The Busy Bee Garden Project, Part Two

Posted by jdg | Thursday, September 29, 2011 |

Now that we've reached the end of this growing season, I thought I'd give a final update on the garden project that occupied so much of our time this summer. These days I'm mostly clearing out sunflower stalks and dying flowers, and hoping for enough sunlight for the last of the tomatoes to ripen. With my daughter in school every day, we don't get to spend as much time as we'd like at the garden, and things are really winding down. But since I last wrote, some things did get pretty out of control:

I never expected the limited amount of soil in those boxes to support such growth, particularly all the "cucurbita" plants (zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins, and the strange plant I bought at the Vietnamese grocery store). Part of the garden was so overgrown with their massive leaves and stretching vines that the aisles became a real challenge to navigate. Next year, I have better plans for those plants.

In early August, I noticed a mildew developing on some of the pumpkin leaves. Within a week it spread to the rest of the cucurbita leaves, and although it broke my heart I cut out about 80 percent of the vines that I had been watering for months. I lost my grape vines to a similar blight. The garden suddenly looked naked.

In the first post, I mentioned the water situation at the garden. When that was published, I was hauling 25-50 gallons of water there every day in multiple 5-gallon containers. I grew to respect why nearly every great city in the world was founded on a river. In mid-July I bought and installed a rain barrel. The first time it rained, the new weight in the barrel made it fall off the stand I built, so I had to rebuild a solid one with bricks I picked from the ruins of the old Rhino club. The second time it rained, I can't even describe the feeling of just turning the nozzle and watering the flowers with water that was right there. Thankfully, August and September were much wetter than July.

During the height of our harvest, we brought home bushels of cherry tomatoes, a dozen ears of sweet corn, eight stalks of broccoli, more Hungarian peppers than we could eat or pickle, plenty of zucchini, and enough pickles for a full shelf of jars. We picked four acorn squash before ripping out the vines for mildew (acorn squash is a favorite at our house; we simply gut them, pour in olive oil and butter with salt and a few fresh herbs, then roast for 45 minutes). We had to eat the watermelon prematurely, but we did it at the garden and it was a lot of fun.


One of the main reasons I started this garden was to give the kids a little more ownership over the food I wanted them to eat. The biggest surprise this year was the soybean crop that produced tons of edamame that the kids eagerly gobbled up. My daughter and I spent many summer afternoons making zucchini bread while her brother napped, and by the end of the summer she was eating green beans and tomatoes right off the plants. I considered this a great success, given that her mother only started willingly consuming raw tomatoes a few years ago.

By mid-September, we'd seen about 40-50 sunflowers bloom, including all the giant Russian ones (next year I need to stake them much better).  

Soon all the annual flowers will be dead, and the basil is near its end. We'll still have kale, beets, and I'm waiting on the four stalks of brussels sprouts.

I was spending so much time at the garden that I started to look beyond the lot at the rest of the block. It's an interesting little part of the city, dating almost back to Judge Woodward's original street plan as far as I can tell from the maps. This block would have been used to load materials on and off wagons in the old days, and was just called "Service Street." The big warehouse dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, and was once used to manufacture concrete tubs. I have always loved brick roads, ever since my mother used to go out of her way to drive us down the brick road in my hometown to remind us that my father's grandfather was a bricklayer who worked on that very street.

Other than one homeless man in the overgrown alley, no one lives on this block.  One day we watched as he made multiple trips out of his alley dragging a huge blue tarp covered with trash. "You inspired me!" he said as he hauled the trash to a distant dumpster. He started making neat little piles of bricks and brush he cleared from the alley, and stored bottles of water in the area he cleared out:

Most of the vacant property on the block is still owned by the Stroh's family (it's across the street from where their old brewery stood). One of the most frustrating things about this project has been trying to keep the block clean of the trash that accumulates daily. Every few weeks I throw away a pair of wet blue jeans stuffed in a toilet seat left in the same spot. Where do they keep finding these toilet seats? One day I found a bra (36D) hanging on the fence around the garden. Mostly though I find food containers, plastic liquor bottles, and women's shoes (in that order). I have been working in the garden and watched people throw trash over the fence as though I wasn't even there.

Despite the relentless garbage, there have been bright spots. I've met a lot of people who just stop by while I'm working, and some anonymous artists have done little things to brighten up the block. The graffiti tags are another matter. I got sick of looking at these ugly ones on the warehouse across from the garden.

At the northeast end of Service Street, there's an art gallery/capoeria studio that hired a Detroit artist to do a colorful brick-by-brick paint job on the corner, and it occurred to me that this was a great deterrence to these ubiquitous black and white bubble-letter tags that were becoming more and more common in our neighborhood. And at the southwest end of the block, on the bricks of the old Taj Perfume Company building there's a fading geometric mural reportedly done by a guy named Steve Foust in 1973:

I asked the Busy Bee folks (who also own the full-block warehouse) if we could cover the graffiti with a painted pattern to resemble the stripes of a bee, in the same color scheme they use on their operating business across the street. Although I knew it would bright and attention-grabbing, I liked the idea of continuity of brightly painted bricks all along Service Street. With the help of an excellent group of people from the Lafayette Park soccer team (on one of the hottest days of the year), we sweated and meticulously covered up the graffiti the entire length of that warehouse, brick-by-brick. Busy Bee donated the paint, buckets, and brushes, and with the soccer team's help, we transformed the graffiti-covered wall:

An ice cream truck even stopped by to give us free treats, thanking us for making the city a little brighter.

After a lot of hard work, the graffiti was was gone, though the next Sunday, we saw that one of the original taggers and his crew had re-applied their tags. It only took the kids and I a couple hours to re-paint over them. Since then, the wall has been left alone. I took these shots yesterday: 

I even painted the rain barrel with bee stripes, and our secret neighborhood beekeeper has installed a nice hive in the garden:


He says the honey tastes great. I believe it. Those bees have been busy all summer.

* * * * *

I have learned a lot about gardening (mostly from stupid mistakes), and I plan to talk to some more experienced urban gardeners and take advantage of the garden resource program at the Detroit Agricultural Network. The common refrain around here is definitely, "next year. . .next year. . ." (next year Greg said we could get some of his extra Rhino poop from the zoo; next year we'll compost more and start sheet mulching that triangle on the corner of the block; next year I won't plant so many squash. . .). I am already working on some paintings for the warehouse windows, and we have a lot of cleanup to do before snow falls. But with the sadness of the last harvest is the knowledge that we'll be starting seeds in little cups along the windowsill before we know it. I can't wait to see what happens in that little lot next year.

[We owe many thanks to Matt, Sara, John, Becky, Anna Rose, Maria, Noah, Melissa and Kolya for their help in the garden, as well as Patrick, Christian, Ryan, Katie, Andrew, Lyndsay, Sarah & Aisha for their help with the painting and cleanup, as well as Ritchie, Sandy, Mikey, Roy, and Ted at Busy Bee for all their support]

The Hunt

Posted by jdg | Friday, September 16, 2011

He considered when it would be the proper time to teach them the importance of eluding fences. You can always go over them, he might say, but it's better to find a way under or even through them. A fence is a peculiar thing, he thought. By its very nature of projecting strength it invites analysis of its many weaknesses. And don't let them fool you: every fence is weak. The lesson, of course, is that with enough will, there is nowhere you cannot go. And conversely, nowhere you can truly hide.

This one was always easy. Behind it the mowed grass and landscaping quickly gave way to the absence of both, eleven-gauge knuckled steel shored against the waste land. Under the bridge, where the graffiti taggers work, the smell was perpetually wet. The concrete above drained here and the earth was made of discarded clothes and styrofoam and dirty mattresses and other garbage. It was best to visit after a good rain when the mud told tales like a guestbook in a rented room, reminding him that he was no trailblazer. Just another pilgrim.

He admired the plants that flourished among all this, wishing he knew all their names but questioning the actual utility of knowing. Every week until October there would be more, and he remembered what all this looked like the coldest days of winter, when he brought blankets and food to the men who lived in the basement of the old slaughterhouse and emerged like miners dinghy from the darkness when he called to them. Ordinarily he would free the dog when they got past the busted-through sheet metal that led to their cryptic warrens under the building, and the dog would always hear the leash clasp click shut and dart into the greenery to flush half dozen pheasants at once, but this time he held the leash taut and waited for the alert birds to thwack themselves airborne one by one as they walked, until he had counted two dozen. Someone told him this is where the city's pheasant population first exploded, when some escaped from poultry pens and started to feed from the grain stored in warehouses along the abandoned railroad line. He didn't know if there was any truth to this. The man who built a house out of an old pickup truck had long ago moved away. The neatly-dressed man who would sit outside his shelter near a giant African idol was gone too. Someone had spread plastic tarp all along this stretch of railroad ties, and he remembered the green sludge that had been oozing out of the old tannery a few years ago, pooling underneath the graffiti portrait of some kid. Where had all that green sludge gone? Far up the path, the railroad gully reverted to grade within a shrubland he hoped would one day become a forest. A fox crossed the path, unmistakable in her winter coat, followed by one, two, three black-armed kits.

* * * * *

The Unspeakable in Full Pursuit of the Uneatable

Followers of the Hunt: Girl, age six, on foot, armed with a purple flip camcorder, bait (uncooked scraps of grass-fed, organic chicken in a ziplock bag), stuffed toy fox (highly realistic). Boy, age three, on foot, armed with binoculars and a blue light saber (needs batteries).

The Hound (1): Birddog mutt (mostly German-Shorthaired Pointer), striped tail, six-foot leather leash, gun shy.

The Master of the Hound: Man, age 34, on foot, unarmed, unable to grow a proper beard.

Attire: Nontraditional.

Queries: What color are baby foxes? Do foxes really eat chicken? What if we don't see them? What do you call a girl fox? Why do the foxes live here?

Answers: [red] [yes] [we'll try again tomorrow] [a vixen] [they have found the space to live here]

The sun was setting on the brick Koenig coal plant and its rotting silos, long abandoned. This evening there was no acrid scent of burning plastic from the scrappers smelting down their wires in the silos, and the three hunters and their hound quietly crossed the vast gravel parking lot within earshot of patrons entering and exiting the city's oldest Italian restaurant. No fences to elude, but through a thicket of cattails they emerged on the other side of the railroad line 100 feet from where he spotted the vixen and her kits. Sitting on an old concrete block, the father pointed to where their quarry crossed the path and the little girl slowly walked her bag of stringy flesh there and carefully scattered it across the ground. Then, calmly, she walked backwards, fearing she might miss them if she dared turn her head. She rested on her knees by her brother and father, and waited.

You cannot will a fox out of his hole, it's true, but you might have believed they could by the prayers that passed their lips. They waited half an hour, maybe more. The boy kept his binoculars to his head the whole time (sometimes backwards). Each child insisted they saw a baby fox, but clearly could not will themselves even to believe their own words. "It might have been a rat," the girl conceded in a whisper. The time passed mostly in silence, only the windsound in the ghetto palms and thunk of cars over a metal plate in the road many blocks away. Their father whispered stories to pass the time. Poking in the dirt, they found the white skull of a lamb, picked clean. Desperate, they put their silent decoy a few yards from the meat, but it didn't work. In one final effort, they released the hound, who circled through the rushes, flushing a few pheasants and likely driving any nearby foxes deeper into the earth. There never was much hope, he sighed, I'm afraid I'm not much of a hunter. Maybe next time we could use a fox call? In failure, they headed home planning future hunts that would never happen.

He would not have believed the kids would talk about that spring night in mythic tones for months, but sometimes that's how these things go.

She wants to know why the heroes in the stories are almost always all men or boys. That's not always true, I say, But I won't sugarcoat it for you: men have always tried to control everything. Even stories. Even women. Especially women. The past looks worse than today but someday this too will be the past. Everything's still not okay, but it's better than it was, and you have it within you to make the stories better. I am reading to her from John Couchois Wright's Legends of the Crooked Tree, a 1915 book of Odawa legends collected in the village that stood precisely on the spot where we're staying. The French called it L'Arbre Croche for the huge crooked council tree that stood on a high point above it. Our cottage is on the lake between the site of the first French mission built in the 1600s and where the later mission was built (which still stands today, surrounded by hundreds of white crosses). I walk among those graves, imagining my own corpse spending eternity underground so close to the blue waters of Lake Michigan. The names are almost all Odawa: Kenoshmeg; Skippagash; Waw-Be-Gaykake; Chingwa. Many died between 1910 and 1920, and I wonder if any of these dead Indians told John Couchois Wright the stories he preserved. Every night in the cottage I read them two or three legends before they fall asleep, and I do not downplay the significance of where they're sleeping in relation to those stories. The manitous might still be in these woods, I tell them as cicadas crescendo through the open windows and the waves beat their rhythm against the shore. I am satisfied with my receipt of awe.

I have heard rumors of a massive wild raspberry patch along the North Country Trail and we drive east along a two-track seasonal road until we find the trail and the red berries spreading northward from a deeply crooked tree. My mother told the kids stories about how the Indians bent trees to provide guideposts along their hunting routes, so of course they think this one was bent by Indians. I saw a 1920s agricultural map of Emmet County and this spot was marked by wild blackberries, and we find more of those hearty purple berries than the delicate raspberries well past their prime. The night before we read the legend of how raspberries and blackberries came to be, how the Gitchi Manitou sought to reunite the first man and first woman (who had quarreled) by creating patches of huckleberries, raspberries, sand cherries, gooseberries, whortleberries, and finally strawberries along the path the first woman took away from her husband. She stopped to pick the strawberries, and the first man (rushing to seek her forgiveness) found her in the strawberry patch, where she presented him with the choicest fruit. The Indians call them odamin, or "heart berries." Blackberries have a darker origin. A spurned suitor was buried between two lovers whose deaths he caused. His anguished spirit reached up through the earth and his wickedness spread to the brambles of the blackberry bushes growing above the graves and formed the prickers. We pick a few quarts of blackberries and prick a few fingers. My daughter climbs upon one crooked arm of the crooked tree and sits there in silence until she shouts and claims a manitou has yanked upon her front tooth until it fell into her hand. She is too far from her regular tooth fairy for her to know, she worries, and we pencil in a stop at a local gewgaw shop for something leather, beaded, or stone to put under her pillow that night. The manitous are just like fairies, I tell her. Just a different word for them, really.

That night I read them the story of the Great Muckwah, a ferocious black bear sweeping northward from Illinois, devouring everyone and everything in its path. The Odawa sent their mightiest warrior to slay the Great Muckwah, but he returned to tell his tribe that even if he were ten times as strong and as big as twenty men he could not stop this rampaging bear. The next morning I play the the Great Muckwah, growling and chasing my children along the shore, ignorant of the arrows and stones they throw at me. They run from me giggling. It was no great warrior who finally slew the Great Muckwah, the story goes. It was a little girl. While the men of the village gathered for a war council to strategize how to rid themselves of the beast as he slumbered on the shore, a young girl stole away in the night with a powerful potion she obtained from a sorceress deep in the woods. Creeping silently over the dunes, she inched towards that snoring colossus of claws and fur stained with the blood of her people, placing the deadly potion directly inside his nostrils big as caves. The Great Muckwah died right there without even a whimper, and lies there to this day at the point men call The Sleeping Bear.

* * * * *

A few days later we left the cabin and drove downstate. On the way, we said, What the hell, Good Morning America just declared Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in America. We might as well stop and show the kids. We had been there once before (ten years ago) when we leaped down the mighty 450-foot dune and then raced each other back up. My wife and I have always been competitive, and the laborious slog back up that dune was no exception. Ten years ago our feet sank back into the sand a foot for every step we took, but in the exhilaration of beating her I forgot how physically grueling it had been. Standing at the top of that majestic mountain of sand I told my children the more traditional Indian legend about how the giant sand dunes were formed (with North and South Manitou islands just off the shore). Long ago, the land across the lake was ravaged by famine and drought. A great mother bear walked along the Wisconsin shore with her two cubs, all three gazing longingly over at Michigan (which remained untouched by calamity). They could almost smell the huckleberries and blueberries swelling on bushes across the water, and finally hunger overcame their fear and they set out to swim across the great lake. A mere twelve miles from Michigan's shore, the mother bear watched helplessly as one of her cubs slipped away from her and drowned. She tightened her grip on the other cub and swam on but two miles later it also slipped away. When the mother bear finally reached the shore, she turned to look where her cubs had drowned and, exhausted, fell into a dreamless sleep. The Great Manitou, moved to pity for the great bear, raised her cubs from the watery depths and turned them into islands, while transforming the mother bear into a mountain of sand.

In one of our many epic moments of parental naivety, we agreed to let the kids head down the 450-foot dune to the lake below. We can go down, I said, But you have to climb back up yourselves. We WILL NOT carry you. The trip down the dune is a strange one. Caught in the snag of gravity, it is easy to ignore the posted signs warning that the trip back up is strenuous and rescues involve a hefty fine. Harder to ignore are the sweaty, disillusioned faces of people trying to make their way back up like shades in Gustave Dore's etchings of Dante's hell. About halfway down I knew this might be a bad idea. At the bottom, I thought the kids would want to swim or hang out by the water, but they were intent on heading back up. The return trip is the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 34-story skyscraper at a brutal angle of 33 degrees in loose, ankle-deep sand. My son did fine for about twenty feet before saying, "Yeah, that's enough for me."

Picture it: a hot day and the sun is beating down on our side of the mountain. I am wearing seven pounds' worth of work boots, heavy wool socks, raw denim jeans, and about a dozen pounds of stay-at-home fat I've accumulated since the last time I made this climb. I am annoyed at my son but not yet despondent. Climb on my back, I say to the boy, and take about fifteen steps up the dune before my body just stops. I slide the dead weight off my back and look down at my wife and daughter making their way towards us, waiting for my breath to return. It doesn't, and as I look down to see how little we've accomplished and how far we still have to go I have a distinct moment of terror. Pick me up, Dada, my son whines, and I know I can't. Instead, I lift him up by a belt loop and toss him three or four feet up the hill, then sloth my way to close the distance. This scene repeats: lift, toss, giggles, trudge, stop to breathe, lift, toss, giggles, trudge, stop to breathe. My wife overtakes us, and I mouth, I can't do this. She thinks I am overreacting, but she allows the boy to climb on her back and I take over the responsibility of making sure our daughter climbs back up. The girl tires quickly and complains, but at least she doesn't demand to be carried.

We climb alongside each other for awhile, stopping to take a break every ten steps, and I stare up at my wife well ahead of me with our son on her back in disbelief. Look at your mother, I tell my daughter. She is one tough cookie. A hero. Soon my daughter herself overtakes me, and I think, I am bested by a six-year-old girl. It isn't long before I am stopping to regain my breath every five steps, providing ample opportunity to reflect upon my predicament and wallow in self loathing. Maybe it's the boots, I tell myself. Or my camera bag. Maybe I should have eaten some lunch and drank more than just coffee this morning. Maybe I'm dehydrated. Maybe I'm just a pathetic fat ass. Is that my heart beating? Are those my veins quivering? Why can't I breathe? Some Indians are bounding down the dune with bottles of water and I consider what I might possess to trade them for one. Wool socks? A Nikon DSLR? A dude in an army t-shirt zigzags past me up the sand. He's got a pencil-thin mustache like Errol Flynn. Then a Yorkshire Terrier jogs past me. The sun descends faster than I ascend. I shout to my wife fifty feet above asking how far we've gone and she yells back, One third maybe? I consider sobbing. Gram needs to poop, she adds, resuming her stoic climb with the boy on her back. I get to the halfway point and hear angels singing and I'm about twenty-percent sure that I am dead. Do you hear the angels? I say to my daughter, but she's well ahead of me now. I find myself alone in the hot sand. Then I realize the angels are singing a song from Les Mis in some sort of foreign accent and I am about 100 percent sure that I am in hell. It's not an angel at all but some insane Chinese woman standing on the edge of the cliff now singing something from The Sound of Music into the wind and I'm so hot and tired and angry I'm just assuming she's Chinese because there were a bunch of Chinese tourists up there before we came down and Chinese people freaking love The Sound of Music almost as much as I hate it and she's got some newspaper wrapped around her head like all those people at that one Beijing soccer game and goddamnit I'm too exhausted to be worried that she might actually be a Korean or Japanese tourist and goddamnit you crazy Chinese tourist lady stop singing show tunes! People are practically dying here! A few feet later I catch up to some other fat slob who's been struggling up the hill even longer than I have and he looks over and says, If I ever get to the top I am going throw that fucking bitch off the cliff, and I nod in a way that says, Please do.

* * * * *

So apparently at thirty-four years old I'm not capable of doing what I was able to do when I was twenty-four and in much better shape. This is hardly a revelation, but I've been laboring under a delusion of invincibility for years. There, on the side of that dune, I had plenty of time to ponder my inevitable mortality, hastened, perhaps, by stupid decisions like this. I trudged five feet up, slipped three feet back, and waited a few minutes for my breath to return. Over and over again. It took us nearly an hour to make it to the top, where my wife waited for us with the child she carried all the way up on her back. My daughter reached them first, and I have never been more humbled than standing there to catch my breath while they all watched from above, concern and disappointment mingling on their faces.

When I finally reached them, I slumped down next to where they rested and could have slept for centuries: a Once-Great Muckwah cowed by his own foolishness, his underwear full of sand.