Another Lesson in the Garden

Late afternoon last Thursday, a big storm came through Winter Park. Lots of wind and rain. By 6:00, though, it was calm, and I had made a cup of tea in anticipation of a couple of hours on the couch with Dash, reading a good book. I took my hot tea to the back windows to survey my tiny garden domain, as I do every early morning before I settle in for a read. So green and lush, so satisfying in its simple beauty. I gazed for several seconds before I realized that my brain was not registering the details I knew for a fact to be out there. It was the oddest sensation, like there was a fuzzy spot of emptiness on my retina. The east corner of the yard was a black hole, sucking all light and color out of the garden, and for a moment, I thought I was going blind. I had to blink a couple of times to realize that my brain was actually struggling against “seeing” what was actually out there, wanting instead to hold  the impression it usually sees from this vantage point. I took a step closer to the window pane thinking that would give me a better view and make things right.

And then, something very foreign came into focus, a whole new set of details from those I beheld twelve hours earlier--a giant oak tree lying across my fence (now crushed), the top branches of the tree reaching all the way across the back deck and into the center of the yard. I put the tea down and rushed out to see that, indeed, a tree from the bank parking lot behind my property had split in two and crashed into my perfect little garden space. (Well, perfection is relative, right? I use the word loosely. ) But truly, we’ve had so much rain this month and everything in my little Eden is huge and bursting with vividness and liveliness—or had been earlier in the day. I recently planted six large pots of rex begonias in the back corner and they were nowhere to be seen. The Alfonse bamboo was bent in half and twisted amongst the oak tree’s fallen branches. Three huge limbs on the tabebuia tree were broken. The Buddha and the beautiful ceramic pots that surrounded him on the deck were buried in a mass of mangled limbs and leaves. I could hear myself say, “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” over and over, but I don’t think I had the breath to actually formulate words.

It was fourteen hours before my right-hand man in the garden could get over to start cutting the tree up and hauling it off. It was a mess, and the two of us worked like dogs all day long on Friday, him wielding his chain saw, and me dragging debris around to the front of the house or throwing limbs over the back fence to be hauled off. Gradually, we worked our way to the bottom of the huge pile-up, and I saw my babies flattened out or ripped asunder. I would kneel and try to push them back into place, or just pick up the pieces for disposal, my chest tight and tears filling my eyes with each little tragedy. Kevin, steadying influence that he is, kept saying, “It’s not that bad, they’ll grow back. The bamboo will straighten. The fence can be repaired.” And I’d pull myself together and remember that this is the way of nature; nothing is exempt from her temper tantrums. We’d certainly suffered worse in the hurricanes. Still, the waves of disappointment rose in me as we labored through the clean up. Big heaving waves of anxiety.  It was an old anxiety over being plunged into chaos and not quite knowing how to proceed. An irrational fear that this mess might be permanent.

With each wave, I looked up at Kevin who was whistling like a mockingbird from his perch on a high branch of the tabebuia tree, and reminded myself what a good lesson in non-attachment this could be, if I’d let it happen. My reaction to the loss of the plants, the fence, the shape of the garden was instructive. I wanted it all to stay as I had made it, cherishing beauty, order, and quiescence as I do. I had a hard time letting it go of this version of the garden and surrendering it to the vicissitudes of nature. I was being very possessive. Very willful. “Let it go,” I heard my better voice say. “It’s OK. It will grow again, as all things do. This is not permanent.”

I felt better.

And then my petty side started barking pretty loudly. You see, only a tall podocarpus shrub separates my yard from my neighbor’s. And this neighbor has completely relinquished all responsibility of his home and his yard (a quality I find hard not to judge. . .). His townhouse is in foreclosure, and he has done no painting or repairing of the unit for years. The sidewalk to his front door is black with mold. A dying palm hangs limply at the front door, and in the back a dead pine stands riddled with borers. Three holly trees along his sidewalk are bare and grotesque looking, suffering from the fatal witch’s broom disease that afflicts a lot of hollies in Florida. You really could not ask for a worse neighbor than this one--if your standard for assessing such things is maintaining a well-landscaped yard. I belabor this point because I want you to know that the tree that fell on MY fence and MY lovely little back yard is actually standing directly behind this man’s wreck of a back yard. Can you believe that? If the wind had been blowing in a slightly different direction, the tree would have fallen in HIS backyard and he probably wouldn’t even have noticed it! The irony of the situation did not escape me, or amuse me. I was so annoyed at the unfairness of it all. (I TOLD you this was my petty side.)

But the truth is, this is not a story about fairness. And quite frankly, it’s not even a story about a happy gardener who watches Mother Nature play whaley with her handiwork. No, this story is not about the garden at all, if I’m honest. Two days before the storm, I had asked Theresa and Calvin to come over and see the garden this weekend. “It’s so lovely right now, and I want you to enjoy it with me.” The stunning black olive tree had been potted into a large bonsai dish, and I knew they would like it. I was proud of the garden. I was deeply attached to its beauty. I was thinking it was something really nice I had accomplished.  As I picked through mess all day Friday, I got this loud and clear. And I saw how silly it was for me to “claim” the garden in that way. It’s a phenomenon of nature and susceptible to the movements of nature just like everything is. What happened on Thursday afternoon was a natural event, just like the spectacular growth of the bamboo is a natural event. And I can claim no credit for one, nor despair at the other!

We finished the clean-up in the yard around 5:00 on Friday. It was actually an amazing transformation from the way it looked twenty-four hours earlier. Kevin had dispatched every single limb and twig to a large pile on the bank parking lot behind my house. He propped up the fence and staked the plants that could be saved. He blew the sawdust off the large peace lilies and the grass. There was no trace of the fallen tree. The Buddha on the deck was unscathed, and not a single pot was broken in the melee. On the surface of things, the most obvious loss was to the tab tree; she’s pretty lopsided right now. I’ll have to watch her closely and feed her well. I am, after all, her caretaker--but not her creator. Something else is doing the creating out there, every minute of every day. Some unfolding is happening that is beyond me and my tiny will.

The garden will be fine. And I will be more than fine because of this event. And this weekend, Theresa and Calvin can come over and see my less than perfect garden, a garden I have joyfully (and tearfully) participated in but in no way take credit for.

LifeArtLezlie Laws