Updated: Mar 19, 2022
During a major transition in my life, as I was working towards my MFA, raising my kids, working, and about to collapse, I was sitting in my car and listening to a radio program in which a composer by the name of Julia Wolfe was being interviewed and talking about her new choral work titled, “Anthracite Fields”; which was based on the lives of mining communities, thus the use of the name Anthracite, describing the hardest type of coal. Upon further investigation, I found out that anthracite contains relatively pure carbon and burns with very little flame or smoke; and I was intrigued by the fact that someone could compose an entire choral work based on such a subject. At the time I came across this interview, I had been creating a movement work for my Masters thesis that was growing out of my research on language and fixity of meanings, both verbally and physically; and how one finds ways to circumvent fixity so that the ever-becoming body and mind evolve continuously. As my research developed, both in the studio and on paper, the most important question came to the surface: How do we exist in such a state of continual flow in spaces not made by us?
As I continued to listen, an excerpt from “Anthracite Fields”, titled Flowers, began to play. As it played, Ms. Wolfe began by describing the small mining villages that inspired the composition; their dust and soot, and the old tiny wooden shacks lined up in rows on either side of a dirt road. That last part, about the dirt road, I think I made up as her words created clear images for me. The composer went on to talk about a kind of ritual in which the women in these mining villages would “spruce up their impoverished existences” by planting flowers. While listening, I continued to visualize the village and how those flowers must have seemed more vibrant than ever within the black and white backdrop of this world she spoke of. This detail connected immediately with my ideas and questions regarding how we exist within spaces not made by us. It was an incredible accounting of how this simple act of planting flowers became a way to alter the carbon-laced environment that was to be home to many families. It was a place that had everything to do with power, growth, light, darkness, life and death, as these rural towns designed with the bare minimum allowed workers to have a simple roof over their heads after emerging each night from the harsh underworld where they dug out the hard coal that fueled a nation.
The composition in itself is a layering of vocal mantras that capture a sense of past, present, and future within a dizzying cycle of vocal exchanges and overlapping sound frequencies. Yes, I used this composition in my work, and now three years later I have returned to this music as I consider my next transition while sitting amongst my own flowers in a garden that has been in constant growth and transition since I moved into this home over eight years ago.
The rain season came early this year and my yard fills with water and looks like a small pond. It never did that before so I know something greater than my small garden has changed, bringing with it an awareness of the shifting planet and what I must continually learn to relax into. It is an awareness that brings both excitement and impatience as I try not to imagine or contrive what is not destined for me. Paying attention to changes in direction is the hard part. Waiting in quiet surrender is harder.
The choosing of time and place was not organized by them.
Yet they possessed the power to sit as long as they wished
deep in the dark Earth.
Growing within the time and rules of the shifting Earth.
The “when” is usually clear to me as it presents itself as a clearing in my thoughts while present realities show signs of falling apart.
Erosion signals that it is time to move or at least to turn the soil over.
Sometimes the soil seems dry on the surface, yet when you turn it over and dig deep, the dark moist soil quickly devours that dry top layer while plump worms push down to get away from the light and the trowel. If you know about dirt and worms, you know that this is a good place to replant, start something new, drop some seeds or transplant something that is not thriving elsewhere. When there are no signs of moisture or life, the trowel moves quickly through dry pale dirt and stirs up a dust that makes you turn your head away or just drop the trowel and walk away all together. The worms left long ago.
What makes us stuck? When I use a physical language to answer this question I find that the mind perceives dead ends due to a tendency to believe that the (once) pre-defined must never be altered . I also find that our limitations are mostly ruled by an invisible, and sometimes visible, set of rules that set us into a state of judgment and worry that does not allow us to see farther than where we have gotten. So we often stop and stare at a wall and then go back the way we came.
My garden is messy because I sometimes fling seeds to the wind. I do not manicure the garden, but rather just yank and dig and cut. I hate the weeds but then I thank them because they force me to sit and focus on them and in turn they create a blank space in time for my thoughts. I inherited my ability to squat for hours just thinking and weeding from my Abuelo Ismael. When we were young, we would see him outside for hours just pulling out weeds till the land was clear, then he would cut any twigs he had collected into six inch pieces which he would then patiently tie into bundles with twine. I understand this now as his peaceful practice; a practice that was necessary not only for the land but also for the mind. When he was young, Abuelo was the director of the church Christmas pageants. This wonderful information came to me through my Abuela who told me that he once had some kid suspended by ropes so they could swing him above the congregation as the Angel Gabriel. Abuelo was a choreographer!
People ask, what I do so my flowers grow. My answers often disappoint, as they contain no real secret or knowledge. I do nothing but yank, cut and dig.
Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle-shells and pretty Maids all in a row.
As much as I wanted to believe that Mary’s garden was full of bell and seashell-shaped colorful flowers, it turns out this rhyme refer to Queen Mary (also known as Bloody Mary!) and her torture devices such as the reference to cockle-shells that were used on men’s testicles. Ouch.
So much for one of my favorite childhood nursery rhymes; although perhaps I like it even more now because of the sweetness that veils over such events through lovely drawings and poetic verses. Seems to me that history often turns to the flowers as a way to color the grim.
I’ve tried to read gardening books but they are loaded with perfect photographs and all the rules that ensure that you don’t kill your plants. After a few attempts at following such silly rules, I have learned that my garden doesn’t give a crap about my pretty books. It has taught me that the flowers and plants have been here long before we “garden experts” have been, and will be here long after we are gone. The flowers and plants know where they want to be and how long they want to stay. They know when a storm is coming, how to attract their preferred bugs and birds and which way they want to face. My job is to pay attention because I know nothing.
Funny how observing and listening to my plants taught me to do that for myself.
What do we actually kill by simply not paying attention? Hopes, dreams, ideas…
How is it that the harsh dessert does not kill the cactus that live there, yet I have heard many recount their inability to keep a small cactus alive in their living room? I believe it is not a question of the green thumb myth, but rather a question of engaging willingly in the act of keeping something alive. It has to be important to you; and the term “killed my plants” should not be taken so lightly. After all, they, too, breathe.
Plants get stuck in bad places simply because they do not have the capacity to uproot and walk themselves to a new location unless they have sprouted from rhizomes. Rhizomes probably evolved because the plant got tired of waiting on some clueless human to move it so it looked deep within, followed the earthworms, and broke through the Earth into a new location. The stupid human just figures they killed their plant.
My mom likes to send me boxes. Sometimes its clothes, other times its some nick knack from a yard sale or the church thrift store, or gifts for the kids. On this one occasion a white box arrived with its usual mom signature of way too much packing tape so I got the scissors and began to open it. Suddenly I realized that there was dirt coming out of the box so I took it outside. When I opened it, I looked in the paper bag that was inside the box and thought to myself “Did mom send me poop?”
The dirt was everywhere and the odd lumps of brown poop things baffled me so I called her to find out what she had smuggled to me via the US Postal System.
“Rhizomes!” she said. “Winter is coming so I’m digging them out so I can replant them in the spring. I have too many so I thought I would send you a few.”
Wow, I thought, these lumps are alive! Me: “What plant are they?”
Mom: “I don’t actually know, but they have big leaves and a beautiful red flower. Maybe a Canna.”
Me: “Do you have them in the sun or in the shade?”
Mom: “They get a bit of both. “
So I dug some holes and dropped in the poop lumps. I live in zone 11 so I will never have to dig them out for the winter. It’s not often that my mom and I can share seeds because she lives up north in zone 5 or 6 so this would be a worthy experiment to see if the ugly lumps would emerge from the sandy tropical dirt in my garden. And they did. Giant red Canna’s with giant leaves that get eaten at night by large alien slug things that live down here in tropical zone 11; then they roll themselves up in the leaf as if making a sleeping bag. The Canna doesn’t mind because if it did it would not keep blooming that beautiful red torch of a flower that works like a beacon to lure the moths that lay those eggs that then hatch into the giant slugs. And from it’s very tall stem the spiders anchor their webs and feed through the night, and when the petals of the red flower wilt, they make way for these very curious small bunches of red balls that look like berries which must serve as food for some kind of winged creature. The cycle of the giant Cannas goes on still after five years; I chop their stems and clear the old dried out leaves and wait for the rhizomes to sprout again and again and again. I planted them in front of my fence, which I share with my neighbor, so I’m a bit nervous that the Cannas will pop up on her perfectly mowed side of the fence. On her side there are no weeds, no bushes, no flowers and certainly no giant alien slugs. It’s like a bright green fenced in carpet and when my neighbor sees what is on my side of the fence, I am sure it gives her a little anxiety just as her perfectly controlled outdoor environment gives me the same anxiety.
I read a description once of a shadowbox fence as a type of fence designed to let air flow through. “Well that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. The fence is outside!“
I thought to myself. I came to the conclusion that it was designed so that each neighbor could fulfill their inner need to be nosy while pretending to be out there getting some air. Either way, it doesn’t matter because that’s what we do in these small fenced in worlds. We create what gives us comfort just as the women in the dusty mining communities where reality becomes the fence to circumvent. Where flowers create a resistance like no other, and for some the avoidance of flowers is about resisting the messiness of keeping things alive.
In my case, I do not live in a black and white world of coal and dust, however, knowing of the existence of such a place and the flowers deliberately placed there, allows me to understand the coal and dust metaphorically.
How do we find happiness through designing and choreographing our side of the fence, our corner of the world, our side of the street? The impermanence of these places should give us even more reasons to go out and buy a of string lights to wrap around a tree, through the spaces in a fence or even around a rusty old fire escape.
I finish weeding, carry the wilted pile to the trash and then I start cutting back bushes and plants which leave me with much larger piles to pick up. I do not measure or cut the branches into small piles nor tie them in twine as my Abuelo did, and I am certain that he disapproves as he watches me shove everything into the trash bin. It’s getting late, but I am never finished, and I only stop because it is getting dark and I have children to feed. My time in this space is always to be continued as are the thoughts that circulate, such as those that bring me back to the question of movement and fixity and not remaining stuck in a place where I begin to wilt. My mom thinks I stay too long in places and perhaps she is right, but I can’t help it, I’m a slow shifter.
I love to root into my home and my garden, to let experiences settle in and to watch the world and ponder for a while. Shifting winds come often but I am not eager to step into them until that thing happens.