It is in our gardens that wisdom and humility are nurtured.
PATRICK LANE, one of our most loved and celebrated writers, died suddenly in early March, just as his garden was wakening anew. I did not know him personally but found myself thinking of him and contemplating his words as I began gearing up for spring chores in my own garden.
If I was to be banished to an island somewhere with only an hour’s notice, I’d be packing some seeds, a clutch of gardening tools and my well-worn copy of Patrick Lane’s 2004 memoir, There is a Season. In this one book I’d have a library’s worth of slow-release wisdom and perspective to nourish me through unlimited rereading. Central to the memoir is Lane’s lifelong love for gardening and for nature, which he juxtaposes so exquisitely with his own life’s story—the years and years of hardscrabble existence in isolated towns where the living was hard and misery ran rampant; the turning to alcohol and a small manual typewriter on which he hammered out late-night words against hopelessness and defeat.
Patrick Lane in 2004 (Photo by David Broadland)
The words bought him freedom but addiction plagued him for decades until his journey to sobriety took him back again to the foothills of his own garden, where he found himself standing “as a strangeling in this simple world.” Slowly and humbly he began rebuilding both his life and neglected garden, his ever-keen mind revelling in the miracle of a dewdrop, a chickadee, an emerging bloom, and the papery wall of a hornet’s nest.
Throughout the book, Lane deftly weaves between the past and the present, dredging up unreconciled pain from the one, and half-buried empty vodka bottles from the other. He faces both with unvarnished courage. He is ready to acquiesce to his garden—his teacher—and achieve with it a symbiotic stasis: Each can rehabilitate and heal the other.
Like Lane, I labour willingly “in the daily meditations of earth, air, stone, and water.” Caring for a piece of nature, even a contrived piece like the suburban back yard, is good for both body and soul. This is where thoughts often swirl like spring pollen, where I sometimes feel as if I am on the cusp of some new understanding or perspective. This is where I see that a hundred years of studying nature would not reveal everything there is to know about this evolving place, a fact I find oddly comforting.
In the garden you can take the memories of your regrets and compost them into something amenable enough to let you get on with life. You live in the present. You feel gladness for tasks that involve your hands in the warm soil, for the privilege of anointing emerging seeds with clean water burbling from the hose or watering can. You check in on your resident tree frogs, their tiny green bodies bizarrely incongruent to the weight and timbre of their call. (Of them, Lane adds this gem: “A green frog does not sit on a red leaf unless he’s gone a little mad.”)
In the garden you don’t need a politician to tell you about climate change and the damage we’ve done. You can see it in the thousands of tiny assaults on the ecology—the tree that drops a branch without warning, the butterflies and dragonflies mostly gone, the lizard you didn’t see until five years ago, the thermometer’s increasingly erratic dance across the calendar. You know it as you haul water to plants that were previously satisfied with the occasional summer rain.
Still, the garden is perhaps the most basic and precious thing we have, not so much as owners forever but as stewards for a time. A garden can help us through any transition, any season in life. It can lead the way. It always has.
“Every stone in my garden is a story, every tree a poem,” Lane wrote in his memoir. “I barely know myself in spite of the admonishments of wise men and women who tell me I must know my life in order to live it fully. What I know is that I live in this place where words are made. What we are is a garden. I believe that.”
I believe that too. I believe that by taking care of our land and the miracles of nature that happen upon it, we are taking care of ourselves and each other and the Earth that we all share. It is the purest and most joyous way to live a fleeting life.
Trudy encourages everyone to plant kale this year. It’s easy to grow and loaded with nutrition, the bees and butterflies love the flowers, and the greens can be picked throughout the winter.