Wolftown, Virginia—Bertha Reppert, of The Rosemary House in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, encourages us to be better than we are, to raise our expectations about ourselves, building our self-confidence, egging us on. After reading a transcript of my talk on “Herbs: The Nurturing Connection”, she wrote with characteristic warmth and enthusiasm, “That’s your book!” Her excellent advice pumped me up: I got out and pored over my voluminous notes, and for the next week my mind whirred. What a temptation! What a challenge!
But as each beautiful morning dawned, full of promise and invitation to joy, I pondered. Do I revel in the sweet smells and participate in the quiet living energy outdoors, or do I closet myself with the computer in an attempt to record what I am, at that moment, missing? Do I save or savor? (That’s a line from an E. B. White essay to which a new friend in West Virginia introduced me.)
Last spring and summer, wet and cool conditions prevailed, giving us a lushness, an explosion of green. That explosion kept me on my knees pulling 3-foot lengths of quackgrass, crabgrass, dayflowers, smartweed, and wild strawberries away from the flowering plants. Even the horehound became a weed. I won an occasional battle but lost the war, and finally I threw in the towel.
The cool summer, although a welcome contrast to the 100-degree summers of recent years, slowed the growth of the heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, basils. The tarragons sulked about having wet feet, even though they were in a 10-inch-high raised bed. The thymes and oreganos flourished but never developed the characteristic intense flavors of hotter, dryer seasons. The feverfew was tolerant but didn’t get as tall as usual.
The lovage loved it.
The echinacea was gorgeous in flower, but many of the stems and blooms turned black, perhaps from moisture, overcrowding, or the excessive richness of the soil into which I transplanted them last fall. They seem to have recovered since I removed the blackened parts.
In the perennial flower and herb garden along the pasture fence, the fuzzy-leaved sage suffered from the wet and from being crowded next to the fence. It was gorgeous with blue spring bloom but later said, “Help! give me air,” and after savoring its gorgeous bloom, I couldn’t save it.
The wild plants were also affected—some for the better, others for the worse. The black cohoshes didn’t like where I’d planted them, so they chose their own spots, popping up here and there. The three maidenhair ferns I’d ordered pooped out in a shady, damp spot near the creek, but in another place, on a north-facing slope, I spotted a healthy one with growth already promised for next year.
The persimmons hung in heavy clusters from the branches, but they didn’t ripen. In past years, I’ve gathered dozens daily for puddings, cakes, and pies. That is, when the critters permit. I can usually smell when the trees are ripe from 50 yards away, not from the fruit, but from the critters who love them and leave their own rich scent behind. Not so this season.
The critters themselves are equally fascinating. A resident mockingbird and I have a running argument about who owns the strawberries and blueberries in the garden. I go out in early morning, still in nightclothes, to gather a handful of berries for my morning cereal, and the mockingbird scolds. I scold back, then stoop to reach for my cache of red or blue sweetness. The mockingbird takes aim and attacks my lightly protected vulnerability. I toss a rock in its direction, and the mockingbird flies just out of range and mocks: “Nyanh, nyanh, ny-a-anh!” We both enjoy these altercations.
The star of the garden this year was the hyacinth bean I got from nearby Monticello. It took only two plants to cover a 6-foot bean pole and the entire fence between the garden and the east pasture with prolific deep purple blooms. Everyone who drove past asked about them, and many took pictures or asked for seeds for next year.
How can I miss a single day of such fascinating green marvels? I do savor our 70-acre parcel of the planet by wonder-wandering through it daily, reveling over each new discovery or inspiration, exulting in the seasonal shifts, the annual changes, the waxing/waning growth of that bush/tree that depends on warm/cold, wet/dry, sunny/shady conditions. The revelations in those changes continually evoke new wonder, reminding me that I’m only its steward, not its owner.
I imagine that my book’s only readers would be those relatively few who are already in love with the planet’s green gifts. Yes, it’s hard to choose between savoring and saving. Maybe when deep snow keeps me inside . . . and yet the snow holds its own special wonder.