Posts Tagged ‘garden’

Happy Earth Day

Ethiopia+78Earth Day seems like a good time to start my new blog thread…going from being a somewhat restless traveler to putting down roots. Literally.

It all goes back to Maji, Ethiopia.Ethiopia+77Since there was no winter in Maji, my sisters and I spent huge chunks of every day outside, exploring. This is an old picture that’s marked “4000 foot sheer drop off.” That was Maji. Breath-taking and stomach-dropping.

Ethiopia+76My sisters and I would tag along after our dad as he went to to one waterfall to check on the ram he had installed to pump water up to our house–it seemed to inevitably get clogged with leaves–or to another waterfall to check on the mill he had installed to grind grain for the community. We made up a game of Water Babies (which I wove into my novel Jakarta Missing) with the curled fern tips we’d collect on the way down and send swirling down the river on leaf or wood boats.

Ethiopia+82Except on days when fog rolled up the valley, this was the view from the back yard. We made up complicated stories using flowers and frogs and ant lions and lizards…all right there for the touching.

02420And we loved Dad’s garden. I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and this made me laugh…and nod. “Underneath our stylish clothing it seems we are still animals, retaining some vestigial desire to sniff around the water hole and the food supply.”

Somehow in years living in the U.S., where the world around me often felt unfamiliar and distant, a lot of those outside genes had gone dormant. But when I moved to Portland, they bubbled forth.IMG_0196This spring, I’ve been digging a rain garden.

I’m going to write for a while about discovering a back yard. And yes, my writing is intertwined. Both Lanie and Anna have been along for the ride.


Other people, Barbara Kingsolver says, “fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots…who’s to make the call between ridiculous ad reverent?”





What good does an author visit do?

snowWow!  We’ve had more snow in Portland than (I think I heard correctly on the news last night) we’ve had in 21 years.  My sister Cathy came over and we tromped through it together.  Just like old times!  (She’s the one sitting in front of the snowman and I’m behind it–in the year we lived in Boise, Idaho and not Ethiopia.)

IMG_0151I’ve been fretting about the native plants in my yard.  If Portland doesn’t get this kind of weather…and now it does…what happens to plants that are adapted to a usual Oregon climate and temperatures?  OTOH it’s been a dry year.  Adding the moisture to the ground has to be good for the birds and bees and butterflies and plants.  Right?  This is the spot where the bulbs I planted last fall were starting to send their green growth charging up through the soil…and I can’t wait to see what those shoots look like when the snow melts.

Last night, I caught the tail end of an Olympic interview where someone said that she’d traveled so relentlessly for so many years that now she’s obsessive about nesting.  Maybe that’s the deal with my yard, too.  Not since I was a kid in Ethiopia have I felt so intensely connected to the…um…soil.

Hosanna skyTomorrow, though, if the ice doesn’t block me, I’ll be traveling again.  I’m going to Memphis for three days of author visits and talking about Ethiopia Reads ( to several groups of teachers.  This is what Ethiopia looks like in January and February–through the eyes of artist Stephanie Schlatter who was just there.  It’s where we all should long to be as the ice trickles down!

blizzardsI used to do author visits almost every week.  It seemed as if every school in the United States wanted to have an author come to talk about books, about where to gather ideas and details, about the writing process.  I remember a high school teacher who said to me, “Around here we’d never hire someone to teach basketball who had never played basketball, but we have people teaching writing who don’t spend much of their free time writing.”  And it’s true that while I can’t explain exactly how the blizzards I lived through in ND one snow-filled year became my picture book River Friendly River Wild, I can use it to show a lot about how a writers’ mind goes searching here and there for vivid details and the right words to evoke an experience.  I can model what it’s like to be passionate about reading and writing.

These days, schools often think themselves too busy or too broke to have an author come.  Too busy to show young readers and writers what’s the same and what’s different about the way they approach writing from the way a devoted and fanatically interested writer approaches writing.  Too busy to have kids fall in love.Kansas 001I dream of a day when politicians listen to teachers about the things that make a young brain spark…about how complicated teaching and learning really are.  I dream of a day when more young readers and writers get to see their teachers and principals awed and thrilled by having an author in the school.  The pendulum has to swing again sometime.  Doesn’t it?

In the meantime, I’ll savor this opportunity to talk about Anna Was Here and Ethiopia and reading and writing and to meet the kids who care so passionately about books.


Makers all

DSC03634My smart, wonderful writer of a daughter is in a PhD program in the English department at Purdue University, and she reported the irritation literature scholars and others felt when Purdue tagged itself as “makers all,” in honor of its strong hands-on programs in engineering and the like. I did have the phrase ringing in my ears this week, though.

I am completely not crafty except, perhaps at times, in the Machiavellian sense.  But one of my sisters and I decided to make stepping stones.  Here’s my result!

When my sisters and I were little, Ethiopian Airlines made one stop a week on the savannah below Maji, our misty mountain home.  The savannah was hot with crackling grass…pretty much as my brother and I captured through words in Water Hole Waiting.  That’s the thing.  I capture sensations in words.

WW cover smallI’ve been amazed in auctions for VCFA or Ethiopia Reads at the writers who can also do delicate and astounding things with their hands.

But on the hot savannah, embedded in the sandy soil amidst the crackling grasses, were stones–like jewels, like dazzling glass bits, like treasures from an old tale.  While my sisters and I were waiting for my dad to finish up his business with EAL personnel, we braved the blazing sun to find them.

wwuhaDon’t we look hot as we get ready to get out of the plane?  About the only shade was under its wing.

So when my sister saw stepping stones with bits of embedded glass, I just had to try making one.  It called to me with a siren song.  Since I am, however, NOT a craft person, I discovered–thanks to my sweetie’s pointing it out–that the shell I embedded was either going to get crushed or poke someone’s foot.

My web hunt about stepping stones led me to other people’s crafty ways.  I know of Etsy but had never tried ordering things.  While I experiment with stepping stones, though, I decided I had to order one that could actually be walked upon.  This weekend, in rainy Portland, I set it in a spot I’m trying to reclaim from the grassy wilds.

DSC03639My making has to do with polishing and twisting and shaping and tapping on words to see what effects I can create.  Apparently, though, my garden is now compelling enough to make me, too, one of the makers all.

Lanie would be proud!


The rare warm day

1 RiverFriendlyRiverWildOur family moved to North Dakota in January, not the month when you really want to move to North Dakota.  By the time the front and back doors had stood open for an entire day–so the movers could lug our furniture and books and other things inside–the poor furnace couldn’t possibly keep up and the house was completely chilly.  Not long after that, we met a couple who had moved from Nashville.  “It’s not how cold it gets here that bothers me,” our new friend said.  “What bothers me is how long winter lasts.”  That was never more true than the year of the big flood.  By April when the river overflowed the dikes, we were seeing no green.

Many years, May found snow on the tulips.

Here in Portland, though, we just had a gorgeous sunny warm day in February.  I loved poking around the garden to see what had survived the wet and chill of winter.  Would such a day feel so good if we hadn’t looked out on the puddles for so long?

???????????????????????????????This moss was so nice and bright when I put it in the garden.  Now it looks pretty scraggly and awful.  I can’t wait to see what more sun will do for it.  Meanwhile, I’m prying up pieces of true moss (this is sun moss) and putting them into this spot.  Some people spend a lot of time trying to get rid of moss, while I’m trying to get it to grow.

In Ethiopia, we had rainy season and dry season.  February here is a gorgeous time there–perhaps getting a bit crispy in spots, but in the southwest, where I grew up, we had green most of the year.  I remember running out into mist, thick and mysterious, trying to figure out what was happening to the plants and rocks and trees I felt so connected to.

GondarmistYears later, my breath caught as I looked down over the misty city of Gondar, the ancient capital, looking just as mysterious and fascinating as my childhood world.

Japan 027

Here in Portland, the newscasters have been talking this week about the fleeting thrill of cherry blossoms.  When I did an author visit in Japan, the people who showed us the blossoms always made the point that they stand for beauty especially poignant and heartbreaking because it’s so brief, such a flicker here and gone.

Norway 039This time several years ago, I was speaking in Norway.  The stark rocky landscape doesn’t strike anyone as a here-and-gone kind of place.  But of course rocks shift.  The earth splits and heaves here, too.

Oh for the words that rumble and stir our blood, that shake us and soothe us, that remind us of what’s here and what’s to come.

The power of floating around

What happens when we become unmoored?

The image–I think–is instantly uncomfortable.  Floaty.  At sea.  Everything slipping past.

Often, though, when we become unmoored we open our eyes and hearts in new ways, which always happens to me on author visits to places where I’ve never been.

I was thinking about this in Switzerland as I watched the ship approach that would take us away from the castle we’d just wandered about in.  At first, I kept looking at that Swiss flag with all its powerful resonance with the Red Cross.  (The two flags are the same–with flipped colors–because it was a young Swiss man, looking out on a terrible battlefield scene in Italy with 40,000 men wounded and dying who “organized local people to bind the soldiers’ wounds and to feed and comfort them” and returned home to work with four other Geneva men on the dream of an organization to care for the vulnerable and suffering.)  But because the ship we climbed on sails around Lake Geneva, it also has the French flag as well as the Swiss flag flapping.

As we sat on the deck and watched the houses and grand hotels float into view and out again, I thought about Switzerland, this gorgeous place that so many people desired.  So many wanted to claim as theirs.  I felt surrounded by the chill of the stone walls where we’d just spent the last few hours–all the people who died for the power of saying, “This spot on this lake in the middle of these mountains and forests is MINE.”

At the highest place in the castle, looking down on tiny people walking below, I imagined what it was to be a soldier listening to the sounds of fighting in the lower rooms, waiting for death eight stories up.  I heard a voice: “Oh the prayers that were said then.  You can hear them whispering from the stones still.”

We die and kill–and send others to die and kill–for the deep satisfaction and power of saying, “This is my spot of land.  Mine.  I belong here and you don’t.”

I was in Switzerland to talk to children whose families have often deliberately messed with that intense sense of mooring.  The young travelers of the world always touch a deep spot in me.  When I say, “My parents decided to move to Ethiopia when I was too young to have an opinion–did any of your parents make a choice to move to another continent when you were too young to have an opinion?” the hands go up.  And I feel oh yes, we know each other.  I love talking to those unmoored children about how stories rooted me, how words eventually gave me the power to talk about being me in a wide world.

During this week’s author visits, I had great conversations about gardens–theirs and mine.  I told them that when I was creating Lanie’s world, I was using my memories of my father’s gardens in Ethiopia.  As I wrote the Lanie books, living in Kansas, I didn’t have a garden–but that now, having moved back to Portland, I’m feeling the thrilldom of the way we moor ourselves in the ground.  After the days of school speaking, back at the gorgeous house where I stayed, I took pictures of the wine grapes growing on terraces where families have, for centuries, made their living through THOSE plants on THAT soil and meditated on rootedness.

As the airplane settled out of the sky toward Portland yesterday, I thought about mooring again.  Something odd and deep calls out to me to be in the place where I was a baby, where someone thought my toes were miraculous, where I was welcomed onto this earth.

Though I’ve spent most of my life not living in this city of my birth, I could suddenly feel how deep the sense of mooring goes.

Many of us spend a lifetime homesick and displaced.  Many of us cling to and craft the stories of what it’s like to come home.  And every once in a while we do come home.

Why write?

At some level, writing can be play.

As Sarah Ellis pointed out in her faculty Vermont College MFA lecture, play is the thing humans do with no pay-off in mind–the thing where the pleasure is in doing the thing itself…which doesn’t mean that play = easy.

Some of us work enormously hard at our play.

After the residency ended, I went to Maine for the wedding of a dear friend’s son.  Toni has a powerful energy and skill for making things, and the crafting of that wedding, one homemade bit at a time, took a whole lot of hard playing for months.  Ken coaxed exquisite flowers and plants out of the ground to help celebrate, which made me eager to see what had happened with my garden while I was in Vermont.

Well, weeds had happened.

I like weeds.  The day after the wedding, Nancy and Jim and Franny and I went to the salt lands to look for birds–and I psent a lot of time looking at one of my favorite weeds: Queen Anne’s lace.  But these weeds were pushing and pummelling my chosen plants.

My muscles are now super sore from all the bending and crouching and pulling of weeds.  But the week’s hard work has also felt like play.

Can hard things be fun? I sometimes ask kids on school visits. We talk about musical instruments and reading a book that makes your brain hurt and also what it’s like to ache and sweat on a field.  Thanks to the Olympics, many of us are thinking these days about bodies with their pinging muscles and burning lungs, with lactic acid delivering a whallop of pain.  But humans choose to run and leap and dive and swim and pit their bodies against time and miles.

Humans choose to create art, putting in thousands of hours to capture the shapes and textures and effects that please them.

Humans choose to garden.  Sometimes for food.  Often for play–for the joy of the tendrils reaching out and all that life force under our hands.

Alas, the dry weather had shriveled a few of my plants to crisps.  This woolly thyme was one of the first things I tried planting in Portland and when I left, the basket was bursting with life force.

When I got back?


I have to start completely over.

Of course I’m sad.

But playing–writing–gardening…such things take the ability to sink in and let the moments speak for themselves, doing something over and over until astonishing things come to life, things that surprise even us, their creators and planters.

How is Ethiopia Reads like my garden?

I’ve been working on my lecture for the Vermont College MFA residency and one of my author/illustrator friends asked if it was going to have any gardening metaphors in it.


I wonder where she got that idea.

Sometimes creating books makes a body feel all glorified like the top of this sunflower getting ready, as I said in my last post, to wear its tiara.  Sometimes we feel impossibly tall and bursting with energy and new beginnings.

When I started volunteering for Ethiopia Reads about fifteen years ago, I was startled and amazed by how many people wanted to give their time and their money and their energy to help.  Beginnings are so exciting.  A lot of people–like this adoptive family–love books and wanted to share.  They’ve planted a BUNCH of seeds.  In fact, we’re working with more than sixty seedling libraries now.

This week in the garden, I was reminded that just as my lettuce came charging back this spring, a lot of unwelcome plants keep relentlessly charging into my space, too.

I like the relaxed and even unkempt look of a lot of Portland gardens.  But some weeds are just way aggressive.  I’m trying to learn to identify things by their leaves.  Clover is easy and I guess it brings nitrogen into the soil, so fine.  I have been known to transplant a bit of clover on purpose this week.  But is that stuff in the back yard wild geranium or Shiningstar Geranium, which my GardenSmart Oregon book says is invasive?

So I’m spending a lot of time out there.  Yesterday we yanked and spaded and wrestled weeds.  Do you know roots make a lovely slurping sound sometimes when they let go?

The planting was not easy.  Not one bit.

But without the tending, the beauty wouldn’t be able to keep shining through.

And so it is with Ethiopia Reads.

Turns out it’s not enough to just put books on furniture in Ethiopian public schools, important as that is.  It’s not enough even to hook up a donkey to a cart and invite readers to gather round.   Lots of careful, respectful listening and sharing has to continue for our literacy efforts to put down deep roots.

Sometimes, that’s not the fun work.

We’re kind of addicted to beginnings and plantings and saying, “Wow!  I put that there where it didn’t exist before.”  We aren’t so good with patience and endurance and all the work of keeping something going.

I’m proud of Ethiopia Reads for crafting each project–not doing mass work–and for being stubborn about asking good questions and figuring out how to make ideas bloom.

It’s hard, though.

Like with the weeding, it’s enough to make my muscles and mind ache.

But people talk these days about “human capital”…the parents and teachers and donors and communicators and kids who can join hands in figuring out how to make things work.  When things are done well, you see the beauty…like the pride that bursts through this picture, a first graduation in the school that Mike built and where I hope we’ll soon plant a new library.

Yay for those who plant and also for those who keep things going.  Shine on!