The Secret Life of Plants (and figs)

 
 
 

It's the end of fig season. I've been buying a basket of figs at the farmers market every week. Last summer I indulged in cherries. In the past, at the end of each summer, I always felt like I didn't eat as many cherries as I wanted. So last year, I decided to EAT ALL THE CHERRIES. It was very satisfying.

I had a tiny fig tree in a large pot for four or five years. It looked more like an upright stick, with some leaves on top and maybe yielding five or six figs a year - a complete imbalance between effort and payoff. I would follow along for months as the tiny figs developed until they got to the right size, and then slowly soften to ripeness and start drooping over and then finally finally can be picked. Each fig was like biting into a jar of jam.

This past summer there were five figs on the tree. One morning I saw one of the figs was missing, only the telltale white stem left. So I immediately picked the other ones - they were ripe, if not ripe to the point of oozing sweetness yet. The next morning, the fig tree - the entire thing - was gone! Dug up and taken. It took me a moment to register - a heart-stopping, what's wrong with this picture moment - before I realized it. I talked to all the neighbors, they talked about it amongst themselves, everyone was in disbelief. My mom thought I should put up a sign in the pot where the fig tree had been, berating the thief - I had the same idea but thought it should just say "WHY??"

I hope it is planted somewhere in the ground where it can finally stretch out its roots, and it's taken care of, and they know it's deciduous (not dead)! I would rather it be productive than just thrown away - that would be the worst, the most pointless. And in some ways, it's a relief to be unburdened of it. It was never going to grow as it should, and come on, only five figs a year?

I tried reading the Secret Life of Plants a while ago but couldn't get through it. A little too woo woo. I picked it up because it was mentioned in a New Yorker article about plant intelligence which was completely eye-opening. (If you haven't yet, go read it now!) How they have adapted to their non-mobile state, how they communicate with each other, how they are the most advanced of chemists. It made me think of plants as mythological monsters you can't kill - you cut it into pieces, and each piece becomes a whole new plant. I read up to the part where people who had lived with plants were then put into separate rooms, and the plants could sense pain being inflicted onto the person. I do think that the whole universe is vibrations and frequencies. But the experiments were starting to seem rather un-scientifically rigorous.

Later on the day after the fig tree was taken, I remembered that I had woken up in the middle of the night, with a sensation that I have never had before and can only describe as being ripped out of sleep. A little like how Uma Thurman wakes up in the hospital in Kill Bill. I can't help but think it was the same moment the fig tree was ripped out of the ground.

 

On Time and breaking bad

 

Time feels so elastic to me. Years speed by and moments are interminable. Last week seems like a year ago and last year seems like a week ago. Sometimes, when I'm in the shower, or eating lunch and reading, I feel like I have never not been here, doing this. I think it has something to do with the reading. I get lost so easily in the time scale of the book. Days, months, years, passing at roughly 100 pages an hour. Looking up after reading feels like surfacing after being underwater - coming up for air, the sudden displacement, brought back into the present.

This year is the first year that I've felt ready for fall, for the holidays. Usually I'm completely unprepared mentally for any season - as soon as I get used to summer, it's already fall, and so on. Finally, I actually feel in sync with time.

Lately, it's been epics on my reading list. Homegoing, and currently Barkskins - both tracing generations of families over centuries. Actually, it's harder to get lost in these since they read more like short stories rather than a novel - it's hard to get really involved with a character when they're only around for a few chapters.

I've been reading a lot of reader reviews lately where people complain about not being able to relate to a character. This seems the strangest to me - why read about yourself? The whole point of reading is partly escapism to me - experiencing other lives, other times. Sometime I think if I had all the money in the world I would just read and travel - which perhaps is a way of saying I would rather live other lives than my own. Or it is (is it?) experiencing the world more fully, having all the experiences. There are only a very few characters I truly haven't been able to stand - Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (all she was interested in was social climbing), and Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights (all they were interested in were themselves). I think it's the mix of greed and obsession and the absence of anything else.

We're watching Breaking Bad right now - the whole thing from the beginning - missed it when it was on the first time, I think because of Mad Men? - and I'm having a similar problem with Walter White. Greed and obsession also, to the detriment and actual causing of pain and death to everyone around him. I love Mike and Saul and Jesse - Mike's my favorite. (Because I sometimes feel like a curmudgeonly old man?) He's just so capable and so tired all the time!

 

 

Closing with a photo from the American Southwest in honor of Breaking Bad - the skies really are amazing there. This trip from May was what my next blog post was supposed to be about - to be continued...

Closing with a photo from the American Southwest in honor of Breaking Bad - the skies really are amazing there. This trip from May was what my next blog post was supposed to be about - to be continued...

 

What I Did During My Summer Not-A-Vacation

 

I cut my big toe. The day before Mother’s Day, in the middle of rushing to make bouquets for delivery, I dropped my clippers and sliced my big toe right where it connects to my foot. It was all strangely painless—I just looked down and there was a huge pool of blood and I didn’t know why. This resulted in: not being able to do flowers that day, forced rest with elevated foot, deciding not to go to the emergency room, the bleeding not stopping, deciding to go to the emergency room at midnight, taking off the band-aids so it looked bloodier in the hopes of being seen sooner, seeing other people who looked in much worse shape also not being seen, deciding to go home, J. buying three different canes/crutches for me to test, hobbling about with a crutch during the flower pop-up the next day, rubbing the cut with coconut oil for months afterward, a scar, not being able to bend my toe the way I used to, and a small but permanent change in the way I walk. I’ve never broken a bone or even had a bee sting before. This is the first time I felt that my body has been permanently altered, mortality, etc.

Looking at my clippers after that happened has made me feel slightly shaky. I started putting on shoes to do flowers, but am now back to barefoot.

IMG_9433.JPG

I had a revelation when I was making an experimental over-the-top goddess flower crown/headdress. Symmetry is power; asymmetry is beauty. Discuss.

The weather this summer has been unsettling. Yes, rain is good, but this humidity is something I’ve never felt in LA before. I’m used to rain during the cold, rain at night and early morning, not rain on a hot summer afternoon. Feels like the South. For days all I could say about the weather was that it felt wrong! Decided I don’t want to have kids in a world where there are no glaciers. It feels like the end of the world is not far off. Selfishly, I want it to end about when I do – I want to know how it happens, how the story ends.

In Desert Hot Springs, I converted J. to the Cult of the Noodle, but he really took it to another level.

In Desert Hot Springs, I converted J. to the Cult of the Noodle, but he really took it to another level.

We have now been married (five years!) for longer than we were together and not married. That feels significant.

I turned 35. One person thought I looked 25. Another person thought I looked 30. I’m really glad to not look 12 or 16 anymore, although I think I still might depending on what I’m wearing.

One of my accomplishments this summer - yes, I nibbled a rectangle into a lozenge shape

One of my accomplishments this summer - yes, I nibbled a rectangle into a lozenge shape

Continuing with the Unexpected Geometries foods theme, this was the breakfast plate I was presented with one morning.

Continuing with the Unexpected Geometries foods theme, this was the breakfast plate I was presented with one morning.

Not ready for October. Ready for cool weather, but not for Halloween, which means Thanksgiving, which mean Christmas, which means New Year’s, which means the end of this year and means next year. The summer was too hot to get much done.

One of many discoveries on a magickal hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. The others included two labyrinths, two swings, and many small altars.

One of many discoveries on a magickal hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. The others included two labyrinths, two swings, and many small altars.

Still enjoying working on flowers. I don’t even know if enjoy is exactly the right word. I still feel like there’s something I’m trying to figure out with flowers.

IMG_9006.JPG

TV: As always, I watched a lot of bad TV, not hate-watch but like-watch! Total Divas, the only TV show that J. can’t stand. He has given in to the Kardashians, and likes to watch House of DVF for the business tips. Also good TV - Empire!

Gwyneth Paltrow and John Waters, united

Gwyneth Paltrow and John Waters, united

Books: Read so many good books this summer, which hasn’t happened in a long time. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. They are pure energy. I managed to be number one in the holds queue at the public library for The Lost Child. Basically read it in a day, and then took a week to read the last chapter because I didn’t want it to end yet. (I had always been puzzled by the covers and how dissonant they were with the books themselves. I finally found out why—read an interview with the cover designer who explained that she tried to make them “vulgar." P., a painter, said that she always thought they were too sophisticated to be unintentional.) H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Read over weeks – a chapter at a time, because I didn’t want it to end even before I started reading. One of the most emotionally honest books I’ve read. Also her writing, her words. Not showy, but somehow a bit magical. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. My thoughts on the book are more in feelings than words - an admiration of how he makes the abstract physical; anger; outrage; futility; a knowledge that the past is not past, that the past is too recent, that it can't be changed, that the future will not change either. It is intensely personal, urgent writing. Happy he won a MacArthur grant and happy that he is writing a character for Marvel.

Looking for more good books: writing that is deeply felt, a sense of things that must be said.

Just started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell – why didn’t I read this sooner?! I think maybe I thought it would be scary – I am very suggestible. Over and over again lately, I am feeling a pull toward England. So many books I read during My Young, Formative Years were set in England – George Bernard Shaw, E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, etc. (I still want to spell grey, not gray.) More recently, reading about Constance Spry, Gertrude Jekyll, and Vita Sackville-West, there is another aspect to it – the flowers and gardens. I've been thinking about Room with a View and Howard's End a lot lately, and those along with H is for Hawk and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are all very much about England – about the land. I want to see the places in the books.

Not England, but Land's End

Not England, but Land's End

 

A VALENTINE'S DAY INSTA-TALE

 
omg flowers have taken over our kitchen (and dining room and living room)  #canyousmellwhatimcookingtonight #therockshoutout

omg flowers have taken over our kitchen (and dining room and living room)  #canyousmellwhatimcookingtonight #therockshoutout

It's always difficult to convey how many flowers there are in our house when I'm prepping for an event. There are SO MANY flowers.
 

#gettingready #morningof #flowersflowersflowers

#gettingready #morningof #flowersflowersflowers

While I was making arrangements, each one developed a theme that I started repeating in my head:
 - Purple
 - Dark heart/rainbow explosion
 - Poppies like paper in the wind
 - Weird/minimalist/haiku
 - Lipstick ombre
 - Dark romance

flowers? what flowers? i want to play with this dog NOW! @cogcoffee #samoyed #higuys #bigonelittleone #dontforgetaboutme

flowers? what flowers? i want to play with this dog NOW! @cogcoffee #samoyed #higuys #bigonelittleone #dontforgetaboutme

While I was making a bouquet, this happened. He appeared like a magical polar bear.
 

a samoyed #winked at my sister! although she said he was really squinting and saying he wasn't sure about this

a samoyed #winked at my sister! although she said he was really squinting and saying he wasn't sure about this

I didn't know samoyeds existed. I have since gone down a #samoyed Instagram wormhole. We also had another visitor - a chow mix, another dog for snowy days on an 80+ degree LA day - who according to the owner, was only very interested in people doing tasks. It's true! He watched me intently while I was tying flower bouquets, and then got bored when we tried to pet him.
 

💞💥💖💋💘💌💏😻❤️💗💓


💞💥💖💋💘💌💏😻❤️💗💓

Oh right, flowers. 
 

best v-day dinner ever #athome #redwine #ponoburger #sadweonlygotonesweetpotatofries #hellosweethusbandfoot

best v-day dinner ever #athome #redwine #ponoburger #sadweonlygotonesweetpotatofries #hellosweethusbandfoot

This year we finally learned our lesson on not going out for dinner on Valentine's Day - usually a combination of prix-fixe-feels-like-a-conveyor-belt restaurants and the worst traffic of the year (who knew Angelenos were so romantic?)
 

#fail #oldtechvsnewtech

#fail #oldtechvsnewtech

Fittingly, the candle was from a previous Valentine's Day - it was slowly burning while we were watching TV, then a whole slab of wax fell down, and went through the vent holes on the cable box - somehow it still works. We decided to leave it.
 

#dayafter #recuperating #tryingoutnewsnacks #notasgoodastheoldones #feelinglucky #iheartevachen #blueberries #avocado #finncrisp #beignetfrombottegalouie #mineralwaterwithfreshsqueezedlemon #redwinecorkfromlastnight #heathceramics #helleboresisavedformyself #ohyeahthatsmyreflectiontakingaphotofromabove #lol #blessed

#dayafter #recuperating #tryingoutnewsnacks #notasgoodastheoldones #feelinglucky #iheartevachen #blueberries #avocado #finncrisp #beignetfrombottegalouie #mineralwaterwithfreshsqueezedlemon #redwinecorkfromlastnight #heathceramics #helleboresisavedformyself #ohyeahthatsmyreflectiontakingaphotofromabove #lol #blessed

 

The Making of Making LA

 

Last November I made this backdrop for deLaB’s Making LA design conference.

It is one of the most public things I’ve done – it felt very strange to have everyone looking at it over the course of the day.

I started with the idea of vertical strands creating a unified circular pattern – like a mandala. Everything was drawn in AutoCAD; average dimensions of leaves estimated, to yield total number of leaves required. I gathered (#foraged #local #seasonal) the leaves from city parks, street trees, and the edges of a private golf course, trying to look innocent while carrying 2’ long tree trimmers.

I put my family to work – poking holes in leaves, counting, sorting. My sister says that everything is like a school project. This is what we ate before we started:

Sangak!

Sangak!

The day before the conference, I started stringing the leaves – thinking this was going to be quick – and it was at first, with sycamore leaves as big as my head. In the evening, my sister came to help, after some Chinese take-out. Then we got to the magnolia leaves – so many of them, but easy to handle with their tough skins, then the delicate star-shaped sweet gum leaves, threatening to crumble, the redbud leaves, getting smaller and smaller, the marigolds that were surprisingly heavy, and the pepper tree leaves that had to be taped on . . . and then it became very clear that it may not get done at all, even with an all-nighter.

My sister said she had never looked at so many leaves so closely. before. It does get to be sort of awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time.

My sister said she had never looked at so many leaves so closely. before. It does get to be sort of awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time.

We did finish – just. (Although two strands didn’t get made. Shh.)

I find it hard sometimes to look at my work after it's done – like how I hate listening to my voice on a recording. I see all the imperfections – everything that didn’t work out, everything that I didn’t have time to do. It’s funny because I am definitely NOT a perfectionist. I stayed for the conference, and for the first few hours I was constantly afraid that one of the strings would snap and fall. That did not happen. And there were happy accidents: the lazy way the magnolia leaves twirled, making abstract shapes; the subtle movement across the strands, like water rippling; the sound guy standing behind the backdrop and handing people microphones through the strands – “through the magic forest," one speaker joked.

And the best part of all? Throwing it away!! At the end of the night, Josh rolled a trash can under each strand as I unhooked it and let it fall.

There’s a lot to be said for definitive endings. (I tend to hoard anything that may possibly become an art or craft material – of course these 1” strips of scrap paper will come in handy!)

When I told my sister about the throwing-it-away part, she got sad – the idea of trashing it so quickly after so much work! When I told my mom about it, she said it was like blowing away a sand mandala.

 

Back to School

 
Anza-Borrego in May

Anza-Borrego in May

Today finally starts to feel like fall. It’s overcast this morning –not just coastal fog, but truly overcast – and I had to put on something with long sleeves! Fall always feels more like “spring” to me – new beginnings (back to school time), a collective sigh of relief in the first temperate days after a season of extreme temperatures.

But to backtrack –

In the spring I took a Field Botany class at a community college. It was the first time I’ve been back in a real classroom in over 12 years. With real school chairs. And Scantrons! And new teenage lingo!

The first day of class we went out on campus and collected leaves from different plants around us to study leaf structures and terms. Having a lapful of extremely different leaves – tiny, gigantic, round, pointy, hairy, arranged in every possible way – I was actually a little scared by the sheer overwhelming variety of plants that exist.

And the vocabulary! The words used to describe plant traits sound more suited to literature than science – fugacious, caducous, scurfy, floccose. Sort of baroque and luxurious.

There was a New Yorker article that if you haven’t read, go read it now: here. It’s about plants – how they’ve adapted in much more strange and wonderful ways than we’ve given them credit for, and perhaps even more than animals. After reading it, I felt like plants own this world.

Each Friday for class, we went afield around LA – to the Santa Monica mountains and canyons, to the tide pools, the poppy preserve, the wetlands, the coastal prairies. In elementary school, whenever we went on a field trip, I always took my family back there as soon as possible. I wanted to do that this time too. I felt like a third grader who has just learned fun facts about the world and needs to tell everyone about them. Did you know that when one redwood tree dies, a ring of clones spring up around it? Did you know about alternation of generations? Imagine if two people had a kid, but the kid looked like an apple, and then the apple reproduced, and had humans? And seaweed! Seaweed deserves its own post.

It was the first time I had been surrounded by scientists – not architects, artists, writers, etc. Feels different, but I can’t articulate how. The professor and speakers were all so knowledgeable and just so excited about what they were doing and wanting to share that with everyone. Science does seem to me the one thing worth studying/working on – how/what the physical world is. Of course, science was my worst subject in high school.

One class trip was to the Anza-Borrego desert – we hiked to an oasis of palms (Washingtonia filifera, the only palm native to LA) that was completely hidden in a desert canyon. When the palms start growing, they just have the fronds sticking out right at the ground – this can stay like this for years - and then something sometime triggers them to shoot up into the iconic palm trees that you imagine. No one knows why. Our teacher told us to keep a look out for the endangered bighorn sheep – they are rarely seen and blend in so well that you may be looking at one and not notice until it moves. We saw fish in a free-standing pool in the desert. We saw chupparosa, hummingbird bush, with its firecracker red flowers (it is dehiscent – the fruits open up and catapult the seeds) and ocotillo, holding bright orange flowers at its very tips. Our professor described flowers as the plants’ way of waving their arms and shouting “I’m here!” Now I can’t help but think of that whenever I see flowers. The desert lavender smelled amazing – dry and minty – and was golden glowing and buzzing with bees. When we were almost at the oasis, the canyon walls starting to tower above, a few of us glanced up and saw a bighorn sheep silhouetted against the sky, looking down at us silently. When too many people noticed and started pointing at it, it disappeared. It felt like something ancient had observed us.

Well, it’s mid-morning and the sun’s out again. Will have to wait a little longer for true fall.

Driving home from the desert

Driving home from the desert


 

Origin Stories

 

In the origin story of Krystal-Chang-Projects-flowers-landscapes-architecture, there are these things:

1.     In Iceland, on a ill-advised trip with my architect ex-boyfriend (we broke up at the end of the trip), there was one day when we were driving through the countryside, all vastness, and wildness, and green moss on black volcanic rock, and gorgeous untamed beauty, we came over a ridge to a perfectly clear turqoise lake, and my ex-boyfriend observed: “Nature always wins.” 

2.     I read Candide for high school English. After the earthquake, rape, Inquisition, buttock-cutting, hanging, etc., etc., etc., even Pangloss is exhausted and all they can say is “We must tend our garden.” 

3.     In A Dangerous Method, that movie about Jung with Keira Knightley, (the best review of which, was that she acts with her teeth—I love her, but it’s true!), at the end of the movie, when Jung has again, a wife and a mistress (not Keira Knightley this time), and K.K. comes to visit him, he explains why: “Emma is the foundation of my house. Toni is the perfume in the air."

 

SFV

 
oranges

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in prototypical suburbia. The lawns were green, except for ours—it was constantly changing, an unplanned jumble of fruit trees, bunch grasses, gravel, gingko trees, hot peppers, evening primrose, invading mint, and a single mound of Korean grass perfect for an elfin chair. Our neighbor (of the perfectly manicured rosebushes and potted geraniums) hated us. The median strip became a battleground, with our plum tree and arugula and bearded irises taking advantage of the sprinklers running on her side of the strip. Our method of irrigation was my dad and a hose. We had sprinklers that worked once. Turning them on was always mind-bogglingly difficult. The way you thought you should turn them was never right, only it was, if you turned it far enough, but not too much.   

We never had cut flowers—I don’t think it ever occurred to us to buy them, they were such an extravagance. But my parents would bring in a few, perfectly fragrant, non-color coordinated roses (yellow, red, lavender, hot pink) from the backyard and put them in a cut glass goblet on the kitchen table.

The kitchen counter and windowsill always had numerous plant experiments in different dishes, either seeding or rooting. The countertop would be where the fruit and vegetables would be displayed when they were picked. Five tiny strawberries that tasted like jam, or one glorious summer, a sprawling grid of donut peaches, or eggplants and tomatoes, and bell peppers that shouldn’t have been spicy, but they WERE REALLY SPICY, so I only had one that time and never again.    

This summer has not been a good one. There’s a nest in the tree out front that my parents have been protecting from (a different) neighbor’s cat. And then the birds started eating the grapes in the backyard (somehow getting through the netting), so my parents speculate about slingshots.  My mom had painstakingly sewn a little pouch out of old but clean t-shirts or socks for each of the budding donut peaches, but every single one was torn off by the #$*@-ing squirrels. But there’s still the persimmon tree with its hard, green persimmons-to-be, the Asian pear tree with the small fruits already brown and speckled, the blueberry bush, the blackberry bush, and the jujube tree that went so crazy with jujubes this year that its branches are dragging on the ground and it looks like very, very tired. There’s also the grapefruit tree that is now taller than me, that I grew from a seed in New York City. I was eating a grapefruit, and one seed had already sprouted, so I planted it in a small pot and kept it in our East Village walk-up studio for a year before bringing it home to sunny California. I have no idea where I got the pot from, much less a small amount of soil. That is still one of the remaining mysteries to me.

frontyard