I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

The Earth’s Sweet Being

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush         
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.   
      

What is all this juice and all this joy?         
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning. 

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring”

Once, we were innocent,
now, no longer.
Cloyed and clouded by sin.
Given a choice,
we chose sour over the sweetness we were born to,
giving up walks together in the cool of the day
to feed our appetite that could never be sated.

God made a choice to win us back with His own blood
as if we are worthy of Him.
He says we are.
He dies to prove it.
Every day I try to believe
our earth can be sweet and beautiful again.

Waiting in Wilderness: A Whisper Will Be Heard

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

~Yehuda Amichai “The Place Where We Are RIght” from A Touch of Grace

Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh
Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

Sometimes I am so certain I am right, remaining firm in my convictions no matter what. Yet when there is no movement, the ground beneath my feet hardens with my stubborn trampling. Nothing new can grow without my crushing it underfoot; any possibility becomes impossible.

Sometimes I harbor doubts and uncertainties, digging and churning up the ground upon which I stand. When things are turned over, again and again, new weeds and seeds will take root. Sorting them out becomes my challenge, determining what to nurture and what is worthless.

As I look ahead to this coming week, treading the familiar ground of the events of Holy Week, I cannot help but question and wonder: how can this impossible Love save those, who like me, feel dry and hard and devoid of possibility or who unwittingly allow weeds to proliferate?

Then I hear it, like a whisper. Yes, it is true. Loved despite sometimes being hard ground, or growing weeds or lying fallow as a rocky path.

I too will rise again from the ruins. I too will arise.

photo by Joel DeWaard

This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

Everything Dies Too Soon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver from “A Summer Day”

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon…

And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wild flowers.

~Billy Collins from “Memento Mori“

I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.

Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.

Much too soon.

So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.

I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.

Once the Weather Warms

As a child, my father helped me dig
a square of dense red clay, mark off rows
where zinnias would grow,
and radishes and tender spinach leaves.
He’d stand with me each night
as daylight drained away
to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe
as I would practice leaning so on mine.

Years later now in my big garden plot,
the soggy remnant stems of plants
flopped over several months ago,
the ground is cold, the berries gone,
the stakes like hungry sentries
stand guarding empty graves. And still
I hear his voice asking what I think
would best be planted once the weather warms.
~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations

We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.

Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?

Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.

Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.

Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

~Voltaire’s last line from Candide

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

A Friendly Visit

When a friend calls to me from the road 
And slows his horse to a meaning walk, 
I don’t stand still and look around  
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,    
And shout from where I am, What is it? 
No, not as there is a time to talk. 
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,    
Blade-end up and five feet tall,    
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
~Robert Frost, “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems

We don’t take the time to visit anymore. Human connection is too often via VPN and pixels, chat groups and texts, GIFs and tweets. We’ve lost the fine art of conversation and intently listening, and no one remembers how to write a letter long-hand, fold it into an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it into a mailbox.

No wonder our grandchildren are unsure how to cultivate a relationship like they might a garden: working the soil of another’s life, turning it over and over, fluffing it up, pulling out the unwanted weeds that smother growth, nurturing it with the best fertilizer, planting the seeds most likely to germinate, drenching with the warmth of light and energy, keeping the roots from getting thirsty.

We need to listen; we need to talk; we need to take time; we need to lean on the walls between us and bridge our gaps as best we can.

Just call out to me. I’ll stop what I’m doing, drop my hoe and plod over for a good chin wag. It’s what every good gardener needs to do.

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

High Noon in the Garden

carrotsa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegetable gardening is not for the faint of heart.  In the few short weeks of the growing season, there is all manner of botanical birth, growth, reproduction, withering and death in such ultra-compressed fashion, it can leave even the veteran gardener gasping for air.  I consider myself somewhat bold and fearless in my every day roles, as any good physician (or mother) must be, but when it comes to the facts of life as played out in the garden,  I turn all mushy.

This week there was no question what needed to be accomplished.  The sun was out,  the seeds planted a few weeks ago were finally beginning to show themselves above ground, but they were literally drowning in a sea of weeds.   The joy of germination was turning into the heartbreak of overabundant indiscriminate growth.  It was time for action.

I awoke early, emotionally preparing myself.  I pulled on my jeans and hooded sweatshirt, stepped into rubber boots,  armed my pockets with trowel and garden hook, and adopted a confident stance as I stared at the expanse of green sprouts before me.

“Gonna kill me some weeds,”  I muttered menacingly from under my straw hat, looking like Wyatt Earp at high noon, rolling up my sleeves, and hitching up my pants like a sharp shooter.

I first went to the defense of the carrot row.  Tiny carrot seedlings are some of the most vulnerable in the garden.  They start as two little grass-like shoots, very weed-like in their beginnings.  In a few days, the next shoot is the identity give-away: a feathery leaf looking very much like carrot green tops.  True effective weeding really can’t start until the carrots can be distinguished from weeds, even the look-alike frilly weeds that pretend they are carrots so they will be left alone.  Very clever camouflage, but not to my sharp eye.

The real carrots are tender little plants, barely clutching the ground with one little root string as compared to the deep hold that weeds have in the soil — weeds make a satisfying “pop” sound when successfully pulled out by the roots.  This work requires down on your hands and knees finger weeding, the dirt-under-the-nails sort-through-each-little-green-shoot-to-find-the-right-one-to-pull technique.  Even so, despite my best intentions, the “real” plants still get pulled accidentally:  my father called that “thinning”, another cruel and painful aspect of gardening when perfectly good plants are pulled out to make more space for the near neighbors.  It still seems all too arbitrary and capricious.

All this weed-o-cide makes me think about a book I read in the early seventies, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird.  They gave me a new understanding of the challenges of being a plant.  I almost can hear the high pitched little shrieks some scientists have recorded as plants are plucked, cut or mowed down.   Then there is the very real question of what is a weed and how it has become victim to our human prejudice about what is worthwhile to grow and what is not.  Maybe since the dawn of time we humans have watched the slugs, the squirrels, the birds, the deer and the rabbits decide what is tastier, and frankly my dear,  it isn’t the weeds.

But who am I to say that a beet plant is more worthy to exist than quack grass?   What animosity and enormous resource is expended to rid the world of the lovely dandelion’s perfect sphere of seeds about to blow with the wind, or the waxy buttercup meant to tickle a child’s chin into a yellow reflection.

But I’m only the gardener with a job to do.  It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.

By the end of the morning as the sun beats down directly overhead, neat little rows of honest to goodness domesticated plants become obvious and the garden pathways are littered with weed carcasses as well as a few thinned radishes, beets and carrots.   High noon indeed.  I gaze at my spent weapons–dirty hands and fingertips that are barely recognizable–and sigh deeply.   Until the next skirmish to keep the weedy invaders from infiltrating, I can rest easier knowing my little plants have less chance of being overwhelmed by the encroaching wilderness of weeds and varmints.

So I lay down my arms, clean the dirt from under my fingernails, and sit down to listen to the symphony sounds of plants happily growing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overrun By Weed Creep

thegardener

 

horse manure composted garden

 

…all I know is that we must cultivate our garden…
~Voltaire from Candide

 

gardenrows

 

This year, once again, we’re late getting our garden in — there have been too many other things happening in our work and home life to even think about getting the garden in.  Starting a garden in June is not something I recommend to anyone.  It requires bushwhacking to make a suitable bed for the seeds.

Thankfully, my now newly retired husband — normally part-time farmer now full-time — was up to the job.

The weeds, never discouraged by cool rainy weather, have instead been emphatically encouraged. They grow with exuberance, happily seeding themselves, thank you very much. The garden plot had become a veritable forest to contend with before the soil could be prepared for seeding.

My husband set to work on the jungle on hands and knees, digging into the turf of weeds, loosening their grip, pulling them out, shaking off the clinging clumps of dirt from their roots and turning over fresh soil to dry in the sun under a fresh dressing of warm composted manure.  Along with creating multiple trenches for our vegetable seeds and starts, we planted prayers that there was still enough time left in the growing season to actually bear a harvest.

I admit there are plenty of times my life feels like our neglected garden plot.  If not kept tended, if not exposed to enough warmth and light, if not fertilized with the steaming loam from a well-composted manure pile, if not kept clear of the unwanted weeds that take hold and grow no matter what the weather conditions, there can be no harvest of value whatsoever.  I will accomplish nothing other than sustaining self-sowing weeds for the next generation to battle.

I leave behind a life unrecognizable as a source of nurture as it is overrun by weed creep.

Each year we’re determined to do better but we know we’re running out of time and gardening seasons. It isn’t just the resultant sore back and dirty fingernails that serve as reminders of the hard work of tending one’s life like one’s soil.  It is that burst of sweetness that comes from eating the first fresh peas, the sharp tang of a radish straight from the ground, the bowl of greens unsullied by chemicals, the onions, potatoes and squash stored away in the root cellar for winter consumption.

Most of all, it is the satisfaction of knowing we accomplished something wonderful with our own hands — guided gently by the ultimate Gardener who won’t allow a few weeds to overrun us.

 

beanplantA

 

squashsprouts

 

weedyradishes

 

beansprout

 

weeder