The Spiritual Gardener: A Taste of Spring
The vernal equinox is upon us, suggesting that this awful winter has to come to an end soon, whether it wants to or not, and snow drifts will have to give way to drifts of tulips and hostas
It is funny, is it not, how perfectly memorable transcendental moments sometimes drop into our lives when we are least expecting them, or not expecting them at all. One day last week, it was a particularly and depressingly characteristic March day – cold and blustery, dull gray skies and spitting with snow – and I was driving in to work in a rather foul mood that closely matched the foul weather. The snow was the frozen, crystalline kind that actually rattles and clatters on the window panes, like someone throwing dry sand against the glass.
RELATED: Recipe for Spring Soup
As I drove past the shuttered farmer’s market in a winter-shattered cornfield outside of our small town, I noticed a flock of fully a dozen turkeys strutting stiff-leggedly through the cornstalks, many with all their feathers rucked up into their finest arrays and looking for all the world like a living Thanksgiving Day greeting card. Lovely, that; it put a smile on my face that lasted all day and quite altered my mood by reminding me that the world is full of vignettes like this if we will but take the time to notice them. Other cars were speeding by, oblivious to the magic that was happening just off the roadway.
This weekend, I moved a huge redtwig dogwood over to the hedgerow, then dug up the stone path from the porch to the driveway and re-laid it on a curve from the porch to the new patio area, or “jungle room” as I am starting to think of it. It was exhausting work, but satisfying, like all the best garden projects are. Sunday I got up early and slipped away to the hardware store with Cosimo while everyone else was still sleeping and bought a dozen bags of cement. What weekend could have a better or more promising beginning than with a big stack of unopened bags of cement? I mortared the new stone walk, then poured foundations for the three plinths or short columns that will define the new patio area. The brick plinths themselves will come later, when I learn how to lay bricks.
The new “jungle room” I am building is meant to be a twin to this one, in another part of our garden, shown here in high summer behind a screen of tropical canna lilies.
Then I was driven indoors by the poor weather and turned my attention instead to making a huge pot of soup in honor of the first day of spring. This is fresh and green and bursting with spring goodness; it makes you happy just to look at it.
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
Half of one medium onion, chopped
4 Tbsp. olive oil
One bunch of asparagus, chopped in one-inch lengths
One cup plus 2 quarts water
2 medium leeks, cleaned and chopped (using all the white and 2/3 of the green part)
2 quarts home-made chicken stock
One pound frozen white corn
One pound frozen green peas
One pound (or more) of frozen spinach ravioli with cheese
This past week it was my birthday and we went out to dinner with some friends to celebrate. They gave me a great bottle of port for my birthday, Croft’s 2003, not knowing Croft’s is my favorite port label. And the rich fruity wine, as it often does, released the flood of memory. How well I remember a magnificent and poignant going down dinner at Oxford at Rhodes House one mellow evening in June of 1979, my exams finally over but my results not yet known, and my three elegiacal years there drawing to a sentimental close.
It was a great meal, with dinner jackets and camaraderie all round in the old-fashioned way, and the meal finished with a spectacular Croft’s 1960 port, the like of which I had never before tasted and am most unlikely to ever experience again. It was simply magnificent. Then, walking back to Magdalen College alone, late but with still a golden midsummer’s light in the pale green of the newly leafed-out trees, I felt amazingly happy and sentimental. I remember today exactly how that moment felt. I was dazed and fairly besotted by happiness, and port, and had to stop and have a cigarette (I was stupid then) and drink in the golden hour and the golden feelings inside, leaning against the mellow old limestone of the ancient city in my tuxedo on a glorious June night, lost in my sentimental reverie, captured by the spell that only a city like Oxford can cast, and then only when it is at the height of its powers and upon a mind at its most susceptible. Not to mention a bit tipsy.
Back to the modern world, my family knows my wishes and for my birthday gave me a packet of cilantro seeds, half a dozen fine hollyhock plants and a gift card to our local garden center. I gave myself a half-day tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a cold and rainy March morning. It was a great morning, and I felt so aware of my younger, university-aged self and the countless days spent in the great art museums in Europe; strangely, it all made me feel 23 again. Driving home, I noticed in front of a hamburger joint in South Jersey there was a huge clump of very large-trumpeted, screaming yellow daffodils blowing their heads off and heralding the coming of spring, as loud and as garish as possible, with all the shocking immodesty (as Henry Mitchell liked to say) of a whore at Easter.
I took a day off work and stripped the hardware for the linen closet project; how happy it made me to clean all that paint off the beautiful sunburst pattern on the old steel drawer pulls. Then I spent 4-5 hours mucking out the oval bed where I found a handful of small crocuses that the previous owners must have planted ages ago, or possibly ones the chipmunks had looted from somewhere else and moved here.
Then we went to the Chesapeake and saw forsythias and plum trees and field maples all in bloom and, in some places, large bright patches of more daffodils. Being 200 miles further south, the spring there is much more advanced. I took Cosimo for a walk to the blue heron rookery (closed of course for nesting, so we could not go in) and admired the large clumps of daffodils growing there in the woods where they had naturalized charmingly. And on Sunday morning I rejoiced to see a blue heron flying into this rookery. What wonderful creatures these are.
Further south of us, in the Chesapeake Bay Region, forsythias are already blooming, pouring their sulfurous yellow into the spring landscape.