The past few months, my garden has been aflutter with monarch butterflies. I planted very deliberately, hoping to entice and nourish them with milkweed and tithonia, a deep orange Mexican sunflower. My strategy worked. Every day when I pull into my driveway, I pause to take photos of the monarchs, dipping their nociceptors into the rich centers of the flowers, while their wings slowly open and close as they balance themselves. I’ve watched them spar with each other and the busy bees as they dart about, vying for territory and position. As a bonus they’ve been joined by swallowtails, red-spotted purples, painted ladies, sulphurs. In my tiny part of the world I’m creating habitat and possibilities, which I think is the best any of us can do in these delicate climate change times. A lot of small contributions can add up to bigger changes. I wish anyone with a patch of dirt would dig in and feel the satisfaction of lending a hand to our threatened creatures.
I read an article the other day which stated that people who had a physiological response to music have more fiber connections between their auditory cortexes and the brain regions linked with emotional processing. I must have tons of fibers between my two centers. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still when listening to music. Parts of me are always moving, whether I’m listening in my car, at a concert, pretty much anywhere. Often, only one note of a song will hurl me through time, back to a situation from long ago, one that is fraught with feelings, both positive and negative. I listen to a Pandora station while I work in my garden, a station I designed with dozens of artists.
Their songs play on a random shuffle so I experience variety while hearing a combination of songs that I know and new ones, suggested by the mysterious AI forces whose algorithms determine musical preferences that work for me. Generally speaking, this works out very well and helps me garden longer, despite the challenges that my aching knees and sciatica present while digging and planting. A few afternoons ago, I was very pleased to have shoved forty spring bulbs into the ground, replaced a dead elderberry bush with a beautiful variegated weigela, and surrounded my baby kousa dogwood with the paving bricks I decorate with rocks I’ve collected during my travels.
Add in 4 cubic feet of mulch spread and I definitely felt accomplished. As I slowly climbed my back steps, ready to call it quits for the day, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon popped up in my stream. Harvest Moon was the first song on the CD’s Michael made for me before he died, his Love Songs for the Lovely Renee, which I’ve only managed to listen to one time. In less than a millisecond, I was reduced from my tired, achy satisfaction to a heaving, sobbing wreck, in what is often described in novels as the “keening and wailing” of grief. I remembered Michael and I swaying to that song on many occasions, feeling all that is implied in the music and the lyrics. When he was so desperately ill and confused as his life was slipping away, I played that song among a few others and he rapidly turned toward me, with absolute recognition and clarity as his music/emotion connections were still untouched by his advancing cancer. I treasure those moments, when we both knew what lay between us. Magic.
As I sink my hands in the dirt, planting for the future, I observe all the life going on in the ground around me. Busy organisms, living their lives, some lengthy, some a brief moment, but all entwined with mine. I read a book a few years ago called The Earth Moved-On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. All these creatures that we step on or over, who play an immense role in the health of our earth, which many of us are so likely to know little about. The intricacies of how nature works are endlessly interesting to me. The miraculous interplay that goes on while we’re doing something else is quite stunning. As with the incredible formation of a healthy baby who appears with its millions of cells and autonomic activities working away, so goes the interaction of incredibly diverse ecosystems that we are surrounded by daily and which we too often ignore. I know that coexisting within these structures are true miracles, perhaps more so than the random lucky breaks we often describe that as such. Right under our noses is the miraculous, taken for granted, often unacknowledged at all. The seeds in the plumes of my pampas grass attract lots of birds who hang on the delicate filaments and feed as they sway, back and forth, back and forth. Eventually what they digest may be deposited elsewhere and soon pampas grass will be sprouting unexpectedly, far from my front yard. The worms will aerate my soil and my bulbs and roots will emerge next spring as beautiful flowers, aided by their movement and excrement. These are the daily miracles I appreciate and they’re enough to smooth the rough edges of life. Clouds and insects and flowers and life cycles. Readily available and so rich.
The things I don’t know and that I’ll likely never know, drift randomly through my mind as I dig and plant with my music in the background. Do I emit some pheromone or vibe that makes people fall asleep when they sit or lay in my lap? Why does that always seem to work even when I feel agitated? Would Michael’s doctor, who left Carle Clinic in the middle of his treatment, have had the courage to re-start his immunological drug that was taken away because of an unexplained liver enzyme reaction? Would having it again have made a difference in his life span? Why are my memories so vivid? Is it a biological phenomenon? Why do some genes express themselves so obviously while others don’t? Is it inherent in our individual biological make-up or is it the dynamism between them and our environment? And if it’s both, which is more significant? On and on I go, wondering and wondering and wondering. My head is filled with the traffic of emotions and I spend time sorting out who I’m hearing in there. Which kid, which friend, which family member. For a pretty realistic, grounded person, this is pretty cosmic stuff, but I feel it. I suppose it must be based in areas of my mind that I can’t access or understand. One day, there may be answers to all my mulling. For now, it’s a bunch of mysteries that intrigue and baffle me. I dig and I dig and I dig, literally and figuratively. My garden is the metaphor for all the busy activity happening between my ears.
This fertile ground that I give myself over to with such great pleasure is the earth of Michael and me. This fall marked the 40th year that I’ve lived in this house, most of them with Michael. When we first moved here in the fall of 1978, we felt lucky to be property owners as interest rates and home values had felt beyond our economic reach. We were reclaiming a large rental property in a university town which hadn’t been paid the attention given to a single family dwelling. We got into a neighborhood with the elementary school which we felt would be good if we had kids, but that was for the future. Neither one of us thought we’d live here for decades. Time moved along and we turned our attention to the unkempt, weed-ridden yard, the big double lot, with very few vestiges of care from long ago. We fenced it and slowly, staked out spaces where we could create the inviting extension of what the inside of our house felt like, warm and homey. On weekends we spent hours outside, Michael carving out swaths of earth for his beloved tomatoes, gradually expanding his way into multiple vegetables and herbs, learning to can and plan for food during the fallow months. Berry bushes entered the picture as well. I added to the edibles with quince bushes that produced the most fragrant fruit and planted dwarf apple and pear trees. I was busy with flowering shrubs, the showy trees of spring and the perennials I’d discovered. The city girl gone farmer. Sometimes we worked parallel to each other, but we shared tasks as well, digging our way through mounds of mulch, creating brick borders and supporting each other when a task was too hard. We are in this ground. When I work outside, Michael is all around me. Even as I miss him, I feel him nearby, and as I feel him, I become centered and stronger. I had no idea what it would be like to live in our spaces after his death, both the inside and outside ones. It’s now been one year, four months and six days since he’s been gone. I find myself most at peace where we spent the bulk of our time together, and have no desire to leave what seems to hold the essence of who we were in our partnership. I tell my kids that if they find me, collapsed in my garden, to know that I went out happy.