The Good Earth: International Gardens

Orange-y dirt fluffed up for the garden year, path in the middle.
Paydirt. The classic rich soil of the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

A landmark. The day before yesterday, I was given my first garden plot since we moved to Germany. Turning over the soil stirred up surprising feelings.

It’s an International Garden so the invitation was in German and in Arabic. My fellow gardeners are from Egypt, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Germany. People were talking about melons, chilis, peas, and pole-beans. I’m very curious to see what will grow.

And what will work. We had a lot of animated conversation in several languages while we got the garden beds ready. The way people grow food is as much a part of their culture as the way they eat it. Several gardeners had advanced training in agriculture in their home countries, but everyone dug right in.

First-class dirt. Some of the most fertile in the world. I also learned a new word for dirt. 🙂 Löss (German) and loess (English) refers to the kind of yellow-brown clay-ey soil that is typical of the Rhine and the Mississippi.

In Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth, the land has the power to bring riches and a new life to a poor farmer. (And, of course, new troubles because a novel is about the way we deal with the challenges, right?)

What will these new gardens bring into our lives? Fruits, vegetables, flowers, barbeque parties, cake, friendships, and maybe a few more roots to this new home.

Is your garden still buried in snow? What are you planning to grow this year?

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An Epic Tree

Battered oak with huge gall, blasted branches, lost bark and holes that shelter who knows what.
My husband visited this awe-inspiring oak thirty years ago. © Jan Decher, 2017

This weekend, my husband and I went looking for a half-circle of oaks he knew from thirty years ago. (No comments from the peanut gallery 😉 He said their group held hands around it because it was so big (nearly 8 meters around and 24 meters tall!). It’s gotta be old: 600-800 years!

We found six or seven oaks, but this one was the ruler of them all. There were hollow spaces big enough to house a small boy, like the one in Jean Craighead George’s middle-grade classic, My Side of the Mountain. I always thought the living in a tree part of the story was a bit of a stretch, but this oak could easily house a boy and a hawk. For all I know, it does.

A bumblebee flew into the boy-sized hole in the base of the tree and something brown and fluffy was in another large hole way over our heads. One of the huge, sawn-off branches was a hollow tunnel, like a giant elephant trunk.

Tragic, mighty, grotesque. An epic tree.

Even on a brilliant sunny day, you could feel the power and past destruction pent up inside this tree. Maybe it houses a million bees or will be struck by lightning and burst into flame or throw a few mighty branches down in the wind. It’s clearly a survivor waiting for the next adventure. And a refuge for all kinds of living things.

Note for writers: If places inspire you with story ideas, you might enjoy my post about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s  The Rural Setting Thesaurus at The Winged Pen.

Oak with big hollow high up in the tree.
A refuge high in an ancient oak. Hüinghausen, Germany. © Jan Decher, 2017.

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Contrast with Apple Blossoms, Bach, and Story

These apple blossoms and buds look like visual staccato and legato notes.

Sometimes learning something that you had given up on changes your whole view of the world. James Rhodes’ How to Play Piano teaches rank beginners how to play J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major. I never learned to read the bass clef and I’ve really been enjoying this attempt. It makes you wonder what else is still possible.

Rhodes suggests listening to the following musicians play the Prelude. They all interpret it differently:

All of those versions got me thinking about contrast in fiction. While down the YouTube rabbit hole about what that middle pedal on the piano is for, I discovered Robert Estrin’s virtual piano lesson about using short (staccato) and long (legato) notes to bring out the melody in Beethoven’s sonatas.

It’s got me wondering how I can bring out the main story arc using contrast in fiction. There are lots of things to try:

  • Rhythm: Short and long sentences
  • Pacing: Dialogue, action, exposition
  • Setting: Light/Dark, Loud/Soft, Hectic/Peaceful

It all ties into Friday’s post on The Winged Pen about a Setting Exercise from The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Rebecca Smith-Allen’s post on the The Urban Setting Thesaurus is up today.

I’d love to know what you think about this. Have you consciously built contrast into your stories? Or do you have favorite examples from your reading? Feel free to share.

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The question that moves my work forward

Fountains, square tower with crenelated edge on top, small palm trees in the foreground, huge one in the back, stone-edged path, green grass and blue sky.
What can you do when everything seems so complicated? Image: English Gardens, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

What’s the simplest solution?

This is the question that moves me forward when I get stuck. I’m not sure why it helps. Maybe it’s what my friend and writing mentor Susan Graham calls “making a decision.” Friends are a gift.

With this question, I move forward with the information I’ve already got. Information gathering stops. I try something out.

Do you have a question that helps you move forward when you get stuck? Share it in the comments below.

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Create something new: Lessons from a re-cycled Convent, a Peacock with a Looking Glass, and a Cow with a Drinking Problem

Fish pond in foreground, a line of trees and a convent behind with a blossoming tree.
Roman pipeline to convent to farm. Gut Schillingskapellen, Dünstekoven. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

In the small village of Swisstal-Dünstekoven, a one-time convent was built solely with materials scavenged from the Roman water line. Now it’s a farm with Scottish Highland cows and reflective peacocks.

Lesson #1: Try a bit of creative re-cycling. If Roman ruins are in short supply, maybe you have a fragment that makes you laugh. Or just a bookshelf in the wrong place.

Peacock looking at its reflection in a mirror in a sunny farmyard
Know Thyself. Gut Shillingskapelle, © Laurel Decher, 2016.

At least two mirrors are propped up against the historic buildings in peacock-accessible places. I’m guessing mirrors have something to do with peacock mental health and the display of feathers. It looks a little bit too much like “selfies” for comfort.

Scottish Highland calf, brown and shaggy in a green meadow walled in with a stone wall.
A four-legged Scottish Highlander. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This brown, woolly, Scottish Highland calf seems to have a sturdy self-image already.

Lesson #2: Don’t look in the mirror too long. Keep mooooving. (Sorry.)

An eccentric older relative was playing with the automatic water-er, slurping away noisily for a few minutes, then picking up its head to look at us, indignantly or defiantly. With that much hair over the eyes, it’s really hard to tell.

Black, Scottish Highland cow with head in waterer.
Slurping noisily at the automatic water-er must be fun. © Laurel Decher, 2015.
Black, Scottish Highland cow with head out of waterer and face covered with shaggy hair.
“Who are you looking at?” Black, Scottish Highland cow with indeterminate expression. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Who am I to say what’s silly behavior? I make up stories. Maybe this cow is a distinguished water musician. Not much audience yet. Doing the practicing in obscurity thing. That’s okay with me.

Lesson #3: Enjoy creating. Maybe the rest of the herd will be by later. Or not. But you will have had the fun of messing about.

Lesson #4: Notice the artists in your life.

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What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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