Out of the nursery and into the garden
where it rooted and survived its first hard winter,
then a few years of freedom while it blossomed . . .
developed strange ideas about its height
and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters,
its self-indulgent thrusts . . .
Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved
by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots
straight up, blood red, into the light again.
—from “The Cherry Tree” by David Wagoner
It was my birthday this past weekend. Now I am 37. My husband and I were in Boston on an unrelated errand, and the morning of my birthday dawned bright and clear. From our hotel room I could see the city coming to life—teams rowing up and down the Charles River, ducks arriving and departing, cars zooming hither and thither.
After attending to our obligations, we had the late afternoon and evening to ourselves, and we spent it strolling along the river where, overnight, a profusion of blossoms had sprung up out of the veritable desert of early spring in New England to cover what seemed like every branch and every inch of earth along the riverbank.
Everywhere we went we could hear people wondering aloud, “Has that tree always been here?” while they trained their cell phones and cameras at the shocking sprays of pink petals—in spring, mother nature wants to be noticed. The beautiful weather and the beautiful flowers, and the opportunity to stroll along the riverbank at the golden hour with the man I love . . . who could ask for a better gift?
At 37 I am longing a little bit for change—I feel restless. No doubt change will come, though probably not in the form I expect. In the coming year I hope that, despite life’s constant pruning, with each new day I will endeavor—like the cherry tree—to put out fresh shoots and grow toward the light.
Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring.
If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature,
if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep,
if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you,
know that the morning and spring of your life are past.
Thus may you feel your pulse.
—from the journal of Henry David Thoreau (1859)
Harsh words from Mr. Thoreau, but I will tell you this: I could not have more sympathy with morning and spring if I tried! But, my sympathy is cloaked with impatience—when will spring truly arrive? Even the plants are anxious, I can feel that. The iris and lily sprouts have popped their heads up out of the soil, but they’re unsure whether or not the time of growth has come. Most mornings they seem to huddle together in an attempt to keep warm. Even the chives are plodding.
I’ve been doing what I can during this protracted gloom, raking up the detritus of winter storms, pruning (hopefully correctly) our pear trees, checking on this, that, and the other thing in the yard. But, still, mother nature makes me wait. Perhaps the ‘early’ Easter is to blame for the dissonance I feel—the Resurrection has come but the world slumbers on, oblivious to the miracle that has transpired.
Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
It is Good Friday, and the weather is enticingly warm. From underneath their shrinking blanket of snow, I can hear the plants calling to me. Without boots I trace the narrow strips of snowless earth, and find myself at the edge of the bed of winter wheat we planted in September. “Can these dry bones live?” I ask myself. I ruffle the half-grown sprouts with my hand and they feel alive, despite their worse for wear appearance. Fragile, but alive nonetheless.
Before I know it, I am fluffing up more patches of wheat, pulling out dead and decaying leaves that fell in the fall. I run and dig my rake out of a pile of bits and bobs in the garage, and scrape it gently across the surface until the whole bed shines from within with the green light of life. With each passing moment, I feel more alive myself.
In the distance I hear geese, and as they get closer I look up to watch them pass. Suddenly I am overwhelmed. I feel my throat tighten—sometimes spring does this to me. The geese are so beautiful, and seeing them return reassures me that renewal is possible in this world where it sometimes feels like everything is passing away. I feel warmth and light pouring out from me toward the geese, toward the spring, toward the plants slowly greening beneath the snow. It is laughably, joyously easy to love all of these things.
It is not so easy to love humankind—I have been painfully aware of that this week. As I prune the raspberries and claw the dead leaves from around their canes, I think about the Lord’s new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. “But,” I protest, “I am not You. I do not know how.” I sit with that thought for awhile and then, in the stillness, the small voice says, “Love them like you love the geese.” Perhaps that is a good place to start.
There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some shining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree—
And now I will tell you the truth. Everything in the world comes. At least, closer.
—from “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver
It is February. It is Lent. We walk through the white woods, and the winter does not bite. The snow sags and melts, forming clear pools ringed with ice. A vole, running low, slips between two worlds and descends. Remnants of beech leaves curl inward and turn slightly in the breeze, resembling tiny wings when they meet. The bones of the world are heaped around us. The skeleton trees stretch up and out, hatching the gray sky with their dark branches as their roots tangle and sink deeper . . . into the dust from whence all creatures come.
And, yet, a voice on the wind is singing: Behold, I make all things new.
Another year gone, leaving everywhere its rich spiced residues:
Vines, leaves, the uneaten fruits crumbling damply in the shadows . . .
moldering in that black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries –
roots and sealed seeds and the wanderings of water.
—from “Fall Song” by Mary Oliver
Even as this summer’s growing season was winding down, and despite putting up almost more beans than the freezer could hold, our bean plants continued to flower and produce pods. Given that our vegetable gardens are quite humble in size and scope, I had never attempted to save the seeds from anything we grew, but something had to be done with those beans. So, I pulled up the plants, tied them together with twine, and left them to hang in the garage for awhile. When the pods were satisfactorily dry, and the hard beans rattled around inside, we brought the lot into the house and carefully extracted the smooth, hard little seeds. Now they will sleep through the cold, dark winter and perhaps—if we are lucky—they will bring forth next summer’s harvest.