There’s snow falling—again—but I’m starting to get my annual urge to dig in the dirt. This is a dangerous impulse in Flagstaff in early March, but considering the possibility raises some hope in me.
Years ago as newlyweds, we lived for two years in an Iowa farmhouse. All things seemed fertile there, including me. That summer I was pregnant with our older son, Keenan. Being out of work at the time, I’d toddle out to the garden every morning with my hoe, and attempt to hack back the weeds that had sprouted overnight.
Our garden was a 40-by-80-foot plot fenced off from the surrounding barnyard. Ditch weed grew wild in one part of the patch, terrible stuff that smelled like moldy socks and apparently didn’t produce but an inkling of the desired result.
A brown wren lived in one of the box elder trees that grew next to the garden. He’d come sing to me as I hoed and harvested, a song about the sweetness of growing babies, the hazy late-afternoon light on an overgrown Midwestern farm, and the taste of fresh-picked cherry tomatoes.
Our landlords kept a flock of sheep in the barnyard to graze the weeds down. I gathered buckets of their droppings and made manure tea to use as fertilizer. My tomato plants grew to be about 6 feet tall, and produced what seemed like bushels of cherry tomatoes that I couldn’t give away because, as you might suspect, everyone had a bumper crop of the damn things. What I wouldn’t give for a taste of one of them right now.
Here in Flagstaff, gardening is just a tiny bit more challenging than that. Because we’re high and dry, subjected to such wild temperature swings from day to night, and have such a short growing season, tender plants often succumb before they have a chance to bear fruit. Or the deer eat them, delighted to come upon such a tender morsel.
It’s not impossible to garden here; it just requires a lot more husbandry.
Last summer, we tore out our lawn and replaced it a ton of mulch, and native plants like Apache Plume, gallardia and agave. I’m interested to see what survives the winter and this particular microclimate, but it could be June before we see bare earth again.
In general, I’m not inclined to pamper plants. I’m currently developing several strains of drought-tolerant houseplants, first forgetting them, then overwatering them. A few years ago I planted a bed just outside our front door from which some of the plants mysteriously disappeared. I’m certain there’s logic behind all those disappearances, but if they required mollycoddling, it’s just as well they’re gone.
Lamb’s ear is one of the plants that grows extremely well in my yard’s microclimate. A few years ago, I made a piece of artwork about the bees that congregate on the lamb’s ear when it blooms. The benign disregard of the bees for me, as I weeded and dug in my wild garden, was at once both unsettling and comforting. They were going to do their work whether I was there or not.
With that artwork, I was mapping the uneasy relationship humans have with bees, and metaphorically, with the rest of nature. On one hand, our entire agricultural system breaks down when bees as pollinators are excluded. Though lesser substitutes are available, honey and beeswax are prized products.
On the other hand, we keep bees at arms length, knowing the power of their sting. Regardless, we’re not victims of the bees or of the climate. Nature just is what it is, and behaves exactly as it should.
We often conclude that the world comes at us deliberately, sometimes with loving, open arms and sometimes with a butcher knife, but I think the world moves forward and we’re simply in its way. Joy happens, suffering happens; we have no control over anything but our own reaction to events and circumstances.
Am I tired of snow? Yes. Am I grateful for the moisture? Not as grateful as I’ll be in June, but yes, I am. I can hold both those thoughts simultaneously, knowing that neither thought rules out the other, and that nature—bless her—is not personally targeting me with yet another snowstorm.