How Green (and Black) is The Garden

Soon after our seasonal arrival, before boxes are fully unpacked or the pantry amply stocked, I’m drawn into my garden like a salamander to a vernal pond. With much anticipation and few misgivings so early in the season, I dig into the dirt, this patch of history that for a time I can consider mine. Palpable, the feel of attachment and active place-making as I re-connect to another summer’s rhythms.

In the garden, I’m, well, grounded. It’s where I often unearth happiness, if only by squatting at the perennial bed’s perimeter observing the newest shoots, the sun’s heat foursquare on my shoulders and neck, or while sipping the morning’s first coffee, idly pinching the spent blossoms from heliotrope and verbena.

Of course, it’s not always idyllic. Hardly. Some summers, my garden is more battlefield or coliseum than sanctuary. I duke it out with grubs and slugs, aphids and Japanese beetle. I raise my fists at rabbits and deer, or, with dried coyote urine spread among the beds, attempt an exotic and hopefully more effective means of engagement. Indoors, though I routinely attempt to capture spiders in tissue and gently toss them out the door, in the garden I know only vengeance, the quick, brutal dispatch of slugs with a shovel’s sharp blade. I’m never wounded by the demise of whitefly or aphid the way I am, say, by the sad after-the-fact recounting  of the large Northern water snake that slithered out of Hub’s pond onto our road only to be clobbered by Petie with an oar. This morning, I may have deferred to a red eft I discovered beneath a heap of rotting autumn leaves and moved on to cleaning another part of the bed, but renewed my pledge to be armed to the teeth against future damage by voles that, one winter, up to their shenanigans beneath snow drifts, took down my new climbing hydrangeas with their persistent gnawing. Reluctantly, I had to declare them the victor in a battle I’d not even known had been waged.

Nature, we all know, is a formidable opponent, a sure bet no matter how handicappers might rate us gardeners as we’re coming out of the gate in June, no matter how many points we’re given entering the ring. Just as a garden is of nature and opposed to it, nature plays a dual role of friend and foe neither of which offers guarantees or certain outcomes. Our wish for moderate winter temperatures, considerable snow cover, a spring of adequate rain and an above average smattering of warm, sunny days holds little sway and is as likely to be met with an abundance of Arctic temperatures, stingy snow cover, a withholding of spring rain or an endless string of days saturated with fog and damp so that whatever attempts to grow seems to do so by having acquired gills.

Still, gladly, I persist, forgetting as I do every year at this time that regardless my first-of-the-season attempts to buttress my garden against nature’s encroachments, I will, by mid-July, grow indifferent to weeds. I’ll allow the blush of my expectations for gardening perfection dim. Less rigorous in my attempts to banish the gooseneck loosestrife I accidentally introduced among the phlox one summer, I’ll concede the fight and reconnect instead with the reminder that among a garden’s other definitions is that of the superb teacher, if what you’re after is humility or a better understanding of compromise and luck. Like mantras in a self-help book, the garden intones: Accept uncertainty, relinquish control. By mid-summer, I settle back and become more audience than participant. Bees plunder. Butterflies sip. Hummingbirds dart and dash. And though I do not set out the welcome mat for them, whatever the slugs are up to among the bee balm is of small concern to me.

But here is where I have to confess – black flies get no pardon. Never.  In fact, were it my decision to make, they’d be outlawed altogether. Late spring, just when we gardeners are at our busiest with shovel and spade, they descend and unpack their bags. Though not so abundant this year, a few summers ago they arrived in hordes, every member of their extended family in tow, the result of some confluence of conditions about which I’d be forever grateful were it never to repeat itself. No bigger than one sixth of an inch long, black flies are cleverly equipped with a piercing blade-like appendage they put to fierce use, their preferred munching zones our hairlines, necks, ears and temples though they’ll gladly latch onto ankles or arms. Known in some circles as Maine’s “state bird,” it’s the Maine Blackfly Breeders’ Association – “we breed ‘em, you feed ‘em” – who are quick to point out that a blackfly’s “blood meal” measures a mere 2mg or 0.00006 ounces. More significantly, they report, that unlike mosquitoes, black flies have the good sense to breed only in the clear running water of our rivers and streams and thus are a measure of our environmental success. Both claims intended, I guess, to give the chewed-upon small comfort. 

It’s unlikely we’ll ever be rid of Maine’s 40 or so species of blackfly. The best we gardeners can do is consider the aftermath of their bites – long-lasting red welts, scabs, bloody streaks – as a sort of hard-earned badge recognizable among our kind as is, too, the odd choreography of our attempted covert scratching at, say, a friend’s dinner table. The truest identity marker, however, may be our armor that involves, minimally, the protective black mesh head gear many of us have been known to wear both in and out of the garden, and which can be – let’s face it – an understandably frightening prospect.




Roll 'er up

According to computer models, Maine has 4,617 islands, more than all the other East coast states combined. Such exactness is admirable, but it begs the question: how do you count? Count at high tide and what looks like an island may in fact be connected to the mainland at low tide, and at low tide, what looks like an island vanishes beneath high water.

Even measuring our island – computed by someone at twelve miles long and six miles wide – is tricky. What gets measured? Every jut, crevice, outcropping, point? How much of the pink granite ledges off Sand Beach Road make the cut? What of the clam-pocked bar at low tide? And if measuring at low or slack tides, in those small pockets of time when Barred or Sheephead islands are reachable on foot, do they get tallied, or do they remain discrete, individual, with their own set of statistics? Measure in the morning, in no wind, a fisherman’s “flat ass calm” sea, or in the afternoon’s freshening breeze, a “sailor’s delight,” waves smooching the bony headlands, and the numbers vary dramatically.    

There’s even disagreement as to what comprises an island. The U.S. Geological Survey with its satellite imagery of elaborate lines and vivid pixels, demands an island be at least one acre in size, or roughly the size of a Super-WalMart parking lot. In fact, some people don’t even consider Deer Isle an island. As if it were a “faux island,” something akin to acrylic being passed off as genuine shearling. Even Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, when writing of the 1895 America's Cup winner the Defender, crewed entirely by our island boys, referred to Deer Isle as "back when it was a true island."

Though discrete and surrounded by water, as a true island is, Deer Isle connects to the mainland via a long, spanning steel-cabled bridge – hence the belief held by some that Deer Isle is a mere extension of the mainland. “Real islands,” they claim, are further out to sea and must rely on the schedules of ferries and mailboats.

But ask the residents here and, fiercely proud of it, they’ll tell you Deer Isle is an island. As though the bridge did not exist. As though it were not so easy to cross. Or that it were capable of being rolled up, a feat that, actually, come tourist-peak August, a few islanders might wish were possible.


There is Here 

On a U.S. map, up in the continent’s northeast corner, Deer Isle looks like a mere speck – as though a crumb or stray coffee ground was dropped onto the page. It’s an unlikely tethering point for a life-long Midwesterner, a gal born to a flat, land-locked landscape of geometrically-gridded streets, brick bungalows and small, tidy yards barely hinting at old wind-scoured prairies. An island in the Atlantic may seem an even more surprising choice for someone who doesn’t swim well and is transformed to a welter of thumbs aboard a boat. To this part of the world, my family never traveled. I possessed no claims, no connections or ties. Yet, inexplicably, as though I’d been pulled to it like iron shavings to a magnet or driven by a wind of unknown origin at my back, I arrived on this 12-by-12 mile granite-bound island 15 years ago. 

I came to a place I’d never seen, as if drawn by a memory older than me. A place that had yet to offer me its stories, about which I’d not yet learned any of its names. A place that, it’s not inaccurate to say, claimed me.

I came home to a place where I’d never been. 

The needles of my inner compass still point here. Each spring, like an osprey on its annual migration, I return to the island. In late May’s buzz-and-hum march toward solstice, toward warmer nights and lengthening days, I arrive as yellow school buses chug a few final laps, as lobster traps are stacked onto pickups and buoys get a fresh coat of paint, when cold frames are opened and lawn furniture and grills are hauled from cellar or shed.    

Over the years and in other seasons, often from a far off 1,300 mile perspective, I’ve become more certain we each have an instinctual need for connection to a human and natural world community, some distinct place about which we have intimate knowledge and where we feel best able to live our individual lives. We each need a “belonging-place.” Deer Isle is mine.

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote: “Home is where one starts from.” It’s also where I arrive. Come late May, what all winter was there is now here.

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