At the edge of the bluff, the gaze glides down towards the ocean shimmering deep blue under a bright summer sky. It stops at the tuft of Indian paintbrush blooming brilliant red half-way down, a small fire, burning heatless on the steep sandy slope.
The Indian paintbrush is not the only plant surviving in the harsh environment,
scorched by the mid-day sun that has burned off the nightly fog,
shaken by the wind that accompanies the fog daily mass migration to and from the coast,
splashed by the salt spray the ocean showers when it pounds the shore.
But among the gravity-defying bluff flora, the Indian paintbrush is the plant that most assertively heeds its urge to bloom, bursting into flames of flowers. It doesn’t wait for something to change its surroundings, doesn’t try to move elsewhere. It sings its colorful song today on this rocky stretch of California coast.
The place or the time not being right for the blooming burning inside me is an excuse easy to make. The Indian paintbrush turns that excuse into sand. Where my feet are now and when I breathe this breath are as right a place and time as there will ever be. I look at the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean marbled with streaks of white foam.
I breathe in the cool coastal air carrying the taste of salt and seaweeds. Like the Indian paintbrush, I cannot imagine a better place or a better time.
Last year, at the end of the blooming season, I pruned the two rose bushes that grow on the western wall of our house.
Every evening for over a week,
after the day’s work was done,
in the suspended moment between day and night,
The air was still,
the Pacific Ocean, though constantly chattering, seemed to slow down and settle for the night.
Birds were silent,
bunny rabbits were safely tucked deep in the bushes,
raccoons were preparing for their nightly raids,
and I pruned.
Brandishing shears in my gloved hands, I snipped and snipped and pulled long thorny branches tangled with others. I was unravelling a mystery.
I wished the bushes understood my destruction’s purpose was to make them better. But I doubted myself and them. What if I bungled the whole thing and the bushes died as a result of my inexperienced snipping?
The light thump of each branch coming to rest on the growing pile of siblings sounded final, like a chapter-ending period. I left only healthy-looking branches off the main stem. The bushes looked kind of naked, exposed. The while walls behind them glared at me, exposed too.
I carried the last mound of severed branches to the discard pile and went inside without looking back. A sense of having survived a necessary painful process prevailed, liniment on the raw wound. For months, I didn’t go close to the bushes for fear I would see signs of deteriorating health.
In early spring,
a small red rose bloomed shyly
in the still cool air.
the pale pink bush exploded
into a firework of delicate blooms.
I tried to remember how sparse the bushes had been after my surgical intervention, but it was hard to match my six-month-old memory with the lush growth in front of me:
a world lighted by pink and red petals.
On a recent morning, demoralized about sustained creative efforts not bearing the expected fruit, I went outside and looked at my roses:
bejeweled by dewdrops,
compliments of the nightly coastal fog,
they smiled at the pale morning sun and at me.
And I understood.
I must cut away what saps my energy,
what served a purpose, but whose role has come to an end.
I have heard those words uttered in assorted shades of matter-of-factness, disgust, anger, as if snails’ only reason for existence is to destroy the speaker’s garden.
I love snails.
I lose myself in observing them explore their sliver of the world. I marvel at their agility.
To bridge the gap between where it is and where it wants to go, the snail stretches the front of its body as if it were a thick rubber band and reaches the destination, adhering firmly to it and testing that it can hold when the heavy rear becomes airborne. The stretching continues until I expect the snail to pop completely out of its shell. There is a suspended moment in which most of the snail is on the destination leaf, while the shell is still on the origin and a thin middle ensures the two halves are still one creature.
Then, as if at the end of a NASA-style countdown, the snail’s elastic body snaps back bringing the shell to the destination leaf. Reunited with its heavy-duty home, the snail rests for a bit and catches its breath, then resumes its exploration.
Every morning I get an opportunity to study snails’ prowess. They are fond of parsley, of the white chard growing in the middle of the garlic patch, and of kale. I may see a large leaf in the evening and decide to let it replenish its moisture during the night to harvest a plumper version the next morning. When the appointed time comes, I find a lace of leaf veins held by the stem where once there was an expanse of dark green leaf tissue.
I am not overly upset at the discovery that a kale leaf has been reduced to a skeleton by voracious snails. Snails teach me to be persistent, to divide the road ahead into small steps and take one at a time, prepare for it, execute it, then move on to the next one.
I don’t kill snails. I make sure my edible plants remain edible in sufficient amount and my seedlings get a chance to develop by drawing a thick circle of crushed egg shells around them. When I catch a snail in the act, or asleep with a full stomach, I relocate it together with the leaf on which I found it, so that it won’t be completely disoriented in its new environment — usually the compost pile — and will have something to eat until it can find a new source of nourishment.
My snail control strategy may seem silly and pointless. But when I feel in my bloodstream the hatred flowing freely around the world and flooding every corner of it, I must do something. Showing consideration for the life of a snail is my toothpick-size contribution to the beaver dam of love that every day hinders hate’s flow.
Blackberry picking is like living. The plumpest, most ostentatiously ripe blackberry is the one an inch away from my grasping hand stretched at the end of my stretched body on tiptoes at the edge of a mass of brambles on which I don’t want to fall.
As a child, during my summer blackberry-picking expeditions, I was reminded of my diminutive size every time the object of desire seemed within reach to my greedy eyes, but escaped my greedy hands.
I have sometimes accepted my inability to reach that object. I have landed back on my full feet, lowered the stretched arm, and continued filling my basket with less plump, but perfectly ripe blackberries that my hand could pick with minor discomfort — maybe a scratch here and there to show off later as evidence of the battle fought.
Sometimes, however, I have refused to accept the situation, and made my way to the hard-to-get blackberry and picked it and verified that it was all I expected it to be — and more. (There were also a few disappointments, but how would I have known, had I not been able to taste the blackberry?)
Yet other times, when on the surface I had to accept defeat, a third way opened up. Instead of hunting high, I have looked for treasures low, where adults and taller kids did not stoop to look. And I have found precious berries there.
This does not mean I don’t strive to reach new heights, only that sometimes it pays to pay attention to what is closer to me, within reach. A small treasure may be waiting under the leaf that’s scratching my elbow.
On Christmas Day, the rainbow that appeared in front of our eyes as we crossed the Kilauea Iki Crater floor in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was all contained within the crater and within our field of view: it felt reachable, touchable. Seeing a sliver of a rainbow brings joy: seeing the entire arc was exhilarating. I thought I could walk up to the rainbow, go through it like through a gentle waterfall and come out all colored. I walked from one end to the other and I was under it, embraced and protected by it.
When the sun shines into some rain, conditions are ripe for a rainbow to appear. Looking in the direction opposite to the sun, I may see one, but it is so much better when the rainbow appears unexpectedly, like a magical being that has answered a secret wish rather than a loud call.
I know that incident rays of light enter each raindrop and are refracted inwards, then reflected from the back surface of the raindrop, and then refracted again as they exit the raindrop and return to my eyes.
I know that refraction is responsible for splitting the sunlight into its component colors.
And I know that the different wavelength of blue and red light and the reflection of light rays from the back of the raindrop makes blue appear on the inside of the arc of the rainbow, and red on the outside.
Yet, knowing why a rainbow appears and why it looks the way it does has not divested the show of its magic. When my husband sees a rainbow, he is as amazed as a child, ready to learn why the refractive index is wavelength dependent. When I see a rainbow, I am as amazed as a child, ready to believe in fairy tales all over again.
A rainbow is a tale in which Sky showers Earth first with rain and then with colors as Earth reaches up to caress Sky’s tear-stained cheeks.
A rainbow appears and then it disappears like a cherished memory, or a fluttering butterfly. The arc never loses the lightness of a gossamer dream.
The moment I lose the ability to smile with my body and my heart at the sight of a rainbow — or ocean waves crashing against a rocky shore, or clouds blushing pink at sunset, or any of the beautiful details of a world born out of fire and ice — is the moment I’ll understand death.
My deep smile mirrored the arc of the rainbow. The scene was perfect. It was better than anything that could have landed, brightly wrapped and beribboned, under our Christmas tree.
Hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail and meeting the rainbow up close and personal was my Christmas indulgence. Around the Holidays in particular, the word “indulgence” usually refers to overeating overly rich dishes. But this Christmas I indulged in nature, luxuriated in an atmospheric solar spectrum, meditated on the magic and science of living on earth and smiled at the sky.
Garden nasturtium‘s large shield-shaped leaves gather water drops (dew or rain) like solar panels gather sunlight.
On a horizontal leaf, droplets slide towards the depression at the center. In the morning, a giant lenticular drop reflects my image on its tense convex surface — a dome that wiggles in the breeze, a drinking pool for the visiting hummingbird.
I wish there were something similar for sunlight, a way of collecting a small pool of it, into which I could dip a finger or a brush and paint the day on the canvas of time stretching ahead.
If the leaf is in a vertical position, drops glide on its slightly parabolic surface and end up hanging from the bottom edge, suspended over the abyss.
Nasturtium plants exhibit a tendency to take over our garden. Besides embracing the house in several spots with sometimes suffocating enthusiasm, they worm their way into the jasmine bush, wrap themselves around draining pipes, blanket the compost pile, emerge where I least expect them.
Sturdy stems push their way forward with determination: there is no crevice, however small, they won’t explore. They find plenty of opportunities around our house, tugged by tectonic forces stronger than its foundations.
The yellow nasturtium flowers compete in brightness with the sun during the day and the orange ones out-orange the setting sun. They are also winners on the table.
Raw nasturtium flowers pop into a flash of flowery pepperiness in the mouth, firecrackers exploding with flavor rather than sound. They brighten a butter lettuce or steamed snap bean salad with both their color and their zest. Tossed into a skillet with cooked dark leafy greens, their splash of brightness is like a lightning fracturing the darkness of the night sky.
Pressed between two layers of pasta dough, nasturtium petals make an edible “stained glass” that charms the eyes.
In flowers left to complete their life cycle, seedpods develop as the petals wilt and fall off. They cluster in groups of three or four, light green and succulent. They are called “poor man’s capers,” I learned. One evening around sunset, it didn’t take me long to harvest a cup. I carried them to the kitchen on a large nasturtium leaf and pickled them in distilled white vinegar. When the right combination of ingredients presented itself, they played their role well and henceforth will be called “lucky woman’s capers.”
Life sometimes makes us stop in the moment and reminds us that the only time we have is that moment.
At the Maku’u Farmers’ Market, along the Kea’au/Pahoa Highway bypass road (Big Island), a mainlander like me had only the present to taste the phantasmagoria of fruits on display, like papayas, soft-spiked rambutans, fluorescent fuchsia dragon fruit. There was no hoarding for further than the near future: most fruit was perfectly ripe and would barely stand the trip back to our lodging. And there was no stashing the luggage with abiu or citrus fruit or rambutan for a delayed enjoyment back home in California, because that fruit could not leave the island in my backpack.
A ross sapote (the shape and size of a deep yellow tomato), a yellow sapote (called egg fruit because the consistency of its pulp is reminiscent of hard-boiled egg yolk), a mamey sapote (its scratchy brown skin enveloping salmon-colored flesh), a bagful of brilliant rambutans, a persimmon so ripe it almost fell apart when I touched it, all found space in my shopping bag. A papaya, several avocados and abius, a bunch of mini bananas and an assortment of citrus fruits were already in the kitchen of our lodging.
A few hours after the expedition to the market, we set out to reach the viewing spot we had visited four years earlier to look from a safe distance at lava emerging from an underground channel and diving into the ocean: After sunset, as the light dimmed, the glow from the lava had set the darkening sky ablaze.1
We parked the car where lava flow had put an end to Highway 130 and started walking over the black expanse of natural asphalt sparkling under the afternoon sun. The brilliant blue sky was marbled with light gray clouds ready to congregate into 15-minute showers.
We soon developed a feeling that things were different from our prior visit. When we arrived at a sign that prevented us from proceeding, we found ourselves totally confused. The houses built on the lava field were closer to us than we remembered and the bright yellow stripes on the lava that in the past had guided our steps were nowhere to be seen.
A county security guard arrived and cleared our confusion: a portion of the road we had driven on four years ago, the parking lot where we had left the car, the lava upon which we walked to reach the viewing area were all gone, covered by the flow from a recent eruption. There, earth is still being born, every day, and the landscape changes at human-scale speed, in fact, at visitor-scale speed.
Under a boundless sky, caressed by a sweet breeze, in a moment of timeless perfection, impermanence was the only certainty and the present was the only time we had to take in the landscape around us. Small clouds of vapor along the ridge towards the main crater were the telltale sign of lava flowing below the surface there. Any day, a crack might open where we were standing and lava start flowing from there into the Pacific Ocean nearby, pushing everything along its path to plunge it into the blue waves.
But even the stark surface of lava hardened by cool air is not permanent. In time, in the cracks, ‘Ama’u ferns unfold their brilliant green fronds and ‘Ōhi’a Lehua trees grow, their brush-like red blossoms sparkling against jet black lava.2
Later in the afternoon, on the road from Kapoho3 to Pahoa, among handwritten signs posted on trees that ask drivers to slow down for kids at play or invite them to join a yoga class, we read one saying: “It’s only a matter of time.” Indeed it is.
“Do you know that I love you?” I told my husband.
And once we arrived at our lodging, I took an abiu from the fruit basket, cut it into half and plunged a small spoon into its sweet, translucent pulp, which has a custard consistency and a flavor reminiscent of a lightly sweetened caramel flan.
The only time I had was that moment and it tasted superb.
2 Hawaiian lava comes in two types, which differ in appearance, but are chemically alike. Pahoehoe has a smoother and ropey surface where ‘a’a is jagged and clinkery. The ‘Ōhi’a Lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a pioneer plant on new lava and a dominant tree in most mature Hawaiian forests.
P.S. On June 27th, less than six months after the visit that inspired the piece above, a new eruption started and is still ongoing (though the leading front has stopped a few days ago, about 500 meters from the town of Pahoa).
Brilliant blueberry or reddish purple, bright orange, pale yellow or an ivory that, the first time I saw it, made me wonder whether I was looking at a parsnip that had smuggled itself into carrot-land: When I am in the mood for technicolor carrots, I know to which stall to direct my steps at the farmers’ market. On a recent Saturday, in the early morning sunlight cooled by wisps of coastal California fog, I picked up by the stems a bunch of carrots with their tops still intact. I held it up for a few seconds — the uncombed ponytail of greens brushing my hands — trying to decide whether to photograph it while still in the company of its siblings, or to wait until we reached my vegetables’ portrait studio (i.e., my kitchen).
As my brain was quickly weighing pros and cons of the options, the word “weird” hit my right ear. By stressing the “ei” and slouching on the “r,” the word “weird” can be easily turned into a verbal weapon. It is easy for me, a non-native English speaker, to tune out of background conversations at the market (and elsewhere), but that “weird” bullet burst my defensive soundproof bubble.
I kept my eyes fixed on the carrots for fear they would spear the person who had shot the word, a young woman, by the sound of the voice. “What an unpleasant word,” I thought. And then I saw it, the abyss that opens between the judge and the judged the moment that word is out.
I now know that I should have said something, I should have kindly but firmly disabused the young woman of her perception by explaining to her that what she was seeing were in fact historical carrots. Our ancestors ate purple, yellow and white carrots. Orange carrots were neither the first cultivated carrots nor the only existing variety, and their predominance is an accident of relative recent history.
“This diverse bunch of carrots is beautiful and I hope you recognize it as such,” I should have said. “Embrace diversity, bring these colorful carrots home and make a salad with them. You’ll realize that, although of different colors, they are crunchy, juicy, sweet carrots like the ‘normal’ orange ones. There is nothing weird about rainbow carrots — nothing at all.”
I didn’t say anything and, like so many times in life, the moment flew by, and I lost a chance to move a pebble to make the world a better place. The neat speech I delivered in the previous paragraph came to me a few days after the carrots’ episode as a result not only of it, but also of some reading that made me think about ways in which evil manifests itself.
So much evil in the world is caused by regarding another person as “less” or inferior, because of a physical or cultural trait. The first judgment, which seems to be almost inconsequential, can easily pave the way to discrimination, oppression, persecution and, ultimately, in too many cases, physical elimination — with each step justified by the previous one.
Placing humans and the vegetable world on the same level seems preposterous, but the seed that made my thoughts sprout started that morning at the farmers’ market, amid piles of neatly displayed vegetables. My meditation on evil brought into relief my personal responsibility in stopping any form of negative judgment before it has time to start rolling down the mountain and cause an avalanche of persecution — including judgment passed upon carrots other than orange.
Now that I have clarified my thoughts, I’ll be better equipped to defend the next vegetable that gets mistreated in my presence, and hopefully, and more importantly, the next person or group of people.
The caption of the photo is the title of a song from Finian’s Rainbow, one of my favorite musicals. Here’s the refrain:
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow it over the hill and the stream.
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream.