“Gardens are a form of autobiography.”
—Sydney Eddison, “The Wilds Within,” Horticulture Magazine, August/September 1993.
The six-year-old and the nine-year-old, co-creators of our neighborhood garden this past spring and summer, survey the backyard plot after our first good, hard frost: “Ooo, that’s a lot of dead stuff,” says one. “Guess we’re done here,” says the other. They make their way to the far corner, where a drooping pumpkin vine has revealed a few small, orange orbs that we had missed in previous pickings. I stand over a daunting patch of blackened dahlias.
The dying back shows evidence of our months of enthusiasm, but also horticultural ineptitude: trowels and forks here and there, lost these past weeks (months?) until the weeds that obscured them were laid low. Heaps of too-tall flowers that grew leggy for inadequate sunshine, then flopped over into barely discernible paths. Twisted, odd-angled stems of cabbages and collards planted too shallow. Mats of green mush where crowded lettuces succumbed to the cold, bare soil.
I see so much we could have done differently, so many mistakes made in haste, so many times I chose not to weed, so many corners cut, and no way to do them over until the next spring. (How many seasons does a gardener get? Ten, twenty, thirty, maybe—depending on when they start? This finitude makes the regret over missed opportunities and poor choices all the keener.) There is relief and remorse equally in my heart as the growing season comes to a close.
Then the nine-year-old is at my side again, attempting mightily to whisper through excitement: “Look! Look!” And I look where they are pointing. There I see a trio of goldfinches, annual migrants from more northern climes, hanging upside down to better reach the seeds in the gracefully nodding, brown heads of spent sunflowers. And just below that, on a bright tithonia blossom, a monarch!, somehow both flower and butterfly spared from the cold snap. The insect is lingering over the precious, late-season nectar, even as gray clouds gather overhead.
I think for a moment how this weedy chaos, these beds of failed attempts, look to the wild things. It looks like food. It looks like shelter. Imperfect, but earnestly done, with best efforts, tools on hand, and our collective wisdom-such-as-it-was, it looks like a place of giving. Children and grown ups and creation itself was tended here, and fed.
Greater Good to whom we belong, let us remember that we are loved and needed, however in-process our presentations of self: rough and overgrown in some places, stunted and pinched in others. Help us make the spaces we inhabit—bodies and gardens and neighborhoods—places of giving. Help us let go in the fall, learn in the winter, and try again with exuberance in the spring and summer. May we grow into our goodness together.
Photo copyright Markus Spiske CC0 1.0