Fred’s garden is gone. Even if I make a new garden for him, he’s almost blind now and can’t see the birds or squirrels cavorting. He can hear and smell, and when the patio doors of the house are open in summer, he sniffs and listens. But he cannot see.
Fred was the reason I started a garden in my old apartment. I built the garden around a bird feeder for his excitement and entertainment. A couple of months later a friend and I who had recently started new gardens had an apotheosis: all those annoying weeds around the bird feeder…they were the seeds, sprouting! Dude! Who knew? We were both amazed at the realization and amused by our own ignorance.
Fred has zero interest in traversing into the garden. He is a dedicated house cat, born hydrocephalic twelve years ago, and committed to safety in his environment due to his disabilities. He knows the places he patrols, and that’s that. He will not venture beyond the soft confines of a bed or couch. He loves the window and the fragrances of the garden, though. He lifts his big fuzzy head and dreams of all the things in the breeze when the patio doors are open.
Fred’s garden is only a memory now because I have moved out of the apartment to a new apartment and then to a house. I had all but given up hope of ever living in a house, of ever living in a stable home. I knew I wanted a home. I knew I wanted stability. I knew I wanted a partner. I knew what I wanted and had to give up expecting all of it to clear the air to make it become manifest.
A year or two after leaving the apartment where I lived alone with Fred, I was back in the old neighborhood and couldn’t resist driving by to see what was left of Fred’s garden. The edging was there, a St. John’s Wort shrub was there, and a Jackmani clematis was there tangled in the other plants too dense to distinguish. Basically, there was a big mess with some flowers struggling to survive the weeds. I felt a bit happy that the clematis still thrived. I moved on and stopped thinking about the garden.
Just a day or two ago, I had business in the old part of town. Five or six years have now passed. I had no intention of visiting the apartment. Of course nothing would be left. Of course it would all be mown down. Of course there would be no flowers. I did not intend to turn into the driveway and stop to look, but somehow it happened.
There was nothing, as I expected; nothing except a gnarled old-looking shrub where I had planted the St. John’s Wort. Since it was December, no leaves obscured the shrub, no flowers pretended to beauty, and the bare essentials stood unadorned.
The shrub was beautiful, twisting, complex, like an old red wine; and I recognized from the age of the shrub it could only be the first plant I had put in Fred’s garden almost ten years ago. I had chosen St. John’s Wort for its mythical and herbal properties. I wanted magic in my garden and my life, so I chose a magical plant. This was the plant I started with before the weeds and the toads and all the other experiments. It seems immensely fitting that it is the only plant that remains.
Gardens cannot survive without their gardeners. Someone needs to know each plant intimately to allow each plant full expression. Gardens who have lost their gardeners to age, disability, death, or upward mobility show the loss in every leaf and twig. You can feel the imbalance in their pruning, sense the slight neglect in their dividing, see the foolish obliviousness in their lack of weeding. You can see the bones of the garden smothered by chaos or stripped bare by neglect. I see gardens like this in my neighborhood and mourn the dead or disabled gardeners who left remnants of their dedication to beauty behind. One particular garden seemed unforgivably neglected for a few months in my neighborhood, and I walked by it frequently; now I feel chagrined every time I see the newly installed wheelchair ramp leading to the front door. One learns not to judge.
Fred’s garden is gone. He doesn’t need a new garden, and the gardens around this house are more vast than Fred’s garden could ever have been in a tiny apartment. When I am no longer here to tend the garden, it will be a disaster of too many plants in too small a space. Someone will mow it down and put in a lawn, or hire a professional to fix it up. They will know nothing of the history and commitment that created this space.
Accepting change, death, and transformation is essential to gardening. Accepting these things in the plant world is painful if you love plants, but nevertheless not too wrenching because plants are not after all people, or cats. Accepting these things in the mammal or human world is overwhelming. These are the things we cannot accept; we do not go gently into that good night. We are mammals, individuals, and we have no scattering of seeds to resurrect our reproducible selves. We mourn what is lost. We go to new places only by leaving old places behind. But if we once loved them, we never forget.