we’d been talking for a long time about carving out a day, he and i and his pruners and loppers.
that’s garden talk for some very sharp edges.
my friend david knows what to do with a very sharp edge.
so he drove up today in his truck, dumped all his blades at the curb. gave me a hug.
can’t say i didn’t peek over his shoulder, made sure early on the blades weren’t part of the hug. that’s when i noticed the sharp edges dumped. squeezed a bit tighter there in that hug, once i knew the blades weren’t entwined with us, too.
david is one of my teachers. i tend to acquire teachers in the subjects i most love.
i’ve had teachers who taught me–still do–how to be a mother. and teachers who’ve taught me a thing or two about words, especially the art of cobbling them, one banged up against the next, making sharp edges with those strung-together alphabet letters, crisp corners. a snatch of poetry, too, here and there, every once in a while. or, well, trying at least.
i’ve a whole faculty when it comes to my garden, that holy sacred place that’s as close as i come to religion these days. like being in church, or a pew, or a temple on any shabbat.
dappled light in my chamber of prayer comes in, not through stained glass, but through deep-veined leaves, and the cracks in the fence.
preacher comes in the wren who warbles so clear and so true she makes my heart shiver. and my knees, too.
of all the heavens i know, the one place i most want to be on these golden-drenched days of september is out where the sun warms the earth that runs through my fingers.
it’s the one place where i hear the words of my soul rising in whole-body grace.
and, since tackling the woods and the weeds of my overgrown chapel is enough to knock me down flat, well, i reckon i could use whatever learning i’m offered.
and david, the son of a dairy farmer. david, a painter. a classical music freak. a chicago cop, for cryin’ out loud. david is a teacher i’ll take any day he’s free from the beat.
he’s one of those rare souls who, in between milking the cows and belting out arias, soaked up the latin and common names of just about every growing thing that ever there was–at least on the rolling prairies that stretch from just north of the illinois-wisconsin state line, clear down to the south side of chicago.
he knows where to plop a bush and make it look like it’s always wanted to be there. knows which way to turn a weeping, gnarled-spine hemlock, so you swoon when you come round the corner and your eyes rest upon its S-shaped parabola. knows which ferns like it dry, and which will tolerate a wee bit of wet under their toes.
so david came by today. spent the whole day, he and his loppers and pruners. i worked right beside. soaked in every bit of the lessons. and plenty of wisdom besides.
why, he started the day talking philosophy, launched right into how the underpinning of all gardens is the urge to control nature.
talked about how he particularly admires the english romantics, who understood from the start that it was all about the control thing. had no pretense whatsoever that a garden was in any way a natural endeavor.
“the post-modernists,” he continued, deadheading a daisy, “they like to think we’re returning to something, returning to nature. we’re not.”
he spewed stories everywhere we stepped in the garden. when he started in on the arbor vitae–that flat-branched evergreen that, in a semi-circle of five tall trees, like ladies lined up in big-skirted ballgowns that all these years have shielded our backyard from the brick house next door–he asked if i’d ever heard his no. 1 favorite garden tale?
i shook my head no, scrambling behind him, cutting up into sticks the long branches he was starting to pile high on the bricks.
he crunched up a fistful of the greens. told me to sniff, asked what i smelled. i started to guess, “pineapple,” not really sure why. but before i could sputter out the wrong answer, he told me the right one: “lemon,” he said.
only then, tipped off by the teacher, did i pick up on the citrus-y notes of a branch full of lemon.
he told me how back when the french explorers–jesuit priests, he made certain to note–back when they were trekking through the forests near the great lakes, and the winters were hard, and all sorts of illness was thinning their ranks, the native americans came along and taught those priests how to make a very fine tea of the evergreen branches. and how, because it turns out it’s higher in vitamin C than just about anything that grows in the woods, all the ailing explorers got better, and the jesuits, being big on latin, named the evergreen, arbor vitae, “tree of life,” because the trees and the teas had kept them alive.
it was that sort of day in the garden, where all day long i learned at the hand of david.
only the biggest lesson i learned, the hardest one too, the one that made my heart pound, and made me take a deep breath two or three times, was what he did with those very sharp edges, and the stand of arbor vitae, the ballgowns, that until today had spilled thick and deep onto the brick terrace out back.
he cut away at the branches down low. cut back the limbs only barely alive. the trees i’d thought were fat and full of crannies for all of my birds, he snipped away the skirts at the bottom. showed some leg.
the shaggy-bark trunks, strong-limbed architecture, really. he bared it. gave back a good two yards of terrace.
only i gasped at first when i saw what he’d done. nearly blinked back a tear when i noticed the pile. branches, bare, nearly bare. branches with plenty enough green to make it hard there to swallow.
but as the minutes wore on, i warmed to what i saw. discovered the beauty behind what turned out to have been false fronts; in all the nearly seven years i’ve lived here, i’d never seen that possibility before.
by day’s end, i realized just what david had done: he taught me, boldly, the essential lesson of life and pruning, cut back to bare essence. expose what’s at the heart of the matter.
only then do you discover the canvas for true beauty to bloom, to be planted.
as i drift off to sleep tonight, i’ll be deep in my woodland cathedral. imagining the dappled light. and the tender shade-loving creatures that i’ll tuck and tend there, where i never knew the space existed before.
it’s what happens when you wholly trust your teacher. when you don’t argue, don’t balk. but go with the lesson as it’s unfolding.
you discover the beautiful right before your eyes. where you never imagined it before.
the day has been long, the cutting deep. i have scratches all over, and plenty of scrapes.
i almost thought of not writing today, on this 11th day of the 9th month, the day none of us will ever forget. i walked out into the deep quiet of this morning. heard a plane overhead. couldn’t help but shudder. the man i married, when i told him i was thinking it might not be right to write today, maybe i should keep the silence, he said, ‘no, you have to keep living.’
so i cut and i learned. and now i wrote. day is done.
who are your teachers? and what are the subjects you love most? what lessons have you learned at the hand of a master?
p.s. dear david, profoundly: thank you.