Sumer Is Agoyng Ouht
There’s no denying that the vegetable complement of our courtyard and garden—the flowers, the basil and other herbs, the zukes, the Amazonian tangle of the tomatoes, even the late-blooming peppers—is looking a bit haggard these days. It’s as if the plants are finally exhausted by all the growing and the flowering and the producing of fruit that they’ve been engaged in for months, by the constant effort to resist the barbarian sun, by the caprices of water that arrived perhaps too slowly or else too abundantly. Withered and yellowing leaves are visible among the green ones; the baby peppers and our few eggplant, no bigger than a kitten’s head, are struggling to grow any larger. The only plants thriving are the weeds, which, as if they could sense the weakness of their cohorts, have seized this moment to remount their assault.
And the insects are frenzied: the mosquitoes arrive in veritable prides during the early evenings, and dining outside in the now-pleasant evening temperatures becomes a convulsion of slapping, even as the “outdoor” sprays and the fumes from a dozen citronella candles render the air miasmal and the application of mosquito-repellents leaves the skin feeling distinctly embalmed.
The herbivores, meanwhile, are devouring everything in sight faster than I can pick them off or murder them with chemicals that I’m quite sure aren’t doing us any good, either. In the space of a single night, eggplant leaves the size of dinner plates vanish down to their ribs, and I am sometimes awakened from sleep by what I am convinced is the sound of chewing. It’s as if the arrival of a few cool nights has served as a warning: gorge, mate, reproduce now, before it’s too late. Even the snails have made a comeback.
With the insect bloom came a plague of spiders, which we were eventually forced to subject to death-by-vacuum-cleaner. Normally, I am opposed to spider-cide on principle (a principle that weakens relativistically according to the circumference and level of hairiness of the spider in question), but daddy-long-legs (Pholcus phalangioides for the entomologists among us) create bedraggled and unattractive webs that tend to droop from the edges of the ceiling, collecting dust and generally giving the house an Addams-Family-mansion ambiance.
Meanwhile, we found three Scutigera in a single room on a single evening, and carnage ensued. (Broom Fu. Insecticide Fu. Paper Towel Fu. Wendell-Bob says check it out.)
All of this, of course, is just an excuse to talk about summer’s end. Many years ago, a dear friend explained to me that free-floating anxiety will always seek an object, thus: the wilting leaves, the bugs, the eggplants’ failure to thrive…. They’re what I focus on because what else there is to focus on is just too huge.
Try as I might, I cannot manage to see the turning of the seasons as anything other than baleful. Do we really need a reminder of the passing of time, which passes all too quickly anyway? I realize how deeply I have been marked by growing up in a place that had no seasons, where we were fooled into a belief in uninterruptedness by the fact that everything grew all year long, all the time. “Seasonal vegetable” was a term you came across in books.
Did we have fifty words for sun? No, although Hawai‘ian names both rains and winds. What we had was a blissful ignorance of the way sunlight can disappear entirely from a corner of the garden in the space of no more than a few weeks. That we often picnicked on the beach on Christmas Day may strike some as eccentric, but it was really an act of defiance. There, on an island surrounded by hundreds, thousands of miles of deep ocean, we somehow felt as though we lived in a safer, less limited universe, one in which the outside temperature could not, potentially, kill you.
Now, on some afternoons, I sit out in the courtyard and I’m struck by such sadness. I see the still-green riot around me and all I can think of is this same space, barren and inhospitable, stalked by fog and untouched by warmth of any kind. I know this is the destination that lies ahead; I know nothing can stop it. I look around and, with my eye, count the possible survivors: the rosemary, the sage, the yucca, the jasmine….
Tell me, Margaret, are you grieving?
So it will all roll around again. Yes, I know. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. There will once more be the first efforts to coax something, anything, out of cold, mossy earth that makes your fingers ache as you dig into it and seems as gray and barren as the surface of the moon. There will be the shifting of pots of plants around the courtyard to chase the renitent sun. The waiting and the hoping, the scrutiny of tiny leaflets no bigger than the head of a pin. The conviction that the failures augur some greater tragedy; the worry that the successes are due to a trick you won’t be able to remember the next time you need it.
The burden of it, most of all. The sense of performing desperately a task that is desperately futile.
“We do it because it gives us pleasure,” says Dolce Metà, his way of justifying the immense expense we’ve incurred in water, fertilizer, soil and mulch, additives, insecticides, tools, pots and vases, seed, bulbs, and the like over the last four months, much of it for plants I feel we temporarily rented rather than ever owned. “Isn’t it better to have the garden than not to have it?” he asks.
It is better; it is unquestionably better. And yet, for all its rewards, I wish it were not also the garden of metaphors.