SUN, SEEDS AND SOIL
We are like gardens, being born, growing up, giving birth to new life, getting old and finally disappearing.
THE SOIL IS DARK and full of dead leaves and worms. It smells like my grandmother's bed, where we used to snuggle. Spring comes early here after the long winter rains. Crocuses, narcissi and freesias shoot out their buds, and we await new blossoms every day. The crab-apple's pink buds open to snow-white flowers, and monarch butterflies rest their tired and torn wings after their long journey from Mexico. An abundance of spring flowers - purple, maroon and yellow bearded iris, pink and mauve aquilegia, and white dianthus - paint a beauty beyond imagination. These colours go right into my heart and dissolve into my whole being.
The kitchen garden is a special joy. I grow the usual vegetables: lettuce, kale, chard, rocket, leeks, garlic, pumpkins, snap peas, and string beans. Potatoes are especially fun to grow. I love their nutty, earthy flavour. I put big pots of water on the stove to boil and then go out to the garden to pick the potatoes. I dig them from the sides of the plant with my hands, so they will keep producing all summer long. Fresh potatoes are tender and juicy; I scrub them and slide them into the boiling pot. Boiled potato and chopped parsley with plenty of butter is one of the most divine foods that I know of. This was what my father wanted to eat every day when he visited here.
MY FAMILY USED to grow its own vegetables, too, in the back yard during and after the war. We depended on that vegetable garden for our meals. My grandpa became very serious about production. He got up every morning, to work in the garden. He took his calligraphy brush out, to pollinate the pumpkin flowers. He collected pollen from the male flowers and brushed it over each female flower. He was so meticulous about his work that we ate pumpkins that winter till we turned orange.
In my family's garden I loved to pick the ripened tomatoes. The dark green leaves gave out a strong smell, which I breathed in deeply. The tomatoes were red and warm from the sun; it felt like they were about to burst. My grandma put them in the icebox, and before serving them she peeled and sliced them, then sprinkled a little bit of the treasured sugar she had saved on them. I felt it was the most delicious thing I would ever taste.
In Muir Beach I had tried to grow tomatoes for several years, but the summer fog prevented them from ripening, and finally in the seventh year I gave up. I was disappointed but understood that the same fog makes lettuce and other leafy vegetables grow tender and allows us to get fresh salad from our garden ten out of twelve months.
IN SUMMER, vegetables seem to grow before our eyes. After the full moon, swollen seeds germinate profusely, and courgettes and pumpkins grow like balloons. During the dry summer we need to conserve water, so all kinds of weed are left in the garden for a green mulch, to keep in the moisture. Lavender, sage and oregano release their strong aromas generously.
In autumn the alder loses its leaves and shows its bare branches. Through the lace-like grove, I can see the surrounding hills, and the animals come down from above to the greener valley. A red fox sits on the garden table. It reminds me of the stone figure of a fox shrine I used to visit as a child. A raccoon family makes a procession to the cat's food. Some nights, deer jump over the fence looking for soft vegetation to eat. Their thin elegant bodies shine under filtered moonlight, and their footsteps make crisp sounds over fallen leaves.
Sometimes I get lost watching insects at work. Bees, busy over the ink-blue borage flowers, collect pollen and make it into balls. Sometimes the balls grow almost too big for the bee to fly with. A tiny white spider weaves delicate hexagonal webs in the herb garden, moving her long thin legs as fast as she can and waiting for prey. It is terrifying to watch her eat a fly still half-alive. She sucks juice out of the body and then starts to nibble. Some mornings I see dozens of nets stretching among the shrubs and flower-beds, dewdrops reflecting the sun. As I watch these tiny creatures and their magnificent work, my sense of time slides into theirs, and their small world expands into the big universe.
WHAT DOES THE garden do to us? I watch the plants germinate, grow, blossom, make seeds, and wither, becoming soil, and come back to grow again, and again. I realise that we are like them, being born, crawling, walking, growing up, giving birth to new life, and getting old and finally disappearing. The dharma wheel turns and turns, creating, changing every moment, yet continuing. Why do we think we are different from plants? Do plants die? Do we really die? We came out of emptiness, and return to emptiness. Being in the garden gives me a great feeling of rest.
One day while I was weeding, enjoying the quiet afternoon sun, a small aeroplane suddenly flew very low overhead. I ducked down and ran under the pear tree. My heart was beating very fast. In that moment the Coast Guard plane had become a B-29, dropping bombs on the street of my childhood, and my heart beat with the fear of fifty years ago.
When I realised that I was squatting in my peaceful garden I felt a great sense of relief, but I also felt sad that there are so many children who are suffering just like I did when I was small. Because of my painful experience, I can fully treasure the abundance of life. It is deeply comforting to live close to nature, to be part of the big cycle.
I knew that I had come back to Gaia's secret garden to nurture myself and my children. With a secure fence around me, I healed. I became whole.
The above article is reprinted from I Opened the Gate, Laughing, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, at $16.95. www.chroniclebooks.com