I wish I had taken a picture of our garden patch at the start. Before and after, or even better, during, to show the progression of it. The chilly, barren April day we first came here to turn the dirt, shrieks of delight from Wally, horror from me, each time we lifted up a worm. We found a little tiny shell once and wondered how it got there - this space was covered by ocean, once, wasn't it? Remembering a plaque from The Museum of Natural History, something about the last ice age, there is a mythic history to every place we are when we are still for even a second to consider it.
Place-based education. I had been so interested in that a few years ago, when I started this blog, I researched degree programs even (even! As if that shows a major investment). Much further ago than that—my first year out of college—I interned for John Kerry's in Environmental Affairs, writing letters pleading with constituents to accept policy that favored the interests of the whole over the few. I saw how complicated idealism could be, when the rule of eminent domain forced coastal residents from their long-time family homes, when fishing protection acts cost poor working-class fisherman their jobs, the contradictions in every decision. Digital media is better for the environment than the printing press. Yet the loss of books and papers that meant the world to me and so many others, not just the book but the materiality of it too, the text object, it's hard not to mourn that they've gone the way of the beloved album now, leaving us longing for days when words and new albums were something you could hold. Those high school days when breathless almost, flush with excitement, you popped it in the minute you got home from school, with a friend who came over specifically to listen to that album, who could only hear it at your house because she didn't own it, probably would not buy it herself or at least not for a while. Nightswimming deserved a quiet night, music through the windows, nothing less than our lifeblood.
I'm sitting here now in a rare moment - first of its kind - Wally in Queens, Petra in daycare. My intention was to race home to work on an Evaluation Report, yet could not resist this gray day here at the garden, the emptiness of it, the promise.
There is a woman in the garden who used to seethe every time she saw us. Seethe. I could never get her to smile. I thought she must just hate kids running around too loud, always threatening to yank someone else's hard-earned plants. And then one day I saw her reading (a book, full of notes and marked pages and things falling out of it). I commented on it and she stood up, came over, and told me about the series of women writers. Turns out she herself is one, with a recent book published, which I haven't bought yet because it's only available at amazon and Book Culture and I want to buy it at the latter but of course haven't yet. And now I can't even remember the name. Or her name. She told me she writes about how the city as she knew it disappearing. Every day there is another great little store gone, another bank or nail salon in its place. And I worry too much about it, about New York becoming as my dad puts it a Long Island strip mall. But what she does it much better. Much better to write.
Yet this new New York will one day be longed for. Who wrote this, "What we mourn our conquerers will one day mourn"? It is from some ancient myth. Another citation I can only gesture at and not actually cite. You can't just reference stuff without saying what you're referencing. But it is that or not write at all. Here. When I say here (in the garden) I also mean, here, on this site. I am still tenuously holding on to whatever invisible lines held me to the imagined fertile ground of this story.
The garden is so different that it was even a month ago. All around us are sunflowers. For a time ours was the lowest garden, just isolated little patches of things: lavender, thyme, beets, cilantro. All so small. Surrounded by overgrown iris and tomato plants. Now it's out of control. We took 8 feet off our pumpkin vine and still it is greedy and everywhere strangling the pole beans and choking off collard green. Two giant sunflower stalks of our own - no flowers yet. Cilantro seeding, beyond the point of eating; Wally now collects the coriander balls.
Nature is fecund, I keep thinking. It's not the beauty of it that strikes me today, in fact it's almost creepy, the giant pumpkin vines, our "pumpkin problem" as Wally calls it, that started with seeds from Mimi (my mom) which it turns out we should not have planted in July. The pole beans are knocking over the poles, the horrible Ivy in the neighbor's patch, the terrible growth, spreading out in every direction, unstoppable growth. Annie Dillard occurs to me again and again, stalks me, like she stalks the muskrat at Tinker Creek.
“Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”
Children, too. The growth. Just so fast, seeming to accelerate, popping through the knees in their pants, legs shooting out, lying so long in the bed at night...when did they get so long?
By wishing I'd taken pictures am I renouncing my duty to describe the garden? Writing is the task I've chosen, not photography, certainly not art. It was motherhood that gave me something I really wanted to write about, and there was a time a moment there when I thought I could write a mommy blog, when I fumed over the mommy blogs with their 1000s of hits a day. There is one in Oregon - I can't find it now, I deleted the bookmark, it drove me nuts- a woman who wrote about her four children in the most pedestrian, sentimental way, the tears at the birthdays, the view of the gorgeous pine trees from her window. She would just be sitting at her computer in such an overly confident way knowing 1000s were hanging on her every word, hoping she'd steal a moment from her incredibly fulfilling role as a mom making pinterest-worthy cake pops and—
But I realized somewhere along the way that even if I wanted to I couldn't pull it off. But I did want to write and learn to write better. And somehow I found myself now studying literature and craft, which leaves me with less time for motherhood, what is what lead me here. I have got to find the river, I tell myself. The verses are so unpleasant, which makes the chorus all the more gratifying.
One tiny block on 60th street between Central Park West and Columbus is this intersection of three totally different periods of my life, all from recent years, and each day when I get out of the subway I marvel at it. I am walking to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus for my Graduate Assistantship at Poets Out Loud. I pass Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall and I also pass, though unmarked, the sensory gym where I used to bring Wally Monday mornings so he could run and crash and fall into a pit of balls. I was so overwhelmed then. By what? Do we always say that looking back—"I was so overwhelmed then. By what?"
There is the coriander harvest to attend to but that's about it. I don't think we'll get any actual pumpkins this year. Three years ago I "found" the water near where we live. Twenty-two years ago I listened to Michael Stipe sing about how "strength and courage overrides the privileged and weary eyes of river poet search naiveté". Tonight I will listen to "Find the River", on youtube, as I can't even imagine digging out the actual CD of Automatic For the People (so you're just as bad, it's not like you still listen to your own CDs). There was coriander in that song, remember? "There is nothing left to throw of Ginger, lemon, indigo, Coriander stem and rose of hay". I can still feel the song, and still feel the old impulse that drew me to the water and to the poetry set to melody that kept me from really writing in any other way for so many years.
I should water the garden and get on my way. Late summer, everything is still pushing sideways and upward and around. Soon that will change.