Sanctuary Mysteries in a Changing World

Michael in his vegetable and herb garden – 2015 when he was too weak to plant. A miraculous targeted cancer therapy helped him survive almost 2 more years.
Me and my grandson in 2017. Michael had a few months to live. I’d already begun the conversion of his food garden into one for pollinators.
Michael’s old Adirondack chair, still out in the garden.
Michael’s former vegetable garden, early spring – 2022.

Back in the spring of 2017, after 39 years of building a spot of paradise in our backyard, Michael and I both grudgingly realized that his cancer progressed to the point of no return. Life had pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t be around that summer to immerse himself in planting the food part of the garden which produced tomatoes, peppers, basil and cilantro, among many other goodies. He was a canner who kept us stocked through the fall and winter with tomato sauce for pasta, tomato sauce for his pizzas, pesto for so many dishes and maybe the world’s tastiest salsa. The cucumbers became multiple types of pickles. I wasn’t that person and knew I never would be. Already mourning the coming loss of my partner since age 20, the thought of trying to cope with that big space staring me in the face was too much. Before he died, I covered it with dark cloth sheathing and mulch. That summer after his death, while I worked on his memorial for December, I was outside, digging holes in that ground and designing a habitat for pollinators and nesting birds. Essence of Michael emerged from the earth like an intoxicant. Still a work in progress, it’s come a long way. His perennial herbs are a comfort when they reappear every spring.

Michael’s ashes are in a beautiful wooden box on a white sideboard table in our dining room. For years when we were young, he joked about wanting a Viking funeral, his body laid out on a beautifully decorated boat, cast off the shore and then set aflame by someone who could send an arcing fiery arrow over the bow. I would point out that as we didn’t live near any body of water, logistics, not to mention finances, would seriously interfere with his romantic vision. Later, though, when things got more serious, we both realized that our garden, where we’d worked side by side for so many years, creating a haven, our refuge, would be the best place for us. So when my life ends, our kids know that after my cremation, they should mix our ashes together, and spread them in the garden that’s brought us so much pleasure and peace. During these past five years and especially since the pandemic, I’ve labored out there for hours, feeling close to Michael as somehow his spirit still emanates from the ground.

Aside from these romantic scenarios, I’ve always been somewhat of a nerdy science type. As I planted my choices for attracting winged visitors, I was always mindful of the threat of climate change. For years, I’ve kept a garden journal listing every plant I’d placed in the ground, whether it returned every year, or when it disappeared. Initially I started taking photos of my flowers just for my pleasure, and then to post them on social media. Eventually I recognized the changes which appeared to be connected to increasingly higher temperatures for longer periods of time. Sometimes there were delays in blooms due to colder weather, or only foliage appeared, the buds burned off by frost. My friend Brian, who’s a conservation biologist, told me I was practicing phenology, the study of small-scale climate change on plants and animals. And indeed I was. A both fascinating and unnerving project. The past two years, side by side, have been particularly disturbing.

Spring, 2022

Last summer was very dry. I remember being really disappointed in the output of a number of my plants, watering constantly, and losing the bulk of a plum tree that I’d somehow missed when trying to soak my big yard. This spring was cold, wet and delayed. I felt as if the plants were arriving in slow motion as I stared at foliage but no flowers. Finally in May there was a burst of activity that lasted a glorious couple of weeks.

But in what almost felt like an overnight change, the pleasant May temperatures switched to a dry heat, heat which eventually became blazing and intolerable. Frantic to save my plants, I ignored everything grass, everything but my plants and young trees. Day after day, I stood outside pouring water toward the roots, just hoping to keep as many as possible alive. I did a pretty thorough job, often wondering if I was going to dehydrate myself as fast as my grass was drying out. The ground around my flower beds was hard as rock with deep cracks in the dirt, right next to flourishing flower beds. At least partially flourishing. Some plants had tight little buds that looked like the effort to open was just too big an ask. Others looked perky for awhile before drooping by the end of the day.

Deep fissures in the ground next to my gooseneck loosestrife
The full view of the loosestrife right next to the dried ground

I noticed that a hydrangea plant in my front yard, the type that changes from pink to purple to blue, which in the past, has only mustered a few blooms all season, had multiple flowers, more than I’d get in months, all with the deep blue color more common toward the end of summer. Has the taxing weather changed the nitrogen content of my soil? I have no idea.

This year
This year
Last year

I decided to look back at last year’s June to July photos to compare with this year’s. The first things I noticed were what’s missing. A glorious hydrangea that bloomed all last summer hasn’t a single blossom.

This year’s hydrangea
Last year’s hydrangea – 1
Last year’s hydrangea – 2
Last year’s hydrangea – 3

Then I moved on to other plant comparisons.

This year’s yellow shasta daisies
Last year’s yellow shasta daisies
North fence hosta – this year
North fence hosta – last year
View toward the west fence – this year
View toward the west fence – last year
Last year’s astilbe – a no-show this year.

More differences, both subtle and blatant, are visible to me. My poor ferns that get a bit of sun are almost completely brown. My pink obedient plants are tall but flower-less, at least so far. The rodent population has markedly increased with voles, shrews, countless squirrels and rabbits denuding the tomato plants and lopping barely-opened day lilies to the ground without even a polite half-nibble left behind. Just decapitations. But perhaps the most disappointing part of this summer is how few butterflies have shown up in this supposed sanctuary for pollinators. I’ve had some bees and wasps, along with some greedy milkweed bugs who ate the first blooms on the only plant that’s flowered so far.

Swamp milkweed
Milkweed bugs galore

I’ve seen only one monarch this year, along with one Eastern tiger swallowtail. Compared to last year, it’s a lepidoptera desert.

This year’s one swallowtail
This year’s monarch.

I have no idea what’s coming nor do I know if these odd seasons are what to expect going forward. I do know that somehow I’ll have to adapt. Will I be planting palm trees here one day? Succulent plants as perennials? I have no clue. For now, I’m missing the way my yard looked last year, when it was all aflutter in June and July.

As I wrote this, long absent rain began to fall. Is it enough to turn things around this summer? I think more is expected tomorrow. As usual I’m reminded that we do our best to live in our moments. I’m going to do that with hope for a sudden influx of flowers and fliers.

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