Cincinnati, Ohio

June 27, 2021

Dear Marianne,

I’m worried about you and it’s pissing me off. Here I am, with plenty of my own troubles, but, at home, I’m safe. I’m safe because I choose to be safe, which actually is an option most people enjoy in this wealthy country in this modern age. And, yet, can I just relax safely in my home? Nope. And why not? Because I’m worrying about you roaming the darkest recesses of the Appalachian Mountains with your senses—God-given senses designed specifically to assist with self-preservation—distracted from all the lurking danger there is because your already limited attention span is alternating between the forest floor and some old, black and white field guide that may or may not stop you from eating a poisonous mushroom. You must be quite the sight as you obliviously stumble Mr. Magoo-like through moonshiner’s camps, dens of thieves, and gatherings of bears.  

I don’t know why I continue this friendship. I really don’t.

Why this infatuation with wild mushrooms? If they were all that great, why aren’t they being made in factories? I have eaten millions of regular mushrooms that came from civilization and I have enjoyed them on steaks and pizza and sometimes raw in salads and they were very good. And because they came from a store, and before that a distribution system, and before that some kind of farm, and, presumably, there were federal inspectors all along the way, because of all these things, there were lots of responsible adults all in agreement that my mushrooms were safe to eat. And, perchance if it turned out they weren’t and I happened to died, at least my loved ones would have somebody to blame. And sue. Why must you risk your life on wild mushrooms–most of which come in shapes and sizes I would not allow any of the women in my family to touch or even look at–when grocery store mushrooms are tasty, safe, cheap, and look nothing like genitalia?

Michele showing off her Annabelles. Good clean fun for a pair of sexagenarians in their own fenced in backyard. Granted, that expression is just a little too reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s in the The Shining. I’ve been a little on edge ever since I took this image.

And it’s not like accidentally consuming one wrong one is your greatest risk! For one thing, it sounds like everyone in your entire village is out in the woods too. Sounds all communal and shit until you remember that a certain percentage of any village is going to consist of psychopaths. And there you are in a forest with them. Sure, you’re feeling empowered, like a pioneer or a medicine woman, alive and in charge. And, because of this, you’re all but certain that whatever axe murderers that are out there will for whatever reason choose to pass on you and slay someone else. Like maybe the blacksmith. Or the tinker. Possibly Opie. But never you. 

By contrast, while you’re out there subject to great risk, I’m probably sitting in my recliner well fed on grocery store food, a glass of bourbon in my hand (and the bottle nearby), and watching something calm on TV. Like European Men’s soccer. So relaxing. So little to get you nervous or jumpy about. Especially after one of the teams scores the point. Just guys meandering around, no one getting hurt. Oh, they act like they do, and sometimes you even think they did until you see the replay. Then it’s pure entertainment. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll experience every emotion as you watch in slo-mo a grown adult male human person vault themselves into the air like they were thrown off a cliff. Arms flailing, legs bicycling, face contorting. They hit the ground and tumble for a great distance. When they finally come to a stop, they’re either lying face down like they’re dead or they writhing in agony for a dramatically extended period of time. Very much like what happens when a person has accidentally eaten a poisonous mushroom, by the way. From the sidelines some poor Keystone Cop-like fellows come trotting out with a gurney but, as always, a miracle happens just as they arrive. The guy comes back from the dead, sits up, fiddles with his socks, and springs to his feet as all of his teammates praise the heavens. So the Keystone Cops turn and trot back, the game resumes, and within seconds the injured player is running and kicking and jumping with all the joy and innocence of one who has never suffered. I’m telling you, Marianne, sitting there watching this and drinking bourbon, I just marvel at how content I am. And safe. 

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers.’ At home. In the backyard. Cell phone handy with 911 on speed dial.

Sure, I guess it’s possible a meteor could crash through my roof and cause me to fall into the basement, bursting pipes and shredding wires and causing such a mess that the coroner would eventually throw up his hands in exasperation because there was just no way of telling if I had died from blunt force trauma, electrocution, or drowning. And, I’ll concede, it’s even possible that a meteor could crash through my roof and not kill me because I had chosen to go out and forage in the wilderness, but I’m sure we both know that the odds of a meteor hitting my recliner, with or without me in it, are pretty small. So I have to ask, what’s wrong with this simple and safe life that I have come to love? Is it not good enough for you? Is it beneath you? Is it, Martha?

Anyway, I think I have something positive to offer. I happened to come across a video that had gone viral. Maybe you’ve seen it. It starts with a mother bear and her cubs walking along on someone’s patio wall in California. Suddenly, a bunch of dogs come busting out and get right in the bear’s face. The bear is startled and tries them shoo them away. That’s when some teenage girl in what looks like a nightgown bursts onto the scene. She streaks straight towards the bear and shoves it right in the chest. Shoves it like you would if you were a mobster early in the process of shaking down a shopkeeper. Before the need for lead pipes to come out. The bear falls off the wall into the neighbor’s yard and, before it can recover, the teenage girl scoops up the littlest dog and runs back inside. It was incredible. I watched the video at least twice.

Last year was our first year to have poppies. Such pain-free pleasure! We will never be without them again.

So what I’m thinking, what I want to tell you, is this. If you insist on traipsing around in the hollers of Virginia like Lewis and Clark, out there randomly meandering about along with all the various drug runners, moonshiners, and village psychopaths. Making yourself subject to the mood, hunger, and whims of every snake, spider, bear, and cougar loose in the woods. Completely vulnerable to things like quicksand, booby traps, landmines, and God knows whatever else, then at least be smart. Bring a teenage girl with you! Which, in fact, is exactly what Lewis and Clark did. They knew. 

And I do too. When I was a young guy, innocent and happy and just trying to learn how to get along, I made the mistake of dating some teenage girls and, my God, it came as a shock. They were all so vicious! I’d experienced nothing like it! The silent treatment for no reason at all. Insane double talk that seemingly came from the Ethosphere. Angry, hateful remarks for the most minor of transgressions. Scoffs like you couldn’t believe. Rolling eyes and looks so filthy that they made me curse my own parents and all of my ancestors for giving me life! And, you know, in writing this, something just occurred to me. You’re still reasonably young. Still pretty. And skinny. Sharp of tongue. All you would have to do is buy yourself the right clothes, part your hair weird, and wear that same expression that’s probably on your face right now, and you could easily pass for a teenage girl. At least enough to fool a bear. And probably enough to fool a psychopath. Maybe you’re okay out there after all. I don’t know. 

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This image is here to represent the vile teenage girls I dated in High School.

Now, finally, to gardening. Our garden was supposed to be on a local garden tour but something got screwed up and we weren’t. Learned just two weeks ahead of game day but about ten weeks into a project from hell, a pool repair/drain project I very cleverly dubbed, “My Draining Project.” I’ve bored everybody here, on Facebook, and in real life about that damned black hole of a project, and I’m sorry, but I had to because it was hard. Really hard. And I needed sympathy. And, dammit, you know what, I hardly got any. And those handful of people who said something nice, I was never really sure if they were serious or if they were mocking me. People. 

The pool part of “The Draining Project” as it neared completion. The pavers are mottled because they were recently put back in place following a plumbing repair to two of the three return jets.

But, truth be told, finding out I wasn’t on the garden tour was a pleasant surprise. Having a whole future Sunday returned to my wallet as “My Draining Project” was wrapping up and the garden looked okay from whatever attention I could spare it, well, that felt pretty good. Furthermore, having just touched the stove with “My Draining Project” and therefore still flinching at the very thought of starting any kind of new project, Michele and I are looking forward to a summer of inviting friends over for cookouts in the backyard. In fact, we had a couple over last night, who, coincidentally, love wild mushrooms like you do. Of course, I made all my arguments against such foolhardiness (see above), and, refreshingly, they agreed to stop being insane. So maybe you will too.

Spigelia marilandica in the backyard being fabulous! More than enough adrenaline rush for me.

All of our trees are turning brown from those damned cicadas that everyone pretended to adore so much. However, the good news is, after many years of few if any lightning bugs, they have come back in abundance. Last night, after rounding up all the wine bottles after Mark and Meg left, Michele and I sat in the grass and took in the light show. Nothing less than wondrous!

Hydrangea palooza.

The hydrangeas are rocking it. Even the bigleafs which normally don’t love our Midwestern soil, climate, tastes in clothing, folk dances, accents, and all the smoke we make from grilling meat. I didn’t really realize I had gotten so many different hydrangeas in recent years until a week or so ago when I was walking around and noticed them of every race, creed, and sexual orientation all out there and blooming their fool heads off. It was glorious and now I understand the hydrangea thing a little better.  

‘Daisy May’ in the front yard. For years I told everyone over and over that  “Nothing is better than ‘Becky,'” Of course, no one was listening for which I’m glad because I’m no longer quite so sure of this.

 My ‘Lucifer’ Crocosmia is just starting to open. No other red on earth quite like it but the name still gives me the willies. Surely, it was introduced long before trademarking and new names being run through committees. Fewer poppies this year. Foolishly, I wasted a bunch of the pods last year in a failed attempt to make heroin and came up a little short on seed. But the bees love the flowers and we do too. Even when we’re sober.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer.’ Just one more example of safe and peaceful joy that our own home garden provides for us.

Regarding your Carex tours. I must ask. Apart from so many rude remarks, insults, and other things, what have I done to make you hurt me so? I thought we had a plan. I had made a generous offer. And, now, bitter and in pain, you have left me no choice but to go onto the internet and give your touring company the worst reviews I can summon. A hundred of them at least. Each riffing off this general theme: “Fancy, highbrow, informative, and crushingly boring tours of England’s finest gardens. Woefully in need of an old, overweight, unshaven, sloppy drunk lobbing barbs from the back of the bus like Statler and Waldorf. But, alas, this lame tour was too afraid to offer that!”

Indeed. Afraid to wander bear country? Nope. Comfortable and cocky when deciding which mushrooms are edible and which are killers? Yep. Cool when catching swarms of bees with her bare hands for a friend? Check. But bringing me along on a garden tour because I might sputter to life when things get too pretentious or when provoked by an incident of supposed English gardening superiority? Well, that’s way too scary! 

So what conclusion to make when you, who fear nothing, fear me? Well, that can only be interpreted as testament to just how dangerous I still am! 

Just what I needed to hear. Thank you. And this is why we’re friends. Despite yourself, you stroke my ego.