Necessity, Fate and the Cultivation of Virtue

Thoughts on the Libra New Moon and Beyond

by Nan DeGrove

New Moon in Libra October 16th

Mercury retrograde October 14th-November 3rd

Sun in Scorpio October 23rd

Full Moon in Taurus October 31st

Mars direct in Aries November 14th

In Greek mythology, the patriarchal gods hurl thunderbolts, raise storms, cause earthquakes, burn mortals to ash, rape, lie, cheat, steal, and, occasionally protect and bestow fortune on mortal favorites.

But feminine deities, the Fates and the goddess of Necessity, Ananke, claim far more ancient and primordial powers. Ananke, in union with Chronos (Time) created the world, and is said to be the mother of the Fates, who spin, weave, and cut the threads of life. Necessity and the Fates give us our life, but also our fate, the purpose for which we are born, with its allotment of good and not-so-good fortune. It has long been a debate in Western thought whether we have free will, or are bound by fate. God gave Adam and Eve free will to take the apple, but was the fate arranged in advance that tempted Eve to pick that apple, and send us out of paradise and into the world? Astrology suggests that we have both fate and choice. The Fates assign us our families, ancestral heritage, our nationalities, ethnicities, and an inevitable, collective fate of the times into which we are born—the raw material from which we create our destiny.

A Year From Hell

This has been a fateful year on planet Earth: a global pandemic radically altering all aspects of life as we have known it, a return of the ghosts of 20th-century authoritarianism spreading in Western democracies, corruption of institutions and cultural norms that we have taken for granted, environmental crisis so massive we can barely comprehend it. While fate, whether personal or collective may be unavoidable, it can be mediated, as in fairy tales a curse is sometimes modified by the intervention of a good spirit. Sleeping Beauty and The Handless Maiden are but two examples.

In classical philosophy the cultivation of four cardinal virtues was religious and humanistic thought. They are Strength, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. In the Tarot they appear as Major Arcana cards of the same names, except for Prudence, which seems to fit best with the Hermit, or perhaps the World. Justice and Temperance are similar: Justice represents fairness, law, and worldly consequences of choices, past and future. Temperance seems more about handling conflicting forces within the individual psyche. Strength is courage, the task of taming the red lion, guiding the raw power of ego toward a higher purpose. Prudence represents foresight and wisdom. In times of chaos and confusion, the virtues help us resist being swept into a maelstrom of conflict and fear.  Perhaps we could work with just one or two of these in the days ahead. Justice and Strength seem more about outer-world challenges—injustice, violence, right action. Temperance and Prudence may relate more to coping with internal conflict and anxiety. These timeless virtues from the classical world—fundamental to the idea of a civil society and the common good, are as worthy of aspiration now as they were over two thousand years ago.

From the Waite-Rider-Smith Tarot deck.

It is wise (prudent) not to underestimate the volatility of the weeks ahead as we move into Scorpio and the Hallowe’en Full Moon. Mercury turns direct in Libra (sign of courts and legal matters) the day after a contentious election, and Mercury will be in a close square to Saturn, Jupiter and Pluto in Capricorn. Mars (conflict, violence) is still retrograde until November 14th. November 30th brings a lunar eclipse in Gemini, which is followed by a total solar eclipse in Sagittarius on December 14th. Just before the Winter Solstice both Saturn and Jupiter move into Aquarius. Perhaps this unusual convergence of planetary phenomena, with the Aquarian spirit of humanity and hope, will break the dark spell we have been under for almost four years.

May it be so.




The Rose of Venus, May 2020

by Nan DeGrove

Venus retrograde, May 13th-June 25th
Saturn retrograde, May 11th-September 29th
Jupiter retrograde, May 14th-September 13th
New Moon in Gemini, May 22nd

Venus, sister planet to our Earth, is dazzlingly beautiful and brilliant in the evening sky now, having reached her maximum brightness as she turns retrograde on May 13th.The retrograde cycles of Venus occur about every nineteen months, in eight years forming a complete cycle,returning retrograde in the same sign again: Venus was retrograde at 23 degrees of Gemini May 15th, 2012, and will be this May 13th at 22 Gemini. This eight-year orbit inscribes a five-pointed star, or a five-petaled rose in the zodiac. Because of this elegant cyclic geometry, known since ancient times, Venus has a rich lineage in myth, from Inanna, Isis, and Ishtar to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene — the “rose line” of the divine feminine.

Diagram of the Orbit of Venus

As I reflect on this special Venus cycle, the fifth petal of the rose, the closing of a circle, and the spiral of time, I’m drawn to the “Romance of the Rose,” a medieval French allegorical poem from the 13th century, that expresses the dream and longing of that age in its description of love’s quest, perils and lessons—timeless themes. In the poem a young man dreams of a beautiful rose that is hidden within a walled garden.

Wild Rose

The “rose” is a mysterious lover, or Venus / Mary / Soul, and the tale, which on the surface concerns courtly love, may also allude to an initiation into the Mysteries, vestige of a pagan past concealed from the official church. The pilgrim is led on his quest for the mystic Rose by Love. He navigates a thicket of thorns where he meets perils personified as Fear, Shame, and Slander, among others. The poem is long and meandering like a labyrinth as the pilgrim faces many tests and draws nearer to the elusive object of his devotion. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones depicted a poignant scene from the quest in this painting. Burne-Jones did three canvases based on the poem, but this one is the most moving. It was his last major completed work before his death in 1898, and he took years to finish it. Surely it reflected his own quest for the mystic Rose, divine beauty. Note the many birds in the painting.

Love and the Pilgrim, 1896-7 Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1833-1898

Retrogrades in May

The retrograde theme of May, which in the case of Saturn and Jupiter carries us through September, seems to, at the very least, mark an inward, uncertain time. Taking premature action will backfire. Saturn and Jupiter are planets of collective change and crisis They come together every twenty years and synchronize with the U.S. presidential election—1940, 1960, 1980, 2000, 2020. It’s likely that we will not have a “normal” election in November. More on that later in the year.

Venus retrograde is much concerned with values. What is of true worth in our lives, and what false values distract from those things? In Gemini, Venus evokes the beauty and magic of language. The materialized world we’ve been in often corrupts language with commerce words, like algorithm, or brand, applied to people; words that don’t mean what they seem to mean, as well as Orwellian lies and slogans that confuse and distract. This Venus retrograde can be a time for beautiful writing, reading, and speech. It can also be a time to write letters and notes, by hand, to keep a day book of thoughts.

The New Moon will be in Gemini on May 22nd, and, on the 23rd, the Moon will be conjunct Venus. In her retrograde phase, Venus is on her way to the underworld (time of invisibility), disappearing from the evening sky by early June, to reappear at the end of June as the Morning Star.

Peace, love, and health,

In These Days

by Mimi Hedl

In my journal, on the top of each right-hand page, I write the month and year. Now, under that entry I include the words, “in these days of…” In future times those words will serve to remind me of what the world endured and how we reacted, after we pulled through it all, if we learned to take better care of each other and our Earth, or, if, as so often happens with our best intentions, we slip into old habits.

Spring has come into its own in a slow, deliberate way. Each day I witness the unwinding of rebirth, though sometimes it seems magical, instantaneous, like the plumage of the gold and purple finches. One day they looked drab and blended into the landscape; the next day the feeder explodes with color, the yellows and purples rich like the blossoming redbuds.

clean blue cohosh roots

Years ago I planted blue cohosh. She flourished in the shade of a buttonbush (cephalanthus occidentalis) behind the house. Every spring I’d admire her return, something about the way the leaves move in the breeze, delicate blue-green leaves on slender stems. I’d stop often to admire the beauty, then move on to another task. Spring seldom gives us time to luxuriate in a moment.

This spring I realized I’ve never seen her flower; as soon the ferns and meadow rue and countless other shade-loving plants fill the space and blue cohosh disappears in the flurry. The flowers don’t amount to much, like a meadow rue or other quieter plants in this buttercup family. It’s the ultramarine seed pod that holds the attraction and I’d like to witness that in these gardens.

When I saw her come up I decided this would be the spring I’d finally transplant her. On a cool, over-cast day, I dug her out. Never having transplanted this herb before, I didn’t know what to expect, what kind of root system, how deep I’d have to go. The stems on this herb grow slender and tall, as I mentioned (similar to a columbine, but not as strong) and have only one compound leaf. In other words, they seem fragile.

One thing I know about transplanting: you can cut back the stems, the leaves on most perennials, right to their base. The roots hold the energy and will quickly respond to the threat of annihilation by producing more leaves. With these stems so slender, the leaves so fragile, I cut them all off. I could not imagine the roots supporting such a delicate burden as they reconfigure their new home.

I left a good clump in the original homeland and took an equal measure to cut and clean, examine and prepare for a new home, in the Medicinal garden. Blue cohosh has a history of medicinal uses with Native American women as a uterine tonic and was used by women in labor. (hence the use of “she”) We question the safety of this herb today and I grow blue cohosh for its beauty and historical interest, not to use medicinally.

One task like this, working in one square foot, led to the uncovering of fragile ferns and sensitive ferns, wild geranium and Solomon’s seal. How a garden fills with roots! I filled buckets with the plants to move to new homes and extend their boundaries. Before I knew it, I’d spent another day in the garden, down on my knees, hands in the earth.

slender stems on blue cohosh

I think of Brother Cadfael at these times, the fictional medieval monk in his monastery gardens at Shrewsbury, who Ellis Peters created in her Cadfael mystery series. Most of us feel an affinity for real or fictional characters. I see myself as a devoted fan, slightly in love with Brother Cadfael, but mostly sharing a mutual love of plants. At the end of the day when I realize, again, I forgot to wear gloves, and look at my stained, garden-worn hands, I shake my head and yet know any other gardener, especially Brother Cadfael, would recognize the hands as one who loves the earth.

In these times, with so much uncertainty, we gardeners go to our temenos, however small, however humble, it becomes our refuge, our friend. I find myself going through my seeds and pulling out seeds I haven’t grown for years, like mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant children love to touch. I’ll enjoy giving
this to a friend whose flower-loving grand daughter is with her. The cold frame fills with plants as does the garden under the lights upstairs.

We garden for all those who can’t, to keep hope for a better tomorrow alive, saving our seeds and passing them on. Can’t you envision a world where we all have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers? Let alone clean water and health care. Our city planners and architects will feel inspired from this moment too and perhaps have plans for how our cities can adapt to our needs.

Although a difficult time, it’s also ripe with energy for creativity. Don’t you feel it in yourself? Haven’t you come up with solutions that make you brim with pride? Let art surface in all of us, in art’s infinite forms, so we can laugh and smile at the beautiful world we live in.

Renaissance Light: Beauty in a Dark Time, April, 2020

by Nan DeGrove

Beauty beguiles, delights, disturbs, consoles, lifts the spirit laden with worldly care, but it does something even more important in such times as we are in now: it calls to us across time. La Primavera (c. 1482) Botticelli’s masterpiece, is surely one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. It was created at a time not unlike our own. The Black Plague, which had broken out in the previous century, continued to rage unchecked across the known world. It was a time of extremes: the flowering of humanism that would define the Renaissance, political intrigue, war, and religious mania. A monk named Savonarola inflamed Florence with apocalyptic prophecies and sermons against secular art. He called for “bonfires of vanities,” public burning of luxury goods and profane art. It is speculated that Botticelli even cast some of his paintings into the holy fire, as he was for a time, a follower of Savonarola.

La Primavera expresses the refinement of intellect and imagination that characterizes the Italian Renaissance — the study of astrology, mythology, philosophy, alchemy, and the creation of allegorical works of art rich in symbolism and multilayered meaning. The painting takes us on a journey, through the seasons and the Zodiac, into an enchanted garden where time stands still.

On the right of the procession, Zephyr, the West Wind, pursues the nymph, Chloris, who transforms into the goddess Flora. These figures relate to the primordial passion of Spring. There are many theories about the symbolism. The seasonal progression is central, as is the astrological:

Zephyr—March/Aries; Chloris—April, May/Taurus; Flora—May,June/Gemini; Venus/Mary—Summer Solstice; the Graces—August,September/ Leo—Virgo; and Mercury─the Fall Equinox/Libra.

Mary is Venus, synthesizing pagan and Christian imagery, but I wonder if she might be Psyche (soul), too, and the small cupid, topmost and central in the composition, is Eros/Christ, divine love, aiming his arrow.

If Mary/Venus/Psyche is the priestess of the tableau, then Mercury is the priest, directing us, with his uplifted staff, toward the transmutation of earthly into divine beauty, and back again, bringing heavenly beauty into matter. Botticelli’s message and philosophy of humanism, Christian mysticism, and astrology are encoded in this work of mysterious otherworldly, yet imminent beauty. Though we have lost much of the knowledge of Platonic philosophy, alchemy, astrology and poetry that illuminated Botticelli’s world, the painting speaks for itself, to us, across time.

Peace, love and good health,

March Madness

by Nan DeGrove

Full Moon in Virgo, March 9th
Mercury direct, March 10th
Spring Equinox, March 19th, 9:49 p.m. MDT
Saturn in Aquarius, March 22nd
Mars in Aquarius, March 31st

The month of March brings a wild ride of planetary activity in this changeable time between seasons. We sail deeper into the waters of Pisces. Crosswinds and undercurrents challenge our navigational skill. Nothing seems fixed or certain, with Mercury retrograde contributing to a mood of dreaminess, distraction and deception. In this watery flux important alchemy is happening, even if we can’t see it. Old forms dissolve, hardened attitudes soften, and discarded fragments of experience reveal hidden value. People from the past may reappear, either in dreams or waking life, with a message, a reminder of something to remember or heal. Mercury turning direct at 28 Aquarius on the 10th follows the Full Moon in Virgo on the 9th. This is an extra powerful full Moon, as it gets a boost from Mercury, bringing Virgo themes—health, women, work, truth — into the prominence for the remainder of the month.

Pisces and Virgo are signs of health and healing—physical, mental, spiritual and environmental— especially environmental, as the poisoning and suffering of the natural world affects all levels of human health. How do we heal this immense malaise? Pisces reminds us that we are all connected in an invisible etheric, empathic web, and literally through the air and water that sustain us. Now, with a mysterious virus spreading around the world, we are acutely aware of this web. In his masterpiece, The Plague, written in 1947, the French writer Albert Camus wrote of a group of men in their different struggles with their humanity in the face of an epidemic, which at first is denied, then, as chaos and death spread, reveals the moral core of each character. His novel was, and is, an allegory for a different plague: Fascism, which he saw as always latent and ready to mutate and spread again. The novel, in a literary genre called “the absurd,” which arose after the trauma of the Second World War and the Holocaust, addresses the search for meaning and humanity in an “absurd” (meaningless) world. The emergence of the coronavirus in these times of increasing threat to democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere suggests that Camus’ allegory may be a warning for our time.

What does astrology have to offer in this malaise? Deep astrology goes to the very heart of what it means to be human, through the archetypes of the signs, and the cyclic motion of planets which serve to illuminate past events, give guidance and warning for the future, and reveal hidden order in the chaos and confusion of existence.

The Muses
As I reflect on our lives and times in relation to the stars and the vast timelessness of the universe, I think of Clio, the Muse of History. She is one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, goddesses and guardians of the arts and culture. Daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory), the Muses inspire works of art, dance, music, science, astrology, poetry and memory. They live in galleries, schools, museums, theaters, gardens and books. Their original home is the mythic Mount Helicon where they became the mistresses of Pegasus, the winged horse, who was foaled from the severed head of Medusa. Fountains of inspiration flowed when he struck the Mount Helicon ground with his golden hooves.

The Poet on Pegasus With The Muses, Eldridge Kingsley, 1890

Clio, the Muse of history, is portrayed with a book, or a scroll, in her hand. In her books are found the lessons of history, both noble and tragic. An historical perspective expands awareness of our connection to the past, all the pathos of the human struggle, the rise and fall of empires, seemingly endless wars, but also the highest aspirations and creations of long ago civilizations. But history offers something even more valuable — illumination of the present. Astrology provides a unique perspective on history, as planetary cycles repeat, and define periods of growth and decline, expansion and contraction, death and rebirth.

Several planetary cycles are noteworthy this year. Two are of special interest: Saturn is conjunct Jupiter, spanning late Capricorn and early Aquarius from February 2020 to March 2021. Both are planets of “social destiny” concerned with finance, education, law, the courts and general collective mood. The conjunction is a twenty-year cycle that is synchronistic with the U.S. presidential election, occurring previously in 1960, 1980, 2000, and now in 2020.

Plutonian America
The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction is uniquely potent as Pluto is in the mix, Saturn and Jupiter relate more or less to ordinary reality; Pluto is a transformative power that comes from the unconscious. Pluto has a 248-year cycle and now begins to make a return to its starting point in the U.S. chart, testing the national soul. The democratic spirit of 1776, always an abstraction, now has become corrupt. Even in the midst of this corrupt phase (alchemical blackness), rebirth may happen. From decay, new life.

Spring Equinox
In the midst of the flux and uncertainty of the times, the Equinox brings the eternal drama of life renewing itself, green shoots pushing out of the dark earth, birds nesting, Persephone returning from the underworld. There is a major shift in the atmosphere at the Equinox as Saturn, after two years in Capricorn, enters Aquarius. Saturn will retrograde back into Capricorn July 2nd. Meanwhile, may the Aquarian spirit of unity, optimism and hope for the future be renewed.

Pegasus with the Muses, Wedgewood China

Happy Spring,

Transplanting the Galanthus

by Mimi Hedl

As I cleaned up the Cottage garden, I spied large clumps of snowdrops. The bulbs grew so close together, each flower stalk skinny and deprived; the flowers the same, small, not healthy like the robust snowdrops that grow on the edge of the Meditation garden. I sunk my gardening fork into a clump, just like that, and decided to transplant the snowdrops.

In England, on large estates or in the countryside, this lovely bulb, galanthus nivalis, never needs dividing. When grown on hillsides or among trees in the woodlands, they spread and spread and colonize huge areas, as if they were humble like a blade of grass. I’ve seen photographs and the sight simply takes my breath away.

We make do with whatever piece of earth we have and learn how to make our dreams come true. I have a vision of snowdrops covering the area between the Meditation and Medicinal gardens, under the ginkgo tree and near the native hydrangea. With transplants in my basket, I set to work putting three small bulbs, each the size of a large pea, in a 3-inch-deep hole, filling in the hole with compost. I stayed down on my knees for the better part of a working day, four hours, and then a few more hours the next day. From twenty-four bulbs I had hundreds and hundreds. The miracle of the loaves and fishes.

These tight clumps of snowdrops have grown undisturbed since they were planted nineteen years ago. The Cottage garden has not received much attention over these years, I’ve just let everything grow jumbled together. Now that I have no bamboo, quince or rose of Sharon to eradicate, my attentions can go to fine-tuning the various gardens.

I felt somewhat guilty for such a frivolous activity, dividing the snowdrops. Shouldn’t I be doing something more? More what? Valuable? And I laugh at myself and carry on. The earth feels cool and somewhat wet. This seems good. Snowdrops don’t like to dry out at all and transplanting them “in the green” is a very English way. I could never find them come autumn anyway and will pot up one clump and put them in a pot for a few friends who can’t get them until much later. As I work, honeybees come to harvest pollen and I smile, my purpose insured.

Recycling the Feathers

by Mimi Hedl

A few wet, wet days kept my activities outside to a minimum. Gooshing in wet soil does not make for a happy camper. On a snowy day I’d done a bit of cleaning-out-of-the-closets. In my case, it was under the bed. Two beautiful down sleeping bags had worn thin and mice had nibbled into the nylon, exposing feathers. Either I mend, or I recycle.


These decisions do not come easily. What do we do with STUFF we see as valuable, but no one wants to invest the time in restoring? Maybe new enterprises have opened to deal with upgrading rundown objects, if so, I’d like to know about them. In the meantime, I, who loves order, deal with my stuff.

I took a box cutter to the nylon, down at the compost. I won’t say it seemed like the right thing to do, but I have visions of my family having to take care of my largess after I’ve gone to my reward, and certainly two mouse nibbled sleeping bags would make them raise their eyebrows, which they’ll do, regardless.

The feathers poured out. Beautiful feathers. I would’ve coveted them when we first came to Strawdog and I plucked our geese to make down pillows. The insanity of it all…So I pull out all the feathers, filled with nitrogen, cover them with compost and in less than a year they will have become one with the soil. So it goes in this rich country. Waste abounds.

Covered with Compost

The old garlic braid rotted after hanging for many, many years. One snowy day I braided an equally long braid of lemon grass I’d stored in the root cellar, and hung the devil’s claw and the bones from a possum on the braid. It will proudly hang for many years, charming the birds who come to perch on it, in turn delighting me.

Devil’s Claw with Lemon Grass and Bones

Hops Arbor (Part Two)

by Mimi Hedl

Death Proscenium Garden in Decline

Ron and I both did most jobs. The exceptions: he cut the grass, worked on the truck, did the heavy lifting, the carpentry while I did most of the planting, weeding and sowing. I wish I’d watched more closely, all those jobs he did, now I have to learn without a teacher. And I start with a handicap, lack of patience. I curse myself every time I rush through a task. I realize I’ll spend the rest of my life learning the one virtue, yes one, I don’t have.

Back to the house I load my wheelbarrow with shovel, post-hole digger, tamping bar, tape measure and head out to the Medicinal garden. No sooner out than I realize I forgot gloves and walk the 150 paces back to the house. I will repeat this back and forth dozens of times before I complete the task. Always another tool, re-drilling a hole, cutting off a bit more, choosing another post….

The digging goes well. The earth, mellowed by years of added organic material, offers no resistance. The rotted post falls over and before long, I’ve gone down two feet, where I’ll plant the new post. In goes the post, I shovel in some soil, position the post and tamp, tamp, tamp down the soil.

This part of the job takes forever. I remember when we used to set corner fence posts or brace posts. It would be spring, the weather intoxicating. While Ron tamped the post in place, I’d do my best spring-appreciation, looking around at emerging leaves, watching birds flitting from tree to tree, even lying on the grass for awhile. I never thought to volunteer to tamp for awhile. It looked so easy. Oh my, oh my. Easy, yes, but repeated over and over and over. Your arms tire as do your hands, not to mention the jarring to your body.

I’d help add more soil and Ron would usually say, “Not so much!” I’d want to get the job done, fill the hole and move on. Ron knew that if you didn’t give the post proper instruction, it would wiggle and move, especially when a big bull leaned on it to scratch an itch.

So I follow this slow process, letting the post know I expect it to hold up this hops arbor for another thirty years. I feel grateful for my leather gloves and understand how Thirsty, one of Ron’s pen names, along with Romeo Romeo, Sylvester Clinkscales and Thersites, wore out so many pairs.

The second post doesn’t need to come out completely, as I can push it into a vertical position, tamp the soil, and call it set. Now, on to the next phase. (When you finish reading this, you’ll feel like you too did the job.)

Now that the foundation, the four main posts seemed secure, I wanted to join the front ones together and the back ones. I think by joining these two pairs with more than gravity, they will stay together. I thought I could stick a small post, horizontally, between them, nail it in, and call it good, pronounce them attached, forever together. Ah yes, the utter simplicity of an idea; if only…

This task would captivate most of the rest of the day. Remember, these cedars have scars from limbs, they don’t stand smooth, so when I tried to measure the distance between the two posts, I couldn’t get an accurate measure, mostly because I couldn’t hold the tape measure in place long enough. After more attempts than I’ll admit to, I picked up a piece of straight bamboo, and used it for a measuring stick.

(Whenever I have construction problems, I think of how girls, in general, never did this work growing up. We didn’t have a chance to learn, make mistakes, curse and then finally triumph. I used to watch Thirsty curse and rant and rave when things didn’t work out saying things like,”I’m nothing but a junk wood carpenter! Why can’t I ever have a fine piece of wood to work with!?” To which I’d reply, “because it wouldn’t match your personality or lifestyle.” So I allow myself all these mistakes, all the imperfections in work, because in my seventh decade, I’m just learning, and I feel proud I’m willing to take on the mantle of junk-wood carpenter.)

I took that measurement back to the saw horses, found an appropriate post, cut it, pre-drilled a few holes, and back to the arbor. As I mentioned, when cedar sits around for 30+ years and sheds the white outer bark, the heart wood becomes like iron, strong and mighty and not agreeable to hammering without first pre-drilling a hole. Thirsty didn’t have a portable drill, but he had green cedar and fresh cedar will accept a nail without drilling, so he simply pounded everything in. I do have a battery-powered drill, but it’s not very powerful so if I need to drill a big fat hole to slip a big fat nail into, I use the electric drill.

Well, when I pre-drilled the holes, I didn’t hold the post up to see where the holes should go, but I also figured it couldn’t make that much difference. Do you laugh with me or at me? I deserve both. When I got up on my stool to try to drill from the pre-drilled hole into the cedar post, the scars on the cedar, where and how they jutted out, made everything higgily jiggily .. I could not attach this cedar to the posts. If by now you’re wondering why in the tarnation I’m doing this rebuild, you are not alone.

Then I thought, well, I’ll just cut a cedar a little longer, use a 4# sledge hammer to beat it in place. After cutting, doing the 150 paces on several different pieces of cedar, I finally found one that cooperated. Yes!! I exclaimed, then went to work on the back set of posts, using the same technique, brute strength. When I beat the back one in, the front one fell out. Remember, I couldn’t nail these pieces in place because of all the odd protrusions on each post. I think I started to cry and call myself unkind names.

After lunch and a nap, I realized I needed to attach those horizontals differently. I walked 200 paces to the hay barn, where I store a wonderful collection of, well, junk wood, some pine, some treated, but mostly old, beautiful barn wood, oak, weathered to a gorgeous gray, just like me and found a 2″x4″ chunk I cut into blocks, pre-drilled holes, and attached the blocks under the place the horizontal will go. This gave me a platform to rest the horizontal so I could breathe deeply and declare “I’m a genius!” and nail the cedar into the block at my leisure.

This worked beautifully. I started to feel more confident. I found a cedar that squeezed into the space between the back two posts, hammered it in place, it held, then got up on the stool, drilled holes in this small cedar, and sent it home. Now I needed to attach the long horizontal that sits on top of the posts, front to back, to box all the posts together.

When I had selected the post that needed replacing, the front one, I’d drilled an over-sized hole in the top, dead center, as I realized, genius that I am, that I wouldn’t be able to drill this big hole with my portable drill, so I drilled it at the saw horses. So now I had one pre-ordained hole for the long horizontal. I just had to match the hole on the horizontal to line-up with this hole. (If you’re tired of all this, think about how I felt!)

First I’d mark where the hole should go, carry the post back to the saw horses and drill the hole. Then I’d carry the long cedar back to the site, drop the big nail in the over-sized hole and look for the hole in the post, discover the angle was slightly off so the pole wouldn’t sit/lay properly. Then I’d have to do the 150 steps again, and again, trying to get everything to line up. Finally it works out. I trudge back to the house. It’s way past quitting time, I feel spent, ready for a beer and the news, hoping I have leftovers in the fridge because I have zero energy to make dinner.

The next day, revived from a sound sleep, I go out to the arbor and begin positioning the vertical posts against each side. I reject a few as too short, and have more stored behind the woodshed to choose from. The horizontals go in between all the verticals, so they all help each other stay in place. The interlocking strategy. What could look more simple than this humble hops arbor. Imagine it covered, completely covered with hops vines, greater celandine and daffodils at its feet, followed by valerian and columbines, blue bells and thimbleweed. Any number of other medicinals leaning against it as the head gardener ducks inside the shady tunnel on a scorching summer day. Only you and I will know the history of this lovely entrance.

Hops Arbor (Part One)

by Mimi Hedel

At no time do garden structures show their charm more than in winter, when all the vines and plantings have disappeared and only their skeletons remain, leaving the structures in starring roles. Most of the arbors and trellises Ron built thirty years ago have begun to show signs of age, sagging, rot and decrepitude have sneaked in.

These qualities can seem charming when the plants grow in their glory; but now, as I walk from garden to garden, surveying the scene, I have to avert my eyes from the grape arbor in Brother Cadfael’s garden with two rotten cedar posts, the arbor wavering, slightly drunk; the Death garden proscenium falling apart in several interesting ways, how will I resurrect this? And the Medicinal garden’s entrance, the hops arbor, has started to lean so badly the cedar poles that cover the top have fallen off. I didn’t see the deterioration before, only the beauty and the gentle support those structures provide. Now, ai yai yaiiii! Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.

Cadfael’s Arbor, Sober

All gardens need an entrance, a doorway, a passage. As you enter a garden you enter into another world, each garden distinct in how it feels, the light vs. shade, what plants grow within and where you sit to view it all. The entrance gives you a clue as to what you’ll find inside. At Strawdog, from both need and aesthetics, we’ve mostly used native materials to create these structures, cedar, oak, sassafras, and bamboo too.

Harvested from the woods or fence rows, these materials feel part of our world and after they’ve hung around for over thirty years, the cedar posts especially take on character. When you see the scars, up and down the post where countless branches grew, the post tells a story, as well do the posts with no scars, straight and smooth. The soil, the light, the struggle, the competition all contribute to the nature of the cedar.

And these cedars that Ron harvested years ago, have shed the outer white bark and only the inner bark, the heart wood, the all red, remains. Those posts, those pure heart wood cedars, they will last more than a lifetime. When you cut a cedar and see only white, maybe with a pencil-thin heart of red, you reject it for all except a Christmas tree or foil to put in the pond for fish to hide. Farmers used to use cedar, almost exclusively, for fence posts, as they knew a good red cedar would last. Granted, they don’t drive as easily as modern steel posts, but you can’t put a bluebird house on a steel post, you’ll spend eight bucks for a steel post, and they offer no fragrance.

I could write an ode to cedar. I’ve grown to love this tree, the wood, the smell, the berries, the cover. I treasure my stash of vintage cedars, all shapes and sizes. I love to sit under a cedar as snow comes down. And to watch the birds flock into a dense cedar for the night when a storm pushes in.

So with great respect and pleasure, I take apart this cedar arbor, undoing what Ron did, to give the arbor new life. I lay all the vertical cedars from each side in their own pile, and the cedars that go on top, their pile. Now only the four main posts and the two horizontal top pieces that join the front and back posts, and allow a framework for the verticals and horizontals to lean on, remain. It looks so naked, vulnerable and it takes me back to when the Park started to become a reality with punctuation marks like this arbor.

(Sometimes I wonder why I write about process instead of just having the job completed, and, oh yeah, look at this! Partly I feel in awe I CAN DO these things and also, I respect process. No one realizes what anyone else does, we just see product. By explaining what I do, I give reverence to the process and hopefully let you know you can do these things too.)

With this stark skeleton, it becomes obvious the hops arbor needs one new post, having rotted off in the ground and barely holding the arbor together. It also needs one other post dug out and re-positioned as time has pushed it out of line, way out of line. So the left side looks good the right side needs work. The long horizontal piece joining the front post to the back post comes down too. As I take the long pole down I think about Ron, the architect of my dreams, creating this arbor, as I bounded about the gardens, weeding and planting.

— to be continued