Lost in the garden

September 20, 2007

One of my favorite things to do is to forget myself in my garden.

Allow me to explain. Off to one side of my vegetable garden is a little open area under a cluster of trees, an elm, a couple of sweet gum, and a sweet olive shrub. The space holds a couple of chaise lounges and chairs. Think of it as a sort of den without walls.

It is generally a quiet spot, at the highest point on the lot, with 50 acres of corn or soybeans on one side, and a gentle slope of trees, shrubs and flowers down to the house on the other side.

I make a lot of my weekend phone calls from up there because the signal is good. Sometimes I go up to read or write.

Or, as a sign my dad used to have said, “Sometimes I sits here and thinks, and sometimes I just sits here.”

I have sat so still there that a cardinal once flew over my head so close that the air of his passage stirred my hair.

Late afternoon is best, when the light slants in just so, and the breezes come alive, dancing in with a cargo of whispers from their passage through the crops.

Not surprising that I would sometimes nod off, stretched out on a chaise like that.

The really neat thing is when I first swim back up to consciousness. I am aware of sound, a rustle of wind, cry of a blue jay. I open my eyes to see leaves fluttering, branches waving, maybe clouds scudding by.

For maybe a second, perhaps two, that is all I know. Not my own name. I don’t remember that “I” am at all, or even the names of the things I am seeing and hearing. I am just a part of it.

Pretty soon, of course, I recognize things not so much by what they are, but by the labels I have been taught to attach to them. I think “tree.” If I were German, it would be “baum,” French, “arbre,” or Spanish, “arbol.” Invented tags that have nothing to do with what the tree, after all, is.

Then it all comes back in a rush, the busy details, who I am, what I need to do that day, the feature story I really need to get started on because it’s due Thursday, the prescription waiting for me at Gruber’s Pharmacy for one of the annoyances of growing older. Growing older itself, which reminds me that there is more time behind me than there is before me. And that someday the leaves will be dancing for somebody else.

I get up, stiffly, and totter off to where I left the lawnmower. There are details to tend to.

Gardener at twilight

September 1, 2007

The old man tottered slowly across the lawn to the tables set out under a homemade frame covered with a tarp of an uncertain color.

The hand-lettered sign advertised “Sweet Corn,” but there was none to be seen. He kept the corn somewhere out of sight.

On the tables pasteboard boxes displayed zucchini, a half dozen varieties of peppers in green, red, yellow, and orange. Squash and melons, cabbage. All fat and full and blemish-free enough to cause a bright green envy in any gardener.

Small as a hickory nut he seemed, and old, old, like part of the mountain looming behind his house. Very small, with a full head of white hair that spent most of its time under a red and white baseball cap. His dried paper skin shone pale in the fading light, his eyes rimmed in red.

A square bandage covered part of the mottled purple skin on his left forearm. He moved quickly, with short, rapid steps.

He didn’t say much. He shook hands and nodded when I gave my name, and mumbled something that might have been his own.

“Is there corn? Is it all gone?”

“I keep it inside. Four dollars the dozen. Want a couple?”

I had four dollars.

He stepped through a break in the barricade of tall yews standing in front of the house.

It was not a typical southern Pennsylvania farm house; yellow brick, windows in a Victorian trim, with a Mansard roof. Like him, the place was worn and a little tattered.

I am a gardener, too, but my vegetables rarely come out so handsome. My garden does not get the attention it should since I stopped working from home and now spend 90 minutes a day to and from work. Puttering time is pretty limited.

Weekends are my time in the garden. Sometimes I work my butt off. Sometimes, I just poke around and daydream. The garden isn’t so much about raising stuff to eat, though what survives gets eaten. It’s really more of staying in touch with some primal things, from the determination of seeds shoving themselves up through the decay of the previous year to the relentless appetite of everything for everything else.

After awhile, the old man came back with a dozen ears in a cardboard flat.

“The bag broke, so I put them in this box.”

I handed him four singles.

“Beautiful vegetables,” I said, thinking to draw him into a conversation. Maybe pry a few secrets out of him.

“Thanks. Been hot today.”

I smiled and walked back to the car. I stowed the corn behind the passenger seat. As I eased behind the wheel, I saw him standing between the tables, his pale hands on the peppers, which glowed in the dim light like coals.