The moon garden

All the moon’s light is borrowed: a gift from the sun, which alone illuminates our way through the solar system. For every 400,000 photons of sunlight that make the eight-minute trip to earth, exactly one will bounce off the moon on its way to us.

This is because the moon is as fine a mirror as any other rock in the universe that has been spurted from volcano and cooled into ash and dented and dinged until it can no longer reflect more than a tenth of the light it is given. The earth, for its part, shares a third of its light with the moon, and the moon with the earth, and on until the rays are lost and absorbed and scattered into heat.

Which brings us back down to earth, on a clear night, to the moonflower.

Its milky white face is twice as reflective as our blue planet, five times as bright as the cratered Moon. It is as polished and luminous as the other white flowers in the daytime garden. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and honeysuckles; white lavender and delphiniums; blossoms bleached, blanched, and cold –the Kilimanjaro White marigold, the Climbing Iceberg rose, and the Polar Bear zinnia, large and round as a dinner plate.

But, the moonflower is different because the moonflower blooms only at night. Night is when it opens with sweet fragrance to guide dull-eyed creatures and their pollen-heavy legs nearer through the darkness.

Once it has budded, a moonflower will twist open in under a minute, or sooner if there has been rain. If you look away for a moment to the campanulas in their beds, you could miss it. But when it is all done you will finally know the moonflower and its grateful center, spindled and green like a star.

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The night-blooming garden is fragrant because, as a rule, its pollinators can see very little. Flying blind, these creatures must instead use their sense of smell to navigate.

The moonflower’s nighttime pollinator is the hawk moth, whose sharp eyes can spot a white object in the dark one hundred times better than yours or mine, in light as dim as 1/10,000th of a candle’s glow. Drop a pearl in the grass under the new moon and the hawk moth will find it with starlight.

Moths are the nighttime counterparts to butterflies, and for this reason alone they are less admired. They are more colorless in general, and smaller than butterflies –though lepidopterists will tell you that the distinguishing feature of a moth is its feathered or saw-toothed antenna in the place of the butterfly’s longer, sleeker one, tipped at the end with a bulb like an elegant, swooping dash. Butterflies must also fold their wings vertically like a sail –a natural display – whereas moths fold the wings tent-like over themselves, hiding the body from view. Butterflies make up 5-10% of the Lepidoptera order. Moths, with their unadorned figures and feather-capped heads, make up 90-95%.

I used to think of moths as stupid things, ramming their bodies into a lightbulb all night or else flying naively into my cupped hands whenever I held them out. More than anything, it seemed to me that they were full of a kind of animal hopefulness. I could feel their near-weightless frames bouncing against my skin the same stubborn way they hit the glass, over and over as though each collision surprised them anew.

When movement stopped I’d make a small hole where my thumbs met, just big enough for my eye to peer in, and check to see if the moth was still inside. And there I would find it resting, so content in its pose that when I opened my palms again it would remain with me for a few minutes of its own accord, allowing me time to observe its beige wings turning silver beneath the porch light.

The moths that I caught at home in Pennsylvania were small and common, though sometimes around dusk I would catch sight of larger ones at the edge of the woods –the hawk moths and luna moths. On the warmest nights, I wanted nothing more than to pull a luna moth from the air and hold it against my colorless skin –its graceful, hovering body so unlike my own, a living reflection of the moon on Earth. I admired its green wings, translucent like leaves grown in darkness, and the eyespots that carried the frightful stare of an owl caught mid-blink.

Despite its name, the luna moth does not pollinate the moonflower. It does not pollinate anything, instead spending all its time seeking its own mate. On a garden forum, I notice that a man has asked his colleagues, If the luna moth is not a pollinator, then what beneficial role does it play in nature? I want to answer that it is the alien beauty of long hanging tails and pluming feelers, and the body that exists simply for the dream of recreating itself in another. I want to say that it is the practicality of a creature that has foregone mouthparts because there is just no time for eating when a whole life is lived in a week. Most of all, I want to tell him what he really means to ask: What do we say about the moth that doesn’t need the flower?

That the hawk moth should fly like the luna moth seems improbable at best, the apparent weight of it already bending the flower stalk in a nod to the plump hornworm it used to be. But it does. It is more bird than butterfly, all alert with fast-beating wings and a floating upright posture that has earned it an alternate name: the hummingbird moth. Within the mouth it keeps a fourteen-inch proboscis –though perhaps you’d like to call it a tongue –that is useful for reaching into the neck of the blossom and down to the pooled nectar inside. Its color is a mottled brown, like a small terra cotta figurine perched atop a blooming altar, with a thick stripe of abdomen banded in black and pink. Together, the wings span the whole length of the moonflower.

Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths, writes Virginia Woolf, for they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.

Is it this sense of ivy-blossom and autumn night that made me one evening, still too awake and living now in the Midwest, want to mount a single hawk moth body carefully into a wooden frame, to look at it over my desk as I worked? It is there now, as I write this. First, you must spread the wings –pin them down, flatten them gently beneath plates of glass. For a moment the moth feels alive again, but once it is behind the glass the illusion fades. There is nothing left to touch.

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Nighttime plants and their pollinators, like the moonflower and the hawk moth, co-evolved to avoid competition with daytime plants and their pollinators. Things are easier like this.

In 1952 my grandfather graduated from high school and went to work in the old mills bending steel, hot-dipping the metal into a bath of zinc to protect it from the rust that would otherwise grow over, pretty and lattice-like, until it consumed all it touched.

During his grade school years, smog from the factories had turned Pittsburgh into the infamous city that was still dark at midday, the place where people kept their gas lamps lit just so they could have a world in front of them to live in.

When the pollution cleared up over the next few decades, letting the light in at last, my grandfather slept through it. He worked nights –midnight to 8am –but preferred it this way. Daytime brought, in his words, too many bosses.

I knew what I had to do, he’d tell me. I liked to work without having to worry about anyone telling me what I should be doing, or how.

Sometimes he would work twenty-hour double-shifts, coming home to sleep briefly between. Other days he would sleep until 3 pm, mow the lawn with the moon gaining on him, and leave for the mill late in the evening. The brightest image of his waking hours became the dim glow of iron melting at 2500’ F, silently replacing any memory of a sun burning four times hotter but gone by the time he was out the door.

I often imagine what it must have been like to slip between one darkness and another, to live not in the light but always skirting around it. I wonder if some things can be passed down through generations: stubbornness, or the restlessness that follows; if a person can inherit the need to inhabit darkened spaces, or the habitual yearning to exist by one’s own rules and no one else’s.

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Humans are not meant to work the night shift. Exposure to light in late hours throws the body’s natural circadian rhythms out of phase. Night shift workers like my grandfather are prone to insomnia, heart conditions, weight problems, anxiety and mood disorders.

Response to light varies by the light’s color. When researchers compared exposure to blue light versus green light, they found that blue light suppressed melatonin levels in the body for twice as long and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much. Even a glimpse at the blue-tinted screen of a cell phone before bed was enough to disrupt sleep. Humans are so unexpectedly sensitive to blue light, in fact, that the brain can detect its presence even in the absence of working vision. In studies, blind participants could positively identify the presence of absence of blue light –perhaps due to a primitive “seeing” mechanism within the eye.

Light is important, but so is dark. Our biological responses are synced with the daily light-dark cycle in a process called entrainment, and so either one is useless without the other.hawkmoth

In 1946, unionized blue-collar workers at Duquesne Power Company in Pittsburgh cut the power to the city in the hopes of negotiating a pay raise, particularly for the third shift employees. As the men resisted their working conditions, local newspaper columns reassured the citizens of their blamelessness and resilience in the ordeal: That [the strike] has finally come upon us is not the fault of the people of this city. They see no justification for it. It is not of their making. But, now that it has come upon them, they will see it through. This city is stronger than any little group of stubborn men.

Mayor David L. Lawrence also pleaded over radio broadcast: I cannot believe that people whom we know, people who are part of our community, people who are one with us, will plunge our city into darkness.

Lawrence had worked hard to extract Pittsburgh from the scrounge of its own pollution and had improbably succeeded, afterwards sandblasting the soot off the buildings until they were cleaner than they had ever been. Perhaps this strike felt like a betrayal to him after all he had done to bring the city out of its perpetual, smothering night. But he could not convince the men to change their minds. The city went without electricity for over two weeks.

Once, my kitchen light burnt out and I ate, cooked, and lived in the darkness for two weeks because I could not reach the fixture myself. During this time, I began to read about the electrification of rural America. Some farmers intuitively plugged corncobs into empty bulb sockets, to prevent the light from physically leaking out from its source like water from a faucet. Many others were so resistant to electricity that they never installed bulbs at all, unsure of how to adapt to its new presence in their lives.

The truth is that I could have reached the fixture if I tried. The truth is that I was relieved, because for a moment, I couldn’t stand to live in the light.

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In college, I studied plants. More specifically, I studied plants that did not know the light.

The experiment was this: I forced them to grow in total darkness, so that later I could observe their  very first exposure to light, and how they reacted. I was interested in the rhythms of light and dark in a living body, the biological and physiological changes that occur between two opposites.

I used tobacco seeds, each of which was the size of a pinprick. I sewed a hundred or so into a Petri dish, spread delicately atop a clear nutrient gel. Once they had grown into full seedlings, I often worked through the night with them, taking measurements every hour, monitoring their condition. I felt oddly protective of the seedlings then. I carried them in their foil-wrapped trays from one dark room to the next.

Seedlings deprived of light are unusually fragile things–ghostly pale, thin, too-tall, necks crooked down and tiny first leaves balled up into a fist waiting to punch through the soil. They grow up and up looking for light.

Occasionally, feeling pity at the image of their spindled bodies, I would abandon the experiment halfway through. Before it was time, I would carefully unwrap the foil to watch the shoots revive themselves all at once beneath the light. The process of deetiolation –light exposure –is dramatic and unmistakable. Within minutes, the limp seedlings green up, fatten out, unfurl their leaves and begin to root. I would always imagine in these moments that it felt the same to them as it did to me watching, like catching a breath at the water’s surface.

Otherwise, I had arranged an elaborate setup to prevent light from reaching the plants before I wanted it. I used an old darkroom, a neatly simulated underground. Inside, expired fixer chemicals turned the air damp and metallic, like the smell of soil, and the only source of illumination was a single green light bulb overhead. Plants are insensitive to green light in the same way that a developing photograph is immune to red, and so I tricked the tobacco into thinking that they remained in the dark while I worked. But the olive glow had an unsettling effect on me that I did not expect. It made my already pale skin seem translucent and not quite my own, which brought to mind a myth of a factory worker from Pittsburgh who had been involved in an accident –shocked by a telephone pole as he worked –and whose body was now said to radiate a bright green. When I was growing up, the teenagers would go out looking for him near the old salt tunnels after dark, no one certain whether what they sought was real or ghost. Of course, the reality was that he was an ordinary man who took his walks at night because darkness was the only thing to hide the face he had lost –the burnt skin and hollowed nose, the missing eyes and ear. When a car passed with headlights, he was careful to turn away because he feared startling them into a crash. He did not glow.

I read about another botanist whose cotton sleeve had a habit or grazing her arm in the darkroom. At times, it created the quick, blue flash of static, and it was enough light to awaken her dark-grown seedlings. It had taken her weeks to discover what had been ruining her experiments. In the lab, I was always aware of the electricity of my own skin.

And though my seeds were grown in the dark, they also knew something of light from within. It was coded into their existence. Each seedling, each cell, contained one extra gene known as Luc, which had been borrowed and inserted from the firefly. If you have ever swatted through humid air for the plump, blinking body of a firefly to hold, already you are aware of Luc’s quiet presence in the world –it is the gene that allows the insects their glow. And like this, too, my seedlings could make their own light. By observing their green glow through the dark, imperceptibly dim, I could track the movement of hormones through the plant –blinking on and off in the delicate stem tissues to signal a presence to the camera, like fireflies revealing themselves through the trees.

I took images of the luminescent seedlings after they had grown for one week. At the start of the project, I’d torn an image from a paper published in the late 1980s and saved it, a shot of a full-grown transgenic tobacco plant that had been left to lie on color film for a few hours of exposure. The result was throbbing yellow veins, a tangled mass of light at the roots, an object captured strange and alive. Thirty years later, I did the same –though rather than film, I created long exposures and time lapses using a repurposed, hypersensitive digital camera that had been designed, originally, for the astronomical imaging of stars. What I didn’t understand then was that the seedlings would never actually appear the way they did in the photographs to my naked eyes, because the glow was not just bright enough. Still I wondered what would happen if I could plant the seeds in soil instead of plastic –let them grow large in the rooftop greenhouse over many months. What would that garden have looked like, the alien sight of vegetation luminescing in the darkness in a way that was bright enough for my eyes to observe it? In the evenings as I waited for my experiments to run, I would go up to the greenhouse where there was no tobacco but, instead, mutant tomatoes, fruitless or split, their flowers deformed. I found it calming to stand in the empty room, look out in the cool dark and see only stillness.

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Unaided, our eyes can only detect a sliver of all the light there is. All the rest remains invisible—the X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet, radio, and infrared. These are the waves that, when impressed upon special films by those who know how to use them, turn into reds and blues and strange violets against an endless black. These are the waves that set the Crab Nebula aglow in our minds like a hovering jellyfish. The first color photographs of the universe beyond Earth weren’t published until 1959, the year that my father was born, when film speeds finally caught up to astronomers’ needs. The images were taken by an astrophotographer named William Miller, for National Geographic magazine. In the photographs of Miller himself, he is dwarfed by the telescope as he peers into it, guiding its movement with a small control box perched atop his lap. Miller explains that to the naked eye, the spectacular colors displayed in the celestial images are no more visible than are the colors of flowers by moonlight. He admits how startling it was for his colleagues to see the cosmos in this way for the first time: After seeing the Veil Nebula [in color], one scientist told me, ‘I have learned more in ten minutes looking at this photograph than in two years studying black-and-white plates.

Just four years before the photos were published, in 1955, Miller was reclining on a pile of rocks in Arizona when he took a moment to look around. Perhaps something about the earth beneath him, and the idea of a body once resting there before him, moved him a great deal. He took up archaeology in the area. While surveying the nearby cliff faces and mesas, he came across a petroglyph: a circle intersected by a crescent. To him, it was a clear depiction of a supernova whose light had reached Earth in 1054 AD after 6,523 years of travelling from its origin. Its visible explosion in the sky had resulted in formation of the Crab Nebula, which would have appeared to humans at the time like a new, bright star. Miller calculated that the moon had been waning within two degrees of the supernova in the sky the day the light had reached earth. The circle was the star; the crescent, the adjacent moon.

It was not until 2008 that an astronomer named Ed Krupp, director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, sought to relocate the original sites that Miller had examined. To Krupp, the paintings looked to have been misdated by Miller–too new for the supernova. In a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Krupp shared the news that he believed the image more likely conveyed a particular long-horned spirit of the Hopi and almost certainly not the supernova Miller had imagined. Miller never found out; he died in 1981, the year that my father bought his first camera.

I thought of Miller when, browsing the Internet in my bed one night to look at photographs, I came across an image of two men sitting on an urban park bench. We’re eye doctors, the caption said. In finding this out, the photographer had asked them, What’s something about the eye that most people don’t realize?

 The eye doesn’t see, they told him. The brain sees. The eye just transmits. So what we see isn’t only determined by what comes through the eyes. What we see is affected by our memories, our feelings, and by what we’ve seen before.

Sometimes, the eyes see light from within –what the mind hopes.

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In the lab, I shared my space with another group of researchers who studied animal vision. Each day as I arranged my seedlings, they dissected the eyes of young mice in the next room, carefully harvested their retinal cells for staining. I sometimes watched as they slid their specimens under the microscope, where the long, violet retinal cells stacked atop each other like stained glass panes as the light shone through from below.

Here, on a fragile glass slide, is where I first observed the retina’s light-sensitive neural cells. These cells excite strongly under blue light, acknowledging the light’s existence to the brain without producing an image. It is a way of seeing without seeing, a primitive form of vision that we all possess but do not notice –even the blind retain this ability, and have at times affirmed the presence of a blue light in the room when asked.

Light-sensitive neural cells are thought to be closely related to similar cells in the visual structures of invertebrates, such as moths and other insects. Perhaps when the first primeval eyes developed their ability to discern light, blue and violet were the easy limit, the wavelengths that carry the highest energy in the visible spectrum. The first eyes could only detect light’s presence or absence, and this light was blue.

By now, the retina has evolved the ability to perceive much more, and it is a blessing for those of us who wish to know every crater, bump, and divot of the moon’s face. At the edges of its many layers are the rod cells that give our world a periphery, and at its center are the cone cells. Cones reveal color, but only if there is enough light. As darkness nears, cones phase themselves out of vision, rods phase themselves in, and our world slowly loses its hue. Later, I learned that over half of all Americans today live in a place where the eyes need never shift completely from cones to rods, which is to say that over half of all Americans live in a place without darkness.

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Pollution is defined as the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects. Light is defined as the natural agent that makes things visible, or, the understanding of a problem or mystery; enlightenment. As words, they are opposites, and yet light pollution exists: the artificial brightening of the night sky by streetlights and other manmade sources, which has a disruptive effect on natural cycles and inhibits the observation of stars and planets.

In its brilliance we know that light pollution can outshine a full moon. Except light pollution does not move away in phases; it is perpetual, and stubborn. Imagine the confusion for the third of all vertebrates who expect their nights to be dark, their blacks to be black, their shadows to be fleeting. Imagine the bewilderment of the northern mockingbird as it sings on to the security light, its hopeful mate, while the frogs and the coyotes pause their evening choruses to patiently await a dark that may never come. There is chaos even for the boneless among us: the countless caddis flies and hawk moths and lacewings lured from their regular paths of flight; the hoverflies, wasps and bush crickets who are drawn in droves to streetlamp beacons; the fireflies and glowworms whose flashing messages are thrown off by errant bursts of light or made invisible in the light-trapped haze.

In urban areas, light pollution turns the sky the same cloying pink as the tidewaters off the Great Barrier Reef for one week in November when, by cue of the full moon, the coral release a mist of reproductive cells and the ocean goes murky with potential life. Coral growth bands tell us about days we have never lived –how once every million years, the day grows longer by 20 seconds as water drags against seafloor to slow Earth’s spin, gently inching the moon from its Earth, and the Earth from its moon. Under light-polluted sky, the spectral appearance of white flowers also shifts to pink. No one knows whether this affects the hawk moth, whether it could find a slightly strawberry moonflower as easily as a white one. It is possible that moths depend upon the moon to guide their movements through the dark. It is possible that they fly toward strong light, especially blue light, because they mistake it for the moon. Half a century ago, the scientific literature suggested that when a moth becomes disorientated by a bright pocket, it is already trapped: “Once the moth enters the dazzle-sphere it has become irresistibly attracted to light.”
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Tonight, blue light keeps me awake. It is coming in through the window, from the neighbor’s house. I go to the turntable in the dining room. Without switching on the lamp, I look to the cabinet and choose “To The Moon,” a six LP set issued by Time-Life magazine in 1969. The collection includes a large book of pictures, my favorite of which is a long exposure of Gus Grissom aboard something called the Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility –a device meant to simulate an uncontrollably tumbling spacecraft, spinning simultaneously in three directions at 30 revolutions per minute. The spin directions are labeled with colored markers, and the exposure appears as a web of light with Grissom’s figure visible, ghostlike, in the center.

I lower the needle on the player and listen. The moon is a different thing to each one of us, a man’s voice says through vibrating static. It belongs to Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman. Each time he appears in the book, Borman is smiling. I think that each one of us carries his own impression of what he’s seen today. I know my own impression is that of a vast, lonely, forbidden type of existence, a great expanse of nothing. His words echo on the recording.

 With current levels of light pollution, the moon is one of the only visible objects left in the night sky.

I once read that a number of frightened Los Angeles residents dialed 911 following a major earthquake, strong enough that it knocked out the power grid for the metro area. They called to report a strange, silvery sky overhead. The silver turned out to be the glow of the stars, visible to some people for the first time in their lives. It took me months to track down someone who had been there that night. Over the phone I asked her, does this sound plausible to you? There was a long pause before she said, I will never forget the stars.

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My grandfather was home from the mill when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. My mother tells me that he filmed the television as it happened, that he held the camera in one hand and a long strip of bright lights in the other so that he could capture the picture clearly. She remembers the lights most of all. When I called him once to ask about it he told me, I remember that a man walked on the moon, but I can’t remember who the man was. Lately, his memory fades.

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The first time I noticed the moon at perigee, the closest point of its orbit to Earth, it looked handsome and full in a way that I had never imagined it before. Sharp white made brighter by a black, starless sky. But the next morning, I awoke to find the moon even larger than the night before, and now so close to the sun that the two bodies seemed to merge into a single luminous disc above me. It was like a radiant pearl, the kind of white that presses itself into your mind and flows like liquid heat through your body –the cool air finally wicking it out through your fingertips. It didn’t seem real, and I didn’t seem real until my body remembered itself, my eyes burning from the sun before I had to look away.

In his novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, the Argentinian writer Cesar Aira draws a fictionalized biography of the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas. As Rugendas crosses the pampas–South America’s flat, expansive lowlands–on horseback, a storm begins to move in. Rugendas is struck twice by lightning, his body shining through the moment of impact. Disfigured by the accident, Rugendas becomes morose. He is no longer able to visualize the landscape in an inspired way. He stops working. Some time after, he goes for a walk after dark and has a revelation:

Depressed and preoccupied, he had gone out into the blackest of nights. He could sense the forests and mountains as pure after-images, black forms plunged into an ocean of black. After an uncertain lapse of time spent in melancholy rumination, he suddenly realized he could see everything: the mountains, the trees, the paths, the panoramas with their slightly dreamy perspectives … Was he seeing or remembering? He marveled at the faculty of sight, its prodigious, ultra-physiognomic capacities, the dilation of the pupil, the brain’s interpretations. In fact, the moon had come out, that was all.

After reading Aira I began searching for the moon in paintings and discovered that the artist Caspar David Friedrich also included its image obsessively in his work. In one instance, he created a nearly identical night scene three separate times: two men stand on a wooded hill contemplating a waning crescent. Both wear the traditional dress of a radical at that time, one man resting his elbow on the other’s shoulder, as though observing the moon were a casual political act in itself. Whenever I try to understand why Friedrich had devoted so much time to this image, I can find only one explanation that makes sense: “Fascination with the moon ran high among the German Romantics, who regarded the motif as an object of pious contemplation.”

What keeps me in the garden at night? The moon’s light pooled onto the flowers, nectared within it, hawk moth drinking it in the same as I do. The moon is in all of my dreams, burnt on the wall at the head of my bed like the communion wafer, a holy body.

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One night as I was walking I looked over and there it was: the moonflower in bloom, vining along a fence right down the street from my home. I had passed the flowers every morning without noticing because in the sun they are closed and scentless, invisible. But when I spotted them that evening, there was no avoiding their fullness, though they were not the pure white trumpets I’d seen in my dream. Instead, they were aubergine bled into cream, pointed and curling at the edges, huge open blooms spilling onto the sidewalk. The vines bore dark leaves and strange, spiked seed pods like small fruits.

Later that week I walked past again and saw a man and his daughter pulling vines from the crowded plot around the moonflowers. I approached him to tell him that I admired his garden. He thanked me as he tore milkweed from the ground, thinning it, and he explained what I had already guessed: the milkweed was there for the monarchs. As he said it, he pointed to the small pearl eggs clinging to the leaves, round and white. I wanted to ask if the moonflowers were there for the moths. I thought, perhaps, he would say that the moth was there for the moonflower, because the beauty of its system exists in reverse: the allure of the moonflower dwarfing its pollinator, unlike the plain milkweed plant that would be missed beside the stained glass beauty of the monarch. Instead, I was distracted when he pointed out the tobacco plant beside me. It was enormous in its bed, thin white tube blossoms towering up past my waist.

I go back again tonight to smell a moonflower that has freshly opened. This too is not like I had imagined, spicy but still sweet. I pinch off one of the seed pods and pocket it while I’m there. When I get home, I split it open with my thumbnail at the table, let the seeds fall loose onto a tray. For a week, I leave the seeds to dry. I will plant the seeds somewhere next spring, I think, if I can store them. They need someplace dark and cool to last the year. For once, I can’t think of the right place. Everywhere I look, there is light.

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Header image “Secret garden,” by Paul

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