The Sorcerer’s Garden…

She loves to garden and has since she was this age. So did her grandmother, Lena, and mother Virginia. But my wife, Marilynn, has taken it to a new level. Two years ago, I profiled her as My Gardener and people were amazed. 

She started 20 years ago with a vision and a bare concrete patio. She did a masterful job bringing her vision to life, but now the creation is threatening to overwhelm the creator. 10 years ago, when it was clear she couldn’t do it alone, a friend with a degree from the UW Horticultural Center offered to help. That arrangement lasted five years and then a talkative hardworking Austrian showed up. Last week he announced he’s moving to Hawaii and the job is open again. My fingers are crossed that another garden angel shows up to give her a hand.

This is what it looks like now. June was camellia, rhododendron, peony, and lilac time. This month it’s hydrangeas. Next month and into the fall it’s Japanese maple, dahlias, day lilies, and others I can’t name. In winter it’s pansies and dusty miller. There’s a year-around plan for fragrance and color, flowers and blooming plants. But it’s not toil free. There’s planting, watering, fertilizing, deadheading, pruning, and seasonal changeovers. All in ceramic pots (50+), in our front courtyard plus cut flowers in the soil below our back deck. 

In Goethe’s poem, Die Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) an old sorcerer hires an apprentice to do chores while he’s away, but the apprentice is lazy and employs some magic he doesn’t really understand, i.e., enchanting a broom, to fetch the water. When the broom brings too much and floods the room, he chops it in half thinking it will stop the flow. But, in fact, it doubles the action. The crisis is solved when the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and scolds his apprentice. Only a master should practice magic.

I’m not sure if Marilynn is the sorcerer or the apprentice. She seems more like a master to me, but I’m a lowly hod carrier. In any event her plants keep reproducing, the jungle grows denser and no one, least of all me, knows how to break the spell. We need a garden master to conjure powerful spirits and find us a helper.

I regret not taking pictures when we moved in, but that was before the iPhone made it easy. The space was bare bones – like an oversized dog kennel – but she was energized and excited to have space for a garden at her small urban condo. Never mind that there was no dirt, no pots, and no view. There was a hose bib and that’s all she needed to get started. We’ve dumped enough topsoil, compost, manure, and fertilizer in the 50+ pots to create another Dunn Garden.

I’m clueless, but everyday when I walk in the door she asks if I saw this or that – something blooming, something added, or something moved – and when I say “no,” she takes me by the hand like a small child shows me the change. In defense, I argue it’s hard to see the change, because of the jungle. More and more it feels like the vegetation will take over and start eating visitors any minute. We’re going to need a machete to get from the gate to the front door soon.

Her garden is a marvel. Like compound interest it keeps growing over time, and like interest you don’t notice how much until you check the statement. I sometimes grouse about the time and money spent creating it, but every day I get to watch it grow and flower. It’s her passion and her gift, and I’m the primary beneficiary. By any measure, we live in park…

Now…if you know anybody with a green thumb who needs a job… Give us a call, we need help. 

A River Runs Through It…

My mother died in 1997. I honored her wish to be cremated and the cardboard box holding her remains sat on a shelf in my closet until the summer of 2009. I wasn’t trying to hang on to her in some creepy way, but I had a plan that took 12 years to execute. 

Claudine Mildred Christy Bernard was born in Missoula, Montana in 1906. I was born there 31 years later. Both my father and mother graduated from the University of Montana in 1928, where she was one of the first women graduates of the UM School of Journalism. My son, Brent, majored in geology at Montana State, and in 1997, daughter Diana and her husband, Nick, graduated from UM with degrees in English. Last year their son, Will, entered UM as an art major. 

We have deep roots in Montana; my grandparents homesteaded a small farm near Flathead Lake. My aunt and uncle owned a lumber company in Deer Lodge, and I spent one high school summer as a ranch hand in the Helmville Valley north of Missoula. Norman Maclean’s family settled in Missoula about the same time as my mother’s. 

Norman was four years older than my mother, his brother Paul was her age, and all three were in high school together. Norman left Missoula to attend Dartmouth College, and after a long career on the English faculty at the University of Chicago wrote A River Runs Through It, his exceptional novel of growing up in Montana with a father who used his love of fly-fishing as a metaphor to teach his sons about life. It is without question my favorite novel – spare, profound, poignant, and lyrical.

My mother loved Montana, and the two family stories came together again in the summer of 2009 when my wife Marilynn, Diana, and I took Mom’s ashes back to Montana. I chose a spot close to where A River Runs Through It is set and tossed them handful by handful into Rock Creek while seated on a log hanging over the river. The novella locates the story in Missoula and on the Big Blackfoot, near Rock Creek (below), where both tributaries feed the larger Clark’s Fork.

The novel opens with: 

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of two great trout rivers in Western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

My mother loved the book and in 1992 when the Redford film version was released, I took her to see it. As the opening credits rolled there was a sequence of sepia-toned photographs of downtown Missoula, including the historic Missoula Mercantile department store. By then, at 86, she was hard of hearing but there, in the quiet of the theater, she leaned over and in a loud voice announced, “That’s not right. That’s not what the Merc looked like then.” She would have known. She worked at the Merc when she was in college. The audience rippled with giggles and I told her we could talk about it later.

In June, John N. Maclean, Norman’s son, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, published Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River, his memoir of family and the writing of A River…, recalling times at the cabin they still own at Seeley Lake, the mystery surrounding Paul’s tragic death, and his father’s last days.

The Bernards no longer live in Montana but I do have a grandchild (fourth generation) enrolled at UM. My son-in- law, Nick, is a well-established fly-fishing guide, and son, Brent, guides as a sideline to his job as a hydrologist. Both love the great trout fishing rivers – the Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin, Big Hole and Blackfoot – of Montana. The Macleans are absent too but maintain their family cabin at Seeley Lake. Montana has a hold on both families for good reason.

I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then, in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by rivers.  (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, p161)

Rock Creek 2009


Climate change is devastating the great trout fishing rivers in the West. Last week (July 25, 2021) the New York Times published an article entitled Crisis in the Clear, Deep Pools of Montana citing unprecedented high temperatures and low water leading to trout die-offs, closures, and worries for the future.

I am haunted by rivers. (A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, p161)

Magical Thinking…

This is crazyland. I’m upside down in a dystopian novel. Am I the only one who feels this way? I’m watching elected officials whose lives were in danger on January 6 tell me I didn’t see what I saw. I see them vote not to investigate its causes. I listen to the defeated candidate for president say the vote count was fraudulent and he’ll be restored to office in August. The news tells me 300 unvaccinated souls die of Covid-19 every day because they don’t want the vaccine, and an average of 54 people die daily of gun violence because the 2nd Amendment is so precious.

When asked why he walked around Athens with a lantern in daylight, Diogenes replied he was looking for an honest man. Historians are silent on whether he found one. 2000 years have passed. If he were around today, he might be looking for someone sane, prescient, and principled.

In 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack. A year later her daughter died of a massive brain hematoma. In 2005 she published The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir reflecting on her inability to accept that reality. Since the election in 2020, Congressional Republicans have been having their own year of magical thinking, and every day we get closer to the edge of the abyss.

I try not to be cynical but Kellyanne Conway notwithstanding, truth is not subjective. Alternative facts are lies not facts, but Congressional Republicans can’t seem to tell the difference. The majority are craven cowards, handcuffed by Trumpian politics and afraid of the truth. With American democracy on the verge of collapse, it’s crunch time, and just as a distorted reading of Nietzsche’s The Will to Power was the philosophical basis for Hitler’s rise, so similar distortions of American history are the root of Trump’s white nationalism.  

It’s time to get real. In these perilous times, magical thinking is dangerous. Climate Change, Guns, Covid-19, and Racial Hate kill people and no amount of magical thinking is going to change that. Killers need to be confronted and disarmed.

The United States is burning up– triple digit temperatures, drought, and out of control forest fires are devastating the country. Americans own more that 300,000,000 guns and 1800 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings so far in 2021. Covid-19 is killing 300 Americans every day despite effective vaccines, and racial hate continues to endanger Americans of color.

Mitch McConnell and he who shall not be named are Nietzschean in their pursuit of power. Joe Manchin and A.O.C. hold out for a “more perfect union,” while Caitlyn Jenner, transgender rights and Pride parades distract us from action items that have teeth. Democrats need to stop dithering and marshal forces against the systemic attack on our democracy or IT will be back.

The “American experiment” is 245 years old, roughly the same duration as the Pax Romana. We should be able to do better than the Romans. We have science, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and modern technology to inform our choices, but ignorance is a huge impediment and the firehose of disinformation coming at us from the alt-right is astonishing.

George Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has a new book called Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. He begins with the observation that, “The world’s pity has taken the place of admiration, hostility, awe, envy, fear, affection and repulsion,” when people think of the United States. He fears the Americans have lost the art of self-government which depends to a large degree on trust. It’s a value argument deriving from the Enlightenment.

“What happened last spring was that our government, our national government, sort of abandoned us to our fate in the face of a once-a-century pandemic. It had no plan, it had no structure. And it seemed to have no desire, as if it didn’t care whether we lived or died. And so that gave me the sensation I’ve had in some of these other countries, less fortunate countries, that there’s no state here to take care of us or to even do minimal things.

 We’re not nearly as far along as others, but the worst thing is to imagine we can never move in that direction. Because we’ve had a functioning government for centuries, and because we’re used to a certain level of comfort. We should never imagine it can’t happen here. It is happening here. And I wrote Last Best Hope both to point out how far along we came last year toward a real collapse of self-government, and also how much it’s up to us. Because there is no foreign power that’s going to come in and either make things better or worse here. We’re on our own.”

If, as he says, Americans have lost the art of self-government we need to reclaim it. Civility is needed for debate, but today we’re engaged in a shootout not a debate. House and Senate Republicans are lined up at the rail knocking off the (small “d”) democratic ducks. We have to stop giving them guns then lining up to be picked off. We are facing killer issues. Time to back up the truck and haul them away. America needs a fresh start without last year’s stale fruit and stinking up the halls of Congress. No more magical thinking. Enough of crazyland dystopian non-fiction and political theater. We reality based action.

Postscript by Carl Sagan , American astronomer and futurist, in 1997.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness… …most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance… I fear the candle in the dark of science will be snuffed out by the dumbing down of America, most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance… 

The Perfect Run…

My friend Joel Leidecker died in April. We had known each other for 63 years. We were fraternity brothers at the University of Washington, but he was younger and I didn’t know him well back then. We reconnected when he and wife Jody moved their family to Ketchum in the mid-1970s.

Their boys, Erik and Matt, were soon friends and classmates of my kids, Doug and Diana, and I remember when they were about 9 or 10 Doug and Erik roped up to climb a big boulder in the center of town. They’ve continued climbing and skiing and today Erik runs Sawtooth Mountain Guides and is helping Doug, a former Green Beret, get his mountain guide certification. Needless to say, their connection has endured.

The two families are different in many ways but share a number of interests. We skied and played tennis together and every spring for a number of years drove to Moab, Utah, to ride mountain bikes on its slickrock trails. 

One of the differences is that Joel was a big-time bird hunter, so every fall he invited us to eat dead birds and swallow birdshot while he dedicated himself to shooting every last quail and sage hen in Idaho. Later on, Jody, an excellent rock climber, took Abby, by then my former wife, under her wing and helped improve her climbing skills at City of Rocks.

In 1982, Abby and I returned to Ketchum after several years in Berlin and we sold Joel our almost new VW Westphalia Camper. Bizarrely, for the next 20 years, our van functioned as his apartment in Santa Clara where, as Dr. Mindwrecker, he was a professor at the Leavey School of Business. If his lifestyle shaped his pedagogy, I’d guess he was teaching students how to succeed in business without really trying. 

Last Saturday, Jody and her boys organized a cookout at Ketchum’s Rotary Park to celebrate Joel’s unusual and remarkable life. I couldn’t attend but sent Erik this recollection of Day 3 of our 18-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon with a group of old friends. 

The Perfect Run

I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you, but want to share a memory of Joel and an event several of you were present for back in the day. It was the memorable “perfect run” on day 3 of our trip down the Colorado. We were just getting started and feeling high from our first two days on the river – great weather, great water, and creative river cuisine.

It looked like day 3 would be an easy one. The only Class IV rapids were at House Rock., the guidebook used to help river runners navigate the rapids describes House Rock rapids as follows. “The river pushes towards the left wall across a sandbar at the top of the rapid. This creates a series of wave trains running down the left wall. Problem here is there is a very large hole at the bottom left of the rapid. Enter at the left of the rapid by the wall and pull right to miss the hole. House Rock rapid hole will easy flip any raft. This is considered one of the harder rapids in Marble Canyon.” 

As a group, we scouted the rapids from above the sand bar river-right. Joel pronounced it a “piece of cake.” We’re primed for action. Jody’s riding aft, Joel’s the oarsman, and I’m upfront like Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. Do you see what’s coming?

Great entry. Joel pulls hard right to avoid the wall. We catch the wave and accelerate. Mid-rapid Joel screams, “The Perfect Run” But…we’re a little left…a little too far left… and suddenly, very suddenly we swept into the hole and I’m under the raft traveling over the rocks in the dark at warp speed. I’m fine in the air pocket under the raft but I can hear people asking, “Is everyone OK?” “Where’s Jack?” No worries, as they say. Everyone is OK. I duck out from under and float downriver hanging on to the side of the raft. Jody and Joel swam to shore as soon as they’re past the whitewater. The other boaters managed to get the upturned raft to shore where we all collected ourselves.

Once on shore, with maximum effort, we managed to get the raft right side up. No injuries. Not even any bruises except to Joel’s ego. The only casualty is my guitar which was strapped to the top of our share of the 18-day load – food, camping gear, personal dry bags etc. 

In preparation for the trip, I bought myself an Ovation fiberglass body guitar. I knew the trip would be tough on a classic wood guitar, but Ovations are famous for their durability. They’re almost impervious to damage. Beat ‘em kick ‘em resilient. Their only vulnerability is that they’re not solid fiberglass. The neck is made of wood and after mine dried out from the “perfect run” it took a slight right turn where the neck joins the body, and for the rest of the trip I could only play the three treble strings without a horrible buzzing sound from the other strings on the frets of the twisted neck.

The next 15 days are perfect, and on the last night the women boaters painted our toenails with gold glitter nail polish, and I played Country Roads on my buzzing guitar. 

I’ll miss Joel. We haven’t seen each other for a few years, but he and Jody were always my good friends. I’ll miss knowing he’s not sleeping in my van now, but have my fingers crossed that he’s at the beginning of another “perfect run.” Hard right, Joel. Watch out for the hole.

RIP, my friend.

Baby Steps…

After sixteen months of Covid isolation, we were ready to hit the road. I never imagined it would be a difficult or complicated decision but times change. In January of 2020 Marilynn arranged a summer house trade in France. By March we were in lockdown. All travel plans on hold. By May it was canceled. 

For years we hopped on airplanes and traveled as far as we could. Before the pandemic, we combined our overseas trips with leisurely explorations of America. We drove across Texas (El Paso to Austin), the Southwest (Tucson, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Moab), the South (Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, St. Simons Island), the Northeast (Rhode Island and the Berkshires, including Tanglewood). But, there are still great expanses of America for us to cover.

Now, with America opening up and us fully vaccinated there are new considerations. We’re immunized but the rest of the world isn’t. We’re protected, but the experts don’t know how long the protection lasts. Caution is the byword. Baby steps… We decided a driving trip to visit friends in the Bay Area would be our shake down cruise.

Only one problem—we’re out of practice.

Here’s what happened: with the car fully packed, bikes on the roof rack, motor running, Marilynn suggests we check the mail one last time before hitting the road. Not a bad idea – except that it was. In fact it turned out to be a not-so-good-very-bad idea.

Down the driveway to the underground garage where our mailbox is located. Then… the C-R-U-N-C-H!!! Low clearance. Aluminum and steel are no match for concrete. Exploding rear window and gut wrench. Bike rack ripped off its mounts. The bikes back were pushed and shattered the sloping rear window. The bikes were fine, but the car was a mess. A million splintery shards everywhere. Three days later, $10 worth of shard vacuuming at the carwash, $100 deductible, a temporary car rental, some fast talking, and we were back on the road. This time without the bikes (roof damage to the rack mounts). 

The rest of the trip was uneventful, all things considered. Luscious rural scenery along streams and wooded glades as we wound our way through the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains. Our first night was in Eugene, home to Sweet Life Patisserie our favorite French bakery. 

Here we began to notice a difference. Except for a dedicated Phoenix Suns fan doing construction work in Eugene, we were alone at Trev’s Brew Pub. The Suns fan was waiting to watch his team play the Lakers on Trev’s big screen. We had a burger and beer and left–25% occupancy strictly enforced. Washington is opening up. Oregon is still locked down. The next morning, it was one customer at a time at Sweet Life. Our leisurely coffee and pastry a distant memory. The nearby park full of blue tarp tents.

And so it went down through Oregon – Roseburg, Medford, Ashland – all locked down. Lots of cars and too many big trucks on the road but no serious inside dining. More blue tarp encampments. Small town restaurants closed or nearly empty. Long lines at McDonald’s drive-thru.

California was better, but an empty Lake Shasta and triple digit temperatures told us it’s going to be another year of drought and fire. On the Covid side, the Golden State is not as open as Washington but not as depressingly shutdown as Oregon. The world is creeping back toward normal, but people are wary and rules are confusing. Yes to masks inside, not so many outside. No leisurely coffee at Peet’s or Starbuck’s but socially distanced dining OK at most restaurants. Hotels far from full.

We felt almost normal having dinner with a law school friend and his wife on the deck at Sam’s Café in Tiburon but blanched when we paid $4.49 a gallon for regular gas the next morning. Over the next three days we had lunch or dinner with three other law school classmates – two at their homes in San Francisco and Berkeley and one at a restaurant in Oakland. It was a treat to be with friends we’ve known for so many years. All of us relieved to feel the shackles loosen.

In Berkeley, where some of my best days were spent and best friends made, we saw more of the pandemic effect. It’s always a mixed bag. I love it but found the changes upsetting. Homeless in doorways, encroaching blue tarps, trash in the streets, and plywood covered store windows. Signs of the time.

All in all it was good to get out of town, to see how the world looked post-Covid, and visit old friends, but hotels and restaurants were suffering from staff shortages. In Ashland the “hostess” turned us away from an almost empty “open” restaurant because the kitchen was backed up and she was alone. A bartender in Portland told us he couldn’t find anyone to cocktail, and two different hotels told us staff shortages limited services. Another sign of the times.

But, despite these things, the drive back was pleasant – George Saunders’ latest book on Audible, great lattes at Hot Stuff Espresso (a real old-fashioned, no drive-thru, espresso stand in Ashland), an alfresco lunch at McMenamin’s in Eugene, nice accommodations (especially Marriott’s trendy, efficient, slimmed down, super modern, small-is-better Moxy Hotel in Portland), and shrimp tacos waterside at Katie Downs in Tacoma on our last day.

Before the pandemic stopped us, we spent a month or two every year in a different European city – Paris, Rome, Berlin, Palma de Mallorca – where we had time to get the flavor of daily life in a foreign place. We’re anxious to resume the practice but not quite ready to cross the ocean in an airplane. Maybe next year. London? Barcelona? Lisbon? Stockholm? Or will we go back to places we’ve already enjoyed? As Rachel says, “Watch this space.”

It was an eye opening trip. Great to see old friends but the “new normal” is not normal. As our younger friends say, “No worries.” Baby steps…