My Counting Sheep: Queen Anne’s Lace

During a rare bout of insomnia this morning (Is it insomnia, if it’s rare?), I tried a version of counting sheep that only made things worse, but let me start yesterday afternoon.

Getting excited about the prospect of leaving New York City for someplace further up the Hudson Valley, I’ve been reading a first-person account of an early Dutch settler’s description of the land and the people who lived here. Adriaen van der Donck published A Description of New Netherland in 1653 to keep the Dutch public interested in the colony around New Amsterdam. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World claims van der Donck as a sort of American proto-patriot, a democratic agitator whose vision for New Amsterdam found expression in the Revolution that only came years after the Dutch had given the colony up.

A disciple of Hugo Grotius who was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages, he was, among other things, the first North American civil rights lawyer, a guy the Indians knew they could at least ask to represent them if a Dutch or English settler broke the terms of an agreement.

From "A Description of New Netherland," translated by Charles Gehring.

From “A Description of New Netherland,” translated by Charles Gehring.

A few years ago, when my head was completely in the city, I might have skimmed the chapters on nature and agriculture, but now I can’t get enough detail about how to grow squash. Knowing that van der Donck was making a case for our region, you can’t help but marvel at the compliments he comes up with. In his description of “the South River,” i.e. the Delaware, he says, “Well-traveled observers rank this river with the most attractive anywhere and compare it to the superb Amazon River, not so much for its size as for the other outstanding qualities…” We can cut him a break for having never seen even a photo of the Amazon, but if that’s how far he’d go to make a case, then how funny that he’d devote paragraphs to how easy it is to grow pumpkins and melons here.

With his lists of vegetables on my mind, I went to sleep but woke up just four hours later. My oversampling of distilled agave with lime earlier in the night might have had something to do with it, but I was wide awake! Ever since I read a few years ago that we once divided the night between “first sleep” and “second sleep,” and waking up for a while in the middle of the night was considered perfectly healthy, and since I rarely have to set an alarm for anything early morning, I’ve tried not over-reacting to sleeplessness and instead gotten up and read for a while. This morning, however, I knew my wife would be getting up early and wanted to let her sleep, so I vowed to do all I could to join her.

My usual method for this, my “counting sheep,” was to name the U.S. presidents backwards in time. I can do this, give or take a few pre-Civil War slave masters, all the way to Washington. I get riled up thinking about Rutherford B. Hayes, so my method changed to listing first ladies. These I get cloudy on after Lou Hoover (who was, incidentally, fluent in Chinese), which doesn’t always give me enough time to get bored and fall asleep.

Lately I’ve taken to counting off the numbers, and substituting something else for the prime numbers only, then remembering and repeating them. For example, if I chose colors one night, it’d go: “One, yellow, green, four, blue, six, orange, eight, nine, ten, purple, twelve,” etc. Here’s what didn’t work this morning, and I’ll tell you why:

Thinking of van der Donck, I decided to list some crop I could grow, if I had a plot of land a hundred miles north of here, in place of every prime number, but not only that! That plant had to begin with the letter in the alphabet that corresponds with the number, the way the Hebrew alphabet is also its numbers. So I was listing, “…Gourds, eight, nine, ten, Kale, twelve, Marjoram, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, Quince, eighteen, Sage, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, Watermelon…”

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It was too exciting! I had too many moving parts to keep an eye on. I was thinking about prime numbers, and why they tend to come in clusters. That secret’s in the multiples of three: Three land three times between one and nine, responsible for two of them (3 and 9) being composite, and not prime, numbers. Then they go into a sort of hiding for a decade, doubling up with other multiples on 12, 15, and 18. It’s these areas, every third decade – the teens, the forties, and seventies – that tend to have lots of prime number.

The Three is like the Bishop in chess: It can go many places, but some it can’t. Already I was thinking, “He gets lazy.” I’d given this number a personality, but I wanted to see just how lazy, and the answer was “Pretty damn lazy.” The forties would have a prime number infestation if not for Seven times seven! (The Seven is like the Knight in chess, who swoops in from an unexpected direction.) I had so much to look forward to, I exhausted the alphabet, crops corresponding to prime numbers and all, and had to start again at 27 as letter A, with new vegetables for any letter that already had one, so it was “…twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, Cabbage, thirty, English peas, thirty two,” etc., all the way to 43, which was Q, and I’d already used Quince. Now I was wracking my brain to think of another crop that starts with Q. All I could figure was Queen Anne’s Lace, which grows like a weed in cow pastures. I had to change the rules, to make the numbers come and go quicker. It was simply too exciting. I am still, in fact, awake, four hours later.

Whatever your counting sheep is, you are walking a thin line between coming up with something that is monotonous and rhythmic enough to lull you, and just scintillating enough to keep your attention. Good morning!

Summer Writing, and Gardening

I love when summer gets its heat inside the bricks of the house, and the butter in the dish on the counter gets so soft round the clock you have to hold the blade of your butter knife horizontal during the brief airlift to the slice of toast.

I keep a short list of priorities tacked to my wall, and this summer the top of the list reads, “The computer is for writing, outdoors for thinking.” It’s a dual reminder. One, don’t waste time watching cat and goat videos – not too much anyway. Two, if you’re spacing out instead of getting words on a page, don’t waste time staring at an idle screen, go outside and think about it. I have always gotten more accomplished during summer than winter, even though it’s filled with so many more distractions, the sun being number one. It could just be a matter of the sense that you need less sleep. In summer, give me six hours, and I’m a tiger. Come October, I crave the full eight.

The mazus reptans (center) and the ajuga (right) were by design, the clover (left) a concession.

The mazus reptans (center) and the ajuga (right) were by design, the clover (left) a concession.

I wrote last summer about my affection for common garden weeds, which is only getting deeper now that they’ve turned me. There’s so much shade in our tiny urban plot, it’s hard to grow grass. Other plants want to grow there, and I’ve started letting them have their respective preserves.

Clover has three generous patches, one over the grave of a dear, departed wild cat named Merv, whom I buried back in April. Anything else that tries to get inside the clover patch, I pull. Moss gets the shadiest region along the back fence – though I’m finding it hard to pull other weeds out without pulling up a divot of moss, even when it’s soaking wet. Ladies thumbs have their autonomous regions. Even the ugly wild plantain gets a patch, where no dandelion is allowed.

My wife is a master gardener, at planting things. I am the master of taking things away – removing what I don’t want there – and the results are shaping up. It occurred to me while pulling weeds that summer gardening is like summer writing.

Most writers I know, good and bad, are full of ideas. Fecund with them. Lousy with them. Brimming with them. “Wouldn’t it be great if…” “Imagine if…” They just come up with lots of stories or metaphors. It’s magic, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. The hard part is making any sense of it. Knowing when to take away.

I’ve read most of the major books about screenwriting, and most of them pay some lip service to the Rosetta Stone of all writing guides, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Egri was a playwright who taught that a play must be about a thesis, and that thesis gets proven by a dichotomous pair of characters. It’s tough love from a Hungarian grandpa to all dreamy-eyed writers: Don’t just throw ideas on a page, start with a premise. You can see, when you watch a play from when Egri’s teaching was most widely accepted – a Tennessee Williams or a William Inge, for example – just how powerful this kind of writing can be.

If only it came so naturally. Writing, I find, is more like weeding. Your brain is a fertile patch of dirt. Stuff is going to sprout out of it. If it doesn’t, maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. The trick is to collect it on a page and then try to make sense of it. If I’ve learned anything from my garden, it’s that to make anything beautiful, you have to keep pulling – and don’t hesitate to yank out giant handfuls, because this stuff will indeed keep growing back.

Good Plants, Bad Plants, and “Bad Plants”

Seeing that it’s futile to grow grass in my tiny back yard in Brooklyn, I’ve decided to break it up into autonomous zones for various weeds. I slowly made the decision over the summer, and finalized it yesterday by printing labels for the most common ones, giving the tactical retreat an “I meant to do that” patina.

Labels say, "I meant to do that."

Labels say, “I meant to do that.”

 

If God intended to endow all humans with “certain inalienable Rights,” as the saying goes, then He certainly intended for every patch of dirt on the western tip of Long Island to be covered in dandelions, broadleaf plantain, clover, and lady’s thumbs, and who am I to resist His holy intentions?

It started in the neglected, odd places that aren’t quite “garden” and aren’t quite “lawn” in the American use of those words. The “taint” in a brand new sense. When I saw how hardy and goofily pretty the lady’s thumbs growing by the compost pile were, I privileged these “weeds” with a few patches, and within weeks they became a border around most of our garden. Meanwhile I was waging war against the plantain, which killed any grass I tried planting in the dirt patches. Back-to-nature sorts kept telling me the plantains were edible, but if you saw how many batteries and shards of glass I find in this soil you wouldn’t eat anything that grows in it either.

My inspiration was Stephen Dunn’s poem “Bad Plants,” one of a handful I’ve been memorizing while gardening this year. “Bad Plants” questions the absoluteness of the distinction gardeners make between good plants and invasive species, comparing them to human relationships, with “the beautiful and the dangerous/ in one package.” After talking knowledgably about a few of them, Dunn lays out his case:

“All of them are inclined

to choke out what’s native.

Bad plants? Nature of course would say, Careful now,

watch your language, let’s just see

what survives.”

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

 

Dunn ultimately concludes that, despite his soft spot for them, you can’t really afford to give them a foothold in your garden. “Never make a deal,/
 I’d say, with kudzu,/ or become purple loosestrife’s Neville Chamberlain.”

So I guess it’s against the master’s greater judgment, but I’m giving broadleaf plantain its autonomous zone, common moss its homeland, and clover its nation-state. Let’s just see what survives. I can always soak them and rip them out in the spring.