Elegy: The Garden Always Dies and Is Reborn

June 6, 2022

June 6, 2022

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

Thank you, Gabe!

I have been trying to write this post forever, or at least, since my birthday, November 2, 2021. I asked folks to come together and plant for me in my mother’s garden, imagining a bounty from that day, a living record of my birthday. I give thanks to those who came and planted and those who stopped by with food and treats. I give thanks to the sweet pea plants that we planted for my mother—her favorite—and for their incredible effort at still blooming. I give thanks to the neighbors, and the monarch butterflies now in such abundance, dancing with the milkweed, and always to Sophy for her help in weeding and watering.

Thank Your Sophy and Iggy!

I say the garden always dies because this is a pattern in my life: my first garden in San Francisco withered and died as I was evicted from the house and moved to Petaluma, where a kind woman offered me another garden space and it grew many, many zucchini plants before life stepped in and it died, too. The next garden was the beds around a bungalow in South Pasadena, but these too withered as I was forced to move out, and then on to Monrovia and some box gardens and Echo/SilverPark-Lake and a truly wonderful corn spiral and sweet pea and tomato extravaganza that also died in part because my landlords thought it was “too crazy.” And then to my home, still alive but turning to succulents and cactus, and finally to putting my mother’s glorious garden to bed.

I felt guilty last summer with our drip irrigation and amazing crop of Morning Glories and string beans that grew purple and changed to a succulent green when cooked. I know this is the “Land of Little Rain” as Mary Austin styled it so long ago, and I know well the chapter in Carey McWilliam’s triumph—Southern California: An Island on the Land—entitled “Water! Water! Water!”  And I don’t just know this because it is something everyone should read, nor do I know this because it is the plot of Chinatown. I know these things because I teach them to students in my classes, and I know this is a land of little rain and the lack of water, water, water.

And so, I am shutting down my mother’s garden, snipping seed pods from the poppies as in years past, carefully saving her favorite pink and white sweet pea pods from the others, thinking of Mendel (as us old biology majors do), and hoping to preserve with the two-day watering what we can.

And what will that be? I think we have enough in the bizarre rainwater system Jim (my mother’s partner now passed) to save the Maple and the Mimosa, and obviously we want to keep the Milkweed alive…and the wisteria?

I have been over there this week trying to save seed, trying not ask what for, and I have seen the bees (many kinds) and the butterflies (a Monarch a day or two), and I can see this as a living space, but I also went and turned the drip irrigation off, and now I know I will be watching everything die.

I can hear the criticisms in my head, that this should never have been, and everything I did wrong, and always that chorus: water, water, water. I cannot be sad about what was, but I can be sad about what will be no more, and I do hope people get this. My mother grew a garden like this for many, many years. I resurrected the garden to give it back to my mother, so she could smell the perfume of the sweet peas again. Maybe she never should have had this garden, but when I know that folks buy green beans grown in places with no water, what should I think?

I will grieve this garden like it was a member of my family, and I will shut it down and make sure we comply with all the water restrictions, but the lawns in the rich neighborhoods and the golf courses will continue to grow, and people will try to keep saying, “Wow, this summer is really hot!” and I will grieve for my Mother’s garden, and for all that we are losing and have lost.  

4 Comments Add yours

  1. lollie ragana says:

    Oh, Jenny, you did the most right-est thing in making this garden to honor your mother. What a lovely way to honor her! I’m not even sure you needed to take it down. Yes, I know we have no water and I have mostly only succulents these days. But you are providing food for yourself which you aren’t buying from someone else who is probably wasting water and also has to drive it from the farm to the market. In addition, you are also helping bees and butterflies survive. These all seem like very appropriate things to grow in a garden.
    Hope you are all well!


  2. jenny91030 says:

    Thank you, Lollie, for all you are! I miss you and treasure you.


  3. Ximena says:

    “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” Keats

    What a beautiful fairy garden, Jenny. You always create so much charm around you. Your gardens live on forever. I need to borrow the words of the poets to explain this because mine always fall short. When John Muir reminisced about a meadow near his childhood home, he said, “And even if I should never see it[meadow] again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed, I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents….” And, who can forget William Wordsworth host of dancing daffodils;

    I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had bought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    So, Jenny don’t grieve this garden because, “it will never pass into nothingness; but still will keep, A bower quiet for us, and a sleep, Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.” Keats



    1. jenny91030 says:

      Thank you for your beautiful words, Ximena–you always have the perfect thing to say–and much love to you.


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