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Last weekend I walked through a friend’s five-acre garden on the edge of a high and dry Colorado pine forest, an enterprise she has lovingly tended for most of the last two decades. Some years she lets it go its own way, and some years the weather dictates what will thrive and what will fail. This year, her acreage has avoided hail, has soaked up plenty of the season’s recent rainfall, and her gardens are verdant and thriving.
But beyond the natural bounty, her gardens this year have that look of freshness and orderliness that only comes with obsessive care — weeding, fertilizing, pruning, deadheading, moving plants, removing plants, grouping them by color and size, all human interventions.
My friend has invested renewed energy in her garden, and it shows.
“I’ve really tended it this year,” she said, her skin freckled and brown, hair sunbleached, hands rough, legs scratched and smeared. She rattled off the Latin names of her favorite plants, sacred chants in a holy place. Her satisfaction was palpable.
My garden this year, the one I’ve invested with time and money and muscle and mulch, is a newborn, maybe even a preemie that needs a little more time in intensive care. Early in the season I started building soil and planting on this desolate cityscape, and though the results are satisfying — there’s green where there once was only brown — this garden is, by no means, mature or stable. The soil, barely turned and heaped with yards of humus, can hatch a seedling but lacks the broken-down organic matter a full-fledged plant requires for nourishment. A hail storm two weeks ago shredded the new leaves of tender vegetables, flowers, and herbs, and left some of the more fragile ones in shock. A hesitant surgeon, I snipped off the mangled appendages and wished for the best.
Out here in the middle distance, following a four-year run of calamity and human frailty and loss and death in my family, I think of the garden as my higher power, to borrow the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the garden, poking holes in the dirt and dropping rock hard nasturtium seeds into the dark underground, I can set aside all guilt and resentment, preoccupations and neuroses, fears and anxieties and, at least for the time being, watch them dissolve in the flow of water from a can. In the garden, labor is God and ego dissolves in equal proportion to the accumulation of dirt beneath fingernails or manure underfoot. In the garden, I am servant, not master.
Sometimes, after traumatic loss, even beauty is too much to bear. Following the death of my son a few years back when I was living on the Gulf coast, I often found myself leveled by the sight of a fuchsia sunset, by the spread of a seabird’s wings, by the angle of a heron’s neck. I mean that sometimes, faced with beauty, the shock of letting it in literally stopped my feet, made me stumble, weakened my knees.
In the garden, I am grounded by all that is beautiful and not beautiful — slugs and spiders, molds and funguses, butterflies and moths.
Coming up in the next month are the anniversaries of my son’s death four years ago and his father’s just one year ago. And in the middle of it all, my daughter is marrying and I will be the mother of a bride for the first time. It’s like seeing that seabird overhead, flying strong and free, to imagine a wedding celebration in the middle of those days and their dark legacy. My daughter’s aunt from Memphis called last weekend and said she was worried that she would be an emotional wreck at the wedding and didn’t want to be a killjoy. I told her join the club. We will all be drowning in sorrow and joy, and we will just have to let joy prevail.
I’ve bought a fancy dress and strappy shoes to wear when I walk my daughter down the aisle, and I’ve convinced her brothers to wear bright and light seersucker. Like my little garden, we are all newborns, blinking our eyes at this new juncture. We have walked together in grief and now we will walk in beauty and hope, heads inclined toward my brave daughter and her true love.
In the garden yesterday, newly planted nasturtium seedlings popping up everywhere beneath the shredded canopy of their predecessors. Overhead, a sleek black crow greedily eyes the birdfeeder. Underneath, the quiet Earth rumbles with gladness.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns 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.