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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Limit Yourself

White trails from planes in the evening sky over black tree silhouettes
Airplanes making EtchASketch patterns in the sky. © Laurel Decher, 2016

A blank EtchASketch makes it pretty clear that I’ll be doodling around in squares because the drawing dot only moves in four directions, each at right angles to the other.

National Novel Writing Month is about throwing off the limits that keep us from creating. (If you’ve just finished 50K, congratulations!! Well done!! May I respectfully suggest you do this and save yourself ten years of re-writing?)

But it’s not the only option. You can also choose a form that’s so restrictive it gives you something to push against. The most powerful stories I know are about people overcoming their own “limitations.”

What if you had to choose only one thing to make? What would it be? What if you were only allowed to give one gift?

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The Day the Wall Fell

Church and graveyard surrounded by green hills covered with vineyards.
A whole peaceful world in a tiny valley. The town of Mayschoß in the Ahr River valley. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, Germany celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (literally, the “Day of German Unity.”) It’s the day when East and West Germany came back together after World War II.

Once as a student, I visited East Berlin while the Wall was still there. I’ll never forget the eerie passage through the restricted zone. Guards armed with machine guns stood their shifts in abandoned subway stops where you were no longer allowed to get off the train.

For me, this holiday is about the falling of the Wall. The Berlin Wall was on television in the U.S. when the first people were allowed out of East Berlin. Excited people were reaching down and pulling others up to stand next to them on top of the Wall. Guards waved tiny East German cars through. The razor wire was no longer relevant. People offered each other champagne and bananas in a violent place where peace suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.

Let’s help peace along wherever it appears. There are so many celebrations I’d like to see and smile about. So much healing and pain where we could help each other up instead.

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Over at the Winged Pen, we’re writing about “getting the words”

Vista of Rhine River valley with mountains in the distance.
You have to write a lot of words before you catch a glimpse of your story. View from Löwenburg, Rhine River valley, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I’ve collected some tips from fellow Winged Pen writers about how they get words on the page. I was surprised at the variety of techniques almost all of us use: daily word counts (or not), planning to write, the open sentence technique, and more. As a writer-friend said once, “Sometimes I think writing is continuous behavioral modification.”

You can read their nitty gritty tips and the whole post here: 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get Words.

My fellow Winged Pen, Gita Trelease, goes deeper into the topic with her post Perfectionism and Pomodori.

 

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The Joy of Exploring Your Writing Territory

Black peppermill like machine with sliders around the body and a crank on top
The first hand-held calculator was invented “after hours” in Buchenwald concentration camp by Curt Herzstark. If creativity kept him going there, what’s my excuse? Image: Arithmeum, Bonn.

I’ve been reading Susan Kaye Quinn‘s Indie Author Survival Guide (Second Edition) Crafting a Self-Publishing Career Book 1). In spite of the title, the book covers topics that are also interesting to traditional novelists. All writers struggle with figuring out a target audience, creative freedom, and how to keep from “stopping too soon.”

Susan Kaye Quinn highlights an especially intriguing idea about how to escape comparisonitis from Steven Pressfield:

There are many nuggets of inspiration in War of Art by Steven Pressfield (I highly recommend it), but I’m going to highlight the section where Pressfield describes dealing with writerly competition in Territory vs. Hierarchy (I’m paraphrasing):

We (as humans and writers) define our place in the world either by Hierarchy (a social pecking order) or by Territory (a turf or domain). For the artist/writer, Hierarchy is that destructive urge to compete against others, to evaluate our success by our rank within the hierarchy of writers, and to write based on the effect it produces on the hierarchy. Pressfield insists the writer must operate territorially: to do work for its own sake, inwardly focused. Territorial work provides sustenance—the writer puts work in and receives back well-being; similarly the territory of our creations can only be claimed by the work we put into it. The artist who commands their domain is satisfied by the creation itself; the work is its own reward.

This goes beyond the “work is its own reward” trope. Staying focused on working territorially keeps the debilitating effects of hierarchical thinking from beating you down.

The Arithmeum museum in Bonn has the world’s largest collection of “calculating machines” which honestly sounded a bit boring until I went on a tour there last week. Inventing a machine that could carry over to the next place (from 9 to 10 or from 999 to 1,000) is a work of the imagination.

Our mathematician and tour guide demonstrated a beautiful, grandfather clock-like calculator whose inventor, Poleni. It made a lovely ratcheting sound while it added up numbers. Unfortunately, Poleni committed suicide after a contemporary’s calculator achieved the next coveted milestone.

This second calculator apparently didn’t work reliably but was a great prestige object for the Viennese Emperor. Even in mathematics, there are many milestones and many ways to solve the same problem. To me, Poleni’s story looks like a classic case of stopping too soon.

Fiction has easily as much inventive territory to explore. We’ll never get through the possibilities of plot, narration, characterization, dialogue, structure, imagery, language, rhythm, or metaphor in our lifetimes.

There’s so much to discover. Let’s encourage each other to keep on keeping on.

Happy Writing!

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“Sharing: A Practice of the Heart” at The Mudroom

Interior castle courtyard. Half-timbered houses nestled together for safety.

In medieval castles, people traded living space for protection. What will you trade for the life you want? Eltz Castle, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This month, I’m over at The Mudroom blog writing about Simplicity, Intentionality, and Living Small. That’s their theme for August. Here’s a taste of my essay:

Sharing: A Practice of the Heart

How do you decide to voluntarily limit the space you occupy in the world?

When I moved to Germany four years ago with my family, I thought we’d live the romantic European life. An apartment instead of a house and garden, string bags for the daily grocery shopping, errands by streetcar, vacations by train, and fresh vegetables from the market square.

Read the rest of the post over at The Mudroom.

Thanks for reading!

Laurel

 

 

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