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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

Green Lives

I have lived in the northwest corner of Arkansas for fifteen years now, and I am still waiting to find out what a “typical winter” is. We’ve had a record-breaking ice storm, dumps of snow, and days warm enough to putter around the garden without a sweater. One thing we can rely on are the shorter days and long, cozy evenings. For a bedtime story this January, I plucked The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett from my big kids’ bookshelf of classic paperbacks to read to my littlest. Her name is Whimsy and she is six years old. As her name indicates, she is a pleasant surprise, a decade younger than her three older siblings. In this strange pandemic year, instead of attending Kindergarten, she has been at home, lonely, and isolated from the friends she made in preschool.

I have always been a hobby gardener, slowly adding plants and garden space. When we moved in, the back yard was completely void other than the wretched bermuda grass that is favored by suburban developers in a furious race to make Northwest Arkansas an urban center in the next decade. Grow, grow, grow is the mindset here, and the bermuda grass matches the philosophy.

With the pandemic lockdown, the backyard became more than a hobby. It was our refuge, entertainment, fresh food source, gym, and classroom for a little girl who loves flowers, bugs, birds, and living creatures of every kind. Well into November last year, Whims could be found among the orange cosmos, chasing butterflies, nibbling cherry tomatoes and learning to swing all by herself without Daddy pushing her up into the sky.

I chose The Secret Garden from the bookshelf because I remembered it from my own childhood as a story about a lonely girl and a garden and I hoped that Whims would find some solidarity with Mistress Mary who found companionship and physical health learning to love a garden. Like many things from our childhoods, we don’t always remember the troubling details. As I worked on the Yorkshire accent of important characters, I paused over the racist and classist remarks, the colonialism, and the heartless treatment of children in the early 1900s. I had to pause my impersonations more than once to explain “That’s not very kind is it? We don’t treat people that way any more because we’ve learned it isn’t healthy or right.” I could see how the book had ended up on banned book lists. Since we were already well into the story, these became teaching moments instead.

The book drags on a bit in the middle, not unlike February and March. I was anxious to see the “green things poking up out of the dirt” like Mary in the story. It has been my dream for a long time to convert the entire backyard to a garden, taking over useless yard to make blooming spaces that welcome bees, birds, and little girls. Still waiting for the world to open up again and to be eligible for vaccines, I decided this was a year to take some big bites from the elephant sized garden project. Loads and loads of mulch and dirt were delivered to the driveway. My husband helped move load after load to the backyard and Whimsy begged for rides in the empty wheelbarrow. I built four new cedar raised beds, dreaming of zinnias, cosmos, and sunflowers waving in summer winds.

But then came a terrible week. Record-breaking cold descended upon us, an arctic blast that brought Whimsy’s first experience of snow. Sadly the temperature hovered below zero, so she couldn’t play in it for more than a few minutes, her little fingers bitten with misery through her inadequate fashion mittens. I turned my energies to my writing class, propping a lit jar candle between my feet under the desk when my faithful wool socks failed to keep me warm. In the night, we were awakened to what sounded like gunshots just outside our bedroom window. Jolted, I listened again and realized the plastic barrels we use to collect rain water were exploding at the seams. The water inside turned to a solid chunk of expanding ice. My eyes lifted over the edge of my own fence, toward the lights of the city. People would inevitably die in this cold. Donations to put people up in hotels couldn’t reach all those who routinely huddled in tents in the woods, with no way to prepare for this hideous change in our climate.

When the temperature climbed back to the forties and fifties, I went out to inspect the damages. A plucky Jessamine vine that had been loaded with early blossoms was dead, the yellow buds hanging like rags. The rosebush that held a whopping forty two blooms at once last summer now showed only blackened stalks where the branches should have been green. The evergreen azaleas were mottled brown and couldn’t possibly bloom this year, even if they did survive. A cold like this in my hallowed space was as unsettling as the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

In the story, the Secret Garden suffered no such setbacks. Mary discovers her cousin, Colin, close to her own age, hidden away in the English moor house. Colin and all the members of the house are convinced that he is destined to develop a life-threatening curvature of the spine after his mother died in childbirth; her labor was brought on after falling from a tree in the garden. Like Mary, at first Colin is an unpleasant little person, isolated, miserable, rude and selfish. But when Mary shares the Secret Garden, with Colin, he begins to get healthy physically and socially. Colin is particularly captured by the way the garden grows, with a force the children simply call Magic. It is Magic that makes the garden grow. Magic that makes leaves unfurl and roses to bloom. Magic that tells perennials to wake up and jump after a winter nap. Magic that causes dry seeds to burst apart and make a green stalk from simply resting in the dirt for a time.

It was Easter time when we reached the part in the story when Colin leaves his wheelchair to stand up tall for the first time in his life. He declares with amazement, “I’m going to live forever!” When I read it to Whimsy, snuggled close in her big girl bed, the soft light of her lamp holding us, my voice caught; an unexpected wave of emotion pushed saltwater from the corners of my eyes. The power of resurrection was on my mind and the children in the story had been transformed by its magic. A long year of looking out for death from Covid-19 was arcing back to another springtime, another liturgy of life, growth, rooting and blooming.

In the weeks after Easter, the garden followed its cellular blueprints for growth and I felt hopeful again. Vaccines were becoming available to my family and friends, and it seemed as though we might be coming again to a familiar peace. My clumps of antique iris sent up buds like flags ready to fly, and the wisteria sprouted chunky purple buds. I spent solid days again in the gentle sunshine, remembering to wear my hat, but always forgetting to wear my gloves.

I grew up in a religious tradition that taught that humans are masters of gardens, the arbiters of animals, tamers and takers of the environment. Stewardship of the earth somehow meant dominance, not care for and with. But the longer I garden and the more lives I nurture, the less I believe in those hierarchies. As much as I cared for the living things in my garden this year, they cared for me and my family as well. Our relationship was far more symbiotic than stratified. To garden is to be in community. And community is unavoidably political. I would never give all the water or light to one part of the garden, and I no longer use weed killers to poison the land and the bees. In my garden, what I grow, how I water it, what fertilizer I apply, the protection I administer from insects, does not stay inside the borders of my sagging wooden fence. When I learned to see my garden as a microcosm of the rest of our country and our world, the garden turned me into a political protester, an activist and a relentless advocate of non-violence. The Magic got to me.

The trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis generated headlines to my phone, which I often turned over and left inside the house while I worked to fill the raised beds. I could feel the tension over the verdict rising in the pressure of the air, not just for my friends in Minneapolis, but for all those with skin in the cause. The air temperature dropped viciously and unseasonably, and this time my phone sent frost warnings. I bundled up and tried to cover all the tender shoots and blooms, my entire linen closet used up for warming green lives. I even resorted to using a button up shirt to protect one section of iris. But I had nothing large enough to cover the wisteria. I attempted to keep the buds safe by changing the LED light bulbs in the patio light string to incandescents that would stay warm all night.

The verdict of the Derek Chauvin case was read and my Facebook feed erupted with relieved posts. Minneapolis would have no reason to protest this night. It began to snow. Large, mushy, heavy snowflakes. As night fell the temperatures went beyond a simple freeze to a killing frost at 24 degrees. In the moment of hoping for a change in the seasons, the news of the police killing of Ma’Khia Bryant froze the hope that the killing of black people by police would stop now. I went outside in the frigid morning to survey the damage. The wisteria blossoms, just on the verge of peak blooming, were burnt and lifeless. The whole draping tree looked utterly defeated. The warming light bulbs had done nothing to protect them. I wanted to cry. For a plant.

But also, over a life. A girl, just at the age of peak blooming, so like my wisteria, a little dramatic and a little “too much” at that age. She called the police for help and they killed her instead. It could have happened so many other ways. She could be alive and blooming, but instead, she lay limp and lifeless. Where were the keepers of the garden? Where were the nurturers of the community? Why are mowers and weed-whackers and burning chemicals used instead of a gentle transplant?

In The Secret Garden, the characters are drawn together by the garden. The force of life, resurrecting life, helped each character overcome their individual conflicts. Colin grows healthy, Mary grows kind, Ben grows softer, and Colin’s father grows awareness. My garden is not simply an appropriate hobby for a nice white lady. It is the place where I tend to matters of life and death, to politics and protests, to the state of my soul and the depth of my hope for God’s kingdom come to Earth. I started reading a children’s story to my little girl to help her with her own isolation and loneliness, but I found myself in a story about my own need for communion, the practice of protecting all life, and the magic of resurrection.

I spent a day in deep sadness over all the deaths. It took time to find a name for the heaviness I felt for my friends of color, for all those who stand up for them, for everyone who longs for a little peace and serenity. The name of the feeling was discouragement.

A loss of courage. Dreams, faltering. Thwarted effort to reach the goal.

I put on my hat and garden boots. I forgot my gloves again. And I went out to the garden. I planted flowers, bulbs and perennials that will not fill out until years from now. Whimsy followed me, gathering dandelion globes and making wishes as she blew their seeds with her own breath of life.


A version of this article was published on the blog for New College Berkeley. You can read that version here.

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