You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.

Sea of Lawn

“I showed that lawn tender feelings I should have saved for my family.”  Hank Hill (King of the Hill) lamenting the destruction of his lawn by moles.

Before we moved, I took pictures of every plant in my yard in Portland.

Not just pictures of the yard as a whole (although I have those too), but pictures of each individual plant.  Luckily it was still early spring so a significant number of perennials hadn’t emerged.  Otherwise I would have had easily two or three times the number of pictures.

I had always worked in the yard and “gardened” as such, and then in the last three years had become committed to the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program sponsored by the Audobon Society of Portland.  The program certified neighborhood yards meeting certain requirements of native plantings, stormwater management, and wildlife habitat (food, water, and shelter sources).   I had dug up the majority of the lawn on the property, planted well over 100 plants, and laid many yards of chip in paths and borders.  The yard was Gold certified by the time I left, and I counted over 40 different native species of plant between my front and back yard.  I had a bird bath and several feeders, a brush pile, a mason bee block, and bird roosting boxes.  Over 15 species of bird had been sighted in the yard and several species of bees.  It was right at the point where the majority of planting was done and everything was beginning to expand and fill in.  It had a beauty in both its appearance and its functionality.

Portland has a wide variety of yard-scapes, from simple lawn plus hedge,  to lush overgrown jungles full of hydrangea, rhododendron, wisteria and lilac, to dry landscapes of chip and decorative grasses.  My yard was a three year exercise in balance:  evergreen and color, sun and shade, thick hedgerow and open space, with all the canopy levels represented.  Lots of structure and a little wildness, it looked mostly planned with spots of spontaneity, personal yet appealing.  It was astounding how much habitat could be built into one urban yard.

The yard at my new house can be characterized by what I note appears to be a city-wide standard of appropriate landscaping:  lawn plus sculpted hedge.  A few trees included.  And the lawn description is generous.  The front yard I would describe as lawn plus dandelion farm plus hedge.  (I pulled enough dandelions to fill two large yard debris bags.)  The back yard is about six different invasive ground-covers that have been mowed to look like lawn, plus dandelions plus hedge.  (Oh, and there is that big patch of poison ivy that my husband found accidentally and much to his dismay.)

I am grateful in a way, that the back yard isn’t full of lush lawn.  Then I don’t have to feel bad about digging it up.  Its all just weed and not worth saving.  All I have to do is get to work.

Get to work…again.  Starting over from scratch.  New yard, new native plants to learn about, new plans…

I should be excited.  A blank canvas for me to fill in with my own vision.

Wait, should I be excited?  Because I’m not excited.  I mean, I am excited to research plants on the internet, join the Grow Native! movement, and go pick up stuff at the nursery,  But I am most definitely not in that sustained brimming with enthusiasm excitement that would power me up to wield a pick ax through clay soil to dig up scrub plants that are only suitable for a goat to eat.

It gets harder, you see, to start over.  Working with momentum is different that beginning from a full stop and slowly pushing your way forward. Motivating yourself to begin and not feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the task.  Trying not to think about how long it took you the last time you undertook a project like this.  Before I moved I would watch people on House Hunters and other such shows complain about the paint color or the tile or the landscaping and I would think, “who cares? just change it when you get there”.  But now I understand:  it just takes so much mental effort to overcome the emotions that come with starting over or starting from scratch.  The worry you can’t do it, that  you don’t have it in you, that you are not enough, and that the first time you did it successfully, well, that was just a fluke.  The uncertainty keeps you static:  maybe you were just lucky before, maybe bad luck will befall you this time.

I know it is just the lawn…but I think Hank Hill understands.


Living in Disaster

The house has been empty for a while.  More than just days…more like weeks, months.

When you enter the home, you are struck by the intermingling of cold and the musty odor.  It gives the air a tangible quality you must push through as you enter so it doesn’t force you back onto the porch.  It seems colder than outside as cold has sunk into every corner and cranny. The brief wafting of fresh air into the house as you enter dissipates as soon as the front door shuts behind you and the air closes upon itself again.   Still, leaden, and unmoving.  There is no water and no power.   It has been like this a long time:  without pulse and without breath.  It feels abandoned.

We didn’t anticipate buying a house in this state of un-livability.   We knew it was vacant, a foreclosed property in the hands of Fannie Mae.  But it hadn’t been on the market long and the house was fully intact when we made the offer.  The first piece of bad news came the day Fannie Mae accepted our offer:  someone had cut through the screened back porch, broken the glass pane on the back door, gone down into the basement and removed all of the copper plumbing.  The second piece came on the day the house closed: someone had entered the same way (turns out the property manager didn’t secure the back door) and had cut all of the lines to the electrical panel and taken part of the furnace.

No water, no power, no heat.

You walk through this cold, musty home and there is no welcoming.  No warmth or vibrancy.  The day is gray and cold despite it being spring.  And the house agrees.  No signs of life here.   Inertia is beginning to come with a feeling of deja-vu.  Back to the hotel and long list of phone calls to find contractors in an unfamiliar city.

Displaced, again.

Walking through the house, I think, “this must be a glimpse into what it is like returning to your home after a disaster.”  Grateful to be home, but not really home.  Grateful for plumbing, but not able to shower because there is no hot water.  Not able to cook or keep perishables because there is no power.  Then the power is on, but there is still no heat.  The unseasonably cold spring is more salient to you as you put on another sweater and sleep under every blanket with socks on.  Seems like it takes an hour for the bed to warm up.  It is too cold to unpack and too cold to clean. You drift from room to room rubbing your hands like a distraught ghost, haunting your own house.

Then the day comes that there is water, hot water, power and heat all together.

The house begins to hum, only you hear a symphony.


Movement : Chaos/Inertia

People like to measure the value their possessions have by what they would grab in case of a fire.

Question:  What would you take if you had only one minute to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer:  dog

Question:  What would you take if you had only five minutes to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer: dog, leash, dog cookies

Not surprisingly, this tough love prioritization changes dramatically when time measurement increases.

Question:  What would you take if you had six weeks to leave your house in case of selling it and moving across country?

Answer:  everything in the house I touch

Packing to move is somewhat of an oxymoron in that packing instills a sense of a movement only in the beginning.  High value items ease into boxes and wrappings selected just for them.  Large items like my mother’s cedar chest and the bed dominate the logistics of space and placement. Even the books, which when disturbed from their resting places on the shelf always seem to proliferate during the process of moving,  tuck themselves neatly into boxes stacked unobtrusively in the corner.  Each day a new milestone of packing is reached with ease.  At this rate, your possessions feel like they will practically walk themselves out onto the truck in a spontaneous gesture of cooperative effort with you.

And then some silent and unseen measure is passed and the packing slows down.

Slows…way…down…

Suddenly the value of your remaining possessions are less clear.  You struggle to define their meaning and importance:  utility (I need this), sentimentality (I love this), obligation (I don’t need or love this but feel I should pack it).  Questions turn into discussions turn into debates.   Decisions are delayed for more reflection and evaluation.  Certain possessions awkwardly defy standard packing materials.  Items are sorted and shuffled repeatedly, but organization and prioritization appear lost to you as your environment grows increasingly more chaotic.  And each attempt to bring a sense of order contributes to an increasing sense of inertia as less and less is packed.  You keep expecting your growing frustration to be a catalyst to simply discard that which clearly is not of critical importance, but there is some sticky residue of holding on that thwarts these efforts…every time you touch something.

It is insidious.  You can look at that pile of stuff in the corner and in your mind think, “just give it away”.  Then you pick something up and hold it and remember something about it…when it came in handy or even when you simply imagine it might be useful.  And you move it from the “give away” pile to the “pack eventually” pile.  And at the end of the day it is like a cruel joke to look at the piles you started with and realize how much you still have left to pack.

It is very hard to resist not simply setting it all on fire.

The Pareto principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.  When you are moving, 80% of the chaos/inertia will invariably come from only 20% of your possessions.  And they won’t be the ones you like or need the most.  In fact, they will most likely be things you are ambivalent about and might not have even seen in years.  Things that can be purchased cheaply and replaced easily.  Their charms do not appear evident, but do not be fooled of their power.  Do not touch them.  Leave them be until you are ready to move them into a donation bin.  And then, do not think about them.  Just move them out.

Otherwise, as the Borg say, resistance is futile.