Sunday, December 20, 2015

Smoothing white paint on the uneven baseboards

Smoothing white paint on the uneven baseboards of the silent old house this afternoon, I crouch low to the freshly-installed floor, knees aching with this work, and I can smell the fragrance of the fresh cuts in the wood planks we've just installed. Ninety-two years this mill worker's cottage has been here, sheltering the same family generation after generation and witnessing their births, deaths, Christmases, lovemakings, sorrows, comings, goings. Now we are here, strangers to its walls. We want to be friends. This renovation is mostly preservation, a healing of some wounds, and we run our hands over all its home-made surfaces, marveling at the house's refusal to achieve a real right angle anywhere. Ancestors not mine observe me. I beg their pardon when I have to remove a handmade cupboard to get the 'fridge in, I apologize under my breath as I carefully store the pieces of it in the shed. Painted wood, sage green. There are three chimneys in the house's thousand square feet, one now entombed in the center of the house, one waiting to become part of a kitchen exhaust system, and one big old stone hearth still wondering if we are going to unstop its mouth or not. When we made space for the washer dryer in a closet, a letter and a photograph fluttered from the ceiling where they had lain quietly for sixty-two years. The walls are ready to tell story.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Adapt or Die

The garden is a savage place. Here in the Piedmont it's spring. But such a strange spring it is that even in mid-April we were running outside at dusk, arms laden with any sheets not covering mattresses to shield the tender plants against the freeze. In times of global warming, my daily battle in the garden is how I, middle-aged now, face my fear of the future.

The morning is bright but cold. As I pull the soaked and dirty sheets off the vegetable garden, I see that all the tender sprouts have survived. Indeed, the crisp but moist air seems to have given an added brilliance to the green buds, the just-opened azalea blossoms, and the fleshy white flowers of the dogwood. The tomato seedlings appear to have doubled in size. But with radical global temperature and weather shifts, the battle for survival and species perpetuation becomes more pitched, more ferocious. Who knows if we'll be so lucky next April?

Now in mid-life, I don't want to be a fatalist. I want to have hope, to believe. Investing in my garden is my most material expression of hope. But, as my horticultural zone continues a slow creep into the lower and colder numbers, I find that I am battening down the hatches, thinking about retraction into a tinier home, a smaller garden. As I watch the tremulous job market totter and the tech and real estate bubbles inflate, I look for signs and wonders in May hail.

What will live will live, I say to myself. What will die will die. That goes for everything and everyone, trees and people alike. This is the way of nature, says my husband. Let it be. But human beings have so significantly altered the way of nature that these bromides are of little comfort to me. These transitional times seem to signal a scarcer and less comfortable future for all of us, and they call for practical decision-making. I try to not let my mind wander in circular hypotheticals like, "What if the plants cannot adapt to the reality of global warming fast enough?" Or, "What if the bees die off and pollination doesn't happen this year?" Or, "What if my husband dies all of a sudden, like the people in that German plane?" What if? What would I do? What would happen?

Should continue to support the unsupportable with bedsheets?

Disaster thinking comes naturally to me. As the gifted younger child of a brilliant but moody mother, I developed a razor-sharp radar system to protect me against the dramatic emotional ground shifts in my household. I developed an uncanny sensitivity to the needs of others and learned to be like bamboo, bending in the wind. Know what the big animal needs you to say and do and comply in order to avoid pain. Survival in the plant kingdom or animal kingdom comes down to the same commandment: adapt or die.

Will the skills I learned as a child help or hinder me to adapt to global economic and ecological change? Will my garden adapt with me?

Adaptation causes its own problems. The self-obliterating empathy I developed in order to survive my childhood developed into a disconnect between me and my real feelings that endured well into adulthood. It took working with a therapist for six years to untangle that mess. The good doctor and I penetrated the emotional labyrinth in which little me became lost so many years ago, and together we dragged that little girl out into the light of the present day, scarred but functioning. The process was like carefully unravelling a lovely sweater and then trying to knit it back together again with the same wool: evidence of the destruction remains and the sweater never looks like new again –-  but you can wear it. Innocence is not recoverable, and you have to be content with that damaged but serviceable sweater that is your actual life. Everyone does it.

My garden needs a therapist, too, and I have tried my best to fulfill that role. Beset by an increasingly dense human population here in the Piedmont, the introduction of invasive plant species, and rapid weather and temperature shifts, my garden was in a bad state when we bought this gracious home on its acre of abused soil. The first two years were mostly occupied with killing invaders and making dirt.

The first day I went out to survey my domain after we bought this house, the trees seemed to call to me weakly for help. So I began by ripping english ivy off the bark of a single loblolly pine with my fingernails. “Get help,” my husband said weeks later as he surveyed the bruises, scratches, mosquito bites and the third onset of poison ivy rash that covered half my body. I hired help. And with the might and persistence of six people, including a remarkable man with a machete named Carlos who was later deported back to Mexico for his own inability to adapt to the ways of American women and police, we reclaimed our patch of forest.

We massacred wisteria, bamboo, English ivy and other invasive species that had colonized the woods with their stoloniferous highways, strangled trees and bushes, and had created habitat for voracious rats, voles, snakes and mosquitos. We kept most of our land's organic waste, churning it up into mulch instead of putting it out on the corner to be carted away by the city. The piles of leaves and sticks weren't pretty, but then therapy rarely is. A couple of winters and a lawn mower ground the waste down in fine mulch which I deposited into the stripes of clay and sand as I planted native bushes and flowers, cooking up a topsoil that could support life again. Tree bark is scarred, a holly tree trunk still seems to have scoliosis, and a 100-year-old pine was too far gone to save and had to be cut down. But we've basically restored our little bit of Piedmont woodland. I want it to survive after me. But will it?

Human beings do speedy damage to the land that takes years of labor and treasure to fix. Humans brought non-native invasive plants and put them into this garden. Humans seek to frack the gas out of the very ground under our feet without putting anything good back. Humans fight light surface transit in favor of the almighty automobile. And as I continue to spray vinegar and salt on the wilting survivors of the wisteria colony, I am sometimes chased indoors by the percussive onslaught of damaging hail and Biblical-level flash floods. In light of the bigger picture, my forest restoration project is like bailing the Titanic with a tea spoon.

But I still do it. Often working silently and alone outside, I get into my "zone" and experience the meditative feeling that gardening is for me. I generate with my hard, dirty labor the quiet prayer of hope that my garden is. Someday, someone else will live in this gracious house and, I hope, will care as much for this tiny patch of forest and garden as I do now. Leaving the land in good health is my love letter to unknown people living in an unknown and unknowable future. Working the land, I battle my anxiety about what may come, and leave my mark. Service to the soil is how I repent for the sins of my species, and help the garden adapt to conditions that are both unjust and unnatural. It is how I have hope.