It’s only five o’clock, but already I’m wide awake. What is it about this time of the day that I love so? Later on, the sun will arc high overhead, forcing the lizards and frogs to shelter from the blistering rays of another hot August afternoon. I’ll shelter too. But now, in the very early morning, the air is exquisite. It beckons. As soon as it’s ready, I pour my first mug of coffee and head outside. A slight breeze is cool and bracing and tingles on my arms and legs and the back of my neck. I breathe deeply, again and again, taking in this miracle of a fresh new day.
The first bird awakens and chirps its song of greeting. Two more join in. I feel a kinship with them. We’re all early birds.
I walk to the garden shed and turn on the pump so that once more a thin trickle of water gurgles over the brick edging of the upper pool into the lower, a soothing alto to the winged, chirping sopranos that now number a dozen. Soon, it’ll be an entire chorus.
Many years ago I planted water lilies in pots in the lower pool and stocked it with a dozen feeder fish I bought for practically nothing from a young kid working part-time at the pet store. But the kid couldn’t tell carp from koi—at that time I couldn’t either—and I ended up with as many koi as carp. They all grew quickly, were very tame, and would wriggle right up onto my palm for food. My favorite was a white butterfly koi. I named her Princess. She was beautiful—flowing, gossamer, four-inch fins and a small pinkish spot on her snout. Then one day she disappeared. I never knew what got her, but I felt terrible because she was so trusting, and that trust probably had cost her her life.
The rest of the fish multiplied rapidly, and soon the filter couldn’t keep up. The water turned to thick, smelly pea soup. Finally, I called a company that specialized in ornamental water features, and their crew came out and drained the pool and pulled all the plants and fish out and took them away in big barrels. They didn’t charge me a dime. In fact, they refurbished the filter, resealed the inside walls of the pool, and paid me several hundred dollars. I guess good-sized koi and water lilies bring good-sized prices.
I place my now empty cup on the bricks atop the wall of the lower pool and bend at the waist to pull a couple of weeds that have sprouted in the woolly thyme that eventually filled the spaces between the flagstones. It’s not a very ladylike posture, but my knees no longer bend effortlessly. Besides, no one else is up at this hour. I tell myself it is exercise and that it’s a good thing. At least I can still touch my toes.
An Anna’s humming bird comes streaking from nowhere and hovers at eye level a few feet in front of me, its wings a blur and its brilliant magenta throat flashing, signaling that the feeder tucked up under the clematis vine on the trellis above the back terrace is empty. I used to think these actions were random, but now I know they’re not. It’s a silent pact between the humming birds and me. I get the stool from the kitchen so I can reach the feeder, fill it with a four-to-one water-sugar mix, and return it to its hook. Within moments three or four of the Anna’s are vying for the first taste. Dipping and swooping, they will provide entertainment throughout the day, sometimes hovering a few moments just outside the open window above my desk and my computer, just to say thank you.
One thing in the garden inevitably leads to another. I’m reminded to refill the suet feeders hidden in the branches of the Japanese maples, out of reach of those pesky voles that have created a labyrinthine web of tunnels beneath my garden. There was a time when I battled them. I tried flooding them out with a hose and blocked their access by stuffing rocks into their adits. Neither worked. At the hardware store I bought gas bombs in a package; the label claimed they were “guaranteed to eradicate voles.” Hah! Hidden in the shadows, the critters watched and cackled among themselves. I gave up the fight. Unlike gophers, at least the voles don’t leave raw, ugly mounds behind as they drill. I have no idea what they do with the excess soil. They must eat clover seeds, though, because, industrious little farmers that they are, they poop the seeds out inside their tunnels, and the seeds then sprout and spread so that the voles have well-stocked pantries spaced conveniently all along their hallways. There was a time I zealously tackled the clover trails with my hand-weeder, but no more. With voles, you can’t win, unless you get a few cats at the shelter and keep them half-starved so they’re motivated. But the birds, especially baby California quail, are much easier prey than voles, so I no longer keep cats.
My second cup of coffee sustains me as I prowl the rest of the garden. This year, for some unexplained reason, the native oaks have been dropping leaves ever since June. Green ones, not brown. And dropping acorns too. You’d think, with last winter’s record rainfall, that the oaks would stay thick and lush well into fall. Maybe later I’ll call the agricultural extension office and ask about it. Or maybe I’ll just wait and let someone else do it. And I’m not going to rake the leaves, either, not yet. Let them swirl and play in the breeze. I’m not the perfectionist I used to be. And it’s a good thing, because I’m not as young as I once was. I’m more tolerant now—of others’ shortcomings as well as my own.