When I was a child of 6 I had a bunny. Her name was Cinnabun due to her cinnamon color (not because of my affinity for cinnamon buns, though it is strong and not for Cinnabon the company. It was not even around at this point. Gasp! Contain yourself, or at least try to) and because she was a bun (short for bunny, ya know?). My parents had divorced years earlier and so she was a Dad’s House Bunny instead of a Go With Me Everywhere type bunny. And that was o.k., or so I thought.
Cinnabun made my time at my Dad’s house more bearable for me and she had been a breath of fresh, non-murderous air from my previous Dad’s House pets. My previous Dad’s House pets had all seemed to be been living out some sort of Roman Coliseum enactment. I had owned two rats whom had been incorrectly sexed as girls. I came to find out quickly that they were, in fact, boys. Two male rats might as well be two warring tigers, each with meat strapped around his neck to further entice the other into battle.
At night the battles began. Almost as soon as “good-nights” had been said the Battle Royale would begin. There would be squealing and shrieking and tearing about the cage, breaking their little wheel and spilling their food and water. I would turn on the light to find panting rats and blood everywhere. The moment I turned the light off, the battle would start again.
For some reason, unbeknownst to me or dare I say anyone, my Dad decided not to intervene for months and so every night I would pile pillows over my ears, in tears over the viciousness happening right behind my head (they were on a bookshelf behind my bed).
So that was one set of Dad’s House pets.
The next were 7 goldfish. At first, they were delightful; bright orange and gold floating little creatures with big eyes and hungry mouths. I loved them. For some reason the only container I was allotted was a Rubbermaid wash basin to house my new pets and so it was perhaps because of this that the Murderous Goldfish was born from within a potentially good goldfish. The bad seed bloomed.
Every day I would come home from school to find another goldfish dead. I didn’t get it. They were fed and housed and I talked with them non-stop (oh, maybe they were bored?). Sure, their accommodations were small but I was working on that.
Throughout the school week homeward I would come everyday to find one more dead goldfish each one looking suspiciously more roughed up. This was not just failing goldfish. Finally, the end of the week came and one goldfish was left standing. We realized once we looked back on the week (and the states of the goldfish) that he had in fact been killing the other goldfish. My Dad said he had seen him chasing after one, pushing it towards the corners.
How was I supposed to love this monster whom had killed all of the others? He was a jerk of a fish if I’d ever seen one. He even scared me. I would come to the “tank” and he would swim back and forth, jumping at me menacingly. I don’t remember what happened to this guy (he remained unnamed). He lived for a while and then after lamenting again and again to my Dad that all of my pets were murderers I returned one week for Dad’s House Days and the brute was gone. Perhaps the sewer systems of Sonoma County would know his whereabouts.
At his disappearance I was both relieved and disheartened all at once and so when finally came the day that Cinnabun came into our lives, a vegetarian hell-bent on little more than hopping about to find clover I felt I had finally found my pet. We would spend hours together, her hopping about, me following on all fours, wiggling my nose in agreement that indeed the best clover grew in the northern patches of the property. My dad and I built a teepee with sticks and grew sugar snap peas to climb up it, creating a hidden world for Cinnabun and myself to pass the days in.
But Cinnabun was not a Mom’s House and Dad’s House bunny, as I stated before and as I stated before I thought this was fine.
I was wrong.
One day I returned for my Dad’s House Days and Cinnabun was nowhere to be found.
“That’s odd” I thought to myself realizing within seconds that it wasn’t odd. Something was fishy here and now I was all alone again. Where was my friend?
I questioned my Dad mercilessly over The Days together. He didn’t know where she had gone or how.
On one of The Days I was walking along on my stilts, pondering her disappearance when it dawned on me: my Dad had let her go.
Of course! She’s a bunny, not a jewel thief or Houdini. She didn’t crack the code or wiggle her way out of the cage. She was let out.
I angrily came to my Dad with this realization, hoping to be met with opposition but his response fell shorter than short.
“I did. You should have seen the way she looked at me, Julia. She was so miserable just being in her cage all the time.”
I argued and argued. He could have let her out more, she always stayed near. He could have told me and I would have simply brought her to Mom’s house. He could have done anything other than what he had done but he didn’t see it that way. Plus, he added, his girlfriend thought she stunk.
Oh, well that makes it all the more reasonable.
I sat in the clover patch and cried and cried the rest of the Dad Days away.
A few weeks later on another set of Dad Days I was lonely and lazily walking through the garden. I had always loved digging in the dirt but it had always been a little nerve-racking. The garden was taken seriously and I was always afraid to make a mistake. I always seemed to water “too hard” or push down the seeds “too far” and I just “didn’t quite get it”. I didn’t have the green thumb of the family, that was for my Dad to claim and so I shied away from it. That was until it was time to plant the garden earlier that year. My Dad had told me that bunnies loved Nasturtium and so, setting my gardening insecurities aside, I planted and planted Nasturtium for Cinnabun to enjoy.
Well, the Nasturtium was now in full effect and remembering what my Dad had said about bunnies and Nasturtium flower I sat in the field and waited. He came out and noticed my efforts. “Nice job kid, maybe you’ll spot Cinnabun if you wait there quietly. She probably misses you.”
Ah, a dagger to the heart. Thanks, Dad.
And so I sat and sat and sat and ate and ate and ate Nasturtium, not wanting to leave for a snack and miss my chance at seeing Cinnabun again. I ate so much Nasturtium that Summer that I made myself sick daily and all for nothing. I never saw Cinnabun again.
My Dad on the other hand claims that she came back to visit him often to thank him for freeing her.
I guess she had no words for me, her captor.
I did however see her offspring. It seems she had teemed up with a Jackrabbit (or twenty) and suddenly all of the bunnies in the countryside were a clear mix between Cinnabun and Jackrabbit. My Dad singlehandedly changed the DNA of the bunnies in our area and I lost my friend, but hey, she had been “miserable” and she had stunk, right?
So, that was my intro to gardening (and half of my intro to pet ownership. Thankfully the other half at Mom’s House was a little less traumatizing). Planting and tending to the garden yet always critiquing myself or fearing critique. Planting for a purpose and then having that purpose destroyed. Not the best start.
I shied away from the garden after that. Even though it was truly something I enjoyed, it had lost something for me and carried a weight instead of relief.
As an adult I tried again. I started with cacti and killed them all via overwatering (also known as too much love). I tried orchids (geez, why not try bonsai next? A real recipe for success) and succeeded in promptly killing each and every one, except for the one I gave to a girlfriend who had it blooming within the week. Another deflated Garden Confidence Balloon.
Finally, I had my own house with room for gardening and I was determined to make something of it. The only problem was, I wasn’t the only one gardening and it turns out, my partner in crime was every bit the perfectionist my Dad was. I was “sloppy” and “watered at the wrong times of day” and in general, didn’t do it the way it was “supposed to be done” and so again, I shied away. And all of those critiques were perhaps valid but they weren’t the welcome wagon I needed to garner the confidence to start to garden again.
However, last year, before I left for Alaska, something started to shift (well, many things inside of me seemed to start to shift but this was one with a clear outcome). I decided the garden was going in instead of waiting for the call for “more soil” or “bring that shovel over” from someone else. I started to take a bit more charge. I found the place from which I would purchase my starts and planned out three beautiful raised beds. I was going for it. We even decided to bite the bullet and start raising bees as well.
The garden was going to be a success and I was finally including myself in the process. We bought the plants and tilled the soil, built a sun shade/green house and planted all in one day. I planted all of my herbs after we had finished on my own, each time hoping I had placed it correctly or watered it gently enough since because it was my herb garden and I was the only one planting it would be obvious that it was my fault if it failed. In the garden I didn’t know exactly which plants I had planted and so no one could have been to blame for a fruitless start.
At the end of a long day I felt accomplished yet still nervous. I wanted to wash myself clean of the stigma I had accepted that I had a black thumb in the garden but I couldn’t quite until I had proven to myself otherwise.
Well, I never quite got the chance to prove I was planting proficient (though in retrospect I had been running a beautiful and productive herb garden for the previous three years and had kept alive for three years a wonderful family Jade plant my mother had given me that she had cared for for 20 years prior).
Maybe a week or so after planting the garden and getting the bees I ended my relationship and moved out of my house, starting the flip of my world which would land me living in Alaska. I left all of my plant children and all of my thousands of bee children after all of the work I had put into them, never to receive any of the fruits of our labor. It didn’t matter because suddenly there was no salad or serving of honey that could have come from that garden that would have tided me over or sweetened the deal enough for me to stay.
Interestingly enough, the person I came to visit in Alaska, the person whom is the whole reason I am here today, came to visit that gardening day, right as I was planting roots in California. She just stopped over to say “hello”. Maybe as I was planting she too unexpectedly planted something in me, a whisper of options and happiness elsewhere. Who knows?
I missed my garden and my bees and checked in on them a few times when I returned to retrieve my belongings prior to leaving for Alaska but it wasn’t the bounty that I needed, it was the confidence I gained seeing the garden grow each time I returned. It was bountiful and I had planned and planted it. I hadn’t pressed the roots in too hard. I hadn’t transplanted them too roughly. I had given them a good start and with a little water and tending to they had grown into an amazing garden.
Once in Alaska, I missed having a garden even more since fresh can be hard to come by at times. But I planned instead of fretted (it was too late by the time that I realized that I was living with The Chief to get a garden growing) and got excited for the next year.
Well, the next year is here and despite its lessening, I have to admit that my self-doubt still whispers in my ear from time to time.
I was certain I wouldn’t be able to grow anything from seed.
I was wrong.
I was certain I would plant incorrectly.
I was wrong.
I was certain that my starts wouldn’t fend as well as my neighbor’s did.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
You see, we have a communal garden between our neighbors and ourselves. There’s four of us and as the other couple is more experienced at gardening, I felt myself shying away again, feeling insecure, sure I would ruin something. But, between their encouragement and The Chief’s I started to have faith in the greenness of my thumb and let old insecurities start to fade away. Why not let them go? A fresh start.
Sure, some things in the garden didn’t fare as well as others and despite even buying starts some of the starts I bought are now as big as my garden was in California within a week of transplant (and we transplanted the starts here a month and a half ago).
The soil needs work and the greenhouse needs further repair. Cilantro bolts overnight it seems and the garden can be soaked to the bones from watering in the morning and bone dry by midday. Gardening in Alaska is a whole other beast and you know what? It’s kind of perfect for me.
In California things grow easily. After the last frost it’s game on. There’s very little covering at night or babying of plants. For the most part, watering is sufficient given the right medium (soil) and the bounty is well, bountiful.
Here in Alaska the growing season is, just like most things in the Summer here, a race. Starts get going early on from seed and remain indoors until the last frost but often what one thinks is the last frost is in fact the second to last frost. I lost a few plants that way (and a shower unit due to freezing pipes). It’s all a gamble. You can have every aspect perfect and still, you might leave a plant out overnight and suddenly months of work are gone.
For a fearful gardener like myself, one might think this Alaska scenario would be defeating but, in fact, it inspires me. I feel like a mother bear protecting her young. The elements can be kind or cruel and its up to us and our neighbors to keep the plants going. Plus, there’s always room for improvement. Plus plus there’s never a critique or a lack of faith sent my way, only encouragement and that is worth more than I ever knew. And besides, even if I couldn’t grow anything myself, Alaska provides a bounty which constantly surprises me.
This year I started Nasturtium from seed. I worried it wouldn’t grow as I didn’t have the appropriate seedling mix. It grew. I watched it sprout as there were still snow patches outside. It grew alongside the celery that I grew from scraps over winter. It grew along with the many other starts that came up with it. Sure, some of them failed, some of them faltered, some of them, well, it is yet to see what they will do. That’s the joy of gardening now for me. It’s become an experiment. I take mental notes about what did what and when and contemplate why. I’ve started to shift from “you killed it” to “why did that not work and what can I do differently”? It’s no longer so personal and I worry less that I’ll be found out as the culprit for failure. Things come and go, ebb and flow. A perfect garden doesn’t exist, but ours will keep getting better through listening to the lessons it teaches.
The Nasturtium hasn’t put out flowers yet and who knows if it ever will but over 20 years after the Cinnabun incident I still look at them daily and smile (and gag a bit). No longer do they have to stand for a Summer of heartache (and stomach-aches) but for a change of heart towards myself. My thumbs are neither green nor black but sometimes they are the color of the Earth in which they dig to create life. Our garden may not be perfect but it’s helped me to realize that nothing is.
It’s my first garden in Alaska, my first time planting Nasturtium as an adult and even better, it’s the year that the bunnies have returned to our valley. They are on a sort of seven-year cycle. They come back, the Lynx come back, the Lynx eat the bunnies, the bunnies die out, the Lynx go hungry and then die out and then, they start back around all over again.
Nasturtium and bunnies again. Oh, Alaska, your serendipity never ceases to amaze me.