Life in the Mitten

One of the charming things about Michigan is that everyone carries around a map of it. Two maps, in fact. Hold up either hand with the thumb facing right, and there you have the entire lower peninsula, also known as The Mitten. You can point to your hometown, or summer lakeside cabin, or favorite vacation spot, without reference to state or federal highway systems, and without struggling to describe landmarks obvious to you and obscure to your audience. It sounds funny, but I was really appreciative of these illustrations when I came here knowing only Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the airport in between. Those who are good at making rabbit handshadows can, while forming the mitten with the right hand, improvise a fairly decent Upper Peninsula by saluting the mitten with the left.

Michigan does, clearly, have the shape of a mitten, but it never occurred to me to see it that way until I moved here. Looking at something is not the same as seeing it; what we see is conditioned by what we expect to see, which is conditioned by our experience. This was brought home to me recently in my living room.

These are three pastel paintings I made of mountains, snow, and fog, the first two in Chile and the third in Pasadena. I’ve shown them many times, and their Chilean and Californian viewers have always expressed the belief – the recognition – that these are mountains, snow, and fog. But my Michigan friends, viewing them, express the belief – the recognition – that these are waves breaking on the beach. Michigan has no mountains, but more coastline than any state except Alaska. Of course people here have seen mountains, and pictures of mountains. It’s just that coastlines spring more readily to mind.

In the same way, I have seen coastlines, in Chile, in California, and here, but I had not seen how much my mountain pictures looked like waves on beaches. I am grateful to my fellow Michiganders for this insight.

Summer Solstice

target pond

baby geese in a parking lot pond

Tonight, a little after midnight in Ann Arbor, is the summer solstice. That being the case it seems better to call it the shortest night of the year rather than the longest day. These astronomical markers seem to argue with the earthly seasons: summer and winter in full swing before their solstices, fall and spring unhinged from their equinoxes. The heat lags the light.

All manner of life gets its start now, looking to ripen in a few weeks or months: green tomatoes in the garden; flowers; baby animals, probably,

alas, including woodchucks. The birds have finally found my birdbath, and the female cardinal is especially fond of this little spa. There’s not much more

two blond kids

two blond kids

to plant – more basil seeds, good to sow in succession so I can let them go to flower; more woodruff in the woods, more lamium in the shade. Everything wants to be fed and weeded, or staked. But now the days are long enough to accommodate however much there is to fill them, a feeling that flows over onto all other subjects: that time has expanded – thank you, stars – until there’s plenty of it for all you could ever want to do, have, or experience.

The Aftermath of Daffodils

june: thyme is overwhelmed

thyme overwhelmed

As summer glides in, the dame’s rocket is subsiding, and the yarrow and nepeta are stepping up. The long leaves of my hundreds of narcissus turn yellow, and I pull them up by the handful each time I walk along the driveway. Lamium and ceratostigma

june: nepeta does its part

nepeta doing its part

chuff over them in places and even the nepeta does its part to hide the leftovers, but the thyme I thought would do likewise is overwhelmed. Here you can see what worked and what didn’t in the Great Daffodil Cover-up Effort.

june: ceratostigma

ceratostigma wins!


I realize I have a different idea of what constitutes a hot day, compared to most Michiganders. It’s my California experience, I’m sure. They walk around in shorts while I’m still in my sweater; they turn on the air conditioner while I’m sitting on the deck enjoying the breeze. No, I do not think eighty degrees is hot. Eighty degrees means you can finally wear your sandals. Ninety degrees, however, is hot.

june: last resting place

last resting place

This level of heat usually waits for the Ann Arbor Art Fair in July, but there’s no arguing with weather; we’re getting a dose of July right now. Still, the problem’s not heat – tomatoes love it, and the sturdy Michigan perennials, I was surprised to learn, can take it. The problem is watering them. The weather map is festooned with tiny thunderbolts, the weather radar teems with green and yellow blobs, and with much rain predicted I’m not going to run the sprinklers, overwater everything, and encourage rot and fungus.

june: incipient tomatoes

hot, happy incipient tomatoes

But then the large blobs and tiny thunderbolts dissipate into the ether, a monsoon in Grand Rapids, a deluge along the Ohio River Valley, and peaceful blue skies over Ann Arbor. Leaving my yard and garden unwatered. The last three days have been like this, so I watered everything today. This should make it rain tonight, right? I’m doing my civic duty for the benefit of the whole town.

Flower Follow-Up

IMG_2050The dame’s rocket that was just coming out a couple of weeks ago has become exuberant. I’ve always loved exuberance in a flower and this rampant, luxurious petalmania is no exception. But I have also come to appreciate a certain kind of restraint.

Last week I posted a photo of some iris standing preternaturally straight and tall, but neglected to comment on them. They are Siberian iris, and their habit is to stand like that, though all around them – outside the photo – the bearded iris are losing it. The bearded iris are gorgeous, but they get top-heavy, fall over, and have to be propped up; and as blossoms fade they turn sort of slimy while clinging to their perches, impinging on the grandeur of the newer blooms. Spent flowers of Siberian iris shrink discretely back into their spathes, withered but polite, getting out of the face of new blooms. No need to deadhead them; I just cut the whole flower stalk down at my leisure, when the plant is done with it.


Siberian iris, top-down view

I found Siberian iris while looking through the White Flower Farm catalog for something dark blue and deer resistant for my Michigan yard. The color was called “Caesar’s Brother” so they must have seen it as royal purple, but it looked blue enough to me. The deer-proof claim turned out to be true, it did very well where I wanted it, and then I discovered this tidy habit it has. So I expect I will plant a little more every year.

I don’t have to plant dame’s rocket. As long as I yank the garlic mustard and pull the buckthorn sprouts, the dame’s rocket will flourish. I discovered this by trial and error, the key to gardening: the garden shows you what it wants, you just have to pay attention to see it. As they say in “The Trouble With Poets,” ain’t that just like life.

Sort of like life, if not just like it, is my Shady Lady. She sits in a right-sized chair nextgreen lady to my garden bench on the north side of the garage, and I’m still working out plants for her. Her lamium shoes have established themselves nicely, but it’s hard to keep her hands and knees watered, with the pots on their sides like that. These are all supposed to be perennials. Last year, her first on the scene, I tried Jacob’s Ladder for her hair, but though it’s doing very well on the ground there next to her, it didn’t like being in a pot. So this year she gets coleus, perennial in Pasadena but annual here. I won’t feel so bad when it dies. If it does well up to frost, she’ll get a new treatment in a different color every year, just like the hair of lots of other ladies.