My friend Daniel has a garden that intimidates the hell out of me. Every patch of land blooms with color, some of it spiky, some of it subtle. Towering tree-like plants from South Africa bloom next to a low shrub from Argentina. He has traveled the world and brought back seeds from nearly every country. In his Seward Park backyard, he has re-created the world, as he has seen it, in lush density. Every time I visited, he gave me a tour of the new plants, brushing up against the old ones as we walked — fuschia rhododendrons; crayon-orange dahlias; fireworks spread out along the ground as pink daisies. As we touched each plant, he trilled off the long Latin name of each one, relishing the hard consonants of the dead language in his mouth.
Mostly, I just nodded and smiled. And smelled the flowers that looked appealing to me.
Really, I know so little about the plants around me that it’s embarrassing.
The summer after I graduated college, I couldn’t find work. Do you remember that time, 1990, all the bright young things suddenly brought down to earth by the dearth of jobs and the disappearance of alluring careers? And those were the business majors. Me? Double major in English literature and creative writing. Useless, in other words. Bound to get me work.
When I wasn’t crafting terrible stories and sending them to The New Yorker, I looked for something I could do that would help me leave my room. In desperation — and some Thoreau-like wish to return to nature — I applied for a job at a nursery in my town. Unfortunately, the morning of the interview, I lost my contact lens down the drain of the bathroom sink. This left me like Cyclops, one eye working, and frantic. The supervisor led me down rows of potted plants under a white tent, and asked me to name each one. Squinting, I took guesses, based on the names of plants I had liked for their sounds. I had no clue.
I ended up working at a bookstore in a mall, instead. I don’t really think about that year much, now.
Yesterday, the sun shone, and the sky seemed to suggest the light would last for hours. We put Bean’s bouncer underneath the cherry tree and let her dance up and down in her bare feet. Danny dragged out the push mower and went back and forth over the green. I found a hoe in the garden shed, then heaved it to my shoulder and let it fall to the ground. One raised bed, weeded. That’s all I wanted for the afternoon.
Hands in the dirt, I pushed apart the weeds and pulled them up. Potato bugs emerged and then waved their spindly grey legs in the air, then arighted themselves again. My skin grew faintly pink from the sun. Music played from an open window next to the lilac tree, suffused with light when I stood in the right spot. Little Bean kept bouncing.
For a moment, everything felt as drawn in black lines as the dirt under my fingernails.
Within a few moments, I gave up the goal. I just wanted to keep working. Clods of earth, long tendrils of frilly grass gone from the patch, rocks, and old plant tags buried in the black dirt — they grew in the pile next to the wooden borders. When I stopped to smear sunscreen on my arms with my dirty hands, I saw that the bed was nearly cleared.
After a kiss on Bean’s head, and a ridiculous conversation with Danny, I put small leaves of lettuce, like tentacles waving, into the dirt. Black Tuscan kale. Magenta chard. Curls of arugula. Cilantro seeds.
I have no idea if they will live. There’s a hard wind blowing tonight. All the plant starts could be trampled by fat raindrops by the morning. And even if they survive, I really don’t know what I’m doing.
I’m just excited that I planted them.
And later in the afternoon, Shannon came by to show us the garden, each peony bush and kiwi vine something she had planted with her hands in the years she lived here. Purple species rhododendrons like paper-maiche dresses, alpine strawberry plants dotted along the side yard among the apple trees, red currant bushes with tiny green berries that will ripen into red within a few weeks. (And we might be able to eat them, if the deer don’t get them, or the territorial raccoons.)
“What’s this?” I pointed to the green leaves vaguely shaped like the Canadian maple leaves. Danny and I had been trying to figure it out. I was stuck at celery.
“Lovage,” she said, smiling and proud.
I’ve never used it. Never eaten it before. All I could think — and my head kept repeating it — was “Lettice and Lovage,” the name of a feisty funny British play that starred the fiercest actress alive, Maggie Smith. (Seriously, if you have never seen one of her movies, rectify that mistake.) Once again, I knew the literature, instead of the thing itself.
But it’s in our garden now. Soon we’ll snip some leaves and figure out what to do with it.
Do you have any ideas?
I hope you have the chance to put your hands in the dirt soon, too.