Relief is a state of mind. Isn't it?

I am writing this while in extreme pain. Sciatica. It’s a condition often caused by a bulging disk that pokes out of your spine and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, a length of bio-wiring that runs from mid-back through the buttocks and into the thigh. Remember those tubes of ready-mix Pillsbury dinner rolls that you’d twist and a splorch of dough would pop out? Yup, like that.

My search buddy DuckDuckGo says sciatica is a fairly common ailment, and it can last for weeks. At its worse, the pain can be excruciating, hand raised on that one. And there’s no quick cure, no whiz-bang operation where a surgeon goes in and uses a wooden spoon to pook your dough back into proper alignment. Relief comes mostly from a pharmaceutical grab bag of anti-inflammatories and pain meds, plus ongoing physical therapy. And time.

Which brings us to this moment.

Currently I’m doubled over, nose inches from the keyboard, pain coursing along my spine, past my buttocks, and into my upper left thigh. I’m not looking for sympathy (although I am looking for the letter W—it’s hard to focus being this close. Ah, there it is!)

Why write while in distress? And what’s all this gibber-jabber about back pain have to do with gardening?

I’m currently taking a mélange of substances that include Vicodin (prescribed) a Lidocain patch (also Rx), gobs of prednisone (prescribed and begrudgingly taken), half a THC gummy (strawberry), two modest glasses of a very acceptable bourbon, and a beer chaser. The concoction hasn’t done a thing to alleviate the pain, but there is a sort-of wayward side section of my brain that is agreeably giddy with all this biochemical tomfoolery. Let’s write about this pain thing in real time! enthuses Side Section. It’ll be so, um, real!

Describing pain with the written word is challenging, pain being such a completely subjective experience. Deb has suggested that I have a very low pain threshold, meaning she would like me to cease whimpering and stop pointing at my coffee mug, wordlessly pantomiming that I need a refill. She reminds me that her pain threshold is extremely high, and as proof she plays her trump card, which is to clarify which of the two of us was the one that endured childbirth. Make that childbirths, plural. No argument here. Let’s just say that my pain feels as if someone is flossing the spaces between my vertebrae with barbed wire.

Which brings us, finally, to gardening. Or specifically, the routine yard maintenance that is not happening, a situation made more pathetic for the fact that the weather has turned absolutely gorgeous, with clean air and bright skies. Plants are happy, peppers are pendulous, birds are doing their bird things. I have fence-mending to finish, and irises to move, and poblanos to pick. At the moment, all that pleasantry seems so far away.

But with an admirable display of pluck, I hobble painfully outside. (Again, sympathy is not being courted here. Welcomed, sure. But, when you think about it, not overtly solicited.) I sit in a lawn chair and take off my shirt so that the midday sun falls directly on my bare back. That feels good. I toss a few peanuts to Calamity and Chatter, our two greedy, insatiable California scrub jays whose fondness for dried legumes knows no bounds. The Raywood ash casts filigreed shadows that hop and quiver on the patio. There is a single-engine plane flying far overhead, the sound like falling into a dream. The pain begins to ease. I close my eyes and listen to the early autumnal winds reminding the trees of what is to come.

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  • John R

The side garden is one of my favorite places on our property. It’s a tangled, overgrown confusion of intertwining blanches, shaggy foliage and viny things, all growing helter-skelter into a sort of singular impenetrable botanical mass. It could use some management from the property owner, for sure. Studious pruning, for example, would be extremely beneficial for both plant health and aesthetics.


The side garden has my hideaway spot. It’s a little dome-shaped nook mantled over with a matrix of twigs and leaves. I discovered it one day when searching for a lost pair of pruning shears (talk about ironic). Crawling on my hands and knees through the brush like a purposeful opossum, hoping that I might be spared another trip to Ace Hardware to buy yet another pair of pruning shears that I know are Out Here Somewhere—a pair that I wielded a year ago with excellent intentions before my resolve was interrupted by a phone call and then a box of honey grahams and then a nap.

I was shunted this way and that by the caprices of the underbrush until I came upon a small hollow place within the snarl of growing things. It was big enough that I could get into a sitting position, so I gave it a try. Everything was painted with soft filigreed light, and the air was ripe with the smell of dirt and lilac and mint and gently rotting humus. There was a pleasant hush to the spot, as if the hustle of everyday had moved far away. Best of all, I was completely hidden from view. A little thrill worked its way up my innards, as if I was a six-year-old who’d come upon the perfect hide-and-seek concealment.

Since that day I have visited the nook every now and then. It’s a bit of a hassle for a grown man to wriggle through scratchy undergrowth to get there, but once inside the friendly confines you’re pretty much guaranteed a peaceful respite from responsibility. As a bonus, I’ve done some of my most introspective thinking in the hideaway (true, there’s not much else to do in there). Accordingly, I have over time developed a core set of Existential Questions To Ponder:

1) Why am I sitting in the side garden?

This is an excellent question and I’m glad it comes up with regularity. Obviously, being in nature is good for the soul, and I feel very relaxed and at peace in my impromptu monastery. It certainly beats sitting in traffic, or a corporate meeting. If Deb calls for me to haul the trash bins out to the street I can successfully pretend I don’t exist. I do give serious consideration to the fact that, due to the nature (get it?) of my surroundings, a tick might crawl undetected up my pants leg and deliver a crippling dose of Lyme’s disease. That would pretty much put a damper on everything.

2) Why are ticks so disturbing?

That’s definitely one of Earth’s mysteries. Spiders, ants, beetles, and birds feed on ticks, so ticks have certain food-chain obligations. But lets be frank—Ixodes are bloodsucking parasites, and there’s something especially creepy about bloodsucking parasites, especially little bitty tiny ones you can hardly see who are capable of really fucking you up.

3) Am I hiding from something?

Wow, the big questions just keep popping up. It’s true that occasionally I don't want anybody to see me. I’m not sure why. I know that at night deer have snuggled down in this very spot—perhaps there’s some biochemically induced sense of security to be had when tucked away inside walls of leafy greenery. Although now that I think about it, the presence of deer exponentially increases the chances that ticks are close at hand.

4) What should I do when I’m done hiding away and pondering?

Tough one. Maybe go make a peanut butter-and-jam sandwich using graham crackers instead of bread. Then slather myself with insect repellent, tuck my pants legs inside my socks, and go back out to the side garden with that brand new pair of pruning shears and get to work. This isn’t a deer sanctuary, it’s a landscape ripe with potential! And I’m going to get after it. I think.

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It’s 105 degrees outside, inflation is bonkers, wildfires are roaming the countryside, and most folks find themselves on the Going Nutty Scale slotted somewhere between Quite Nutty and Extremely Nutty. With that in mind I have decided in this blog not to engage in slandering my garden spaces (which oh so deserve a good slandering) as I typically do, but to focus on some of our horticultural bright spots (as rare as they might be) that I have found to be soul-soothing and—hopefully—harbingers of less-nutty tomorrows.

columbine flower
We actually have many healthy columbine plants. I know, it's hard for me to believe, too.

Seeing a ladybug definitely puts the day in the plus column. Did you know ladybugs can live up to 3 years? Sure you did.

A little photo fun here. I was going to look up what these delicate little flowers are before I published this blog, but I forgot. I think they're Platycodon grandiflorus. One of those surprise offerings from our yard that we didn't plant and that just appeared one season and decided to stay.

Bees are all over the alliums. Are they making onion-flavored honey? That doesn't sound marketable.

Camellias. 'Nuff said.

If I was a wee katydid, I'd hang out inside a lily blossom, too.

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