I’ve been taking great pleasure in the wildness of my little garden: the strawberries stretching out their runners at the end of their season, the black-eyed Susans spilling over the confines of their beds, the kale that was left to go to seed seasons ago still popping up in unexpected places. I’m not quite sure where the milkweed came from, though I suspect a seed packet left over from the wedding of a friend I no longer see.
I watch the plants closely, hoping for visitation, a reminder that life is precious even when it is hard, and that seemingly delicate creatures often possess the greatest strength. The caterpillar must go into the darkness of the chrysalis and unmake itself before emerging to dry its new wings. In late summer, monarch butterflies travel 2,500 miles to the forests of central Mexico, facing great danger and uncertainty along the way. The sad fact is that most will not survive the journey. The ones that do will arrive in time for the celebration of The Day of the Dead, where they are thought to represent the souls of loved ones returning home.
The garden is a constant reminder that life and death exist side-by-side. This year we lost the giant oak that had shaded my home for more than 60 years–the one that used to scrape my grandmother’s hands bloody as she fought to trim back the overgrown suckers. Without it my flowerbeds are drenched with new light. Each variety blooms for its season: snowdrops give way to daffodils tulips to lilies. But sometimes even the most preciously guarded plants succumb to disease or pests or an industrious squirrel finding its way through a chicken wire cloche. One year a rabbit made its way down my row of peas–the ones I ate greedily right off the vine–biting each one off at the root.
Despite their betrayal, it still stings when baby bunnies run from me. I want to live a gentle life, to believe that the house finches who built their nest on my lamppost know their babies are safe from me. But bravery is not a safe virtue for a rabbit. Even the most sustainable garden is a balancing act between preserving life and taking it. I have pulled countless weeds, and cutworms with my spade, and drowned aphids with my hose. None of us escapes this life unscathed.
Watching the sunset on my modest homestead I’m reminded of a quote from Tolkien, when Samwise the Brave is tempted by the power of the magic ring. “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden is swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.(1)” In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the only person able to surrender the corruptive ring of his own free will was a gardener.
If there is a seed of truth in every fairy-tale, I do believe that if more people valued friendship and the enjoyment of their own garden, whatever its size, the world would be a merrier place.
In my garden, I remember to give thanks to all the plants and animals who have given of themselves so that I may be nourished, clothed, and healed. I’ve come to appreciate things that once scared me. Spiders, centipedes, and even earwigs are now all welcome visitors. I’ve learned that even weeds have their place, spending an afternoon brewing dandelion tea and infusing oils with plantain and purple dead nettle. In the garden, I’ve come to see adversaries as allies and I wonder if this can be true in the wider world as well. I watch. I wait. I hope.
(1)Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. Part VI. Chapter 1
Photos from Kelly Topita