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Category: lessons from the garden

weeds: necessary diversion, and a wallop of wisdom besides

weeds 2weeds 3weeds

welcome to my weedy world. in which, overnight, the overpopulation of unsolicited, uninvited and unbeckoned trespassers has left the invited assembly of little darlings in my beds gasping for air, shrieking for rights, and without so much as an inch to shake out their gangly roots.

furthermore, it’s left me — the one-armed gardener — at the mercy of the zillions of tensed-up muscle strands that striate my way-down back, the ones over-used to make up for the current lack of pulling power in my left-sided yanker, the limb whose bones are deep at work knitting themselves back into a whole (or so we hope, but that’s a worry for another day…).

which is to say: no one around here is all too tickled at what’s become of springtime’s fragile promise, when the gardens were soft with tender shoots, tight-wadded commas of fern, and unhyphenated stretches of loam as rich and dark as a fine espresso.

the interlopers all slipped in whilst i was otherwise occupied. and then, once i slipped on my nifty little reading lenses (those clear-eyed windows to the world that, more and more, are mandatory lest i choose to take in the view in one big blur), i realized that all the lush foliage upholstering the gardens was not some miracle of my growing skills, but rather the mere recalcitrance of a bumper crop of weeds who took advantage of my oblivion, blew the whistle and let the gallop to the clouds commence.

why, i’ve got itty-bitty maple trees growing smack-dab in the midst of hosta clumps. and ash trees dare to squiggle through the peonies, not yet in bloom. some stinky cousin of wild fennel has set out to overtake the yard, never mind the grass that’s in its way. and dandelions? i might as well call a truce, and snip it by the gallon as i’m told it makes a fine — if bitter — late spring salad.

i was lamenting all this overgrowth when margaret roach — she of martha stewart gardening fame, and author of a weekly newsletter (awaytogarden.com) that plops into my mailbox and bolsters my sagging gardener’s gloves — dropped in to let me know i was hardly alone. she too was moaning about “the shaggies,” the inevitable season of demise when what was tender, was confined, was obeying all your garden visions, suddenly dissolves into mad dishevelment, and you’ve nothing left to do but sit and weep. or start yanking.

i yanked.

and now, hot showers ought to be my hourly balm (alas, i’m afraid of the water bills). were i to do as the doctor ordered, i’d aim the pulsing shower beads bullet-like onto my low back, and wait for the occupational spasming to pass.

in the meantime, my yard is littered with the dehydrating remains of all that threatened to do in my beds. and still there are hours left to wrestle with the tangled roots and stubborn vines, the voluptuous leaves that all but stick a thumb into my fool-gardener eye and taunt, “catch me if you can!”

i’ve mostly been attacking in spurts — for that’s what you do for distraction when you’re pounding away on a keyboard for hours on end, worrying ceaselessly about whether a comma belongs here or there, and trying to drum up a substitute word for one you realize you’ve pushed past its limits.

and during those quarter-hourly sessions, i’ve had plenty of minutes to contemplate the virtues of subtracting from our over-clogged lives whatever it is that tangles our own inner works.

for, in the end, isn’t the zen of gardening all wrapped up in the fact that we extract our life lessons from earthworms and bees, from snapped-in-two stalks and beloved perennials that, after years of sheer joy, suddenly and without notice give up the ghost?

it’s why i muck in the dirt, really.

oh, sure, my heart does a thumpety-thump when at last i awake to the morning when the peony bursts into deep fuchsia bloom. or when the blue of baptisia wafts in the afternoon breeze.

but the truth of the matter is that i pay attention to the beds because i am so deeply hungry for all the wisdom contained there. and i soak it all up like a sunflower guzzling what shoots from the nozzle.

weeds aren’t too complicated (even if obliterating them from the premises verges on the impossible): they threaten the beautiful. they inhale too much oxygen. and drink more than their share of the rain.

so, too, the parts of our life that all on their own might hold merit but in rambunctious abundance distract us from the holy essence. keep us from getting our own best job done. whether that means signing up for so much PTA, we barely have time to curl up with our babies at bedtime. or taking on so many sentences we’re shoving aside the chance to soak up an afternoon’s stroll with a friend who’s in need. or merely surrender our quieted heart for as long as it takes for a blessed whisper to settle in and remind us of the very thing we need to know to go forward.

over the years — truth be told, it’s taken a good half century — i’ve discovered the wisdom of no. of not scribbling my name on every sign-up sheet passed under my nose. of not filling my hours with command performances that wither my soul. of not living my life as if a girl scout going for badge after good-camper badge.

i suppose — after years of trial and error, of skinned knees and bare-truth confessionals — i’ve learned a thing or two about keeping the weeds out of my days.

and now, it’s the ones hijacking my yard that i’m hellbent on yanking.

on the subject of weeds, i ought to pass along this soon-to-be-published encyclopedic compendium, weeds of north america, which dominique browning described thusly in last sunday’s new york times book review: 

“If you’re someone whose idea of perfect bedtime reading is “Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs,” you’re in luck — a bumper crop of excellent reference books is on its way. The encyclopedic WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (University of Chicago, paper, $35; available in August), by Richard Dickinson and France Royer, is going to have pride of place on my bedside table for years to come. It covers more than 600 species from 69 plant families at every stage of growth. Royer’s photographs are almost perversely alluring. They make you want to go out and plant weeds. Which, er, actually I do.”

and now the week’s question, which you might answer here or merely in the quiet of your own heart: if you were to weed the messiness out of your life, where might you begin the yanking? 

 

my not-so-secret garden

i’ve been under the spell, i do believe, since that long-ago sunday when i should have been in church. but instead, i rubbed the thermometer on my bedsheets, allowed the friction there to be my accomplice in the charade of sunday-morning fever.

now that the statute of limitation’s surely well expired, i can confess my sin at last: i’d feigned the fever so i could stay in bed with the book that stole forever my heart, (and, apparently, my soul) and, yes, my whole imagination.
twas then and now, frances hodgson burnett’s “the secret garden,” with pen and ink and watercolors by my enchantress, tasha tudor.

twas the book that took me down the sinner’s path, and opened up a lifetime’s looking for, believing in, the dappled path to paradise.

oh, who could go to church, sit stiff in wooden pews, when instead i might tiptoe along behind orphaned mary lennox as, at last, the robin redbreast showed her the long-lost key to the long-locked little door that opened into the long-still garden, where once upon a time heartbreak happened and the old once-beautiful garden was left to die of sorrow.

indeed, instead of whispering my morning prayers, my heart leapt up and out of me, traveled off to english countryside. was there inside the garden walls, where ivy hung, “a loose and swinging curtain.” peeking through the “fairy-like gray arches” of the climbing roses, tangled over trees in slumber, swinging down in “long tendrils which made light swaying curtains.”

so it says on pages 92 to 96, where i barely breathed the first time through, nor just now as i read again the words that birthed in me a life’s-long enchantment with secret nooks and crannies where fairies dart from leaf to leaf, and robins lay their sticks, their curls of birchbark, where sky-blue eggs are laid, are hatched, where wee small beaks just barely make a chirp when mama comes with worm.

oh, i am enchanted, yes, by the secret garden.

and just beyond my kitchen door, where a summer ago and long before, was gnarly bush and weeds that grabbed you by the knee, there seems to have sprouted a patch as enchanted as any i have ever known.

i cannot keep myself from there, where fronds of fern tickle me on the shin, and hydrangea drapes before my nose. i’ve a curly-barked maple that is home, already, to the robin and the red bird.

just this christmas past, i discovered tucked between a weeping hemlock and that maple a bird-house bench, one built for me by my beloved friend, jim the builder, and left one afternoon before a giant snow blew in. i had no clue it was there, till two days later, when, out shoveling before the dawn, i caught a glint of early-morning sunlight shining off the copper-topped birdhouse peak. and there, with snow cascading down, i wept. overtaken by the tiptoeing-in of the humble builder who had faith i’d find his gift and hadn’t thought to pester me, inquire, had i found it, had i found it?

ever since, it’s my preferred spot for taking mugs of steamy morning coffee. or mid-day lemon waters. or sips of wine, as sun’s long last rays bid the garden, “good day.”

or, if i can’t bear the few-steps walk to the bench, i might plop my bottom on the blue-stone stoop, just beyond the kitchen door, just down from where the basil and the thyme and the flat-leaf parsley grow in the wooden box along the windowsill. sitting there, i am eyeball-to-eyeball with the butterflies that land in the unnamed bush, or atop the country mailbox that holds my garden gloves and clippers.

and, best of all, my meandering walk, with blooms of creamy white and fronds and leaves of grayish-green and silver-green and almost lime (who knew how many shades of green there are?), at last has the proper entrance i have dreamed about, well, forever and ever.

there is now, at the south end of my not-so-secret garden, a perfect arch, with arbors on the side, and bentwood top, where you might look up and watch the clouds, the sun, the stars, play peek-a-boo.

not yet do the roses ramble up.

but they will.

old roses, dusty pink, tissue-paper vintage roses. the ones from storybooks and block island, that faraway place a ferry’s ride from rhode island’s coast where winding lanes are lined with old stone walls and miles of rather ancient roses have been forever rinsed by sea-salt breezes, so the color’s nearly drained, and just a whisper’s left of palest oyster pink.

it is the place i’m drawn to morning, noon and dark at night. i’ve been known to stand there watching moonbeams on the mopheads of hydrangea. i tiptoe out before the dawn, just to be alone, to absorb the misty earth in morning prayer. i dart in and out all day, watch the light play shadow games.

we each, every one of us, need a secret sacred place to hope and dream and cast our prayers on passing breeze.

those of us who scatter seeds of holiness, who tuck them in the loamy mounds of garden, we are blessed with bursting forth of bulb and branch. we endure the heartache of the dying stalk, the one we cannot resurrect, not with all the love and faith we know how to muster.

there are lessons to be taught from every garden and the paths that meander through.

and, oh, to be among the ones who understand the volumes of truth nestled there among the trailing vines, the fairy-like arches and the light swaying curtains that come in many shades of green.

oh, to be grown up and, after all these years, still hold dear the secrets of the garden. even when it’s not so secret, after all.

bless you, holy garden.

where is your secret sacred place? the plane of pillows by your window? the armchair that wraps around you? the middle step on your front stairs? or perhaps you too have a slice of enchantment that grows just beyond your kitchen door, or way out back where no one knows you hide?

we are deep in festivity here at this old house, with birthday on top of birthday, a whole pile-up of cakes and candles, and digits clicking ever forward. today’s the one that belongs to the father of my boys; two days from now, my little one turns nine. just day before last, my most beloved brother david blew out candles right alongside the nation’s president. and two days before that my papa would have been 82. thirty years ago he died. be still, my ever-broken heart…..now healed enough to love and laugh beyond my wildest dreams…

of promise, once again

they beg no attention.

they are, simply, bent. bowed in humble salutation, yellow heads drooped, petals clasped in chilly huddle. there beside the soot-stained crust of snow.

they neither stamp their feet, nor clap their wee appendages, calling scant attention to the fact that they defy the icy crystals, heave big load upon their tender shoulders: they are the harbingers of heartbeat, of promise, once again.

“there will be stirrings just around the dreary bend, what is bleak will end,” they whisper, should you put your ear to where the words emerge.

oh, i never can remember what their name is, at least according to the botanists. instead, i call them “miracle,” balm for winter blahs.

as these last gasps come from all of us, come from earth, come from sagging spirit, as the wonder of the winter white turns to mucky brown of spring-that-will-not-come, i seem to forget every year to watch for them.

they leap out while i’ve not noticed, have done their work beneath the snows, labored in silence, unfurled without witness.

they are, like so many gracenotes along the way, that hushed brush of the divine–so often cloaked as mother earth–that present themselves at the very moment when otherwise we might succumb, throw up our arms and flop defeated to the couch.

there is, if you keep watch, a holy vein of resurrection all through life.

just when we think we’re broken, along comes someone, something, to haul us back from the empty brink.

so it is with the fellow on the el car who spies our weary face, our nearly-buckled knees, and leaps up to give his seat. he and his tattooed neck showing gallant empathy.

or the boychild who spies you wincing at the kitchen sink, and rushes over to rub your achy back, tells you in 8-year-old bravado, “go sit down, i can do the dishes.”

or, for those of us who count on bird and tree and sprig to offer counsel, dish out therapeutic session without the hefty fee-per-hour, there comes this time of year a subtle tapping on the shoulder, urging us on, giving reason to believe.

there is, for starters, the sun coming up each morn, the dawn arriving earlier and earlier as if the burning ball of gases realizes fully there is work to be done, a whole half planet needs its thaw; the list of chores, endless.

trees must bud, erupt in blossom. birds, any week now, will catch the wind, fly northerly, land in our branches, weave nests, lay eggs, pluck worms.

bulbs, already wakened, will push their way through dirt, make us swoon with all their cobalt blues and oyster pinks, golden trumpets, in a thousand shades of butter.

the light itself is purer now, lands on the countertop in ways that call us to attention, make us glance out the window, notice, return to task, emboldened.

and then, there in muddy crevices, knots of green poke through. unfurl. offer moment’s tingle, make you stop as you fumble for the keys.

once again, the promise comes. the earth has turned, the seasons haven’t frozen in their tracks. something’s stirring, gently, defiantly, persistently.

once again, winter thaws to spring, and so too we glean the vernal message: after months and weeks of slogging through the knee-high drifts, the mounds, the muck, when shoulders sag and heartbeats flag, alert your eyes, your ears, and soon your nose……

you’ll be wrapped, presently, in the envelope of resurrection. what has slept, will wake. what was still, will stir again.

the way hasn’t been lost, merely hushed before crescendo.

march gives way to promise, once again.

have you spied a sign here or there of reason to hope? is the long winter wearing you down? have you given in to the clump of $2 daffodils at the grocery store, hauled ‘em home as if essential vernal tonic?

fading…

her teeny-tiny trumpets now have fallen to the ground, a carpet down below of brown-skinned souvenirs of what was.

her perfume, too, is lost. dissipated. lost to world beyond. the world of car exhaust and dryer fumes, lawn mower smoke and bacon burning on the griddle. the world of spring parading on.

lily-of-the-valley’s up next, the beauty queen whose reign is on the rise, demanding our attention as she sticks up and out her tender neck, heavy with those nodding bells that lure you to your knees so you can get a whiff.

she, my sweet viburnum, is just barely hanging on. my fragrant friend, on her final exhalations, and then she’s gone.

i thought it worth returning one more time. to pay heed to the notion that sometimes, oftentimes, we lose what left us dizzy. besotted. utterly and simply with head up in the clouds.

it–the thing that had us swooning, considering a cartwheel–is but an interlude. precious. sacred. it’s here and then it’s merely memory.

and it is the evanescence, the here-then-gone, that yanks our hearts, and stirs us, whispers in our ear: bless this moment, it is fleeting, always. like the tide, it washes in, trickles up the sand, and spills again, returning to the sea, the lake, the deep beyond.

but you knew that already. and so did i.

somehow, though, pausing, bowing as she passes, seems the thing to do. she is beauty fading, waning, drifting to the earth below in perfume-petaled snowflakes.

left behind, up where once she preened, she is little more than one last trumpet and a clutch of stubby little necks, each with head cut off, not unlike a clump of grapes denuded of its succulence. naked, as my mother calls the plucked-off concord stems, can’t abide them, cleans the mess with scissors, reprimands those who dare to leave behind a skeleton of what had been the clump of grapes.

so it is with viburnum on the distal end.

it is time then to genuflect, to drop our heads and thank the hardy bush, the one that asks for no attention, makes no demands all year. except for that single week or two when she is joy ascending, bursting, beckoning all who wander by within an acre of her puff-puff-puffing tailpipes, spewing ’round-the-clock, top-secret nose-bewitching formula.

she reminds, as she fades from foreground to unnoticed backdrop, that we all, all of us, have our shining moments, and then for 50 other weeks of every year we simply breathe and reach for sunshine, and swallow rain, because without it we’d be parched.

and she signals, too, this passing thought: even when we appear as ordinary as a bush with plain old leaves, we have, somewhere deep inside, what it takes to be a momentary, holy, neck-craning, oh-my-goodness-did-you-see-that-smell-that-sense-that source of radiance.

most of the time, day in and day out, we are not so much something to write home about. we are ordinary. waking. chewing. making beds. chasing after dreams. hauling out the trash.

but in any given moment–depending on what’s asked of us, how deeply we dig down into the luminescence that dwells inside–we, like sweet viburnum early in the month of may, can become holy transcendence.

we can exude a sweetness, and all that’s truly wholly fine. step out from our ordinariness and remind the world: even a plain old bush, when given half a chance, can assume a stance of unabating beauty.

and when she fades, she is radiant still. it’s only that she cloaks it beneath her humble plumage.

come her turn again, she’ll show the world of what she’s made.

and that, it seems, is why she’s more than earned her post just beyond my kitchen window. she never fails to wow me, even in her faded, lasting wisdom.

once again, the gospel of the garden.

fading. coming and going. rise and fall. these are the universal themes of life, and surely of the seasons. ecclesiastes, i believe, spells it out. and year after year, the lesson is repeated and repeated. what lessons does the springtime bring to you? who are your teachers in the world abloom around you?