Sunday, December 4, 2016

Weekend Walkabout: Zen Gardens, Part II

Alert Gardener Andrew is posting on gardens and Zen, and Zen Gardens, today!
Accompanying his post are photos I recently took at the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Florida.


Zen Gardens Part II:
I have seen this expression used in reference to different groups, but it is certainly true of Zen adepts: you ask two of them about something (unless it’s a fairly narrow and settled doctrinal matter—although, even then…) and you’ll get three opinions. This would certainly apply to the question of what it means to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen.

Some would undoubtedly talk about not getting too attached to the final results, staying in the flow, accepting change, and expecting the unexpected. Good points (albeit beaten half to death), but I’ve learned from experience that one must be careful with the concept of non-attachment—without long and deep meditation practice, it is too easily confused with not caring; and accepting change gets swapped for an extreme version of “stiff upper lip” stoicism.

When you see several years of your labor destroyed by a hurricane, you feel upset—you don’t stop there, you start rebuilding—but trying to shrug off your very natural grief because “everything is empty” or any other such undigested Zen bit, is not recommended.

Others would talk about discipline and commitment, about approaching the gardening time with the same seriousness and concentration as you would approach any other practice. Also good, but watch out for that seriousness and focus turning into self-righteous rigid prissiness!

Still others will talk about peace, which, in the case of gardening, seems a bit redundant. I haven’t met many gardeners who would be uprooting weeds like waging a war or look at some healthy, thriving plants, and break out into an MMA* or WWF* victory dance, complete with shouts of “take that!” I mean, one could imagine a scenario for each of these occurrences (that’s what imagination is for), but really….

So, anyway, we could be playing this game much longer, but let me just fast-forward to the conclusion, which is my very personal two cents on what it means to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen.

Cent number one: plants are sentient beings. Oh, come on, put down the phone, there is no need for “nice young people in their clean white coats.” It is a different kind of sentience, and I don’t have much truck with some of the New Age types who will literally talk to the flowers and hug the trees and effuse about communing with nature (actually, many of those who are most prone to such proclamations are urban to the core, with no real experience of gardening or agriculture). But sentient, the plants are. So, for me, gardening “while in Zen” would definitely include listening to your plants, trying to understand what they want, being aware of their moods, being open to the feeling of mutual energy exchange—not necessarily highfalutin' “communing” or exaltation,  but routine day-to-day communication and the sensation of mutual dependence and gratitude.

May all sentient beings be free from suffering. May all sentient beings achieve happiness.

Cent number two: Zen is very tightly intertwined with a specific type of aesthetics, characterized by spareness, austerity, incompleteness, contrast (almost contradictoriness), the feeling of space, a certain melancholy, and raw, wild refinement.

The actual Japanese gravel Zen gardens are consciously designed to embody those features, but many of these elements are scattered around in all kinds of gardens, including a single indoor plant. Much is in the eye of the beholder. From the Zen perspective, this aesthetic is not random or valuable for its own sake. It is there to dislodge the observer from the auto-pilot of daily routine, to bring him or her to the unique moment that is now, while evoking the acute feeling of the transitory in that moment—and its boundlessness. I most recently encountered this sensibility, in abundance, in a book on…New Orleans gardens! 

Of course, like all aesthetic judgments, this one may be disputed, but the point is—take a look. Go ahead, pause and take a look. It may so happen that from this particular angle in your chair, the shape, the color, the velvety texture of that African violet combines and contrasts just so with the sleek, cool, metal whiteness of the table lamp—and there you are, having a Zen moment.

Gesundheit, and happy gardening!

*Mixed martial arts and World Wrestling Federation, for all of you with no taste for theatricalized aggression!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mishmash Monday: Odds and Ends

I finished a really fun watercolor class with Helen Wheatley today. I am, or was, watercolor-phobic. A great friend of mine from my teen years was an exquisite watercolorist, and I've always dodged the medium because I felt I could never measure up to her. Nevertheless, I am pretty happy with this painting from the class:
MRobb, Autumn Leaves I, November 2016
And guess who's blooming? My favorite Mammillaria!
I just love the funny little faces she makes when she blooms.
At the market last week, I saw a really weird fruit, and I knew a little about it because it's featured in one of my favorite perfumes, Alexis Dadier's Buddha Hand. I had to pose the actual fruit with two new paintings, because I do love those funny faces:
The two paintings were commissioned as prizes for a poetry/essay contest. They're my usual mixed media, not watercolor. But I may attempt some more watercolor as time goes by, who knows?
I will write more about my culinary adventures with the mysterious Buddha Hand later.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

Weekend Walkabout: The Beauty of Zen Gardens

Today, Alert Gardener Andrew will be posting on his favorite type of garden, the Zen Garden!

Just like martial arts, tea ceremony, or calligraphy, gardens—Zen gardens, to be precise—can provide a curious enquirer with a perfect starting point and a complete lens through which to investigate the most fascinating intersection between Japanese culture and Buddhism.
Incense Buddha, MRobb

And, for a gardener eager to broaden his or her horizons and to try something new and different, Zen gardens can provide a fresh practical challenge—and what a challenge it is, indeed!

The first thing one will notice, after simply typing “Zen gardens” into the Amazon book search, is the overwhelming amount of available information.

The most cursory examination will reveal that, far from being a unified and well-defined phenomenon, the concept of a “Zen garden” presents a thick palimpsest of natural, historical, and cultural influences, and covers, in fact, a wide variety of specific designs.
Bamboo Stump, MRobb

A few more clicks and we learn that some of the main sources of the Zen garden are: the unique features of Japanese geography, the indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto, classical Chinese influences, including the art of geomancy (Feng Shui), and, eponymously, Zen Buddhism.
Garden Buddha, MRobb, 2016

Browsing for a few more minutes, we easily identify a cluster of keywords describing the intended spiritual and emotional effects Zen gardens are meant to have on both those who create and tend them and those who enjoy them as visitors and viewers: tranquility, simplicity, harmony (all these used in one title!), balance, rest, openness, serenity, peacefulness, gentleness, meditation, contemplation, spontaneity, authenticity, earthiness…

Oy, this avalanche of high expectations is making me anxious!

Not to fear—the venerable strategic principle known as “divide and conquer,” coupled with some mindful breathing, should enable us to cope with even such a monumental task as making sense of Zen gardens!

First of all, a gardener can aspire to one of the three distinct goals: to create an authentic Zen garden (on a scale from micro to whatever is made possible by the confluence of one’s ambitions and resources); to incorporate some of the elements or, at one further remove, underlying principles from Zen gardens and the larger field of Japanese aesthetics into whatever garden one happens to be working on already; and to approach the task of gardening itself, even if its object is currently limited to a single potted plant on one’s windowsill, in the spirit of  Zen.
Morikami Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida (Photo MRobb)

Obviously, the borders between these three goals are highly permeable, and any two or all three can be pursued together—but, for discussion purposes, I will stick to this division, working backwards—thus, my next post will address the third goal and attempt to offer some answers to the question, “What can it mean, to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen?”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Manic Monday: Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome a Type of Hibernation?

As a long-time nurse, I worked with many patients who had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It often coexisted with other diagnoses such as depression and fibromyalgia. The patients were usually dismissed as being "psyched out", but in working closely with many of them, I can attest that their symptoms were real, and felt the disease was not getting the attention it deserved.

the dark clouds of CFS 

Finally, there's some good research on this debilitating condition. From the University of California, San Diego, researchers have noted that CFS looks a lot like the "dauer", which is hibernation. Is CFS a human form of hibernation? If so, what is triggering it? We know that victims are often under stress, both physical and mental. They have frequently been working long hours and are chronically sleep-deprived. Many patients describe themselves as former workaholics who were stopped in their tracks by crushing fatigue. Most of my patients with CFS were women. They worked long hours outside the home, longer hours inside the home, most of it under stress, and with little appreciation of their efforts. Were their fed-up bodies signalling them to hibernate? Is our workaholic culture creating hibernation cues in some of its desperately tired members?? What do you think? At least now I don't think we'll be "blaming the victims" any more for their condition. And that means a brighter future for victims of CFS.
A brighter future?



 Blood simple?  A new test may diagnose a mysterious illness, and also help to explain it

"These metabolite profiles, they found, differed clearly and systematically between the patients and the controls. Some 20 metabolic pathways were affected, with most patients having about 40 specific abnormalities. The biggest differences were in levels of sphingolipids, which are involved in intercellular communication, though other molecules played a role as well. These differences should give clues as to what is happening at a cellular level during CFS. More immediately, a handful of the abnormalities—eight in men and 13 in women—were enough, collectively, to diagnose with greater than 90% accuracy who had the disease."

"One crucial question that needs an answer if CFS is to be understood better is: what cellular changes are these metabolic abnormalities bringing about? Here, Dr Naviaux has already made an intriguing and slightly disturbing discovery. Similar metabolite profiles to those seen in CFS are characteristic of a state known as “dauer” that occurs in one of biology’s most-studied animals, a soil-dwelling threadworm called C. elegans (pictured). In dauer, which is reminiscent of hibernation in larger creatures, the worm puts its development on hold and enters a state of suspended animation in response to threats such as reduced food, water or oxygen levels. It can survive this way for months, though the lifespan of an active worm is mere weeks."


Friday, October 28, 2016

Let's Rebuild Part 2: What Thrived, What Tried, What Died

I realize that, though more and more people are experiencing the total or partial destruction of their habitations and gardens, it's still not the most common experience out there (Phew!). My habitation is now 90% repaired, but my outdoor garden is still a shambles. I finally got out there and did a tally of what survived and even thrived with Hurricane Matthew, what limped through, barely, and what really died. Here are some results:
The Great Survivors: The Jamaican Leaf of Life, The Mother of Millions, Rosemary, Cabbage Palms
Mother of Millions, aka the Devil's Backbone in Bloom
These plants not only survived a Cat 4 hurricane (max winds on my dune were 107mph, or 172kph), but actually managed to propagate themselves or grow robustly after the storm. Interestingly, these are all plants native to areas that experience regular cyclones (or in the case of rosemary, non-cyclonic harsh sea storms). The mother plants were bedraggled, but had babies growing all over the yard and probably beyond.

The Scruffy Stragglers:These plants lived, but were sorely tested and very unhappy with Hurricane Matthew: Aloes, Elder Tree, Frostweed, Cacti, Buttonwood Tree, Lemongrass, Goldenrod, Gynura Procumbens, Garlic and Onions, Sweet Potato, Croton, Plumeria
Plumeria, MRobb
The Plumeria in our neighborhood mostly died, but we all cut off branches and are growing the branches. This is how plumeria survives, so I'm counting it with the Scruffy Stragglers. I really thought my little Elder was dead, but it just put out new leaves this week! The Frostweed also looked completely dead, but some little plantie voice told me to keep watering, and yesterday, it also starting sprouting new leaves. Time will tell. Someday it may look good again!
Frostweed and Leaf of Life, MRobb


The Walking Dead and the Really, Really Dead: Basil, Shiso, Mint, Lithops, Pittosporum, the Mystery Vine, quite a few orchids, Sage, Anthurium

No pics here, just too sad. I did plant some new basil today, as my kitchen can't do without it! I was just starting to get a good shiso harvest, but I may try growing it inside next year, in pots.

So now that I know how everything did, I can start planning with an eye to hurricane survival, just in case we all have to do this again next season (Noooooooo!!!!).

Wishing you all some wonderful Weekend Walkabouts!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Let's Rebuild: The Inspirational Garden Art of Andy Lakey

I won't be replanting my garden until the end of hurricane season, or maybe not until February 2017. But rebuild it I will. One artist in particular has been inspiring me this dreadful October: Andy Lakey.  Interestingly, he was born in October 1959 and died in October of 2012. He was a "naive" artist, with no formal training, who had an NDE (near death experience) as an adult and began to paint angels and the spirits of all sorts of living creatures. He stated that three angels taught him to paint, and not surprisingly, he's most famous for his angel paintings, which hang even in the Vatican:
Andy Lakey, Angel of Hope, courtesy of the BBC
He said his paintings would transmit the right type of loving energy to the right person at the right time. And the stories of his paintings are quite amazing (you can look up several books about Lakey on Amazon or Abebooks if you're curious). Two of his "Brilliant Nature" series (1997) came into my hands this month. They are not as well known as his angels, but clearly, I needed the energy these little plant paintings provide. Every time I look at them, the clouds lift and I smile:
Andy Lakey, Yellow Flowers, acrylic on wood
This one is rather oddly called "Yellow Flowers", and the one with a yellow background is called, "New Flowers":
Andy Lakey, New Flowers, acrylic on wood
I most enjoy painting miniatures myself, and I really like having these in my house. I wish I could have met Andy, he seems to have been a very joyful person.
Andy Lakey

So in these little energetic works I am finding my inspiration to rebuild my shattered garden. Maybe it will even be fun!
Wishing you all a wonderful weekend walkabout!


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Back to Blogging, Looking Like a Drowned Rat

We had an unexpected death in the family, then Hurricane Matthew. That's why I haven't blogged in awhile. I'm still feeling quite bedraggled and befuddled, but here I am.

We lost our longtime furry companion. Fortunately, these days more people "get it" that when our other-species companions leave, it hurts a lot. We're losing some of our human arrogance and realizing that relationships with other creatures can be strong and meaningful. That's progress!

It doesn't matter if a loved one is old or young, sick or healthy when they leave. We miss them and it hurts. One of my teachers explained that grief has 3 parts- you feel for them because they suffered and you couldn't stop the suffering, you want to know where their spirit has gone and if they are OK, and mostly, you suffer from the hole in your heart where they used to be. Takes time to work through it all and incorporate the pain into a new version of you, but it does happen:
The Day After, MRobb, 2016
So right after this happened, we had to evacuate 100 miles to escape from Major Hurricane Matthew. Packing our lives into a few small suitcases was a 12-hour marathon I call Speed Prioritizing Your Life. It was quite interesting, and I never want to do it again. I'll write more about it later, most likely.

Fortunately, Matthew took a little wobble to the east ("Wobble, Matthew, Wobble!) and we only lost part of our roof and several chunks of ceiling. Our neighborhood is a mess, but it's livable:
I am feeling very grateful to God and LaSirene for moving Matthew a little to the right...
LaSirene, MRobb, 2012
but also feeling sad and worried for those to the North who are dealing with some horrendous floods.
OK, so what about the garden, after all, this is a garden blog. Well, my indoor garden is OK, but the outside garden is basically gone:
The only thing that stayed standing was one bedraggled schefflera and the Buddha sculpture, and a few Leaf of Life plants from Jamaica:
I did, however, find horseshoe crabs in the garden, left by the storm surge and fierce winds:
Our beach lost a lot of sand it didn't really have enough of in the first place, but the sky was incredibly blue from the fresh and clean air after Matthew roared through:
After the Hurricane, MRobb, Oct2016
So my Weekend Walkabout will be in the clean, fresh air, surrounded by piles of rubble. Hmm.