Old Dogs, New Tricks


I was puttering around in the front rock garden this weekend, adding some aeoniums that I’d picked up at Cactus Jungle, when I turned around and saw this guy on my Verbana bonariensis. I grabbed my iPhone and gloriously, improbably, he sat there for about ten seconds as I held the camera a few inches above him and snapped this pic.

Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers, I’m no lepidopterist, but thanks to the Google machine, Joe and I were able to narrow it down to the Anise Swallowtail, common to the West Coast. A couple of friends have confirmed our guess since then – in fact one glance at the pic and they both rattled off the name. Which made me wonder how they acquired such knowledge.

This isn’t exactly a deep thought, but as I spend the bulk of each weekend at nurseries, driving to nurseries, buying plants from nurseries, researching plants online, re-potting plants, and putting a few in the ground, I’m quietly amazed at the potential of the brain to acquire new knowledge.

I’ve been sober for nearly 12 years, but there was a time where my days all looked the same, where they felt small and dark and where the extent of my new knowledge might be figuring out the location of liquor stores that opened at 8 a.m. near the intersection of Hennepin and Lake Streets in Minneapolis.

Though still capable of elaborate forms of mental self-torture (just ask Joe), I’m generally a happier guy now, and after 12 years I no longer wake up feeling absolutely certain of what the day will hold. The potential to change, to  try new things and to acquire new knowledge, lately brings me comfort.

Even if it’s just about gardening, which, in the big picture, is probably a frivolous activity. But as I slowly transform into the cranky old man I’ve always longed to be, I get less interested in the big picture, and I seek happiness in smaller, quieter pursuits, kicking back on the couch with the husband and our pack of dogs, or standing outside in front of my plants, lost in thought, absently stroking the scruff on my chin as I measure the growth and health of things I’ve put in the ground, or admiring the color of the hydrangea in the derelict yard next door:


I could spend hours doing this, standing there, lost in thought, no doubt causing the neighbors concern for my sanity, until I snap awake and force myself to go, you know, clean the bathroom or feed the dogs. Obsession? Escapism? Sure. But as the country calls for the head of John Roberts, or rates in order of success the marriages of Tom Cruise, I find myself less willing – or able – to give portions of my finite days to those echo chambers. I’d rather watch a swallowtail land on a flower that I’ve managed not to kill.

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