My Healing Garden
After my mother’s death I decided to transform our front lawn of thick crabgrass beneath a sprawling incense cedar tree into a garden. It was my personal grieving ritual and particularly apt, as clearing the mat of tangled crabgrass would be like clearing tangled emotions. It was just what I needed right then--to tear out the tenacious weeds that ran for yards deep in the ground, just like in my heart.
I started by randomly pulling at the scraggly stuff. For at least a week, I gathered huge piles of knobbly green grass and tossed it into the city compost bins, but once I got down to the hard clay, the clearing work really began. I watered the bare dirt to soften it, then, using a pitchfork, trowel and hoe, dug down for the runners. The deeper I penetrated the ground, the deeper went the roots. A job I had thought would take a week or so was going to take me much longer--months, perhaps. Each tenacious runner would have to be extricated by hand, one by one, and with each runner a strand of sadness in my heart would get pulled up as well. Crabgrass can propagate by even one small fragment of a root, so the soil would have to be sifted for strays as well. Taking on this job might be more than I had bargained, but then, so was my mother.
She had given birth to me at the age of eighteen, on the run from a tragic family of her own, with neither the inclination nor the ability to mother a child. She was a gifted and willful teenager during the Second World War, who longed to be a musician but married out of desperation. I arrived soon after. When her beloved brother died in the war, my mother became paralyzed and snapped, losing her grip on reality. For as long as I could remember she retreated inside her disappointed dreams, surviving in confusion and rage until the age of almost ninety.
With only a tick of hesitation, I took on the crabgrass caper. It was now or never. By the end of the first day, with only one small patch cleared, I felt that my mother and I were finally talking. And we were, but the conversation with her was through the Mother--Mother Earth.
By the second week, the satisfaction of following a deep runner back to its root source was profound, as if I was clearing out yet another choking constriction from my own ground. I could feel in my body where to dig next in the dirt, and first thing the next morning I would put my pitchfork in that spot and dig there. Weeding my garden was like weeding myself.
People passing by, seeing me out there day after day, began to stop and chat. What was I doing there sitting in the dirt, pulling away at weeds with such concentration? To some I just said I was making a garden; to others I told the larger truth, and several of those people responded by telling me their own stories of loss. When that happened, I stopped work and listened. One woman, whose husband had recently died, was so distraught I invited her in for tea, and we cried together. One man, remembering boyhood days working on his motherís farm in Louisiana, stooped down and pulled weeds with me. Even before this garden had a single plant, or even the loam to plant it in, I found that I was making a healing garden.
Having cleared the ground down to about two feet, and along with it much of my own long-held grief, it was time to let in the light. The incense cedar, with its huge crown of gnarly branches spreading in all directions, completely shaded the yard and much of the street. Cutting it down was out of the questionóit had been my precious bit of wildness in the city for too longóbut I would consider thinning it, especially after being assured that a pruning would make the tree stronger.
Three agile men climbed into its branches and, in less than four hours much of the tree was on the ground, curved and sculpted limbs littering every inch of bare soil. The spaces now visible in its crown opened like wide windows letting in the light of the sun more, then still more.
Neighbors and passers-by were on hand to witness the transformation. Among them was Pete, a woodworker, who gazed covetously at the branches on the ground.
"Oh, gorgeous!" he kept saying as each curvaceous limb hit the earth with a thunk. "That would make a fabulous back for a chair... a bedpost..." Both of us, I think, got the idea at the same time and, catching each other's eye, laughed in recognition.
A fence! An arbor! A bower! A trellis! Benches! Here? Yes, and there! How?
"I know how," he said.
"Would you help me?" I said, making hand sketches in the air.
"With pleasure," he said. The creative urge gathered us up like a wave cresting in the sea, and we shook hands excitedly, agreeing to meet "at the garden" the next morning to work it all out.
That night, working by the light of a moon whose glow shone right through the open branches, I was out there by myself stacking wood, placing the narrow pieces in the first pile, the middle-girth limbs next, and the heaviest ones over to the side. Alone in the dark, I imagined a gateway with its arbor, a bower by the chimney, the trellis in the corner, and roses a-bloom everywhere! I could hardly wait until morning.
According to the principles of permaculture--a technique of land use and restoration for bringing health back to wasted landóeverything on the land can be recycled, used in a new way. Nature wastes nothing, and therefore neither should we. By being creative with the elements at hand, we may take a wasteland and turn it into an Eden.
Pete and I got to it the very next morning, agreeing that we would use every stick of wood on the ground, and find a new place for it somewhere in the garden. In the next two weeks, long, rounded boughs became a bower and a sweet little bench where a climbing rose would go; the entryway was a graceful arbor made from curved uprights and long, bendable whips. All the twisted limbs went into the fence. We wove the long, flexible twigs across it like a wattle basket, and with all the leftover scraps we made a quirky trellis.
We had the best time! What had been an unremarkable strip of crabgrass lawn was transformed into a magical fairyland composed of what already was there. Even my grief for my motherís life and death was an essential ingredient, for only in my extremity of sorrow would I have considered taking on the job of pulling up all that crabgrass. It had been my grieving, my therapy, and my offering to her.
The garden features Pete and I added, however, were less tangible; they represented our unfettered imaginations let loose in this small space. They represented all that was fun about the project, and in one another we had each found a talented work buddy. It was an unforgettable collaboration. Pete wondered if he shouldnít pay me for the privilege of working on my garden, and for my part, I wondered if all we ever needed to achieve anything in this world was a good idea, imagination, and a friend.
Once the structure had taken shape, I was ready to see leafy greens and flowering fruits in every corner, but winter was looming in California--our season of rain and wind, and what we like to think of as "cold"--and the ground was brown dirt and dry as a bone. Patience not being my strong suit, I turned my attention to mulch. Everywhere I went, I begged other peopleís fall throwaways: their autumn leaves and dirty straw were my humus. Horse manure and kitchen compost, wood chips and rabbit poop were welcome gifts from bemused friends glad to get rid of it. Worms and mushroom spores, banana peels and torn-up cardboard all became layers in my garden that, while garbage right now, would become fluffy loam in the spring. I could hardly wait.
Once spring was in the offing, a gardener friend offered me a bag of cover-crop seedsófava beans, vetch, and clover, all nitrogen fixers. I broadcast them proudly on my small field of aspiring soil. Like a nervous new mother, I examined the garden every day for green sprouts, and when they did finally come popping up out of their mulchy bed, I could hardly believe my luck.
Spring comes early in our part of Northern California, and by the end of February our "green manure" waved in the wind. Favas grew tall and delicate vetch wound its way up their stems. Wild radish plants put out prickly leaves. The small round leaves of nasturtium caught droplets of morning dew. No flowers yet, but the promise of gifts to come. Voracious snails and red worms and the first butterflies began making their appearance and growing fat on the land. Literally. Before spring was past, we had fava bean plants nine feet tall, which no farmer friends could account for, and cosmos flowers up to my shoulders. I figured that the healing prayers I had spread into the Earth while pulling up all that crabgrass was the fertilizer that had made the difference.
During that first year of exuberant plant growth, I had the feeling that everything I needed to know could be learned from the garden: the patience required to wait for shoots to emerge out of the earth; the abundance and generosity when they did; the astonishing beauty of simple things; the ability to adjust to changing conditions and my occasional neglect. I watched small seeds put down delicate roots and, using what was freely givenósunshine, starlight, air, and rainóbecome sprawling tomato vines bursting with flowers and fruits. I saw the tiniest squash seedlingóactually, a volunteer from the compostóthreaten to take over the neighborhood and provide everyoneís supper into the bargain. The most humble bit of green popping out of the ground could grow into a Mexican sunflower with velvety stalks and uncountable bright orange blossoms; a cutting of fennel from the hills could shoot up into feathery fronds as tall as a tree.
And when the season drew to an end, I watched my plants gracefully sink lower and lower towards the earth, letting go of their vividness, their power, and their seeds, while taking on a different kind of beauty and dying with no regrets. They were on to the next stage of their cycle. They knew what to do as they slumped onto the ground, giving their substance back to the earth for next year's growth.
The wisdom of my garden made me smile, and had a similar effect on passersby. We live in the city, close to both a children's playground and a hospital, which means that many people walk by our house on their way to work, to the park, or to visit sick friends. Many are preoccupied and rushed, some are strolling, still others are toddlers with their parents or nannies. But all of them stop.
From inside the house, I watch them finger the fence, gaze at the flowers, point out things to their friends and then walk away smiling. When I am out gardening, they ply me with questions and compliments, and we have conversations. I beckon the children in, inviting them to taste a peapod, a cherry tomato; to their parents, I often offer some herbs for dinner. I especially love meeting the children. I introduce them to the plants by smell, letting them do their own picking. At first they are shy, but the next time they pass by, they come in as if they own the place. I take this as a compliment.
Japan has a tradition of tea ladies, "invisible" women healers who place their tea stalls at crossroads where many people come by. As they serve tea, the tea ladies also provide a listening ear. It looks casual, and it is, but there is also a level of deliberate intention in their pouring of the tea, their receptive interest, their discreet empathy. These women make a point of being there on most days. They know that people will return to that crossroads, hoping to find her there when they are in distress and have a story to tell.
I am learning to be a tea lady in my garden.