Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Gardening

Not thinking about what does not matter
     And inviting what does

Daffodil in front of tulips and hyacinthA garden is quite civilizing, in the sense that it invites attention to the sort of slow knowledge easily forgotten in the zany precincts downtown. An hour or so after work wandering from beauty to beauty, thinking about light and composition in the context of life cycles and compost is sure to leave all those tense puzzles that characterize modern bureaucratic schools seeming more what they are, little puzzles that matter less than they seem, whether they are solved or not.

When I was a very young teacher I argued in various places that as we more and more thought of teaching using metaphors of war—objectives, tactics, strategies—we would lose touch with the central wonder of it all, which we remember best when we think with metaphors drawn from gardening. We cultivate and we nurture, but most of what happens is beyond our understanding. I can garden daffodils but I could never design one. Most of what it does it does because that’s its nature.


New tulipsMy students today in seventh period were particularly beautiful, in that inattentive and careless way that is part of youth’s charm. We were discussing chapter fourteen of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, where the young scholar demonstrates to the old professor how he can make sense out of an ancient text using modern methods. 

It’s dangerous. The new method may, eventually, dissolve the old certainties. We risk getting lost in the chaos. And yet, the young scholar has learned enough to love order, and that’s what he’s looking for. A greater order.

I was more conscious than usual today that I can’t stop the kids from going where they will choose to go, and I don’t have much control over what they will learn either. I can, however, make it clear what I have come to love, which are mostly old truths about keeping promises, working hard to smooth the way, studying to get better at untangling knots.

The big news in education this week is that a study has found that Reading First doesn’t seem to work, and all those careful objectives and tactics may have led to a billion dollar boondoggle. As daffodils start to look a little ragged, young tulips are getting ready to open and peonies are making large round buds and lupines are starting to rise in a slow, implacable jostle for room in the sun. 


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Early tulips restore what faded in winter
     Finally, t-shirt weather

Today was the first day this spring I’ve had time to be out gardening in t-shirt weather. The daffodils and early tulips are in bloom, and peonies seem to be growing several inches per day. The early tulips are the most spectacular event at the moment. They are a form of grace, with “grace” understood as all that is good about life that we don’t and can’t earn.

All gardens are mostly grace, as nature responds all out of proportion to our little efforts. And the more we know the more we are beholden, not just to nature but to other people.

The plants we can now buy at nurseries and grocery stores for a few dollars exist only because of centuries of labor. Whatever motivated various gardeners and scientists, their work was a way of taking responsibility for the earth, increasing its wealth in the most fundamental ways. When I look at my tulips I am seeing the results of efforts begun over a thousand years ago in the mountains of central Asia when some Turkish man or woman saw the wild flowers and decided to grow them intentionally.

The Dutch, of course, adopted them as their own during the 16th Century, maybe because their brilliance seemed so glorious in the bleak landscape of the Netherlands. “What beauty there is in the Netherlands is largely the result of human effort,” observed Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

April gardening: more winter
     But there's fresh compost under that snow

Fritillaria-yellow crown imperial
Spring was doing nicely. My yellow Fritillaria Imperialis (Crown Imperial) isn’t in full bloom yet but it’s getting there. It’s been a cold, snowy spring, and most weekends when I’ve had time to pay attention to the garden snow flurries kept my motivation cool.

Mulching flower bedsBut things started well. I’ve just put a new clutch in my old truck and it seemed to be running well, so I loaded a couple yards of compost and began mulching the beds.

The guy with the front end loader at Eko Compost dumped his whole bucket on my little half-ton truck. It looked more like three yards and my rear tires went nearly flat. I made it to Cenex and added air, then drove slowly home. When I finally got there, I was glad for the big load. I have lots of places to put it.
However, I didn’t even finish getting the truck unloaded when the snow began again. It was a nice snow, thick with huge flakes drifting softly through the air.

Tulips in snow
Within a couple hours, my beds look like this. Neither the daffodils nor the tulips mind much, of course. And in most ways I don’t either.

Autumn Joy Sedum in snow
I was glad I hadn’t yet cleared last year’s Autumn Joy Sedum from the beds. It’s quite gorgeous in winter--for the moment, it’s the most striking thing I see in my April garden.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Sunflower after winter
     Early spring garden

This sunflower “volunteered,” growing beside the arbor from a seed that fell from the bird feeder. Very few new flowers have bloomed this reluctant spring which keeps reverting to snow flurries. So I’m still enjoying the stark beauty of a winter garden.

Andrew Wyeth: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but I do love it. Of course, the “whole story” doesn’t show in other seasons either, except to the experienced imagination, which moves toward seeing the whole story in each of its moments.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Counting on lightning
     Surprised by insight

image

In medieval Europe, people believed that ringing the church bells during bad storms dispersed evil spirits seeking to destroy God’s house. In a thirty-year period in the 18th century more than a hundred French bellringers were killed by lightning running down bell ropes. Finally, the custom was outlawed. The ancient Romans believed that lightning moving from right to left was a good omen while energy moving from left to right was a sign that the gods didn’t like what was happening politically. A leftward movement required that all public assemblies be canceled.

Probably the Romans were no closer to the truth than the medieval Christians, though both positions still claim adherents. It’s easy to misread the meaning of things.

For me, lightning is one window into the way of things. There are illuminations that occur suddenly. Unseen patterns connect and the darkness explodes in brilliant skeletal patterns, and I see.

There are slower ways of learning, of course. Some things we learn gradually, a little here and a little there, something like the way a coral reef is built up from the remains of innumerable individual polyps. This learning is vast and solid, forming the experiential base of all our knowing. 

But I have come to count on lightning. Living in a dry climate where lightning is rare, I know that conditions need to be right. Lightning forms in thunderstorms, and thunderstorms are brewed out of heat and moisture. So I read and observe and make notes, bringing the needed ingredients to mind. I am drawn outside at night when the sky is alive with tumultuous changes.

Sometimes, it’s true, the darkness returns so swiftly that we are little more than confused by enlightenment too brief to stick. But sometimes, we really do see and in seeing we are changed.


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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Living or artificial?
     Are Christmas trees green?



A few of us head out in search of the
perfect tree. This year, all five of children
managed to make it to this annual tradition,
along with their spouses and seventeen
of the eighteen children. The eighteenth
grandchild is fifteen, so sometimes other
obligations seem more important to her
than yet another family gathering.

Sometimes I’m even more glad than others that years ago Valerie and decided to live in a small town near family rather than near career opportunities. This morning I came across an article in the
Washington Post pondering whether people should put up living Christmas trees or artificial ones. Well, “pondering” is actually too impressive a word. Fiddling with the concept would be more accurate.

I do worry though that such fiddling too often passes for thinking among many of us--judging by the detritus of modernity that fills my own inbox each day. There seem to be a lot of people quite busy with not much.

At a superficial level, the question might seem a touch one. On one hand, a living tree gets chopped down. But on the other, most artificial trees are made of nonbiodegradable plastics and metal in China. Cutting a tree. Oh my! Contributing to nonbiodegradable mountains. How awful!

From where I live, no such dilemma appears. Each year, my family gathers to cut our trees on a piece of property purchased by my wife’s father decades ago. The land is in the foothills of the Mission Mountains, more than a mile above the nearest county road. Some years, just getting in there is a challenge. This year there was snow, but it was a sunny day with temperatures above freezing. Stunning.

If any of us had more time or resources to devote to managing the forty acres, we would somewhat aggressively thin the trees, cutting thousands of competing fir and pine and spruce and leave healthy trees spaced every fourteen feet or so. We’d select the trees we left for general health and to preserve the mix of conifers that have grown there as long as anyone knows. I’ve done quite a lot of such thinning in the past, in much the same spirit as I thin carrots once they have sprouted, leaving only as many as can flourish. In any case, we don’t imagine our taking of a few trees is harming the planet.

Many years ago I cut some trees to sell at this same property. I was a first year teacher and Valerie and I were quite poor. It seemed we could either tighten our belts at Christmas or do something to get some more money. We drove a few hundred miles home, spent one day cutting and bunching 500 trees to load on our 1956 4x4 GMC (I loved that truck) and then we drove back to eastern Montana where I worked (and where trees were more scarce). We sold all the trees out of our front yard, charging $1.50/foot. Most trees were seven or eight feet tall.

The removal of 500 trees wasn’t noticeable, but the little difference it made was an improvement, helping the forest renew itself more quickly. Crowded trees can’t grow very fast.

None of which interests me much.

What interests me is the family tradition of going to that place to get our trees each year. We do it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We started when Valerie and I had three small children. We’ve done it every year since. This year, there were twenty-seven of us. For a few hours we spread out through the mountains, the toddlers staying near parents and the older kids going sledding on the ungroomed hill that bounds the property on the north. Our kids, who are young adults with families of their own can’t remember not doing it, and their kids experience it as a huge festival involving all their cousins who, for these kids, are nearly as well-known as their siblings.

As it gets dark, we leave the hills and gather back at the homestead for chili. Well, this year it was clam chowder. I usually make the chili, but my son-in-law, Dev, made chili for everyone the day before to serve at his oldest son’s birthday party, where we all gathered. So, chowder. The key to keeping traditions going is being flexible. In fact, several people didn’t even get trees this year. My youngest son cut some fire wood, which he needed at the moment more than a tree, and my oldest daughter, who had a two-month old baby riding in a pack, seemed content to just wander through the woods with us, enjoying the day.

Until a few years ago, most Christmas trees were harvested from wild forests. Today, nearly all commercial Christmas trees are grown on tree farms, where trees are continually planted and harvested. Buying all those trees keeps the land planted to trees, albeit small ones, and it keeps a lot of people working on the land, which I take as a very good thing.

It seems sad to me that about half the trees out there this year will be fake. Perhaps the time will come when my family, too, will switch to synthetic trees, which will for a while try to create echoes of the sort of memories I am rich with. If that time comes, I will indeed face a dilemma, but it won’t have much to do with worry about landfills.

Instead, I will be thinking about how to create new traditions that link family members across generations in reliable moments of togetherness. What else is Christmas for? (Hat tip: Garden Rant)


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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Gardeners understand small solutions to big problems
     A Gardener's Duty

People are funny, often going to great lengths and enormous trouble to do the wrong things, when doing the right thing would be easier and more enjoyable. The school I work at has tried several things to boost student reading scores. Simply allowing people enough time to read doesn’t seem complex and substantive enough, so instead of reading we plan more meetings.

For lunch today I read a few blogs while enjoying a bowl of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and carrots that I sliced up before going to bed last night. It was delicious, inexpensive and healthy. Not many years ago I would have filled up my limited lunch “hour” with a rush to a fast food place, spending most of my time in traffic so that I could pay too much money for food high in carbs and fat.


Lily in my secret garden.

I think of people on a hectic thousand-mile weekend, packing and driving and spending to enjoy their free time, when a few quiet hours in a nearby park might have done the trick better, if they could but relax and pay attention to what is at hand. Gardeners know better than many others that it isn’t necessary to travel to the Amazon to view the wonders of nature, that a lily near at hand is as wondrous as those the king keeps at his estate.

I doubt we will solve the world’s most serious problems until we accept the wonderful news that real solutions require free people making good decisions for themselves. Those who understand this readily see that the the best way forward has more to do with education than with control. It’s easy to fall for the delusion that widespread problems requite large-scale solutions. Such a way of thinking comes naturally to kings and others who dream of being in charge.

Wild Flora points out in a “gardener’s duty” that many of our environmental challenges are best dealt with by individuals who have a refined sense of duty and self-interest:

Well, not to let the big corporate types off the hook--but the choices made by millions of individuals have emerged as one of the major causes of planetary degradation. Choices made in the way we manage landeven if itגs a half-acre back yardaffect the quality of our air and water, species diversity, and a host of other matters of more-than-passing interest to a lot of creatures for a lot of reasons.

And it’s not just environmental problems that require millions of people making better choices. Though it would wreck the economy in the short-term, the worldwide consequences of people just keeping the Sabbath would be enormous. Not only would people find it a joy to step aside from so many concerns that seem so awfully urgent until they are put aside and one learns that they can be put aside, but fuel consumption would decrease as people stayed home more and stores closed, lonely old people would get more company, and a few people here and there would be tempted to read the great old poetry, finding themselves contemplating their own character and how they ought to live.


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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

No time to garden
     You can't lose when you play an infinite game

I don’t have time to garden well. I garden anyway.

Gardening is one of those activities like caring for children or learning about the past that rewards you for every little effort, no matter how small. It’s an infinite game. We never have enough time to do all that we would like, so we do what we can. I don’t have enough time to teach as well as I would like or to do what could be done with my grandchildren. Still, I teach and go cut Christmas trees with my grandkids.

Near where I live, I sometimes walk through a housing development where almost nobody gardens. The houses have no foundation plantings, no shade trees, no flower beds, though they do have satellite dishes and those portable basketball hoops sitting on the street. I know quite a few people who live there, and I don’t think it has occurred to most of them that they can simply dig a hole or a bed and plant a few things and their life will slowly start filling with more grace—the grace that is always here, flooding by us and through us with the sunshine.

It’s sad not to live in a garden, even a garden as unfinished and in need of care as mine. Having a garden is, to me, mostly a way of paying attention to the grace that dazzles and reassures, a way of aligning one’s small efforts with something so vast and good that we slowly learn we really do have nothing to fear.

Most years we have a late winter/early spring snowstorm that drives hordes of robins to my unmanaged apple trees. With no worms or caterpillars anywhere, the robins eat last year’s apples, withered but still hanging to the bare trees. I have a lot more apple trees than I can use. Some are just volunteers from old apple cores thrown along the creek. Some are ornamental crabs that I planted specifically to feed birds. Some are cultivars I planted, knowing I don’t have time or need for them now, sort of waiting for a time of famine or for new friends who would like free apples.

In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to see birds flocking to this bounty that they did not earn and cannot understand.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Homesteading Ninepipe
     Refuge dreams

New homesites have popped up all around the Ninepipe refuge, south of Polson.  Building houses and planting trees changes this sensitive prairie ecosystem in ways that cause trouble for nesting waterfowl.

New homesites have popped up all around the Ninepipe refuge, south of Polson. The refuge is part of a prairie ecosystem that starts east of the Mission Mountain Wilderness buffer zone and extends west to the Moiese Hills. The area is visited by a diverse array of threatened or endangered species:  bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and trumpeter swans. As many as 136 species of neotropical birds use the area, including twelve that use the land as a breeding site.

Other birds and animals I’ve seen there include osprey, long-billed curlew, avocet, black-necked stilt, short-eared owl, burrowing owl, canvasback, mountain bluebird, and river otter. The place has high densities of breeding redheads and other waterfowl. In 1991, almost five breeding pairs per wetland acre were found. This makes the area a significant part of our continent’s wetlands heritage. 

Though the land where houses at Ninepipe are being built is privately owned, the complex ecosystem of water, plants, birds and animals is a shared resource, larger than the holdings of any one individual. It’s a checkerboard ownership pattern: federal refuge land, state land, tribal land and private lots.

Housing development threatens ground nesting birds in several ways. Once they select a nest site, the birds are committed for four weeks. Pets become a sizeable problem. While the refuge staff was banding ducks some years ago, dogs got into the traps two of the four days they were working.  One dog killed twenty-eight birds in a single incident, including a brood of canvasback, which was the only brood known to have nested at Ninepipe.

Other threats are less obvious. Home owners usually plant trees. In open areas like Ninepipe, shelter belts are popular. People are accustomed to thinking of trees as “good” for the environment, because they provide cover for many animals. But Ninepipe is a prairie ecosystem. With shelterbelts a predators not common on prairies becomes more plentiful. Some owls and hawks are nonprairie predators. All of them are destructive of nesting birds.

And as people build rock piles, sheds and culverts, another predator also thrives: skunks. Skunks are notorious nest raiders. Human changes to the environment have led to many more skunks than would be found in a natural setting, and this led to sharp declines in the rates of nest success.

Housing development also tends to reduce coyote populations, which would allows the numbers of red foxes to increase. Red foxes are nest stealers, who not only eat eggs, but cache them.  A refuge manager told me that he once watched an Arctic fox in Alaska cache 200 eggs in a single day. 

Another common human change that may seem inconsequential is the installation of fences. At least five varieties of birds found at Ninepipe characteristically fly four feet off the ground: blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green winged teal, short-eared owl, and northern harrier. As the number of fences increase, so do the number of birds tangled and killed in them.

I sometimes think that the constant building private ranchettes is related to a larger disillusionment with the world we’ve made.  More and more people seem to be fleeing, dreaming maybe of private refuge.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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