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With much joy, we finished our labyrinth yesterday, about lunch time. Labyrinths are a very old human creation, dating back at least 3000 years and probably beyond that. Unlike a spiral or circle, a labyrinth is not a shape from the non-human natural world, but instead something humans have to create, based on some simple rules. They have, however, shown up in different cultures in widely separated times and locations, indicating that we all are sisters and brothers who independently create similar things, or that we wander around a lot sharing ideas. Or both.

At the Center’s garden, we started with the simplest form of a ‘Cretan’ or ‘Troy Town’ labyrinth. We used rocks to mark the courses, as pre-historic Scandinavians did and as First Nations peoples of the American West did to mark medicine wheels. We used the “rocks” at hand, pieces of urban concrete rubble, painted by individual neighbors. On either end of the central labyrinth circles, we added a meander, related to those in the great church labyrinths of the Middle Ages such as Cluny. However, we set the end points by laying a line of rocks to show the cardinal directions, N and W on the “station” side, and E and S on the “tree” side (we incorporated a tree into the design).

Before laying out the stones, we prepared the space with music, playing old Morris tunes on pipe and tabor while walking round the outside of where we’d lay the rocks. Then the fun began. We’ve been painting stone for a month, part of our art program, and now we all joined in to pick rocks and set them in the design. Dozens of different people took park, it was what our garden ought to be, full of life and laughter (and maybe a little “yo momma” conflict, now and then). Ray and Fredrick, Cleo and Frances, our intern Michael, Daniel singing, Sheryl and Diane…more folks, watching, coming and going. And then, there it was.

Like a garden, a labyrinth is both something you make and something you do, and both parts are equally important. We walked it several time already, and it does have a magically calming, healing and centering impact on those who see it, breathe, and take a moment from their life journey to take a brief walk within, whatever their creed, whatever their condition, whatever challenges and blessings are now in their lives.

BEFORE

CLEAN UP BEGINS

MORE CLEAN UP (BIG JOB)

FREDERICK SETS DIRECTION LINES

DON STAKES DIRECTIONS, BEGINS LAYOUT

PLACING ROCKS BEGINS

FORMING THE INNER PATH

HANDS AND STONES

OUTER PATH

VIEW FROM TRACKS (SEE “BEFORE” PIC)

VIEW FROM ABOVE

THE CENTER’S NEW CENTER

Squirrel rant

This weekend, as we worked on beautification for the big event coming up Thursday (you are invited – 6PM Thursday the 10th, to celebrate our new cistern from the Organic Gardening WaterWorks grant), I spotted somebody over by the food garden doing something around the petunias we just planted. A quick way to kill plants is to throw a belongings sack or shirt down on top of seedlings, so I went over to gently ask the neighbor not to do that. As I go closer, I realized it was a well-dressed guy in his 60s, maybe a volunteer and probably not homeless, with a metal box of some sort. At that instant, a big, fat, terrified squirrel took off like a shot, headed right into our tomatoes. The metal box? It is one of those “have a heart” traps. The man, a shortish fellow with somewhat prominent front teeth, turned and gave me a squirrelish look, wide-eyed and nervous. He told me he was just letting the squirrel go free – it had been eating the tomatoes in his garden and making a huge mess. So, he didn’t like killing them, and just wanted to let this one go somewhere.

When I mentioned that we were growing our tomatoes for a big event this week, and that a tomato-eating squirrel was probably the last thing we needed, he got all bushy-tailed and evasive. Do you have squirrels here? He asked. (We do, but they come in second to the rats and rabbits as pests). Then, incongruously, “I was just dropping off a donation from Starbucks…”.

The little man clattered back into his car – some kind of greenmobile of small size and odd shape with environmental bumper stickers – and drove off unapologetically. Meanwhile, we now have an additional threat to our tomatoes. I can’t help wondering, though, since squirrels are very good at finding their way back to their territory using the treetop highway, that Squirrel is back in his home garden in, say, wealthy Myers Park, eating his fill of same-old Early Girls and Beefsteaks. He was running so fast he might have beat the man home. Let’s hope.

I didn’t get the license plate, otherwise I’d be tempted to catch one of our local rats and release it in _his_ garden. That would about balance it, and might really liven things up in his tomato patch.

Obviously, this incident is a metaphor for all kinds of things wealthy Americans do (and we’re such a wealthy nation, these tendencies touch us all). Have a problem? Dump it on your neighbor, especially a poor or homeless one. Tough decision? Let them deal with it. Caught in the act doing something wrong? Under no circumstances take responsibility – instead deny it and say you were really doing something good, so everyone should be grateful and stop being negative. Throw in a few inane non-sequiturs, for good measure.
Meanwhile, if our tomatoes start disappearing, we have a ready person to blame: Mr. Squirrel did it!

Here’s Tim with the almost completely installed cistern – it is ready to receive rainwater, and since it has been raining tonight, we now have our first water. In the pic below, he’s showing me the ‘first flush’ screen and diverter, which keeps the first wash, full of debris, out of the tank.

We also got our big load of mulch (90 cubic yards) from the County’s Compost Central operation. We’ll be spreading that at part of our beautification project. Some will go under our labyrinth.

While all this is happening, life goes on at the Center. One of my favorite offices is that of Megan Coffey, our social worker who helps people with housing (and lots more). You never know what you’ll find going on in there. Here’s a pic taken this afternoon.


Here’s how she looks. Look at the end of the building, see the big black tank? Tim Owen brought the tank over day before yesterday, and put it in place on Wednesday (he’s the one shown crawling out of the tank after installing the pump – he’s almost got barbecued, even though he was working before 10 AM). I think it looks great! Though it may be the next thing we need to paint.


Simultaneously, beautification continues. Our big project today was revitalizing our medicine wheel out front, with help from a group from Christ Church. Here are two views, the ‘bird’s eye’ taken from the office of our director, Dale Mullennix. We’re using painted rocks, shown in earlier posts.


However, since we used up quite a few rocks in the medicine wheel, we now need to paint more. But Frederick, shown here in our art area behind some freshly painted pots, and other artists will be working on that.

And out on the hill above the garden, we finally got some watermelons planted. This space is a challenge, but we need to be growing food everywhere we can. Here, the gardeners (you can see Cleo in front) are working in the early evening, about 7 PM – that’s a much better time to garden than midday in these parts, and the best time to set out transplants. If the transplants, a gift from Renfrow’s Hardware in Matthews (thanks, David!), don’t make it, we’ll direct seed right away. We could have planted these weeks ago, but one nice thing about the long long growing season here is that you can relay plant for weeks. When these ripen, we’ll still be happy to eat them, since it is likely to be hot on into October.

One of our main projects is creation of a labyrinth from painted urban rubble, on a weedy part of the property just made a bigger problem by moving a fence. Painting rubble turns out to be a very popular activity, open to all, as you can see from this young artist at work.

We continue to be a beehive of activity in the garden, stimulated by the generosity of Organic Gardening Magazine, Aveena, Nature’s Path and Seeds of Change. Their beautification grant, accompanying the grant for our new cistern, is helping us tackle some long-troublesome areas in very creative ways that involve everyone. It’s what our Center is all about – the hope and engagement are, in their own way, as important as the food we serve. Of course, we need both. Some pics, and I close with a story. I need to get back over to the Center, rumor has it that the cistern is there!

“Looks like a big, black silo.” Said Jason, our facilities director this morning by phone.

Here are the results so far – we have about half of what we need. The rubble comes mostly from old sidewalks we tore up during construction of the new building, and from our old wall beside our first garden, so this is really part of our past. Street artist Lite Lewis inspired this rubble painting in our first garden, too.

Meanwhile, the police department said we should move our fence, and so in the middle of everything else, that just happened. In the process, we’ve once again threatened our lovely New Dawn roses. They’ve been saved twice from similar fence projects, so we’ll do it again. We’ve only had to relocate one. Here’re Cleo and Joe cutting them back, and then a pic of the one rose’s new location. It is absolutely the worst time of year for such a move, but let’s hope (and water).

This leaves us a clear view of where the labyrinth and expanded garden area will go – pretty challenging space to “beautify”, huh? If we can transform this space, who says that a person who is homeless can’t transform her or his life???

Meanwhile, other projects are going on. I’ve invited our gospel choir to sing at the big dedication event, July 10, 6 PM at the Center (mark the calendar). Here they are practicing. I have to get them words to ‘Wade in the water…’ and other aquamusical hymns.


And here’s Cleo and Rollon (above) working on planters for the rest of our wave petunias (which need to get in by Friday). We’re building them from scrap lumber, using and paint from the good folks at Lowes (they aren’t donating, but their paint manager is great about mixing us colors and and helping as much as she can – at their University store).

Get this – we have to put up a fence to block the public view of our cistern! If that isn’t the most bluenosed foolishness you’ve ever heard of! Our cistern is an example of doing exactly the right thing, saving rain from our heavy showers for those long dry spells, and using it to grow nutritious organic vegetables right in the city! But no, it doesn’t “look tidy”. Bucky Fuller famously said “We don’t have a resource problem – we have a design problem.” I’d say we have an aesthetics problem, too. Here’s Donald hard at work building the doggone fence.

Out in the garden, the bottle tree and the sunflower discuss issues like these. I don’t know where the bottle tree got its doo rag, but that’s the fashion I guess. I prefer a straw hat, myself.

A sad story, they happen here – it is by no means all energy, joy and hope. I was taking a picture of our daylilies when the family in the background happened to be walking past. Later that morning, I heard them arguing loudly and angrily in the parking lot, and broke off from a giving a tour to a visitor from Durham to intervene. We normally intervene here simply¬† by coming close and listening compassionately, witnessing peace if you like. It often helps. The man and wife were at each other’s throats, while their two children watched with wide eyes. It was hot, and they were all tired and hungry. They were trying to get home to New York in an old car that was about to break down for good, and Goodwill had sent them to us. The little boy, about 4, began to cry, and the father turned around and said in despair and rage: “Oh, shut up! We don’t have any *&%$! food, anyway.”

At this point, I couldn’t keep still, and tapped on their car window. I listened as they explained their situation, and the feeling no one would help them. They said they’d talked to a counselor, so I asked them to stay for a minute while I did what I could. I rushed back over to the soup kitchen, forgetting my tour entirely I’m afraid. and raided the pantry. I threw together a box of fruit, peanut butter, bread, road food snacks, dumped it into a cardboard box, and ran back outside. But they were gone, the space in the parking lot empty. Even a couple of minutes was too long. You cannot think when you are hungry (I remember Knut Hamsen’s classic novel). Too late. I hope they are well and make it back to The City, and that those children survive to forget this long painful voyage, or remember it as an epic where they were the innocent heros on a difficult quest. Like Theseus and the labyrinth, I suppose.

From above the garden, above the sunflowers, Maria watches, reminding us of improbable and painful stories that somehow, with grace, manage to end with compassion and hope.


These cosmos capture last week, a flurry of putting in the first of our flowers to beautify the Center for the upcoming cistern celebration. We got the cosmos and donated ‘Wave’ petunias planted in the four circle planters.


I’ve been thinking a lot about “beauty”, in the light of our efforts. What is beautiful landscaping? Keats’ wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” an idea that appeals to me, but then we’ve got a lot of unlearning to do in our landscapes, which attempt to bludgeon the sustainable and constantly changing beauties of the natural world into a monotonously tidy sameness. And at the Center, the pressure is intense to make sure our landscape is “beautiful” in the same way as a mansion in Myers Park or a high end shopping mall – with lawn and the usual flowers, in the right places.

The irony that such landscapes are even more chemically dependent and unstable than the most troubled people who come to us for help and a decent meal escapes notice. And the pressure comes from both sides – a passionate volunteer weedwhacked a wildflower area because he thought it looked “like a bunch of weeds”.

The problem is, in part, dealing with change. We all change, it is in our nature and the nature of the world that grants us life. Gardeners know the cycles, today’s lilies are tomorrow’s compost, and the cycle continues. But our ‘beautiful’ landscapes try to never change, and instead to always look ‘nice’.

So, I’m conflicted. What I’m leaning toward is a functional and gritty definition of beauty that fits where we are, who we are, and our shared humble status as creatures who rely on Mother Earth. So, beautification will include some places for weary people to sit and rest. Some splashes of color, and lots of chances for the neighbors who come to us to be a part of the project. And use of what’s around us, not simply buying things – so we’ll paint rubble to make our labyrinth. And, of course, we’ll grow more food. Good organic food.

But we won’t turn away beauty on principle. We welcome people here – we turn no one away. And we welcome the Wave petunias, hardly a sustainably-inclined plant, but we got a generous “deal” from our wonderful friends at Renfrow’s Hardware in Matthews, my favorite place to buy garden supplies in the region. So, in they’ll go.

Pete, Cleo and Joe helped bring the first “Waves” over and put them in, after adding some compost as a topdressing for the beds – plus a little Plant-tone (5-3-3, a useful organic blend).

We also got started painting the tomato poles, using non-toxic outdoor paint. Here’s Cleo bringing some paints into the chapel, and me, mixing colors as Tiara heads out to work on painting a rock. We’ve occupied an area of our art space for the garden art projects, as you can see here (Cleo is painting a stake in the center).


Meanwhile, our other programs had quite a week as well. Lawrence Cann, shown here with Cleo and our soccer coach Rob (Lawrence’s brother – can you tell?) drove his little pickup, loaded with soccer balls, up to DC to discuss the homeless world cup qualifiers. And here’s a glimpse of our last Homeless Helping Homeless meeting before the big dance they organized as a benefit on Saturday night. Wow! Best dance in town, it was a smash.

The weather remains hot and humid, but with little rain. We had some up near the university, but not really at the Center. We need that cistern! The tomatoes are going bonkers – we need to get the stakes done and get them staked this week for sure. We’ll put in some sweet potatoes and cukes, maybe okra and squash. And a blackeyed pea edible cover crop on one bed. We’ll be busy. Here’s a pic of the garden (nice sunflowers – hope we can keep them blooming for a month – but those tomatoes needed staking 2 weeks ago…), and another of the inspiring space our cistern will fill. Zoning evidently wants us to put us a wall to keep people from seeing it – saving rainwater counts the same as an ugly good dumpster.

Bill is a long-time regular at the Center. Today, as all the work in the garden swirled around him, he took a minute to sip on his bottle (something strictly forbidden here). But no one was watching but the Prince of Compassion, who sees all. Bill struggles daily, sometimes making progress, sometimes stumbling. If you slept under a bridge on the dirty pavement at night, and could get no Prozac or even Advil, could you resist something that took away the pain, even for a little while, even if it only made matters worse in the end? The One who watches reminds us not to judge, and always to hope – and always to work to make the world a little bit kinder and better place.

Meanwhile, in the garden, can’t forget greener place, too. Here are some scenes, there’s a lot happening right now:

Here Pedro, Lite, Kiesha, Manuel and Michael work on weeding our main veggie garden. We’re staking tomatoes this week, too. We like volunteers, thus you’ll see lots of background sunflowers and other things that have come back. That’s not bad, I think. Planning is great, too much planning can kill a project.


Meanwhile, out front, Pete and Cleo were at work on restoring our medicine wheel, beside the new steps Eagle Scout candidate Andrew Ebersold just completed for us. We got Bermudagrass sneaking in, one of the several invasive plants that have shown up. Hard to be compassionate about them as it is to see the common humanity in pushers and pimps, but we are all part of a greater and deeply interlinked community of great complexity, as Aldo Leopold pointed out. So, we pull weeds, and, like Bill, consider chemical quick-fixes. “Hit it with Round-Up, man”. I hear that a lot…

Meanwhile, tours keep coming through the garden – I admit I want to put all these kids to work right now.

And close with a picture of Pete Foster, gardener extraordinaire, who is tending the lovely petunias shared by Michael Norton, our garden and landscape hero who shows up with crews regularly, spreading both hope and beauty.

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