Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Talking to the Leaves of Nasturtium

        I have never written prose about my garden. It seemed to me too slight - too Better Homes and Gardens. How silly, I realized, (with the help of my friend Dan). Time to honor both my garden and the season after spending the morning planting.

      Two things laced me to the cycle of the seasons: The first was the ceremonial calendar of my childhood, that begins with the High Holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the fall. The second cycle belonged to nature, and the intense seasonal changes of the Midwest.

     With the exception of the harvest holiday called Sukkot in autumn, and an egg, lamb bone and greens on the Passover ritual seder plate to commemorate Spring, the two cycles, one of the Earth Mother, the other of the Sky Father, seemed unconnected. It is in the myths of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest that Earth Mother and Sky Father connect and work together, and those myths had a profound effect on me.  The two cycles also come together in the rituals I have practiced with women over the years - and now in fact, spirit and nature are inseparable to me, in the wilderness, but especially, in the garden - and in the photo.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Every year my garden delivers its spring offering: the flowering plum and pear and apple, rhododendron, tall pale yellow iris, and 20 rose bushes, and every year it is one of the best gifts life offers me - the gift of petals.

       In Elizabeth Alexander’s heartbreaking memoir, The Light of the World, she describes a peony that her husband planted for her. It bloomed for her birthday every year on May 30th. Never mind that the peony’s season of blooming corresponds to that date. Never mind that the opening of those buds at that time is a normal event. For Alexander, it was a magical, deliberate gift - the gift of petals

My garden
      My husband fondly remembers the food of his childhood, and recreates the meals for us that his mother made. Those dinners were his first imprint of flavor, as my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens were my first imprint of petals. Peonies, lily of the valley & lilac, zinnias & phlox, the rose they called American Beauty, and tulips. 

      It is not cold enough in California for tulips to repeat in my garden. I treat them as annuals, spend an extravagant round number every fall to dig bulbs into the cold, (and now no longer wet), soil of December, assuring bloom as though without my labors Spring would not happen.  I'm planting hope as the year darkens.

Pike Street Market, Seattle, April 2015
     And peonies? I once so craved those luxurious blooms that I hauled bags of ice out to the yard in January, and dumped cubes on a faltering plant, knowing they needed winter's freeze. The plant couldn't be fooled, and the treatment didn’t work. Once a year I treat myself to a bouquet of peonies, remembering that my mother never cut her abundance of peonies, or any other flower, to bring into the house. I’ve mentally gone through all the cupboards in my parent’s house and I can’t find a single vase. Why? Self-denial? Another one of her mysteries I will never solve, and a practice I  don't follow.

     My roses have begun blooming and there are arrangements of roses in every room. Each morning my first act is to bring all the vases into the kitchen, recut the stems and replace the water - even before my essential mug of coffee. I suppose this action falls between care, habit, and ritual - the obsessions of ceremony:

 The Key to the Pay Tree Ark

The high priest was always rushed
The holy ones were due any minute
The altar flowers in alternate rows
 of blue
    and white
must be picked immediately
in virginal bud
the bones must be scraped
of flesh before blood dries
table and sun set precisely
Since we could not see the face
of the clock that timed him

we assumed it was God's.
When we think of him now
that we've aged
and our language has changed
we try out words like compulsion

We wonders if the seeds
would have sprouted without him.

The gift of petals on the dining room table

 I didn’t begin that garden with confidence. I didn’t know when to expect flowering. I went around to each plant and spoke to it, and I begin my real service to the Muse with this poem:

Speaking To The Leaves of Nasturtium

"Flower" I hear myself say to the plant.
Flower. Sounding each syllable.
Speaking as you would speak to a mute.
Not a demand. Not teaching the flower to speak.
I am not the man in the tale who would teach
a stone to talk.  To break its stony silence
with a word, perhaps bird, b-i-r-r-r-d
so the word would emerge from the rock
like a fledgling pecking out its shell.

Nor would I teach a dolphin language,
not to discover why eons ago
it returned to the water,
not to pry into its secret signals,
not even to ask why it loves us.
Could the dolphin accept our word
for how it knows and know
to tell us how it guides?
could it state the impossible
demands of grammar:
Turn right at the next corner,
Don't forget...
Hold me.
The dolphin has its own purpose,
it is our fate to talk to ourselves.

As for the plants
I have no questions that watching could not answer.

At Findhorn they called on spirits
to learn the needs of the green ones.
They said that the spirits were pleased
to answer.  More water.  More sun.
A little more to the left.

I hear myself speaking to the leaves of nasturtium.
Clearly, sounding each syllable.  Flow-er.
As though the green cells could hear
and respond in buds. As though I could cause flowers
by teaching the word. As though I could cause
by teaching.  Flower.  Flow-er. Repeated to the leaves
whose learning only flows from the roots upward.
I cannot stop speaking but the silence
of leaves is training me to see.                                                         

Photo by Bill Fulton


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