Sunday, July 12, 2009

Watering: A Simple Pleasure

It's due to hit 101 today and, since it's 99 in the shade at 2 p.m., I'd say there's a good chance we'll make the predicted high, even out here in the boonies. (With the heat island effect of pavement in the city, I'm pretty sure that Wichita is already 101 this afternoon.) When it's been more than a week since it rained and the temperatures are this hot, it's a sure bet that folks with gardens are going to be needing to water.

Nowadays, of course, the "in" thing is to have a sprinkler system. Then all you have to do is hit the switch and the system handles things for you. Meanwhile you get to stay inside and "be productive" (or veg out in front of the TV, depending upon your mood). I can see the appeal of that approach, but if I gave into it, I would miss some of the best moments I have in the garden.

Take this morning. Even at 9 a.m., it was hot. To be honest, I really didn't want to go outside and get myself all hot and sweaty and muddy, but I've only got one small sprinkler system in one flower bed and my choice was to go outside and water or probably start seeing some plant loss.

So I girded my loins, so to speak, and ventured outside. Once I got out and got the water running, it really wasn't that bad. Watering, for me, is rather meditative - like fishing in reverse. (I'm putting water into something, rather than taking something out of the water, but in both activities I'm standing still for long periods of time while holding something to do with water in my hand.) Watering gives me a chance to note what plants are looking puny, which ones are getting eaten, which ones are beginning to overrun their spots, and so forth.

However, watering does more than help me notice my plants more consistently. It engages all my senses, and immerses me in the life of the yard. Without realizing it consciously, I'm hearing and registering the birds that are living in the garden with me: a pheasant "coughing" near the draw, bobwhite quail calling, cardinals chipping anxiously because I'm too near to the feeder they want to check out, a Carolina wren coming closer and closer. In fact, the only reason I know that we have cuckoos nesting in the yard this year is because I've heard them.

If I'm lucky, the wind creates gentle breezes that cool me off and play against my skin. (If I'm not so lucky, it's dead still and the sweat pours down my back, or the wind is blowing so hard that I get unnecessarily soaked in overspray while my hair ties itself into Gordian knots of painful intensity.) I discover fragrances coming from flowers, like Knockout roses and oakleaf hydrangeas, that I didn't think were fragrant, or I note some blasted neighbor is burning plastic in their trash again. If it's the vegetable garden I'm watering, I even pick the occasional strawberry and pop it in my mouth, or chew on a piece of basil, just because it smells so wonderful.

But the ultimate benefit of hand watering is what I get to see simply because I'm standing out there, usually quietly without much movement, for such long periods of time. (I do practice what I preach in watering: deep and only about once a week.) This morning my best sighting was a dragonfly, perched about 2' away from me, savoring a fly he'd just caught. I didn't want to move and have him fly off, so the Brunnera and Asarum got a big dose of extra water as I simply stood there and watched, fascinated. His pedipalps acted like little extra arms, rotating the hapless fly around while he munched. In fact, his pedipalps were so arm/handlike that I found myself doing a leg count - sure enough, all 6 dragonfly legs were firmly holding onto the branch while the remains of the fly was moved this way and that, rather like he was eating a turkey drumstick or a piece of corn on the cob.

About the only time I see velvet ants is when I'm watering, but I see them frequently then, scurrying along the ground, obviously on a important mission to somewhere.

Two weeks ago, I saw a female tiger swallowtail circle around my single parsley plant, landing briefly to touch her abdomen to a leaf and lay an egg, then rising into the air to circle for a fresh spot, and repeating the process again...and again...and again...and again. I noticed on Friday, again while I was watering, that the caterpillars have not only hatched, they are past the brown and white stage and into the multi-colored striped stage that they'll stay in until they pupate.

I'm most likely to spot caterpillars when I'm watering. My meditative gaze will suddenly notice that the brown & white blob on that leaf is not really a bird dropping because it's moving in a very non-bird-dropping like way, or my eyes will pick out a misshapen leaf and notice the jaws systematically shaving its edge away. When I turn the leaf over, there is a rather large and brightly colored caterpillar staying stock still, hoping that I'm not particularly hungry this morning. Then I'll look the plant over carefully and realize that I can see 3 or 4 more of its siblings, munching away.

The worst part is that I can't photograph what I'm seeing, other than mentally in my own mind. Most of the drama that I witness when watering is something that I see only because I'm standing still, quietly, in one place for a long period of time. Running into the house to get my camera rather negates my "cover". I've thought about always carrying my camera with me when I water but, truthfully, I'm too lazy...and a little bit concerned about getting it muddy and/or wet accidentally. I love my camera, but it's a rather heavy and bulky for carrying for hours at a time while you're trying to manipulate something else, especially when that "something else" has the potential to ruin your camera.

So I can try to share some of these experiences verbally and through the written word. Hopefully, a few people will read this and want to experiment, then will recognize the simple pleasures and unique opportunities afforded by some quiet time in the garden with just you, your hose, and your thoughts.

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