Over a year has passed since I last wrote in true dirt and much has happened in that time–not in my garden but in my life. A couple of weeks after the last entry, my father died, suddenly but not unexpectedly, and left me a house, and another garden, on the other side of the bay. Soon after, I received an unexpected diagnosis–a serious threat but a treatable one–which sent me reeling into a chaotic realm of clashing emotions but gradually settled into a more measured pace, a slow cheek-to-cheek dance with my mortality.
Amidst all this my spouse took a new job, and shortly after we took a long-awaited vacation on a little island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. One late afternoon I took a walk down a gravel road that looked out to the turquoise sea and meandered past a small cemetary shaded by cypresses. Behind its whitewashed walls, gleaming marble tombs clustered like a miniature city. I sat by the road overlooking the sea and, as the fading light turned imperceptibly into shadow, a soft “kee” sounded near me. Perched on the archway of the graveyard gate was a small owl. We sat for a while, the little owl and me, as the moon rose over the sea, and then she “kee-kee’d” and flew off to her hunting, and I walked back to an altered life.
From the beginning this journal has been an attempt to describe what it feels like to be a dirt lover, a gardener, a plant-o-phile, and a person with a very deep attachment to certain places on earth, mostly, in this case, the landscapes of California. For me, writing about “the garden” was a way to sort out, distract myself from, and engage with the changing landscape of my life. Since this project began in 2002 my tiny rented yard in Oakland has become transformed from a bare plot of commercial sod and cement to an exuberant overgrown wonderland of constantly changing shapes and colors, many California native plants, a wealth of climbing roses, and an entire forest of trees contributed by a commune of squirrels and resident birds. I will miss this garden deeply.
Sometime this year we will move ourselves and all our clutter from Oakland to Palo Alto. There, another yard awaits transformation. Instead of a north-canted slope with a view of coastal hills, this yard lies flat as the marshland it once was, along a remnant creek that flows to the bay through cemented channels kept free of habitat by vigilant authorities. There is a view only of the sky, and the neighbor’s trees, and a dilapidated fence. Nearly a foot less rain falls in the year, and there is no fog. Birds seem scarce in this yard, except for some crows who seem to take great interest in my activities. Somebody, likely rodent, is eating the mandarin oranges, and raccoons have left a fragrant compost of scat piles along the fence. Children can be heard playing in the neighbor’s yard in the afternoons, and on some days the whine of leaf blowers and lawn mowers is a cacophonous orchestra along the creek. This old garden is threadbare, tired, and harbors memories of a family long gone in it’s untended beds, rotting fences and ramshackle sheds. My mother’s ashes are scattered in its soil, and my father’s will soon be. It is a sort of graveyard.
A year has passed while I pondered whether or not to say goodbye to true dirt just as I must say farewell to my Oakland garden. I feel as if I am sitting once again by that shadowed cemetary on a small Greek island, before that tiny, feathered goddess….”kee kee”, she says. “It’s your life.”