In The Night Garden

I have been so pressed for time these days with all the non-gardening items on my list that I often don’t get out into the garden until quite late in the day.  I have a powerful Puritan need to do all my necessary work before my gardening.  This has two consequences:  I do all the mundane stuff carrying around a big load of resentment, and the garden gets the absolute worst of me.  I go out when I am tired, distracted, and often frustrated and irritable.  Generally the act of gardening solves all of these problems, but in the meantime I haven’t gardened as well as I might have earlier in the day.  I suppose the day that I say that these priorities are completely out of whack is the day I truly become a gardener instead of a mom/bookkeeper/air traffic controller/medic/volunteer/chauffeur who gardens.  I do hope to be around long enough to see that day.

However, like almost every other experience in this life (there a number of very notable exceptions, but that is beyond the scope of this blog; I am talking about more run of the mill daily disappointments and problems), there has been a significant silver lining to this.  I go out late, and night falls early, and I keep gardening in the dark.  Sometimes there are lights on inside the house which shine out the windows, but for these I am at the mercy of those who are inside, and their movements around the house.  There are a couple of outside lights around the house on motion sensors that I trigger so I have not fallen down the stairs and broken an ankle, but there is also enough ambient light, and the twilight extends long enough that I can generally see to do a variety of activities.  Moving the potted plants as I have been doing for the last few weeks doesn’t require much finesse.  Tidying in general is pretty easy.  I can sweep, dump compost, load barkdust, rake leaves and even spread wood chips on the paths.  Pruning is out, as is plant placement, or even much planting.  It can be hard to tell the difference between a desirable plant and a weed, so I don’t try, but that still leaves me lots to do.  Consequently I have been out after sunset for the majority of nights since we switched to daylight savings time (or away from it, I honestly don’t know how it works) in November.

This has been a simply lovely experience.  I have gotten to see the new moon rise for two months in a row.  The clouds turn subtle, complex colors, tinted both by the setting sun and by reflected city lights,  and form fantastic, shifting shapes.  The stars appear to twinkle both more brightly and more vigorously when the air is cold and drier, and the sky seems darker and therefore even more infinitely deep than ever.  The human sounds recede.  There are fewer cars and airplanes.  Nobody is using those infernal power mowers or leaf blowers.  The barking dogs are indoors.  The only consistent sounds are the wind in the trees, the occasional wail of a coyote and the scuffing of my rake, broom or feet.  Some nights I am wrapped in solitude, enveloped in a cloud and unable to see 50 feet away.   Other nights are clear and I can see 50 miles, past the bright lights of towns in the valley, out to the mountains where no lights shine, and whose silhouettes grow dimmer as the sun recedes behind them.  Beyond those mountains is the Pacific, and while I cannot see it, I always imagine it and its unceasing activity; the waves rolling onto the sand one after the other.

The weather here is always different.  Some nights have been almost warm, others so cold that I have to keep moving or the cold will start to hurt.  Sometimes there is a bit of rain, or a downpour, or it is dry, or all the speeds in between for which we natives invoke our precisely defined language of precipitation.  The wind is nearly always a constant up here on top of the hill.  Its character and temperament, however, change daily, and sometimes its direction does, too.  One night not long ago I experienced the prelude to a few days of the east wind that brings our clear, cold weather in the winter.  After over 50 years here I have never experienced this with such clarity.  The wind was blowing steadily from the west, there was no rain.  Then it stopped abruptly, there was no perceptible diminution, just sudden stillness.  The air felt so warm, soft and velvety; a tangible benign presence.  I just stood still and drank in the quiet and the calm.  This lasted for about ten minutes, and then just as abruptly the east wind, cold and harsh even in its first moments, curled around the side of the house in a strong gust.  I zipped my jacket more snugly against my throat and resumed my work.

This is a gift night brings to a gardener.  The shape and color which so preoccupy our daylight hours are gone, giving us the opportunity to feel the less obvious forces in our lives.  During a good storm from the west I can smell the beach and the ocean in the wind and the rain.   The feel of the air on my cheek (about the only skin I expose this time of year) thrills me with its infinite array of sensations.  The sound of the wind is likewise infinite in its variety and produces a symphony from the forest.  I hear the animals settling in for the night, or getting started on their rounds.  A crash in the woods might be a branch falling or a deer leaping.  If the elk come through they usually do so at dusk or later and their musk is powerful drifting hundreds of feet beyond their location and lingering for hours.  Sometimes the females will call for many minutes, an unearthly sound somewhere between a bugle and a foghorn.

There is one final gift that the night gives me and that is near-perfection in my garden.  Like vaseline on the lens of a camera directed at an aging movie star, sometimes in gardening, especially in the winter, the less information the better.  The lack of light turns the dead sticks of the Joe Pye weed into a dramatic sculpture.  In the daylight this is just another uncompleted chore, but at night it is a landmark and a feature.  It is at night that I am most grateful that my paths are simple and wide, and therefore easy to navigate.  At night light from inside the house shines across the lawn pleasingly, just reaching the edge of the stone wall.  I am happy with the proportions I have achieved there, with which I struggled for years.  I love the way the garden segues into the woods at night, it is much less subtle in the daytime.  For me the winter garden has always been a problem, too much bare ground, too many twiggy deciduous plants, too much gray and brown.  Nighttime erases all those problems.  Distance gets flattened, washed-out color gets deepened to that almost black that is actually a rich midnight blue and mistakes and flaws are impossible to see.  I love my garden in the dark.

So give it a try, take out a lawn chair, and maybe a cup of tea.  Sit back and appreciate your garden and the night.  Just remember to bundle up, you never know when the wind might change!

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