So spring comes again, alive with rebirth and the promise of renewal. And I’m in the back garden of my home, a huge old manor with a lot of history, in which I rent a room. I’ve been tucked inside almost since I first arrived here, some six or seven months ago, hidden beneath the snow as surely as the squirrels have hidden in the attic. But we’re three days into spring now, and the snows have almost melted, and the day is warm at last! So yes. I am in the garden.
I am reaching down into the patina of winter now, trying to scrape the last of it from the tender skin of spring. I am pulling up ghosts from last year’s garden, a garden I never really met before today, because I moved here from Oregon in the fall, and by the time I came it was already tramped down beneath the waves of the mint and ivy and weeds that I am pulling up now… I’ve noticed that gardens always go feral in the fall. And so this little Eden, no I did not know it then, but can discern it from the fragile, dried stalks, from the shape of the pathways worn into the earth, from the random new shoots just beginning to climb tentatively out of the ground and drink in the bright new day.
The influence of last year’s gardener, of last year’s crops, of last year’s flowers, it’s everywhere. I can see by the tomato cages where tomatoes must have been, and can discern from dust-brown, paper-dry leaves stretched across the ground where gladioli must have reached gracefully into the air. The winter kill tells me what there was, and gives clues to what is about to come forth. When I rake back the dead leaves, I find pale, delicate spears telling me that daffodil are unfolding here, and would have been here last year too. So I get a sense of this garden from this evidence. But there is something rooted even deeper than that. A feeling for who is here all around me – the groundhog still curled up beneath the woodshed, the cardinals in the trees, the squirrels probably watching me from the attic. Even the ghosts, the gardeners whose hands tilled this soil and planted hopeful seeds here years before. An intertwining of us all.
This always happens to me when I am hands-in-the-earth in gardens. I get an overwhelming sense of the interconnectedness of everything; the great community of species, of beings; the circle of life; the interconnections even between here and gone, now and then, death and life. It is in the soil, after all, where the dead are brought back to life again; where fungi and worms and tiny microorganisms work their magical alchemy together to transform the fallen and decaying into the very broth of new life from which we have all been sprung. And it is into this very soil where the gardener enfolds the sleeping seeds of summer’s harvest, trusting the dark hands of the earth to hold and nurture them til they can unfurl and bring forth fruit.
But these are heady thoughts, and right now, I guess I’m troubled with ghosts. These iron-stalked mint plants, for instance, lying brown across the ground, undead and terrifying hints at the difficulty one might have, trying to reclaim this particular corner of the garden for anyone but these. Or the ghostly tendrils of some kind of snaking vine… God that can’t just be sleeping ivy, can it? (Oh, what slow-motion violence there must have been here, as the vestiges of some great and epic probably annual – battle between the ivy and the mint litter the ground!) See, so there is plenty of mystery left in every garden, no matter what hints the hands before might have given away.
But I have my own ghosts to struggle with, and that is why I’m here. There is, for instance, the ghost of the man I loved, still love, have loved all my life. Sid. He died the summer before I came here. It turned out his absence was too great a hole for me to ever fill out there alone in Oregon. So after struggling for a while, I left Portland and headed east to Ohio, where the only person I knew when I arrived was my closest friend Julie. I had nowhere else to go, and I needed a friend, so my dog and I left almost everything, packed up what little was left, and came here to this old house, where Julie lives up on the third floor and I live on the second. This house has become a home to me in a way I have not felt at home in quite some time. And my housemates and Julie’s family have become a family to me in a way I dearly needed.
And it is through my entanglement with Julie, and her family, that I came to know Darah Farris (a woman whose hands once worked this little piece of earth), much in the same way that I am getting to know this garden. I never met Darah face to face, but I have known her for years through the stories that Julie has told. For as long as I can remember, Julie has referred to her cousin Darah as “my little sister.” I found strength and inspiration in the stories Julie shared about Darah’s courageous struggle with life-threatening illness; I remember laughing and celebrating with her from afar the day Julie shared a photograph of the “fuck cancer” tattoo that Darah got emblazoned over the surgical scar across her chest. And when Darah left this world, only five months after Sid did, I was shocked with my friend for her “little sister,” who had been so brave and fought so hard and died so very young.
It still makes me cry to remember how, when Julie told me that Darah had died, I wanted to understand. All I could think to do, at that moment, thousands of miles away, was to look on Darah’s Facebook page. (Social media… its own kind of garden of ghosts.) I think I just wanted to see a picture of her again or something, some kind of connection with this woman who had to go so soon, some way of sharing in my friend’s grief, some way of comparing, in my mind, Julie’s loss of Darah with my loss of Sid. So yes, I looked on her Facebook page and besides the pictures, I found her words and thoughts, eerily preserved beyond her life. And… I saw that the last thing she had posted there was on the winter solstice, only a few short days before she died. Full of exclamation points and smiley-faced emoticons, she was celebrating the first snows and the first day of winter. Such a happy spirit. She must have been so sick by then, facing her own mortality, and yet still in love with the circle of life enough to celebrate the snow and the coming winter.
And so, the seasons turned.
Darah was quite a gardener too, I’m told. Last fall, Julie and I cut back the last summer shoots of the Abacus garden, a project Darah had brought to life in the hope of bringing fresh, whole, healthy foods and an appreciation for where life comes from to the sometimes-deprived worlds of the children whom she tended and taught there. Her presence is surely here in this garden at Beck Haus, too. Because Darah used to live here, in one of the rooms overlooking this little sanctuary. As I lean down and carefully cut back the browned arms of perennials to make way for green new growth, I find myself wondering which of them she might have planted here, which of the little pots or garden decorations pressed down under the onslaught of the unruly mint might have been placed there some summer ago by her hands. So this is a meditation on death and life, on concrete realities touched by hands, and on our ghosts.
Gardening reminds me that season’s wheel doesn’t just take, it also gives; It brings back new life again, always born from the remains of the lives that came before. It brings me closer to Sid as well… he taught me to care for house plants long before I ever had a patch of earth to tend. And when we finally moved in to our first and only house together, he used to play guitar and sing soft music from an open window while I toiled in the rich, dark earth outside on warm evenings. The fruit trees we planted then would just be coming into fruit now… had things been different.
Sid and Darah… both left this world last year, within five months of each other, both gone of the same disease: Cancer. And that, too, I can feel in this garden. Because for all the glow of life there is in being out here, I can also feel the toxic sludge of years of Ohio industry beneath the soil, can sense the dusting of lead from all the crackling old lead paint in all these hundred year old houses. The water that will run from this hose, come the drier weather, will smell of rust and metal and chlorine, just as the tap water in the house, in all the houses here. I am afraid to plant vegetables here, afraid of what they might suck up out of the ground, afraid of what might dust their leaves and fruits. I am afraid to drink the water without filtering it. And even then… I am afraid of what might get through the filter anyway.
I have seen what cancer does, and I have watched as it went from a seemingly rare disease to one that touches every family that I know. Cancer is an environmental disease, one sickening much of our planet now, and the bodies of those we have loved have borne its outward symptoms. Cancer rates are skyrocketing. Here in Ohio, all along this rusty rim of Great Lakes and Industry, the toll is even higher than it was out west. I can only imagine how it will grow now that Big Industry is fracking the Marcellus shale, taking the precious waters of life, mixing them with potent, highly toxic poisons, and injecting them back into the earth in violent greed. Although we tell ourselves it’s such a complicated issue, with so many unknowns and so many years between potential toxic exposures and development of the disease, in truth it isn’t so complicated after all: The way our culture expects us to live right now is killing us. It’s already taken so much. So many years of extracting every last dollar from the earth, destroying every last forest, dumping toxins straight into the ground and the water, an “externality” to sweep beneath the rug on the road to someone’s profit margins… Alas.
I wonder if we are weeds here, and what that really means. Are we the ivy creeping over the garden and choking the life from it in a pointless and greedy quest for more? Or are we the pioneer species, the dandelion and the burdock and all the healing herbs who are the first to colonize the broken ground, the first to heal wounds in the skin of life spread across the earth?
Julie and I got witchy this winter, and started blending herbal brews and tinctures. So I think about that now… how we both noticed that the plants we seem to need the most are the very ones that grow when nothing else will. They burst from their little fairy seeds and grab hold of the ground and suck the toxins away and purify the nutrients and make the soil clean again, bringing fertility and life back to barren places. And when we harvest them from cleaner ground, they purify and strengthen our bodies and souls. They bring the elixir of life to us as surely as to the ground they grow in. Can that happen here? Where there has been so much damage? Where people we love have left us, have died of the poisons, and the soil and water and air we breathe is compromised and terrifying in a way that only those of us who have been inextricably touched by the fallout can really see…?
Even the hardiest of the roots reaching down into the earth to heal it can only absorb so much. The earth herself can only take so much. Our bodies can only take so much. Sid’s body, Darah’s body… they could only take so much. So this gardening… this is a bittersweet meditation out here today. Spring brings Persephone back into the world again, after her trek through the underworld. It brings our ghosts surging forth again in our hearts. And it brings back questions about how we came to accept such pain and suffering, such disease, in exchange for a few pieces of silver to a few captains of industry. Why did we let them poison the very ground we grow from? Why do we just buy bottled water (from some other toxic source no doubt) and pretend it isn’t happening?
Clearly, there is a lot for all of us to heal from, and a lot of work to be done. If I am to make peace with these ghosts, I must clear this garden. I must let this anger express itself at last, transform it here in this soil from a futile and destructive force, into a focused energy to bring back life again. I need to stop quietly accepting that the people we love can be an “externality,” the price paid for someone else’s “progress.” And I need for you to do it too. We need to clean up the garden now… for the hope is that winter is almost over.
I have come back inside now. It got a little chilly, so I came in for a sweater. And by the time I turned around to go back out, it had started snowing once again. Might this be the last snow of the year, the very end of winter, finally? Oh please, let it be so.
So now I am inside, and our ghosts are in here, too. Sid has come with me, and decorates the walls of my room and the canvases that I paint with his presence and his absence. I feel a sense of joy and comfort in the remembering, but also a sense of numb and futile pain. This is how it is, with ghosts. And Darah is certainly here too. Her old room is just across the hall from mine. Julie’s room is filled with her things, and her gentle spirit wafts through the dark halls here at night as comforting as a friend. I can feel her presence here everywhere. And when I hear from others who knew her, I can sense the impact of her life, spreading outward as tangibly as the daffodils reaching their little green shoots up out of the ground. Who knows. Perhaps a whole new crop of little children, who learned about the connection between our bodies and the earth’s body from Darah at Abacus Garden, will make a difference none of us could have believed. That, too, is how it is with ghosts – they never really leave us disconnected from them. They share with us the narrative of life, they walk with us from just the other side of the veil. Sometimes, when it’s quiet, when the wind shifts just right, you can feel them almost close enough to touch.
Just like spring… almost close enough now, to touch.
Written by Cat