Glenstone (August, 2022)

I took some time to visit Glenstone last week. It was great to have a chance to slow down and wander the property. The art inside The Pavilions was beautiful and thought-provoking, but the structure itself and the landscape are the main attractions for me. The building is modern and monumental, but the materials and siting in the landscape make it feel natural, pushed up from the granite fault below. The prairie is allowed to grow right up to the connected structures. While sitting in Room 7, I watched dragonflies through the window as they chased other insects and scrambled to avoid the diving swallows. I was even lucky enough to see a swallow catch and eat a dragonfly like I was on insect safari.

The landscape is currently in transition as summer has begun to fade to fall. Most peak summer color has been replaced by the silver of mountain mint and rattlesnake master, lavender of blue mistflower, and rusted purple of Joe Pye Weed. The experience of the museum overall is extremely well-designed. From the start, you always know where you are in a way that allows you to relax and just appreciate it. The visit gave me more thoughts I may put together in a separate post. Below are some photos I took of the landscape, structures, and outdoor art on the property including works by Charles Ray, Richard Serra, Andrew Goldsworthy, and Jeff Koons. Landscape by PWP and Pavillions by Thomas Phifer and Partners.

More photos of Jackson Ward during highway construction

I’ve been organizing my files over the past week after about a decade of haphazardly storing them in flash drives, an old laptop, an external hard drive, and a cloud backup. In the process, I came across my old college research and realized I never shared some photos of the highway construction process in Jackson Ward. The photo quality is not great, but it’s more than I had when I first set out to do this research so I’m happy to share. The originals are stored for public access at the Library of Virginia off-site archives building in Richmond. I’ve also added these to a permanent page, “The Wheels of Progress,” where previously I only had the series that was most compelling to me at the time. With the current discussions around capping the highway in Jackson Ward and reconnecting the neighborhood, we could consider including an installation with these images to remember the full history of the space.

Central Jackson Ward looking east (from just west of Sixth Mount Zion)

Central Jackson Ward looking east (from a station west of the one above)

Central Jackson Ward looking East (from a station west of the one above)

Central Jackson Ward looking west (from a station near the one above)

Thoughts on The Spirit of the Disciplines

I finally took the time to update my personal bookshelf page. The first book I read after college was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. This book came to me by way of a yearlong internship with a Christian tutoring and mentoring non-profit.

I have a new appreciation for this book in retrospect. I have a fuller understanding of the need for self-control as I take on more responsibilities. I see that self-control also limits exploitation, preserves relationships, and enhances experiences (as opposed to overindulgence deadening them). I understand that our habits and character are shaped by daily decisions and that our integrity is tested by stress, power, and fear. I appreciate that this book attempts to be more practical and specific than just spiritual. In the instance of solitude, it’s so eye-opening to consider the spiritual discipline in this current era of hyper and constant connection. Our solitude has been taken from us more completely than he could have ever imagined. How much more so then do we require it.

While looking back, I also have a more coherent critique of his message. I read this book already having a sense of my body as primarily an instrument of spiritual discipline. I can’t say I enjoyed it obviously, but I did sometimes feel superior because of it. In retrospect, I shocked by how often I beat myself up for not being a good enough Christian. It’s possible that this book fed something in me that was already a little over developed. I wasn’t coming to this book as a proud hedonist, but as someone already distrustful of themselves and attempting to discipline their own heart and mind.

Willard writes that as we begin to understand ourselves as sinful (he calls the self “the old person”) we are to “disassociate ourselves with him or her.” Reading this a decade later, I thought this was an astonishing bit of advice considering the context of trauma and dissociative disorders. It reminded me of a time I was talking to my therapist about a semi-traumatic moment years ago where I sort of sat in stunned silence. He asked me if I thought I had disassociated. I said I didn’t think so, but that I couldn’t quite describe why I was so stunned. In retrospect, I had the realization that what had really happened is that I had associated rather than disassociated. I had actually been pulled into the moment in a way that was too vulnerable to bear for someone who had been trained to be divorced from it.

Thinking from the lens of power, the spiritual disciplines promise a higher level of spiritual maturity and integrity in exchange for relinquishing control of one’s own body. Behavior is modified according to external priorities rather than internal desires. One’s own thoughts and feelings are often considered a threat to the higher calling and higher purpose of our lives. You can say that the individual has chosen to relinquish this control out of free will and undeniable love, but the threats inherent to the faith such as eternal death, being publicly shamed, and excommunication mean that to some extent these decisions are also being made under duress. If you believe in the proposition, there really is no choice. At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to living a life of discipline and if this is what it takes to achieve that discipline then for many it will have been worth it. In a world that is chaotic, Willard suggests a framework that one can stand up under while they bring order to their lives.

I think that Dallas Willard would be disappointed to see how the faith has become an instrument of political power in recent years. On the other hand, coming from a Quaker background I’m surprised to see his opinion of the faith as apolitical considering the Quakers longstanding work to end slavery. It’s hard to know whether the Quakers were acting “out of their faith” vs. using their faith to pursue their own goals in the abolitionist movement. Even within ourselves, we are often clueless to our motives. Additionally, he presents the disciplines in a “battle ready” sort of way that sets the individual in opposition to our society in a way that may make them feel like they have been left out. Is it possible to love others if you are constantly defending yourself against them?

Willard hoped that this book would allow individuals to shape their lives to align with their faith through simple, daily habits. I so appreciate his wisdom and insight. He understands that we can be held back by our weaknesses and that spiritual disciplines are a way for us to ground ourselves, protect ourselves, and minimize self-destructive choices. Unfortunately, at the time, I read the book through the negative inner monologue of “never enough.” It isn’t that the ideas of discipline or restraint necessarily inspire self-condemnation, but as we consider spiritual formation, especially for younger people, we may want to also encourage people to trust themselves and listen to themselves.

That it isn’t all just a “haunted abyss” beneath the surface.


Some quotes that I underlined at the time:

“A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being—mind and body.”

“Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.”

“Yet, I must do one of the other. Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no middle.”

“And a thoughtless or uninformed theology grips and guides our life with just as great a force as does a thoughtful and informed one.”

“And so it was, more than anything else, the religious seriousness the spiritual disciplines injected into the whole of our lives that made them attractive.”

“More than anyplace else it originates from failure to recognize the part our body plays in our spiritual life—and this is, of course, where the disciplines enter the discussion.”

“They cannot do so because we tend to think of the body and its functions as only a hindrance to our spiritual calling.”

“Once we forsake or cloud this meaning of “salvation” (or “redemption” or “regeneration”) and substitute for it mere atonement or mere forgiveness of sins, we’ll never be able to achieve a coherent return to concrete human existence.”

“The sober truth is that we are made of dust, even if we do aspire to the heavens.”

“The locus or depository of this necessary power is the is the human body. This explains, in theological terms, why we have a body at all. That body is our primary area of power, freedom and—therefore—responsibility.”

“The small reservoir of independent powers that was resident in their bodies continued to function as it does in “living beings” generally, but the connection to God through which those powers would have been properly ordered and fulfilled was broken.”

“But the essence and aim of spirituality is not to correct social and political injustices. That will be its effect—though never exactly in ways we imagine as we come to it with our preexisting political concerns. That is not its use, and all thought of using it violates its nature.”

“The fact that a long course of experience is needed for the transformation is not set aside when we are touched by the new life from above.”

“All his most sincere and good intentions, even though specifically alerted by Jesus’ prediction and warning of a few hours earlier, were not able to withstand the automatic tendencies ingrained in his flesh and activated by his circumstances.”

“In an important sense to be explained, a person is his or her body.”

“‘Spiritual people do not play.’ That is the usual view. For one thing, they are too serious ever to play. It is a test of their spirituality that they never let up from their special spiritual activities…And while spiritual people can have joy, they probably should stay away from just plain pleasure. While it is not in itself bad, it might ensnare them. Or so we seem to think.”

“The true effect of the Fall was to lead us to trust in the flesh alone, to “not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (Rom. 1:28) because we now suppose (like mother Eve) that, since there is now God to be counted on in our lives, we must take things into our own hands.”

“But such thinking is far from the truth. It’s an illusion created in part by our own conviction that our unrestrained natural impulse is in itself a good thing and that we have an unquestionable right to fulfill our natural impulses so long as “no one gets hurt.”

“But his words are really guideposts to direct us in our personal struggle to over come the evil that reigns in our world.”

“So we bring the “old person” before our minds and, with resolute consciousness, we disassociate ourselves from him or her.”

“If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made out nature our ally.”

“If for any reason we are not fully exercising and enjoying the right to “freedom” and “happiness” as popularly conceived, then we automatically assume that something is somewhere wrong.”

“Somehow, the fact that ‘mortification’self-denial, the disciplining of one’s natural impulseshappens to be central teaching of the New Testament is conveniently ignored.”

“In the Reformed branches of Protestantism, with John Calvin as the chief inspiration, discipline became identified with something that the church exerts over its members to keep them in line.”

“The Greek philosophers from the Sophists through Philo and Epictetus included ascetic practices in their views of all proper human education or development.”

“Asceticism rightly understood is so far from the “mystical” as to be just good sense about life and, ultimately, about spiritual life.”

“One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions.”

“Solitude frees us, actually. This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines.”

“[Solitude] opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.”

“How rarely are we ever truly listened to, and how deep is our need to be heard.”

“Roughly speaking, the disciplines of abstinence counteract tendencies to sins of commission, and the disciplines of engagement counteract tendencies to sins of omission.”

“Condemnation and guilt over mere possession has no part in scriptural faith and is, in the end, only a barrier to the right use of the riches of the earth.”

“He even suggests that ‘true, scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in the process of time, to undermine and destroy itself.’ It begets diligence and frugality, which in turn make one rich.”

“We do not have to own things to love them, trust them, even serve them.”

“So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself.”

“One way to gain such understanding is to experience the life of the poor in some further measurethough we must never give in to the temptation to act as if we are poor when we are not.”

“Fear and wrath mingle to form the automatic, overt response of the ‘normal, decent human being’ to any person or event that threatens his or her security, status, or satisfaction.”

“Almost all evil deeds and intents are begun with the thought that they can be hidden by deceit.”

“The highest education, as well as the strictest doctrinal views and religious practice, often leave untouched the heart of darkness from which the demons come to perch upon the lacerated back of humankind.:

“It will not be by force, but by the power of truth presented in overwhelming love. Our inability to conceive of it other than by force merely testifies to our obsession with human means for controlling other people.”

“The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live.”

“Faith grows from the experience of acting on plans and discovering God to be acting with us.”

Insects spring to summer

When my dad was growing up in Dallas, he remembers a truck fogging his entire neighborhood with DDT. One time, he was killing hornets with a tennis racquet in his front yard when the truck drove by and most fell to the ground before he could kill any more.

After nearly a century of ruthlessly effective pesticides and the steady march of habitat loss, many insect populations have been devastated, a fraction of what they once were. I have heard stories of fireflies numbering in the thousands on a summer night while now there are maybe a dozen if any at all. When I search online for a blog post like this, I frequently get websites for exterminating the insects that I’m trying to learn about. Of course, there are insects I don’t like. I started an organic mosquito control program this year and I spread carpenter ant bait around my deck every once in a while. I’ve never had a roach problem, but if I did I’m sure I’d call someone. I like to think the active centipede population in the basement keeps them all in check.

I was raised to appreciate insects and in recent years I’ve started to care even more. I do what I can to help out by plating beneficial plants and offering decomposing waste in the compost. For the most part, I just enjoy these creatures and appreciate all the crazy shapes and personalities that insects bring.

***

May 2 – This was the first time I’ve ever seen an eastern eyed click beetle. The false eyes as a defense mechanism definitely made me look twice and feel like it was watching me as much as I was watching it.

June 1 – The earliest major pollinator show of spring around here is watching honey bees and bumblebees swarm a pair of Verbascum chaixii ‘Wedding Candles’ (aka Mullein). I first noticed this burst of activity last year and was very much looking forward to it this spring.

June 10 – It’s been a long time since I was this excited about an insect. When I first saw this hummingbird moth on some English lavender I was confused in the way that whomever named it obviously was as well. It hovers and flits just like a hummingbird and has what looks like the beak of a hummingbird, but it is actually a moth with a long tongue for drawing nectar.

June 11 – I let some parsley flower this spring. It’s the first time I’ve seen a parsley flower before and it was interesting to notice which insects were attracted by it. I’m hoping it goes to seed and brings back a whole flower bed of parsley next year. Below is a cool, black and blue false wasp.

Here are two Margined Leatherwing beetles ensuring future generations.

June 15 – In the next two photos, a metallic green sweat bee and a bumblebee forage on the earliest Echinacea blooms of the season. The sweat bees are especially beautiful to watch in the sun.

June 20 – Catnip is actually a great pollinator. I planted this last year and it really took off this spring. I’ve been watching all kinds of bees and hover flies swarm around.

June 24 – This next one might gross some people out – feel free to skip

I was recently cutting back suckers on a Crape Myrtle when I found a whole civilization of millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis, I believe) living in a crease in the stump underneath. I took a photo then also a video because the way they were all moving at the same time was completely mesmerizing.

June 27 – This is Euthyrhynchus floridanus, the Florida predatory stink bug, holding its prey. It’s a native stink bug that sometimes travels in packs to hunt other insects.

June 27 – A false wasp on English lavender. I think false wasps are some of the coolest looking flying insects in the garden.

Yarrow universe

Compared to other varieties, I have not been very impressed with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a plant for attracting pollinators. That changed this weekend when I looked more closely at our (much-expanded) clump of yarrow and noticed it swarming with a variety of insects. I planted it in spring 2020 and I imagine that for the past two growing seasons there wasn’t enough of it to attract the insect life I’m seeing today.

When I find some time, I would like to transplant some to the edges of my vegetable beds which are basically empty at the moment. I am not feeling particularly motivated to do veggies this year and I’m also dealing with a pretty overwhelming gastropod situation. Yarrow grows so densely it might deter the snails and slugs (and/or provide a sacrificial meal) while also attracting beneficial insects and apparently accumulating nutrients in the topsoil.

Flowers bloom in a world on fire

We are just exiting spring in Richmond. There are flowers on asters, peas, Spiderwort and mullein. Buds on the coneflower, beardtongue, yucca, and yarrow. And by the afternoon today and tomorrow, the temperatures are expected to approach triple digits, twenty degrees above average. Texas recently struggled to produce enough energy during a heat wave and in India birds fell from the sky. When I got home yesterday, with the weather and everything else on my mind, I was gifted a visit from a Luna moth.

Whenever I start to think that the garden is my responsibility, weeding, watering, and (unfortunately) overreacting when my toddler accidently tramples plants, I am reminded how fiercely nature is already fighting for itself. You can only take so much credit.

In a sort of baptism, I watered everything last night that I worried might be affected by the temperatures. I told the plants that rain with cooler air was on the way. I also wondered briefly if covering plants, typically something done to protect against a freeze, might soon become a summer-time protection from the heat.

I love the beauty and symbolism of gardens, but I also worry that the climate will change faster than we can adapt. I try to give what I have to give and hold on to gratitude for every bud and bloom.

Ajuga buzz

I have a few patches of Ajuga reptans in the back yard that have been swarming with carpenter bees for the last couple of weeks. It’s a great match because both the bees and the plant are so aggressive. I got buzzed by a few bees while I watched and they were constantly fighting each other. The plant is spreading so quickly that earlier this spring I contemplated digging it out, but after watching the bees I’ve decided I’m going to let it go for now. It’s also an attractive evergreen groundcover and, for now, there is plenty of room for it to spread.

Dogwood save

When I first moved in to the neighborhood, a man named Ly Hia walked over and talked to me about the plants on our property and how it had changed with previous owners over time. Whenever he drove by he would wave and smile and I spoke to him if I saw him outside. One time, a car with a flat tire pulled over near his house and the two of us worked trying unsuccessfully to change it.

A year ago, I learned that he had died. A post on NextDoor drew over 50 comments and neighbors shared stories about the man who had immigrated from Cambodia and made a life in Virginia. He had been an avid gardener and guerrilla tree trimmer around the neighborhood. I didn’t realize until he died that he had been keeping English ivy off of a Dogwood near his house. As the weather warmed, the ivy saw an opportunity and by last fall it had completely enveloped the tree, hanging low over the road.

On Election Day last November, a new work holiday, I decided to try and trim the vines. I didn’t have enough time to finish the project, but I cut them at the base of the trunk so they would gradually die off over the winter. Even the small portion of vines I removed filled an entire supercan.

This spring, I spent a few hours on a ladder removing all the remaining ivy and smothered limbs that had died. It was more work and way more dead plant material than I had expected. The tree suffered, but survived. A few weeks later I got the reward I had been hoping for: flowers for Lei, in memory of his energy and life.

Fothergillia

In the summer of 2019, my mom connected with the family of her birth father, Bill Fothergill. We learned that he was a fun-loving man with fair, British skin and dark, brown eyes. He had met my mom’s birth mom in New York City after college. It’s fun to imagine that my mom’s newfound origin story might somehow be tied to my irrational love for the city.

After learning about her birth family, I moved into a new house and began obsessively researching plants to fill the property. One shrub that I came across was Witch Alder, aka Fothergillia. I love the look of this shrub. The leaves are dark, shiny, and irregular. The flowers come before the leaves, starting as chartreuse buds (my favorite color) then blooming into clouds of white. In the fall the leaves turn a rich red-orange.

I feel a special connection to this plant because of my heritage. I don’t know if we are related to Dr. John Fothergill, the English plant collector who brought the plant back to England, but it seems plausible enough. Because of the connection and a general interest in the plant, I ordered two Fothergillia gardenii (dwarf witch alder) the second fall we lived in the house. I’ve watched them grow for the past year, one doing much better than the other, and started to recognize it in other settings beyond my garden.

This past July, while we were in Tennessee, I saw the familiar leaves and branches of Fothergillia. The shrubs were beautiful, large, and well-established. They were also putting out suckers all around. I told my sister about them and we talked about snagging some before we left. The last night of the trip, before dessert, we walked over to the flower beds and unceremoniously yanked as many suckers out of the ground as possible. We went back to the cabin, wrapped them in moist paper towels, and put them in plastic bags for the journey home.

I felt a little like Dr. John Fothergill, collecting specimens for my personal collection. I potted them, put them in a place with morning sun, and essentially forgot about them for the next few months.

Three of them survived and I planted them in the easement along our property where I hope they will thrive and spread for many years. I can’t wait to see the blooms in the spring after establishing their roots all winter and I hope to eventually have suckers to propagate and spread.

As my mom has learned about her birth families I have felt more drawn to the maternal, Italian heritage we discovered early on: the wine, the pasta, the crowded plazas. This reflection has helped me embrace my English heritage: gardening, walking, observing, and my growing collection of information, plants, and ideas.

Some compost strategies around the neighborhood

After writing the last post I went for a couple of walks around the neighborhood and started noticing other composting systems I wanted to save for future reference. Here are two plastic systems, one in a little bit better shape than the other. I like how the one on the left has a spot to pull out compost from the bottom, but I’m not sure the compost is able to breathe as much as it might want to. The stackable system would be cool since each element looks light enough to carry around the garden. I see what looks like avocado leaves growing just behind.

Next to that is a nice, simple, leaf compost system similar to mine just smaller and more vertical. It saves a lot of space in this little alley spot and still accomplishes the goal.

Here’s another leaf compost system that looks nice and doesn’t require any set up. Both this one and the one above could be replicated in the corner of a smaller patio or urban-scale garden.

Here is the view from above of the leaves with my Crocks making a cameo in the corner — the official shoe of COVID.

My neighbor across the back alley is serious about his composting. He told me that their ground was hard clay when they moved in years ago and they’ve built up a great topsoil with leaves and kitchen scrap compost. He mows his leaves to chop them up which accelerates the process. I definitely want to mulch my leaves somehow, but I just don’t have the time or energy so I take the slower route.

Speaking of the slower processes, I appreciate the vines growing into the compost. Even though they’re an invasive species, it’s a good reminder to me that the compost can provide nutrients for plants at every stage. I might try to work in smaller little compost holes into the middle of my vegetable garden beds next spring. If I sink the five-gallon bucket into the ground and fill it with compost I could also water the vegetables by filling the bucket and letting those nutrients seep out with the water and spread the compost in the same bed once it’s ready.

The Fonticello Food Forest has a solid system going in order to make use of the leftover donated food that spoils before it can be given away or is left unwanted. I love this kind of system because the slats can be removed for very easy access to the entire pile and like the slats double a signs that can be moved around as needed. The one on the left is just for leaves that are composting and also providing dry matter from the other piles. I need to incorporate some kind of sign that tells me which bucket to add scraps to along the same lines as the “FEED ME” sign on the far right.

For the record, bagging up leaves is still a composting system. The leaves in the bags below will decompose into beautiful leaf mold eventually, we just won’t have easy access to it when it’s ready. When I was young, we stacked bags of leaves like this probably 20 feet down the sidewalk. I loved how tidy the yard looked and it was so satisfying to the bags piled up when we finished the job. I think it’s safe to say this is still the norm. For now 🙂