From trellises and branches the gray-haired woman hangs bells shaped like birds throughout the garden – not because she wanted to cross an item off her to-do list, but because the breeze on this foggy June afternoon called her outdoors, because the boysenberry vine craved an ornament, and the bower flower wanted company.
It took her a long time to learn that you don’t need a spreadsheet of garden chores or a master calendar of when to fertilize and mulch, that it’s better to study leaf color, light, and rain. Yet she has a compassionate fondness for the younger self that planted those roses by the book and nourished that baby bougainvillea after a rough transplanting. Who knew roots could be so delicate, so fragile?
The woman’s hands know the soil in her garden now, the clay where the oxalis thrives and the soft earth under the old bougainvillea fed by its own fuschia-colored bracts fallen year after year. She has dug deep, so she knows the roots and burrows too. She abandoned her spreadsheet long ago, for the calendar is in her head now, in the angle of sunlight and the arrival of shadow.
The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.
When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.
It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.
The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.
When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.
Leaves on the spent canes of the
boysenberry vine crinkle and fade,
while congregations of Concord grapes
swell with purple sweetness.
Into the green globes hanging from the persimmon tree
an orange stain begins to creep.
Slowly the garden is bending towards autumn.
it surrenders its greenness willingly.
In a long, languid season
of praise for the light
it consents to the coming darkness.
May I join my voice to this
reach for candle and cup,
and trust in the secret gifts
the roots know
in the belly of the earth.
Our yet-to-be-born children would rock on this garden swing with their sweethearts one day, my ex-husband and I imagined when we bought it over twenty years ago. The jarrah wood was smooth then, polished a deep and lustrous brown. We bought a can of special oil too on the salesman’s recommendation, fully intending to recoat the swing at least once a year to protect the Australian hardwood, but that oil, like my husband and the dream of children we might have had, is long gone.
Instead the seasons in their turn have done the scouring and burnishing. For the last five years, in the garden I share with a new love, the swing has sheltered under the boughs of a redwood, its base moldering into the rich soil. Needles and cones and industrious spiders have joined the work of sun, wind, and rain to turn the wood rough and gray.
In the spring I brush away the cobwebs and duff and sit down on the old swing. My back nestles against a curve in its back, human spine, muscles, and sinew aligning with wood slats as if we were designed for one another. In the heat of the day the scent of feathery redwood branches mingles with childhood memories of camping in the mountains, and I push my foot against the cushion of forest floor in this little corner of my city garden to set the swing in motion. The rasp of wood in metal rings and bolts echoes the creak of my own joints. Someday I will accept my gray hair and wrinkles as graciously as I do this weather-roughened wood. Someday I will ripen into glory. But for now I glide back and forth with the whispers of those young lovers I dreamed of long ago. For now I am at ease in a moment of sun-softened stillness.