by Mimi Hedl
Sometimes everything does work out. Why is it we don’t know this until we’ve almost given up hope? How do you keep believing when all signs point to disaster? And why does this optimistic gardener even venture into such dark territory? Like so many folks the world over, we’ve dealt with a profound drought. Granted, not on the level African countries, Iran or Afghanistan endure, and certainly nothing like the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, or that China faces today, but enough drought to bring despair to our psyches and wonder if rain had become another old fashioned idea. We burrowed into our shells and waited out the heat, the dryness, the shriveling up of the landscape. If I paint a grim picture I’ve only recorded reality.
Through day after day with no rain and unrelenting heat, the gardens held on ─ held on but didn’t look pretty. By 5pm each day, everything had wilted, expressing utter exhaustion. Shrubs and some perennials sloughed off leaves to reduce evaporation as they too waited, waited. It was sad, just plain sad. I didn’t smile much and began to feel what other people must feel as they watch their world, their livelihood collapse a midst one natural disaster or another.
Last summer I decided, over the protestations of the head gardener, not to water the gardens except for plants in pots. With predictions of water shortages in the future, we could learn which plants do well in drought and gather some information as to how to proceed as the climate continues to change. I felt excited to gather information and begin a large experiment. Not the head gardener. With a not so gentle voice, she puffed up, turned red, and told me I was crazy. “You have a deep well. It goes down 333 feet. Why would you let everyone else use that water and not you? All the work we’ve done to plant will just be wasted. I just don’t get you!” I looked at her, saw her utter frustration, and understood her logic. It didn’t seem like the right moment to have a discussion on climate change and we had work to do, so I told her she’d raised some points I’d think about. Fortunately last summer was generous, we didn’t need to water as the rains came and most everything did well. The discussion was forgotten or postponed, depending on who you asked.
Last Friday when she came back from her summer retreat and stopped in to say hello she wanted to walk around the gardens. I tried to deflect her but she moved right on, pushing toward the gardens. She stopped in her tracks and was horrified. Simply horrified. The naked ladies, or surprise lilies, and the zinnias were the only bright spots for her. The tomatoes weren’t producing much, only a few cucumbers on the vines, no beans, peppers sad, squash being eaten by deer (or that dratted, but cute, ground hog). I kept interjecting “but.…” though it did no good because she was on to the next angry declaration as she flailed her arms about and shook her head back and forth in total disbelief. I thought maybe she’d quit on the spot and at that point, I really wouldn’t have cared. I received her sharply delivered words like a piece of wilted lettuce. She was right. It all looked disastrous.
She spotted the straw stacked up and wanted to see it. She loves the smell of fresh straw. We walked over to the pile of beautiful golden straw. A week before, I told her, Jeremy called to say he had our straw. He enlisted the help of Petra to move the 4 stacks of 21 bales each with her tractor, taken off of Jeremy’s flatbed trailer. I told the head gardener Jeremy said they could’ve unloaded the straw bale by bale, but Petra was happy to help and seemed to enjoy showing the guys how a woman can easily lift a ton of straw with hydraulics and a calm demeanor. The head gardener smiled at that. (Phew… I continued with the story as it seemed to amuse her.)
After figuring out the route to the straw’s home, Petra slowly maneuvered the tractor’s fork into the huge bundle, stabbed it, lowered the bundle like an expert until she found the balance point and carried each ton of straw the 100 feet to its allotted space. With the triple digit temperature and high humidity, Jeremy and his dad appreciated the kind help. Afterwards, the four of us hung around Petra on her tractor, the Queen of Sheba, and talked and talked, mostly about tractors, at which point the head gardener laughed. She knows I’m ignorant about machinery of any kind. The story was a nice distraction from the calamity she had witnessed in the gardens. Her mood had changed. So I took the opportunity to ask her to come next Tuesday for work as I had plans for the weekend. Yes, plans to feel sorry for myself.
The weekend came in woefully hot and so dry there was no dew on the browning grass in the early morning. I mustered the energy to go about my duties but I felt the presence of the apocalypse. Yes, I do have the tendency to be overly dramatic but after hearing of disasters the world over, I figured it was our time to endure one too. I felt ashamed of my pathetic response, at my lack of cheerful, upbeat energy. I lost my belief that things could get better.
I stewed for several days, taking care of mundane challenges like a clogged toilet ─ is that not a metaphor for the apocalypse? And I’d lost several items, a paring knife, later found on the floor, and my pruners, placed in the wrong basket. All this indicated a lost spirit. And Agnes would come on Monday, freshly back from Germany where heat and forest fires raged. My sad gardens would assault her too.
And indeed they did. Our first chore was to clean the garlic. We sat in the shade of the sweet gum tree and she chirped pleasantly about all the adventures she and Thomas had in Dresden. With no air conditioning in her mother’s house, they suffered through the nights as they couldn’t open the windows with the fires so close by. (Doom and gloom abounds when you’ve let down your optimism spectrum.) After we’d finished cleaning the garlic, a lovely harvest this year, she too wanted to tour the gardens. I could not deflect her either. So I took her to all her favorite places and the best she could muster was, “I’ve never seen it look so bad before.” Yes, I thought, dig me a grave and bury me now. Everything seemed downhill.
We hauled some of the new straw to various beds, leaving the bales for the head gardener and me to spread. We cut back the dead zinnias. Agnes works so quickly and efficiently we finished those tasks in jig time. My enthusiasm dipped and I suggested an early lunch. We went inside to prepare what the garden offered. To her, the zucchini fritters, the millet and corn dish, the cucumber salad and the fresh tomatoes tasted like ambrosia. “You make such good food Mimi” she pronounced. That cheered me a little and she told more stories about their new kittens and their adventures in Germany. I think I even smiled.
She left before the heat became unbearable and I collapsed into a nap. Within 12 hours the rains would fall, and fall, and fall until 3 ½ inches had graced the parched landscape. I would lie in bed, in the dark, and weep with joy. Gifts from the heavens have arrived. We’re saved once again.
And indeed the gardens would come back with a vigor that surprised even me. More importantly, when the head gardener showed up for duty on Tuesday morning, she walked around with an open mouth. She couldn’t believe the transformation. I reveled in her wide eyed look of wonder and exclamation, “How can this be?”
I smiled and muttered about the underground river and mycelium, mulching, using compost etc. etc. but she didn’t hear a word. She simply walked from one plant to another and oohed and ahhed. I held on to the quiet victory. This theme of water shortages will remain a constant. We’ll have many conversations, disagreements, but now I have this one “miracle” to relate to, over and over again as we slowly try to come to an understanding of our new world, how we have to adapt and what a difference a day makes.