Today, my husband David and I were out looking at the blossoms on the winter squash and at the tiny new squash that are forming, all along the vines. We know these are destined never to reach maturity. In just a few more days, the first storm of the season is due, with cold rain predicted and possibly even snow. Soon, the Edenic fruiting of our garden will be inundated, battered by wind and blighted by cold. For today, however, the squash flowers glow like minor suns, the bees root happily in their depths, wallowing in pollen, and all is right with our little world.
I am always astonished, at this time of the year, by how much sheer biomass my gardens have produced. I go out with my clippers to deadhead the Lamb’s Ears and Rose Campion, only, and come away in a sweat, lugging sheaves of dead stalks almost too big to encompass in two arms. There are still the dozens of lavender bushes to trim and the little bundles of their stalks to be bound, for mid-winter fire starters. And, of course, Everything Else: roses, Shasta daisies, rock rose bushes, fruit trees, the nine-foot high forest of Evening Primrose, the Bronze and Florence Fennel, the ivy that insists on strangling the oak tree, the toppling towers of the sunflowers. Etcetera etcetera etcetera . . . The sheer magnitude of the burgeoning of our gardens is impressive—and humbling.
All we have done, really, is prepare the soil, put some seeds in the ground and water regularly. The plants do the rest. They are like an entire industrial district of small factories, humming away, day and night, with the simple division of cells. Meristematic tissues nudge their leading edges forward, driven by the momentum and force of tiny cellular dynamos. Roots deepen; leaves enlarge; buds form; flowers unfurl; and finally, fruit sets and seeds are formed. The intelligence of this process is stunning, when I stop to consider it. I mean, if called upon to do so, could I create from scratch one single petal of a flower? With all my intelligence, education and inventiveness, could I produce a single red cherry tomato or ripe fig? Not even if my life depended on it!
These are my thoughts, as I labor, head down, under a sun that has become mild, these last few days. The air has a dreaming coolth that is delicious on the skin, like vaporized silk admixed with champagne. I sometimes wonder if this is work, at all, or just one of life’s most exquisite pleasures: strong hands and arms, the will to exert them, the fragrances of the plants, the little puffs of breeze just tinged with cold, like a silk scarf with a single silver thread woven through it.
And then there are the animals. Wherever David or I go about the property, we have a Pied Piper’s train of critters trailing behind. Maclovio, the Chihuahua, prefers to hang out with David, doing more masculine pursuits. The cats, Panda and Sophia, don’t exactly follow me around but instead simply manifest where I am, as if sprung from the soil or dropped from the sky, like rain. Soundlessly and effortlessly they appear, already coiled in sunny slumber or crouched on a boulder, camouflaged by shadows. If I move to a different flower bed or border to work, they are already there, too. It’s mysterious.
Panda, whom I found wet and abandoned in a tree one rainy night, grew up under the tutelage of our dear departed dog, Misha, and believes he, too, is canine. He rolls in the dirt and refuses to clean himself, scoffing at all feline notions of fastidiousness. Sophia, whom I found in a small wire cage at the Humane Society, celebrates her liberation by lying about the property on her back, indecently relaxed. She haunts the weeds at the bottom of the garden where cultivation meets terra incognita and comes home absolutely armored in burrs. I call her my Burr Queen, as I search for some part of her I can pet that is not spiny, stickery or otherwise inaccessible.
They lounge in the sunshine, while I bend and prune and pant and sweat, cool as cucumbers. They regard me through half-closed eyes, as if considering what might possibly be my motivation for this activity, or maybe simply enjoying their satisfaction at being non-human and therefore exempt from labor.
Work is our excuse to be outside but, really, we are all simply relishing these last days of warmth and sunshine, before the turning of the year’s wheel toward cold and mud and wailing wind. The hours stretch as languidly as the cats. The silence is deep and serene. Our lives seem suspended in amber, like bees deep in the honeyed light of the squash blossoms. The blessing of peace contains us, as if we were all ripe fruits, cradled in a soft basket of hours.
Suzan Still is the author of Fiesta of Smoke and Commune of Women. You can learn more about her at our website.