This morning I woke at 5 a.m. Another early morning, and I am thrilled. Over the summer I was staying up later and later and getting up later too. Summer has always felt like the blousy, raucous sister to her composed and rudimentary sibling winter. Summer loves life and expresses it with wild abandon, awake and about, all the live-long day. Winter has a rich inner life, so much going on underneath, tuned to subtle variations on subterranean themes. And autumn and spring are the middle children of Earth’s temporal family. They lean and drift between three seasons- their own and the two they flank. If given the opportunity, they can ease us through the necessary elemental changes. However, some years summer plows straight into winter, and winter won’t leave without one last tantrum.
I’m not rushing summer out the door, by any means. I still have vegetables in the garden urging their way toward daylight. I fear they won’t make it in time if autumn falls early. Hell, I don’t even know what some of them are! I dug them up from my compost and transferred them to the garden across the road, where Betty and I grow a mix of things. We try to remember to water and weed in between our many schemes and plans and duties. At the Grant wedding dance at the Palais Royale last month we were having a grand old time, until I stopped mid-giggle, suddenly realizing: “ Oh my God, I left the sprinkler on!”
“What time did you turn it on?”
“Sometime after lunch. What time is it now?”
“Midnight. Don’t worry, it needs it!”
I marvel at the gardens around here, and I wonder how they do it. Mette’s squash are the size of watermelons. Cathy Legault’s paddy pans look like swollen fancy dinner plates and one Hutterite zucchini will feed a family of 12. And then there’s Page. His entire back yard is a garden with a dozen varieties of garlic, several shades of basil, 12 foot high sunflowers and tomatoes planting themselves in any spare inch of soil they can find. I even brought him flower seeds from my mother’s garden, stored in a jar I labelled Miracle Marigolds, and they came up as all sorts of exotic dahlias and zinnias and daisies I don’t ever remember planting back home! Every morning on my way to work at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage I walk past his garden, some days I even steal a cherry tomato because, I mean, really, who’s gonna notice?
Page employs the same patience with his garden as he does his award-winning photographs. As I commented under a facebook photograph of a night sky over the Val Marie elevator: “Page knows how to be patient and allow the subject to reveal its soul to him. Which I’ve come to believe means: stay long enough with the subject to remove the barriers to ultimately reveal the ‘soul of the world’”.
When he heads out to the park to plant himself at a respectful distance in front of a den or a prairie dog hole or an owl nest, he stays for hours in the same position. When an animal appears it doesn’t seem to notice, or if it does, it doesn’t mind, not seeing this rock-shaped creature as a threat. More often than not Page returns home with a gem of an image, a critter so intimately involved in catching a fish or feeding a baby that you can’t help feel a deeper affinity for it. In his backyard Page can be found lying on the ground under giant plants, engrossed in photographing tiny pollen covered beetles. Even the infested plants thrill him. “Thanks for all the new bugs!” he once texted me, a comment I assumed was sarcasm coming from a frustrated gardener. But, “no really”, he said, wearing his photographer’s cap, “thanks! They’re really cool!”
I’ve sat on a winter evening with Page as he mapped out his Spring garden on a piece of graph paper, organizing beds like an addition to the family home (there’s a reason plants and babies both begin their lives in nurseries).
One evening, going over the latest configurations for bulbs and seedlings Page gasped and held out his latest garden plot design.
“What’s wrong? You forgot the lettuce?”
“It’s very lovely…”
“No, don’t you see it- it’s in the shape of the Alamo!”
“ Riiiigght.” The truth is I couldn’t spot an Alamo-shaped cookie, let alone a garden plot. But it makes perfect sense. Page is an Alam, shall we say, expert? In fact, what probably cinched our friendship was my desire to learn more about the subject. Out came the movies, documentaries and books. I did not know that Davy Crockett was part of that story. Nor Jim Bowie, of Bowie knife fame.
But I did learn that when Page develops an interest in something he explores it in detail. He dedicates himself to it. Like his garden, which is so huge this year (partly because I convinced him to let me have a teeny corner for flowers – just to see how they fared under his green thumb) he couldn’t leave town for a photo safari. It reminded me of a conversation my friend Helen and I had 20 years ago about marriage and children. “I don’t even have a pet,” she mused. “I just want to raise healthy plants first!” And Erma Bombeck, my mother’s favourite humourist wrote: “Never trust a doctor who has dead plants in the waiting room”.
I’m still learning what will grow and what hasn’t got a hope in hell. I thought night-scented stocks under my bedroom window would be a lovely way to drift to sleep, but they never made it past unscented sticks. My nasturtiums fed the flea beetles. My tarragon just slipped away, like a bored guest leaving by the front door while I was in the kitchen. But the rosemary and the sweet peas and the three kinds of mint have more than made up for my failures. And the sunflowers! Their enormous filigreed heads are so heavy they’ve begun to bow to the birds, as if to say: here’s dinner, come and eat and lessen my load.
Before bed last night, I walked across the road to bid goodnight to the garden, maybe pull a couple of night time carrots. As long as I can remember gardening has been the one activity that, apart from walking, after throwing myself into it for an hour, has always left me calmer and more contented than when I began. The three years I spent living with my father in the family home in Kelowna, after my mom died, I took over the flower garden duties and my sister Celeste continued with the vegetables. In the evening, after Dad and I watched his game shows on T.V., he would head off to bed and I would go outside and walk through the garden. Some nights I swear I could hear the earth say: ‘scratch my back’, or ‘I need a drink’ or ‘those drooping tomatoes need picking, I’m getting dirt all over them’. Early mornings and evenings, just before sunrise and after sunset, seem to be the time for the subtle voices of ‘the little world’ to share its endlessly big and important lessons.
Dylan Thomas wrote about walking in search of ‘news from the little world’. Perhaps he’d find a dead robin ‘with all but one of his fires out”. Here, in Val Marie, I go for walks and the only sounds are those of nature. No rush hour traffic, no throbbing night clubs, not even the constant electric hum of wires, neon signs and coke machines. Here its birds, crickets, hornets nests, coyotes, frogs, the wind giving the grass and trees a voice.
I go looking for news like the Manhattanite goes down to the street to get his morning New York Times from the corner vendor. On my corner is the owl in full haunt. Only his call gives him away, his wings are silent. I watch as he swoops from telephone pole to telephone pole, as if chasing the last rays of sun, until finally he perches atop the church steeple, unaware he has won my heart with his triumphant silhouette, his swivelling sightedness, his implacability.
I am reminded of something Wendell Berry wrote: “Whoever has really considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine- which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”
Back home I glance at the jar of ‘miracle marigold’ on the stoop and realize they’ve done their part.
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, Sask. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On Aug. 3 she performed at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.