Saturday, June 7, 2014



THERE IS in an obscure Emblem Book by one Henry Hawkins, dated 1633, a tribute to one of the garden's great flowers:
The honour of our Gardens, and the miracle of flowers at this day, is the Heliotropion or Flower of the Sun; be it for the height of its stem, approaching to the heavens some cubits high: or beautie of the flower, being as big as a man's head, with a faire ruff on the neck; or, for the number of the leaves, or yellow, vying with the marigold, or, which is more, for al the qualities, nature, and properties of the Flower, which is to wheel about with the Sun; there being no Needle, that more punctually regards the Poles, then doth this Flower the glorious Sun.
In the spring, Beloved set aside the packets of sunflower seeds that had accumulated, and announced that she would build Sunflower Houses.

"What are those?" asked I.

"They are sunflowers planted in a circle, so that children can play in the middle of them in high summer, and make believe that they are houses. It's an old tradition."

I went to my books to look this up. I didn't find any sunflower houses, but a favorite writer, the gentle Sharon Lovejoy, tells of Hollyhock Houses, which seems to be the same idea. She plants hollyhocks in a circle, and then when they are tall, ties them together to form the rafters of a kind of tipi.

Beloved took her packets to the greenhouse, filled three flats of two-inch pots with potting soil, and poked one seed down a bit over a quarter of an inch into each one, humming a song about Mistress Mary.

The long rains went on, and the circle of elephant garlic came up, a green and pungent Fairy Ring. I explained how this would work.

"This is a circular garden; the rainbird in the middle will reach exactly to the garlic, all the way round, and this gap here is the entrance. Plant your tall things near the perimeter, and your short things, like squash vines, near the middle, so that nothing is in any thing else's rain shadow."

"Okay. And where do the sunflower houses go?"

"What sunflower houses?"

Patiently she explained again.

I furrowed my brows. "Won't some of them keep the water off the rest? I was kind of envisioning a row, sort of all the way or half way round, then corn further in, then tomatoes, like a sort of staircase."

"I want sunflower houses."

"Umm, okay, how about evenly spaced, though, around the perimeter?"

"Sure, I'll put one here, and here, and here, and here..."

It was to be the Year of the Sunflower.
For in the morning it beholdes his rising; in his journey, attends upon him; and eyeth him stil, wheresoever he goes; nor ever leaves following him, til he sink downe over head and eares in Tethis's bed, when not being able to behold him anie longer she droops and languishes, til he arise: and then followes him againe to his old lodging, as constantly as ever; with him it riseth, with him it falles, and with him riseth againe.
The sunflowers did not appear only in the circle garden. Another sunflower house came up in the hilltop garden, menacing the lettuce and onion beds.

Many of these were along the east side of the house, and followed the sun until midday, then continued staring straight up, as though wondering what had become of their lord and master. Eventually they became too heavy with seed for this myopia, and drooped daylong, no longer befriended of bees but increasingly frequented by birds.
Nature hath done wel in not affording it anie odour at al; for with so much beautie and admirable singularities, had there been odour infused therinto, and the sweetnesse of odoriferous flowers withal, even men, who are now half mad in adoring the same for its excellent guifts, would then have been stark mad indeed, with doting upon it.
On a hot day in August, I went to the circular garden to look (vain hope) for a reddening blush on the hundreds of green tomatoes, and as I sloped along, parting branches, ran headlong into a massive flower head, dangling on a stem bent double with the weight, and a good eighteen inches across. Such a plant demands attention, and will bludgeon you if it doesn't get it.

I growled and pushed it away, and it came swinging insistently back across my path. Involuntarily my eye followed the stem into the thicket from whence it had sprung. Oh, yes! Sunflower houses. Well, there's such a thing here, I suppose, except it's awfully weedy in there; no child has had a go this year. I went looking for Daughter.
But Nature, it seems, when first she framed a pattern for the rest, not being throughly resolved, what to make it, tree or flower, having brought her workmanship almost unto the top, after a litle pause perhaps, at al adventure put a flower upon it, and so for haste, forgot to put the Musks into it. Wherupon, to countervaile her neglect heerin, the benigne Sol, of meer regard and true compassion, graced her by his frequent and assiduous lookes with those golden rayes it hath. And as the Sun shewes himself to be enamoured with her, she, as reason would, is no lesse taken with his beautie, and by her wil (if by looks we may guesse of the wil) would faine be with him. But like an Estritch, with its leaves as wings, it makes unprofitable offers, to mount up unto him, and to dwel with him; but being tyed by the root, it doth but offer, and no more.
Daughter at first was dubious. She had after all, recently seen Little Shop of Horrors. But mothers are still to be humored, until one reaches a certain age. I rummaged about in the garage and came up with a couple of large scraps of carpet. By throwing one onto the grassy floor of a Sunflower House, I was able to make it instantly homey -- and she took over from there.

"I'll be right back," she said, and before I knew it, my weeding was over for the day. Daughter returned with a wagonload of dolls.

"You move into that one over there...and you'll be new in the neighborhood...and we'll come over and see you -- oops, not enough room -- so you come and see us, and we'll invite you in to tea."

In this fashion are afternoons of Important Grownup Work lost forever.

It is surprisingly cool in the Sunflower House, while the sun's rays are broiling the homeyard only inches away, and shimmering the landscape near and far. One can play for a long time in such a space, and forget the approach of evening. When we gathered our tea things to retreat to our "regular" home, we found the shadows long, and the air golden, and a massive flock of Canada geese skimmed over us, low enough for Daughter to hear the wind their wings made, and for even me to hear the talk among them, heading for the river and the gleaning of the wheat fields there.

Beloved met us at the door, and she, being the artist that she is, knew not to break our wondering silence. She only smiled to see that the web of Sunflower Houses she had woven months before had made its catch.

It's thus an old tradition becomes a new one.
It is like the Scepter which the Paynims attribute to their Deitie, that beares an Eye on the top; while this flower is nothing els but an Eye, set on the point of its stem; not to regard the affayres of Mortals so much, as to eye the immortal Sunne with its whole propension; the middle of which flower, where the seed is, as the white of the eye, is like a Turkie-carpet, or some finer cloth wrought with curious needle-work, which is al she hath to entertaine her Paramour.
Friends came, from far away, to visit. Adults sat round in the shade of the east front, stirring their cups. The screen door banged. Daughter and Daughter's friend and the dolls headed for the garden.

We will remember the Meteor Night in winter, when the leaden clouds, heavy with Pacific rain, shut out Orion and his gleaming belt. We will remember the tomatoes, Better Boy, Cherry, Brandywine, and Golden Jubilee, when their poor cousin, the frozen tomato soup, is brought from the freezer to thaw. But most of all, as the huge seed heads are plunked, face up, on the well-house roof to gladden the hearts of the shivering juncos and chickadees, we will remember the Sunflower Houses.

I have been kayaking on the reservoir again. It has been a good bird year; I’ve watched eagles steal fish from ospreys, and vice versa. The cormorants are back, along with grebes and herons. Plenty of geese and ducks around , and thousands of coots wintered over on the reservoir. There’s a bald eagle sitting, day after day, on a nest about two miles from the house.

We're eating trout fairly regularly, something that can’t be done everywhere these days, either due to depleted stocks or too much mercury in the water. This fish goes well with a salad and a glass of water with a sprig of mint. Since I've walked two or four miles with a boat on my back to get to the fish, the calorie count seems to come out about right.

I’ve become rather obsessed, lately, with the notion that obesity is not a disease, as everyone seems to be calling it, but, in most cases, a symptom of a disease --- one that has no name that I can discover. Call it proto-diabetes, perhaps, since diabetes can be one of the full-blown consequences of our poor eating habits.

"Poor eating habits" may down to simply this: insulin shock. It's not whether we eat carbs and fats, it's how and when as much as how much. If we eat more slowly, more raw and uncooked, less processed, avoiding not only sugar but sugar substitutes (which often produce extra hunger as does sugar itself) we can slow and/or lessen the impact of our food choices on the pancreas, which is really what "improved digestion" means.

Take spaghetti, for example. Diet fads have often targeted spaghetti or any pasta. But you might consider making only enough that there can be no "second helping." And cooking it less, which results in what Europeans call al dente. This is a little harder to chew and digests more slowly.

Now add your own home-made sauce, made in a small enough quantity that there will be no leftovers. Make fresh, eat fresh.

Dice very small some zucchini, green onions, pok choi, and, if you like it, tofu. Blenderize a tomato with a chili pepper. Mix all these. No need to cook the sauce. You could put it all in the blender, but I like texture.

Drain the al dente noodles, put them on a heated plate, pour the sauce over them, and add two more ingredients: a sprinkling of basil flakes and chopped allium blossoms (in season).

Serve with a simple three-lettuce salad (Romaine, Simpson, iceberg). Skip the Ranch and use a vinegar-olive oil dressing made with your own hands. Doesn't need to be too fancy; just add your favorite spices, along with a garlic clove, to a bottle of your choice of vinegar, and when you're ready for the dressing (don't try to make ahead) combine one oz. of the vinegar to one oz. oil in a four-ounce bottle and shake.

If you're dining alone, the above should work, or multiply quantities as needed for two or for guests.

For drink, try serving water or a very small glass of red wine, or both. You can do all this in a half hour. Spend another half hour lingering over dinner and chatting. For dessert, go take in a nice sunset.

This can all be part of a daylong plan: cup of oatmeal with diced apple, or one egg on one piece of toast for breakfast, snack on carrots, salad for lunch, celery for snack, and now the one-helping pasta dinner. I know that sounds like starvation to some people, but, really, that lunch salad can be sustaining if you build it yourself in the morning.


Take a pair of scissors and go to the garden for a handful of leaf lettuce, some pok choi, spinach, leaf of red cabbage, snow peas, red bell pepper, and those ubiquitous elephant garlic blossoms. Dice up a firm small ripe tomato or halve some cherry tomatoes. Toss. Heat up some diced pok choi and red chard stems in a small nonstick frying pan, lightly oiled (virgin olive, which is good for you). Add cubed tofu and mushrooms. Now add sesame seeds or sunflower seeds, and some basil. When it looks ready (pok choi beginning to soften, but mushrooms not yet shriveled) take off the heat to cool, then add to the salad. Toss again. Seal in a container and take to work in one of those nylon cooler bags.

If you like eggs, try dicing up a hard-boiled egg instead of the tofu and mushrooms. Or fry a fresh egg and toss it over the meal.

This works! And it takes only about as long as standing in line at the canteen while the three people in front of you get their espresso mocha thingies made.

Trust me, you'll make it through the day. Drink lots of water between times, though. Not "diet" pop, that will set off the insulin rush, same as sugar, and then you'll be hungry. Same for most anything else they will sell you at the canteen. It's all either salt or sugar (usually corn syrup), or it's a sugar wannabe. Don't go there. Leave your spare change at home if you have to.

Or, drink unsweetened mint tea. Consider growing the mint. If you can grow nothing else, you can grow mint. It takes over, like bamboo, kudzu, vinca, or ivy. You can wash a bouquet of mint and simmer it in a pan till the water darkens, or put it in a gallon jar of water and leave it in the sunshine. I'm kind of hard core, I like to take a multi vitamin and grind it up in a mortar and pestle and add that to the tea. I pretend it's that stuff the marathon runners drink.

To convince yourself it's exactly that, join a walking group. Take your tea with you. If you like to chat with your friends and sip tea, there's no reason not to get in some of your 10,000 steps a day at the same time ...

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