Steps Down the Garden Path: Five Years of Gardening in The Goodlife

 by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Yesterday evening, while wandering my garden’s paths, I had a prolonged visit with a gorgeous Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly that was visiting my Echinacea plants. Busy harvesting the sticky nectar from the flowers, the butterfly ignored me, allowing me to quietly step up beside it. I was struck by its intricate design - the patterns on its wings were astounding, as was its delicate anatomy. Here was a miracle of creation invested in a tiny fleck of existence - the results of millions of years of adaptation balanced on a flower in my garden. A butterfly’s life, of course, is defined by metamorphosis, change. So too is ours, though we rarely take the time to appreciate how we have grown and the changes we have gone through. I managed to take a few pictures of the butterfly before it ventured on its way, digital reminders of our brief companionship and the wonder I felt for those few special moments.


A garden is an ever changing journey, but one that is never made alone. Any true gardener knows that a garden is more than a patch of earth adorned with plants -it is a co-creation or partnership with creation that calls us to companionship. In a sense gardening is like a pilgrimage since that implies a shared journey, though it remains highly personal. In the five years that I have been writing for this magazine, I have tried to offer my companionship to you, my readers. As I review what I have written it strikes me that scattered between the helpful tips and attempts at humor are a few meaningful passages that are, almost invariably, about moments like those I spent with that butterfly. I am fond of calling these “Mary Oliver moments,” after my favorite poet. Mary Oliver is someone who knows how to pay attention, that paying attention is a kind of companionship to creation and is our way of connecting to it. Here are a few of the things that I have paid attention to since I started this column:


Rain. “It rained last night - a good rain, sustained and heavy... This morning the river ferns were heavy, their fronds shimmering with countless drops of precious water. "God's water," as my neighbor calls it, not the processed, pumped, and treated stuff. No, this was the real thing. The plants know the difference and are thankful. I am thankful too, for the freshness in the air that lingers while I write this. I know mornings like this will soon be a thing of the past. The heaviness of summer is always just around the bend here in Texas. Even in summer though, a passing thunderstorm or two might clear the air and give us hope, and that is what gardeners grow on.”


Sounds. “The gentle breeze that refreshed the garden stirred our wind chimes into an improvisational chorus. Mockingbirds celebrated the fine weather from their high perches and the Titmice sounded their astonishing alarm-like call. In the distance I could hear our neighbors out with their toddlers, and overhead, the lazy droning of the first wasps of the season as they searched the eaves of our porch for good nesting sites. Even the Grackles sounded good to me with their rusty gate squeaks and cackles. Surely, along with the blues, they are one of the signature sounds of our hometown.”


Soil. “It was one of those moments when I realized that all of my efforts as a gardener were paying off. It wasn't the simultaneous blooming of a well-orchestrated border, or a compliment from an admiring friend. Rather, I was simply tucking a new plant into an existing bed - my trowel easily penetrated the soil revealing at least a half-dozen earthworms. They were wriggling uncomfortably, exposed as they were to the sun and air, and I felt a bit sorry for my intrusion. However, their presence provided great satisfaction, for they were a sign that the soil was alive, that the foundation of my garden was solid.”


Birds. “Screech owls calling in the dead of night, hummingbirds darting from flower to flower, a Carolina Wren nesting on my back porch – yes, I have spent lots of time enjoying the company of the birds in my garden. One moment outshines them all – it was an otherwise dull spring morning, years ago, and as I stared out into the garden, contemplating all of the things that I had to do, my eye caught a dazzling bit of color – there on the ground, not far from my window, a Painted Bunting was hopping around. Its head was a brilliant blue, its chest red, and its back a vivid yellow-green. For an instant I forgot about deadlines and meetings and the world stood still. It was as if a bit of a Van Gogh painting had fallen to earth and then taken wing. Who could imagine such a visitor? Such a gift?”


Spring. “Clouds of pink redbuds, fields of bluebonnets, the fragrance of wisteria and plum- March, the month of eternal bliss for the gardeners of Central Texas has begun. This is the time that sustains us- the intoxicating newness and one thousand shades of green will linger in our memories long after the first hundred degree day. March is the brilliant supernova to August's life-sucking black hole- an explosion of movement and life balanced between the stillness of winter and summer.”


In her poem, The Summerday, Mary Oliver challenges us to find a space in our lives for moments and thoughts like these.


“…I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”


Change, and the need to embrace it, has been a constant theme in my garden writing. Now, change in my professional life is forcing a different kind of adjustment. Starting next month, a new garden companion will be gracing the pages of The Goodlife. Cecelia Nasti, a longtime friend to the Austin gardening community will be sharing her garden journey with you there. As for me, I am hoping for a few more idle hours in the garden. Be sure to check the updates to the Daily Muse to see how I am progressing. Peace, Tom.


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