Archive for Baltimore

Respite

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

People around the world are saying, when?

Over eight weeks ago, business as usual stopped for most of us. Not just working: but shopping, learning, socializing, being out in society. Some are saying enough already! and demanding that their states’ governors reopen all non-essential businesses and get children back to school.

Many of the open-up crowd don’t have money to support staying at home without working.   Unfortunately, my country’s government is quicker to aid large businesses who might suffer economic losses than the poor and the middle class.

In Baltimore, COVID-19 hospitalizations and diagnoses are rising. We do not look anything like the downward slope of the national graph. We aren’t yet opening up houses of worship, playgrounds, barbershops and tattoo parlors, as our governor has said is safe for the state of Maryland.

I agree with the decision of Baltimore’s mayor. I don’t want exponential spread of illnesses. I have friends battling the illness and neighbors who risk their lives to work in hospitals and pharmacies.

I know that I’m privileged to stay at home. I’m not a front line worker. I have access to food throughout this crisis, and live in a neighborhood where I can peacefully garden and walk outside.

When I long for openness, I take my little dog on a walk alongside a stream called Stony Run. It’s a tributary to the Jones Falls in Baltimore, a powerful waterway that once supported mills in 19th century Baltimore. The wooded walking trail is about three miles long.

The Stony Run was here long before the pandemic. It rushed along when Indians lived along its banks, and when slaves secretly traveled north to freedom. It played its water music through the Civil War, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and World War II and Viet Nam.

Due to the labors of environmentalists and neighbors, this creek is at its healthiest these days. It is a haven for so many forms of life, from tiny crawfish and worms to chipmunks, mice, birds, and wildflowers. And as I stroll, the Stony Run seems to whisper that normal really does lie ahead.

Sustainable Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a recent day that I was missing fresh greens,  I walked into the garden. It was long before I’d planted my first seeds for lettuce. Not much was there. And yet…

I appraised the dandelions. Their gay golden faces are dotted all over the lawn and garden beds. I needed to weed anyway, and as I got down on my knees, I saw how beautiful and crisp and long many of the leafy plants were. They were absolutely fit for a “spring mix.” As I dug up a few clusters of dandelions, I saw more and more that I wanted.  I could have a series of salads. I hesitated, wondering if I was depleting my garden of food I might need later.

After I had taken many handfuls of crisp greens, I washed them in a deep bowl, rinsing them over and over until the water ran clear. I dried the greens in a towel and then and mixed them with hearts of palm, red onion slices, a bit of orange, and a little bit of leftover fennel. With a little oil and vinegar and honey, it was a delicious salad.

I have butter lettuce and romaine now, thanks to a couple of businesses that have their own delivery truck service. When I make an order, I get things for my neighbors, too. I am making my own bread and biscuits. I feel like no matter what, I can feed myself.

I was so glad for the dandelions the day I needed to eat them. They’re still popping up here and there, and I doubt they’ll ever be eradicated. I’m also taking wild chives from the lawn, and feeling grateful for their snap. It reminds me of the stories from elderly Japanese people who recalled eating grass during the war years, when there was no rice and not much of anything else.

I was placing a blueberry bush into the garden today. Turning to get some compost, I noticed a large black bird with a tangerine-colored body was staring at me.  Could this be a Baltimore Oriole, a bird that represents our city and sports team, but that has eluded my gaze in the decades that I’ve lived here?

The oriole was sitting on the branch of the lilac that I’ve considered removing because it grew horizontally rather than upward. Now I realize the handicapped lilac make the perfect perch for this bird to watch over the garden. Did he realize the awkward human was planting something that would make exquisite dining for him in the next months?

The makeshift becomes magical sometimes. And as daunting as the next months are supposed to be, I will keep hope in my heart.

Victories for Nature

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The skies are blue, the clouds dense, and it’s quiet enough that you can hear the birds. Our two dogs have never had more attention. And with a lack of places to go, I am in my garden.

The leading picture for this blogpost is a raised bed garden belonging to my neighbors, Joe and Sarah. Their practical, proud use of front-yard real estate takes on new meaning this year, as people long for a small way to be in control during a time of uncertainty. Everywhere, people are planting masses of herbs, vegetables and fruit into so-called victory gardens—a term that hasn’t been used since World War II, when people were encouraged to provide for themselves to allow more resources for men and women serving overseas.

Debbie planted herbs in cinderblocks, and so much more

Growing vegetables and fruit is an exciting challenge for me, because I am more of a wishful gardener than a skilled one. I have had the blessing of green space around home throughout my life. I have been planting and marveling at my small progresses over the years. Yet I don’t believe I will ever have the commitment to be a daily gardener.

Native Toad Trilliums grown by master gardener Debbie

My mother gave me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was 9. This masterwork of children’s literature was written in 1911. It romantically details how gardening transforms two depressed children—her very old-fashioned theory that has recently been recognized as a therapeutic practice. In the novel’s Misselthwaite Manor, an estate in Yorkshire, England, gardens are described as being set up in a series of outdoor rooms that literally have stone walls and wooden doors that lock, presumably to keep out animals and others who don’t have rights to food or flowers. Glancing through my beloved book this afternoon, I realized that gardens in my American city suburb are anything but walled and hidden. Quite a few people, like Joe and Sarah, have turned their front yards into working kitchen gardens. Fruits and vegetables and flowers intermingle, and in my particular section of North Baltimore, plants native to the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian mountains are widely encouraged, with transplants shared like bonbons by those in the know.

I enthusiastically visit public gardens and my neighbors’ yards with an appreciate eye. Until recently, I would say, “next year I will get serious about gardening.” Fortunately, I decided 2020 was going to be my serious year, and I had the foresight to start working last fall. Kay McConnell, a tremendous, environmentally oriented garden designer in my city, masterminded a backyard garden planted with natives that would thrive in the various conditions of my space; wet, dry, shaded, and sunny. Together Kay and I planted over 400 native perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees.

My garden’s baby dogwood is part of a group a woodland grove

Tulle protects strawberries in Debbie’s garden

In the past, I’ve grown a few herbs and capsicums and lettuce in a tabletop vegetable garden (often called a salad box). My husband built the structure in a weekend (yay!) and we filled its shallow pan with soil meant for raised bed gardens. It works fine, but it’s pretty small.

The “salad box” only has chives at the moment

I decided a few weeks ago to go a little bigger with vegetables. I began by making Zoom calls to accomplished gardening friends who had been eating from their gardens for years. I picked and chose from what they were doing. I see that almost all of my mentors have blueberries growing, some of them interwoven in floral landscapes; others set aside as little monarchs, walled off from intruders. When you plant things that taste good, you have to put in obstructions, if you want some of it for yourself.

Tom and Liz’s blueberry has to be fenced to keep it from the family’s chickens

No chickens are getting to Tom and Liz’s Stuttgarter mini onions!

I heard that blueberries are good in sandy soil, but I will spread them around to various spots to hedge my bets. The blueberries will be shielded from the birds by netting.  I don’t feel guilty, because there’s an open row of flowering chokeberry shrubs for the birds and anyone else. Apparently, squirrels and rabbits aren’t interested in garlic and onions, so I planted shallot bulbs and garlic cloves right in the dirt under the lilacs.

Betsy’s blueberry is artistically melded into a perennial landscape

Garlic and onions underground

I hope to harvest something for our family; therefore, most of our vegetable and herb plantings are on an elevated, gated deck just off our kitchen. This is the same location of the tabletop vegetable garden, and various pots of struggling tomatoes. And something new—dresser drawer garden. It’s just like it sounds. We drilled holes in the bottoms of the boxes for drainage, filled them, and put them on a granite workbench.

Dresser drawers hold shallots and radishes

I’m fortunate to live in a state with an early spring, and long warm summers that allow fruit trees like plums and peaches. Another blessing is that although my city of Baltimore offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and arts establishments and diversity of experiences, it also has city neighborhoods with trees and gardens and plenty of walking space.

If I plant marigolds, will it keep pests from my veggies?

How can I feel housebound when my garden has so many corners to spend time in—whether it’s to attack a patch of truculent ivy, or plant herbs and flowers in a pot, or hunt down dandelion leaves for salad? To stroll onto the deck and pluck a few chives to sprinkle over soup makes me feel wealthy beyond measure.

This spring, gardening books are piled high in the living room coffee table, next to my bed, and fill the shelves of the dining room. Still, nobody should feel they need a book to explain how to start growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The internet is full of help. For a non-commercial, knowledgable overview, check out the New York Times column by Margaret Roach, as well as her long running podcast, A Way to Garden. (The podcast episode I’ve linked is a discussion of the idea of a pollinator victory garden). Adrian Higgins, the longtime gardening columnist for The Washington Post, also writes inspiringly about modern victory gardens and many other topics.

The quarantine gives us room to breathe and get close to the soil. And that’s a victory in itself.

Gardening on Deadline

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

For too long, I’ve been lost in the LED-lit, indoor world of writing. Over the last month, I was intent on doing nothing else except finish a book.

It also happened that late November turned out to be the only time to plant a garden. Fall planting is easier on trees and shrubs that will get a good watering all fall and winter. Yes, I had a book due; but the garden also had to be installed, after having been delayed by several months due to Maryland’s unusually dry fall.

The garden and I have been at loggerheads before. My quest to unsettle a little less than an acre of city land began when I moved in with my family during the fall of 2012. The first thing we did was absolutely violent. We hired a company to drill four wells 500 feet deep inside our long, sloping lawn. The racket it made! The ash that spewed into the neighborhood air! The sky looked so gray over our street that somebody called the fire department.

Ah, the geothermal wells. They make it possible to have a modern air conditioning system where the air passes over the cold water, deep in the ground, and returns to the house. No chemicals, no excessive use of electricity.

From almost the start, our land has served us. But it has always been scraggly around the edges. Every spring I would be filled with inspiration that would trickle away about the time the mosquitoes settled in for feasting at the end of June. I wanted a garden full of native plants to support wildlife and suppress weeds. But how? The longer I fretted, the more the weeds spread.

Three years ago, I dug a small front garden myself with native plants, but it was such a hodgepodge without coherent flow that I wanted more assistance the next time I tried an improvement. This fall, I felt blessed to be aided by a native gardening education consultant/garden artist/all-around genius. Kay McConnell is well known in Maryland for the beautiful native plant gardens she designed and installed at the Friends School of Baltimore, Stony Run Meeting, and other spots.

Under Kay’s eagle eye, a weed-filled stretch running along the back of the property was cleared in late August as the site of our future rain garden. The clearing and regrading of the earths was done by strong men driving big machines. The new space they created wasn’t flat smooth dirt, but two raised banks surrounding a long basin. This would catch water that ran down our sloping lawn toward the lane. The saved water would feed the kind of plants like native iris and milkweed that like their feet wet.

As the dry fall turned into a rainy November, the prepared, empty garden space slowly became wet. Kay rooted through her native plant stock and area nurseries, looking for the best shrubs, trees, grasses and native perennials. A willow, magnolias and dogwoods were found, along with itea, bayberry, buttonbush, various ferns, swamp milkweed, oak leaf hydrangea…

The list went on. Over several days in late November, Kay unloaded shrubs and flowering plants and grasses from her car. The trees came in with European Landscapes and Design, the company that had done the original garden clean-up and preparation.

I recently heard a few different people use the phrase: “We go big, or we go home.” It’s a 2019 cliché. However, I could not deny that things were getting very big, right at my home.

I was thrilled to realize that every single tree, grass and shrub would feed local birds and insects. The garden design has woodland, meadow and swamp sections, with everything flowing together in an artistic manner, with fields of color, and high and low points. I found myself spellbound watching Kay. She is a true artist in the garden, arranging plants and rearranging them as the visual flow becomes apparent to her.

As I worked under Kay’s direction, I learned so much. She taught me how to plant a natural looking drift of small flowers. I absorbed the new thinking on weed control: don’t tug them out, which disrupts the earth and activates weed seeds. Instead, cut them close to the ground to weaken the plant.

I saw, through her eyes, how an aged stretch of asphalt pavers could become a dining terrace or site for a fire-pit gathering spot. And as my neighbors strolled along the lane that runs on the other side of the new garden, they had plenty to say. Michael, after visiting with us a few times, commented that he felt that spirits had entered the garden that were never there before.

And that’s how writing works, too. A bulky stone is chipped away to reveal the story hiding within. It takes time, but it’s always waiting for you.

And the thing about gardening deadlines is that the only one that really matters is set by nature. One can’t dig after the ground is frozen—unless, perhaps, you have a geothermal drill.

And putting a plant into earth does not guarantee it will emerge in the spring. That is the mystery I’m entering.

Love in the Library, Part I

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Magic Hour by Dirk Joseph in the Pratt window

Back in Grade One—about the time I stopped having to use my finger to read word by word—I fell in love with stories. I could not get enough of reading, and thank goodness there were libraries to sate my appetite.

Libraries were the place I, as an elementary school student, could make my own choices about what I wanted to take home. It wasn’t like going to a department store, where my mom ultimately decided if she would pay for the sweater I wanted. I didn’t have to get permission; and it didn’t cost any more for me to take out nine books or one. It was all free.

Baltimore’s Pratt Street Central Library today

Entrance to the business and science section

This aged etching on second floor celebrates poet Lizette Woodworth Reese

Baltimore’s Poe-inspired football team, the Ravens, inspired the color for the renovated Poe Room

I read so fast in those days I rarely was served with an overdue fine. My library in childhood was the Roseville Library in the Ramsey County, Minnesota, public library system. I still half-remember the kind librarian who thought I was lost because I was a ten-year-old walking very slowly the shelves teen section. I was glad she let me stay, because I really wanted to get my hands on every Rosamond Du Jardin romance on the shelf.

Almost all of us have public library branches in our towns, but this concept wasn’t an automatic right granted by city governments in the way that streets and schools and fire stations were.

Setting up a library was an expensive process, and in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gentlemen of means put in money to build libraries and stock them—and the borrowers were people of means who paid a subscription fee.

One of the most successful businessmen in 19th century Baltimore, Enoch Pratt, believed the city needed a “free, circulating library open to all, regardless of property or color.” His massive donation established a grand library that opened in 1886 with 32,000 volumes and an endowment of more than a million dollars.

The first batch of librarians at the Pratt

I got my library card here after I finished college and began writing for the Evening Sun newspaper, which was only four blocks away. I spent countless hours here on research in the Maryland Room, or browsing old books for sale at the annual benefit, and often losing myself in the fiction section.


Did I ever imagine I’d have my own book in the Pratt?

No way. I thought I would always be a reader, not a reader-writer.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve had the honor of being in the Pratt Library’s fiction section, in the M’s. I was there today and discovered the Pratt library has a book by me I didn’t know existed. No, it’s not pirated. The unusual edition of The Satapur Moonstone with striking blue hardcover is the LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Over the last forty years or so, the library’s grandeur slowly wore down. By that I mean the brass on all the doors dulled, the painted frieze going around the grand hall faded, and antique wooden furniture on the second and third floor became scuffed and dull. Due to increasingly limited funds from the state and city, such restoration was not in the cards for a library system struggling to stay open six days a week with enough money to pay workers and computer stations for users. Not to mention, the increasing costs of paper books, ebooks, and audiobooks.

A massive campaign to fund the library’s physician revitalization began under the visionary hand of the Pratt’s former CEO Carla Hayden (our current Librarian of Congress!). Heidi Daniel assumed the CEO role and is here to preside over the grand-reopening. I haven’t met Heidi yet, but I sense through her actions a commitment to making the Pratt Library a place where everyone feels welcome. We have another first—the Pratt is now one of the country’s first “fine free” libraries.

It is gratifying to see that in this restoration, the Pratt Central Library has not become a mausoleum or museum, but has revisioned some of the gracious spaces as special areas for people working on projects together. I saw doorways leading to large, open areas  for teen-only activities and for fine arts creation.

A major focus of today’s library is assisting people in bettering their lives, primarily through finding work. There are daily workshops around the Pratt’s 22 branches to help Baltimoreans with job hunting, resume writing and issues of justice.

Recently, Baltimore Style Magazine asked me some questions about my work. They wanted a suggestion of where to take my photo, and the Pratt Central Library sprang to mind right away. The picture that appeared in the magazine has me virtually dancing through stacks. If you follow the link to Baltimore Style, look for the digital magazine and start flipping: I’m on page 54.

Here is how this fashionable escapade unfolded on the mezzanine level of a large city library. The Pratt’s PR, Meghan McCorkell, did a very professional job with these two photos she snapped.

What an unnatural pose!

Modeling is as exhausting as writing!

I was back at the Pratt again today to renew my library card. The windows were full of gorgeous paper art commissioned for the opening. I hope these works are up for a long time, they are so gorgeous.

Sarah Jung’s Open Door shows a beautiful, bustling Pratt

Papercut art by Annie Howe celebrates the Pratt’s stance in the city

Up to the mezzanine and more novels

Street door detail in brass

Once my card was in hand, I tooled around the building looking at an old world made new. I also needed a book for my writing, so I asked a  social sciences librarian to bring up a particular book on police history that I’ve borrowed a few times. it’s not on the regular shelves, but in an underground (I think) archive.

There are some libraries that offer browsers access to the archive stacks—the Pratt is not one of them. I harbor fantasies of being allowed to wallow in these secret stacks, to see what other volumes on India I might fall in love with.

Do you have a library love story?

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.

Knocked Off Their Pedestals in Baltimore

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I cannot call myself a native Baltimorean. However, I’ve spent almost two-thirds of my life in this so-called “Charm City,” so I call myself one by conversion. I love my town.

When I arrived here fresh off the plane for college, I believed I was going to a Southern city—but I quickly reversed my thoughts, as I realized I was 3 hours from New York, 1 hour from Philadelphia and Washington DC, and almost everyone at school was from the Northeast. Yes, there were crabs that came from an amazing microclimate on Maryland’s Eastern shore, but the accents were nothing like true Southern accents. But evidence remained. Before the Civil War, Maryland was a slave-holding state—although its proximity to Washington DC put it on the Union side during the Civil War. 65,000 Marylanders fought for the Union while 22,000 joined the Confederate troops.

The Civil War ended with President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all people in the US from slavery. For some, that was a hard pill to swallow. All across the South, efforts were made to keep blacks from living free and dignified lives. Jim Crow laws established boundaries between blacks and whites. In Baltimore in the early through mid-1900s, Confederate organizations raised funds and got permits to put up four monuments to their past on public land.

But statues aren’t just placeholders in parks.

Earlier this month, a heavily-armed white supremacist rally gathered to carry torches and shout messages of hate at a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, that the city had voted to remove. “Unite the Right” brought together Nazis, the Klan, and new white supremacy groups. And then they turned on the peaceful counter protestors who’d come. One woman died and 33 people were injured during hours of violence where the police stood by. Although President Trump took it in stride, many people in the country were aghast.  And mayors and governors of Southern states realized that the monuments on their streets could very likely bring the supremacists to visit them.

Within days of the Charlottesville rally,  Baltimore’s recently-elected mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the monuments removed. Her action was received with relief by many Baltimoreans, including myself.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s statue stood at Mt. Vernon Place

This monument’s base has bloody-looking trickles of red paint

To the outside, the action to remove might have looked like a quick reaction, but it was a long time coming. Many activists in recent years have showed up to protest the Confederate sympathizers who chose to gather at the Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson monument during Martin Luther King weekend. As my friend who organized a silent vigil there over many years said, it was stressful for her children to see the people come to mourn the loss of slavery. It seemed like a slap in the face to do it during the King holiday, although the Confederates explained to the protestors they were doing it at the time of both Lee’s and Jackson’s birthdays.

Some people have suggested that removing the Confederate statues is an act comparable to the what the Taliban or Isis has done when they’ve conquered places. But these statues were erected many decades after the Civil War. They are not part of the city’s slave history. The organizations that erected them were shrewd to place them in the city’s most beautiful and prestigious locations, near museums and colleges where visitors to Baltimore would have to see them. The monuments were put up during times that whites were intent on pushing back civil liberties for racial minorities.

Baltimore tried to deal with the statues gently. They experimented with placing plaques next to the statues explaining this provenance—but the statues were still upsetting to people. A commission of Baltimoreans appointed by the previous mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, studied the issue and recommended removal of two statues, but to leave two in place with plaques of explanation. The two the commission decided to leave were the ones relating to Confederate soldiers who perished—rather than Roger Taney, the former Supreme Court chief justice who affirmed the right of slave owners, and Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous generals.

Why shouldn’t the statues remain with plaques of explanation? My mind was changed after I heard Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott speak. He said that slavery is a 9-11 for African-Americans. Allowing the statues of those who loved slavery is tantamount to putting up statues of the hijackers who hit New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. And these statues weren’t destroyed. Right now the removed statues are safely covered up and waiting on an undisclosed city lot. They have a future, somewhere.

I drove around last weekend to look at what was left of the monuments. The bases were still standing. Some of them had been hit with red paint that looked like blood, and others with graffiti.

On right, Cellis; to left are members of UXU, the multi-media organization that produces his videos

When I arrived at the site of the former Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument, I was intrigued to find a cluster of young men there. Several had cameras out, a boombox was playing, and one man sat atop the statue performing a rap song.

After the song was done, I met the rapper/songwriter, Cellis, who is a well-known artist activist. Cellis comes from Baltimore and has recorded strong songs outspoken on police brutality and gay rights. His new song will be a proclamation of resistance to white supremacy.

The Baltimore Sun’s photographers have photographed the statues and their sites before and after. See whether you think we suffered a devastating cultural loss. The Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts is inviting artists to create sculptures to stand where the old monuments were. A beautiful future, which we can’t yet imagine.

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.