Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mistletoe Joy

Sometimes you really do find what you’re looking for when you least expect it. I had been disappointed so far this Christmas season in the search for mistletoe. The Hogans didn’t have it this year at their holiday decoration party. On walks I’d seen it high in old oaks in the woods, tantalizing but 70 feet out of reach.

So yesterday I was surprised and delighted when I parked my car outside the post office in Chapel Hill and saw mistletoe growing just above eye level on an old fruit tree. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. Should I break off a sprig immediately, or could I wait until after mailing the package? I didn’t want to seem greedy. A middle-aged woman sat in the passenger seat of the car next to mine staring ahead, oblivious to the mistletoe glistening in the sun.

Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is a parasite that grows on old trees, mainly oaks. Birds spread mistletoe when they pick up the sticky white berries and inadvertently attach them to tree limbs.

How could mistletoe dotted with white berries remain within easy reach during Christmas season outside of the post office, all places? Some women have an eye for jewelry, some men for cars. I look at plants and the natural setting – and now nature was giving me a gift.

Indeed, the ancients believed that encountering mistletoe was reason for celebration. We know mistletoe best for the tradition, dating back to at least sixteenth century England, of hanging a sprig in a doorway underneath which a man and woman greet with a kiss. Mistletoe was revered in ancient times, when the appearance of living green on barren tree branches in the dark days near the winter solstice seemed miraculous.

The Greek Pliny the Elder, writing in the decades before Christ, documented the belief that mistletoe contained the living spirit of the sacred oak tree. And the Druids worshiped mistletoe, believing it to have mystical properties.

Finding the mistletoe made me feel like a small child on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to get home and string it up in the kitchen, a lovely reminder to kiss my husband.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pumpkin Magic

This fall I decided to deploy an extra weapon in my fight against the seasonal blues: witchcraft. One carved pumpkin to represent the state of mind I am trying to banish and a second pumpkin to represent the feeling I am seeking to achieve. One angry pumpkin, one happy pumpkin.

I sketched the faces, and my husband and I spent a couple of enjoyable hours on a Saturday afternoon carving them. I felt particularly pleased with these pumpkins – not only was the exercise therapeutic, but we avoided the waste typically associated with pumpkin carving. We toasted the pumpkin seeds and made a delicious sweet-and-sour pumpkin concoction with the cutout flesh.

But nature always has the last laugh with the gardener. The happy pumpkin contracted a case of mold that blackened its eye, though it’s still smiling bravely through a collapsing smile. Meanwhile, the angry pumpkin remains in perfect health. So, as an American citizen, I am exercising my right to be inconsistent in my religious faith. I have withdrawn my belief in black magic.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gardening in November

Dead leaves and pine needles coat the ground, but the hickories glow golden and I’m glad to see the sun after a few days of gloom. November is my least favorite month.

I’m usually tired of the garden by now, and there’s not much to look at anyway, aside from a pale purple carpet of eastern aromatic asters near a giant boulder. October’s slanting light is beautiful, but by November the days are short and thick clouds often block the sun. I have the gift – or curse – of sensitivity to light, and I feel the change of seasons as my outlook darkens and all I want to do is sleep. It’s a season of death and dormancy, and it seems ridiculous to hope, or even think of spring, before the leaves have finished falling from the trees.

Yet I count on gardening for a sense of renewal, so I was glad it was my day to volunteer at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. We raked paths, pulled bittersweet and honeysuckle, picked up sticks. Inexplicable that these tasks could be so satisfying. But the sun was warm and I find it impossible to brood when gardening.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh advises seekers of mindfulness to devote full attention to what you’re doing, no matter how mundane. When you wash the dishes, wash the dishes, he says. Easy to say and almost impossible to do, but I come closer in the garden than elsewhere. When you weed, weed. When you rake, rake.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rain and appreciation

We finally got rain Sunday after nearly three weeks without. It's been a relief these past two days not to have to do morning rounds in the garden, lugging buckets of water to the thirstiest plants. As I do every year, I made the mistake of continuing to transplant shrubs well into May. I vow each year to stop transplanting by the end of April, but there's always just one more. That craving for more that never quite goes away. I tell myself to look out at what's in the garden and simply appreciate, not focus on what's missing. The last few days I've been appreciating white phlox "David." Pure white, visited by the ruby-throated hummingbird, which also appreciates the monarda nearby. So do the bees - I see now why the common name is "bee balm."