Pulling up sadness, planting serenity

Therapy: Many gardeners have found solace amid turmoil by reconnecting with the earth.

October 28, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I envisioned a different kind of autumn. I anticipated canning spaghetti sauce, putting up apples and planting a few bulbs to spruce up the beds. And I planned to reassess personal things -- the changing chapters in my life, the next stage in my children's.

This year has been eventful for my family. My husband's accident on the tugboat seven months ago completely took over my days and my work. While he's mending well, he's not yet able to climb back aboard an oceangoing tug. Our daughter is making the 60-mile daily commute to school and back alone in a 15-year-old car without a cell phone. And in August, Matt, our firstborn, moved to a college 10 miles from the Pentagon -- a big step away from us into a world that suddenly feels exponentially more uncertain than it did only a few months ago.

Like most of the nation, I sat in front of the TV on Sept. 11, horrified, immersed in grief, absorbing every detail and trying to figure out what I could do to help. But eventually I turned off the TV and stepped outside.

The rich, grapy fragrance of the fall-blooming clematis mingled in the air with the more delicate sweetness of the end-of-season phlox. A chipmunk scurried up the buttonwood tree. Birds, calling joyfully, soared from maples and tulip poplars to heavily laden apple trees, whose branches were bent low with fruit, a bounty that needed to be preserved, regardless of my state of mind.

Though I felt guilty retreating -- as though vicariously sharing grief helps alleviate it -- I grabbed the basket of garden tools and went out to the wildlife thicket on the east side of the yard. Neglected in favor of more immediate obligations over the past several weeks, it was a tangle of dead currant canes, wild geranium, wire grass, pokeweed, lamb's quarters, and plantain. The huge Scotch broom, which this spring was a mass of tiny blossoms that together resembled a bright yellow bonfire, was inexplicably dead, its whip-thin branches dried to ashen brown. The apricot verbena plants I put in near the pear tree were desiccated clumps. The early lilies were engulfed and the Sheffield mums were almost completely obscured by timothy grass.

In the shade of the black walnut tree, I knelt down and started to weed.

Despite the lack of rain, the ground was surprisingly friable, easily yielding up plant and root together. I yanked honeysuckle, stray vetch and invasive lemon balm, clipped back dead currant branches, pruned the elders, and dug spent lilies. I began to feel better, reconnected to the soil and its cycles of renewal.

I worked my way around the bed, rooting out the invaders, and began to imagine a more civilized space -- Virginia bluebells (Mertensia) beneath the walnut tree, and a tall stand of fragrant oriental lilies behind the birdbath. By the time I reached the butterfly bush (Buddleia), whose gorgeous pale lavender panicles swarmed with butterflies -- nature's gift -- I'd not only unearthed what beauty remained there, but envisioned it enhanced. I felt ready to move forward again, regardless of the uncertainty of life.

I'm not the only one who in recent weeks turned to the earth for solace. Gardeners of all stripes dug in, trying to take control of our own little corners of the world. Nurturing beauty is not simply therapeutic. It's an act of defiance, a way to nourish hope and restore faith. Gardening anticipates a more beautiful future. It may not seem like much of a contribution when so much else is needed, but it helps.

Individual lives together create our many-faceted whole.

It's not retreat. Most of us can't cloister ourselves.

I know I can't. I have nearly finished raising my children, and am on the cusp of releasing them into a scary, unpredictable world.

Wherever they go, my heart goes. And I can't protect them, though I've worked hard to prepare them, to give them the tools I think they'll need.

Since that long productive afternoon in the wildlife garden, I've spent time every day working outside. I've begun to clear the weeds and detritus out of what's left of the vegetables. I've weeded the driveway garden, broadcast bone meal over the perennials there, and mulched. And one day last week, I phoned in a colossal bulb order -- four times what I originally planned -- my bit to help the economy.

It's not exactly the autumn I anticipated. But I did manage to can spaghetti sauce and put up apples. And in a week or two, there will be a ton of bulbs to plant which in spring will really spruce up the beds.

Maybe next year I'll have a chance to reassess my life.

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