By Lise Funderburg
My neighbor Syd is a master gardener. She mixes texture, color, height, scale, and bloom time with zeal and wit and no small amount of tenderness. She has a way with purple. I started gardening only four years ago, when I moved into her leafy Philadelphia neighborhood and, for the first time, had a yard. Syd and I started talking once, as I walked by and admired her corner paradise. She was digging in the dirt, down on her knees. We talked about the plants we loved, the ones we hated, the ones that surprised us. And why we liked the whole enterprise, found it capturing our hours and days. “It marks the seasons,” Syd said.
I still think of that comment, often when I’m in my own garden. I’ve always assumed she meant more than that it was just another clock to go by: not merely an add-on to the microwave, the blinking VCR, the two alarms by my bedside (sometimes backup is required), or the wristwatch my father wears that syncs (through radio waves) with an atomic clock in New Mexico and is guaranteed to be forever accurate (within a billionth of a second).
The garden’s marking of time doesn’t need to travel out into space for accuracy and revelation; just the opposite, really–powered by the sun, surely, but anchored in the soil, earthbound. This marking links interior desire to exterior forces, and I find myself simultaneously affecting the world while giving over to its effects. The ferns will cross-pollinate; the drought will kill the anise hyssop (the one the hummingbirds loved so much they routinely ignored me, two feet away in my lawn chair); the goutweed will plague me with its foot-long root spikes; and the hosta, despite being trampled in early spring, will come back with a five-foot-tall, vanilla-scented vengeance in late summer, that perfume lasting for weeks on end.
In Syd’s garden, every season brings satisfactions, but at this writing, more than halfway through autumn, her garden is resplendent. Everything is slightly overgrown. Mums, with long stems punctuated by tight little buds, jump their bed edges and crowd the stone path to Syd’s front door. The bombastic datura, straight from The Land That Time Forgot, bullies all the plants in its vicinity, lording over them with six-inch-long trumpeting white flowers and spiky seed pods the size of golf balls. I see this abundance as a defiant last stand against the inevitable onset of winter. In my own yard, I lie in the hammock and watch one leaf fall, then another, and then another. And I think: Death. Death. Death. This sounds maudlin; to me, it’s beautiful.
There are so many ways in which a garden’s outcome cannot be controlled, it’s essential to find another motivation for year after year of schlepping, laboring, thrills followed by disappointments (followed, frequently, by compensatory purchases). When I started out–planning and planting and clearing away–I thought everything was up to me, that if I did the right things, learned the right plants, and observed rules about soil quality and shade versus sun, I would achieve my desired results. But now I know I’m only a piece of the whole enterprise, and, in fact, the outcome is so long in the making, so changeable, that the gardening itself is now more interesting than what I actually produce. The gardener’s sustained effort and constancy in the face of such relentless serendipity are everything I want my ambition to be.
These days, the desire to immerse myself in my garden has moved from emotion and intellect to biology. I feel it like a hunger. I feel the same hunger at other points in the days that, sandwiched together, make up my life: as I dig out the strength to sprint the last hundred yards of my jog, uphill; as I struggle to make peace with the past wounds and disappointments that scar my heart; as I cradle those sparks of ideas I know I have to write into a story, an essay, a book–even though there’s a vast, unmapped chasm between the spark and the actual writing.
A hunger propels me through any uncertainties; why it is so sure, I don’t fully know–but that hunger has never been wrong. One of my favorite books in childhood was Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. In the story, a fifteen-year-old boy runs away from his family to live in the wilderness. As winter sets in, his joints start to ache and he wakes up one morning with a nosebleed. He kills a rabbit and suddenly craves its liver, not conscious that he needs the iron, but compelled to seek the nutrition his body requires. “Hunger,” he notes, “is a funny thing. It has a kind of intelligence all its own.” This was my first understanding of drive, the first concrete illustration I’d come across of the subconscious being smarter than the thinking mind.
My thinking mind used to get in the way. I’d worry about consequence, what others thought, how something would play. Ambition, as I knew it (and really, I don’t think I ever thought the word), was reactive, more about me trying to fit into the surroundings, the crowd, the relationship, the job, than anything else. But at the end of my twenties, two things happened. In the face of rampant, gnawing dissatisfaction, I decided to start making choices about what I did (journalism) and where I did it (New York). In essence, I chose to care.
For a decade, I kept my caring quiet; I cloaked it in practicality, taking jobs that paid the rent, but all along writing–for free or almost free and in publications with relatively tiny readerships–those pieces that interested me. The topics varied, but they all allowed me room to think. I could spend time wondering, which always led me to places of beauty. Freed from any promise of remuneration or notoriety, I was free to watch the leaves fall, to dig, weed, make a garden.
As it turns out, those pieces have come to define me, to myself and to others. When I look back at them, months or years later, I feel more pride in them than I do other assignments. They prompt more praise, too, but that is a response for which, more and more, I hunger less and less.