Restoring Our Secret Gardens 2009: During The

Restoring our secret gardens

DURING THE last week, the tree outside my study window, dull gray all winter long, has unfurled its bright leaves with startling speed.
All across New England, people are welcoming the bulbs that have survived the winter, watching the magnolia blossoms alight on the trees. My students wear flip-flops. Ceres has got her daughter back from the underworld, and we are celebrating. More than at any other time of year, we feel ourselves to be in accord with nature. The garden has long been, in many different religions and cultures, a symbol of paradise – a place where the dead are made whole and enjoy the afterlife – or at least a place of peace and contemplation. In my life, however, gardening is neither idyllic nor contemplative. My father used to wage war on slugs, luring them to their death with saucers of beer, and also on rabbits, vaguely firing a rifle in their direction the woods and moors were always trying to creep under the garden fence. In North Cambridge, despite the trimmings of civilization, I have numerous adversaries: squirrels eat my bulbs, skunks dig up my small “lawn,” slugs devour my petunias, rubbish blows in from the street, the balls of local children topple my sunflowers, and weeds are rampant. Even if I get all of these somewhat under control, suddenly in June, in a very un-Scottish way, the weather gets too hot. In “The Secret Garden,” neither weeds nor predators hinder Mary’s efforts moreover she has little else to do with her long days. But my life is already too busy – so why, in the face of such difficulties, am I lavishing time and money on a few square yards of soil I could buy flowers every week, all year long, for the amount I spend on plants and fertilizer and paraphernalia. Or, more usefully, give the money to charity. But, even as I sit here typing, my peonies are calling like sirens, begging me to remove last year’s dead stalks and leaves. I feel that I would be a bad person if I ignored them I would be failing to care for a living thing that is in my charge. At a time when we are surrounded – bombarded even – with bad news and overwhelming problems, this seems particularly contrary. Perhaps it is also even more necessary. I do not share Burnett’s belief in theosophy and life forces, but, after the long winter, I pause each spring to engage with the earth turning. In my garden, I welcome each hardy plant and celebrate what may be the only beauty we have: the beauty of the imperfect.
Margot Livesey, a guest columnist, is a novelist and teaches at Emerson College. Her most recent novel is “The House on Fortune Street.”

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