The Winter Garden

  • Garlic chives
  • Garlic chives
    Photography by JOHN WILTSE
  • Horehound
  • ‘Coronation Gold’ yarrow
  • Oriental ornamental oregano
  • Grau samtp;oma
  • Money plant
  • Grau samtp;oma
  • Bird feeder
  • Bird Bath
  • Onion

I wanted to write of dark earth singing, of spring’s ease and soft mouth flower, of birds in light step. But sometimes it is not spring we need, but winter, how it calls us from the walnut dark of our rooms to kneel in the unplowed gardens, carrying our stick leaf, musk thistle, hound’s-tongue.

When my father died, it was not yet winter’s solstice, the sun trembling at the brink of the southern sky. “What do you believe in?” my husband asked me. And I thought of the white river of the Milky Way and the bitter coins of the dark river everlasting beneath the tongues of the dead, and the tears of Myrrha turned to a tree and weeping the holy resin. My father gone, I did not know what I believed, seeing only the snow pieced over the skeletons of my garden.

My family lived always on the edge of belief. Somewhere in my mother’s past were litany and incense, holy water and the body of Christ resting on the tongue. But if I think of her in prayer, it is of her alone, in the blue light of evening, in the darkening woods, birds around her singing while she weeps or is glad.

And as I think back, I realize that my father’s side of the family knew, too, the healing power of the woods and nature. My father’s grandfather was a homeopathic doctor, gathering from fields and woods the herbs that heal by inducing the symptomatic dance of disease. But because my father was a doctor of this modern world, I grew up surrounded by white lab coats and black medical bags—science filling the cabinet above our refrigerator with sterilized medicines encapsulated in plastic and white cardboard. That any of these might come from what my great-grandfather picked by hand, I never imagined. If there was healing, it was far removed from anything of earth or heaven—prairie willow or yarrow or the blessed hand of the healer pressed against the beleaguered soul. It was a world of reason, of the rational, of man hoisted above the green world by a chain of angels he could never quite touch.

Once, our ancestors believed that the very gods who smote them down or clutched them to their feathered glory lived in the bodies of plants that this season of winter takes, sown forever and again. Yes, there has been a tearing apart from that time, a tearing of heaven from earth, of what is holy from what is concrete, of what is the god’s body from the stamen of the plant. But as I stood at my father’s side and watched him die while doctors rattled off a catechism of pills and treatment like ancient Egyptians singing the will of gods, I thought, What can we say, really, but the old words disguised, holding our staffs of snakes like promises of renewal as the bitter skin of the world peels away?

I said we lived on the edge of belief. I understand now my love for the fields and woods, for the green plants in the light evening. I understand now my father’s refusing his last days, and long before his last days, to take the offerings of his fellow doctors. When I was a child, he would come home from the office, still wearing his white lab coat, and go out to plow the dark silent earth for seeds, chaff of the holy clinging to him. I thought then it was what he did to forget the sick and the broken, dust returning to dust. But I think now he was moving through the gods, through the goldenrod and the milkweed, saying his prayers, his incantations to heal whatever body he had touched that day. I hang the roses of his grave like herbs from my kitchen ceiling, watch them stiffen into something I might crumble, take into my body, feel turn West to East inside me.

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