The author’s garden illustrates the ways Earth has been damaged—and also provides solace and resolve to go forward.
MY GARDEN IS MY TEACHER, and during the recent winter weeks, it became an altered place of quiet beauty and study. Overnight, the snow started coming down, hesitantly at first but then with great purpose. By morning the late-autumn nakedness had been transformed into a sparkling white splendour. As the layers continued to pile on, everything softened—the contours of planters and tree limbs, the fence posts and steps into the gazebo. Even the usual neighbourhood sounds seemed to fall to a reverent hush.
By the time the snowfall stopped, the solar lanterns were glowing dimly from beneath the drifts and the shrubs, birdbath and planters all wore top hats. To the side, a tall lone clump of Karl Forster grass, now uniformed in crystal, still maintained its rigid sentinel stance. The maple tree, with its thousand, snow covered arms and fingers pointing skyward, looked ready to capture the wintry moon.
All the unfinished projects and abject clutter had been airbrushed away. This was, for the moment, a perfect winter garden.
Trudy's perfect winter garden
Then the melting started, and the thousands of red berries on the pyracantha shrubs along the back border resurfaced. Previously ignored, but now a touch fermented by the freeze, they drew in the birds that had waited for this moment. The robins, especially, will gorge on them until they’re notably tipsy, but the towhees, sparrows, juncos and chickadees savour the buffet as well.
I also spotted the varied thrush pair that habitually visits when the snow in their woodland home becomes too deep for foraging. They dine on a berry or two but prefer to find their fodder in the leaf mulch beneath.
Days later, and with the lawn mostly bare by now, the resident squirrel returned to his daily chores. On an overcast afternoon, a pair of Northern Flickers visited just long enough to rummage for leftovers in the mulched vegetable beds. Then the starlings flew in and began pecking at the lawn for seeds and other morsels. Starlings move and feed frenetically, never linger, and always abruptly take wing together in a way that’s not yet understood. Starlings are nobody’s favourite bird, but you still have to admire them for showcasing what they know and we do not.
A week of misty mornings followed, and a few times the garden was so enshrouded in fog that the world beyond its boundaries hinted at infinity.
Somewhere in that spell was a morning that was both foggy and frosty, and on that day I happened to drive through the Mount Newton Valley on my way home from an early morning errand. I slowed in wonder. The mystical alchemy of receding fog and expanding pink dawn was just then etching the fences and naked trees in black while also reflecting the frost that had glazed them overnight. The air was cold and still. The fields glistened with hoarfrost. All other colours had quietly vanished.
I felt as if I’d entered an impossibly perfect and beautiful snow globe. For a moment or two I profoundly wanted to stay there forever.
NOW THE DAYS are becoming noticeably longer and the sun has begun warming both the air and the soil. On cue, bulbs and buds and roots and shoots are once again springing to life. Nature is gearing up for another season.
But for how much longer? How long, before the irreparable damage of chronic exploitation starts warping the environment into something that can no longer support us in the manner we’ve so taken for granted?
We’re seeing many inklings of this breakdown already, in the form of ancient ice melting, catastrophic floods and fires, treacherous weather systems, killer droughts, unprecedented rates of species extinction, rising sea levels, increasingly pervasive contamination, and so on. But society scrutinizes each of these issues in separate silos, and dispenses prescriptions that are mostly about remediation and compensation. Never do we analyze the root cause of all these effects, which is wilful, opportunistic environmental degradation.
I can see the decline in my own garden. Rising summer temperatures and harsh drought are the most obvious signs. Pollinators don’t come around the way they used to: The first bee I spotted last spring was a freshly dead one covered in white powder. (It’s disconcerting when a healthy plant produces no squash because there are no bees or butterflies to transfer pollen between flowers that are just a half-metre apart.)
Some plants are slowly exiting our region, including the ubiquitous rhododendron that can live for a century, just not here anymore. Last summer’s heat dome was deadly for this shrub.
Meanwhile, new pests are arriving regularly. I first detected a non-native European Wall Lizard on the patio about six years ago and now they are everywhere. Two years ago, I had an infestation of whitefly, which normally wreaks havoc only in greenhouses. Last year the coreopsis beetle, originally from Texas and California, moved into my back yard and began to multiply. I dread to think what might be coming this summer.
The signs are everywhere that our biosphere is in trouble. And yet we keep looking the other way and waiting for Others to bring us painless, magical solutions. By now we should know that’s not going to happen.
SOME DAYS I WONDER if we might be in for a replay of the Garden of Eden story. According to the ancient narrative, which is sacred for several billion people around the world, the first humans were given a perfect, beautiful garden to live in and care for. The only instructions were to steward their new habitat and to keep their hands off one specific, singular tree. Before they’d even had a chance to test their commitment to stewardship, they stole from the tree and were swiftly banished from the garden for all time.
Fast-forward to now, and the trajectory we’re on. Are we fated to be banished again—this time by our own hand—for all eternity from the garden we call Earth?
Are we fated to take today’s and tomorrow’s children on that slow, sleep-walking march to self-destruction? Is that our legacy? Are we sure that we might not prefer instead to make significant consumer-related changes in our own life (i.e. buying and wasting less), and to begin demanding from our politicians more genuine and serious conservation measures and robust action on a just transition?
This would be an excellent time for the silent majority—We, the People—to start making ourselves heard. For Nature, and for a child.
Trudy’s garden in April
I pause on a sun-soaked rock in my garden and watch the diminutive Bewick’s Wren couple flitting around for nesting material. It seems early, but they know their calendar. They’ll find what they need and use just enough to make a safe haven for their next generation.
Their resolve buoys me, and I go back to my chores with an eye and ear open. There is much to care for and much to learn. Through every season including this one, my garden is my teacher and I am its perpetual student.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, gardener and grandmom residing in Saanich.