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August 20, 2004

A Garden In The Sky

Barbed wire comes to life when it is cut, flailing menacingly through the air like a Cobra spilled from a snake-charmer’s basket. It leaps and bobs in undulating, unpredictable busts. A razor wire puppet, controlled by some deity in a lower dimension. Barbed wire can turn a beauty queen into a poster child for birth control in a seconds.

A Farewell To Winter

April was a vicious month. The ephemeral weather switched from snow to rain to sun in minutes and then switched back yet again. Then came tax season and daylight savings time. And finally May. May sailed into the mountains like a ship into a harbor. The mountain folk threw off their shawls and stumbled into the sunshine, gasping for the warmth of the light. The women bared their pallid flesh to the sun. The men glanced about indifferently and peed onto the pine trees.

During the days, the temperatures soared into the sixties. The snows receded into their last redoubts; the final crevices of the moss-strewn banks, on the north side of the hills. The elk herds meandered up Mount Evans, seeking cooler altitudes.

As the snows retreated, the dandelions danced in the shadows, luring the hummingbirds with their fierce yellow petals. The knap weed crawled out from under the rotting forest vegetation, where the sunlight found the forest floor. The Russian thistle snapped to attention…proud as Iowa corn.

On the first Friday in May, the winds died down and the refuse from blizzard’s wrath was pulled into the fire-pits and burned. The smell of burning smoke on the night air carried down through the valleys and neighbors came out, huddling around the fires for warmth, beer, and an earful of the lurid campfire tales. Many stories can only be told around a campfire. Jokes too ribald for the office or polite conversation. Rumors too incriminating to trust to a cordless phone.

My girlfriend and I built a campfire that night, and my neighbor Bill came and joined us. Together, we laughed and lied. We were prying loose the cold, bony fingers of old man winter…sort of chipping away at the edges of winter itself. Denying that we were pushed to the brink by March and April. Drinking as if it mattered. Cursing for no reason. Loud and obnoxious in an indifferent sort of way.

She pulled some warm beer from the back of her Jeep and I buried it in the last vestigial remnants of the Blizzard of ’03. Bill laughed when I told him that I had decided to plant a vegetable garden. At 7,460 feet, the air was too thin, the soil too poor, the rain to infrequent, and the growing season too short. Even if I could get a crop out of the ground, he assured me, there was no way to keep out the elk, mule deer, bear, raccoons, rabbits, and birds. The more I insisted, the more he laughed.

Day-Care Spawn Of The Feminazis

In my mind, the garden was for Jennifer. I’d planted a garden or two as a child, and wanted her to grow up a little closer to the food chain than the day-care spawn of the reprehensible feminazis. I asked Jennifer what she wanted to plant.

“Carrots…peas…lettuce…watermelons…corn-on-the-cob…and avocados.? She replied.

So, that was what we decided to plant. The Garden in the Sky wasn’t about planting what the neighbors and the county commissioner said would grow. It was more about planting from the imagination. Inside Jennifer’s mind, something was already growing…conjured in her cerebellum. Unfettered by the shackles of feasibility and practicality.

The garden was as much about Jennifer’s growth as it was about plant growth. As much about planting knowledge in her, as it was about planting seeds in the soil. Her mind is more fertile than the poor mountain soil.

Not every experiment needs to end with the expected outcome for the experiment to succeed. If the plants didn’t sprout, or the vegetables failed to mature, the experiment was still a success. A hypothesis was tested…a lesson was learned. She learned that we had planted too soon, hadn’t watered enough, or didn’t keep out the animals. But she would learn, either way.

The next day, I went out and inspected the land. It had never been broken. The poor mountain soil was composed mainly of decomposing granite and rotting pine needles. It was shallow, denigrated by rocks, and notoriously difficult to break. The soil was best suited for weeds.

The land ate tillers. It broke and bent the tines, sheared the shear pins, and sent would-be sod-busters hustling back down the hill to get their tillers sharpened, welded, or scrapped.

With Jennifer in tow, I rented the largest walk-behind self-propelled rear-tine tiller I could find, loaded it onto the 18-foot trailer, and pulled it up through the canyons, finally turning off the narrow blacktop road onto the dirt path that dead-ends into my driveway. I pushed the tiller off the trailer without bothering to use the ramps.

I ratcheted down the tiller to the maximum depth, and started mauling the soil with the rotating blades. My Uncle Jim lost four fingers off his right hand trying to pull a rope out from under a combine, so I harbor a healthy fear of all farm-related implements. You don’t shake hands with a man that has only a thumb and forget a lesson like that.

I didn’t bother to get my underground utilities marked. I figured that the odds of me finding a gas main were fairly small. The tiller clanked and whined as the tines found the subterranean stones. It spit out the smaller ones, split the medium ones, and hopped across the largest ones like a jackrabbit on hot asphalt. The largest ones had to be excavated with a hoe and carried from the garden on unsteady legs.

After about five minutes of tilling, Jennifer was ready to put seeds in the ground. She didn’t understand the economics of the tiller. It was a two-hour minimum rental. I have three and a half acres. I wanted a Victory Garden. The economics of the tiller demanded I run it at top speed for either two hours, until the tines snapped, or the engine seized, whichever came first.

Jennifer waded into the shade of the DUKW, seeds in hand, and sat to wait for the cessation of the tilling. After the tilling, I hoed the garden into neat rows. After the hoeing, we opened the seeds. I poured them into Jennifer’s hand and poked holes into the rows at even intervals. Jennifer dropped a seed or two or three into each hole. I told her not to worry if she made a mistake. It wasn’t that kind of a garden. It wasn’t such a big deal to me that it be done 100% according to the book. It was more important for her to have fun putting seeds in the holes. I couldn’t find it in myself to point out her mistakes and make her dig out the extra seeds. That wasn’t the point of the garden in the sky.

Tripwires Around The Perimeter In Da-Nang

Bill came over and admired my work. He even helped with the tilling for a bit. When the days’ work was done and Jennifer had gone back down the hill, Bill asked me to join them for dinner. I cleaned up and, over Crab Imperial and wine on the redwood deck, we plotted on how to keep the elk out of the garden.

“The problem with the elk? Bill cautioned “is that even an electric fence won’t keep them out. It shocks them, but the shock scares them, and they run through the fence. Once they’ve run through it, it breaks the circuit and the whole damned herd gets in. Now…when I was in ‘Nam, we use to set up these tripwires around our perimeter in Da-Nang…made one hell of a bang when Charlie hit one…?

“What about barbed wire?? I asked. I didn’t want to go to prison for burying Claymore mines around my vegetable garden.

“They’ll just jump it.? He countered.

“What about barbed wire and electric combined?? I asked.

“That might work. If you put barbed wire on the inside of the fence posts, and electric on the outside. Then, when it shocks them, they can’t run through. Of course, you’ve still got the raccoons. I can’t count the number of raccoons I’ve shot. Those lesbians up the hill feed them, and then, when they go on vacation, the coons come down here and eat everything in sight.?

The next day, I got up and started spraying the property with my five-gallon Solo-backpack sprayer. I sprayed Curtail most of the day. I sprayed the knap weeds, Russian thistle, dandelions, wild roses, and holly. The back of the property was covered with a dandelion carpet, streams of knap weed, and forests of thistle. In these vast regions, I’d lock open the sprayer nozzle and imagine I was calling in an air-strike in Vietnam…sometimes I’d call for Napalm. Sometimes Agent Orange. When it was really bad, I’d call in the codeword “Broken Arrow? like Mel Gibson in “We Were Soldiers Once?.

In my delusions, I envisioned a day when the weeds would be gone. When I’d walk the property, only to find native grasses, and the occasional knap weed or dandelion. I’d spray a weed or two, and then return to the house to while away the remainder of the afternoon on the deck, watching the deer play in the meadows.

As I sprayed the weeds, I considered the defense of my garden. I decided that if I strung the barbed wire strands a foot apart, from ground level up to eye level, and then ran an electric fence on the outside of that, then I could keep out most of the larger animals. Then, I’d only be left to deal with rabbits, lesbian coons, and birds.

Lesbian Coons

After spraying for several hours, in the late afternoon I drove to Home Depot and bought a quarter mile of two-prong barbed wire, fourteen T-bar fence posts, and a pair of gloves. (Hint - Never buy barbed wire without buying several pair of the thickest gloves you can find.) As I was tying down all the poles and wire to the 18-foot trailer, the barb wire end managed to flail through the air and make contact with my cheekbone. You can always tell people who’ve worked with barbed wire. They’re missing an eye, or the tip of a finger, or have a hole in their face you could stick a cigar through.

Shortly after I got back to the compound, my girlfriend showed up with some corn on the cob. We had been invited to Bill’s for a barbeque rib dinner. My little lady would never be mistaken for a cook. Somehow, she’d managed to make it this far in life without ever wandering though the produce section, much less learning how to shuck an ear of corn. So, I showed her how to shuck an ear of corn, and then picked the corn silk off the floor behind her.

Over dinner, the conversation inevitably drifted back to the defense of the garden.

“How are you going to put the poles in the ground?? Bill asked.

I thought about digging holes with a posthole digger. I looked at the open blisters on my thumbs, each one oozing some sort of clear fluid. They hurt worse than they looked. My back felt like someone had pummeled me with a nine-iron.

“I was planning on driving them in with a sledgehammer.? I offered. The idea was absurd. The poles were at least six feet long. I imagined myself on top of a stepladder, holding the pole in one hand, swinging a sledgehammer with the other hand. It was intuitively obvious to the casual observer that this would result me being driven to the hospital at top speed.

“Jim has a T-bar pole pile-driver. That’s what you need to put the poles in the ground.? I made a mental note to call Jim. When it comes to farming, Jim is “the guy?. He has a barn that is bigger than his house. He raised horses and sheep, and had an agricultural well permit that made it all legal. His permit was a bone that Governor Romer had thrown to the farming community. All anyone had to do was apply for an agricultural well permit, and Romer doled them out during his waning days in office. All the farmers got their permits while the tree-huggers were asleep at the wheel and it never even made the papers.

“What can we do about the lesbian coons?? I asked.

“Well, you put your garden in a bad spot. I don’t have a clear shot at it. That pine tree’s in the way. Otherwise, I could keep most of the animals under control. We could rent a backhoe and dig a big grave right behind the garden…? he began.

I’m no tree-hugger, but the thought of digging a mass grave with a back-hoe for every multi-cellular life-form that stumbled across my garden seemed like a bit much, even to me. I imagined myself standing before the prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, listening to the indictments, and then waiting patiently for the interpreter to relay the charges in a broad Southern dialect.

“The defendant is charged with willfully and knowingly violating the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by violating the civil rights of the family Corvidae, genus Pica, species Pica Pica.? The prosecutor would begin.

“You shot a magpie and you’re in a heap ‘a trouble, boy!? The interpreter would explain.

I decided against the mass grave idea. The thought of me being on trial for violations of the Geneva Convention didn’t sit well. I didn’t want to end up having bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails by the valedictorian of the School of the Americas in a four foot by nine foot tiger cage on Con Son Island. All I wanted was a simple vegetable garden…not the Cambodian Killing Fields.

The next day, was a Monday, as luck would have it. I decided to skip out of work and stay home. I started out by poisoning the ant mounds. I poured Diazanon onto the mounds and watered the carefully constructed hills with the backpack sprayer. Somewhere across the valley, a rooster crowed. I often heard him, crowing throughout the day, a faint, haunting song carried across the valley by the afternoon winds. I wondered why he crowed in the middle of the day. I wondered why roosters crowed at all. What was their message and to whom was it intended?

Girlfriend 1.0

Some other neighbors had asked me to join them for dinner. She wanted me to straighten out their wireless 802.11(b) network. After dumping several hundred dollars into firewalls, hubs, and routers, somehow they still couldn’t get their network functioning properly. That, ostensibly, was the reason they invited me to dinner. The underlying reason was really that they wanted to know the scoop on my girlfriend. They’d seen her at my place enough to know that she wasn’t just a visitor, and they wanted more. The neighborhood needed details. Juicy morsels they could digest and regurgitate over dinner and drinks.

So, as the sun fell toward the hills and the massive thunderclouds sheared the mountain peeks, I waded through the cool evening winds to suffer through my interrogation. We had baked chicken breasts on rice a pilaf with spinach salad. It made me wonder why I spent so many nights eating in over-priced restaurants across the country. I wondered if the best meals weren’t being cooked, discreetly, at home in the kitchens of the closet gourmets. After dinner, I told her that my girlfriend and I were getting along well and that they should move the 802.11(b) wireless router back in front of the firewall, where we’d put it to begin with, and excused myself.

I called Jim and asked to borrow his T-Bar pole pile driver. He agreed, and I said I’d be over promptly. I unhooked the 18-foot trailer and drove up to his gate. He had mountain dogs…gargantuan, feral mongrels that bark aggressively at everyone and everything. Once the gate is opened, you’re inevitably looking eye-to-eye with the kind of dog that you don’t feel comfortable around unless you’re packing a pistol of a caliber that ends in a four.

When I got to Jim’s, he met me at the gate with the magical, custom tool in hand.

“Where’s the dogs?? I asked him, one hand tracing the cool steel surface of my .38 pistol. As the economy had cooled, I’d noticed the dogs were visibly leaner. I didn’t want to be their next meal.

Jim explained he’d put them in the house. I left the comfort of the gun and the Tahoe with heated leather seats and slipped through the gate into his barnyard. I felt vulnerable and exposed. My eyes twitched as I glanced around the barnyard.

“I’m making a garden for Jennifer? I volunteered. “I want her to grow up a little closer to the land than the day-care fodder of the pseudo-intellectuals.?

“When I heard you were making a garden, I knew it was for Jennifer? Jim offered.

I wondered how he’d heard about my garden. I had only started it on Saturday. It was Monday. The mountain-net seemed to travel faster than the speed of light, through channels poorly understood by brightest minds.

He handed me the metal contraption with one hand. It was so heavy that I immediately set it down. It was one of those homemade tools that some ingenious farmer had devised in his shop. Others saw it and copied it. They were torched from billet stock, welded, and cobbled together in the metal shops and tin-roofed barns that rusted and creaked beyond the stench of the city lights. Home Depot had never seen nor heard of it, but every farmer on the planet had one or knew where they could get one by tomorrow.

“It’s getting a little cool tonight. I’ll bring it back this weekend if it’s all right by you.?

“I won’t be needing it? he allowed.

Mother’s Day Massacre

As of Sunday, May 11 (Mother’s Day), I still hadn’t returned the weapon to Jim. It snowed six inches on Friday night through Saturday morning. Where I grew up, the conventional wisdom is not to plant before Easter Sunday. This is patently absurd, as Easter varies by up to a month every year, but no one ever accused Mississippians of being overly intellectual. In the mountains, the adage is not to plant before Mother’s Day. I planted the weekend before, but nothing was out of the ground when the snow came, so I figured no harm - no foul.

Jennifer and I got a Jiffy Greenhouse at Home Depot, and planted some tomatoes, cantaloupe, and squash. It didn’t matter that the neighbors laughed when we said we’d plant cantaloupes, watermelons, and avocado seeds. The purpose of the garden wasn’t to grow vegetables. I can buy vegetables at Safeway. The purpose of the garden was to try to grow what Jennifer wanted to grow.

By the conclusion of Mother’s Day, much of the snow had melted, and the ridiculous crimson green had broken through the late spring snows. Absurd contrasts too delicious to ignore. On the drive out of the canyon, we saw a mountain lion….walking slowly, and deliberately across North Turkey Creek, then climbing the rocky canyon walls, effortlessly. No photos available.

Barbed Wire Pants

On Monday evening, I sprayed another ten gallons of Curtail. Then, I strung two more strands of barbed wire around the garden, bringing the total number of strands to five. After stringing nearly a quarter mile of barbed wire, the fence was well over five feet high, and beginning to resemble Auschwitz. I decided to document what I had learned from working with barbed wire.

Insurance – Make sure you have paid your premiums for your disability, health, and life insurance. Probably a good idea to go ahead and make out a will.
Cell phone and a Pocket Knife – Take a pocketknife and a charged cell phone with you into the field of battle. Make sure the phone battery is charged. Call information and ask for the phone number for “911?.
Fashion - You should dress as though you were going to sodomize a saguaro cactus. Wear thick leather gloves, a heavy long sleeved shirt, your worst pair of blue jeans, combat boots, and a jacket. If you have a hockey mask or an Army helmet lying around, it would be advisable to put these on as well.
Eye Protection - Eye protection is only required if you feel you will need stereoscopic vision after the fence is completed.
Loose Ends – Make sure nothing is dangling. Long hair and jacket strings are magnets for barbed wire. Once barbed wire finds your scalp, you’ll be on the ground calling ‘Uncle’ to no one in particular. Nothing is more painful or than having to pull barbed wire out of your hair. Use the pocketknife to cut the wire from your hair. If this doesn’t work, call information and ask for the phone number for “911?.
Proximity - Barbed wire can turn a beauty queen into a poster child for birth control in a seconds. When you are fastening the wire to the fence posts, try not to get your face any closer to the barbed wire than absolutely necessary.
Handling – Never let go of the wire. Once the wire comes off the spool, it will never go back on the spool, and is not inclined to attach itself to the fence posts. Instead, it leaps and bobs in undulating, unpredictable busts. A razor wire puppet, controlled by some deity in a lower dimension.
Cutting - Barbed wire comes to life when it is cut, flailing menacingly through the air like a Cobra spilled from a snake-charmer’s basket. It is a good idea to have someone hold the barbed wire when it is cut, or stand on it at a bare minimum.
Office Hours – Just like hunting, this operation should end a half-hour after sunset, and not begin until a half-hour before sunrise. Working with barbed wire in the dark or under artificial lights is like welding on a gas tank.
Tape Measure – Use a tape measure to carefully measure the distance between the poles. This will ensure that you locate the largest subterranean rocks. When you encounter a slab of granite at a depth of 12?, throw away the tape measure, and move the poles around until they go into the ground.

One night in the middle of May, a rumble slipped though the valley, like a rumor. People looked around, at each other, and at their pets. Then, it came again, more sincerely. The windows and doors were opened. Slowly, the opaque thunderheads blotted out the stars, the planets, and the moon. Cloud to cloud lightning illuminated the menacing thunderheads.

It was an orgasmic display of summer. It doesn’t rain in the winters in Colorado. The sound of falling snow is not something the ears can appreciate. The snow coats the earth in an acoustic quilt. The snow drains the sounds from the forests.

The lightning ripped violently down into the earth, splitting the pine and the spruce trees. Some of them for the first time, some for the last time. Then the rains came. A foreign sound of water falling onto an old composite shingle roof, running down the aluminum gutters, and draining down the hill out back.

We opened the doors and windows to let the thunder reverberate though the house as it echoed down through the canyon walls. We turned everything off. No lights. No television. No radio. No telephone would disturb the performance. The doors to the redwood deck were opened.

We lay and enjoyed the rare, demonic manifestations of the summer thunderstorm, gyrating like grunion. Lightning flashing and thunder reciprocating, echoing through the valley.

Shooting Starlings

A few days after the rains had passed, Jennifer discovered that the radishes had sprouted, and that the peas were just pushing through the dirt as well. She put on her gardening gloves, and, using a putty knife, proceeded to weed the garden.

“Is this a weed daddy, or a sprout??

She did a good job, while I used the hoe to remove the larger clumps of grass, dandelions, and other undesirables. Noticing deer tracks in the garden, I added yet another strand of barbed wire around the garden.

My neighbor and my brother both assured me that once anything grew in the garden, nothing would keep out the elk and the deer. I began to worry.

Jennifer found a dead Starling and brought to show me while we were transplanting some plants into the garden.

“Look, daddy….It’s a dead birdie.?

“Yes, sweetie pie. It’s a starling. Let’s bury him in the garden, like the Indians used to do. It will be good fertilizer.?

We dug a grave between the corn plants, now about three inches high, and Jennifer put the bird in. We covered it up together.

“Why did the Indians put birds in the garden, daddy??

“They put fish into the garden so that it would fertilize the soil. So that the corn would grow taller.?

“But why, daddy? Why does a fish make the corn-on-the-cob grow taller??

“I don’t know, angel. It just does.?

The Death of May

May came in cool, foggy, and moist. It left us 31 days later, warmer, with late afternoon thunderstorms. The lightning split the warm, humid air in the evenings. Large drops blasted the earth, placating the dust, and feeding the weeds. When the rains came, the flowers exploded. First the cherry tree bloomed, a bold shade of pink. Then the lilac tree budded and bloomed purple, releasing an ephemeral aroma. Something fleeting, which could be appreciated, but not preserved. The bees suckled the trees, the violet-green swallows ravaged the bees, and the bats chased the gnats.

Some White-Breasted Nuthatches built a nest in our Western Bluebird house. A melanistic Abert’s Squirrel built a nest in our Western Screech Owl house. The Violet-Green Swallows fought vicious dog fights with the Nuthatches, flying at top speed through a maze of dying limbs in the forest canopy.

The hummingbirds hovered and repeatedly dive-bombed the bushes, attacking some unseen enemy with the ruthless efficiency of the myrmidons of Jefferson County.

Jennifer stood reluctantly over the garden, gloves in hand.

“Daddy…I don’t want to weed the garden…I want to go swing.?

“Baby…the plants won’t grow if we don’t get the weeds out.?

The garden was an experiment to see what would grow, but it was also to be a lesson. That success was more perspiration than inspiration. I’ve never believed that children should be free to play one hundred percent of the day. Their lives should include some structure. Some chores, some learning, and some play time. Now was a time to work the garden.

“Daddy…when will there be something to pick…when will it grow so we can eat something??

“Not for a long time, baby. Never, if we don’t pull these weeds out.?

June First

Planting dates are like old wives tales…handed down from generation to generation…part of the inherited wisdom. Some planted on Easter Sunday, some on Mother’s Day, some on June First. Some even cautioned that June 15th was more prudent. I had started the weekend before Mother’s Day, to the muffled guffaws of my neighbors. To the disbelief of my mountain neighbors, the garden survived somehow.

By the first of June, the grass out back was knee high, and the land was a luscious green. The corn was several inches high. The radishes, peas, and pumpkins were out of the ground, and sporting healthy leaves. The okra and cucumbers had sprouted. Only the watermelon had refused to surface.

Something dug up the Starling for a second time. All that was left behind was feathers. Something was still getting into the garden. I knew that I’d need to get some chicken-wire up if I had a chance of harvesting anything.

Jennifer and I had transplanted some Cantaloupe and Squash seedlings without acclimating them to the out-of-doors, and those had promptly perished. But, on June first, with a morning thunderstorm threatening, I had transplanted the remainder of the seedlings, now much acclimated to the temperatures, and soaked them thoroughly just as the storm struck in all its fury, winds, lightning, rain, and all.

After the rainstorm, I surveyed the damage. Somehow, a deer had managed to infiltrate the six-foot barbed wire perimeter fence. He’d eaten two squash plants and a pumpkin plant. He was either going between the wires, or he was jumping over. I couldn’t be sure which. I decided to go electric.

My neighbors suggested using fabric softeners. My brother suggested using hair or laundry detergent. Others suggested nylon stockings, Ivory soap or mothballs, but nothing is foolproof.

One night I peeked out at the garden with a light, and saw eyes looking back at me. It was a small black fox, and he ran off when I approached. Something again got in and pulled up several of the little white signs that I use to label the plants.

The Harvest Moon

One Friday in the middle of September, I flew into Denver from Portland. They sky was rich and warm, the way a late summer sky ought to be. Jennifer and I went out to climb through the barbed wire and raid the garden. We harvested bush peas, pole peas, squash, corn, turnips, and lettuce. We checked on the progress of the pumpkins and wondered what we’d have come Halloween.

The next day, the temperature spiraled downward recklessly, and we found ourselves driving through Evergreen beneath the first snowflakes of winter. It was a clarion call that summer had drawn to a close. Somehow, between May and September, Spring, Summer, and Fall had all been laminated into a five month window. We harvested our garden the remains of our garden, making notes on what we’d do differently the following year.

“Can we plant more peas next year, daddy??

“Sure baby. Next year we’ll plant twice as many peas. But you have to help weed.?

“I will, daddy. I promise.?

Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 20, 2004 at 11:17 AM


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