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Ode to Summer

I love summer. The smell of tomato plants, waking up to daylight and going to bed with the sky not quite deepest black, moving from inside to outside without bundling up or shrinking against the cold. My shoulders can finally collapse away from my ears.

I need every bit of physical relaxation I can get. Summer is full on. Beyond the usual uptick at Hinkein Realty (guiding house hunters), At Home (tending house guests), and Worth Preserving (managing the house and landscape projects that can now proceed apace), this spring brought an especially intense surge of New Yorkers upstate to find refuge. “Frenzy” is the word that comes to mind.

Every summer is a kind of juggling act between chaos and carefree. The rhythm of school days and summer vacation stays rooted in our psyche. To relax, we go off on trips or swing in the hammock…later to find that wasps have built nests in the eaves and the weeds have taken over.

This spring, I enlisted a gardener – Seamus Donohoe of Rise & Rise Permaculture – to help me understand the principles of edible gardening. Several years ago, at great expense, we created a lovely patch with stone walls, wooden fencing, gravel paths, and raised beds. Visually, it was a dramatic improvement over the jungle that had existed before. But I’d always struggled to make it functional. Our first crop was demoralizingly decimated by a groundhog. The next year, I let the tomatoes and nasturtiums take over. It was a beautiful riot. But the vines became so tangled and impenetrable that most of the fruit rotted. (Not that we could have eaten another tomato – I think I still have some in the freezer from that year. By the way, that may have been the same summer I inadvertently cultivated a colony of flies in my car because I kept running out of time to drop off the garbage at the transfer station.)

For many reasons, I vowed this year would be different. So, back to Seamus and one indispensable skill he has taught me so far:  tomato pruning.

Pruning is a perfect metaphor for… everything. Prioritizing, making decisions, choosing which battles against chaos to fight and when to let nature take its course, all to the purpose of yielding a better result. It turns out that, with a little time and foresight, one can nurture tomatoes to generate just the right amount of fruit and happily coexist with other edibles. One only has to understand which parts of the vine are the essential “leaders” and which parts are extraneous “suckers”.

I’ve drawn the parallel between gardening and house rehabilitation before. It strikes me again, as I talk with prospective house buyers/renovators about strategies for making the most of any particular property. Sure, one could tear down walls and start over. Or, with a few deft strokes, bring order to the chaos of past neglect and fresh focus to the essential character of a place. Sometimes it’s a tough call – one person’s “leaders” are another person’s “suckers”. Far from a purist, I would fight to the death for preserving the vestigial quirks of an old house.

To spread the metaphor even thinner, I started this post with the Ned Rorem song “Early in the Morning” playing in my head. It exactly captures the initial calm and expectation I feel as the sun is rising on “a lovely summer day” – to me, the best feeling in the world. Not unlike walking into an old house, ready to be loved. I thought this idea would be my “leader”, but did it turn out to be a “sucker” instead? Yes or no, I’m not taking it out.

Summer (like writing and rehabilitating) can be a roller-coaster ride indeed. I always find myself straining to reconcile the need to hold on tight with the urge to let go. Pruning is scary and exciting and rewarding and agonizing…and so for now I leave it to Seamus while I watch intently, letting it sink in and become second nature.