The Violet Fern

Creating Art & Gardens


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Merriment & Mood

It’s different getting into the spirit of Christmas in a climate one isn’t traditionally acquainted with. Note I stated different, not difficult. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that we walked around the small town of Cedar Key and please, don’t despise, in shorts, flops and tanks. Butterflies flutter about, flowers bloom. Festive indeed.

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As I walked around I fretted just a little because well, Christmas is coming up right quick! But this is one of the many things I enjoy about my Winter home … Christmas isn’t a grand retail event here. It is a one to two-day holiday celebrated but for a brief time of the year. I like that I shop and celebrate all within a week or two. It is not a long, arduous, stressful, has-to-be-perfect performance. I don’t decorate our rental. Sure, I miss a Christmas tree but I prefer live Christmas trees and well, the last one I put up really stirred up my allergies so it was probably my last. One day I will figure out how to display my favorite ornaments. I also prefer living plants so I just may splurge on a Poinsettia. Last year, my tree was a small Rosemary topiary. This year, this is the extent of my decoration (or celebration) if you will.

I no longer bake cookies since I’ve become Vegan. Not that there aren’t some incredible Vegan cookie recipes, just that I don’t indulge as much. There is so much food around the holidays. I will be making a Vegan key lime pie for Christmas dinner. That seems to be my new tradition.

Here, I really don’t have neighbors since we are transient. That will probably change over the years and I’m sure I will bake or make homemade treats once again for giving.

Anyway, I’ve digressed. Yesterday we walked around town and it was the day of the annual Christmas boat parade so the decorations came out and about and I took some time to admire them and get in the mood. I love the nautical and local feel of these festive feasts for the eyes.

I thought the live greenery around this ornate door particularly beautiful.

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This manger scene is beautiful day and night. At night, if you look carefully on the trunk of the tree, the starfish lights up in tiny blue lights.

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This angel is merry and poignant.

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The colors of Christmas here are slightly different in hue.

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Then we made our way towards the town beach to get a little sand in between our toes. Wreathes along the way remind us of the sea.

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I loved the use of palms in this gated door adornment.

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Another wreathe that sparkles day and night.

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Another merry reminder of the nearby sea.

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Around here they say the mullets jump for joy so when you see them jumping up out of the water you exclaim happy mullets! A tribute perhaps on the town lights?

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Finally we reach the beach and the town tree!

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By far the most fun to be had was watching the Christmas boat parade. One can sit on a select few balconies of restaurants high above and look over to town on one side and the ocean on the other where the boats parade by all lit up.

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My favorite decorated boat was not a boat at all but a small kayak carrying a lit up Christmas tree of which I did not manage to get a picture. My second favorite boat was this “jellyfish boat” – creative and beautiful streaming by.

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We were able to stroll back home among all the lights now in a festive mood.

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Bringing you tidings of comfort and joy from Cedar Key.

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What the Wabi-sabi?

For the month of February we are staying in a rental known locally as Ada’s Wabi-sabi Cottage. Ada is an artist, and an extraordinary one, evident in the impeccable decor and character of this cottage. It is “polished rustic” and “elegantly comfortable” intrinsic to wabi-sabi style. There was a book upon the shelf, “Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” by Leonard Koren. I cracked it open out of curiosity. I have heard of wabi-sabi – I have seen photos of the cracked tea cup repaired with gold. I likened wabi-sabi, an eastern tradition, westernized into shabby-chic, but somehow felt it deserves more. I wanted to flesh out and expand my own narrow definition of wabi-sabi.

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I sort of had an inkling, but not firm understanding, that wabi-sabi has something to do with Japanese tea ceremony. Leonard explains, wabi-sabi originated in the philosophies of Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism – simplicity, naturalness, acceptance of reality (I can get behind that) – which further synthesized into Japanese culture in the late 16th century where it reached its most comprehensive realization within the context of the tea ceremony. Leonard shares with us that the tea ceremony evolved into an eclectic social art form encompassing architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation, performance and more. The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Juko, who intentionally used locally made and understated utensils in opposition of the elite indulgence of tea at the time. This was the beginning of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in tea.

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More curious I looked up the definition of wabi-sabi on Wikipedia: represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Leonard explores that wabi-sabi by its very being cannot be defined. “Some Japanese critics feel that wabi-sabi needs to maintain its mysterious and elusive – hard to define – qualities because ineffability is part of its specialness.” … “Since ideological clarity or transparency is not an essential aspect  of wabi-sabi, to fully explain the concept might, in fact, diminish it.”

Leonard offers instead a “provisional definition”:

“Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty.”

He likens the word “rustic” as the closest english word to wabi-sabi – simple, artless, unsophisticated with rough, irregular surfaces – however emphasizes this is only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, but it is the initial impression many people have when they first see wabi-sabi expression.

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The words “wabi” and “sabi” originally meant different things. Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone with nature, away from society, and suggested a downtrodden state. Sabi originally meant “chill,” lean or withered. Then around the 14th century, according to Leonard’s book, both words began to evolve in the direction of a more positive, sought-after aesthetic offering spiritual richness. The self imposed state of living with and appreciating nature was desirable. (Yes!) The meanings of the words began to cross over time so much so that there is no longer a line separating them today. So when the Japanese say wabi they also mean sabi, and now most just generally say wabi-sabi. Still, Leonard offers a considered comparison of the two terms:

Wabi: a way of life, a spiritual path • the inward, the subjective • a philosophical construct • spatial events

Sabi: material objects, art and literature • the outward, the objective • an aesthetic ideal • temporal events

You may be wondering is this a plug for Ada’s wabi-sabi cottage? No it is not. Although I urge you to stay here and explore Cedar Key. Your stay will be artistically inspiring, cocoon-like, safely nestled among the natural beauty that surrounds Cedar Key. You will feel hermit-like, but simultaneously nature will beckon you.

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You may be wondering is this a book review? No, it is not. I felt the need to sort out this deep sea of information I dived into and absorb it through my writing of this post (and to journal the wondrous experience of this February 2015). Perhaps you find yourself more comfortable with the term wabi-sabi, too, as I am now – like a new favorite pair of faded jeans just picked up at the second hand store. Although I do recommend Leonard’s book and may just need to purchase my own personal copy for my library.

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You may also be wondering what, pray tell, does this have to do with gardening? I say everything!

Reading further, Leonard explores “the wabi-sabi universe.”

“Metaphysical basis: things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”

That bare plot of earth you plant, watch sprout, watch grow, watch bloom, that becomes the center of the insect’s – bird’s universe, watch set fruit, then seed, then rot, then fade back into the soil? Ah yes, that resonates loudly with the above doesn’t it?

“Spiritual values: truth comes from the observation of nature • “greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details • beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness”

How often do you observe your garden and how often does it feed your soul and spirit? How often do you marvel at the bee or butterfly, the web of a spider in morning dew, the inside of a squash blossom, the veins in a decayed leaf? What did your yard look like before you began gardening? What did that shrub look like before you selectively pruned its branches? Why does that bright blue morning glory bloom look extraordinary on that rusted wire?

“State of mind: acceptance of the inevitable • appreciation of the cosmic order”

We accept the garden will die back in Fall and Winter and that some things will just simply die. There will be storms, there will be weeds, there will be disease, the clay soil will crack and harden when dry. Plants will become compost and so will we. We certainly visualize our gardens before they come into being. We ask for growth, we ask for rain, we ask for sun. We ask for nothing short of a miracle.

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“Moral precepts: get rid of all that is unnecessary • focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy”

In any good design or process we try to eliminate that which is unnecessary. If we spread compost every year, we can eliminate synthetic fertilizers. If we live in balance, we can eliminate weed killers. We must focus upon a plant’s nature in order for it to thrive. We must focus upon the relationship of a plant to the sun, the soil, water, a neighboring plant. We must ignore hierarchy in the garden – the soil is no less important than the plant, the plant no more important than the structure that supports it. I believe there can be no hierarchy in the natural order of things in the garden. We are not the “top” of the food chain – without the bee where would we be? Without the microcosmos in the soil where would we be? Gardening is a circle of events/life – not an hierarchal order.

“Material properties: the suggestion of natural process • irregular • intimate • unpretentious • earthy • murky • simple”

The garden is the most glorious example of the natural process. Why do I love my home built rustic arbor of tree branches more than a store-bought lumbered cedar arbor? Why doesn’t everyone’s garden look exactly the same? Why do gardeners like to garden alone? Why do some gardens offer retreat from the world while others expand? Why do the best gardens have a sense of place? The best gardens blend into the landscape or transport you. They don’t shout at you. What is more earthy than dirt? What is more murky than mud? Why is a mossy, rotting log so beautiful? It is simple. Nourish the earth and it will nourish you.

The more I read about this wabi-sabi, the more I liken the world (the universe if you will) to the garden! What is the garden if not imperfect, impermanent, incomplete? It seems I have been, am, subconsciously dabbling in wabi-sabi all this time.

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“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness,” the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.”

Words to garden by.

Reserve Ada’s Wabi-sabi Cottage.


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There are Butterflies Here …

Why am I so surprised? Of course there are butterflies. It’s not (literally) freezing, there is sunshine for extra warmth, there are flowers for food. There is something absurdly wonderful walking with butterflies fluttering about in January for this Northern girl. I am fascinated by one in particular with bold yellow stripes and an exotic flair. I had to look it up on one of my favorite sites, Butterflies and Moths of North America, and discovered that what I am seeing is the Florida State Butterfly, a Zebra Longwing. A spectacular beauty! Reading up on them, I learned that Passion Vines (specifically Passiflora suberosa, P. lutea, P. affinis) are their host plant. There are plenty of vines here but none that I see in flower and I am not adept enough on Florida Flora & Fauna to recognize by leaves only. Oh, how I would love to see the beautiful blooms of Passion Vine! I tried to start some from seed last summer but they take months to germinate and I wasn’t patient enough. I think I will invest in a plant start this year. I also learned Shepherd’s Needle, Bidens Alba (check! plenty of that around) and Lantana (check! see that around, too) are their favorite foods. What’s interesting is that they forage on a route or “trapline” (trapline foraging). I spent weeks trying to capture a picture of one and had I known this interesting behavior I could have simply learned one of their routes. However, on a cooler day, I lucked out while visiting the Shell Mound, one rested long enough for me to aim and focus! I suppose in this pocket of sun the gravel-shell base felt warm.

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Zebra Longwing

The Shell Mound is one of the largest preserved on the West coast of Florida. It is literally, a shell mound, made up of discarded oyster and clam shells – the food source of the Eastern Woodland Indians.

View from the top of the Shell Mound

There are also Sulphur Butterflies that I have not managed to capture but there really isn’t any mistaking their beautiful color. Lantana – check! – is on their nectar list, too. Then there are also orange butterflies flitting about. At first I wasn’t sure what they were. One day I was able to get a closer look and confirm it with the flap of a wing – Gulf Fritillaries. Passion vines are also their choice of host, specifically Passiflora incarnata (my choice, too, to grow), and P. foetida. They also like nectar from Shepherd’s Needle and, yes, Lantana, as well as a few others. They aren’t as camera shy as those Longwings and lo and behold here is one on Shepherd’s Needle.

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But Fritillaries are not the only orangish butterflies here! There are MONARCHS! There are more Monarchs here than I’ve seen the past few years in my own garden up North. At first I thought, I must be mistaken, maybe these are Viceroys. But a real close view with my binoculars and it’s confirmed – honest to goodness Monarchs! (Learn to tell the difference between Viceroy and Monarch Butterflies). I am not sure how to look up or who to ask about them overwintering here. They aren’t in large numbers. Every now and then one just happily floats by. Here is one who posed for me on Goldenrod. They also will nectar on … you guessed it, Lantana! Lantana is a plant that all these butterflies share in common!

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There are plenty of Cedar trees here in Cedar Key, of course – perhaps a good night roost? I know I’ve read about Monarchs resting overnight in Cedar trees on their migration. “Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site.”* I’ve also learned, to add to my surprise, from Butterflies and Moths of North America and a few other online sources that “A few overwinter along the Gulf coast or south Atlantic coast.” WELL, that’s where I am! Along the Gulf Coast! It is such a wonderful treat to see these beauties floating about. I wonder if people here find it extraordinary and special that Monarchs overwinter in Cedar Key? I sure do! It shouldn’t surprise me, Cedar Key is a special place immersed in nature. It is a very special place indeed.

*Source: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/migration/index.shtml