by Mimi Hedl
I’d been eyeing Our Lady’s winter garb on warm April days and kept saying, “I need to change her clothes, give her the lightness and airiness spring suggests”. Every time I walked by her, she had her head down and seemed absorbed in some kind of reverie. So I let her be even though the 60° nights suggested spring indeed was in full flower. In fact, the cavalcade of redbuds, wild plums, golden currant, Dolgo crabapple, daffodils of every category, blue bells, celandine poppies and so many more early flowering plants made me dizzy visiting them, showing my appreciation for old friends returning, smelling, touching, all that we need to do after a long, dark winter.
Most days I’d sneak away for a brief period, hiding from the head gardener so I could sit on the earth, in protected spots, those private cubby-hole kinds of spots I sought out as a child. Cocoons, wombs, nests, however you think of those secret places you too treasured and would go for comfort when someone had hurt your feelings or you just didn’t feel like playing with anyone.
Maybe I should count these treasured spots but that would cheapen them as they feel as sacred to the child in me as a church does to the faithful. I can simply disappear from the scene and indulge in quiet thoughts and now, with my acquaintance of so many of the wayside herbs that grow in these grassy coves, I’ll touch and smell each addition to the grasses, say their name, and try to remember some use of the plant, what the root looks like, or maybe one of the many names local people, the world over, will call this plant.
As a child, I remember a large field near Lou Ann’s house, my best friend from kindergarten through 5th grade, in Superior, Wisconsin, and the huge trees that lined the far side of the field where I’d play. I had a tree stump with a deep indentation that became my mortar. I used a rock to pound berries, probably from a honeysuckle shrub, and sing a song that Sacajawea sang in a play put on at our elementary school, “I am brave. I am not afraid.”
Back then I was afraid of everything so singing this song, quietly, so no one could hear me, made me feel brave and like the girl I wanted to be. There were grasses and weeds and briars and leaves and sticks of every kind. It felt like paradise. Why didn’t I recognize my passion? Who knows what paths we have to take to find our way in this world. It can seem like a lonely journey when no one acknowledges the possibilities of our dream.
So there I sit on the grassy patch behind the Medicinal garden, concealed, investigating the dandelions, chickweeds, scarlet pimpernel, sheep sorrel living happily together. I nibble on them, like a rabbit sampling the garden. In spring I wear a carpenter’s apron with a large pocket. I pop the new dandelion flowers in, so I can make a tisane, a light tea, later. The leaves I’ll collect at another time for a stronger tea, a decoction, in which I’ll boil the leaves for a potent brew. My daughter gags at the thought. “That looks like the cocklebur syrup you used to give me for a cough!” she said when I sent her a photo of my cocktail. I laughed. How wonderful that she still remembers.
Of course I lie on the grass and look up. It’s amazing how different the world looks from a prone position, under a tree, watching the clouds drift by, the sun flitting in and out. It reminds me of when I look through binoculars and enter another world. This seems good to remember when we need to rest our troubled minds. The solution’s so simple, so accessible, maybe even the head gardener indulges when she doesn’t see me. Wouldn’t it be funny if when we both got up from our quiet time, we saw each other! I would love that. Maybe then she’d get off my case…
In my fantasies, when I’m teaching young gardeners, I bring them to spots like this, where the wayside herbs have filtered into the grasses, creating a rich network of plant life. Each gardener, in their own spot, would list all the plants they find. This would be part one of the final test. The second place for identification would be the compost pile, part two of the final test. After working for months and seeing the multitude of life, to be able to say what genus, what family and maybe the use of the plant, would demonstrate a familiarity with the life in that micro-environment.
I remember seeing lamb’s quarters, epazote and nettles in New York City. Simple wayside herbs that populate so much of North America, and all worthy of knowing, all old friends I cultivate and honor. I make sure to keep dock close by so when I accidentally touch nettles I can rub a dock leaf on my skin. “Nettles in, dock out. Dock takes the nettles out.” Amen and hallelujah. It truly works!
Now I’m getting carried away, thinking of all the wonderful plants I use, like our ancestors, for food and medicine. Roots shoots and leaves. (I had to include a play on that wonderful book title that makes me giggle every time I think of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves.) Spring does this to me, makes me get carried away, unmindful of so much as I indulge in utter joy at being alive in a world filled with wonder.
And then, boom! the frost came. It was predicted. We had forewarning, but still. The lilacs had bloomed as well as the dogwoods. I picked all the asparagus, no matter how small. It would freeze. I called Tϋlin. She’d put out her lemon tree and bougainvillea, a fig tree too. She could cover the fig tree, but the lemon and bougainvillea would suffer. She had other house plants she and Clayton had hauled out. Oh dear!
On the 20th of April and for the next two days, we had below freezing temps. I kept a fire in the heating stove day and night. Ice and snow came. It was five days past our average date of the last frost. It was miserable for man and beast. Our Lady was grateful for her warm hat, her winter clothes. And what a relief I had respected her silence, her quietness when I thought of letting spring into her. That will come soon enough. Maybe I’ll pick her a May Day bouquet and give her lightness, her airiness, that provides the grace with which she embraces all of spring.