Years ago, when we first lived here, the farmer whose field is directly over my eastern fence kept a flock of sheep—one ram and many ewes and lambs. The ram’s presence was the only constant in the sheep population, the ewes being taken away occasionally to live in someone else’s field for a few months to keep the grass down, and the lambs being a commercial venture. They are all gone now, to my sorrow, and have been for years, the farmer finally wearying of freezing February nights in a cold barn, assisting ewes thorough difficult births or treating their colds and hoof rot. I miss them; the bleating of sheep is a sweet sound to awake to, rivaling birdsong.
I called the ram 813, because it was the number on the tag in his silky ear; I found out after meeting his owner that his name in the family was Rudy. Early on, I noticed him watching my activities in the garden with evident interest, so one day I offered him a piece of the zucchini plant I was pulling up; one taste, and we were friends. He ate anything offered him: fresh green weeds and old, tougher ones, including thistles, which he ate with care and thoughtfulness. The greatest enthusiasm, though, was for anything fragrant or sweet, so he got all the fruit from the flowering quince. Quince purists tell me the jelly made from it is inferior to that from fruiting quince; that may be so, but to 813 they were delightful, so he got them all and crunched them up with his extremely large and efficient teeth, rolling his big brown eyes heavenward. He enjoyed—or perhaps just tolerated, to be polite—being petted and waited for attention by the fence, head tilted slightly to one side in that most appealing pose for man or beast, until I noticed him. The ewes kept a careful distance but when 813 allowed them they lined up along the fence hoping for any largess that might come their way; after all possibility of more food seemed to have ended they patrolled the fence line, all in a row, heads down, so intent on their search that they ran into each other, like dominoes falling over.
That field now is occupied by two handsome horses, black and brown. As a sight over a back fence, they are superior to most I can think of, and one which I realize I’m lucky to have. But, as neighbors, horses lack sheep’s entertainment value.
There is a fox living in the garden now or coming in every night. Actually I’ve seen him only a few times; a bright-eyed little fellow, russet and gray, with pointy ears, a bushy tail, and sharp nose. He is elusive and shy and always just glimpsed from the corner of the eye as he disappears, but others have seen him, too, so I know he’s not a phenomenon of faulty vision. I can tell where he’s been because he leaves a sign on one of the paths, on a wooden bench, or one of the boxes covering the watering valves. It’s a game between us, whether he means it to be or not. I first saw him on a moonlit night in midsummer when an eerie scream, horribly human, woke me; I went out, armed with a flashlight, and there he was, screaming at something—the moon, or loneliness, or just because he felt like it. We have an iron gate at the driveway, to keep deer out, and the last token I found was just outside the gate; that was several days ago. I hope he wasn’t saying goodbye.
I had a monoculturist grandfather who grew only tall bearded irises and no other plants in his San Francisco garden, until a plague of some sort—legendary in the family but never identified—destroyed them, sometime around 1930, after which he replaced them with roses, and he grew only roses for the rest of his life. I knew him only in the rose phase. Watching him working in his rose beds was probably what made me aware of gardening and fixed my interest on roses. But included among the rose books of his that are still on my bookshelves is a copy of Irises, by FF Rockwell, with drawings by George L Hollrock and the author, published in 1928 by The Macmillan Company—one of a series of “Home Garden Handbooks” by the same author. It is described in the introduction by Robert S Sturtevant of the American Iris Society as “a monumental monograph;” it’s only eighty-four pages in length, but perhaps that is monumental for a monograph. Several lists of varieties in it are marked with lead pencil, sometimes with comments in my grandfather’s hand. I think the marks indicate cultivars he grew rather than those he intended to buy; I, at least, would mark a catalog rather than a book with cultivars I wanted and assume he would, too. If so, he grew twenty-nine varieties, none of which, as far as I can determine, is any longer available in commerce: Ambassadeur, Asia, Bruno, Candlelight, Cardinal, Charles Monet, El Capitan, Esplendido, Frieda Mohr, Gabriel, Germaine Perthuis, Glowing Embers, Gold Imperial, Grace Sturtevant, Magnifica, Majestic, Mme. Durrand, Moa, Morning Splendor, Mrs. Valerie West, Pioneer, Purissima, Romola, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Sir Michael, Souv. de Laetitia Michaud, Souv. de Mme. Gaudichau, Susan Bliss, and perhaps others not named in the book.
His name was Arthur H Crane, and I’ve spent most of my gardening hours this month in the creation of The AH Crane Memorial Iris Garden. I’ve always grown irises, here and there, usually ones I’ve been given by others dividing their own stock, and I’ve planted them without any attention to the suitability of the site except that it be, at the moment, vacant and within reach of water; it is a tribute to their adaptability and vigor that, treated so shabbily, they have survived. Over the years the original plants have become crowded and sometimes smothered by encroaching Shasta daisies or other tough perennials, or crowded out of the way by roses, but they have never seemed to resent the neglect. Such persistence, I thought, must be respected, so I asked Salvador to cultivate one of the two big beds, eight by sixteen feet, that I’d used for vegetables, and clear it of tree roots. I’ve dug up what turned out to be a surprising number of irises from here and there—dozens and dozens, once the overgrown clumps were divided—and planted them in that big bed. October 27 will be the 132nd anniversary of AH Crane’s birth, and I plan a quiet, solitary dedication of the Garden, all 128 square feet of it. Next spring, when some of the plants should have taken hold well enough to bloom, I may host a more formal observation. Local dignitaries might be invited; perhaps there will be speeches and a small orchestra playing, a plaque to be unveiled, and tea and little sandwiches served. I think I’ll ask relatives and neighbors and friends to become Friends of The AH Crane Memorial Iris Garden, with the understanding that it’s an honorary designation with no monetary responsibility involved. I hope my forebear would have liked his garden, even with modern varieties substituted for his favorites.