Awhile back, an image in a gardening magazine seduced me. A woman, clad in khaki Capris and a denim shirt, knelt in front of a profusion of roses. Colors bombarded—the greens of lawn and leaf, the deep red of rose petals, and the dark earth. The woman’s silver hair cascaded down her back and over her shoulders—tendrils curled at her temples just so. Beside her, a floppy sun hat with ribbons around the band posed with heirloom pruning shears and long-cuffed garden gloves.
A compost collection sits outside my back door–not in a fancy odorless bin, just a bucket purchased at the Dollar Store. As of yet, the bucket is undiscovered by flies or squirrels, although the old dog has been known to help himself to eggshells.
Limp celery stalks, squishy fruit, lemon peels–all yesterday’s feast and leavings– find their way to the pail–garbage by any standards. Under human power, the bucket makes its way to a pile by the back gate. No bin or drum–just a pile.
Old leaves and grass clippings, weeds–all join in the jumble. Earthworms stir and sift. When the heap is turned, an earthy scent rises in the wind. Out of this death and decomposition, rich soil forms to make the prairies bloom.
The herb garden is more dirt than herb, but there are mounds of progress. Curls of parsley, a row of dill, a spear of mint, hoped for lemon balm, invisible chives, seedling basil, and prolific oregano and thyme. All tickle the nose when something disturbs the plants–wind or perhaps a hoe. These flavors and scents turn the blandest meal into something memorable. The secluded palate becomes cosmopolitan.
While gazing out the window this morning, I noticed the mound of thyme shuddering. Taller shoots waved back and forth–then suddenly disappeared. All else was still. Pretty soon out hopped the culprit–a starling; in his beak were sprigs of freshly harvested thyme. Away he flew to weave his bouquet into a nest for his heirs.
Funny that a bird that is often called common or a nuisance and an herb that is overpowering and astringent should meet this morning and create wonder.
My dream was to homestead. I wanted bees and chickens, a duck or two. I read Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News checked out from the library—scrutinizing classifieds for red wrigglers and advertisements for rain barrels. I read to prepare for that Some Day.
I pouted a bit when that day did not materialize early in life. Stingy finances, Multiple Sclerosis,a bout with cancer stole energies and resources. After selling my home, I moved every couple of years—an apartment, a cottage, a tiny house in a small town.
Nevertheless, I carved out places in the wilderness. A balcony full of pots in a third-floor apartment. A blooming concrete-rimmed planter long neglected by an apartment complex. Pumpkins vining down a hill in a lot barren except for thorny “goat heads.”
Perhaps it is not as I first envisioned, but it is here, in a rented house, on an urban plot, in a small city, that I realize my dream has come true. Here the bees dance over blossoms, buffalo grass spreads its silvery green across neglected spaces. Rocky soil once filled with nails, glass, wire, deepens with compost a spadeful at a time.
My camera failed, so I can only tell you of the rippled water in the birdbath I rigged—or of the squirrel gazing at his reflection then washing behind his nubbin ears. I cannot photograph the sparrows using sprigs of Russian Sage as diving boards into makeshift pools from the sprinkler, or the splendor of the Coreopsis that casts its gold back at the sun. I cannot give due credit to the tiny tomato that survived a mean summer of mean bugs, mean heat, and mean soil.
My plans for some lovely gourd art or birdhouses failed too. My gourd crop—a single gourd and some tiny globes—surely to be slain in winter’s blast soon. Yet the flowers bloom with Chantilly grace, and the gentle, velvet vines cover the carcass of a ruined doghouse—oblivious to winter or failure.
Before me stands another silvery-haired woman, but this one bears no resemblance to the garden catalog. She has on long pants tucked into her socks. Her garden clogs have a toe missing where it met the weed trimmer line. Her stained, long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck to thwart mosquitoes. A band of insect bites crowns her forehead. The brim of her hat sags unevenly because she had attempted to sew it back in place when it pulled loose. Worn, bargain store gloves barely reach her wrist bones–chiggers embellish bracelets on exposed skin. Red eyes—wild frizzy hair completed the image. She smells of insect repellent, sunscreen, sweat, and manure.
Oh yes, this was what I glimpsed in the bathroom mirror, as I had come inside to dose myself with allergy medication and ibuprofen.
With all the itching and sneezing, with all the frustration of “making do,” with all the aches, the rocks, the weeds—I prefer the reality of gardening to its myth. Reclaiming the earth inch by inch, the miracles of root and seed make me kneel in awe.