Monday, November 7, 2011

Gardeners, Travelers, Friends

       "Gardening is a long road, with many detours and way stations, and here we all are at one point or another. It's not a question of superior or inferior taste, merely a question of which detour we are on at the moment. Getting there (as they say) is not important -- the wandering about in the wilderness or in the olive groves or in the bayous is the whole point."  Henry Mitchell
     Five years ago I met a tiny woman with bobbed, ivory hair named Alice Wilkes.  She struck me as once-famous 1920's flapper girl who had traded table top dancing for gardening because at the age of eighty-three it made good sense to keep nearer to the ground. 
      Alice showed up at my workplace brimming with questions. Apparently her raspberries had gone bad over the years as raspberries always do and she was looking for a better variety.  I recommended some reliable mail order companies that sell virus-free bramble stock.
     Alice and I hit it off quite well. The ladies at my office remarked that I had made a new friend and sure enough, she called me two weeks later. "I do wish you'd come for a visit and see my garden," she said.  
     When I arrived Alice seemed reluctant to invite me in through the front door, ordering me to meet her outside at the rear of the house.  On the way I passed a detached old garage filled with everything but an automobile -- shovels, trowels, hoes, rakes, forks, towers of clay pots, bags of manure and fertilizer.  It was so crammed with garden apparel that there was scarcely enough room to stand, but looking at Alice's diminutive body I believed she could crawl unscathed through loops of barbed wire to find a good spade if she needed one.
     Her garden wandered along a narrow strip of side-yard, each off-kilter bed growing into the next as if the plants had burst through uneven walls and she had set forth, ant-like, to contain the green spill within a new border of smooth beach stones.  
     "It's really just a lot of plants I like."  Alice said it so plainly that any scoundrel would take her at face value, but I knew better.  She was a true connoisseur.
     She pointed out her recent acquisitions and we both agreed that creeping miniature sedum 'Angelina' was a stand-out, although she remorsefully added that hers was subject to a bit too much afternoon shade and was therefore spindly.  
     The real jewel, however, was soon revealed:  a common Mediterranean fig (Ficus carica) that had wondrously survived three consecutive Michigan winters.
     "Any fruit?"  I asked, greatly impressed.
     Alice shook her head.  "The dog-gone things never get big enough to ripen before the snow hits.  Maybe this year I'll hit the jackpot."
     For a while we simply sat on the cool earth, noting our shared affection for rampant clover in turfgrass, praising the weather and hinting at politics (we agreed).  I learned that her husband had recently died and that her son had been killed in the Vietnam war but she said it all with a slight shrug, not indifferently but without complaint.
      Before we parted, Alice shared some of her Cranesbill and loaned me her paperback edition of Henry Mitchell's book One Man's Garden.  "He's marvelous," she promised, adding, "If you don't care for him I just might not be able to be your friend."
     Oh, Alice, I thought, I love it when you talk like that.
     The next time we met, just before August's conclusion, I gave her a dense clump of Helianthus maximiliani, which I instantly regretted. Where on earth would she put this rocketing prairie giant in her small suburban garden?  I warned her that if she showed it too much affection she might be sorry.
     I spent the cold months reading One Man's Garden, relieved that Alice and I would remain friends after all.  That was five years ago, a blink of an eye.  We visited only once this summer, regretfully too near the end of things, but her late-season raspberries were refusing to quit and we stood on the driveway, happily eating them together.
     Alice said nothing that humid afternoon of the plastic tube tucked beneath her nose, nor did I ask. I gave her a new copy of Doug Tallamy's revelatory book Bringing Nature Home, promising her she'd adore it as much as I do.  We observed the gently swaying curly locks of her Corkscrew Willow and then she said it was time for her to go to dinner with her daughter -- they were having burritos.  Glancing at her, tinier than ever, I wondered where all those beans could possibly fit.
     Alice phoned my office the next week but missed me.  She had a question about figs -- would they ripen indoors if they were still green?  I returned the call but received her answering machine.  "I'll be here on Wednesday," I said, "I look forward to talking with you then."
     I did not hear from Alice again.  A co-worker broke the news as she handed me Alice's obituary.  I placed it on my desk next to the yellow notepad where I had written a reminder.  My handwriting seemed urgent.  "Call Alice," it said.  
     When I thought of Alice's garden without Alice there to tend it, it was too awful to consider.  The best I could do to ease my sadness was to revisit the words of Henry Mitchell, a man who wisely understood that in our deepest hearts, gardeners become the luckiest of traveling companions when we cherish our journey together, even if we only cross paths every once in a while.


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