Saturday, October 31, 2015

Garden harbingers

I mostly neglect my garden. A victim of my schedule and feelings of overwhelm, it sits and waits for some hand more loving than mine; I tried for a while, but couldn’t keep up.

Some of the neighbors remember Fred, the former owner of our house, who was out there every day, pruning, weeding, planting, clipping, mulching, and weeding again, always weeding. The weeds grow better than anything else, of course, even though Fred was a master of this space, making everything produce. His beds were so plentiful that he took plants from them and would sneak them into neighbors’ gardens.

Fred planted perennials, so our yard still echoes his labor every year: first, the crocuses that come just in time to remind us that the snow and ice won’t last forever; then the daffodils (jonquils) and tulips, hundreds of them, so astonishing that strangers have stopped to admire them, and I always tell them to take some home; then the lilies, of every size and color, the tall spiky ones blooming every year around my nephew’s birthday, the others just in time one year to take to a friend whose mother died; the hostas leaf out striped, with spikes of purple flowers, and the little shrub of something-or-other bursts into little yellow flowers that litter the driveway when it sheds in the early fall.

For the first few years we lived here, I took care of Fred’s garden, maintaining his flowers, pulling the weeds that grew incessantly. When our campus hosted Michael Pollan, whose book Botany of Desire claimed plants shape human behavior through making us desire certain things in them, I thought I could write a book about my garden called Botany of You’re Pissing Me Off. All I ever did was weed. I even had my picture in the paper one summer, the photographer driving down our street as I pulled the pests out of the ground. As I bent over, the lilies were up to my eyebrows, occasionally leaving rust-colored dirt on me that wouldn’t wash off.

But it’s been years since I spent a whole day out there, or even an afternoon. When a whim strikes, I will pull the deadheads after the daffodils are done, or clear the front bed of the dandelions that are a constant. We won’t use poison. And we don't have the man-hours it takes to pull everything out by hand. I imagine that our neighbors look at our yard and shake their heads: what is wrong with these people? I once cared carefully for a balloon plant in the front, and a bleeding heart in another bed, and the poppies near that, but they are gone now, all of them. I have repeatedly planted rosemary, but it doesn’t winter over here. We go away every summer; during the school year we're working too much. The garden has taken the furthest-back back seat in the station wagon for a long time now.

Probably the garden’s death knell was the grass. (How is it that I love the grass on the prairie, but hate it on lawns here in the woodlands?) We took out the black rubber guards along the edge of the garden that weren’t working very well and seemed to be wandering out of the ground on their own; we meant to replace them with a rock wall, or a brick wall, or something, until we found out how much it would cost. I turned my face away and tried to ignore it, finally giving Patrick permission to mow most of the beds in the front yard, more grass than flower anyway. Then he pulled up all the Echinacea in the other part, the still-flowered part, because he thought it was a weed. My heart stopped when I saw the emptied beds, the deed over and done, too late to try to show him the difference between the real weeds and the ones I wanted to keep. But I wasn’t taking care of the garden anymore, after all; what right did I have to complain?

The ornamental grass that sends up tassels when school starts...
Despite my neglect, I do look to a few plants this time of year for certain signs. In late summer, the ornamental grass by the driveway entrance puts out blooms when school starts, feathery tassels that lean as the stems wane from green to golden. There’s a large shrub by the front of the house; most of the year it is the most boring-looking thing, and we wonder if we should get rid of it—if it should be chopped down and dug out, like the boxwoods. This shrub is tall and rangy, and probably we should be trimming it. But the spectacle it becomes in the fall convinces me to keep it, and wish it taller, bigger. When the light fades in the evenings and the dry weather arrives, the leaves turn a red so bright you cannot stand to look at it for too long, a cranberry glow by the front window. I always wish it would hold onto those leaves a little longer, hold back the grey of winter.

It looks even brighter than this in person, like it's vibrating...
The tree out back—a magnolia, but small compared to the ones we saw in Atlanta—is our back yard’s drama queen. In early spring, we pet the fuzz that will turn into blooms, and when they arrive, you can catch their scent from the back stairs. But this time of year, I have to watch it carefully or I will miss its autumn transition. It’s just starting today: first, the leaves fade to yellow and brown; unlike the neighborhood maples, it will go all at once, the whole tree turning a pale gold. It's an achy beauty that is so fleeting. Within a day or maybe two, all of the leaves fall to the ground. The tree’s branches are naked, bereft, and the gold lies below, turning brown and decomposing.

The little magnolia, green-gold today...

I look to those two guardians, one by the front window, and one taking up the view out the back window, to show me the coming winter. I listen for what they’re telling me, trying to discern: is it something about decay, about the nearness of death? About what to do in the face of that fact? Am I to learn how to conduct myself as hardship approaches? Do I send out a flag, send up a flare, even as the energy in my roots returns to the earth, heading underground as ice hints its arrival? Is it something to know about singing as the end comes?

I don’t know. How could I know? So I listen.


P.S. It’s that time of year when I listen for my ancestors—the ones of blood and the ones of spirit, the formerly human kind and other kinds as well, the ones whose work sustains me and brings me art to try to learn and understand some things about being a being on the planet. I hope you get to talk to your ancestors, too. Happy Halloween!

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