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Clearly it was too early to work in the garden. This is Colorado, after all, and it was only March 1. But the weather seemed to think it was mid-April, and those mid-60s temperatures called me outside, to the soil.
I watered and examined the flowerbeds with their desiccated foliage. The tree peony, a gift from the next-door neighbor, was already showing tight, swollen buds at the ends of its short branches.
In the vegetable garden, one quick raking of the debris on top revealed fanning strawberry leaves and wandering red vines, searching for light and a place to spread out. I abandoned all good sense and started cleaning in earnest. Tender green chives peeked out from the bottom of broomstraw clusters of last year’s foliage. The wheelbarrow filled quickly. I gave up at dusk, my hands aching after months of dis-use.
Around this time, just a year ago, I had begun packing up my temporary life in Texas and planning my return to Colorado. It was about work, I said. But it was really about new life. By late April in far South Texas, the growing season was over, and in Colorado, it was just about to begin.
Deep in the middle distance of life, I had felt that quickening that drives youthful adventure, that assures us of infinite possibility. I would move back home and begin a new life.
This March 1, I barely slept thinking of the garden and the weather forecast. Another day warm enough to work outside. You know you’re in trouble when your last waking thought leads you to jot down two words — earthworm castings — just before losing consciousness
The next morning I roamed the deserted garden center at the nearest big-box home improvement store and found discounted bags of last year’s compost and manure. A nearby bonafide plant nursery, barren of plants, yielded earthworm castings and new bags of organic soil builder composed of bat guano and peat moss. The back end of my little Subaru sank low beneath the weight. I tugged and hauled and wheeled and ripped and spread layer upon layer of amendments in the vegetable garden, turning the soil a rich black. I rebuilt the low slate retaining wall and put up wire fencing to keep the dog out. The sun was low, my back throbbed, and my fingers were shredded and numb. I couldn’t have been happier.
When I returned to Colorado last May, it was one of those late springs with cold nights and cool days. The trees still shimmered with new, tender green growth and flower gardens lay dormant, except for a few proud peonies, their round buds bursting beneath the feet of hundreds of ants.
The summer was glorious. I walked to my teaching job at the local college past mature old gardens and newly xeriscaped lawns. I took pictures of plants whose names I wanted to learn — agastache, aquilegia, Apache plume, Angel’s trumpet. Afternoons I walked the dog on trails in the high country and watched as he learned to swim in a clear, cold reservoir.
By mid-August last year, just when the tomatoes were beginning to ripen on the vine, my new life was beginning to take shape. Then a sudden, unexpected death in the family — a hurricane, an earthquake, a firestorm all at once — gutted our lives and brought them to a screeching halt. For weeks we gathered on the sun-warmed front porch and listened to the breezy shuttle of the sprinkler at dusk, watering the last of summer’s flowers, wondering how we would face the night. Then, in September, we dispersed and considered how we would face making a new life in this dark shadowy place, with winter approaching.
This morning I surveyed my work in the garden, straightened a few rocks and wires, and put the fork and rakes back in the shed. I checked to make sure that all tender growth was covered lightly with mulch, and threw a tarp over the potting bench. It’s another deceptively warm spring-like day, but the weatherman has warned that with strong winds this afternoon will come colder air and, possibly, snow tomorrow.
“There is a budding morrow in midnight,” said John Keats. The tree peony has budded early. The golden grasses and brown, shriveled perennials shiver in this afternoon’s breeze. I am hoping for wet spring snow, to cover my newly turned bed, to stick to my shoes and eyes and hair, to blow sideways and paint the bare tree branches. I am hoping for spring.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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