I spent the afternoon in my garden today, and encountered so many metaphors for my own life it was laughable. It also made me realize how much I love being close to nature, and how good I feel when I am.
I have a small garden in my back yard – it’s gone feral. I decided to put in some tomatoes and herbs, since they can be planted in an afternoon, and, for me, are quintessential of summer eating. The bed I would have ideally put them in has become home to a surprise strawberry patch. I have no idea where they came from, or how I ended up with so many – there are probably 10 plants – and I have never planted strawberries in my garden. I’d suspect the compost, except I didn’t get any added last fall. Less surprising was a variety of lettuce that reseeded itself, including some arugula that has already come and gone, and has a new batch of seed pods. Chives, sporting lovely purple blossoms, and some massive onions, that are now on their third year unharvested, rounded out the plot. The whole ensemble was so pretty, so vivacious and industrious, I didn’t really want to interfere.
So the tomatoes went in the less sunny bed to the right. This bed is falling apart, on account of being over-engineered. It was the first of the two I put together, and in my eagerness to construct a raised bed for the ages, I added a bunch of brackets to the design. They were supposed to reinforce everything, but really they just get in the way, and the whole front of the bed has separated and is sagging away. I screwed the second bed together a few weeks later in the pouring rain. I was in a furious mood, angry that it still wasn’t done. I didn’t spend any time on a fussy plan, I just put all the pieces together (goddamnit), and that thing is still holding up like a champ.
My beds are open on the bottom so the roots from a neighboring sugar maple creep in. They’re dense and make it inhospitable for anything new to grow. Turning the soil always involves breaking these apart, pulling them out. The sugar maple seems no worse for the wear, and I’m amazed each time at how extensive its root system is. These roots are at the edge of the network, they’re smaller, and you can see the thousands of terminating tips – they always remind me of the capillary system in our lungs. I pull them out and shake off the dirt. I think about giant, upside down, underground lungs that choke other life.
Cherry tomatoes go in a planter out front, since sunshine is scarce around back. There are a few husks from last year. Paper thin, empty, but nearly as bright. I leave them in and pour more soil and and compost on top. Two of the plants are root bound. I gently pull them apart. I try to point them out of the circle they’ve been growing in, without doing too much damage.
I have another planter of herbs, next to the tomatoes. My rosemary has not wintered over. Two years ago it managed to get by, but this past winter was too cold and snowy. I pull out the woody skeletons and fragrance fills the air. This seems impossible. I smell the dry, dead stalks. Rosemary. I think about the fragrance of our bones. I think about memory as a kind of fragrance. I put in three new rosemary plants, which I also smell, since I love rosemary. I love it on grilled lamb chops. I nestle them on either side of the oregano, which winters beautifully, and is also good on lamb chops with feta cheese.
I accidentally kill two things while trying to find out what they used to be. The first is in an amber shell. I can’t tell if its a cocoon, or a seed pod. It comes up as I am turning over the soil. I try to tear open the shell, to see what was inside, and a pale, slightly green, creamy fluid leaks out. It was not a seed pod. I remember that sometimes things look dead that are not. Sometimes they are deliberately hidden and dead looking to improve their chances of making it through the metamorphosis. Later, I see an odd, very small bundle of dried stems on the underside of an oregano leave. It looks like a teeny, tiny bundle of sticks. It is clearly dead. I wonder what little creature used such a configuration, and pluck it off to see. The stems are bound surprisingly tight and as I try to break them apart, a pale, slightly yellow, creamy fluid leaks out. I’m embarrassed. I remember that sometimes things look dead that are not.
Colin calls urgently for me to come look at something. He’s up on our deck and pointing excitedly to a turtle he’s just found. I’m having a hard time seeing him clearly, because I’m up against a cheap, badly installed fence that I put up to keep the kids from running towards the street. My kids could knock this fence over in a heart beat. The only person it’s an effective deterrent for is me. It does not give me any sense of security, and it’s hugely inconvenient.
I am sure that we do not have a turtle on our deck, and in fact, I’m pretty sure what he’s pointing at is a wasp’s nest. I tell him this, and ask him to back up. I hurry the long way around the house, hoping he doesn’t get stung, and run up the steep steps of our deck. It’s not a turtle. It’s not a wasp’s nest. It’s a beautiful green and grey amphibian. It’s skin texture looks like a toad, but I have never seen a toad this color. Its sides are smooth and moist like a frog.
It has been on our hot deck all day long. I actually vaguely saw it this morning. I was sweeping off the deck and got buzzed by a wasp. I looked over towards where it came, and saw a nest above our door, and a grey shape on the very outside corner of the deck floor. I assume this gray shape is part of the nest that’s fallen, or perhaps a new nest that’s being built. Neither of these mental explanations make any sense, because the nest is in tact, and I have never, ever seen a wasp’s nest built on the ground- they always hang. I know this at the time, but I am so afraid of getting stung, and so distracted watching the nest while I sweep, that I never look carefully at the grey shape to see what it actually is.
Now I am captivated. Not only is this little toad (I temporarily settle on toad) strikingly beautiful, it’s bizarre and improbable. What on earth is it doing on our deck, two stories up? How did it get up the stairs? Why did it come up here, and how did it make it through a day in the baking sun? For a moment I am afraid it is dead. It’s terribly still, despite the fuss we’re making over it. But its eyes are open, and then I see, yes, it’s belly is moving as it breaths. I am worried that it will dry out and die (perhaps it is a frog after all), that it is too weak from being in the sun to make it back down the stairs. I am worried my kids will try to pick it up and it will get knocked, or jump, off the edge.
I decide to pick it up and move it. A voice in the back of my head suggests that perhaps, given my track record, the little amphibian does not need my help. Perhaps it would be better off, in fact, without it. I consider this. I am genuinely concerned that it is going to die from heat and dehydration. Plus, I really want to hold it. I cup my hand around it, to keep it from jumping off, and scoop with my other hand. It has big, semi-translucent toe pads, and the underside of it’s legs are smooth, wet, and golden yellow. Frog.
The kids are excited. We bring it down to the garden. It’s very calm. It sits on my hand. It’s so beautiful. I feel happy. I place it in the wet soil next to the tomatoes. It feels like a good omen. It feels like a blessing on my garden. Later, they want to see if it’s still there. It is, on the mulch behind the beds. They don’t see it, and I decide to let it rest. Later still, they want to check again. This time I show them where it is. It’s much browner now, it looks like a toad again. We talk about camouflage. They ask if we can look again in the morning. I tell them we can.