Aching muscles, an afternoon in the hot sunshine, and a sliced finger are a small price to pay for getting my garden and my soul in order.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the state of my garden tends to mirror the state of my soul. That’s a sobering thought.
There was a moment last spring when I went out to my overgrown garden to weed and wondered if there might be a velociraptor in there. Today, after an insane end-of-school and a three-week bout with pneumonia, during which my activities included not writing and not gardening, I went out to the garden with some trepidation. It was worse than ever. Forget velociraptors. A T-rex could’ve raised its young in there.
Just as I was thinking this, one of my chickens let out an ungodly squawk which sounded like a dinosaur and not a chicken, and for a second, my fight-or-flight response kicked in and I was certain I was going to die a la Jurassic Park.
Once I calmed down, I set about weeding the vegetable garden. When you haven’t weeded a garden for a month in which rain has fallen almost constantly, weeding does not look like anything you think of when you think of weeding. It looks like a 19th-century expedition through the Amazon.
This kind of weeding is not pretty. By the time I had worked my way around the garden, I was covered in sweat and dirt and weed-innards. It took hours. Fortunately, when the sun got too hot, I was able to rest in the shade of the weeds. You can do this when your weeds form a hedge about three and a half feet tall. Maybe I should’ve just trimmed them into some kind of topiary…..
I plowed through the fatigue that kept threatening to overwhelm me. I can go forever, as long as I don’t stop. Once I stop, it’s nearly impossible to keep moving. The state of my garden mirrors not only the state of my soul, but the state of my writing, it seems. Another sobering thought.
I was in the home stretch, and had eliminated all potential tyrannosaur nesting-sites, when something sliced my finger open. The pain was breathtaking. I looked down. My finger dripped blood the color of the strawberries ripening at my feet.
Three relevant facts: 1) I am stubborn. 2) I love poetry. 3) The sight of my own blood makes me woozy.
Because of 3, I wanted to run inside for an Ironman bandaid. Because of 1, I did not. I was going to finish clearcutting the jungle or die in the attempt. Because of 2, the first thing that popped into my nerdy head was John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 74: “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.”
A gardener cannot ever batter a garden into complete submission, but she can exert her will and even master it for a moment. For a day, for a week, until the weeds return, until the weather changes, until the four-year-old lets a dozen chickens into the strawberry patch. (N.B.: There is one creature on this earth that loves strawberries more than a four-year-old boy does, and is an even worse listener, and it is a chicken.)
I am as unruly as my garden, or worse. A garden riots into excess because it is too alive not to. I, on the other hand, slip my moorings because I am ornery. In a summer haze of exhaustion, in the monotony of a tangle of wiregrass, that single moment of pain was shot through with clarity. I wrestle with my garden as it wrestles with me. I try to control it, to keep it in check, at least. But as I stretch aching muscles and get insect bites in strange places, my garden is pushing back, shaping me, ripping away the excesses of self-absorption and overwhelm and anxiety. In the garden, there is only dirt and green life and the occasional suspicion that I can feel the earth turning under my fingers. This is the season when I keep dirt under my fingernails, no matter how much I scrub. I carry my garden with me, hands battle-stained and battered.
We are done battering at each other for the moment, my garden and me. Tomorrow I will look at it with a sense of accomplishment, my aching muscles and the cut on my finger precious reminders that we shape each other continuously, traveling through the circle of the year together.