While I have many ideas and starts of blog entries floating around on various bits of loose paper, what is really on my mind today is the garden. The perennials are in full swing and I’m trying to plan our small vegetable garden to get the most bang for the buck. Last year we gave up the 12 foot, self-inflating kiddy pool and replaced it with a vegetable garden. Admittedly, last summer was not the best summer to start gardening in earnest. In past years, with the exception of a few tomato and pepper plants, I have resigned myself to the farm stand and believed it wasn’t worth our while to grow vegetables on our city lot. The gardens of my childhood were football field sized plots. However, a couple of summers ago, my brother and sister-in-law reminded me what just a couple of containers or raised beds could produce. They grew enough cucumbers to supply the city of Worcester.
I started this piece on gardening last year. My thanks to Mike, Jim, Sue and Ed, my first readers. Hope you enjoy the essay. I’d love to hear about your gardens and gardening adventures past and present.
All the World’s a Garden, Part I
“One tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.”
My first garden was a woodland bed of bones—a patch surrounded by ferns and wildflowers—that belonged to me alone. I dug with brittle sticks of pine and curved stones and planted broken winged birds, bits of fleshy babies fallen from the nest. Even as I set their downy bodies, pulled taut by death, into the ground, I closed my eyes and imagined my touch could broadcast them back into the sky. A fern’s finger against my arm became the brush of a gray jay’s wing as it took to the sky.
I was a cultivator of dead things. What grew were bones turned into the waxy, ghost-like figures of Indian Pipes bent and mourning over my crosses of bracken and vine. Planted white feathers became white wood anemone and white starflowers fallen from the sky. Chipmunk eyes that lost their earthly luster turned into the sunny faces of wood sorrel. The pink-purple wild geranium sprung from the cheerful jumping field mice I had sown in the fall. I suppose I learned this vocation at four years old when I played in the Riverside Cemetery as my father dug graves. A living breathing person here today, would be grass tomorrow—or a vole tunneling around the tombstone, or a cloud of dandelion set on a breeze.
While I toiled at tiny graves in my woodland garden, sunlight dropped around me dappling the trees and ground. I was too young to mourn using the names of the creatures I had planted; I didn’t know them, or the names of the woodland flowers that sprouted from their graves. Names were not important, but I learned that all living things were connected, made of the same substance, which I also could not name. But, what touched the sky, touched the earth, what touched the earth, touched the sky.
My Graveyard Garden was only one of many sacred plots on Grover Hill, Bethel, Maine in which I cultivated time, space, and infinite room in which to dream. There was also the Stream Garden, best to visit at the end of April. Quickly crusts of snow and ice became a well of life pouring forth from the earth. The banks of the brook burgeoned with skunk cabbage unfurling royal robes in front of courtiers of trillium: purple, yellow, and painted, waving in triplicates. I searched for Jacks stretching awake inside their pulpits and for little trout lilies with their smooth, mottled arms and yellow petals curling back like manes of sun from their brown faces. Delicate and cheerful, they smiled just for me as I pealed off winter layers and joined them in the frigid stream. To my delight, orange jewelweed occasionally erupted in mini orchid-like volcanoes.
The sun made easy passage through barely budding trees lighting the lava of jewelweed. Already it was hard to remember the frozen brooks, and the mounds of snow, sometimes ten feet high, by the roadside. In May the roadside produced clumps of illusive pink, aptly named mayflowers that I sought with my grandmother. Beneath our feet vines snaked along the sandy bank promising the sweet wild strawberries of June that we would harvest in tiny tin cups for hours at a time with our knees soaked in dew. The strawberries would leave way for loosestrife and mullein, who in turn would bow to the treasure of amethyst asters and goldenrod before the snow returned completing nature’s 360 by Grover Hill Road.
Mullein, a relation to the snapdragon, also grew by the driveway and our back door—giant specimens with fuzzy, gray-green basal leaves and one great spire spotted with diminutive, yellow fists of flowers, like desperate Rupusels locked up in a tower. My father harvested the large oblong leaves, washed and dried them. In the winter, he made a tea for me when I had a cough or the beginnings of pneumonia. Mullein, a “lung plant,” is sometimes smoked as an alterative to tobacco. Though I don’t think my father ever enjoyed any, its smoke is said to have euphoric properties and to actually be good for the lungs.
Across from the Roadside Garden was another uncultivated swath of land dotted in wild flowers and ever in flux. Some of the tall roadside inhabitants could be seen visiting, but the primary patrons of the field were the clovers, red and white hosting honeybees, and the wandering vetches, cow and crown. The clover and the vetches seemed like close cousins to me and the bees, though according to botanists they are not—the vetch is a member of the legume family. We sat for hours plucking the course hair from the heads of clovers and sucking out the sweet nectar. We tramped through the field frequently to see what new guests had arrived over night: burdock, buttercup, hollyhock and Queen Anne with her parasols of lace. My favorite: Indian or Devil’s paintbrush. By either name, this wild flower, reminded me of my father for both the heritage he proclaimed and his profession. Their random orange spark could ignite a summer field like my father’s temperament often ignited our atmosphere. How dull when they were not near; I was left is to chain daisies or press them between the pages of the dictionary, daisies common and plentiful as classmates at school.
In fact, Milkweed was the first field flower I remember witnessing on its journey from spring to fall. Before we moved to onto Grover Hill, we lived on lower Main Street across from my good friend Chipper Gasser. Chip and I frequented the meadow by the railroad tracks. My grandmother called this area of Bethel “the old pasture”. Little did I know as a child that my great-grandfather had kept his cow here, and that my grandmother tended her own graveyard for birds and bugs with her childhood friend. I imagine they held buttercups under each other’s chins to see if they were in love, or plucked petals from daisies, he loves me, he loves me not. Generations later, in this very same grassy expanse, Chip and I noted that the previously pink bunches of flowers that stood behind the S.A.D. #44 bus depot, had been replaced by dry paisley-like, warty pods on brittle stocks.
One late afternoon, my friend and I sat braking open the Milkweed to find the white summer juice of the plant disappeared. Suddenly, above us, came the dull hum of an engine like a swarm of bees, then a dozen strangers falling from the sky. “Let’s get outta here,” Chip suggested, tugging at my elbow. But I had frozen at the spectacle of figures growing larger and larger above us. They looked like the miniature army men you could buy at Brown’s variety store that had wax paper parachutes tied to their backs. As I sat contemplating the toy, a long narrow shadow of a man fell between Chip and me.
My father appeared, backlit by the setting sun. “Green Berets,” he said, answering the silent question intimated by our open jaws. Before we turned to go home, Chip and I peeled open the milkweed pods and liberated hundreds of seeds with our stubby fingers. We watched them drift away on silky threads until, like the men, they disappeared into the tall grass.
At four and five years old, Chip and I were townies. He lived in the historic Sudbury Inn across the street. His back yard was a parking lot for guests’ vehicles, but all the world’s a garden to kids. We’d find a place to get our fingers in the dirt. Overlooking the field by the tracks, at the dead end of Back Street (officially named Clark Street), sat Harlan Hutchinson’s house and yard. Here Chip and I had our first experience as cultivators of the earth, which led to my first brush, if you can call it that, with the law.
I blame it on the sun, that after a biblical amount of rain, made an appearance. Eager to escape the confines of our homes, we met in the street. Soaked in the smell of wet tar, Chip and I searched each puddle. Any worms that didn’t look like inner tubes, we returned to their earthy homes. (It was one of nature’s great mysteries that rendered the happy, blind dirt dwellers drown in an asphalt pool.) Eventually, we reached the end of the street. In between the last two houses, a stream had materialized where once only green grass had been. I don’t have to tell you about the thrill that running water brings a child. Chip and I grabbed acorn caps, bits of bark, and small white pebbles to race down this virgin waterway.
Soon, we found the stream too sluggish and dug with sticks and our cupped fingers like backhoes until we had made a glistening brown gash in the grass. Along the banks, we planted acorns, catkins, and leaves in the freshly excavated sod. We loomed— wet, muddy and proud creators—and thought we’d made something like the Colorado flowing through the Grand Canyon. It must have looked like this to old Mr. Hutchinson too, for he flew at us from his front door with fists wildly beating the air. “You two kids get outta hea! I’m gonna to call the cops on you! Outta hea!”
The cops! Chip and I raced back down the street. He pealed right; I pealed left. I can only imagine he did exactly what I did—dove under the covers where I’d remain for the rest of the day trying to exorcise the image of Mr. Hutchinson’s flushed face from my memory.
When I surfaced for dinner my father rattled on about taxes and property and boundaries, yada-yada…bla-bla. What I understood was, I would have to find my very own place to dig. This land was not my land from California to the New York Island.
Not long after this incident my father began restoring and tilling my great-grandfather’s old vegetable plot on Grover Hill. Our cabin wasn’t in the works yet, to my knowledge, but our plan to move up under Sparrowhawk Mountain’s watchful eye was. While my father limed and rotor tilled the garden, I found my own secret gardens of lilac and bamboo, which would be special places for years to come.
There were two patches of bamboo. One sheltered my grandparents’ log camp from the road. But five feet from the camp, the neat rectangle of bamboo covered the old threshold to the former Lyon homestead and had a carpet perfumed by Lilly’s of The Valley, my grandmother’s favorite flower for their sweet innocence. With its confines of tightly clustered stalks like bars, the bamboo was like a jail or a cage. I placed myself in the bamboo’s grip when I had been scolded on rare but unfortunate occasions. The solitude and natural air-conditioning properties provided by the ever green canopy weren’t too stiff a punishment. There was another lager patch of bamboo like a jungle that grew across the street on our land near the vegetable garden and the knoll. The bamboo here was not as dense, but shot up in a long narrow strip abutting the woods. I loved to run through as fast as I could, the bright green-yellow stalks rushing past in my peripheral vision, a high pitched swit-swit-swit of long, slick leaves against my sprinting body. I was transported to an exotic land, Asia perhaps, where a fierce white tiger pursued me. Sometimes I imagined that a stranger would bust out of a fat bamboo stick and we would run from the tiger together.
Not all days bred adventure, and that was okay. I held communion in the sanctity of the lilac bushes. The stand of lilacs on the southern slope of my grandparent’s lawn perched on a high bank overlooking the brook and the old spring where in the mid 1800’s a one-room schoolhouse stood. The hedge of lilacs spanned approximately forty feet long, twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. This cluster of bushes reminded me of a gathering of ancient wise women. Inside their filigreed ceiling and walls of lavender, existed a presence entirely hallowed and female. Through the years on Grover Hill, these bushes spoke in fables and allegories. I spent hours in the labyrinth of lilacs wending my way toward communion with infinity, listening to or making up stories.
There were other gardens still, like the Moss Garden at the base of the orchard, a veritable botanist’s buffet of mosses and lichen: sphagnum, peat, haircap, reindeer and pyxie cups. There was the Pond Garden lit with lilies, etched at the edge in arrowroot, and surrounded by blankets of tiny bluets. On its brown surface, rested the sky transposed against clouds of frog’s eggs, seeds suspended in gelatinous matter. And on the lawn the most common yet wild and hardy flowers of the garden grew—the dandelions and the violets? Sensitive child that I was, I lamented the first mowing of my grandparent’s big lawn. It was a massacre of purple—a butchery of yellow dandelions that would never provide greens or produce wine. To this day I ask my husband to postpone the spring mowing of our city lawn. “Let the violets live,” I plea, until his embarrassment gets the better of him.
I name and label these sacred plots of land now to remember and honor them, but as a child the naming of flowers and spaces was not only unnecessary, but somehow erased some of nature’s unspeakable magic—natural spaces of security in which to dream. From the multitudes of childhood gardens sprang the fertile grounds of my imagination where I daydreamed, communed with the universe, and learned about the cycle of life and death and the connection between all things.
To be continued…