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The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The Spray of Phenomena

The Spray of Phenomena

Is there an app to restore wonder to the garden?

Like many mornings, this morning when I walk from my house to the street I halfway expect to find the window of my pickup broken in. The neighborhood seems to be suffering a wave of vandalism and theft, perhaps because each break-in is reported in the neighborhood Yahoo group, along with other instances of larceny. Apparently there is a guy in a black stocking cap who trails delivery trucks on a bicycle, and steals the contents of the packages deposited on decks or doorsteps. He leaves the box, a curious MO, which probably means he’s braver than he is smart. Wouldn’t a smart person make a quick getaway? Three different photos of him have been uploaded and broadcast.

A thread of the online discussion has predictably veered into the question of putting cameras, or fake cameras on light poles and rooftops. This strikes me as a bit Orwellian, yet I am able to ignore the 10 (not kidding!) cameras in the laundromat I sometimes use. They’re fake, I presume, yet effective in inhibiting me from assaulting the television droning about the wonders of a hair replacement product. I tear my hair out instead. No, Republican cousins, I don’t need a camera to keep me from committing a crime. I am a law-abiding liberal. But watch, the morning I go out and find my pickup broken into, I may morph into a law ’n’ order kind of guy.

Again this morning the pickup window is intact, keeping out the rain, which has generously fallen this winter and is lightly falling again. The disorder in the cab is reassuringly familiar, not the result of a midnight ransacking, and the pickup starts up as if to say, Why worry? I drive down the street, squeezing my way around the UPS truck whose street this actually is. I see no one in a black stocking cap on a bike.

I’m on my way to the nursery to ogle camellias, impelled by the illusion that a purchase will be the switch that restores the enthusiasm with which I enter my garden.

This alienation from my garden is not anything unusual. It’s seasonal; in spring triggered by oxalis, in summer by fog, in autumn by an entombment in leaves, and now, in winter, by soggy clay. That I am powerless to control any of these phenomena acts as a slow leak in the tire of my psychic unicycle, now gone flat. Thus the urge to buy a plant. Plant acquisition, as any gardener knows, is a pump of adrenaline.

At the bottom of the hill near the traffic circle, multiple hillside streams have overwhelmed the occluded gutters, something that demands, verily, that I speed up and plow through the lagoons to cast amazingly graceful arcs of waters up and onto the curb strip, dousing a privet hedge, just missing a bicyclist (oh, so sorry, didn’t see you, honest).

Will bicyclists, I wonder, hereafter be divided into two camps, in black stocking cap or not? Am I getting paranoid or is this simply a species of healthy awareness known as vigilance? “Vigilantes” has a nasty overtone.

Months ago in another digital chat-fest there was a picture of a guy carrying a bucket with the caption, “DID THIS MAN STEAL YOUR SUCCULENTS?” Aeoniums, like ministers and wives of Henry VIII, are decapitated with frequency, and the filchings show up at the flower market, useful in arrangements. What an astute online commenter pointed out was that the greenery extruding from the man’s bucket were spears of agave, not aeonium rosettes, and speculated the guy probably was going to use them for barbacoa. Barbecue, I presume.

The cuttings had been taken from a thicket of agaves at the end of the block that threaten to poke the eyes out of the unwary, so their appropriation was a net civic benefit. The man did his pruning with respect and didn’t just hack away. The person who took the picture went so far as to follow the guy to his house, the number of which was reported to the police who, we hope, got some tasty barbacoa if and when they made a call.

What if I see Black Stocking Cap? Do I call 911? Yell? Give him a lecture about values? Take his photo for the online album? Can’t. I washed my jeans with my smartphone in the pocket.

Nearing the nursery I switch on the radio, KQED, philosopher Jacob Needleman interviewed on “Forum” by Michael Krasny. “Nobody can ever commit a crime in the state of wonder,” he says. “The sense of wonder may be only the seed of a capacity of consciousness that brings a whole new kind of knowledge to us, that there is meaning, there is beauty in the world.”

The blood drains from my head, the noise of things bursting, merging, avoiding one another, assails me on all sides, my eyes search in vain for two things alike, each pinpoint of skin screams a different message, I drown in the spray of phenomena.
—Samuel Beckett, from Molloy

Not to be original here, but it seems to me that a great deal of the collective underground reservoir of wonder has been channeled off into technology. Even after a decade of annoying ubiquity, smartphones dazzle, and addict. “Crackberries.” Worlds, galaxies, the cosmos, at the touch of a finger. The wonders of nature without the mosquitoes. And my phone took better pictures than my camera.

It was in the spin cycle when I figured out where it might be. I put it in the window where it sat like an alcoholic aunt for three days, in the hopes it would dry out and spark into life and now there’s no remedy but to get a new one and restore all the crap I can’t live without. Yet I dread the ordeal, the way my head will get in a twist immediately, a tornado spawned in the moist heat of ignorance. “A router? Do I have a router? What does it look like?” The result of the process is the opposite of wonder, a desert, not an island paradise.

It’s only the phone, I tell myself. My friend Matthew got a new computer. After a short time in operation, defects appeared, among which was no sound. He has spent eons on hold, or listening to a support person read from the manual, “How to Deal with a Raging Lunatic,” in an accent Matthew has trouble understanding. “I could feel the energy draining out through my feet,” he said.

He no more than got his stuff downloaded onto a replacement computer (26 hours) than the replacement crashed. “Yeah but, why me?” he asked when he was told that this had almost never happened before. It’s silicon-clear to me there’s no underlying meaning. Meaning would point in the direction of some semblance of soul and feeling. This corner of cosmic intelligence has no feeling. Byte me.

Lest we be mocked and dismissed as technological zeroes, deserving of generational scorn, let it be noted that yesterday Matthew got his newly repaired computer back from the manufacturer in Texas. Once it was up and running, he discovered there was still no sound. Isaac, the latest caseworker, suggested that someone in repair had not shut it down properly, and that he would need to ship it back to Texas.

After pulling myself screaming off the walls, I would have smudged the house with sage, chanting the rites of exorcism, having as much faith in arcane rituals as I do in pale geniuses in virtual clouds.

When a person doesn’t understand something, he feels internal discord: however he doesn’t search for that discord in himself, as he should, but searches outside of himself. Thence a war develops with that which he doesn’t understand.
—Anton Chekhov letter to A.S. Survorin

When I inherited this garden from Aunt Dot, all of it was wonderful. Partly it was because of her and her inexhaustible capacity to feel wonder and to express it in a way that was contagious. (I don’t wonder what she would have made of smartphones. Surely embraced them like everything else.) Her spirit is still evident in the garden, though her last geranium gave up the ghost a decade ago. The garden is mine, and far more tasteful. Does taste dry up wonder, like salt on a slug?

I walked down the aisles of the nursery. There were a lot of tasteful camellias in stock. Some, “Jenny Lind” for instance, set off flutters of lust. Even so, I banked their charms the way a checker slips 20s into a compartmentalized drawer, ready for future employment. In minutes I was back in the pickup driving home, my 20s in my wallet.

The earth itself is like a sacred book. When you look at it with the knowledge of the heart as well as the knowledge of the mind, you begin to see its livingness, its purposiveness, its cosmic intelligence.
—Jacob Needleman

At home coming up from the street, I pass the Meyer lemon tree and give it an appraisal. I heard a report a few days ago about the arrival of a citrus psyllid into Southern California. The pest, Asian in origin, first appeared in Florida a few years ago, and has migrated west. All of Texas is in a citrus quarantine. This bugger not only sucks the vitality out of plants, but worse, is a vector for a bacterium that causes “citrus greening,” also known as huanglongbing, “yellow dragon disease,” that ruins the fruit. I wonder what the cosmic intelligence could be thinking.

The leaves of my lemon tree don’t look robust, but it’s not because of the psyllid, which for the moment is only down south. Best I can figure it’s a drainage issue. Soggy clay is a problem in a normal rainfall year and a crisis in extra-wet ones. Even so, the tree has survived its challenges, including the once-in-a-lifetime freeze, when it was blasted back to a stump that I would have uprooted if I had been more energetic.

Instead, I dawdled, kicking myself for not doing more to protect it, imagining Aunt Dot’s dismay. But it started to sprout and look now, this condition of near elegance, when I would have been happy with mere survival and middling fruitfulness, a state surpassed liberally.

In fact, this morning I filled two large bags with ripe lemons. I don’t know who’ll be the recipients of this bounty; neighbors probably, and Phyllis certainly, who, if I’m in luck, will make a lemon meringue pie and share. You’d think this would be a foolproof avenue to wonder, the yellow brick road for a Kansan: picking lemons in winter from your tree and eating a lemon meringue pie a day later.

Dawdling is not a bad strategy for many garden problems, but not for drainage. I’m not sure what is a good one. I have had ideas, discarded as impractical or too expensive. When the weather dries out I’ll do some serious soil amending. Doing anything now would pack the clay tighter.

Besides, it’s raining again, heavily. To assuage any sense of unfulfilled duty, I go inside and google the psyllid. Voilà, a plethora of information. As Matthew said, “When it works, it’s magic.” The psyllids, from what I gather, are easily identifiable, the way they stick their hind-parts into the air at a 45-degree angle from the leaf. I’m willing to handpick; I have a single citrus tree. But one bit of information sucks at my equilibrium: Given one hour’s residency on a tree, there is a high chance of disease transmission. The yellow dragon is at the gates.

Vigilantes, get your spray guns.

I wonder, can one be a victim of a crime in the state of wonder?

R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at

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