting it in the pile, the more surface area there is, and the hotter it composts.  So we get out our noisy chipper and we chip it all down before forking it onto the pile.  Its worth it!  Although we love live seeds, we’re not particularly fond of live seeds in the compost, so if the pile heats up to 170 degrees F and beyond (when you stick your hand in, you pull it back out again, fast, ouch!) then the seeds are transformed into bioavailable nutrient, food for bacteria and fungi, which becomes food for the plants, which then becomes food for–us.  That’s why I say the garden is like our bodies, and if we take care of the garden, then this is tantamount to taking care of our own health.  Eating green things–that’s how we keep from getting cancer.  That’s how we get filled with energy!  Picking up the rocks and piling them somewhere outside the questing sweep of mower blades–that’s the same as removing blockage from our own bloodstreams.  Digging a new seedbed and making it trim, patting it down with hand and prayer, that’s the same as combing our hair, or anointing our skin.  Have you ever seen someone out in the garden, weeding away perhaps at a patch of beets, or carefully raking a seed bed, or sowing seeds like the proverbial farmer, strewing them from a bag, or dribbling them carefully, like a preschooler with tongue extended, dropping those first radish seeds into the inevitable milk carton of youth?  Well, that person was beautiful, wasn’t she/he?  The sun browned skin, the well-toned bicep, the suggestive flex of buttock, the hair flung out and free!  This is how we want to look, how healthy we were meant to be.  This soil is our body.  Lets care for it with great love and joy, and make the best of this precious human existence.  By giving we receive.  Its the universal rule.  Give it to the soil, and reap–happiness.  Richo

The Sound of the Waves is OM

“What brings you to these parts haulin’ a whole truckload of wood?” he asked, tilting his golf cap a little back on his head and fixing me with a curious smile.  He had the graying hair and easy affability that distinguish a good hotel manager. 

“It’s my usual run from Myrtle Point to Grants Pass,” I said, “except that by the time I had the load on I decided to put off going back because the hour was a bit late and the rain was a bit heavy.” 

Then, boring even myself, I told him my little joke about the pickup I saw pulling a boat.  “Rainin’ so hard,” I exclaimed, “He could’ve turned it around and hauled the truck behind the boat!”  While I waited for him to finish acting like he was laughing at this hopelessly weak humor, I ran back over my reasoning for transforming a standard wood haul into a vacation on the coast.

Basically, I had a queasy feeling  that  I might get killed in a crash on the dusky, rainy highway during the long run back to Grant’s Pass.  There’d been a fatal accident minutes before, on  a stretch of highway I’d be obliged to use if I went  back home.  I’d seen the paramedics and I’d heard about it on the radio.  I didn’t relish going back that way, at least not right then.   Besides, I found myself close to the beach and had been yearning to take a short vacation.  By going in an unexpected direction, I hoped that I would  once again cheat fate, and get a chance to sit on the beach, as well!

“I’m here  to listen to the surf,” I told him.

“Wow,  you’ve come to the right place for that!” he said.  “I tell ya the last three days have been wiiiindy!” He sang  the word, sounding a little like a wind chime himself.

“Yes, I heard a loaded semi got blown over on its side crossing the Bandon Bridge.”  I said.

He nodded at this old news.   “Which room do you want?” And then without giving me time to answer and seemingly to preempt any worn out questions he feared I might ask, “They’re all available, and they all have ocean views.”

“I’ll take number 2,” I gestured up toward the stairs and balcony that gave access to the attic room perched atop the first building in the row of sturdy gray A-frame structures.  It would be the cheapest room.  I’d rented it before.  It had an ample bed and a prime spot to sit in a chair in front of a thick plate glass window that looked  out over a short expanse of green grass, then the beach and finally the ocean. 

“You got it,” he said.  “The ice machine’s over there,” he gestured toward a hallway that glowed with blue light.   “I won’t be needing any ice,” I said, pulling my thin and inadequate green hoodie up around my neck.  “Well, I just need a little information,” he said (by which he meant he needed a credit card number), “and I’ll get you that key!” 

Since I hadn’t planned to stay out overnight, and therefore had no luggage, my sole possession turned out to be the tall green thermos containing the rich remnants of coffee and cream that I’d concocted that morning and which had proven quite powerful.  There was still some left.  I set the thermos down in the middle of the kitchen table.   If the cream hadn’t curdled, I planned to enjoy an effortless indulgence first thing the next morning. 

Dismissing the need for keys (one advantage of having no luggage) I firmly closed the door of number 2 behind me, trotting down the stairs and across the lawn.  I then entered the long path that cut straight down to the beach, carved as it was through a head-high expanse of gorse , a cement floored, spine-clad tunnel  that in the end  gave way to open dunes.  Not hesitating, I made my way over the yellow, mealy sands, which had indeed seen high seas quite recently, leaving them firm, wet and trackless.  Tufts of grass protruded like bad hair recently scrubbed.  Soon my feet beat upon the open beach, which seemed to bulge upward, newly enriched with sand.  Was the sand coming in, having been deposited by the ocean waves? Or was it going out, having been mined from the dunes? 

Peering far out to sea I discerned great rolling breakers crashing quite robustly as they shallowed, but the smaller waves approaching the shore, bloated as it was with excessive sand, were obliged to thin out  and slow down, dispersing like a thin watery membrane over the overfull jiggling belly of the post-storm beach, a membrane that glistened multicolored in the sun, rose and receded, each subsequent welling wave hissing a little, pushing before it a dancing line of frothy white meerschaum.  I stopped abruptly at one of these lines of demarcation.  The water gurgled as it was sucked back to the sea and a vagrant wind whipped a fleck of foam down the strand where it turned, caught, got loose again, skittered, and then was eaten by a wave.  I observed the sky.  Behind me and over the land mass hovered a vast ceiling of dark clouds.  However, far out over the sea the storm was dispersing, and just above the horizon a significant opening had occurred.  In this solitary zone the sky was bright azure, lit by a sun that announced its position by lighting from behind the clouds that obscured it, tingeing their edges in pure gold.  Even as I watched, the clouds shredded away, blown by the same wind that was driving those enormous breakers, and the round sun slowly took form within that patch of blue.  A few strands of dark cloud remained, stretched across the face of the sun.   I fancied that they were like sunglasses, and indeed the plausibility of this illusion was enhanced by the clouds as they seemed to form a pair of amused and omniscient eyebrows above the sunglasses.  As the sun broke through these last clouds, it hung for the longest time, naked and flawless, a finger’s breadth above the sea, and let forth a golden glow of radiance that enchanted my eyes. 

So riveted to this spectacle was I that when another lazy line of meerschaum approached my boots I didn’t even flinch.  Suddenly, shouting like a gradeschooler, at the last moment I outran the wave, and once safe from wetting turned again toward the sun.  Now the light was streaming across the ocean, radiating  generously, illuminating the storm clouds from underneath, tingeing them with gold and red.  This widened the display  and soon my view of the ocean was one of cold sea below and churning clouds above, opposing darknesses split by bright light.  Like the lackadaisical waves that occasionally made me change position on the beach, the sun itself dropped slowly, ever so slowly, and finally dipped under the horizon.  Wafting clouds covered the last vestige as it winked out, upon which they in turn became thoroughly backlit, glowing  like molten metal.  I closed my eyes then.  I could still see the sun, and the path of its reflected light upon the water, emblazoned in my mind’s eye, so that I hoped to never forget what this sunset was like.  For many minutes after the sun disappeared, its golden light continued to bathe the underside of the storm clouds, until this spectacle too diminished.  Finally, a single swath of bright red light remained, piercing through the storm, shaped  like a jagged harpoon, already bloodied, that wounded the darkness of night.     

All this time the wind and rain had diminished, until now it ceased.  Along the dunes and among the sodden shore grasses I found an elevated spot to sit, settled myself down in cross-legged posture and tuned my ears to the waves as they broke offshore.  One rumbling receded into another, and then as my mind relaxed,  I heard it.   OMMMMMMM!  The ocean was chanting OM!  I chanted with it.  OMMMMM!  And then again, OMMMMMMM!  Stopping, I realized that I was getting carried away, letting my ego chant on ahead of the ocean.  I slowed down and chanted once again, listening at the same time for the cadence as given forth by nature.  There it was, an OM exactly in conjunction with the OM of the ocean!  I continued to sit there, oblivious to the wet sand that moistened, eventually,  my underwear, chanting long with the ocean, not caring who or what I was, not recognizing any separation, at one with the ocean, at one with OM. 

Retracing my steps  back up to the little room,  I immediately wanted a drink of water.  I hate to turn on lights, so this left me groping about a bit in the tiny kitchen, wondering where the glasses were kept.  Then I realized that the one thing I had brought with me was… just what I needed.  Unscrewing the cup from the top of the green thermos, I filled it with tap water and drank.  It was surprisingly good, this water.  I had another cup.  Then I screwed the top back on the thermos, went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet for a whizz.  Shedding the rest of my clothing as I approached the bed,  I soon found myself naked between the sheets. 

My sleep was deep at first, as it tends to be when I’ve had adequate exercise.  Nonetheless, in the depths  of the night I awoke.  Distant breakers were thrumming away, but as I lay there listening, I became aware of the sound which, judging by my dodgy dreams, was the sound that had awakened me, a disturbing and sad sound–the soft and gentle and ragged sound of someone weeping.  Upon hearing this, I suddenly became so very, very sad that for a moment thought perhaps I was the one crying.  But it was not so.  Someone, or I should say some woman, because it was undeniably a woman’s throat that made these utterances which so softly filled the room, was sobbing, very consistently, stopping only to gasp a short breath within the measured eruptions of her sorrow. I thought, “Surely I am dreaming.”  But I was awake.  Then I thought, “Surely she will soon stop!”  But she didn’t.   

I arose from the bed, wrapped myself in the bedspread and went soundlessly, expectantly, to the window.  I thought perhaps she was out on the lawn.  Outside the storm had broken apart and stars shone down on a dark sea.  The dim illumination from a yard light showed the lawn below my window to be empty.  No crier there.  Where was she?  I laid down again, still listening to this soft grief welling up in the darkness.  I then intuited that she must be downstairs, perhaps lying in a bed situated directly below my own.  That would make her very close to me.  I imagined consoling her, wiping her tears with the backs of my hands, her thin snot lubricating perhaps my chest, the heaving of her bare shoulders, the smell of her hair rising up to dilate my nostrils, heated with emotion.  I would use  a man’s only trick, holding her in my arms, tensing the biceps a little to give the impression of strength, whispering over and over that inevitable, feeble mantra  of the male. “It’ll be all right,” I would say. Then, feeling as if I had actually shared this intimacy, and lured by the open vulnerability of her grief, I suddenly felt the blood rush to my loins. Watching this phenomenon occur, not acting upon it, I mentally shook my head, lay motionless upon the sheets, and  scolded myself at the wrongness of such an attraction.

Breathing steadily, I soon centered all sensation again on my heart, which left me with nothing but compassion for this poor woman’s loss.  Because loss it was–what I was hearing  was not the bright angry cry of a woman who’s been lied to; nor the embarrassed, nauseated sobbing of a woman who’s had too much wine; nor the snorting, tear-spurting, half-laugh-half-cry that women are inexplicably fond of producing directly after making love; nor the worried cry that grips the heart, fearing the worst, when teenage children are late coming home from the movies.  No, this was the sound of helpless tears being wrenched from a broken heart.  “Either she’s lost a lover or she’s lost a child,” I whispered to my pillow.  I hoped she hadn’t lost a child.  I prayed for her.  Then, feeling  the weight of my own attachments to wife and children and children’s children, and still durged by this gentle sobbing, I nonetheless was able, eventually, to fall again into an unpleasant slumber. 

The morning light filtered in through a small leaded glass pane in the door.  I swung my legs out of bed, and then sat there for a moment, first muddled, then pensive.  I cocked an ear.  The soft wailing had ceased.  Thankfully, I proceeded to relieve myself once again in the toilet, pulled on my socks and my pants (there was no wondering which clothes to wear!), and sidled over to the thermos.  I lifted it, heavy with promise, and unscrewed the cup and the cap.  A gentle waft of steam exhaled, followed by a warm chocolate flow that filled my cup.  The cream was not curdled.   The coffee was thick and good, and it was waking me up.  I sat in the chair, looked out at the ocean and sipped.  I remembered the woman, and how she had cried.  My heart still harbored a bruised place for her.  Setting down the cup, I became aware of the surf once again, inexorable,  cold and beautiful, completely free of emotion, washing up against the shore, cleansing all.  I closed my eyes.  The sun was still there, burning brightly behind my third eye.  I inhaled, filling my heart with light, and then on the exhale, I let her go.

The hotel manager met me again in the same spot in the parking lot.  “Here’s the key,” I said, handing it over, dangling from its little circle of red plastic.  “I didn’t even have to use it!” I smiled.

“Oh,” he said, putting it in his jacket pocket.  “Did you get to hear much surf?”

“Oh  yeah,” I said, “and the sunset was phenomenal!  By the way,” I hesitated to bring up the subject, but then out of curiosity, proceeded,  “who was the woman down in number 1?” 

“There was nobody down in number 1!” he sounded surprised. 

“Well, how about next door in number 3, then?”  I was beginning to feel a chill run up my spine, lifting the sparse hairs from beltline to neck, there below my thin green hoodie, which now seemed to have lost the last of its already feeble ability to insulate me from the cold.  My teeth rattled until I clenched them shut.

“There was nobody in number 3, either,” he claimed.  “Didn’t you know, you were the only guest here last night!” 

“No,” I ventured, “I didn’t realize that.”  Then I thought of something that might explain everything, “Well then, how did you and your wife sleep.  Any disturbances?  Arguments?” 

He laughed.  “We’ve been around each other so long there’s nothing left to argue about!  Both slept like rocks,” he said.  “We’ve been kept up by the wind these last few nights, but last night was quiet and we finally  got some good rest.”  “How about you?” he queried. 

“Not so good, really,” I admitted. 

“Why was that?” he wanted to know. 

“Well,” and then I decided to go ahead and stick my foot in it, ” I kept imagining I heard someone crying.”  I gave him a strange little twisted half smile, as if begging his patience in mentioning something that we both knew was a bit crazy. 

“Oh,” his head dipped forward and the bill of the golf cap blocked his face from my view.  He tugged it down even further, stiffly pulling it down with well manicured forefinger and thumb, then became  very interested in the toe of his white leather shoe, with which he was endeavoring to dig a small hole in the blacktop.  He twisted it first left, then right, then back again.

 “What!” I grabbed his arm and made him look at me.  “Is there something I should know about all this?” 

“Well,” he said, blinking at my stare, then dropping his eyes and lowering his voice, “there was a woman and her little girl who stayed in number 2 just about this same time last year.” 

“Right,” I said impatiently, “so what of it, lots of women and little girls probably stay in number 2.” 

“Yes,” he said quietly, then cleared his throat.  “They were staying for the whole week.  Husband was away, or left them, or something.  They kept going down to the beach to play.” 

“Yes,” I said impatiently, “everybody does that.” 

“Well, right,” he said and then there was a long pause.

 “So what of it, what happened!” I was almost shouting. 

“It was a Saturday,” he said.  “Sneaker wave came in and took the little girl away.   Happens sometimes that way in October.  One moment they’re there, and the next moment–gone!  Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean in October!  I should’ve told ‘em that!  I usually do… ”  His voice trailed off, then he sighed and started up again.  “The woman was all right.  She came splashing right back out.  The little girl–we never saw her.  We had the news out here.  Right on this spot.   It was in all the papers.  You didn’t read about it?” 

“No,”  I intoned. Or maybe I had.  My entire body went rigid.  Uncontrolled shivers coursed from my heels up the back of my legs, over my buttocks to the nape of my neck, over the crown of my head and then back down again.  For some reason I visualized the fleck of meerschaum from the day before, blown across the cold strand by an errant wind, eaten up by the ocean. “Did the mother,” I paused.  “I mean did the mother go away after that?”

“No,” he said.  “As a matter of fact she stayed there in number 2 for the rest of the week.  We tried to get her to go.  She must’ve had family.  But she stayed there by the window.  It was as if… It was as if she was waiting for the little girl to come floating back to her.   Just  sat there and,” his voice broke, “and sobbed her heart out–the whole time.” 

Then he looked up at me, and I could see that all the blood had drained from his face. 

Richo Cech, November 26, 2011

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