Sunday, February 16, 2014

February, Piedmont Garden

Dry Pods (R. Taylor Monk)
The Sun has come out in Piedmont at last, just enough to melt last week's thick cover of snow and ice into patches, carving an atlas of irregular, dun-colored continents into the ground of our yard. Beneath the melt, the dominant color is brown, and the shrubbery shows crisp patches of destroyed foliage and broken branches, visible damage from a hard freeze of unaccustomed duration.

In our big kitchen window there's a sprig of kitchen rosemary that I rooted unintentionally in a glass of water; now I'm helping it take its first tentative steps toward independence in a pot of moist loam, dug from under last year's leaf pile. I am distrustful of the thin white water roots because so many times they've proved too feeble to handle the richness of real earth. Rooted cuttings placed too soon or too late in soil will crisp and die, so you must feel out that precise moment when the young plant is still excited enough to develop a real root system, and not made so lazy by water's lack of resistance that its thin, white roots will despair and rot when buried in real ground. I recognize that this "feeling" of mine is not scientific, and occasionally I look up such matters online in an effort to discipline my gardening efforts; then I promptly forget what I've read. I simply feel out the moment, and I try to love my garden to life.

Also in our kitchen is a rosebush that Dog and I found on a walk the other day, just before the big storm, a beautifully bowl-shaped knockout rose that some fool had jerked out of the ground, shearing off most of its roots in the process. I am speechless in the face of the violence that humans do to living things. But a single root still trailed from the thick stalk, and so I brought it home, sinking it in a pot of loose earth and pruning its live wood hard, amputating half of the bush in an effort to help it understand that all of its energy must now go toward making roots. I keep it good and wet in a plastic lined cardboard box full of earth, and I move it around the kitchen every day to expose it to every possible minute of the feeble February sunlight. Perhaps the rose will find the courage to put forward another vein-like root. And then another.

Whether the rosemary makes it or not, whether the rose makes it or not, will it be destiny? Or will it be because of me?

I am not above thinking that I am an instrument, a small but stubbornly hopeful scrap of a larger logic or spirit. I don't give that thing a name, I just feel it numinous around me and hope that human failures like ego and pride are far beneath it, whatever it is. I have not been given the gift of belief in dime-store gods. But I do feel the force of will behind the movements of the earth and in the sighing of the wind. I feel, and I obey.

It's the nature of conscious beings, and I include Dog in this, to be at their most desperate when they feel themselves utterly alone, solely responsible for the outcome of their lives and the lives of those they love. Dog looks to me to make things happen; my husband and I look to each other as well for comfort and protection; and neighbors are charmed when a word or gesture indicates that the reassuring tendrils of love extend, if only slightly, from your house to theirs via a card, a lunch invitation, or a wave hello. But as those tendrils become hyper-extended and aim at a wider circle of influence, it is common for the love inspiration to become something more like a desire for power, something like control, something harder and less connected to the true source. We begin to wish that we could erect fences around all those whom we love to prevent the necessary chaos of life from hurting them. We begin to want to dominate.

I love the fragile young rosemary. I love the abandoned rose. I love the azalea I planted last year whose crown has taken on a stricken look from frost burns. I love the tiny "remaindered" fig tree that I bought for one dollar at the end of last season and sunk casually into the dark earth at the edge of the forest where it has been since preyed upon by ravenous deer. I love the old bent beech tree that arcs toward the afternoon light like a dancer; and I feel an abiding sisterhood with the little native holly that my husband rescued from a ravenous wisteria vine, not unlike the way he rescued me six years ago. The abundance and health that the holly now enjoys extends itself to the bees who will drink its nectar, and to the robins who will nest this spring in its strong, homely branches. We are all of us charged with spreading our good fortune to others.

I'll admit it: I am afraid to go out to the field, to the forest, to my trampled beds to see what damage winter has done to my garden. I am terrified that I may discover that the hosta, spider lilies and rust-colored ferns that I sunk into the forest floor in autumn will be found rotten and lifeless. Will all my efforts to cultivate this small Eden have come to naught? Am I fully responsible for what happens on this piece of earth, or is it destiny?

Spring is not without its terrors. But the sun is shining, albeit thinly, and I hear birds singing. So I'll screw up my courage, pull on my rubber boots and canvas gloves, and I'll head out to the garden today with my bypass pruner jammed into the pocket of my old jeans. I'll start cautiously by gathering fallen branches, and then perhaps I'll touch some of those crisp leaves and twigs, turning them over in my fingers and inspecting them for signs of life. And if by chance I do discover some green shoot emerging, responding to the gentle tickling of this thin February sun, I'll pause for a moment and look. And what I feel will be love.

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