Archives

The Best Ever Pesto Recipe

Photo: BasilGardening.com

As summer wanes, I’ve been gifted with a bumper crop of basil, which is wonderful because I have the most awesome pesto recipe ever! With the weather here heating up beyond tolerable, school starting, and going back to work after a summer off, I’ve had little time or energy for much of anything, so it’s nice to be able to make something quick, without turning on the stove, with herbs fresh from the garden.

The traditional way to serve pesto in Italy’s Cinque Terre region, is with pasta cooked with potatoes and green beans. But if pasta isn’t your thing, or if you don’t want to turn the stove on AT ALL, pesto is fabulous on grilled chicken or fish and is perfect tossed with assorted grilled bell peppers or roasted potatoes. Freeze any leftovers in an ice-cube tray for winter or nights when you don’t have time to cook. 1-2 cubes per person is a good bet. Be sure and put the pesto cubes in a freeze zip bag — they’ll keep about 3 months. Buon appetito!

Trenette con Pesto alla Genovese (serves 6)

Ingredients

50 fresh medium basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

1 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Parmesan-Pecorino Romano blend

2 Tbsp. pine toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 1/2/ tsp. sea salt

1/4 tsp. fresh ground pepper

1 Tbsp. creme fraiche (if creme fraiche is unavailable in your area, substitute soft cream cheese)

1/2 lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices

1/2 lb. green beans cut into 1 inch lengths (I use haricot verts, but regular green beans will do. If using regular, you may want to use only 1/4 lb)

1 lb dry trenette or linguini

Place basil in bowl of food processor and chop fine. Add the garlic and continue chopping. Add cheese and pine nuts and process until the nuts are chopped fine. Gradually add the olive oil while the motor is running. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and the pepper and pulse to combine. Add the creme fraiche and pulse to combine. Do not over process — this whole procedure should only take a few minutes. (If you are making ahead, pour the pesto into a bowl, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to preserve color, and refrigerate until ready to use. The pesto should be used within one day of preparing or frozen.)

Bring 5 qts. water to a boil and add remaining salt. Add the potatoes and return to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. About 2-3 minutes before the end of the pasta cooking time, add the beans to the pasta and potatoes.

While pasta cooks, heat the pesto in a large saute pan with 1-2 Tbsp. of the cooking water from the pasta. Do not boil. Transfer pasta, potatoes, and beans to colander to drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add pasta to the pan with the pesto and toss to coat evenly. Add reserved water as needed.

* This recipe is adapted from the Il Fornaio Pasta Book — a highly recommended cookbook with traditional regional Italian dishes. The dish will use all of the pesto, so if you’ve got enough basil, double the recipe and freeze the rest.

Advertisements

The New Noblewoman: An Authentic Feminine Mystique For This Generation

If you’ve increasingly felt distanced from the superficial, politicized, less than intelligent propaganda that currently passes itself off as “literature and media for women” then welcome to a breath of fresh air, a place where the unique inner life of the feminine spirit and mind is nurtured and cultivated, prized and revered. Welcome to The New Noblewoman (TNN).

Amanda Millay Lanier, founder and editor of TNN has graciously agreed to be interviewed for one tiny violetAmanda has created something totally unique to fill a noticeable void in the realm of women’s magazines and her work is simply saturated with BEAUTY!  Of course,  I fell in love with her publication and wanted to share it with you here. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and spend some time with Amanda as she shares her thoughts on beauty, the essence of what it means to be a woman, her eye for fine art, and her plans for the future of The New Noblewoman, then pop right over and check out the magazine!

one tiny violet (otv): How did the idea for The New Noblewoman (TNN) come about? In what ways is it different from other women’s magazines today?

Amanda Millay Lanier (AML): The concept actually started as a book. I’ve always been fascinated by history, especially the images of daily life in well-done historical dramas. I’ve always wished I could “go back in time,” but rather than simply pine away for the old days, I decided to figure out how to incorporate those elements into my life today. I started researching and writing a book that would describe the houses, clothing, food, and customs of women throughout history, and talk about how women can live similarly in the modern world. But given how hard it can be to find a publisher, and how discouraging it would be to work on a project for years with no feedback, I decided to create a website instead.

The New Noblewoman is different from other women’s magazines in a couple of main areas. One is that the articles—whether on style or gardening—draw heavily from the past. Reading TNN is a combination of a regular women’s magazine and a history lesson.

Armand Point, "The Golden Legend," 1898

Another difference is the images that accompany the articles. The world is filled with incredible artwork—yet magazines always use these awful staged photographs of models or celebrities. So reading TNN is also a way to get an art education as well, and it’s much more visually appealing than the typical women’s magazine due to the artwork.

A third key difference is in the values the site promotes: TNN is for modern women who are dealing with real problems—whether it’s what clothing to buy, relating to your spouse, or keeping a New Year’s resolution. But TNN focuses on ways to address these issues with wisdom and values that are timeless and emphasize good character and honor (both things that are rarely addressed directly in the typical women’s magazine).

otv: What does it mean to be a “noblewoman” in today’s society? Is it simply one facet of being a woman, or does it encompass several aspects of women’s experience?

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder" 1800

AML:I think any woman can choose to be a “noblewoman” today. In ancient Greek, the word aristocrat simply means “the best,” and any woman today can be the best type of woman she aspires to.

And being the best (i.e., being “a new noblewoman”) should be something that infuses every aspect of a woman’s being—the way she walks, how she dresses, what type of food she prepares, what she does in her leisure time.

Of course, there isn’t just one set script for any of these things. Although TNN discusses etiquette and classic style, I think being noble is primarily about discovering your true self and fully exploring your talents. The only required aspect to being noble today (which is the same as it was throughout history) involves seeking out the higher aspects of life rather than being caught up in the materialistic, consumer society that surrounds us and is propagandized to us every day. That higher aspect could be through a love of art, literature, philosophy, homemaking, mothering, politics, or religion.

otv: How do you imagine the reader of TNN and what can that reader expect when she visits TNN for the first time?

AML: The readership of TNN is very diverse. There are women readers from college-age to middle-age, and a number of men too! We have a slideshow that features some recent articles and most popular articles, which provides a showcase of featured artwork. A reader can explore the website by the latest articles, which start on the homepage, or browse by topic. Our categories are Beauty & Style, Home & Garden, A Woman Should Know, Relationships & Etiquette, Poetry, and Inspirationals (a selection of inspiring quotes).

otv: The tagline for TNN – “The Art of True Womanhood” – raises two interesting questions: What does it mean to be a true woman? And in what ways is being this true woman an art?

AML: One thing that all nobles in history have in common is their emphasis on religion—since it’s only recently that there have been societies that are completely secular.   Whether it was pagan Rome, Hindus in India, or Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, the nobility were supposed to be ruled by spiritual guidelines and submit to the authority of the priests. If they didn’t have religious guidelines to temper their hearts, it would be easy for people with so much power to rule badly and no longer be the protectors of the people (and we have countless examples in history of when this happened). So I think the deepest truth of what it means to be a woman relates to her life as a spiritual being.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," 1926

There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes an art—nowadays almost anything crafty or creative is called art, and I think we’ve become a little too generous in the definition. I think an art should be something that requires extensive practice, combined with skill, and also be something that impacts the core of one’s being. You can be a fabulous musician, but if there’s no feeling in it, then you’re merely a highly skilled technician rather than an artist. And being a woman is no different—it requires training, education, practice (and failure!), as well as the capacity to feel. Women have to switch between so many roles in one day—bring a nurturing mother, a sensual lover, a hard-minded businesswoman (even if it’s only a household budget), and a creative artist for her own projects—being a woman really does seem like a lifelong practice in mastering an art.

otv: You’ve worked as a journalist. How have your experiences in journalism and media shaped your vision for TNN?

AML: One thing that I love about the Internet is that it’s allowed so many great websites and blogs to flourish that never existed in the days of print journalism. It also allows for a greater variety of opinions, since not everyone on the Internet is beholden to the interests of their advertisers and owners. But one thing I don’t like about the Internet is how casual it’s made writing, due to attention spans getting shorter and the desire of audiences for quick, superficial blurbs of information. With TNN, I bring back more of an essay style for articles, and try to make every article actually worth reading. There are no catchy headlines that fail to deliver any substance.

My first job was at a newspaper, and as a print journalist you’re taught that the space you have for words is very valuable. It could be worth hundreds of dollars in advertising, so you have to make each sentence valuable. You’re also not allowed to delve into your own feelings and experiences like people do with blogs. But readers do like personal stories, so it’s been a challenge to add a little bit of personality to articles, while keeping it at the level of a magazine rather than a personal blog.

otv: In a recent article on TNN discussing the film Coco and Igor, you distinguish between the way the two female characters are presented in the film and posit the question as to which one offers the best model for women. The answer, you suggest, lies in women “maintaining a reverence and adherence to traditional customs and rites, combined with a modern self-determination to follow one’s dreams.” What do you see as the greatest difficulty women today have in achieving this balance? How do you see TNN helping today’s woman aspire to and achieve a balance between these two ideals?

AML: In the film Coco and Igor, the traditional lifestyle isn’t completely working for Stravinsky’s wife. Some parts do—like retaining some Russian décor and clothing—but she’s not able to function well in the changing world and is out-of-touch with her daughters. But Coco Chanel is a little too modern. She’s a little too hard-headed for her business and doesn’t respect the sacred rite of marriage.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Umbrellas," 1883

I think of traditions—whether religious, cultural, or familial—as living things that go beyond the mere external forms, but the external forms are important as well. For example, everyone knows that clothing doesn’t make the person—we don’t say a woman wearing pants is “less of a woman” than one in a long dress. But in a way, clothing does impact the person wearing it quite profoundly. Putting on an evening dress and fine jewelry causes us to act differently than when we’re wearing jean shorts; walking into Notre Dame Cathedral produces a type of spiritual awe that we don’t feel when walking into a church in an office building with TV screens everywhere.

I think about (and struggle with) the dichotomy between a traditional lifestyle and modern individuality every day, and many of the articles on TNN are inspired by my daily life. And these are questions that many women have. How do we dress in a way that’s inspired by the past, without looking like we’re in a Halloween costume? How do we adhere to traditional customs, even for simple things like serving tea, without seeming either pretentious or silly? How can we be traditional wives, while also protecting ourselves financially? I’ll be exploring all of these things as I reshape my own life to better fit my ideals, so readers can follow along on my journey and share their own experiences as well.

otv: One of the functions of TNN is as a virtual art gallery, which is unique. Can you tell us about some of your favorite artists? What message does their work convey about women and beauty that you feel is important today?

AML: My favorite painters are probably the Pre-Raphaelites, since their paintings are not only visually beautiful, but depict stories and myths that are very moving as well. Some of my favorites are John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

As for contemporary artists, I love the genre of pop surrealism, especially Nicoletta Ceccoli, Camille Rose Garcia, Joe Sorren, Marc Burckhardt, Ray Caesar, and Mark Ryden—all who draw from the old masters but with a modern flair.

Most of these artists present very idealized images of women, combined with aesthetics from the ancient world, Arthurian legend, or the world of European drawing rooms. These are worlds that, while not better than the present in every way, women long for and are inspired by. I think it’s important to showcase such images to demonstrate the level of beauty that is possible in a society. As the world continues to change, many readers of TNN will be involved in defining how we want our cities, neighborhoods, and homes to be, and considering the great wealth we have today and the advances we’ve made in technology, there’s no reason that we can’t aspire to revive or reinterpret the most beautiful examples from the past.

otv: How is the art you choose for the magazine reflective of the image you’d like to cultivate, both for the magazine and your readership?

AML: Nowadays art has been replaced by advertising. If you look in a magazine, you won’t find any art, just pages and pages of artistic ads. These advertisements are trying to sell you a product, by using an image of a better world. I’m trying to sell that better world itself, and to teach women how to create it for themselves.

otv: Tell us about some of the women who are or have been an inspiration to you. What influence have they had on your concept for TNN?

Frances Macdonald, "Spring," c. 1900-05

AML: There are so many to choose from. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of women who’ve struggled with having to choose between being an artist and being a wife and mother. These women often thought that women’s emancipation would have a great liberating effect for women, but I’m not convinced the situation is better for women today. Most women still have the same struggles, but with the added stress of working outside of the home added to the mix. In that genre, I’ve been inspired by the writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Philippa Burrell; the dancer Isadora Duncan; and the diarist and painter Marie Bashkirtseff.

otv: Many women today experience pressure to look, act, or dress a certain way that is not reflective of whom they are on the inside. What advice would you give to the woman who struggles to achieve a real sense of style or beauty in her daily life?

AML: That is so hard to do, and I struggle with it all the time. One of the biggest problems I’ve faced in the fashion arena is that shops today simply don’t offer the type of clothing I’d like to wear. To other women, I’d recommend spending some time reflecting on who you think you are as a woman (or who you want to become), and what type of clothing and lifestyle will help you feel that way.

I’m in the process of revamping my wardrobe (and plan to write about it soon). It involves getting rid of everything that doesn’t fit well or that doesn’t fit the image I want to cultivate for myself. By the time I’m finished, I’ll have much less in my closet, but it will only be the items I truly love—a better wardrobe overnight just by getting rid of things. I’ve found that I have to actually get rid of clothing or put it away, since otherwise I’d never put on a dress when it’s so much easier to throw on a pair of jeans.

As for other areas of life—Kierkegaard talked about how you can only go from one quality to another by a leap (a leap to faith). There are analogies to the type of spiritual despair he discussed even in unhappiness with style and beauty in one’s daily life. For women experiencing this, I think it takes one of these leaps to faith—to either becoming the person you truly think you should be or in freeing yourself of the image of what others think you should be. It takes a conscious decision to start living and thinking in a different way, combined with daily affirmations of the reasons why you’re changing (in order to keep at it until these changes become habits). Of course, this will only change you, and not any externals like having to work in an ugly cubicle or deal with unpleasant people, but eventually these external changes will start changing your spirit and the way you view and interact with the world too.

otv: The time-tested value of virtue and the practice of manners, of acting like ladies and gentlemen, has faded in popularity in today’s culture. How can mothers of young girls work to raise young women who know and value what it is to be a lady? Alternatively, how can mothers raise boys to be men who behave courteously and with a chivalric attitude towards young women?

AML: That is such a tough thing to teach these days! I was buying etiquette books when I was in elementary school, but the influences of other children and the television can make the work of the most devoted parent seem futile—even with a child like me, who had a natural inclination to these things.

Adam Emory Albright, "Children Playing With A Kite"

The most important advice is to get rid of cable TV, or at least screen what you let your kids watch. My husband and I use the money we save from not having TV to build a DVD library, and it works great. (Plus, forcing ourselves to wait until shows come out on DVD is good practice in not getting everything we want right away.)

For young girls, I’d advise finding books and movies that portray the values you want your daughters to have—art is very powerful in shaping ideals and values, especially of young people! Use what you can of their interests to guide them to better values: If they love Disney princesses, show them what princesses from fairy tales or from England are like, and help them to live like a princess in their life by doing volunteer work, respecting others, and being polite and tidy.

For young men, there are a lot of stories of knights and adventurers that can help them find chivalry interesting. Giving them chores and responsibilities that are described as “manly” can help them in their self-esteem, and instill in their minds that men and women are different, and that girls need a little more respect and care than their boy friends.

I’d also enroll both boys and girls in cotillion or dance classes around 4th to 8th grade (the age for these classes seems to vary by location). They’ll learn how to dance (which is one of the best ways to ensure your son will always be popular with the ladies!), will get used to wearing dresses or suits and interacting with the opposite sex in a more formal environment, and will learn a lot of social etiquette too.

I think it mostly comes down to determining what your standards are, sticking to them yourselves, and making your kids do those things too. Although it sounds petty, an explanation as simple and firm as “this is how our family does things,” can be enough to get kids to do something. After 20 years of having to write thank-you notes and make pleasant conversation during dinner, they’ll start bragging to their friends about their upbringing rather than complaining about it.

otv: What is your response to critics who say nobility is out of style or old-fashioned?

AML: There are several ways nobility can be interpreted. One is as “the best,” as I mentioned before. Another is as the rulers of a society. And another is as people of noble soul. And none of these will ever disappear. We will always have people considered “the best” in society and whom others try to emulate, and we will always have some kind of ruling class. Unfortunately, today these people are typically either celebrities or the capitalists who’ve made the most money. Part of the mission of The New Noblewoman is to change people’s perceptions back to what they were for most of history—that the best people are those of the best character, and that those are the ones who should be the leaders of society, whether in the political, artistic, or educational arenas.

otv: What made you decide to offer a free online platform for the magazine and is this platform crucial to TNN’s identity? Any plans for a print edition in the future?

AML: It would be great to have a print magazine in the future—but given the costs associated with printing, distributing, and managing a large staff of writers, designers, and a sales team—it’s not likely unless we receive a lot of investor interest.

I do have plans to do a series of books down the road—both free e-books and print books. Some will be original content, similar to the articles on the website. Others will be compilations of artwork, essays, and poetry. And there are some great books by women that are out of print (or in poor editions) that I’ve love to republish.

otv: Tell us some of your short- and long-term goals for the magazine as it grows.

AML: I’ll be starting a series on concert music, which will highlight some of the great classical recordings that can be seen for free on YouTube. I’ll also be doing more in the “Famous Lives” series and digging up some classic essays to reprint along with the poetry. Another new feature down the road will take readers through various museums and art galleries of the world, including some galleries of contemporary artists.

I’m also looking into starting a non-profit arm of The New Noblewoman. The response to the website so far has been amazing, and there are a lot of people interested in donating money but who need to have a tax write-off. Having a non-profit branch will allow TNN to be not only a website and publishing house, but to focus on outreach in order to start a bit of a cultural revolution among women.

Thank you, Amanda, for your gracious sharing and for the gift of The New Noblewoman — clearly a much-needed presence in women’s media. I encourage all of my one tiny violet readers to take a beauty break and visit The New Noblewoman regularly — it’s free! — to read all of the articles Amanda shares about here, and sign up to receive her weekly e-newsletter, which includes new content posted to the site.

Seeds of Grace: Empty Canvas, Revisited

My sorrow, when she’s here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane.
Robert Frost

As we move in to the months of autumn, I’m beginning to tend to the things that will enable us to settle in for the winter — or at least as much of a winter as we ever get here in Southern California. The days are rapidly shortening and in the last week, the night time temperatures have dropped well into the 40s. This is my signal to take a beauty break, get back out into the garden, and start tidying things up.

For those of you who have been reading here for a few months, you may remember when I posted about starting our garden back in June. I thought it might be fun to share with you what I ended up with.

No matter how many plants and seeds I nurture along, I can never get over the miracle of life in the garden. This year, there were a few surprises. The tomatoes were seedling transplants that took forever to get going. But once they did, as you can see they literally took over the entire plot! I’ve never had such high-maintenace tomatoes in my life! They grew outwards and trailed more like a squash vine than the tall, more bushy tomatoes I am used to. Some of the branches were easily 10 feet long or more. Obviously, they refused to be confined to tomatoe cages or really to be contained at all.  While producing a great deal of fruit, these hardy plants eventually posed a danger to the rest of the garden community by blocking the sun. Thus, the beans and peas died, the basil shrivelled, and the parsley had to fight to stay alive. Today I cut it way back to let in some light and cleared away the not-so-lucky plants who were unable to thrive under the vast tomatoe canopy. 

Two unexpected miracles. . . . this little half-eaten kale plant was started from a tiny seed back in June. It struggled to survive and at one point, I really thought I’d lost it. Suddenly it started growing. After 4 months its still under 6 inches tall and shows continual assault from some unseen pest. But I am hopeful that it’ll survive to provide at least a few meals for us this winter.

The other miracle are the brussels sprouts, also started from seed. The seed which produces this alien-looking plant is quite small, and the gardening catalog I purchased them from emphasized that brussels sprouts are not easy to grow. Ever hopeful, I figured I’d plant them and see what happened. Like the kale, they took forever to sprout and it seemed like they were barely hanging on for months. But in late August, these too took off and have continued to thrive, despite the encroaching tomatoes. Amongst the layers of leaves (which the gardening catalog says to leave on to protect the young stalk) we can see a central stalk forming with the beginnings of the buds that will eventually become the sprouts! These guys still have a long way to go — today I discovered powdery mildew on some of the lower leaves, likely caused by the tomatoes blocking the sun. Still, I’m hopeful. . . .its amazing that, after everything, such a tiny seed can produce such a large plant. (And I know that a lot of people simply despise brussels sprouts, but if these little ones make it, I’ll be sharing a recipe that will convert you, guaranteed!)

As I help the garden move through its final phases, I am reminded that each season in nature symbolizes a corresponding season of human life. As I enter into fall, I am reminded of my aging, of the miles I’ve gone on my journey and those I still have yet to go, and see that in the perhaps not-too-distant future I may enter the winter of illness and death. In her wisdom, the Church seems to be aware that, consciously or unconsciously, we may be having such thoughts about the road we are walking and so she ushers us into the last two months of the year with the great feast of All Saints. 

The Feast of All Saints reminds me that I am living in the fields of the Lord. Looking to all of the holy men and women who have gone before me, both known and unknown, I am reminded of the fact that, no matter what things may look like on the outside or how much it may feel like I am struggling just to survive or how many pests threaten to devour me, the seed of grace (God’s life in me) which I received at baptism is alive, producing and responding to the tending of the Constant Gardener.

In his book The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 1, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Legrange uses the analogy of the seed to explore the truth of the gift of sanctifying grace we are given at our baptism. The invisible seed of grace is in many ways similar to the tiny kale seed, or brussels sprout seed, I planted. It is pure potential. Legrange says that, “The value of a seed can be known only if we have some idea of what should grow from it; for example, in the order of nature, to know the value of the seed contained in an acorn, we must have seen a fully developed oak. In the human order, to know the value of the rational soul which still slumbers in a little child, we must know the normal possibilities of the human soul in the man who has reached his full development. Likewise, we cannot know the value of sanctifying grace, which is in the soul of every baptized infant and in all the just, unless we have considered, at least imperfectly, what the full development of this grace will be in eternity.” The full development of this seed of sanctifying grace can be seen in the lives of the saints, who share with us their experiences on the path to holiness. Just as each acorn contains within it all that is necessary to become a great oak tree, so each of us possessed of sanctifying grace contain everything necessary to become a great saint, however little and unknown we may be.

Typically, people associate the advent of spring with growth, new life, and rebirth and the Church is no different. But the Church encourages us to focus on the opportunities we are given for growth and rebirth throughout the year. At a time during the natural year when many in the secular world may find themselves occupied with thoughts of loss, decay, and death, the Church reminds us through the feast of All Saints, and the commemoration of the Holy Souls, that there hope in new life and that this hope is not seasonal but is rather a daily, year-round truth. God promises us through His Son that He will make all things new.

Entering into autumn through the gateway of remembering our family in heaven reminds me to look again and be grateful for the tiny seed of grace I received at baptism, and to recall that while my own garden might be on its way out, God is still nurturing, planting, pruning, and feeding the garden of my soul where all of the seasons exist simultaneously.

Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993

 

Empty Canvas

Well, our raised bed garden is all set to go for this year. Those two tall sunflowers in the background shot up wild out of nowhere, likely vagrant seeds from the sunflower house we planted for Skippy a few summers back (see photos of that adventure below). The basil was an act of desperation, snatched up at Trader Joe’s because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the seedlings I’ve ordered to arrive. But the rest, each square foot grid, is empty of plants and filled with fresh organic soil, waiting for something to grow in it. Emptiness waiting to be filled with possibility.

British landscape architect William Kent once said that “gardening is like landscape painting.” And I suppose it is similar in some ways —  you begin with a blank canvas, which might be an empty and barren patch of earth, or one overrun with weeds and stickers. You prime the space by clearing it and turning over the earth, and then carefully plan/compose the arrangements of flowers, vegetables, or shrubs and trees that you want. You select to “paint” with the best seeds or seedlings you can find, and set to work placing them on the canvas of earth in an attempt to match your vision. You do the best you can with what you know, learn new techniques to help the piece along, and try to make up for problems along the way.

But this is where any similarity to landscape painting ends. For the painter has virtually complete control over his project and, eventually, will either finish or abandon his piece. For the gardener, however, what comes next is really out of her hands — and the “piece” is never really finished, but instead demands constant care and attention well beyond the initial endeavor.  Things may grow, or they may not; they may succumb to disease or pests, or may thrive and grow with great energy. Who knows? Like any painter who commits the idea in his mind to canvas, the gardener ultimately deals with uncertainty about what the end result will be.  But unlike the painter, that uncertainty is never eased by a truly finished product.

In the end, gardening, like every other art, is an act of faith in that, ultimately, what happens there doesn’t really depend on the gardener, but on something higher than her. It isn’t for the gardener to worry about what will happen — her job is to do everything she can to create conditions in which something can be made out of nothing, to create a place where the impossible can become possible,  and then she must leave the rest to God.  

Being in the garden teaches me humility, patience, gratitude, hopefulness, trust, perseverance, and joy. It reminds me of the important things I need to pay closer attention to. It reminds me to watch for the ways God works in my life and to trust Him in doing this work, as the unseen gardener that He is. Like Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden after he has risen from the dead, mostly I don’t recognize his presence or his work in my life. My life is like a garden in which He plants lots of seeds — people, events, ideas, struggles, failures, successes, disappointments — all signs pointing to him, all of which have the potential to grow into something wonderful, into more than they at first seem to be. Every event, just like every seed, contains all that is necessary to produce a gift of grace. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail can grow to become a great oak tree of grace in my life. God is continually making something out of nothing, both in my garden and in my life. And He never fails to surprise me. 

Post Script

A few summers ago, we agreed to forgo the “traditional” vegetable garden I normally plant in order to experiment with a sunflower house for Skippy. It was generally a success — the sunflowers grew nearly as tall as the house and provided a private, cool alcove for him to relax and read a book in. But they also provided a recreational living area for all sorts of creatures, some more amusing than others — we failed to realize that wasps adore the caterpillars that adore sunflowers. So the sunflower house also became a wasp house, of sorts, which Skippy eventually grew afraid to enter. Still, it was a memorable experience and one which we remember fondly.    

Beauty Break: A Poem

The Violet

by Jane Taylor

Down in a green and shady bed a modest violet grew, its stalk was bent, it hung its head, as if to hide from view.

And yet it was a lovely flower, its color bright and fair; It might have graced a rosy bower, instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom, in modest tints arrayed; And there suffused its sweet perfume within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go, this pretty flower to see; That I may also learn to grow in sweet humility.