The weather has finally cooled here a bit and I spent some time in an early morning being an earth mother in my front flower bed as my babies slept inside. It was time to settle my flowers for cold weather and tidy up the beds, clean up the rough edges and whisper them to sleep. They have been so good to me this spring and summer, my beautiful stemmed starbursts.
I don’t feel may age at all until I am finished working in my garden. Then, and only then, will my butt and thighs remind me I’m facing the downward slide to forty and I tell them to shut the hell up. When I have my hands in the dirt and I’m getting deliciously dirty all I feel is happy and timeless. All I’ve learned about being better, about growing up, I’ve learned from the dirt and blooms.
I’ve learned even the wild needs taming. There has never been any planning to my flower garden. From the time my son has been my baby’s age, when it came to planting time we would go to the nursery and he would freely pick whatever flowers he wanted — sometimes all blue, sometimes all tall, sometimes one of each kind — and I would buy them and we would plant. We would kneel together and dig little holes in the dirt and gently pat the seedlings in the ground, some would grow and some wouldn’t — all depending on my little helper’s help. He and I would anxiously watch them bloom, celebrate each flower and laugh how none of it match, celebrate its wild glory. Some people would scold how we had certain types together or how they were all annuals and thus we’d have to start all over the next year, but we didn’t care. We loved how it would all grow in wild tangles, the neat rows would creep together and vines would grow up bird baths. But then, as always, grasshoppers would come and eat leaves, leaving giant holes and a sad little boy. When he was older he would jump into that flower bed and catch as many grasshoppers as he could and get rid of them for me. I told him garter snakes eat grasshoppers and he would go out into the fields by our house and catch snakes for me and we would set them loose to feast. (After we played with them, of course.) I taught him about dead-heading, cutting back the dead in the fall, trimming and training — all so that the wild could continue.
Even wild things need to be tamed sometimes, if only so they can continue their wildness in another season.
I’ve learned that there can be danger in great beauty. Perhaps ‘danger’ is too dramatic of a word, but in the midst of weeding it can sometimes feel like it is dangerous. There are weeds that are deceitful in appearance because they are beautiful. We have the desert marigold where I live that blooms in the fall that looks very much like Black-Eyed Susans. I think they are absolutely gorgeous — but they are enormously menacing, growing up to two feet tall and become actual hedges. Desert marigolds are nothing, however, compared to an average gardener’s worst nightmare: morning glory. As many know, morning glory will grow deep and spread wide. Their roots will grow deep down into the earth, refusing to give up their grip. And yet, if you don’t pull out every bit of its root, the damn thing will grow back. The vine of the morning glory will spread far out along the dirt of the gardening bed, creeping out as far as it is allowed to, reaching to choke out anything in its path. The vine itself is quite pretty. There are delicate white flowers that will bloom. But allowing it to grow freely in the garden is dangerous for anything else that may be growing. I referenced the morning glory often to my son when he was approaching 13-years-old. I would compare the weed to dangerous things in this world, such as pornography and illicit drug use. When he works in the yard with me and sees me struggling with a morning glory, I will show him how long and thick the root is, and how quickly it grows from the previous time we’ve worked. If these bad habits and decisions are allowed to continue and grow they can be just as difficult to eradicate from his life. The most profound comparison he and I found was one particular morning glory I had to pull out. The vine on top of the dirt was very small, only creeping out about three to four inches, with perhaps five vines going in different directions. However the root itself went down into the earth at least a foot and a half, almost three inches at its thickest circumference. He and I had just talked about his commitment to school, making good choices with friends, setting goals, and how even small decisions can make long lasting consequences. It was like that morning glory grew just for him.
Even something looks pretty and innocuous, the effects can be pernicious and dangerous to the one enjoying the beauty.
I’ve learned there are times that I need to get through discomfort in order to revel in the joy. Not only do my thighs and butt hurt the next day after only a couple hours working in the beds, but early menopause has struck me. Hot flashes are God’s way of saying there will be no more baking of any more buns in that oven so there’s no reason to preheat it any longer. While I once could work comfortably and hardly break a sweat, I will now reach for one weed and start sweating in a gross, profuse way. I have become a disgusting woman. Sometimes I will put my hand in the dirt and find a spider, or worms, or other really nasty things that make my inner-squealy girl hyperventilate. (The worms don’t bother me, but anything else makes me dry heave.) Bees will buzz me aggressively and dirt will get in my eyes; I’ll have to use the bathroom when my hands are at their muddiest. Every. Single. Time. My knees will get bruised, scratches will appear, splinters from mulch, the smell of turkey-poop-mulch will make me sick, and of course, just when I think I have pulled every last weed I will always find one more. And the grasshoppers are vile creatures. They will sit still on the leaves, perched there staring at me. They are all legs and antennae, bulbous eyes and fat from my plants. I glare at them and they taunt me. I’ll work the dirt around them as they watch and I’ll mumble at them like I am insane — the insane woman grumbling at grasshoppers. Because I am, after all, kneeling in the dirt and grumbling at grasshoppers. And yet, the chore will be finished. I stand in the shower and watch the dirt puddle at my feet and then down the drain, always staining my fingertips just a little, leaving its mark. I know the ache will come later, but right then I sit on my porch and watch the neighborhood kids run around in their usual mischief-making. My garden is lovely and wild, a grasshopper will jump every once in a while, but I can sit there and smell how pretty it is. The flowers are bright and happy. Bees and the butterflies will vagabond around. It’s perfect. It wouldn’t be like this if I didn’t work at it, if I didn’t walk around in the dirt and let myself be free in it. The roots are nourished by me and my experiences, the flowers touch my heart and ease my struggles just as I touch their leaves and ease theirs. My joy is their joy; their brightness is my hope.
Joy doesn’t come freely at times. There will be times that I need to work for it in order for it to flourish.
Lastly, I have learned that there is such a thing as not feeling guilty in hopelessness. When I lost my baby, I planted my little wisteria tree. I loved that tree and it was to bloom in the front yard near the room that was to be my baby’s. It was a tiny tree but it had sweet swooping branches that fell over the top just as a wisteria should. When we first planted it the tiny little buds opened up revealing the little pink flowers and they smelled so sweetly. We had a horribly difficult winter that year; the season was long and icy, and much of the time my tree was covered in ice. I fretted over it the entire time, worried that it wouldn’t last. Once spring came it looked dead; we had a stick in our year with spindly branches poking out. But I didn’t want to give up and refused to have it pulled out. Finally it bloomed! I cried and cried over the first buds that popped out and how beautiful it filled out. It was still so tiny and frail, but I didn’t care — my tree survived the winter and I was positive it was a sign that it would thrive. But it didn’t. It had survived that terrible winter only to be squelched by a mild one. Again, I waited anxiously for it to bloom when it never did, searching for buds daily. Finally, my husband pulled it out and we replaced it with another wisteria. Again, it died after one year. I was devastated. When my husband was out of town, I made myself go to the local nursery and buy a new tree. This time I wouldn’t buy a wisteria, I told myself. I bought a beautiful flowering cherry. I cried the entire time I was at the nursery and the owner was so kind. He had it delivered that day for me without charging and even brought me another set of flowers. I had it planted. And it has died. It didn’t last through the summer. Again, the devastation was profound. These trees I have planted for my lost baby have all died, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I haven’t been able to get at least one tree to thrive. What was I doing wrong? Inside me I knew what I was really asking was, What did I do wrong to lose my baby? Of course I knew I hadn’t done anything, but the hurt is still there. Finally, I went back to the nursery and, again, the owner was so kind and so sorry my tree died. He came over to my home and looked at my yard and found where we should be planting our tree. The previous spot was at a low point in the lawn and my trees were being over-watered. My husband thought they weren’t being watered enough and would water them even more. My poor trees were drowned each time.
The path I have traveled the last few years have been marked with difficulties, despair and hopelessness. I have owned far too much guilt for things that do not belong to me. Hopelessness can just purely be a temporary state of being and not a consequence of action.
I grew up with a gardener who came once a week or so to take care of the yard work and heavier gardening responsibilities. My father always worked the flowerbeds and he still does. When I was younger I always thought that was weird because we already had Little Richard (as we called him), so why not have the gardener do it? I don’t know if my dad looks at gardening in the same way as I do, but I do know that he approaches gardening in a specific, methodical way and he enjoys it. So did my grandfather. Being out in the dirt is something we have done to escape the world and to get into the earth, to tame what was wild in just the right kind of way.