When I was in my teens and early twenties I would usually awaken in the morning literally trembling with excitement at all the glories that the unfolding day might bring. At that age everything seems possible, even when it is not, and the choices seem endless and infinitely desirable. Experience did not dampen this excitement for many years. Bad things did happen to me, my heart was repeatedly broken, not only in the conventional sense, but also when I saw deliberate cruelty or ignorance or selfishness. Yet even having experienced all those disappointments, the losses, the loneliness, and all my own shortcomings, I still awoke every morning to a day filled with limitless promise. Perhaps it was optimism. Perhaps, in that wonderful phrase, it was the triumph of hope over experience, but it was part of my life for many years. Then, as time wore on, it disappeared. I was alone for a number of years, with no safety net, and the responsibilities and endless obligations wore me down. There are no killjoys like exhaustion and worry. After that came children, which, while renewing a sense of joy and wonder, also come with their own special kind of exhaustion. So, it had been many years since I truly felt ebullient on any regular basis.
Completely unexpectedly, however, one of the miracles of middle age is that the feeling of being overcome with hope, joy and possibility has returned. I no longer awaken to it. My immediate feelings upon awakening are of gratitude that A. I have awakened at all and B. after all my recent eye troubles, that I get to see for another day. Those are both pretty joyous feelings, but I also awaken to many immediate responsibilities and it is several hours before I am free of those, and not always even then. No, where hope and joy currently reside for me is no longer a time, it is now a place. I find them in my garden, and so the time I get to experience these feelings is whenever I am able to go work outside.
As I work it is as though I am being filled with helium, or carbonation. I feel little bubbles of pure joy around my heart, and I start to feel giddy and light-headed. I feel such luck at being able to be absorbed in such an activity, and the feeling of such rapt absorption is ecstatic and transcendent. I am engrossed with the myriad details of each plant in turn. I am fascinated with leaves, flowers, root structure, the timing of each plant’s emergence from the soil, buds from bark, leaves from buds, flowers from sepals. I plant each tiny plant, each one a bundle of little genetic switches which will take those abundant and commonplace materials, earth, air and water, and render them into visions of breathtaking beauty. My peonies right now are shoots of pure garnet not even an inch high, but in my mind’s eye I see them as they will be in May and June (or, this tardy year, perhaps even July): amber stems, ruby-tipped foliage, and huge, tender pink cabbages opening to a tangle of golden stamens and a scent so rich and sweet that when I finally smell it again it will obliterate all other sensation for that instant.
And as I am engrossed in each plant I am surrounded by another layer of awareness and sensation. I see the color of the clouds against the endlessly changing sky. I hear the sounds the birds make and those changes as the day winds to a close and last minute adjustments are made to territory, food levels and the night’s roosting arrangements. I feel the wind as it ebbs and flows against my face and body, gentle in the lee of the house or a tree, stronger and more insistent as I emerge into its direct path. I smell the air scented with its journey from the ocean, across the mountains, against the conifers. I am alone in my activity on this miraculous, incredible planet. There are six (or is it seven by now?) billion other souls out there, but I am only dimly aware of them. I can hear a little traffic noise above the soughing of the wind, I can see a few lights blink on in the valley, but no one disturbs my ecstatic communion with plants and soil, wind, air, light and sky.
My attention moves from plant to sky, plant to bird, plant to wind. Gently I remove the layer of moss and liverwort from the surface of the minute Hosta ‘Tiny Tears’, then I tuck it gently into into its new home, which I hope will protect it from slugs, even one of which would utterly destroy it. As I do so I hear the increasingly hysterical calling of the robins settling in for the night, testing numerous trees for their bedtime suitability. I sift potting soil and grit around the exposed roots of the hosta and hear the ceaseless, convivial chatter of a flock of bush-tits at the suet feeder, one last infusion of high-density calories into their tiny, active bodies to make it through another night. With one last burst of conversation they are off. The sky steadily darkens, both with impending night and with deeper cloud-cover, the wind picks up as the front moves in, the sky is a complex fugue of gray and steel blue uncaptureable by either technology or art, and never seen before nor to be repeated in all of time. I place the newly planted hosta, with its companion, on the stump where I hope they will be happy: sufficient light, but not too much sun, too rigorous a climb for the slugs, close to a path I often use so that I can see them often as they emerge from soil and unfurl their miniature leaves.
It is the problem of the chicken and the egg. Do I garden because it gives me something to do while I experience outside, or do I love outside so much because it is where I garden? Nature has always been my home and solace. I don’t find gardening all that natural, but as I do it I experience a lot of nature. I don’t choose to strap boards on my feet and slide down a snowy hillside, I don’t strap a lantern to my head and wander into caves (although I bet one of those lanterns would make me a phenomenal night-time slug-hunter). I don’t affix bolts to sheer cliffs and winch myself up them. I just hang out, with the wind and the rain and the birds and my plants. Maybe the people who do all those other activities outside feel the same ecstasy I do, maybe they have other reasons. I just feel very blessed to have rediscovered joy, in that place where we began, in the garden.