Forest Therapy Walk August 21st

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Yellow goat’s beard: to notice the golden and green.

There is so much to write about what I feel and experience in the outdoors. So much to talk about, so much to share. However, I am practicing deliberate (silent) meditation on my last forest therapy walk guide experience as I prepare for the next one, on August 21–though I look forward to shaping and sharing my thoughts on both of them after that.

In place of my words, this is some of what the participants said after my first forest therapy walk in July:

[I have] become more aware of the small and large beauty around us, and the greater possibility and actuality of greater PEACE.

You would only be helping yourself [to do a walk]; you have to disconnect to reconnect.

Wonderful for helping you take yourself to another level of mindfulness…

I am calmer. Slowed down. More peaceful.

I want to invite my loyal readers, and anyone else in the Capital region, to come and experience. Once again, it’s a free event; just use the Contact Us tab on this website to register, or hop over to my business website for even more detailed information. 

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Forest Therapy Walk Announced

 

A mandala of bird's foot trefoil: symbol of my new endeavor

A mandala of bird’s foot trefoil: symbol of my new endeavor

This is a short post to invite those of you in New York’s Capital Region (and anyone else interested) to mosey on over to my business website Of-the-Essence Holistic Wellness or take a peek at the flyer here:  July 22 Forest Therapy Walk flyer

It’s all about my first Forest Therapy Walk, which will take place on Friday, July 22, in the morning–and I’d love to have you along.

I will also note that July 4 was the fourth anniversary of Of-the-Essence Blog. Sixty-one posts in, thanks for reading along; a new essay is percolating nicely and should arrive soon!

Blessings on your summer.

***I’m finally responding to some folks who have asked for this:  If you like what you read and see here on the blog, consider plunking something into my brand new tip jar by clicking here:     Tip via Paypal

Landing: A tale of very late spring

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Meadow at Hebert Arboretum, Pittsfield MA, one site in my Forest Therapy Guide Training.

In late May, I experienced the first part of my Forest Therapy Guide training: seven cold but beautiful days in western Massachusetts woods, gardens, and farms.

Initially, I had a hard time settling in. I was distracted by calls from my regular life and then my A-Plus Student thoughts barged in.

I knew enough to confess at the start, so in our opening circle I stepped forward.

“I don’t feel like I’ve mentally landed here yet. One of my big challenges is to overcome perfectionism. Please help me make mistakes. I know life is about falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, and I am still scared of both of those.”

Later, one of my fellow trainees, Stana, wrote on rocks for each of us. She gifted me with the message Perfectly Imperfect.

I landed.

***

One of the deep and unexpected pleasures of that week was to experience the outdoors like a little kid.

—I “broke the rules” (whose rules? I ask now) when I took off my shoes and squished my toes into a huge patch of shiny green moss.
—Then I floated my feet in the cold early spring water of a mountain stream.
—Doing that, I splattered sticky mud all over myself and then wiped my numb feet dry on my pants. On my pants!
—I got amazed all over again by the shape of leaves, the sparkle of seeds flying, and the glow of dandelions in a meadow. I poked out my tongue to taste the wind.
—I let myself touch trees and sit quietly for long periods of time.

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To see leaves from a different angle, differently lit.

When I returned home, I felt full, maybe overfull—not just of natural connections but also because I’d met and deeply interacted with almost twenty new people.

My apartment door opened onto piles of winter clothes to be put away and a layer of dust on everything. The workload of the six-month certification process multiplied then roiled in my imagination like a thunderhead, and finally, a brand new part-time job started, which would squeeze twenty hours a week out of my already constricted calendar. My thoughts turned dark.

Of course, life always changes and gives us experiences; some times are simply a bit more intense. So I kept returning to that yoga mind to observe, ask what does it feel like? and not attach future-meaning to anything.

Landing back home was bumpier than landing in Massachusetts.

****

Luckily the forest—and my hiking buddy C—called. We were weeks overdue for an outing.

Partridge Run was our destination. “I wonder how the ponds are?” C asked, after a quick hug hello.

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Spring ferns unfurled–just enough for that quick hug!

We started out on one path and ran into the same damned poison ivy we’d seen the first time we’d spring-hiked it. We backed out carefully, as if the reddening leaves might rear up and attack us, and chose another route.

We wandered the edge of Hidden Pond, where algae bubbled. Tiny azure flowers winked at us—-it was birds-eye speedwell (common field veronica) dotting the grass along with dandelions.

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Birds-eye speedwell and dandelions, Partridge Run, Berne NY.

I was busy with the flowers and what floats in late spring water, when she hollered, “Look! Look! A dragonfly! And I think it is brand new!” I looked over and the creature was so recently emerged that it was still drying, still unfolding.

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Iridescence of appendages new to the air.

The wings were like stained glass panes, but clear, and bent-angled as they opened to flatten as we watched. You could see how the wings had folded into that tiny grasshopper-shaped exoskeleton—and how they expanded now.

I’m no entomologist, but thanks to internet image collections, I’d identified these brown casts—the exuviae—in my photos before.

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What is left behind.

I knew to look for the white threads that had until recently been attached to the digestive organs. Sure enough, just under our glorious new orange dragonfly was the dry discarded shell it seemed to have come from. After taking many pictures, I moved the grass back to partially cover the dragonfly; we didn’t want it eaten by predators because of us.

Right away I started studying the pond edge. “I want to find one, too!”—but instead saw a second exuviae. Then a third, and fourth.

Finally, dozens of exuviae were revealed, but no live dragonfly.

“Our buddy seems to be a late bloomer,” C commented. I’d been seeing dragonflies all morning along the ponds and paths, and now realized where they had probably come from.

As I wandered farther away from C’s initial find, I couldn’t help smiling over the sloughed off insect larvae skins, and my inability to find anything else. However, I continued to seriously search.

C called me over: “More! more!” She was practically jumping up and down.

In that moment, there was no chaotic apartment pulling at me, no fighting A-plus student worry about studies to come. I found myself bounding like I was five or eight, like myself.

My pack thumped my back, and swung back and forth, as my excited legs pumped me over.

To ask, “What? Let me see!” To hear my pal thrill and laugh. To joyously kneel down and then slow my breathing. To find a smaller, multicolored dragonfly uncurling wings, its slightly furry body moving in the novel light.

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See the unfurling, straightening, bent wings?

I didn’t have to find the sparkling insect. My friend did. In fact, I am now calling C “the dragonfly whisperer,” to let go of my need to be the one in charge. I can experience and be grateful, let go of distractions and anxieties, and trust that all will be well.

I am starting to land again. As I do, let me be perfectly imperfect, a late bloomer.

Let me be an end-of-May dragonfly.

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Another fine gift of that May morning: the first scarlet tanager I’ve ever seen in the woods.

A Surprising Summer Sabbatical

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Dahlia readying to bloom.

This spring of 2016 has been a little strange—and it’s not just the weather.

In the cold days of February I did not venture to the beautiful new Capital Roots Grow Center to dig through bins of donated seeds.

In March, I did not plan out sections for chard, arugula, carrots, blue borage—or any novel plants, either.

I did not go to the April workday at my little plot; in fact, I did not even pencil the date into my calendar.

This spring, after six years, I am taking a sabbatical from Community Gardening.

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My first community garden plot, in 2010. You can spy arugula, chives, tomato plants, butter crisp lettuce–and a hose–amongst the horrendous weeds. I had a lot to learn.

***

I call the time off gardening a sabbatical because, like a traditional academic sabbatical, this seventh season will concentrate on studied time outside of my usual setting. A pause enables me to focus on other things and will include a little required travel. Whenever I might return to community gardening, it will be with a refreshed perspective.

In particular, I am beginning a six-month Forest Therapy* certification in May. During the time I would have spent digging up my plot, fencing, planting and weeding, I’ll be reading about relationships between natural experiences and human health, learning our local ecosystems in more depth, taking a seven day intensive course, sitting under the forest canopy, and leading guided meditation walks.

Beforehand, I’ve started with a series of classes about wild edible plants. They are led by Dave Muska of Ondatra Adventures, and held up at Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

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For example, I now know that these trout lilies have edible leaves and bulbs, though proper plant identification and sustainable harvesting techniques are required before ingesting.

***

This summer I also want to finish dozens of pieces of writing about the garden, and about my life. In addition, I am wrestling with three book manuscripts stuck at various stages (hence the increasingly intermittent posting here on the blog). Finally, I anticipate moving into the world of the day-job very soon.

The richness of the outdoor life not only grounds me, it can distract as well. There is always more to do, more to experience.

Strange as it sounds to say, in order to focus on the beauty and meaning of the natural world, I have to decrease the amount of input. Or at least choose which forms I can take in right now.

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On the hill, a much more organized and bountiful garden, 2014.                                                                          (Still more weedy than I would prefer.) 

***

I have very mixed feelings about the sabbatical, like any choice to step away from a beloved activity.

Community gardening is part of how I have defined my summer life and myself, since I moved to upstate New York. It’s felt intrinsic to the new life I have created. My plan, therefore, is to pay attention and be open to how it feels to NOT work this garden.

I ask questions.

What emotions do I feel? Where do they come from?                                                                   What do I miss?
What do I NOT miss? (Aside from woodchucks.)
How do I get out in the dewy world of early morning sun, that feeds me so well?
How do I meet my body’s craving for hands and knees in soil?
What other repetitive jobs do I find meditative and soothing?

I sit with my thoughts, long and patiently. As I have learned to do with my writing–let them steep like tea, simmer like soup, rise like dough.

Then the meaning behind the meaning has a chance to show its shy self to me.

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One beautiful sweet pepper, ripened to red in its own good time.

***

Some questions we can all ponder:

What feeds you?

Which are the “bare minimum” self-care activities that you know you need?
What do you want to leave —and just be done with already?

What do you desire to take a sabbatical from?
What would you concentrate on if you did?

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End of season plum tomatoes, ripening in the kitchen, 2015.

****

*Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. In Japan it is called “shinrin yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing.”  I will be leading some meditation walks, required for my training, in the summer and fall so if anyone is interested,  information will be available on my business blog. More information about Forest Therapy is at shinrin-yoku.org

Nature Art Show at Emma Thacher Nature Center

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Red oak leaf in ice, on the Red Belly Trail, Partridge Run. Come and see other photos I took  in the winter woods!

On Saturday, March 5, 2016, from 1 to 4 pm, I invite you all to visit Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center, 87 Nature Center Way, Voorheesville NY for the opening reception of their 13th annual Nature Art Show. I have three photographs in the show–come celebrate  nature as interpreted by over 50 artists, in the center nestled next to Thacher Lake. The opening reception includes live music and refreshments, and there are trails to walk outside near the nature center or back at John Boyd Thacher State Park (don’t miss the escarpment overlook).

The show runs through March 25 and the Center (free admission!) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 to 5.

Directions: If you approach from John Boyd Thacher Park on 157 (off 85/New Scotland Road), you will drive THROUGH Thacher Park, take a right on 256 (Ketcham Road), pass the small Farm Stand on the right, and soon after take a left on Nature Center Road (small sign for Nature Center), which is gravel and leads to the parking area & center.

The Journey Back From Hidden Pond

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Tamaracks, evergreens, and marsh grasses at Hidden Pond in November.

C and I had visited Hidden Pond before, but it’s not a usual stopping place for us at Partridge Run. It is located far from our favorite sites, the water sits higher than the path (hence it is “hidden’) and dozens of deer paths crisscross and confuse the often unmarked main trail. We usually meander in the milkweed for quite some time before finding our way. Uncertainty and wandering can be joyful, my hiking partner reminds me.

This November day, C jumped out of her car. “It’s just going to take five minutes, so I’ve got my hat and gloves, no bag.” She also likes to travel light.

“I guess I’ll leave mine too.” I like being prepared, but I’d already hauled my overstuffed backpack for ninety minutes down the dilapidated snowmobile bridge to Gifford Hollow. This would be just a quick photo opportunity. “The laminated map is coming with me, though, since we got confused before. Do we follow the red snowmobile markers or the yellow ski trail signs?”

She shrugged. I tucked my camera in my jacket.

I try to mirror my hiking partner’s nonchalance, but it’s an effort. Each week she patiently hears me repeat the names of the roads and water features and how we are getting from one to another, even when they are familiar. I work hard to create maps in my head.

“Here’s the meadow from last time.”
C giggled at a familiar landmark: “Oh look, it’s that penis plant.”
“You said it’s called mullein, right?”

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I’d taken pictures of other stalks of mullein, blooming yellow in the summer.

Then there, over the rise, the stunning deep blue of sky reflected into still water: Hidden Pond, ringed by tamaracks. Their golden needles had fallen and made patterns in the water.

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Tamarack needles remind me of log jams, dumped sewing needles, fur fluffed in all directions.

After we stood and listened to the quiet, took photos and noted the near-flooding of the path by new beaver activity, I referred to the map again. “If we keep going, we’ll circle around the pond and back to the road.”

We walked on. The turn did not appear. We walked and walked some more.

“What’s that large body of water on our left? Where are we?”

****

Once two winters ago we took a wrong turn on Beaver Road, and I didn’t have my map with me. My hiking partner was convinced we were going in the correct direction. We passed houses and farms and finally hit not the trail that we sought, but another road.

“Whoops!” she said. “But it’s an adventure. I like finding my way. I’ll eventually get to where I need to be.”
“I hate feeling lost.”
“But we know where we are now.”

I will note that we had to slog up a really steep and icy hill that day, and she cursed the whole way.

***

In one of my favorite books, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes about becoming lost, that moment of realization when frightened people then run in all directions and become truly lost. Knowing this, I stood still in spite of my panic. I took a deep breath and looked again at the map in my now trembly fingers.

I knew we hadn’t headed toward Beaver Road where the farms were. No gate had appeared—or any other landmarks. Therefore, the unexpected water must be Becker Pond, the only large body of water anywhere near any possible path.

We had to be on the dotted trail that skirted Becker Pond, which we’d only taken once before—when we’d come from the opposite direction.

That day years ago we’d given up on one poison-ivy-filled route and tried another to get to Becker Pond. We never made it. Exceedingly fresh bear scat in the path sent us (we’ll admit it) running back the gravel track to the car. Our getaway vehicle had been parked at a pull-off, next to a long couch dumped in the brush. Burned into our brains by adrenaline, the spot was forever after known as The Parking Area with the Abandoned Couch—even though the torn gray sofa was removed the following year.

****

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The last blooming clover we saw before winter. Spider moving fast, like me.

I felt a little calmer now, reminded of that traditional memory technique: to note stories or experiences at a place, in order to create a different kind of map in your head.

Examples jumped into my brain, from other days and walks: This is where the chipmunk popped out at us. This is where we stopped and took pictures of a feather in the ice. This is where the grouse surprised us with a thrumming dance. This is where we ran into the young man looking for a waterfall from his childhood…..This is where the bear scat was.

I remembered that we’d also approached Hidden Pond from yet another way, on a deeply frozen day. Hidden Pond is where the headless vole surprised us, splayed out on the snow.

We’d had lots of those memory-building experiences, though not on this exact path or from this direction. Would that help?

***

I looked at my watch and squinted at the winter white sky. It was 1:30. We had three hours of sunlight left.

In a way, I knew we weren’t truly lost. We might end up walking an extra hour or two; if incorrect, we could just backtrack to Hidden Pond, though now we were more than thirty minutes down the sodden route and preferred to keep going. I still took physical stock of our situation, as if it were real danger. Which it felt like, somehow.

“It’s not snowing or raining and we are well hydrated and fed, since we already ate our tuna salad sandwiches. We have our apple crisp—damn, it’s back at the car, along with the water.”

“No worries,” C said. “I love these hemlocks nodding overhead.”

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Before I got too freaked out to gaze upwards–

Hemlocks? I wasn’t able to look. My heart rate had moved into overdrive, and my feet were walking faster than I wanted them to. My visual focus had narrowed, just like Gonzales describes in his book. (I was wrong before, I was SO wrong, could I get us back?)

The map seemed to indicate we could keep going past Becker Pond, then a stream would cross over or under the path and soon after, there would be an administrative/service road to the right. That road should take us to the Former Couch Parking Area, and High Point Road, where our car was parked, though much further north. As we walked, I reviewed the way out, but also second-guessed it. Ever since the the map in my head hadn’t matched the map in my hands, my equilibrium had gone tipsy-topsy.

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Red stem dogwood mists the distance–is there a pond beyond?

“Is that the stream, heading toward the marsh that feeds Becker Pond? Yes, yes it is! Don’t worry, the road should be coming up…”

No answer from behind me. C was busy listening to the blue jays squawk at our intrusion.

“This is where we found the bear tracks. Well, maybe. I see gravel and rocks in the path like before. The service road is to the right. I’m sure of it.”

No, no road to the right. Walk, walk, walk.

My hiking partner, unruffled: “Look at the the semi-circles: horse hooves. And lots of horse poo. What a prolific animal!” I found myself hurrying ahead.

We came across a faint path on the right marked with pink ribbons.

C’s only comment? “That doesn’t look like a road.”

I knew ribbons in the woods usually indicate something marked that is not obvious. It could be a way around an obstacle, or a trail disguised by the heavy overgrowth of summer and fall. A trail possibly known otherwise as an administrative road.

“I’ll go by myself and see, but I think it’s our way out.” I worried that I was wrong even as I said it—would we be doomed to hike until dark, or worse?

Within a few steps, I knew. From the brambles I hollered: “Here’s what we called the dark and mysterious stand of evergreens. And the burned stump I thought was a bear.”

C was not bothered by her misreading of the pink markers. “I knew we’d get out. Eventually.” She grinned. So did I.

***

There was yet another tall hill to climb, but the roadside was sprinkled deep with those golden tamarack needles. The sky was open. We bragged about our upcoming Thanksgiving menus and even came across an evergreen snag that we had driven past the previous February—a standing dead tree, splintered and exploded by that winter’s extreme cold. More stories, more memory devices.

At the car, sipping water: “I have to go back and see where I made the mistake. I have to make the map right in my head.”

I discovered that Hidden Pond is actually already on the dotted path to Becker, that you have to turn around from the overlook and return on the original path. Or you will, as we did, be forced the long way around. It was supposed to be a five minute saunter to Hidden Pond and it turned into an hour and fifteen minutes.

That made me ask: Why do C and I get along so well as hiking partners?

Easy–we make decisions together. She actually respects my use of maps, and I rely on her confidence that we will be fine, no matter what. After all, we’ve survived ground bee attacks, impassible routes, exhausting hill climbs, hunters shooting a little too close, and getting lost. Together we walk and wander, have experiences and create memories–mental and emotional maps of our adventures—and now we have a new story to tell.

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We went back the following week. The sky was even more blue, the trees were almost stripped of needles, and thin ice had appeared. Hidden Pond is one of our favorites, now.

 

 

The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.