The Plant Whisperer

Erika Burkhalter
Aug 25, 2018 · 12 min read

Pulling into the curve of the driveway last week, after teaching my yoga class, I was met by my gardener, Tomas, before I could even emerge from the car.

“Muy caliente,” he said, wrenching his baseball cap from his shaved head and swiping at the sweat trickling into his eyes.

photo by Erika Burkhalter

It was hot that day. I was drenched after teaching. And I had a car full of singing bowls, and a harmonium and a gong waiting to be unloaded. Tomas always likes to catch me just as I arrive. Sometimes, I think he is annoying. And, sometimes I see that he is just so excited about the things he saw that day that he can’t wait. He needs to tell me about the succulent with the arch of pink blooms exploding from the base of the stem to the tightly-closed tip. Or maybe it is the new, mink-colored squirrel who has arrived to take over the front birdfeeder. Or maybe my kitty, Bisou, climbed to the fork of the eucalyptus tree.

Wiping at his forehead again, he nodded towards the upper level of my front garden, which was a bit of a sanctuary for wild things. “Two burlaps full of weeds!” he said, clearly happy with himself.

I think of Tomas as the Plant Whisperer — most of the time. The rare exceptions are when he brings in an odd plant he has rescued from here or there and plants it directly to the side of the front door. I fully approve of the rescue. It is sometimes just the placement of a tropical plant with lush foliage amidst my wildflower garden that does not work. But we always find a spot for the new arrival somewhere in the yard.

But he does tend to have an opinion. Once he chopped down the honeysuckle that had grown so tall and thin over the wall. The problem then had been that it wasn’t actually my honeysuckle, but my very-cranky neighbors.’ And sometimes, a plant will just go “missing.” My speculation is that he just did not like it there, and snuck it away in the midst of the “green waste.”

So, before I had even climbed the first of the brick steps up the hill, I had a bit of a swirly feeling in my stomach, and a buzzing in my ears. “He couldn’t have,” I told myself.

Arriving at the top, I blinked into the noon glare, and saw…dirt. The void of my missing crazy plants, all grown from seed, nurtured by the gentle spring rains and overcast days, and brought to the dance by the summer sun, thudded through me.

Queen Anne’s Lace, photo by Erika Burkhalter

Where once Queen Anne’s lace had nodded in the breeze, and purple scabia pods, in all of their Dr. Seuss-ness appearance, had served as landing pads for the bees, there was only bare dirt baking in the sun. I had grown borage, a fuzzy plant with droopy purple flowers, also for the bees, and mustard-yellow milkweed for the monarchs who flutter overhead in our yard all year long. Some always forget to migrate and spend their winters here.

And there were other plants too — Cosmos and Love Lies Bleeding, and a few I couldn’t even name because they came from a seed packet long-tossed away.

My garden is organic and dedicated to the bees, butterflies and birds. We ripped out all of the grass years ago and have spent about a decade now cultivating a wildlife sanctuary, albeit a semi-urban one. We removed anything remotely resembling restrained. Two years ago, I certified it with the National Wildlife Federation, meaning that we provide certain vital things, like both moving and still water, native plants, food and shelter.

Rufous Hummingbird, photo by Erika Burkhalter

For the water category, we have two water fountains for birds to splash and play in. All day long, we have hummingbirds glinting in the sun as they dive under the stream of water or perch on the edge to drink and bathe their wings. We also have a bird bath for the Robins, who prefer the stiller waters in the shade, and a pool, which the dragonflies adore.

I once saw two dragonflies mating in the air, dipping and swaying over the urban pond (the pool) in a unitary dance. As I watched them, I thought about how this was my little paradise, a place in a land plentiful with concrete and freeways and identical houses packed in like postage stamps with teeny yards.

Dragonfly, photo by Erika Burkhalter

My husband and I each grew up in rural places — me in upstate New York, and he in north Louisiana. I never realized how much of a country girl I was until I returned, after being away for thirty years, to my childhood home and realized that there was a barn at the end of the street and that it had been there all of these years, and that it still stood in the same location. And there were ducks too, in the river behind our house.

So, when my husband and I stumbled into our home through an accidental business deal going awry, and it looked so much like the worst of the Brady Bunch era, I couldn’t help but cry when we first walked in. But then I stepped into the backyard, which was dominated by three ficus trees (under which nothing will grow) and about fifteen pines, which looked like they had never been trimmed, ever, and I saw potential.

We are a little off-the-beaten path for Orange County, California, but this suits us just fine. We live in an unincorporated neighborhood with no home owners’ association. So, although a lot of the neighbors came out to watch the day we flew a red stone statue of an Apsara, a heavenly yogini, which we had purchased in Kujaraho, India, over the house with a very large crane, to her landing spot on the back slope, nobody really said much. And the Buddha in my front yard, surrounded by kale, swiss chard and tomatoes, seems to be just fine with all of neighbors too.

Apsara from Kujaraho, India, photo by Erika Burkhalter

Every year, around March, the orioles return. I am told that they mate for life and return to the same neighborhood anually when they migrate from Mexico. Last year a pair flew back and forth for several days to the top of our old palm tree, a tree which probably started there as a seedling dropped by a bird, but which now vaults a hundred feet into the air, almost as tall as the pine and Eucalyptus trees climbing up the hill. The orioles patiently carried bits of twig and bark to where the palm fronds flap in the stiff breeze, and they built a coconut-shaped nest which hung from the finger of a frond.

We watched with binoculars for a couple of weeks as one would fly off and return with food, and then the other would do so. And then, one lazy summer late-afternoon, when I was out by the pool, I looked up with the binoculars and saw a tiny head popping out from the nest. A parent swooped in, as if entering one of those old blimp hangers, and flew out of the other side of the “coconut.” The baby, much fluffier than its mature parents, disappeared back inside its “womb,” until another snack was delivered on the “drive-by” path.

Male Oriole, photo by Erika Burkhalter

It was the highlight of the day for about two weeks, to pour a glass of wine in the early evening and lay on our backs, binoculars clutched tightly, and watch our little newfoundling grow. Then came the day when he (I don’t really know it was a he, although I intuit that he was) took a quick flight from the perch at the edge of the nest. My heart got stuck in my throat for a few moments, until he landed safely back home.

It was only about two days after that that he was flitting from tree to tree, swooping low, but landing nonetheless, followed by his sun-flower yellow and black father. And the day after that, the parents were gone! I think the baby stayed for another few days. I caught sight of him swooping less wildly from tree to tree, although it could have been another adolescent too. But, one day, he was gone.

I think sometimes about the brilliance of the parenting skills of those birds. They nourished their baby to the point of exhaustion, flying here and there in turns to supply him with bugs and worms. But, when it came the day for him to fly, they did not give him a choice. And, how could they? For all the orioles have to be strong enough to make that return flight to Mexico each summer.

And this year, we have a new pair, the male, not quite as bright as a fully-grown oriole, and a pale green, slender female. Before my very eyes, this boy has become a man. In just a few short weeks, he has “yellowed” and donned his cap. I like to think, although it probably isn’t so, that this is the same baby boy whom we watched fledge last summer.

Last year, we spotted a strange-looking bird with an absurdly-long tail and a fluorescent orange beak singing a complicated song while perched on a bare branch of a tree. He swooped into the air, dipping across the bloom of blue and soft coral spread across the sky in watercolor swirls. Simultaneously, we recognized him — or his kin, anyways. They were from South Africa. We had seen his relatives when we were on a photo safari there. We were providing sanctuary for a Pin-Tailed Whydah.

But, how did that bird get here?

I squinted against the deepening glow, and saw him again. Delicate as a dancer, he dipped towards the earth with a swoop of that tail, and darted back towards the sky. How did he even manage to stay airborne with tailfeathers twice as long as his torso? But, skyborne he was, flashing through the air like a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon.

We have squirrels too, perky little creatures of great intelligence and ornery temperament. One particularly ornery and smart squirrel, cleverly-named “Mr. Squirrel”, likes to shred pinecones in the branches fifty feet overhead and then fling the shards onto the cats, all the while “chirping” at them as if to say, “Go away!!! This is MY yard.”

Mr. Squirrel, photo by Erika Burkhalter

Every morning, Mr. Squirrel raids the birdfeeder that hangs a few feet away from the French door, on the other side of which four cats are lined up, counting the moments until they are allowed outside. He not only gorges on the bird seed, he then lounges in the seed net which hangs beneath the feeder, as if it was his own personal hammock.

If the cats are ever allowed out into the backyard and Mr. Squirrel is caught unaware, a frantic race erupts, one involving jumping from fence to tree to tree to another tree, at least on Mr. Squirrel’s part. Try as they may, the cats have never been able to catch him. But, they are all excellent tree-climbers themselves, and I think that my Mr. Bisou is sure he is a squirrel because he has learned to jump from tree to tree too, although not at Mr. Squirrel’s heights.

And racoons live amongst us too, probably somewhere very close, although you never see them while the sun is up. But, once the golden glow fades from the horizon, they clock onto the job, rolling up my tender baby tears groundcover like it was sod while they frantically hunt for grubs and then wash anything they want to eat in the swimming pool. In the morning, their little footprints — five fingers, each with a little slash on top where the tip of their razor sharp claws had touched — trace a dance all over the first pool step.

The wildness of this often unseen world fills me with great joy. I like to know that it is here, in our little oasis, and out “there” in other untamed bits of this urban land. Although I know that ours is only a small stopping grounds for many species which migrate — from the tiny rufous hummingbirds, to the orioles, the monarchs, the ducks, and many other species I am probably not even aware of — at least I know that they have a place where they are welcome to rest, eat and mate for a while.

It is bittersweet to arrive home and see the sudden swirl of Swallowtails and moths and Monarchs over the exploding craziness of wildflowers in my yard, and to compare that to my neighbors’ yards all around us, which are mostly sterile and groomed. But, more and more often these days, I see my neighbors out for a walk — and they stop and admire the wildlife here, and then they see the sign from the National Wildlife Federation. And, I hope that perhaps this sparks an idea in someone that they, too, could make a difference to the birds and butterflies and bees.

Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed, photo by Erika Burkhalter

Towards the end of summer, the milkweed, which is the ONLY plant the Monarchs lay their eggs on, erupts in clouds of fluffy seeds which soar into the air, landing where they will. I offer seeds to anyone who wants them. My post lady, Cynthia, took some once and reported back a bit later that the seeds had “taken” and they now, too, had masses of tiny-flowered orange and yellow milkweed, and that it had attracted not only monarchs, but also Praying Mantises. And last week, she hopped out of her jeep to show me photos and to report that they had given seeds to several of their neighbors, who are now also growing it.

This web of awareness of the need for wild places, where nature can live freely, is growing, I think. I suppose, in some places, it has never been lost. But, I think that it is easy, sometimes, for people to forget to notice the rhythms of the natural world. They don’t catch the whiff of Night Blooming Jasmine, because they are inside, in front of screens. I hope I will always remember to step outside, at least for a little, each evening to listen for the screech of the owl who haunts the hill behind us, or to feel the lingering dampness in the air as twilight descends, or to walk barefoot over the flagstone stepping stones that lead to the lemon tree. For these are the moments that matter, the moments when I feel “connected” to the Earth and to all of her creatures. These are the moments, when I know that, although I am only one small filament in that web of connection, I am a part of that web.

So, when I arrived home that morning to find only bare dirt where once had fluttered wildflowers, I was, at first, distraught. But, I had just returned from teaching yoga. And, isn’t this the whole point of practicing yoga anyways — to roll with things, to not be knocked off center so easily? The irony of it the situation was not lost on me.

So, I went to the green waste bin and pulled out as many of the beheaded plants as I could heft and extracted as many seed pods as I could salvage and sprinkled them back into their home. And then I realized that I had a reason to visit my favorite garden store and sort through the racks of seed packets, and perhaps come home again with even more interestingly-named plants.

I will probably never know if Tomas was “whispering” to me that he didn’t like the unkemptness of this little wild area in the late summer, when the flowers have drooped and the milkweed seeds have flown, or if he really did think he had just been pulling weeds to make way for new plantings. But, all gardens grow again, given a little love and space to sprawl. And change is really the true nature of things anyways.

And I also realized that the real lesson that day was to remember how vital it is to remain aware of how our small actions make a difference in the workings of the world. I remember reading a story once about a dove who proclaimed that one small cry of peace in the world was like a single snowflake. Alone, or with a few friends, it would just dust the branch it landed on. But, with enough snowflakes accumulating on the branch, the branch would bow towards the earth. Perhaps we are like the snowflakes. With enough cries for peace, or hope for the butterflies, bees, birds and other wild creatures, we, together, can tip the scales and bend that branch.


Other Doors

From haiku to hefty memoirs - poems, stories and essays that break through the bullshit. Looking for pieces that go far beyond cliché to uncover a new realm of possibilities. Other Doors features writing that leaves the reader with genuine congenital reactions.

Erika Burkhalter

Written by

Yogi, cat-mom, photographer, lover of travel and nature, spreading the love for Mother Earth, one photo, poem or story at a time. (MA Yoga, MS Neuropsychology)

Other Doors

From haiku to hefty memoirs - poems, stories and essays that break through the bullshit. Looking for pieces that go far beyond cliché to uncover a new realm of possibilities. Other Doors features writing that leaves the reader with genuine congenital reactions.

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