A bright, breezy morning, the air full of small chirping birds and distant yappy dogs. In my neighbor’s yard next door, a long strand of bougainvillea is reaching for the sky. Soon it will collapse under its own weight, which seems like a metaphor for something immense and important, but I can’t think what. Perhaps we all collapse under our own weight in this improbable universe.
Yesterday a friend came over and worked in my garden, an act of love and charity I can only admire and be grateful for. I used to love gardening, but haven’t been able to do much in recent years, so the garden is overgrown with weeds and out-of-control plants. Gardening and cooking are among the things age and back pain have forced me to limit. But of course I couldn’t let her do it alone.
My part began by the rescue of what I think are called “hens and chicks” that had been my mother’s. When my brother and I were cleaning out her apartment after she died, I couldn’t quite bring myself to toss them, so brought the pot back to my yard, where they clung to life despite years of neglect. Last fall, I looked at the pot and thought, I should throw them away or give them a chance, and stuck them in the ground, where they spread and prospered. Now, they were directly in the path of tramping feet of workmen who will be replacing our retaining wall next week. So, back into the pot they went,temporarily, I hope, if I can convince my eldest son and his wife to give them a home.
As I was digging up the hens and chicks, telling myself that’s all I’d do, I noticed some bedraggled chrysanthemums clearly succumbing to attack by tiny beasts and pulled them up with a single yank. Then I realized the Amaryllis belladonna that years ago had invaded from the neighbors’ were in the dirt the workers would have to remove to construct the new wall. They’re commonly called “naked ladies,” because their first sign is a great profusion of long narrow green leaves, which eventually die back and are superseded by long-stemmed glorious pink lilies. Right now, they’re in the leafing stage, so I cut back the leaves and dug up bulbs the size of my fist. And buried amidst them, an orange cat collar with a small bell, one of a consecutive line belonging to a neighbor’s cat, Vinnie, who discards them within days each time they’re replaced.
Then there was the giant jade plant, another of my mother’s orphans, the rosemary bush that’s gone woody and musty, and on and on. Before I knew it, I’d worked over an hour and when I finally threw in the trowel (sorry), was in so much pain I could hardly stand. But I’d done something! And my friend, cheerfully and steadily working her way through the weeds, had cleaned up an enormous area. We both beamed with satisfaction.
The places you live store memories, and working in my garden of 28 years brought back many. The bones of our beloved dog Bo are buried there. Hikes in the high country are memorialized by rocks my husband brought home that line the herb spiral. That old stump under the ironwood tree belongs to an Australian tree fern I nurtured from infancy to a height greater than mine. It shriveled and burned when the landlord of the house next door took down a magnificent Monterey pine because it “might” become a liability; the mourning doves who’d perched in it left the neighborhood. Cutting back the bare branches of the grape vine yesterday, I found they were dripping on my head and felt a little weepy myself.
Life forgives its depredations;
new-shaped by loss, goes on.
Luther Penn, our neighbor
still in our minds, will not
come down to the creek mouth to fish
in April anymore. The year
ripens. Leaves fall. In openings
where old trees were cut down,
showing the ground to the sky,
snakeroot blossoms white,
giving shine unto the world.
Ant and beetle scuttle through
heroic passages, go to dust;
their armor tumbles in the mold.
Broad wings enter the grove, fold
and are still, open and go.
–Wendall Berry, “1985 V” from Sabbaths