The Spiritual Gardener: Alpine Solstice, Maritime Solstice

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Circumstances so arrange themselves that, on the longest day of the year, we find ourselves deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, at the foot of the great gray wall of the Continental Divide, in fact. We are visiting our daughter, who has landed a great summer job as a horse wrangler and kid counselor at a high-end dude ranch for well-to-do city slickers. The ranch is very beautiful, and she seems very happy there, introducing us to one horse after another, and describing the personality of each. We take her out to dinner miles from the ranch in the resort town of Winter Park and sit outside on the restaurant patio, eating dinner and altogether enjoying the dying sunlight of the solstice, long after eight o’clock, vowing together to remember this golden moment half a year later in the darkness and cold of Christmas week.

I delivered myself of a long-winded, closely reasoned parental discourse artfully arranged to prove something our daughter did not particularly wish to hear, I forget what it was exactly. Her not wishing to hear it, though, I remember plainly, because after listening to me politely while I rabbited on for some time and then finally came to the end of my tiresome oration, she cheerfully replied with her famously devastating one word dismissal: “False!” And that was the end of my credibility and influence on that point, whatever it was. She is a marvel of willfulness, this daughter of She Who Must Be Obeyed, I thought to myself, and I wonder where she gets it.

The Continental Divide at the summer solstice. Sometime parental and natural epiphanies come when we are lest expecting them.

I remember once we were having breakfast at a restaurant when she can’t have been much older than twelve years old, and I admonished her to break her bagel in half before applying cream cheese to it. “Why?” she asked, not really interested, but only mildly curious.

“Because,” I explained patiently, “it’s traditional good manners to do that. You always break your bread in half before putting something on it; it’s just the right thing to do.”

“Well, I think it’s dumb, and you are going to have to give me a better reason that that,” she said.

“It is simply what civilized people do. If we do not keep up the standards of civilized people, then civilized life as we know is doomed to come to a bad end and collapse into a lot of heathen people eating their bread any old way and without any regard for tradition and propriety,” I waxed on, warming to my theme a little too much. I probably carried my point a bit too far in predicting the end of civilization; I admit it now. She stared at me hard a moment and then, never taking her eyes off mine, coolly applied the cream cheese defiantly to the unbroken bread and ate it with extra satisfaction. Ah yes, as I say, a marvel of willfulness.

One of my favorite combinations that says high altitude forest to me: blue spruces, delphiniums and Shasta daisies.

We part with her on this day reluctantly, knowing we will not see her again this summer and feeling the poignant pangs that every parent knows in saying goodbye to our not-quite-emancipated children. Then we drive away over Berthoud Pass. Often this difficult mountain pass is treacherous, especially in winter, but this particular evening, it is magical. First, we see a regal moose, of all things, at the edge of the forest not far from the road, and what a spectacular sight this is. But it is nothing compared to what awaits us as we crest the long winding pass and get a full, horizon-to-horizon view of the mountainous spine that is the Continental Divide: a sheer wall of pale green tundra and jagged gray stone heights far above timberline, overtopped by fleecy white clouds that are peeking over from the other side of the divide, boiling high up into the heavens above the ragged dentition of the angular peaks. All this fantastic geography is lit in roiling pinks and yellows by the pale fire of the fading light of the longest day, and the scene is utterly fantastic.

Strangely, like a dream sequence, there is no traffic on the pass, and this amazing light show on the top of the world seems to be put on for us alone. We actually decide to pull over and watch the show, amazed and grateful. After a time, we get back on the road. We don’t speak, but descend slowly from this empyrean height, feeling like Zeus coming down from Mount Olympus, solemn and pre-occupied, and every turn of the steep and winding road brings to the hungry eye a new vista of this magnificent tableau. It is like a vast canvas by the western painter Thomas Moran, the pink and gold light painting and repainting the scene in infinite variety. Eventually, we reach the lower regions of the valley at the bottom of the pass; the light of the dying solstice is now lost and the landscape returns to normal, from celestial to merely terrestrial. We return to our daily lives, but we are slightly transformed interiorly.

Columbines are everywhere at high elevations in early to mid-summer in many colors, but with simple yellow predominating.

The next day, we fly back to our home in the east, and late that night, I am sitting alone in the garden on the border of the dense, dark forest that is on the other side of our garden fence. We have been gone for more than a week, and in that time, the fireflies have come out in great number. And I see the dark forest is lit with literally hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of them. It glitters and sparkles with their twinkling lights, as if the entire forest had been bedecked in our absence with a myriad tiny fairy lights. I walk over to the garden fence and peer deeply into the forest, sparkling with the brilliant firefly lights. And I think about these two lights of the summer solstice, one alpine and one maritime; I pack them carefully into my memory, hoping to carry their light with me for a long time.

I shrug off my melancholia, take one last look at the glittering, sparkling dark forest, and go back inside, where I find that my wife’s mind is operating in this same wistful, parental groove. I know this without her saying anything, because she is making one of her ultimate comfort foods, cheddar cheese popovers. And so we sit down for a quiet dinner together, just the two of us, with the Popover of Consolation.

And this is what they look like when they are done, full of bacon and cheesy goodness. We all need comfort food every now and then, and the Popover of Consolation is just the thing for parents who are feeling the distance between them and their absent children. And for other hurts too, of course.

The Popover of Consolation

4 Tbsp. butter, melted

1 cup flour

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper

1 cup whole milk

3 eggs

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese

½ cup grated Velveeta cheese

2 cups frozen broccoli, thawed and drained

16 saltine crackers, coarsely crumbled

4 pieces bacon, cooked and chopped

Pre-heat oven to 375. Spray 6 cups of a popover or muffin pan with vegetable spray. Drizzle half of the butter in the bottom of the 6 cups. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and pepper. In another bowl, whisk together the milk and eggs. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk for two minutes, then whisk in the cheese. Fill each cup 1/3 full with the batter. Divide the broccoli evenly between the 6 cups, then cover with the remaining batter. Top the popovers with the crumbled saltines and the bacon, then drizzle the remainder of the butter over the tops. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 and bake for 12 more minutes. Remove from oven and allow popovers to set for 10 minutes. Serve warm.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.