By Allyson Wuerth
After a dreary March in quarantine, it began nagging me once again. I’d staved it off for the last two years, but it was creeping back in. Catching up to me, a bad man of whom I barely stay ahead. A lost breath and I’m caught. First it gathered just under my ribs—that sinking feeling when you shouldn’t be sinking. A heavy sad pushing itself up, up, up and invading me. All of me.
Really, I’m used to it. It started my sophomore year of high school and has trailed me ever since. Medications have been adjusted and changed only to be reintroduced like some long lost cousin. But two years ago, it lifted like the dense fog it was. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard for the reprieve and life wasn’t perfect. Through amazing therapy sessions, many medications, regular exercise (including cardio and barre classes), I found a perfect rhythm in my life. I never took it for granted. I knew that if I even breathed too hard, any one of these precious things could be blown out of orbit.
Then Covid. And everything everywhere stopped. And all the little worlds I was juggling fell to the ground, smashed. By the end of April, I hadn’t left my house once. In May I decided if I couldn’t feel happiness, I was going to seek it out, create it around me— landscape my yard, plant things and watch them grow. Water and weed. And so it became The Summer Allyson Gardened.
Strawberries, blueberry and raspberry bushes, kohlrabi (a hard to find root vegetable that my family and I love), petunias, impatiens, all sorts of herbs, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes. Before my yard starts sounding like a page out of “Goblin Market,” let me add that I pulled huge boulders from the ground and stacked them on our stone wall just to remind my body it was still made of something strong. In the craters left behind, I dropped little rose bushes. I wanted rocks to become roses.
A day of pruning led to me tearing out a large web of forsythias that were hideous to look at when not in bloom. I planted grass in the hacked up ground and fertilized baby Japanese Maple trees hidden by that tangle of forsythia brambles. Could I really grow a tree? I dug out a rotted, mushroom covered tree stump replacing it with a baby magnolia tree.
Oh, and I planted a wisteria vine in my backyard which I am attempting to strengthen into a twisty wisteria tree. Too impatient for the long wait ahead, I bought a larger and already bloomed wisteria vine and wrapped it around the trellis in my front yard. It’s a tempting metaphor, that wisteria—such lovely, weepy purple flowers so delicate they fall apart almost at a touch, then the vine relentless—grabbing, creeping, clawing even across the dirt to the stone wall—clutching at whatever it can. In the backyard, I flipped over my daughter’s old sandbox, filled it with pure organic soil from our compost pile and made a raised garden bed where I planted more glorious lettuce and kohlrabi amongst composted eggshells and avocado rinds.
Perhaps my misfortunes sprung from the boxes of mail-order plants I ordered? Two sad, little rose bushes—already dead. A black knight butterfly bush brown and stiff in its cardboard coffin. I planted them anyway, thinking they at least deserved a proper burial. And then I waited for a miracle. But the ground chewed their roots and spat them up, furnished their dry thorns with fat, orange slugs who scoffed at my organic slug baits. I threw my hands up and let this little garden be a small offering to the slugs and morning deer. Later, I noticed a few flowers, a foreboding deep purple, managing to beat the odds. Alas, one day, I even spotted a butterfly who must have circled that black knight again and again, flitting toward a light too bright, too warm—feeling all its beauty and radiance slip away before finally dropping dead.
If loveliness was not to be, then I would go for gritty and practical. In June, I pulled out a saw and sawed off thick pine branches that I’d always hated. My husband came outside and advised, “you should use a chainsaw for that.” But I didn’t want a chainsaw; I wanted to climb high into those mottled branches with my saw and exhaust myself. Beneath those pines, too, grew a Japanese Maple—all dwarfed and leaning because of the pines looming above it. Fuck those pines, I thought. We can’t cut them down because they are the only foliage to shield us from a cottage in the back field. But one day that maple will be big enough to do the job itself. And I’ll just keep sawing off pine branches in the meantime.
And then, I watched. I waited. I weed whacked. I finished up another school year, however unusual it may have been. But you know what they say about the “best laid plans. . .”. The lettuce grew beautifully until it just. . .gave up, sprouted tall yellow flowers as if to say, “I don’t want to be lettuce anymore.”
I get it, lettuce, I’ve been there too. My “kohlrabi” turned out not to be kohlrabi after all. Great plumes of green sprouted from their roots, and they too produced feathery yellow flowers—little breadcrumbs in moonlight. “Broccoli rabe,” said one friend. “Collards planted before the last frost,” thought the guy at the garden center. I tore them out. My little kohlrabi patch behind the garage bore the same strange flowery spectacles that I watched become smaller and smaller every day. Brown rabbits ate them down to the dirt. Despite a makeshift fence my husband and son built, our strawberry patch bore not a single edible berry. The chipmunks dug under the fence, plucked strawberries off the vines, took just enough bites to render the berries inedible and left them right on the fence for me to see, the glossy pulp of another gardening disappointment.
We’ve had the berry patch for a while and last summer we netted it to keep the animals out. One morning my daughter found a chipmunk tangled and exhausted in the netting. I didn’t want to kill chipmunks for a few strawberries, so this year, no net. Birds pecked away at the raspberries. I’d spray my hose to water the bushes and a dozen robins would rise up from deep inside the patch, a spectacle of wings. We were able to harvest two raspberries and, friends, they were delicious. If you want to know about the blueberries, you’d have to ask the deer. But the little raspberry bush I planted turned wild and outgrew all the plants surrounding it, burying them in a green fortress protected by sharp thorns.
The front yard was faring far better than the back. Tomato plants grew tall against the stone wall. I staked them and, eventually, rounded green baby tomatoes emerged from the flowering plants. I used my fingers to wind the cucumber vines around the trellis I built behind them. The flowering plants of cucumber and zucchini lit the little garden like so many paper lanterns. Bumble bees and dragonflies buzzed and dipped from one flower to another, never satisfied with their first choice. Even the impatiens, who had a disappointing start, perked up and spread beneath an old rhododendron.
There was no time for what was going all wrong inside me. This green world around me needed constant attention. I fertilized and weeded. I plucked dead petunias, and poured an acidifier to make my hydrangeas the deep blue of a summer sky. I sprayed wisteria and other plants with an organic deer & rabbit repellent made of rotten eggs and garlic. Who cares if the chipmunks still grew fat off my hard labor?
And then it was July, and one of my closest friends was killed in a motorcycle crash. And the heavy sad inside me anchored itself deep. So, we’d never talk again? Why couldn’t I understand death? Death, for me, meant lost grandparents and old pets, not people my own age. I scrolled back through years of messages among our friend group and after reading a few posts found myself wanting to re-respond a different way, found myself forgetting he was ever dead at all. I’m embarrassed to say I googled things like “What happens when you die?” And “Where do we go when we die?” “When you die, do you know you’re dead?” I closed my laptop dissatisfied with this shadowy experience and my own desperate search for what not a single fucking person could answer.
Instead, I planted a weeping willow tree in my backyard.
Today, is a sticky day in mid-August. Summer heaving its last breaths. Birds, rabbits, chipmunks, and me—we’ve all lost interest in the gardens. Maybe we got sick of easing through makeshift fencing into knotweed and blackberry brambles, only to come up with a palm stained in blood? Maybe we grew bored sifting our fingers through dark soil that pocketed so many pale grubs curled like sleepy underground infants? Yesterday I ripped out the last of the cucumber and squash vines peppered with beetle larvae. Fuck them and all those zucchini memes too!, I thought. Squash beetles literally ate the strong vines and billowy leaves to the ground.
Looking back, nothing this summer was an easy harvest. Whatever I grew became another’s bounty; the ground always soaking up more than its due. How strange to be tackled by an army of animals and insects. . .as if they wanted me to know they, too, devour life. Who am I to forage their ground in search of my own well-being, my soul scavenging among all their pretty things? Under those wild forsythia bushes, the ground was a snarl of cranky roots, large rocks, and bumble bee nests. I tackled the roots and rocks, but left the bees to their hives. We learned to stay out of each other’s ways like coffee-shop baristas do. Every root I unearthed contributed to an atlas of veiny roads and rivers. I followed them around yanking and yanking, taking so much satisfaction from every last snap. Might I unravel the universe this way? Unbuild myself in the shattering August sun? Or might I become further entangled in this struggle? I followed them quietly until my fingers buckled and cramped, unable to grasp even one more root; my knees and elbows harboring the misty pains of middle-age. I left it that way, the yard. Half finished. The dirt hiding fragments of a crumbled underground city. I covered it all in grass seed and hoped for the best, all the while knowing I hadn’t done anything more than occupy time, fill space where there was space to be filled. Or maybe I was making room for bigger things? Better ideas? A stronger me emerging from this valley of debris. Next year, I’ll make this yard amazing, I think. After all, nature still tucked away a few beautiful, little surprises.
In 2013 after moving to our house, I told my husband I wanted a magnolia tree for Mother’s Day. I’ve always loved their breezy pink flowering. One morning that following April, I lifted my son’s shades to wake him for school and there it was—the most amazingly, pillowy magnolia I’d ever seen. I had no idea we even had it on our property, as the tree had long since exchanged its pink for commonplace green leaves when we bought our house. My daughter and I ran outside to see it up close.
The way those petals fell to us, a thousand ships drifting back to port.