strange questions

Posted by on June 5, 2014

Mushroom on the forest floor in North Carolina © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

by Mary Oliver
Who can guess the luna’s sadness who lives so
briefly? Who can guess the impatience of stone
longing to be ground down, to be part again of
something livelier? Who can imagine in what
heaviness the rivers remember their original
Strange questions, yet I have spent worthwhile
time with them. And I suggest them to you also,
that your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life
be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as
you feel how it actually is, that we–so clever, and
ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained– are only
one design of the moving, the vivacious many.

* * *

When we moved into our house, the front yard was a barren, square-ish plane of barely-green, scrubby grass with no personality. I knew that its emptiness was a sort of blank check being handed to me. By the looks of it, no one had tried to grow anything in this yard. It was a yard without a past. There were no awkwardly placed, well-intentioned boxwoods now untrimmed and amorphous, no ground cover vines taking over or suffering from spots of baldness, no ameba-shaped flowerbeds with half-dying rose bushes poking out of artificial salmon-colored mulch. And so I did not have to inherit the burden of anyone else’s creative vision–gone awry or otherwise. Though I might not have minded inheriting at least a few gorgeous, old hydrangea bushes, I received the emptiness around our house as a sort of gift and maybe even a sort of blessed commission. I am not good with dealing with clutter– my own or inherited from others. And often other people’s yards look cluttered to me–like someone just started planting stuff without a clear vision of how it would ultimately come together visually, or what it all would look like in ten years, when the plant sizes would be fully grown.

But this critical eye of mine, this paralysis of analysis, this talent for creating mental hurtles in front of any creative endeavor, is not a helpful trait in most areas, and especially, I’ve learned, for gardening. I can talk myself out of beginning anything, and I did this for almost the first two years in this house. But over a polar winter and during the imponderable approach of spring, I was becoming more determined, more gutsy, and less attached to the idea of a perfect outcome. So, in a spirit of do-or-die, I bought seeds and dirt this year and started planting stuff. The raised beds I found for unbelievably cheap on craigslist had been empty, rectangular emblems of gardening dreams deferred and shriveled, because they sat empty, staring up at me for over a year. I hated the sight of them from the back window. I finally filled them with loamy peat moss, soil, and compost. Even as I did this, I was having trust issues with nature because I did not sincerely believe that the seeds I would put into these prepared spaces would actually turn into plants. But miraculously, they did. And once I started getting my hands dirty and seeing my seeds come up and grow leafy and real, each according to its kind, I realized that I actually have an instinct, buried somewhere deep inside, for gardening. I also built a few makeshift trellises from bamboo and cheap wood that do not look half bad.

So all of this has taken over my thoughts quite a bit in the last few months, and the possibilities keep expanding so that all I’ve done feels only like a beginning. In the front of our house I have marigolds, sunflowers, morning glory, zinnias, gladiolus, ranunculus, pumpkins, and snap beans (all started from seed or bulb with the exception of the marigolds). In the back I have four varieties of tomato, three varieties of sweet pepper, four varieties of cucumber, summer squash, melons, peas, basil, thyme, parsley, and chamomile. By day I check on, water, fertilize, weed, or mulch them; by night I can feel their presence in the recesses of my mind, as if my family has expanded to include the addition of other, almost-children whose lives depend on me.

And now when I look out at my yards– front and back– they no longer seem like mere two-dimensional quadrilateral blurs, but entities with height, depth, and unpredictable things traversing in squiggling, crisscrossing, dynamic patterns. Digging around, engaging with the growing spaces outside of my door, has led to discoveries of secret lives. Some of these are not so lovely, like, for example, the secret existence of Japanese beetles which, as it turns out, are infesting our front yard right now. I would never have known this had I not decided to plug some store bought marigolds into the ground, which required digging a few shallow holes. Now I am treating them organically with milky spore, a bacteria that they will eat and, according to the treatment plan, multiply in their bodies before they die and leave behind more of the bacteria in the soil for future beetle larvae to eat. The treatment has to be repeated over the course of a few years before all the beetles are gone, but I did not want to use a poisonous chemical. And there was invasive honeysuckle growing by the fence in our backyard, casting my raised beds in a shade that would have made it impossible for most of my vegetables to grow this summer, had I not gone out there and whacked it all down with a hand saw. On the opposite side of our yard are invasive wild grape vines, English Ivy, and yes, Poison Ivy as well– all incredibly pesky things that I keep cutting back only to have them reemerge and creep over to our neighbor’s immaculately (and professionally) trimmed yard (yes, we’ve had some conversations about this, and I sort of promised to keep it in check, even as I see their tendrils reaching menacingly towards our neighbor’s fence). There are also some very strange blackish, whitish, greyish mushrooms which each night spring up anew in a few areas of my yard, only to shrivel again in the sun. They seem gothic, unwholesome, and slightly cartoonish, or like something out of a Tim Burton film, and I still have no idea what they are.

Pretty soon I’ll be taking up the struggle with the birds and the beasts in our back yard, which is a veritable bird and beast sanctuary. We have so many bunnies, squirrels, and birds that I am not sure what is going to happen once my plants actually start producing fruit. That will be Phase Two of Getting Real with the Backyard, and for now I’m procrastinating about how to handle it.

In any case, I will say that I am happy to have gone from being a passive starer-out-of-windows to a lady with her hands in the dirt. I won’t bore you with all of the gardening-related metaphorical wisdom that has sprung up in my mind in the course of the last few months, but it is true that the mind can feast richly on the depth and breadth–a little firsthand knowledge–of the world as it really is.

Poetry Wednesday