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a little piece of earth

July 7, 2012

A year ago this weekend, I took a class at the Smithsonian on urban potagers (French for ‘kitchen gardens’). At that time, I imagined myself growing tomatoes or other vegetables, herbs that I would learn to cook with, and of course, flowers.

I live in a second-floor apartment, so the only dirt I have to work with is potting soil. Although I like being outside in all weathers, the hotter and more humid it gets the less energy I have. When the temperature hits 80°F, I like sitting on my balcony, soaking up sun (in small doses) like a turtle. Any hotter, and I need shade, and lots of water. And I still can’t tolerate very long.

I wake up some days aware that the sun outside must be particularly intense because I already have a (particular kind of) headache from the solar radiation. That happened Wednesday. My headache became a migraine which persisted into Friday, but is thankfully gone now.

Last weekend we wanted to go to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. But the temperatures were supposed to be in the high 90s, so we held off until this weekend, hoping things would cool down. Despite several days of monsoon-like storms, though, the heat has not broken — today it’s supposed to be 102° F. So, regretfully, we won’t be attending this year.

All the plants in my potager need ‘full sun’ which they get on our south-facing balcony. But because of the intense heat lately, I’ve had to water them almost every day. And I periodically drag some of them into the shade, else their leaves get burnt to a crisp.


For months after the potager class last year, I read books on gardening, permaculture, sustainability, organic farming, and the like. I flirted with the idea of urban homesteading and/or becoming a Master Gardener.

The more time I spent trying to figure out how to save the world — or at least my little corner — from my balcony, the more depressed I got. The more despairing.

No matter how I twisted my imagination, I could not see a way to participate in this new movement in a way that sustained me. For whatever reasons, my physical energy remains low. When I unthinkingly do activities for long time periods — something I never gave any thought to four years ago – everything hurts, sometimes for days or weeks. So I’m trying to relearn a whole new way to be in my body: to think first; be thrifty with my movements; take lots of breaks. Above all, rest whenever I need to.

Even without high heat and humidity, my new limitations mean the endless hard work of growing (some of) my own food … just isn’t going to happen. I had to grieve that and let it go.

That made me feel like a bad environmentalist. Like a failure. I had to grieve that too.

The work I’m doing with my (psychological) shadow, though, helped me realize that I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to live up to an impossible standard of environmentalism. Some part of me has been trying to impress … someone, I’m not sure who, with how dedicated and selfless I am. How self-sacrificing. How noble.

But now that I have to ration my energy? That nobility and self sacrifice have fallen by the wayside.

I’m not a saint after all, I’m just an ordinary human being.

Initially, that was a horrible disappointment. But then it was liberating. When I throw out internalized expectations, I can discover what I really enjoy doing.

I really enjoy sitting on my balcony amidst my potager. This year we have lots more plants than last year: 19 alive, 3 dead. Spouse wanted windowboxes on the railing, so now we have two, with plants at various heights. I fill two shallow ceramic bowls with water for bees and wasps to drink (especially important with this heat). And I see wasps every few minutes putting them to good use! The bowls are surrounded by pretty rocks. I also ‘landscape’ with larger rocks and old twigs. Every few days, I move the pots around.




Before this last heat wave, there were days that I sat on the balcony for several hours, taking photos occasionally. I actually captured a flower unfurling by taking photos every hour or so. I’d never seen that happen in real time before! Just by sitting with my plants, watching who visits them, and taking photos from various angles, I’m exploring their dimensions in a lot of depth. But it’s not just the flowers and leaves — invertebrates abound, and that makes it a habitat. I see different sizes and shapes of spiders all the time! (I love spiders.) On the far sides of the balcony, there have been emerald spiders spinning webs. I think they are about an inch long.

In a different corner, I saw a web spun by a spider about the size of a pinhead. Most of my photos of the webs and their spinners don’t turn out well, but I keep trying because I am endlessly fascinated! We also have hymenopterans of various sizes and shapes. And lots of other insects I can’t identify. But I take photos of everyone who will sit still long enough.

I see how the colors change at different times of day, as the light itself, as well as patterns of shadow, change. My potager is a microhabitat, but it’s nested within a larger system. Our apartment is at the top of a hill, so our balcony looks upon maple trees in the middle of the hill, the song birds and squirrels that occupy them, and buildings below and beyond. Slightly to the west of our apartment building lies the edge of a wood, with a stream running through it. I occasionally see deer coming from or heading back to the wood. Late at night, I sometimes hear foxes. (In spring, we hear peepers.)






The most enduring thing I got from the potager class last year was the name, potager. It’s fun to say. I don’t try for a French pronunciation; I say ‘POT-uh-jer’. A recent addition to it is lemon balm; apparently you can make ‘tea’ (really, a tisane) from the leaves – and I intend to try that, when it’s cool enough to think of drinking something hot. Marigold flowers are edible, which I saw demonstrated by a neighborhood squirrel. I’m not planning to ingest anything else.

Like a lot of other things in my life, my original idea for the potager proved to be unworkable for me. I needed to let go of my expectations, relax, and let the potager show me what it wanted to be. What we could be together.

Oddly enough, I think I feel more connected to my habitat with the potager now than I would have if I were trying to grow my own food. Because now things are open ended; I don’t have plans that can be upset by others. I don’t have to expend a lot of effort, whether or not I feel up to it. I just show up, and see what happens. And it is always much more varied, much more interesting, than any plans I might have made.

I much prefer exploration and discovery to expectations and demands.

Beyond that, living with my potager as it wants to be is teaching me how to live with myself as I am. Rather than shoehorning myself into a mold designed by others. Perhaps thinking of myself as an environmentalist has always been too narrow a view? If I were truly ‘just one thing’, how could that even work? I have all sorts of aspects, some of which conflict and contradict each other. I am complex and nuanced. I grow and change and evolve. How could only one word define me? Well, it couldn’t.

Trying to live up to that one word was living in a straitjacket and I didn’t even realize it! As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” Surely that’s way more interesting than just being one thing, no matter how wonderful that one thing is.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 11:42

    Last weekend we wanted to go to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. … the heat has not broken — today it’s supposed to be 102° F.

    My husband and I went to the Folklife Festival on Friday during my lunch break and it was hideously hot. I was fine in it, but he wilts in the heat like a spring flower and he was miserable. It was particularly unfortunate because the portion of the AIDS Quilt on display was the most moving part of the festival and it had absolutely no shade.

    I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to live up to an impossible standard of environmentalism. Some part of me has been trying to impress … someone, I’m not sure who, with how dedicated and selfless I am.

    You are certainly not the only one. Whenever I drive the car anywhere, I have justifications in my head that I would say explaining why I needed the car, why I didn’t take my bike, why I didn’t take the Metro, as if someone is going to interrogate me for it. (Although one annoying part of being known for my biking is being asked, “Why don’t you have your bike?” even in locations that are nigh unbikable. There’s no winning.) I too have had so much difficulty shrugging off this weight. I’m glad you hear that you’re making progress on it.

    • July 9, 2012 17:01

      Sounds like we made the right call then. 😦

      I figured I couldn’t be the only ‘greenie’ crushed by guilt about … everything. Sorry we’re in the same boat though.

  2. dee fairchild permalink
    July 9, 2012 12:22

    i wish i knew you to send a gentle hug, but i ask you to count the candles you are lighting rather than curse the darkness of what is outside your responsibilities – if you have no ability to respond, you are not the one responsible – this does of course assume you are a person of good conscience, which from your post you definitely are! since i got fibromyalgia and went from strong to struggling in 6 months, this is extra vivid for me…i wonder if you have tried sprouting your own seeds? to eat as salads/stirfries? no compost, just sprout in jamjars or special stacker trays. they are ready in 3-7 days depending on variety, and are ‘wonder’ foods, full of nutrients, but also tasty and so suited to urban dwellers with no gardens. they make me smile, and satisfy the bit of me that keens for the allotment/produce garden i had before…hope you make it through the heat ok, we are swimming through too much rain in britain…hope you have better days soon, i am keeping happy by playing with brusho/staining paper at birds sing artblog 😉

    • July 9, 2012 16:37

      Thanks for the kind sentiments!

      The heat wave here seems to have broken, thankfully.

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