Galicia Encantada. . . Part IV

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

In which I Become A Smuggler, A Vagrant, A Loiterer, and A Person of Suspicion

Five AM on Saturday came too soon and it was time to leave this enchanted land. I had one last taste of Galician hospitality at Santiago airport. A security agent took it upon himself to help me with my bags and escort me through the small airport.

During the quiet pre-dawn moments we stood chatting I learned that he had some years ago lived in Astoria, New York, only a ten-minute walk from where I grew up. Having exchanged life histories, which we happen to do very well in North Carolina, we said goodby and wished each other well.

From Santiago to Madrid to London to Miami my Carolina home seemed to be calling: seatmate from New Bern, Swiss basketball player visiting his host family from NC college days.

And then there was the Miami airport. Where every plane in the world – and maybe outer space, too — converges at precisely 8 pm. Battalions of travellers emerge to do the maze-creep to Customs.

Time for a reminder of Galicia. . .

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I thought I had sailed through Customs . . .

Until the cutest, friskiest, little beagle/terrier mix wagged his tail at me. He was so proud of himself, wiggling his little bottom like he wanted to dance. Such a sweetie I almost leaned down to pet him but I kinda thought, even with that wiggly tail, his capacity might be official.

He likes your fruit, his handler said. Huh? It’s your fruit, she said.

I’d forgotten. The parador had packed a lovely picnic for me, most of which I’d nibbled on during the day. But squirting orange juice on a seat mate, or dribbling pear juice on luggage didn’t seem appropriate, so I was saving them for my overnight layover in Miami.

Reluctantly I gave them up and started to go on my way.

It’s a little more complicated than that, she said. You didn’t declare them. You’ll have to get checked out at the Official Search Me Center. (I can’t remember its proper name, but you get the idea.)

You know, there is a $300 fine, the Search-Me Control Official said, pausing for effect. . . not for possession — but for falsifying your forms.

Three-hundred-dollars! How about jail-time instead? Might be cheaper and I wouldn’t have to hunt for a hotel room.

Mr. Search Me must have noticed my utter shock. Don’t worry, he said, I believe you.

He gingerly searched my bags, careful not to shift much around, while I privately thought he was the nicest, sweetest man I’d ever met.

By the way, he said, you have a very small suitcase but you manage to pack the whole house into it.

I thanked him. I wished I had the nerve to ask for my fruit back — that absolutely perfect, succulent, juicy pear and orange duo I’d forgotten about so completely but now suddenly craved.

Time for a taste of Galicia. . .

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At ten pm rooms in Miami, if you can find one, go for $329 a night (with or without tax?) and, sorry, shuttle service ends at 10 pm.

Judging from the clutter of luggage and travelers who had already staked claims to seating in the airport hotel lobby, I was not the only one in this pickle. There is discipline and skill to staking a proper claim, I soon learned.  Make the mistake of leaving for a very short minute, or shifting momentarily, and you lose squatters’ rights.

It didn’t matter. Promptly at 11:30 pm the hotel-lobby sentry, who took his job very seriously, told us in no uncertain terms that we could not spend the night in the lobby.

Like true vagrants we did not stir. We were a still and sullen bunch. The sentry, on the other hand, who took his job very seriously, became more strident. We pretended not to hear. Would it be a standoff? We did outnumber him.

Finally, the sentry, did I mention he took his job very seriously, ordered us out in no uncertain terms Would he take action if we did not move? He said if we wanted to camp out, we could find some cots at the far end of the airport on the fourth floor.

This is a very bad joke, I thought, but then again, the sentry took his job very seriously, so he was probably not the kind to make jokes. Reluctantly, dripping with passive aggression, we scattered.

Back to Galicia, if only for a moment. . .

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Then I met a couple who had sailed in Galicia waters. Together we searched for cots, but I declined the offer of the gentleman, elderly but wiry, to carry my bags.

He was already hefting not one but two duffle bags half his height. I couldn’t in good conscience ask him to carry a bag that was packed with the whole house.

There truly were camp cots on the fourth floor. (You should know this if you are ever stranded in the Miami airport, God help you.) They gave us sterilized blankets and pillows, water and granola bars and someone was around at all times.

The experience was, maybe, a taste of disaster relief you see on television after hurricanes, but the room was very dark and there were no TV cameras (I assume).

Which was a good thing. I would not want my TV debut to record pictures of me falling/crawling/hauling myself onto or off of a tipping/slipping/flipping camp cot.

Sweet dreams of Galicia. . .

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Speaking of flipping, my flip phone was my life line to sanity and home. Now the phone was giving me urgent messages about imminent battery death.

No problem, this over-confident technophobe thought. I am fully prepared with my handy dandy cell phone charger. I’ll just plug this thing in wherever it is that people plug these things in.

Is there some trick to this? Nothing is happening.

Oh, a shop girl said dismissively, most of the charging stations don’t work.

I got bold. I found some official who was chatting in the ticketing area and asked him to show me an outlet that actually worked and could he plug it in and check it for me. How could he say no?

Then I waited. In an airport I believe that is known as loitering unless you are an official.

Loitering is not boring. Every official who passed me chatted me up, casually, politely trying to find out why I was doing absolutely nothing but observing the passing parade instead if joining it. Add “person of suspicion” to smuggler, vagrant and loiterer.

What fun it would be to loiter in Galicia. . .

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In addition to knowing about camp cots on the fourth floor, you should know that the Miami airport stretches from Florida to Maine in a straight line. Packing track shoes is a good idea. On the bright side, you don’t have to worry about taking a wrong turn.

I did, however, wonder when my gate number would be posted. I can never understand why major airports that handle a million flights a day seem to have a problem posting gates for planes.

I used to think the numbers came from some hush-hush game of craps played on the fourth floor. Now I know (having spent time on the fourth floor) that there is no game.

Anyway, I hadn’t yet figured out that the airport was a straight line from Florida to Maine, so I asked for directions. Just get in the closest security line to my gate, I was told. Otherwise you’ll be walking forever. That my gate was not listed seemed to be a mere detail, eventually rectified by walking from Florida to Georgia, where I could hover over the departures board like a race-track junkie until odds are posted.

Bring back those memories of Galicia. . .

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I was there! The gatekeeper to security checked my IDs and stopped the line. We have to wait for the dog to get here, she said. And wait we did. Let me tell you, this was not the cute beagle/terrier that had nailed me last night.

This one was bigger, lankier, not cute, and he took his job very seriously. This dog knew his sniff – he could sniff people out without even sniffing. He was obviously a high-level sniffer. But he didn’t sniff me. No, he didn’t sniff me, and he was gone by the time my bags went into x-ray.

Well, the x-ray got me. The X-ray Official rooted around my bags swabbed everything except my underwear. Unfortunately, in her zeal, she did not realize I was carrying the whole house in one little bag, so there was a moment of suspense before she succeeded in rezipping my bags.

Back to the walking, even though I got in the right line, I swear I did, because you are absolutely forbidden to get in the wrong line, I wound up walking from Gate 1 to Gate 60, from Florida to Maine, and me toting the whole house, kind of like backpacking the Appalachian Trail without rocks to trip over.

Or maybe following camellias in Galicia. . .

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A keen sense of observation is required of travelers flying out of Miami’s Gate Number 60. That is because there are five (5) Gates Number 60. Each of the five has three flights listed on its board. Aha, a new kind of vision test? Or maybe they were testing number-recognition in old people.

And here I thought I wouldn’t have enough reading material to last me till my flight left.

Well, everyone seemed content in that waiting area, like they all knew where they were going. But I didn’t believe it. Every time I ask a direction of a traveller who is going my way, just to get a little confirmation, mind you, before I get on an elevator that will take me to Venus when I’m really looking to go to Mars, no one can seem to give me a direct answer. So I think most people are putting on a big show to cover up their insecurities.

One thing about being old and maybe not so sprightly, people think you are either half-blind, half-deaf, or half-brain dead, or half-all-of-the-above, and they are quite willing to help you out.

A kind attendant came up to me and asked my destination. My all-night maze-running, cot-wrestling and airport marathons must have been catching up to me because it took me a moment to lose my vacant stare and focus on remembering where I was going on this particular flight. Which no doubt reinforced the stereotypes described above.

She promised to help me board. This process, incidentally, required another quarter mile of walking outdoors to choose a plane, any plane, from among several waiting on the tarmac. How do people know these things? But I didn’t see her again.

And while I am about it, did you know that they are making seat numbers harder and harder to read? Or maybe that’s the half-blind stereotype. This can be a particular problem when a flight attendant apparently misdirects you on a jumbo jet and you have to swim upstream to find your seat, saying Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me at every pass. On the other hand, maybe that is a result of the half-deaf stereotype.

I fell asleep as soon as I got on the plane. All memories of destinations, flight times, flight numbers, gate numbers, seat numbers, and buses, trains, escalators and elevators whisking me to parts unknown vanished into oblivion. (That is the half-brain-dead stereotype.)

One last farewell to Galicia. . .

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The best part was yet to come. Though I’d been gone for twelve days, I didn’t miss springtime, which sometimes comes and goes in a minute here. All blooms waited especially for me. (Snow and cold weather had nothing to do with the delay, I assure you.)

I felt doubly treated — memories of camellias from across an ocean, and a springtime tour of my own garden. I know I can get lost here for hours and be neither smuggler nor vagrant nor loiterer nor person of suspicion. (Some who know my gardening style might question those assertions, but that is grist for another story.)

Here is the picture that started it all. . .

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I                                    Galicia: Three Gardens I

Galicia Encantada. . .Part II                                  Galicia: Three Gardens II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III

Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

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Galicia Encantada . . .Part III

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

Santiago de Compostela

Breaking News: I could find no evidence of Puss in Boots in Santiago de Compostela. You may remember from the movie, Shrek 2 that Puss boasted of being the great cat burglar of Santiago de Compostela during one of his past lives.

Rooftops below the old city, bonanza for a cat burglar

I’m sorry to say that nobody here remembers seeing him. But that, I guess, is the nature of cat burglars.

Unabashedly I admit that the cavalier Puss in Boots was my first introduction to the city.

Since that movie, the name of this city has rolled off my tongue with cadence and lilt. It was such a delight to my ears, even though I didn’t know a thing about the city.

Now that I have visited, I know that Santiago de Compostela is one of three great pilgrimage cities, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem.

Eighteenth century parish church near our parador

Whether you come as pilgrim or tourist, your travel through Galicia must lead you to Santiago de Compostela.

It is a city of legend and great faith, of soaring cathedral and spacious squares, of history and hallowed dreams, of busy shops and crooked streets.

I came as tourist, initially with the Ciceroni tour group, then later, when my flights home were delayed, I spent time wandering on my own.

When I left I was almost beginning to feel at home in this ancient city with crooked streets where ATMs and grocery stores, fresh produce and  florists, and a large indoor seafood hall (selling Galician mussels, of course) are tucked into ruas with porticos and iron balconies.

Venerable as the city is, I am pretty sure they still pull up those crooked streets at night and rearrange them. Each day presented a challenge for this walker accustomed to city grids.

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If you hear the story behind Santiago de Compostela you will have some understanding of why this is a holy city. It goes back to 44 AD when the apostle James is beheaded in Jerusalem. He is the only disciple of Christ to be martyred.

With the help of angels, the apostle’s disciples spirit the body away, through the Mediterranean, along the Iberian coast, ending in an overland trek to present-day Santiago de Compostela. A perilous 3000-mile journey, like crossing the Atlantic in a skiff, but quite doable when guided by a heavenly host.

Detail of a finely wrought reredos (altar screen)  in the cathedral museum

Fast forward to 700 AD and a shepherd looks out on his field (compo) at brilliant starlight (stela) focused on the burial site. The discovery is so momentous that a church and monastery are built to honor the relics. Three hundred years later moors burn the church to the ground, and construction of a finer, grander cathedral begins.

The name of the city is on tongues across the land: Sant Iago de Compo stela The miracle of St. James becomes the foundation of great faith that inspires pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

St. James with staff on cathedral facade (Detail of Internet photo)

A wave of Christianity explodes throughout Europe. St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. He inspires holy warriors in their Crusade to defeat the enemies of Christianity: moors, muslims, and arabs. The city becomes the touchstone for celebrating a new, stronger faith.

St. James as Matamoras, the moor slayer

Likenesses of the martyred disciple appear in a range of guises. The bold sculpture on the facade of the Monastery of San Martino Pinario celebrates St. James as moor slayer.

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Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for pilgrims. A network of routes known as caminos begins to crisscross Europe and converge on this holy city.

The Way of St. James is not an easy way. In the beginning there are no maps, no direct roads, no signs. Pilgrims follow the stars, propelled by faith, informally creating their own web of trails. Terrain is rough, bandits attack, and health often fails along the caminos.

An AD 1140 official guide book listed four major routes with feeders. Since most pilgrims came from France, all pilgrims tended to be called Franks. Though wars and plagues might drastically reduce numbers, pilgrims never ceased coming. Internet map

Prosperity dawns in towns along the way. New churches are constructed, roads improved, hospices and hospitals are built for sick and weary travelers. Shopkeepers offer services — like repairing shoes — to a new clientele from out of town. Itinerant artisans contribute talent and skill to this vibrant awakening during the late Middle Ages.

As hosts of pilgrims arrive, Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for tradesmen: shoemakers, tailors, bakers, cooks. And artisans, too: stone masons, carpenters, painters, brick layers, and silversmiths. A thriving city emerges.

Ferdinand and Isabella order construction of a hospital for tired, sick and hungry pilgrims. It is a remarkable building, large enough to house a self-sufficient community, with chapels, dormitories, great kitchen, infirmary, apothecary, even a jail and eventually an orphanage for foundlings.

The Royal Hospital is run like a town, staffed by clergy, cooks, gardeners, doctors, nurses, apothecaries, artisans. 

The facade of the Royal Hospital, now a Parador

Our group stayed in the hospital, this rich depository of history. Today it is one of the finest paradors in the country, part of a chain of hotels established by the Spanish government. It still offers free meals to a limited number of pilgrims who apply.

Photographs capture imperfectly the detailed sculpture around the entry, which is designed as an altar screen with a cast that includes Adam and Eve as part of an allegory of man’s sin and salvation.  On either side of the entry are large prominent medallions of the Catholic monarchs. The cloisters in the pictures below were originally functioning areas. 

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The great heart of Santiago de Compostela is its cathedral. Its towers soar. They are the skyline. They are symbols of a saint. And they are abiding landmarks for a wanderer who may not always pay attention to street signs and lesser landmarks.

The baroque facade and main entrance of the cathedral that faces Obradoiro Plaza. Note statue of St. James in center near the top

Medieval cathedrals weren’t built in a decade, or even a century, and this cathedral proves the precedents. A millenium passed from the building of the first church, now in ruins under the altar, to the completion of the cathedral.

Partial reconstruction of the old choir is exhibited in the Cathedral museum

Though it was consecrated in 1211, early romanesque, its architecture goes with the flow of centuries, from romanesque to gothic to baroque. It is a grand cathedral, complex in its footprint, with imposing entrances that open on to spacious squares that in turn complement imposing palaces and ornate centuries-old buildings.

The interior  is large and dusky with wide aisles to accommodate the press of pilgrims who would make their journey of faith toward the altar. The baroque eclat of the altar is not apparent at first, until you come close. Then its opulence overwhelms. I kept my camera hidden.

Below the altar, through a small passage, lies the ornate silver crypt of St. James, a giant gilded leap from those uncertain days of the first century.

Since reconstruction barred the main gates, we entered the cathedral through the gate with the scallop shell near shops selling silver and jet stone, or azabache. On our way, each day, we would pass a Galician playing the bagpipe, a tradition, in this palace archway.

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During those early days, the cathedral was a smoky scene, result of air-freshener incense liberally dispersed by a huge botafumeiro to sweeten the odors of unwashed pilgrims attending masses.

The large, lavish silver censer was managed by eight tiraboleiros who would swing its ropes across the transept with such speed and precision that the botafumeiro would fairly fly up to the vaulted ceiling, then dive back down to just miss worshipers seated in front rows.

The ceremony takes place in modern times, but only under special circumstances. Internet photo

If the cathedral is the heart of the city, surely it is the stonemasons and sculptors who gave the city its soul. Stonework and sculpture on buildings and statuary astonish. Who were these artists and artisans and how did they produce such magnificence over centuries? Most of it in granite! Originally in color!

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If I could sail back  into medieval history, Santiago de Compostela and the Praza do Obradoiro  would be my port of call.

Here, beneath the baroque facade of the cathedral was the workplace for teams of artisans. What a scene that must have been. Cluttered workshops. Tools clanging. Workmen running errands, hefting statues, balancing columns, scaffolding great heights. Each team signed its work, not for recognition by posterity, but to be sure they got paid.

I crossed that stone plaza many times, and each time I remarked how hard it was. New York City’s pavement, set on bedrock is said to be the hardest in the world, and I’ve walked many miles on it. But this grand square of granite stone laid on granite bedrock is made of sterner stuff for soles.

What stories these stones could tell

You can’t see any signs of workshops today. Instead, the Plaza is a gathering place for tourists and pilgrims, and activists and others, though we saw few pilgrims  in March. Pilgrimages are better made in fairer weather.

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In recent decades, partly in response to promotions by the Galician government,  more pilgrims are walking the Way each year, 300,000 of them in 2017. Most carry “pilgrimage passports” stamped at each station as they walk the required 100 km (or bike 200 km).

If they complete the walk and profess spiritual purpose, they receive a compostela, or certificate of accomplishment. It is, in fact, a life-changing experience for many.

Pilgrims may begin the Way of St. James because they are in mourning, or troubled, or seeking fulfillment in their lives. Often they experience deep spiritual awakening that changes them indelibly.

Along the way, they are guided by the symbol of St. James, the scallop shell, which may be affixed to sign posts and mark trails, or worn by pilgrims.

In earlier times the scallop served as water scoop and bowl

Across the avenue from the once-walled city is an elegant park, the Alameda, crisscrossed by paths that invite strolling and lead to overlooks above the city. Here you can find lovely camellias and ancient eucalyptus and lemon trees and banana trees, and palm trees. And hundred-year-old oak trees, called “carballos” in Galician.

And churches and monuments. Two of my favorites depict a pensive Rosalia de Castro, 19th century Galician romantic poet, and the Marias, eccentrc sisters who daily walked the park.

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The Alameda is now almost two centuries old and it bustles in early evening. As I was leaving, I passed two tatterdemalions, tall-and-burly, and lithe-and-slender, having a wonderful time dancing and laughing. That started me laughing. Nobody understood a word of conversation. It didn’t matter. What could be more universal than laughter.

I gave them a few coins and as I was turning away,  tall-and-burly ran after me to plant a spontaneous kiss on the back of my head. (My second continental kiss, the first by a leprechaun helping me down stone steps. Will there be a third?)

Magnolias in bloom, spotted as I was leaving

For those who like statistics, Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage site, a city of about 95,000 people. Its university system has a population of 40,000 students and 2,000 teachers.  Like the rest of the city, the roots of this institution lie in the late Middle Ages. Fonseca College was founded in 1532 by Archbishop Alonso III, constructed on family property. It encloses a lovely cloister.

The cloister with the statue of Alphonso III

And so we leave Santiago de Compostela: its cathedral, its squares, its ruas, its park, parador, and palaces, with reverence for the faith and talents and industry of pilgrims and builders, thoughtful leaders and everyday people, who created this masterpiece long long ago. The cross of St. James remains a symbol of their devotion.

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Next:  Part IV, The Journey Home

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I     Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III    Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I       Galicia: Three Gardens II

Posted in Galicia, Galician history, Santiago de Compostela, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Galicia Encantada. . . Part II

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of Galician camellias.  Specific gardens are discussed in two entries on Galicia under Great Gardens.

Camellias: The Flower of Galicia

Such happy plants! We visited during March, when japonica camellias and their cousins, the robust reticulatas, were boasting their best. They added elegance to gardens, embraced ancient chapels, anchored avenues, strewed blossoms across public squares, sheltered coastal buildings, wound along paths, surprised us around corners.

Camellia japonica at Pazo Quintiero da cruz

They bloomed with gusto, in loosely trimmed hedges, as young specimens barely able to support mature blossoms, as buxom middle-agers, as century-old trees. Older shrubs and trees were sometimes sheared to shape in formal settings, with masses of leafless twigs on the interior supporting outer shells of blossoms and leaves.

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They grew in full sun with or without protection from the elements, though leaves, still healthy sometimes turned bronzy or yellow, and a recent storm had damaged some blooms. Supplemental irrigation did not seem critical, except perhaps in the driest and hottest of summers or for the newly planted.

Carpet of petals as colorful as the original blooms

Thinning plants for healthy air circulation so the proverbial dove can fly among the branches did not seem to be part of the playbook.

I saw no signs of the pests that can take the shine off our camellias: tea scale or twig dieback, for instance.

Though I’m sure there was regular tidying, nobody mentioned conscientious rakingof fallen blossoms to prevent blossom blight and assuage gardener-guilt.

Full disclosure: These are my cursory observations after only a few days. The gardeners who must do the work of maintaining camellias might have different stories. Still, after seeing hundreds of camellias in good health, I feel a certain confidence in my conclusions.

Even on hazy days, you can appreciate the rolling terrain

Galicia, half a world away from the Orient where camellias grew up, is the home away from home for these immigrants.

It is a kind of utopia for them.

Balmy coastal weather. Gentle terrain for fine drainage. Fertile, acid soil eroded from granite bedrock.

Misty days and nights. Ample rainfall.

Mild winters by our standards, and dry but generally cool summers.

Gardeners, Are you ready to pick up your plot and move to Galicia?

Not a camellia. Perfectly pruned Leptospermum scoparia, or Tea Tree  from New Zealand, so named because Captain Cook used its leaves for tea

What’s good for camellias is also good for other plants. That is probably why so many exotic plants survived during plant-mania of the 18th and 19th centuries.

That’s when happy, minding-its-own-business vegetation was uprooted from home to endure rugged voyages across oceans and begin the experiment of assimilating (partly to please collectors who coveted the new plant on the next ship).

And we gardeners today think we are plantaholics! Be comforted.

We have simply inherited the addiction via some gardener DNA mutated long long ago.

Most camellias came to Galicia as youngsters propagated from plants brought back by Portuguese explorers.

Happy accommodation among aged plants in Alameda Park

If you prefer an alternative tale, you can hang on to the legend that one day an itinerant monk brought a magic flower to Galicia. It grew and flourished in the land, and it was called the camellia. In reality, the camellia was named after Jesuit botanist-herbalist-pharmacist George Kamel, who lived and worked in the Philippines.

Cows like Galicia, too. Someone once called this “the land of one million cows.” There is even a cow that is special to Galicia. What do cows have in common with camellias? Well, apparently, what’s good for camellias is good for cows. Cows give gifts, too. Maybe those new camellias got cow-gifts.

The point is, the camellia might have been the queen of blooms, but it was coming into a farmyard. An elegant farmyard, perhaps, and it was probably potted up initially, but I bet it was a farmyard where happy cows were hanging around.

Pazo de Quinones de Leon in Vigo

Here is how it began. The gardens we visited are called “pazos,” galician for the Latin palatium, meaning palace, or, loosely, manor house. Many of them were fortresses in the middle ages, but some time around the 17th and 18th centuries, feudalism lost its allure. A new age of exploration and discovery set the stage for a new wave of agriculture. Prosperity attended a fragile peace, particularly for nobles who lived in pazos.

Orange trees among hectares of camellias and grapevines edged with box

Fortresses became manor houses with large landholdings that practiced what we would call today an ancient form of “sustainable agriculture” — a reasonable assumption, since there were no global monopolies distributing fertilizer or pesticide.

They were like miniature towns, these pazos, self-sufficient properties with permanent structures built out of always-on-tap granite. Granite! Not wood. Not plaster. Granite. It lies beneath our feet, ancient bedrock, toilsome to the chisel but practically indestructible.

Dwellings, outbuildings,  niches, benches, steps, fountains, stone crosses (often with carved figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary), walls, and supports for grape vines — all granite. For a devout people, a chapel of granite was requisite.

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Horreos raised up on granite pilings with stone crosses on peaked roofs stored grain.  They are everywhere,  their size and variety limited only by space and  ingenuity of the builder.  Round dovecotes roughly hewn of granite housed pigeons or doves that provided meat, eggs, and fertilizer.

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Gardens and orchards served up fruits and vegetables. The albarino grape, growing wild and free until it was supported on granite pillars supplied enough wine for family and friends.

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Aside:  Until someone much later said this is good stuff. With a little special attention we could tame those vineyards to produce even more wine — and income. Today, Galician wines are produced under strict quality control. Members of our tour group will readily vouch for the quality of the albarino wine we drank each day.

Vineyards roll on, a part of the Galician landscape

Enter the exotic camellia and its associates from around the world: rhododendron, boxwood, euonymus, hydrangea, cryptomeria, cypress, juniper, cedar. All familiars in our gardens, too.

Rhododendron pruned as a tree?

Land that had evolved from fortress to farm made  space for the pleasure garden, oasis of beauty and leisure and entertainment for the household. (The cows had moved to green pastures by then.)

Mixed border in Pazo de Fefinanes in Cambados

Gradually, the pazo  evolved by custom into three distinct elements: the “reservado” around the house with orchard and garden for the family, the farmland, and, on the outskirts, the forest.

The “reservado,” Pazo Rubians

It’s no accident then, that our tour listed visits to “pazos” and not simply gardens. Our group enjoyed visits to some elegant homes that echoed of history and old customs and generations of family. But the pazo is a union between home and garden, architecture and landscape. It is today a mosaic of land use, at once elegant and pastoral, that fuses the color, fragrance and form of exotics with the land that is Galicia. There is no concrete in these gardens.

Stone cross tucked into woodlands. Note height of camellia on left

Unlike gardens measuring only a century or two, or even gardens with history, like Florence’s  Boboli, or that most loved Parisian garden, Luxembourg, these pazos speak of romance and great age. Of mossy benches and  boxwood, of leisurely paths and ancient trees, of rustic stone steps and fountains and statuary. Does it come down to climate, that moisty misty hazy blanket that snugs this land with the gentle patina of age? Or is it that pithy granite that binds with its bones? Or both.

La mundo, quilted with moss and speckled with lichen. Pazo Santa Cruz de Rivadulla

Of manicured lawns there are none. Instead, casual washes of green, speckled with wild flowers, create vistas and organize groups of plants.

The gardens we visited lie along a part of the coast known as the rias Baix (low estuaries in southwest Galicia). Each garden is independent, but they are all part of the Route of the Camellia, which is maintained and promoted by Spain and the province of Pontevedra. They promise that 8,000 varieties of camellias, that “most beautiful flower under the heavens,” lie along this route. This includes many hybrids and species not often seen.

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In fact, our group got to see some of these blooms on display when we visited a camellia show being set up. I couldn’t help comparing shows in the US, where displays are formal and camellias precisely positioned, with exhibits in this show at Castle Sotomaier.

Formal groupings lined tables here, too, but imagination took the reins. Exhibits had themes ranging from classic to whimsical.  They  would be judged on creativity and quality of blooms. Look for the yellow Camellia nitidissima.

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And finally, I must tell you about the greatest of all  camellias.

The Pazo Quinones de Leon is an elegant park and museum in Vigo that is open to the public. You can stroll through the rose garden (in season), the French garden, formal, with parterres, and the more relaxed English garden.

There’s a pond with ducks, a miniature model of the pazo on an island in the pond, and when we were there camellias and rhododendrons and early azaleas were blooming.

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What, you ask,  is so special about a certain camellia here? Well, it is probably the grandest and the oldest camellia in Galicia. It is over 200 years old and its trunk at ground level is 24 inches in diameter. That’s a measure of over six feet around. The camellia is called Methuselah. A miniature army of boxwoods stands guard around Methuselah to give it the majesty that this survivor deserves.


Once you’ve seen this plant, the debate over whether camellias are bushes or trees becomes moot. With camellias, it takes a long time, much more time than we gardeners have. A humbling thought. Like heavenly light that takes millennia to reach us, the gardens in Galicia are a tableau of time.

Moments in a castle garden: the fading bloom, the young bloom emerging, and scattered cones whose seeds will soon begin a journey of their own

Next:  Part III, Santiago de Compostela

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I        Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III     Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I      Galicia: Three Gardens II

Posted in Camellias in Galicia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by my portraits of camellias.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.  

Where is Galicia? And Who are the Galicians?

Raindrops stung as I walked toward the large hanger that anchors the airport in Vigo. It was the beginning of March and I was on my way to meet a small group for a week of touring gardens in Galicia.

Spain and Portugal, Galicia, part of Spain, in red. Wikimedia map

Touring gardens? In March? In the rain? In Spain?

Friends laughed when I told them I was crossing an ocean to see camellias. Stay home, stay warm, stay dry. You can see camellias from your window.

But I had seen a picture of bright pink camellia petals strewn like a royal carpet across an expanse of green that ran up to aged stone steps.

I was hooked. Camellias that shed like that must be worth seeing. And where did those stone steps lead?

Where land meets water, old towns grew up on or around granite outcrops

I shivered as I slipped into a cab that had been waiting over an hour for our weather-delayed flight.

Gray skies weren’t doing much to brighten clusters of nondescript homes climbing steep hills above the city, but rain shined up outcrops of granite along the roadway.

Those crooked, cracked layers! Something big happened here. Was I seeing remnants of mountains rising from middle earth?

Or continents torn asunder? Yes, there really is a part of Galicia on the far north coast of North America.

A hazy view of a land of rolling hills

But the Galicia I was visiting is an enchanted land that sits quite comfortably north of Portugal in a small green corner of Spain that stays green even in summer, when the rest of Spain is yellow.

It’s only about the size of Belgium, and surprise! it lies on a straight-arrow course west to Boston.

This should be a recipe for cold winters, except that its neighbor, the Atlantic Ocean, moderates climate. Summers usually stay cool and winters are benign.

Our walk through the romantic gardens of Pazo de Santa Cruz de Ribadulla

Did I mention that it rains a lot in spring?


Most of the trips I take, usually with my daugher, are self-planned with a little strategic help from travel agents. But I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to navigate this land I had never heard of.

Four years after seeing that photo I found Ciceroni Travel, who, it turns out, was already navigating this land with five-star panache. Ciceroni is based in England. They plan high quality, in-depth cultural tours to singular destinations.

Our group enjoying a break at a pazo

We were cared for like royalty. Taken about in a comfortable coach. Escorted by Manuel, our knowledgeable and engaging Galician guide.

And squired by David, who kept the tour humming and catered to our needs. Which in my case meant keeping track of my umbrella, locating my lost eye glasses, and helping me  with travel details when my flights home were abruptly cancelled.

By the time the cab pulled into the parking lot of the Parador in Cambados the sun was shining on what must be one of the prettiest coastal towns in Galicia.

(Paradors are a chain of hotels operated by the Spanish government.)

Cambados is one of many fishing communities along Galicia’s jagged thousand-mile-long coastline. Yes, tiny Galicia’s coastline is a thousand miles long. Inlets, islands, coves, bays, archipelagos and rias zig and zag, all governed by the laws of geologic change.

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Rias, whose waters slice through the land to join the sea, are lifelines for Galicians, or gallegos, as they call themselves. They are the inlets you can find on a large map, river valleys drowned by rising seas when glaciers melted.

Here I am, with river mills behind me, in a park whose waters flow into rias

Here is where rivers spilling from mountains meet salty ocean waters.

And here in these estuaries, in this mix of salt and fresh waters, is where Galicia’s wonderful seafood comes from.

In fact, Galicia ranks among the top harvesters of mussels in the world.

The city of Vigo is second only to Tokyo in its fishing trade. Octopus boiled in large copper kettles is a popular Galician delicacy.

Our lovely lunch at Pazo Rubians

Seafood was on our menu regularly. Delicious. Fresh. Perfectly prepared.

How is it harvested? From a distance, bays and harbors  look like they are spattered with strange black rectangular  islands.

Look more closely and you see manmade platforms rigged with ropes suspended in  water, just the lure for a young mussel looking to attach itself to a permanent home.

Once they mature, cranes raise the mussels up out of the sea. Then they go down easy with a glass of albarino wine from Galician vineyards.

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I took these pictures on a tour that included a boat trip around the Rias baixas (low rias) in the province of Pontevedra, the same province that celebrates the Route of the Camellias in Galicia. A close look at mussel production and fishing boats was accompanied by servings of Galician mussels and Galician wine.

Yet fifteen years ago the fishing industry was devastated by a colossal oil spill off Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, a graveyard for ships battered during winter gales. An obsolete rust bucket, ironically named the Prestige, began to leak fuel oil. It was refused dockage by the Spanish, French and Portuguese governments.

When the Prestige finally split in two after aimless days at sea, some 20 million gallons of fuel oil fouled miles and miles of beaches and harbors along the Galician coast.

Small fishing villages like Combarro, the little mariner’s town of 18th century vintage, suffered economic losses. Combarro is known for its horreos (granaries for corn and occasionally dried fish),  its cruiceiros  (stone crosses), and its casas marineras (sea houses).

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Sluggish officialdom be damned, gallegos and others by the thousands were on the beaches pitching in, volunteering along side paid workers. They were spectacularly successful.

Old horreo amid garden in Pazo de Quintiero da Cruz

You are wondering now, when we will get to the gardens, which are, after all, what you are most curious about.

Be a little patient with me, for these gardens are different.

Unlike many gardens I have visited, they have not begun life as a grand vision in a designer’s imagination, then been carved out of the land and reassembled by bulldozers and earth movers.

Galicians are by tradition farmers. The gardens we visited began as farms and orchards long ago.

Stone fountain surrounded by camellias and woods in Pazo Quinteiro da Cruz

Their structures echo times past, and moss on old benches and dovecotes sings of age.

The gardens grew up as Galicia changed. So we need to hear the story of Galicia to understand the gardens and the people of Galicia.

Life should have been idyllic in this land of meadows and forests embraced by seas to the west and rugged mountains to the east, a land made green by misty days and nights.

It was not. It never has been.

Every noble, or ignoble, dynasty in history seems to have taken a turn at rampaging through Galicia.

I will spare you and skip those stone and bronze ages when the art of weaponry was first being perfected. Yes, I can see by the absent smile and glazed eyes that you are about to skip this entire section. Again, be patient, because our short trip will give you an idea of how the Galician character was framed.

The Celts, first recorded invaders, were later flattened by the Romans who scorned them as hard-drinking, hard-fighting barbarians, then conscripted them for battle and, under Caesar, occupied Gallaecia in equally barbaric manner.

When some nomadic Germanic tribes (Germany!) learned that the Romans were slacking off, they swept in to fill any possible abhorred vacuum in warfare.

Do you suppose this old tree was around to see any of the action? Pazo Quinones de Leon in Vigo

The Visigoths, by now good Catholics, followed them with raids and ongoing scrapping between nobles and bishops.

Lots of sword play, I suspect, probably involving commoners, too, though their arms may have been less elegant.

We mustn’t forget the Moors, who invaded, were thrown out, re-invaded and re-tossed.

Then there was the Inquisition to stamp out contamination by Protestants.

Raids by Vikings.

And a victorious but hapless incursion by the British, whose armies, to the good fortune of gallegos, were decimated by the plague.

In his will of 1473, a Knight whose full name was Fernan Garcia Barba de Figueroa (character from an opera? Or a Monty Python skit?) plaintively describes the situation:

The Age of Fortresses. This one that survived melees is the Pazo de Oca

“The Kingdom is totally scrambled in war, with so many thieveries and deaths, and ill facts: to rise up a large mob of commoners against the knights; and many knights to rise up against the King himself, our Master; and another lords of the land to make war on each others; and to dash to the ground so many houses and towers.”

Shortly before the Knight was laid to rest, Galicia officially became part of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, the same pair who sponsored Christopher Columbus.

Dutch artist’s fanciful rendering of the Battle of Vigo Bay. The legendary but non-existent sunken silver funded Captain Nemo’s fictional Nautilus voyage in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Do not assume that this union with Spain magically cut the butchery. Galicia mattered little to Madrid, except for what could be taken from her – her men for armies and her taxes for wars that mostly didn’t matter.

There were wars with the Portuguese, the British (again), the Dutch, the French, and, along the way, abductions by Barbary slave traders.

The Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702 pitted the Dutch and English against the French and Spanish over silver from America.

The oil spill of the 21st century was yet another invasion.

The unkindest blows to 20th century Galicia came from the iron-fisted 36-year rule by General Francisco Franco, that bastard Franco, as he is familiarly but not affectionately called. Blows so terribly unkind because Franco was born and raised in Galicia.

Yet he expeditiously offed officials and dissidents there and strictly limited use of the native Galician tongue – the romance language he had grown up with. The point was, of course, to bend Galician will to the rest of Spain.

It never quite worked.

A prosperous farm at the Pazo de Oca today

The constant grind of war and oppression have taken its toll. Some have prospered. Many have been reduced to hardscrabble life.

The custom of minifundismo was lethal to landholders.

Dividing land equally among heirs may sound eminently fair, but it has chopped the countryside into scraps of farms that punish the owners because they cannot be worked profitably.

Out of desperation, people began to emigrate. Mostly men leaving families, hoping to find solutions, hoping to return. Women remained in the countryside, mustering the grit to endure the absences and assume the roles of husband, father, brother, son.

El Immigrante, photo by Manuel Ferrol

Though some moved from country to city, many more went into the unknown: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, France, Switzerland. They assimilated.

Manuel Ferrol, who grew up in the early 20th century on Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, has recorded these farewells in poignant photographs: final scenes of separation, fear of the future, grief, desolation, desperation.

For of all people, Galicians are most rooted to their land. Despite turbulence and hardship, Galicia calls to them. There is a romance in this green earth that binds them to their homes.

The Spanish word for yearning, or homesickness, is lamorrina. It can be loosely translated as intense sadness at leaving Galicia.

The Rande Bridge over the Vigo ria, site of the battle in 1702, could be a symbol of  modern Galicia

Today, the feeling is upbeat along Galicia’s corrugated coast.

The Atlantic Motorway takes tourists and locals from town to town, as does regular but limited bus and train service.

Fishing, tourism, industry, wineries, even fashion, are bringing prosperity to western cities.

Inland, though, gallegos have not necessarily felt these fair winds.

Rosalia de Castro is perhaps Galicia’s most beloved poet. Her romantic yet wistful 19th century poems speak of sadness and loss. Her simple phrases express every gallego’s love for Galicia.

Lugar mais hermoso
No mundo n’hachara
Qu’aquel de Galicia
Galicia encantada

Land most beautiful
No world can fell that Galicia
Galicia encantada

Statue of Rosalia de Castro in Alameda Park in Santiago de Compostela, capital of Galicia

Next: The Camellias, Part II

For more on camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I           Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III         Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I       Galicia: Three Gardens II



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Flaming Fall

Pictures from a New Hampshire Garden

The Gardener, Susan

The Photographer, Mike

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You Can Never Turn Your Back on a Garden

Or, Hope Springs Eternal under a Gardener’s Spade

(Dear Reader – What I am about to tell you is the plain unvarnished sober truth. I do solemnly swear this on the Good Garden Book of all time. We confess it, yes we do: We turned our backs on the garden this summer.

You are probably assuming that summertime was couch-and-truffle time for us. Not true. We were out there with Ranger, hauling and shoveling, building beds and laying paths – in the days of heat and humidity. (And then we headed for the couch.)

Clematis ‘Henryi’, not content with a railing, covets the chair, but we’ll let him be

Here’s the irony. We were out and about almost every day and we never noticed what was going on right under our noses. Plants are tricky.

Photos inserted in the post are prima facie evidence (fancy terms I learned from Perry Mason) of the crime wave. Some of them are depressing. So much so, I almost added a bottle of wine to the truffle-binge. In contrast, photos in the slide show were taken during spring and summer, when life was fresh and good and abloom. Here is our story.)


They’re an army of thugs, ruffians, sneaks, invaders, trespassers, layabouts, cutthroats, guerillas.

And I’m not talking about the weeds.

They are notorious gamblers, too.

Front bed behaved in spring, unruly today, daring me to cut them back

Here’s the first thing that happened in the garden this season. It rained a lot. Here’s the second thing that happened. The plants partied. They drank non-stop and gambled like the good times would last forever.

Here’s the third. I celebrated, too. No dragging hoses, no water bills. (Little did I understand that I was on a very short winning streak.)

Even the reliably neat growers rioted like demented lunatics, breaking out, shoving neighbors, smothering them. No polite, “May I have a little of your space, please?” More like, “I’m takin’ your territory and don’t try to stop me.”

Even scrawny pittosporum began to invade. See next photo

I had an epiphany. Those lovely green things that can give so much pleasure are true gamblers, grabbing tight to the coattails of a winning rainy streak.

Then they count on me to bail them out by anteing up the hoses when they hit a losing streak.

Oh, they are good. Smooth operators, they are. Pictures of innocence in the spring. Enthusiastically budding out under warm rains and balmy skies. So pretty and prim.

When we roughed up the soil for a replacement planting of azaleas, we found a solid network of pittosporum roots widespread in only a few months

Innocently I rejoiced in their sweet new growth, and, trustingly, I turned my back to go on to other chores. That’s when things got out of hand.

Instead of investing some of the excess in the future, like the ads on television say to do, they were squandering their good fortune.

Chugging that rain just as soon as it fell, gambling like big shots, sporting big leaves with a flourish and flaunting pole-vault growth — in very poor, nouveau-riche taste, I might add.

Sweet autumn clematis (that’s the old common name) (the other names, because people discovered it wasn’t so sweet: Clematis paniculata, Clematis ternifolia) is one of the worst. It’s the biggest and sneakiest guerilla in the garden, and that’s probably why it has been given two scientific names and not one.

Third growth of the season after two others whacked down. There is an azalea under there

The books say to cut it down at the end of the season for best growth next spring.

I am happy to announce that cutting it down really works. Our hundred and two small villains have grown into an army of thugs.

The books also say to fertilize the plants. Fertilize them! They’re already on their way to becoming kissin’ cuzins with kudzu, lounging over the garden like decadent divas.

The books also say they have lovely seed heads that glisten in the sun. I have to agree. The books do not mention that every seed head creates a new plant, and some, I suspect, have twins, or even triplets.

If you are a vigilant gardener, you can pluck the babes before they fly, but I am not a vigilant gardener. I tend to procrastinate until somehow a horde has grown roots clear down to Azerbejian, or some other unspellable, unpronounceable territory that you can’t find on a map.

Here clematis is climbing over Ilex verticillata, which is supposed to be berrying. Bob was cutting it back regularly

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Sweetie (that’s my old pet name for it). (Sweetie! Pet name! Is she nuts? First she calls it a thug and a villain, now we hear it’s a Sweetie.)

Never you mind. I love it so much I have sold it at our plant sales. (Now I develop an extreme case of myopia when I see once enthusiastic buyers, formerly good friends.)

But I just can’t resist those cascades of dainty, sweet smelling flowers falling all over shrubs in August and September.

It all started innocently enough when the first Sweetie anchored itself near a quince that defoliated in August. (Don’t ask why the defoliation, just accept.)

The quince happened to grow (here I must be honest and take responsibility for this idiotic siting) right next to a path and the driveway. Great possibilities here for healthy quince thorns to scratch a car or stab unsuspecting strollers.

But I was rhapsodizing about great garden design, not practicalities. Everyone coming up the path to our house would have to pass this quince and they would all exclaim about its lovely spring blooms, if, of course, they weren’t stabbed first.

Here, clematis has made it to the roof of the gazebo

It didn’t quite work that way. Everyone seemed to visit in August. People would ask, why don’t you get rid of that dead plant with the awful spines.

And I would have to go through a long explanation of how it blooms like a champ from January to April and it is probably taking a little rest now, though I don’t know why, and don’t worry, it’ll green up next year.

(At least this quince is not one of those guerilla-gamblers.)

Then people would give me that look like I was demented, but they would never let on.

So to stop people asking me why I kept dead plants hanging around the garden, I let Sweetie smother the quince, and then people could admire cascades of blossoms instead of fretting over a dead plant. Though by this time knowledgeable visitors had learned to take a detour and didn’t notice the show.

Even the native wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’, supposedly more restrained than the non-native, began to drape itself on the bench

But Sweetie betrayed me. She never reined in her toddlers. Just let them romp over the entire garden, leaving me to clean up the mess, and that is why I have a love-hate relationship with Sweetie.

To get back to the other gamblers, along about August, we had a dry, hot spell, and I noticed the plants were not as happy as when they were celebrating steady wins in spring.

They were struggling to keep their leaves above water, in a manner of speaking, and they had that look of wanting a bailout. I ignored them. I told them not to look at me like that and in fact I cut the cheekiest beggars back hard so I wouldn’t be tempted

The first year ever our George Tabor azaleas wilted. Maybe because they muscled their way out of their space?

They won’t try to take advantage of me again, I smirked.

Then, in September and October, despite hurricanes threatening, a bigtime dry spell hit.

You should have seen their ploys to get me off the couch and make them flush again.

The droops, the wilts, the crumpled (formerly big) leaves, the sagging stilt-stems, the browned flowers and fern fronds.

They knew all the tricks. I’m proud to say I didn’t give them a tumble. I was not going to be an enabler.

Shame on this ‘Lady in Red’ hydrangea. Usually a showpiece all summer, she  caroused too much like a lady in red this spring and look where she is today

You were high rollers in spring, I yelled. You gambled on the good times lasting forever.

You figured your winning streak would never end. You should have thought of summer and saved something for a rainy day. (Uh. . . or maybe that would be a sunny day.)

Don’t come crying to me now. I’m the one who has to bring some order to this garden.

And just be glad I’m only whacking at you.

Ditto for you, green-eyed coneflower. You’ll be cut down soon, you’ll see

Any more of this droopy business and I’ll rip you out and throw you onto Ranger’s backside and you’ll be crushed in the dump.

Well. . .I probably wouldn’t do all that.

And come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the gamblers.

We gardeners are gamblers, too. I ante up for plants all the time and count on winning. And then. .

Or I rescue a sad sack. Don’t worry, I say, I can get you back on track. And then . . .

Or I put a plant in a spot that I know is not quite right for it and expect it to live. And then . . .

Joepyeweed always grows out of bounds, but if I cut it back once or twice  in early summer it behaves. Note height difference between one shearing and two shearings.

I grow broke.

Like true gamblers, we gardeners rarely announce our losses. Whatever stays green gets bragged about.

Whatever doesn’t is a best-kept secret unless we are prodded to tell the truth so we get to heaven.

We’re a little like the fisherman who can’t quite get measurements straight.

Do you suppose the plants have reformed after this year? Nah.

And always there is the reaping of the mess

With this pleasant fall weather, they are perking up, looking mighty pleased.

Got out of the hole this year, didn’t we? And we didn’t need any hoses, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.  So there.

Now it’s time to rest up for the gambling spree next spring.

Do you suppose we gardeners will ever learn? Nah.

Hope springs eternal under the gardener’s spade.

PS  Even though I YELL at plants, I am NOT demented. Here are pictures of some plants I did not have to scold.

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The Sinking of the Albemarle and The Rising of the Sea

Mighty Hurricanes and Deadly Floodwaters

One moonless night in 1864 a Union patrol boat, silent, brazen, dared to approach a colossal armored vessel that had been cruising Albemarle Sound and disabling Union ships with outstanding success.

This mighty steel-clad Confederate vessel, or ram, was the CSS Albemarle. A torpedo launched from the Union’s small craft left a hole in its steel hull big enough to drive a wagon through. The Albemarle sank almost immediately.

The CSS Albemarle in its prime

That isolated event was the only sinking of the Albemarle we were aware of for a long time. Then we learned that another wider, greater sinking is taking place in the entire Albemarle area and to the north and south of us. And we believe it now.

When people first told us about an island called Batts Grave off the end of our canal, and the hermit who had once lived there, we thought it made a good story. We were pleased that the skittery pile of sand and clay was holding fast. It kept the Sound from barreling up our canal and gave a foothold to the bald cypresses that supported aeries for ospreys we loved to watch.

What made us sit up straight was the report that sea level was rising faster in Virginia and North Carolina than along the entire east coast. That’s against the laws of physics isn’t it?

Yes indeed, but in places where land is sinking, sea level will appear to rise more quickly, leaving telltale marks on piers and poles, as we shall see. The area in question includes, roughly, a chunk of land from Wilmington to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

We looked at what was left of Batts Grave with new interest. How big was the island when Nathaniel Batts lived there in the 1790s?

Juicy Aside: Batts may have been a recluse before he died, but in his younger days as fur trader, land owner, pardoned murderer, serial debtor, he was a virtuoso wheeler-dealer. His savvy wife (or her family) had him sign a prenuptial agreement promising not to use her fortune to satisfy his debts.

Section of a 1775 map showing Batts Grave

The North Carolina Gazetteer says that in 1749 the island that would later be called Batts Grave “was 40 acres in area and had houses and orchards on it.” By the time Batts purchased it as part of a larger parcel and lived there in the 1790’s it was reduced to 27 acres, still a comfortable plot. It remained stable until about 1913. By mid-twentieth century it was reduced to a fly-speck on a map. Today it is gone, except for craggy cypress trees.

Were wind and water culprits in obliterating the island? Or was it the sinking of the Albemarle? Two pictures we took of our garden near the dock accidentally gave us some clues. You be the judge.

The first picture was taken about 25 years ago, when Batts Island was still a respectable speck in the Sound. Notice that the water level is below both the canoe platform and the beam below it, and the bulkhead above is generally dry.

Photo of our garden about 20-25 years ago, pre-Isabel

Now look at the next picture, taken a couple of years ago. Quite a difference in water level, and there are water stains high on the bulkhead walls.

Recent Photo

Wind tides in Albemarle Sound will send water sloshing north and south across the Sound from shore to shore, depending on wind direction. One winter, when a north wind blew for weeks, our boat slip was entirely drained, except for remnants of dirty ice topping mud, an extreme event.

In spring and summer, winds from the south might pile water up on the north shore. These winds are usually gentle, so there is no dramatic uptick. We don’t offer these pictures, both taken in spring, as hard cold evidence, but given the water stains in the second photo, we feel they show a pretty reliable record of a sinking land and a rising sea.

Why are we sinking?

First Reason:  Glaciers! Hundreds of feet thick and weighing tons, like blunderbusses they bore down on the land 20,000 years ago. In response, land to the south bulged upward. Picture a seesaw. While Icy Land in the northern seat comes down, Green Land (us) in the southern seat is forced to rise up.

The opposite is happening now. It began when glaciers receded about 18,00 years ago. Land released from the weight of the glacier is slowly rising.  Unglaciated land to the south (us) will subside. The see saw is going in the opposite direction and has been for the past 2 millennia.

Second Reason:  People! People take more water out of aquifers than rainfall puts back. Too many people, too much industry, too much pavement, too much run-off prevent rainwater from finding its way back to aquifers. As an aquifer begins to shrink the level of the land shrinks.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but field studies over time in Franklin, Virginia, back this up.  (I do not know of any long-term studies done in North Carolina.) To add spice to the mix, as the land sinks, the water table rises.

Is it any wonder that our lawn becomes a rice paddy after too many hard rains? Or steps run with water and gather moss and mildew?

Or flower beds steep in puddles unless we raise – and raise – and raise them? Or that our water meter lies under water most of the time?

Or that the streets of Hampton Roads and New Bern and Wilmington and Elizabeth City frequently flood after what were formerly benign rainfalls? Do you see a trend?

Part of dock underwaterafter a storm showing erosion of unbulkheaded land

Let’s add a hurricane like Florence to the mix. Here in  northeast North Carolina, Florence only grazed us, though parts of our property flooded and remained flooded for days after this mild (to us) storm, and one point is eroding badly. This, we have come to learn, is the new normal.

Let’s widen our perspective and look at New Bern and Wilmington and points inland that took direct hits from Florence and other storms. They are teetering on the front lines of rising sea level and severe weather.

Here’s the new normal for the eastern Carolina floodplain.

Fran in 1996 exceeded the 500-year-flood event in several areas.

Floyd in 1999, called the flood of the century, exceeded the 500-year-flood event.

Isabel in 2003 walloped us with her immense size and storm surges that caused widespread flooding.

Matthew in 2016 exceeded the 500-year-flood event.

Ditto for Florence in 2018. Some people were just recovering from Matthew when Florence wheeled in and upended their lives again.

Now let’s add a mix of hog farms and lagoons (spin for unlined pits of liquid manure) and poultry farms with their in-house wastes.

Graphic map of hog farms in eastern NC 2018 by NC Policy Watch. There are 9 million pigs in North Carolina, most of them on the coastal plain

Throw in toxic coal ash pits, sewage treatment plants and industrial sites and you come to see the witches’ brew that cooks when lagoons are breached, when poultry houses are submerged, when coal ash pits are flushed and sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed.

CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, about 2500 pigs,  inundated by flooding from Florence. Lagoon effluent is colored bright pink. Photo by Rick Dove

Imagine this witches’ brew poisoning your drinking water or washing into your home.

Flooded poultry facility. Photo by Rick Dove

Rick Dove, a founder of Waterkeeper’s Alliance who viewed the recent flooding by helicopter, puts it most succinctly, “I saw Florence sending millions of gallons of animal poop flooding across North Carolina.” How soon will this happen again?

Hog Waste sprayed on fields after Florence. This is routine practice under normal circumstances, too.  Photo by Rick Dove

Only time can heal a river. Only time can heal a land. Will we ever have enough time?

After the war, the CSS Albemarle was raised, repaired and condemned. In 1867 it was sold at public auction and scrapped for salvage.

Too bad. At 158 feet long and 35 feet wide, it might have made a fine ark.

Posted in Hurricane Florence, Sinking of North Carolina and Virginia coast | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Ranger’s Summer

This was a summer to remember. Usually summers are sleepy for Ranger. And for us, too, because our story is part of his story and his story is part of the garden’s story.

Summers are just too hot to get outside and work unless you must make an exception, and this summer was a compulsory exception. Rain for days on end had turned paths into floods and lawns into rice paddies. August heat or no, we had to rethink – and redo — garden beds and drainage. We had to wake Ranger up.

Ranger after a rain

It was touch and go for a while, though. Ranger, our ’92 Ford truck is twenty-six this summer, an old-timer, in truck years at least a hundred no exaggeration. He tips the scales at a healthy two tons, maybe a little less. The gas gauge doesn’t work any more, but the odometer is clicking away at 99,000 miles. We’re hoping he’ll be good to go for another 26 or 99 now that he’s fixed up — if he, or we — don’t collapse first.

Those dagnab internal problems were what needed fixing up, kept him low for a couple of weeks while we waited for parts that were needed for surgery. Nothing real serious, like engine-bucking or transmission-hiccuping.

The exhaust system had finally given out. It needed to be replaced, though even under duress, muffler noise was restrained. (Knowing Ranger, he could never become one of those hotshot muffler blowhards.)

Three trips to the Recycling Center

Since Ranger was already out of commission, we added some bells and whistles, like a new rear view mirror that promises to stay properly glued to the windshield and new side mirrors you can truly count on to give you something more than a view of the road just traveled.

Oh yes, and a repair to the driver’s seat so a certain driver will not have to balance on the edge, impaled on the steering wheel while toe-tapping the gas pedal, though this particular driver is happiest being a passenger.

People tell us we’re crazy for putting money into Ranger. But where would we find another truck as faithful as Ranger?

By the time all the work was done, the tail pipe was the shiniest thing on the truck. Too bad it is half-hidden.

Black gold, otherwise known as cotton dirt, a mighty load for Ranger

There wasn’t much time for a sleepy convalescence in the woods. We needed Ranger. How we needed that truck. Three trips without pause to haul garden debris away helped limber the old frame and tone up the springs and tires.

Ranger was now ready for the big trip to Rocky Hock, where every summer they grow the biggest and best melons in the world, or at least the biggest and best along the east coast. Tasty and juicy they are, but we weren’t driving thirty miles for melons.

We get them direct from the melon man who sits under his canopy next to his truck on a local road and waits for his customers. Come to think of it, Ranger might have preferred melons to cotton dirt, but he didn’t have a say in planning this operation.

Cotton dirt? Yup. A ton of it.

The blooming crepe myrtle bows low over the empty bed that needs to be raised

Here’s how it went down. A few weeks earlier, we had pulled up or chopped back a dozen or more winter-torn pittosporum. When we surveyed the new reality it became clear that if they were to survive another winter their beds needed to be raised above the rice paddies to keep new roots from drowning.

The cotton gin is about 30 miles from us, a cooperative shared by Albemarle cotton growers. During the fall, cotton plants are chemically defoliated and cotton is picked by huge machines that look like alien spacecraft shadowing the sky under a full moon. The picked cotton is packed into open-work box cars and brought to the gin for cleaning.

One of the piles from last year’s ginning

During winter the gin hums. The waste piles up – you can find mountains of it at any gin –and the piles begin to decompose. Good composted waste, piles of it, and free for gardeners who can cart it off.

Summer is off-ginning season. On this day the air was still and humid. There was only one workman at the factory, and he was accompanied by one very loyal chihuahua who guarded his master with attitude. With a smile and a wave, he revved up the front loader, and tackled the pile, roughing it up first, to shake out weeds and loosen soil.

Careful, slow, measured drops from the bucket should have eased the jolt from a ton or more of soil landing on the truck bed, but it darn near broke Ranger’s back. Even with helper springs, Ranger was slung low and the back tires bulged flat.

It steamed. You could see the steam coming off that compost, still fresh even after sitting in the yard. It was that hot, much too hot to hold in your hands or sift through your fingers. But Ranger never flinched.

The ersatz farmer’s wife shoveled while the ersatz farmer carted

We had to travel major highways to get home. For Ranger’s sake we took it easy. It didn’t matter, though. The roads were empty during the heat of the day. Once in a while somebody passed us, but nobody was in a hurry. And nobody got annoyed.

People expected us to go slow, that’s what farm trucks do here, and Ranger looks like an old farm truck. Then too, the white-haired driver could be taken for an old farmer. What can you expect from an old farm truck and an old farmer?

Slate stepping stones removed, path releveled, lined with landscape cloth waiting for rock

The Ersatz Farmer and wife unloaded Ranger lickety-split, and the rear axle would have thanked them if it had had the words. But still there was no rest for Ranger. We had to take advantage of a stretch of sunny days to finish a big job we’d put off.

Hauling rock. Yup, hauling rock.

Here’s how this project went down. The slate path that slopes toward the house from the shed has lately been puddling and streaming and mouldering and mildewing.

We removed the slates and the Ersatz Farmer, helped by the Ersatz Farmer’s Friend recontoured the slope into a series of three level steps to be topped off with washed river rock. The contouring did not particularly alter the flow of water, but now the puddles would be hidden under rock.

Lowering the rock from the bucket

With a little forethought and sleuthing we probably could have gotten a landscaper to bring a big truckload and shovel it for us.

Maybe. It’s tough to estimate rock. And you can’t always find a willing shoveler, especially when there is long-distance wheelbarrow work. Well, we reasoned, this isn’t such a big area. It shouldn’t take that much rock, should it?

We can do it.

We’ll start with a ton, we said. A ton would not quite top the wheel wells. Ranger would be all right with that, wouldn’t he?

We should here give credit to our wheelbarrows, of Hurricane Isabel vintage, 2003, with a raft of repairs, that have yeoman duty through the years

Let’s go! So began a cliff-hanger of a drive down back roads past woods and fields on a bright day with not a care in the world but a truck’s sagging rear end.

Good old Ranger! Home with no blowouts, no stall-outs, no conk-outs, and no embarrassing side-of-the-road calls for help. We sighed with relief.

A ton didn’t go very far. Should we try again? Maybe once more? Yet again? And one last time?

For five breathless days, anticipating calamity, hoping for wins, we gave Ranger the task of hauling rock. Tailgate slung low, tires bulging, Ranger came through each time.

Even lowly pickle pails pulled on a wagon worked overtime to carry surplus rock

The Ersatz Farmer shoveled and the Ersatz Farmer’s Wife raked. The Ersatz Farmer’s Friend came by to help with the last ton, when we were flagging.

He would have been here from the beginning but we are too proud to ask friends to do (much) grunt work in our garden.

The stone is shoveled and raked and spread now. A certain satisfaction that promotes laziness has come over us. But Ranger is not yet back in his paddock.

There are still truckloads of superfluous greenery to cart away. And another truckload of cotton dirt to haul. And a major hurricane set to storm the coast that will surely leave more superfluous greenery.


Maybe when winter comes,  Ranger can take a short nap.

A box turtle pauses on another set of steps topped off with surplus rock

For an introduction to Ranger, see A Small Tribute to a Silent Partner.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

How Bayer’s Bug-Killer Got Hitched to Monsanto’s Weed-Killer

Adventures Down the Rabbit Hole

It was a spectacular June affair. Monsanto was Matron of Honor for Roundup (Lizzie Borden of Weed-Killers), and Bayer was Best Man for Neonics (Godfather of Bug-Killers). The Department of Justice was Justice of the Peace.

Half the world — the European Union, Brazil, India, Canada and China — chorused a throaty Amen.

Megabanks and investment firms were lavish in their promises of legal and financial advice.

Big Ag/Big Chem companies – newly hitched Dow and Dupont, and ChemChina and Syngenta — and BASF, tossed GM soybeans in celebration.

A honeybee was ring bearer and monarch butterflies hovered like cascading ribbons.

What’s her future? Flickr photo by Debbie Long

Banns were published and ended about two months after the union was announced.

There were over a million objections based on the duo’s close kinship, but Justice will give his blessing anyway.

In his exuberant toast, Best Man Bayer extolled the alliance of bug-killers and weed-killers to wipe out future world hunger.

The President sent his congratulations.

Meanwhile, in the (Monopoly) Board Room. . .

Earlier in the year – for the eighth time — Corporate Responsibility Magazine named Monsanto one of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens in 2018. Said Monsanto, “We are honored to receive this recognition, which acknowledges our commitment to be a sustainable and transparent company. . .”

Bayer factory in Belgium. Slogan: Science for a Better Life

Buddy Bayer is not so impressed with Monsanto’s corporate do-goodism. Bayer sells a lot of neonics, $1.5 billion worth each year, and it has no problem committing $66 billion in cash to purchase Monsanto.

That does not mean Buddy Bayer wants to share billing with Monsanto. First item on the agenda: Ditch that Monsanto name and her unsavory reputation.

A century-old institution gone from the headlines, though we’ll still see the familiar products on the shelves.

Back to the hitch-up. There is a hitch. Those pesky anti-trust laws. If you can’t exactly follow the logic in the agreements, remember we are still down the rabbit hole.

BASF Research Triangle Park campus: to expand

To snuff out any whiff of anti-trust smoke, Justice tells Bayer to sell off a 9-billion-dollar basket of goodies.

The goodies just happen to  go to BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, headquartered in Germany (as is Bayer), big in plastics, fossil fuel exploration, and insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

BASF has also partnered with Monsanto on biotechnology and has its own stock of GM seeds — potatos, soybeans, corn and canola — and is now poised to expand in this area.

Bayer seed stock — giving it up

BASF gets Bayer’s seed stock, herbicides, and research centers, anything that might compete with Monsanto products. Even Bayer’s Bee Care Center goes to BASF.

It is a Monopoly Board trade made in heaven for the players, who earnestly insist it will preserve competition and protect farmers and consumers.

In case you haven’t been counting mergers these days, there’s Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and DuPont, and ChemChina and Syngenta. BASF stands alone. That means four Big Ag/Big Chem companies will produce two-thirds of the world’s patented seeds and two-thirds of all pesticides.

Monsanto’s flagship Roundup products will remain on the shelves

And, to whet your appetite for that next ear of corn on the cob. . .In the US alone, about 150 million acres of crops get an annual dose of neonics, and more than 300 million pounds of Roundup (glyphosate) are sprayed annually on farm fields.

Roundup is top dog in the world of herbicides.

In fact, a former executive of Dow who claims to “love Roundup” has been proposed for a top post in the USDA. He’s the third Dow alumnus appointed. . .

. . .And, Dow’s dangerous pesticide, chlorpyrifos, banned for home use and linked to Parkinson’s disease, lung cancer, and brain damage in children, will stay on the market, thanks to EPA’s back-pedaling.

Bayer research facility in Raleigh Triangle Park in North Carolina goes to BASF

EPA originally planned a nationwide ban but pulled back. . .

. . .Because Dow contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee?

Not to worry. Health and safety? Price-fixing? Loss of quality? These Big Four have a rosy outlook on doing good and earning fat profits. Or is it the other way round?

Or maybe the outlook will be less rosy for Bayer and Dow. On August 9th a federal court told EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyros within 60 days, instant blow to Dow’s bottom line.

Monsanto may be going but Bayer takes the hit, unless, legally, they can find a way to push the lawsuits aside

And, on August 10th, in a landmark case, a jury awarded $289 million to Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper who claims Roundup caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Bayer intends to appeal, but it will have to pay out about $25 million a year in interest on damages during the appeal.

Across the country, thousands are lining up to sue, each case to be tried separately —  no class-action suits, which dilute the value of plaintiffs’ awards.

Stirrings in the real world: Law Suits, Rulings, Activism, Science

–2015 Geneva. The World Health Organization rocks Big Ag when it releases a report stating that glyphosate (Roundup) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Environmentalists cheer. European farmers riot. Congress threatens to pull funding. Monsanto goes into high gear to destroy IARC, the cancer arm of the WHO.

Bumblebee, an industrious solitary pollinator, on gooseneck loosestrife. Photo from The Conversation

–2015 Washington DC. EPA must make a ruling on Roundup’s safety, though it’s been in use since the 1970s. To date, EPA has not acted.

–2016 Missouri. Monsanto introduces Roundup Ready® Xtend Crop System with VaporGrip® Technology, a pre-mixed formulation of glyphosate and dicamba that’s easy to use and fights tough-to-control weeds in the Roundup Ready® Xtend Crop System.

–2016 California. Based on the WHO call, the state declares glyphosate a probable carcinogen.

–2018 California. A big win for Dewayne Johnson who sues Monsanto. (See above.) Jurors’ decisions are unanimous on all seventeen counts.

The “Monsanto Papers” (in-house records) reveal bullying and bribing scientists, ghost-writing and burying reports, collusion with regulators, this by a good corporate citizen that prides itself on being “sustainable and transparent…”

White-Crowned sparrow favors hedgerows and open areas near fields. Photo by Craig Fosdick

–2017 Michigan. Scientists find decreased fat stores and failure to orient in white-crowned sparrows when exposed to certain neonics, one link to declines in migrating birds. Are birds eating treated seeds? Rapeseed, often treated with neonics, is a favorite.

–2018 Washington DC. Bayer adds an amendment to the latest version of the House Farm Bill. If passed, it will prevent state and local governments from legislating local use of pesticides and override protective laws already enacted by seven states.

–2018 Washington DC. US Fish & Wildlife revokes a four-year-old ban on use of neonics in wildlife refuges. In 2014 alone, farmers and ranchers sprayed almost 500,000 pounds of pesticides on wildlife refuges. Wildlife refuges are multiple-use lands, and many are being intensively farmed now that demand for biofuel is high.

What’s she sipping? Neonics are systemic insecticides; they travel through all parts of the plant. Broker Rex, Shutterstock

–2018 Washington DC. Organic Trade Association, the same group that lobbied against mandatory GMO labeling of our food, accepts Big Ag/Big Chem Cargill and BASF into membership. Some advocacy group!

–2017 US of A. Beekeepers lose nearly half of their hives. Losses occur during winter and summer. Neonics suspected as culprit.

–2018 California. Study shows that neonics cause a wasting disease that ends in death for bees and pollinators that feed on tainted nectar, confirmation of research that led the European Union to ban certain neonics from outdoor use in 2013.

Many wildflowers are purple, drawing bees in because they seem to have comparatively more nectar

–2017 Canada and Europe. Field studies show that worker bees have shorter lifespans and their colonies are more likely to lose queens when exposed to neonics. A key finding: bees were exposed to neonics not necessarily from sprayed crops but from contaminated clover (a favorite food) growing nearby.

–2018 England. A long-term study of 62 species finds declines in wild bees and pollinators, as much as 30 percent in some species, especially those that feed on nectar from rapeseed treated with neonics.

CBD expects 60 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat to be sprayed with dicamba by 2019. Photo by Collette Adkins

–2016 US of A. Annual count of monarch butterflies shows a population decline of 68 per cent in 22 years, calculates roughly to a loss of about a billion monarchs from 1990 to 2017. Center for Biological Diversity sues EPA over failure to consider listing monarchs as “threatened.”

–2016 Arizona. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sues EPA for approving use of a toxic pesticide (halauxifen-methyl) without “robust” scientific research on its environmental effects.

The lawsuit is one of 82 that CBD has currently filed against the government.

–2017 Washington DC. (Now resigned) EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directs EPA to restrict consent decrees and court-enforced deadlines for rulemaking. Directive is targeted to environmental non-profits that sue EPA over failure to comply with deadlines and release public records.

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed. Photo by Mary Ann Borge

–2017 The Cornbelt. Milkweed, sole food plant for monarch larvae, all but vanishes, down to 20 per cent of former acreage, victim of an explosion of corn and soybean acreage and massive applications of glyphosate and dicamba to kill super-weeds gone rampant.

–2017 US of A. Monarch butterfly populations further plummet. Some figures put the decline at 90 percent, or nearly a billion since 1990. Monarchs follow the spring emergence of milkweed as they migrate north. Loss of milkweed means loss of habitat for eggs and loss of food for larvae.

Solitary bee on cotton. Cotton is not sprayed until harvest. Photo by Sarah Cusser

–2018 Washington DC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds traces of Roundup in granola, crackers, bread, ice cream.  And an Environmental Working Group study finds contamination in oat products, including Cheerios and old-fashioned Quaker Oats. Roundup is sprayed on crops before harvesting as a dessicant to speed work in fields.

–2018 Minnesota. Organic Consumers Association publicizes the presence of Roundup in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, supposedly made from only wholesome, natural ingredients. OCA launches a lawsuit against the owner, Unilever, for scamming the public.

–2017 Arkansas. The State Plant Board votes to ban future use of highly volatile dicamba. Dicamba is a known contaminant of soil and water and a key component of Roundup Ready Extend.

The Board has received nearly a thousand complaints about drift that can stay airborne for as long as three days. In 2017 alone dicamba drift damages 3.6 million acres of soybeans and other crops and plants.  EPA approves continued use based on Monsanto’s assurances of future control.

How far will the drift go? Getty Images

–2018 Arkansas. Monsanto sues to lift the state ban on dicamba, claiming farmer’s misuse of its product. The suit is dismissed. Meanwhile, another 1.1 million acres of crops and vegetation across the mid-south are damaged by dicamba drift.

–2018 Washington DC. EPA announces it will postpone rulings on Bayer’s neonics until 2019.

–2018 U.S of A. Twenty-six million pounds of Roundup are sprayed on public parks, playgrounds, schools and gardens every year.

Good God, what have we wrought? Are we too far down the rabbit hole to get out?

More on this topic in a future post from one gardener’s perspective.

Posted in butterflies, Honeybees, Neonicotinoids, Pesticide news, Roundup, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Summer After the Winter of Three Degrees

The Pittosporum Rout

What a fickle gardener I am!

Pittosoporum were hit hard after last winter, harder than we thought. We assumed they would bounce back by midsummer, but they didn’t.

How they looked in better days as part of the front landscaping

Reasonable rainfall might have promoted growth, but more than thirty inches in June and July instead created temporary rice paddies that promoted rotting. The pittosporum sulked with browned-out patches and dead and dying branches.

Inveterate gardeners that we are, we were sure we could manage them, make them presentable and they’d be off and running again. A brief morning’s work for the two of us, we predicted, a bit of pruning and thinning.

Two days later, a mash-up of gaping holes and mangled shrubs remained, and Bob was hauling the remnants to the landfill.

Another notch for Ranger, see sidebar for my post of January 2017, A Small Tribute to a Silent Partner

Belatedly, I came to understand how important the pittosporum had been to our garden. For almost thirty years they had grown reliably in tight, rounded mounds with leaves that gleamed in sunlight, conferring serenity reminiscent of well-ordered Japanese landscaping.

Back in my gardening heydays of the late Eighties, I had picked up a few pittosporum for three or four bucks each. By the time I wanted more, being parsimonious, I simply parlayed the few into many by growing them from stem cuttings.

I grouped them all into two opposing arcs, each with a watermelon crepe myrtle at its center and separated by a swathe of lawn. I felt pretty good about a garden design that seemed to work without fuss.

A view of the grouping at the corner of the house opposite its sidekick

The pittosporum would become a simple, graceful gateway to our hydrangea and azalea gardens and a soothing segue into the riot of tall coneflower and phlox and canna and abelia and aster and aralia ‘Sun King’ and daylilies and quince and native honeysuckle and fern that tangle for territory along the side of the house.

Canna ‘Tropicana’ defends its space with boldness

For years the pittosporum lounged, always graceful, always tasteful, always dependably healthy and evergreen, spreading until they caressed the trunks of the crepe myrtles. Some years their perfect, undulating lines called to mind ocean swells and I would stop and look and wonder about shapes and forms in our universe. They became a topic of conversation when people visited.

Here’s the irony. I never took a picture that put pittosporum center stage. Today, that vision of ocean swells exists only in my memory. The few photos I could dig up show pittosporum in supporting roles only, incidental, no accidental, inclusions in pictures of a revolving showcase of stars.

I was, each season, seduced by the fresh and new and bright, ravishing daffodils and azaleas in spring, dazzling butterflies on dazzling phlox in summer.

Young Japanese red maple ‘Bloodgood’ in spring, with beautybush (kolkwitzia amabilis) in the background and pittosporum, with its central crepe myrtle, to the left, lush and green, but not the focus of interest

The pittosporum were simply there, a quiet mound of green that was easy to take for granted, easy for the eye to glide over, easy to ignore. It was not ravishing. It was a plain but respectable workhorse that managed to give a sense of order to an overflowing garden.

That the plants were self-sufficient and required no maintenance except for an occasional nip to shape only added to their invisibility.

A few years BEFORE this winter, growing well despite the nearby tulip poplaby that will not be denied its gifts from the soil

After two days of hacking, yes, hacking, I realized that what I had taken for granted was in real jeopardy. Top growth that was passable was underpinned by twisted dead and rotting branches, all of which had to be lopped out. Gnarled limbs anchored to the ground testified to the roaming nature of the shrubs, so one could barely track what was growing from where.

AFTER this winter, a jumble of roots and low branches is left, some with life, others not. Tulip poplar is in the background

Pittosporum is a southern shrub, a meters-high treelike denizen of Florida that is hardy enough to handle zone 8 low temperatures.

Our tamer, thirty-inch specimens of indeterminate width, ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf,’ are a little less cold tolerant and, according to the books, may succumb at about ten degrees. Their brittle branches tend to crack under the crunch of snow and ice.

What looks like snowdrifts are pittosporum lumps under the snow

Our troopers had survived three degrees and stood up tolerably well under days of snowdrifts. . .

Usually, broken limbs sprout quickly and the plants recover quickly after judicious pruning (whatever that phrase means) in spring. Hence our optimism. The exception was one winter when plants broke up so badly and were such an eyesore we vowed to dig and replant, a massive undertaking that sent us into total recoil.

You know how these determinations go, though: the spirit may be willing, but the shoulders and shovels lag far far behind.

The mess today. “Judicious pruning?”

In the end, our ditherings were moot because no plants were available. After cold or snowy winters it is sometimes difficult to find pittosporum, nurseries apparently suffering the same hardships as gardeners.

A diligent search by a friend in the business managed to turn up one sad specimen, offered up with apologies, that we grabbed gratefully and settled into a gap-toothed space.

That single plant is the only one left in good shape today. (Which makes me think that every so often, the gardener should do “judicious pruning,” even when it seems unnecessary.)

Despite our deep skepticism that spring, those winter-torn eyesores grew into beautiful mounds within a couple of seasons. Shame on us for doubting. And kudos to us for dilly-dallying.

So we are not giving up, though the situation seems dire. We are raising the beds by a few inches and I am starting a search for new plants to tuck in among the old-timers. To hedge against disappointment, I am back to propagating. The other day I stuck about twenty or thirty pittosporum cuttings into our previously-fallow-but-now-crowded propagation bed.

And when, exactly, would these cuttings be ready to plant out — if they even took. And would they succeed on a diet of hope, faith, and Miracle Gro?

 Blooming crepe myrtle branch bows low, strews spent blossoms over the empty bed that will be raised

My Internet search for plants did one thing, though. It reinforced my newfound loyalty to our pittosporum. I came across an article on their culture by a garden writer who had the temerity to give them only faint praise, calling them finicky because they needed water during dry spells, and wouldn’t grow in clay soil, and you had to watch for scale and aphids, though these were usually not so terrible.

What would the front garden look like without pittosporum in the background?

How dare anyone slander my pittosporum! How dare anyone faint-praise those plants that I had ignored all these decades because they were just there and didn’t need any care in our clay soil, and never had a bug and were hardly ever pruned and never needed a drop during droughts that were felling lesser plants (not that it ever occurred to us to give them a drink) but which have lately become my most-favored plants!

O dear, is it too late to make amends? Or will fickleness receive its just desserts?

Antler look-alikes? Guess whose idea it was to dry wet gloves on upside-down table legs?

Posted in Uncategorized, Winter damage | Tagged | 4 Comments