The only time I’d ever have described myself as green-thumbed was just after high school, when I was working construction and missed with my hammer one day. I squashed my left thumb, and for a few weeks it looked like a mottled baby avocado. To be fair, in my adult years I have developed a better appreciation of the natural world and have turned that interest toward writing and editing work promoting environmental consciousness. Still, there’s no denying that I have never been much of a gardener or an outdoorsy type. Or a hiker. Or a patio diner. My favourite view of nature has typically been from behind a pane of mosquito-proof glass.
Which is odd, given my life circumstances. My wife, Cathy, is a passionate nature lover. One of my close friends is a gardener by profession. I have good friends who are genuinely engaged with the natural world. But enjoying nature and even simple backyard gardening were things I never quite got. It’s possible my disinclination can be retraced to the suburbs of Calgary, circa 1975. The sight from the kitchen window of my childhood home was a straight view into the backyard of our Austrian-immigrant neighbours across the lane. The father of that family, whom I’ll call Gord, was funny and good-natured, and I liked him a lot, as did everyone in our neighbourhood. The only problem was that any time you stood at the kitchen sink you could see into their yard, and Gord, like many people of European heritage, was a devout nature lover. He also had a fondness for gardening in a Speedo that covered about a 10th of one per cent of him. It was his yard, his garden and his body, so he was well within his rights to do whatever he pleased, but the upshot was that for decades I associated gardening with heavy-set Austrian men wearing nothing but a slingshot. Let’s just say it did not predispose me to an intense engagement with the natural world.
But then a strange thing happened. I was caught in a downpour playing golf in Scotland last year. (OK, that wasn’t the strange part; it would be strange to not be caught in a downpour in Scotland.) But this wasn’t just heavy rain, this was torrential, biblical, historic rain, with drops the size of raisins. It was without question the wettest I have ever been while fully clothed. But it was warm and there was no wind, and although it was pouring and misty, my vision seemed to actually sharpen. I saw ducks paddling happily in the stream. I saw frogs hopping joyously on pond banks. It seemed as if I could actually hear the blissful transpiration of the trees. The rain washed the entire planet clean, and then, after about 15 minutes, the clouds broke and the sun glazed everything in a shimmering platinum sheath. Elms seemed to double in height. Blades of grass stood out as individuals. The dense forest around us glittered and sparkled and mutated with each blink of the eye. I could smell spearmint and peat. We stopped and ate a handful of blackberries off a nearby bush.
That was when it hit me: nature was my friend, an ally, part of me. Not something to overcome or withstand or tolerate, but something to embrace … in all its wildness and beauty and obliviousness toward humankind. Nature had revealed itself to me. Why? I’m still not sure, but the world seemed different after that day. I noticed things. I went for more walks. Made more of an effort to be alert to what was around me. Started to learn the names of things, to understand the patterns and habits of things I saw growing around me every day. Nobody’s mistaking me for an outdoorsman yet, but my eyes are now open.
Which brings us to what also happened last year (and I don’t think it’s any coincidence). A couple of months before going to Scotland, as diligent readers of this column will remember, I replaced our fence. The unexpected consequence was that as soon as a deplorable fence no longer commanded our attention, we noticed just how awful our backyard was. Crabgrass sprouted beside dead patches of lawn. The flower beds were a mess of pine cones and needles and old branches. Our backyard was basically a “No thanks” to the beauty of the natural world. Having a new fence felt like putting a fresh coat of paint on a car with no engine. It was clear something had to be done. And Cathy made it clear who was going to do the doing. “Some grass and a few nice plants,” she said. “Nothing major.”
However, she neglected to take into account that, since my trip to Scotland, I had a new rapport with the natural world, that I had made a friend I was learning about every day, that a wholly original relationship had entered my life … or maybe I forgot to tell her. In any case, “nothing major” was not an option. Once I began to wade into the project, I realized how bad things really were. They don’t call it getting stuck in the weeds for nothing.
The first stage was to remove the dead and tired organic matter from the area to be landscaped. My friend, Murray, the gardener I alluded to earlier, agreed to help make it all happen. His assistant Breanna joined in. Another friend, Danny, came over with his shovel and gloves. We got busy. In an afternoon, we filled a 10-cubic-yard garbage bin with a decade’s worth of dead soil, pine needles, cones and spent loam. When the bin was removed, a truck arrived with a payload it dumped on the driveway.
A dozen cubic yards of love.
I’d learned from Murray that gardeners refer to particularly good soil as “love.” But when a pile of dirt the size of an SUV is sitting on your driveway and all you’ve got is you, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, “love” is not the first word that comes to mind. I stopped counting at 125 wheelbarrows full, and there were dozens to go. When I got up the next morning, my hands and forearms were so stiff I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee.
But when the love had been spread around the back garden, Murray brought some perennials and we set to work transforming the backyard from a wasteland to a wonderland. The point isn’t just that it looks good; what matters is it’s alive. It changes every day. A new petal. A different shade on a limb. A half litre of water in a dogwood’s plant basin changes the entire feel of one of its delicate leaves. To those of you who are longtime gardeners or nature lovers, these things will seem basic and obvious. But to someone who took five decades to figure it out, it has been a pretty miraculous summer. So much so that there were times I stood out watering and weeding while mosquitoes buzzed around and I just shrugged them off, both literally and metaphorically. Instead of dead soil, I see beautiful rhododendrons, delicate goat’s beard, my fantastic Korean lilac, some spiky barberries. My hydrangeas were blooming tiny pink blooms and I brought one of them inside for my younger daughter. The lower leaves of my dogwood turned a dusty mauve when the weather got colder, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time staring at those leaves and admiring the subtlety of it all.
And now that autumn is upon us as I write this, I see the plants start to hunker down for the winter. It’s almost as if my garden has put a finger to its lips to say, Time to rest. It’s achingly beautiful and makes me wonder, What was I thinking all these years to have missed this?
I am not even sure what it all adds up to and don’t really want to overanalyze. I have learned that my blue fescue needs less water than my dogwood. I’ve learned that rhododendron branches mimic rivulets finding their path. I’ve learned that turning a spadeful of earth is an intensely satisfying physical action. And although I have never been prone to Trumpian narcissism, I know now that I was not put on this Earth to own part of it but to be part of it. That seems to me one of nature’s deepest lessons — that there’s no hierarchy, that we’re all part of a continuum of purpose and capacity. After all, my dwarf gem spruce can’t do calculus, but neither can I.
There’s only one major problem with all this. Now that I’ve beautified the fence and the garden, it’s painfully clear just how decrepit our deck is. I guess I know what I’ll be doing next summer. But to my family, friends, neighbours and the gas meter reader, I promise you one thing: I will not be wearing a Speedo. That would be unnatural.