Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reflections as shared at Memorial Service

Jane Heyward and I shared a passion in plants.  The conduit for this sharing was her garden.
Jane’s garden is a source of infinite wonder, independent of one’s years of familiarity with the garden.  And so it was and is a magical place for each of us.

I am ceaselessly amazed how every single week, year-round, my arrival in the garden is met with some unexpected beauty – a new bloom, a new leaf color, a new fragrance.

Year-round!  This element of surprise, this newness, this anticipatory wonder, in a sense, keeps me engaged and young.  I have no doubt it is also what kept Jane young.  Jane stripped truth to the core by reminding all of us, more than a few times, “my garden is what keeps me alive!”
I feel in my heart the weight and power of those words.   So in addition to my back, I am able to garden with my heart.

Fortunately, the seed of our introductions  to each other fell on fertile soil.  I met Jane on a Sunday morning in her garden.  Jane was wearing  a wide-brimmed straw hat.  She was sitting on the corner of the relic of a capital of a column, her canes resting beside her.  The sun was low and off to an angle behind her.  She was absolutely bathed in morning sunlight.  The light glistened off her eyes so I could not tell where she was focusing.  She seemed to be looking far off, perhaps even beyond the horizon. Perhaps toward nothing in particular.  I felt both fearful and in awe.  Fearful because not having met her I was afraid I was interrupting something akin to religious for her.  In awe because I immediately knew my luck had landed me in the presence of a great mentor, should I quiet myself long enough to listen.
That Sunday was the first of many powerful images and lessons she gifted to me.  The first lessons were graciousness and how to sit in the sun and enjoy a garden.  All tasks on which I am still working.

Shortly thereafter I began to periodically help out in her garden, which evolved into a more regular and committed relation with Jane.   As I gardened alongside Jane over the years, a short poem by Wendell Berry came back to me with renewed significance.  The poem is titled “The Current”.

Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness,
a flickering sap coursing into his head
so that he sees the old tribespeople bend
in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening
to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left
in the earth rising in him like a seasonal juice.
and he sees the bearers of his own blood arriving,
the forrest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground
to lie still under the black wheels of the machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth
flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.

And so it was that the flickering sap of Foxhaven coursed upward into my head through my heart.

Jane and her garden started to become a powerful influence in my life.  Often I would find myself in various non-work situations visualizing how I believe Jane might see things.  Gardening among the mature specimens and naturalized species in the shadow of Jane, gave me an adopted wisdom; a wisdom I had not earned in years and have not yet earned.  As ancient plants and trees decline and perish while the more juvenile and vigorous plants colonize,  the sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding lessons of time are learned.
The garden itself speaks to me directly.

A sparsely-branched pine, creaking in the wind with age, whispers a reminder that Jane lived through two World Wars, the Korean war, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War , and countless other battles, conflicts, and skirmishes. 

Nearby, a dinner table-sized oak stump blurts out to be heard.  “After two of those wars, a passionate young gardener planted me here outside her back doorstep.”  “She lived and grew under me,” the stump continues, “as I grew along with her, eventually shading the entire roof in the summer.  Under my protective crown, she raised a full family; garden beds sprouted at my base and multiplied outward.  In my later years, her indomitable spirit brought her out on walks, usually twice a day, past my massive trunk, which continued for I know not how long, for suddenly one day my sap stopped flowing and my grandeur was returned to the soil.  With all her stamina and vigor, the matriarch to whom I am indebted outlived me.”

A relentless and somewhat arrogant honeysuckle vine which has colonized the interior of a white quince, trembles as it relates:  “that Mrs. Heyward often hiked with hand pruners or machete, mercilessly decapitating my cousins growing up in the mountains.  Clipping a path while hiking, sometimes beyond the no trespassing signs, Mrs. Heyward cut a path for herself throughout her life.  Her enthusiasm was also clearing a way for others who are brave enough to follow.”

The Hellebores, which withstand the worst of droughts and whatever winter can throw at them reliably deliver white blooms when the garden is at a relative quiet.  Despite colonizing large chunks of real estate in the shade, the Hellebores meekly declare defeat when comparing themselves to Jane’s tenacity to get out in the garden.  No number of falls or ailments was able to keep Jane inside for long and away from her walks in her garden.  The Hellebores submissively acknowledge Jane’s spirit by nodding their white blooms downward.

A beautifully crafted but now terribly dismembered marble statue made by the Italian artist Donato Barcaglia in 1876 is a poignant reminder of the hierarchy of Jane’s thoughts.  One day I was shocked to discover a massive white pine branch laying across the statue.  Various fingers and smaller pieces had been broken off in the past, probably by similar falling limbs, but this time,  a child’s stone head lay on the ground so at the very least, a decapitation had occurred.  I was extremely hesitant to move or chainsaw any of the branch over concerns of causing even more damage.  Flustered,  I went inside to deliver Jane the bad news.  Jane’s response was more in the neighborhood of  why are you telling me this? Why don’t you just cut the branch off?  Essentially, why are you losing your head over this one?  At that moment, Jane happened to be focusing on something more important.  
Jane’s response immediately reminded me of another literary image and one that continues to resonate with me and my memory of Jane.  It is from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by the Czech writer Milan Kundera.  The characters in this selection are husband and wife, Karel and Marketa, and Karel’s mother.  The scene is set with Karel and his mother taking a walk:

          Once when they were out walking, she gazed into the distance and asked, “What’s the name of that pretty white village?”  There was no village, just stone markers.  Karel felt an upsurge of pity when he realized how much his mother’s sight had deteriorated…

          To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly.  One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country.  The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long tme no one could think about anything else.  It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe.  The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them.  He never came, never even apologized.  The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy.  Everybody’s thinking of tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled.  And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them. 

          But are tanks really more important than pears?  As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective – a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight.  So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal pears eternal.

 Jane introduced me to both the rich sensory experiences of her garden and the perspectives from her life richly lived.  While I will continue to miss our shared passion and her pearls of wisdom, her garden offers all of us a living experience of her passion and an endless evolving source of wisdom if we only avail ourselves to its presence.
Despite the decades I have spent in gardens, it will be a few years more before I can attain the peaceful sense of place that Jane exhibited upon our first meeting.
With my many memories of Jane as mileposts, I am confident that one day I too can bask in the sun surrounded by the familiar foliage & floral friends of countless years and perhaps pass along to a fertile youth the passions which Jane has so trustingly nurtured in me.
Thank you, Jane.

Your garden keeps me alive as well.

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