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Gardening where the wild things are

MY flower garden - ragged, overgrown with weeds and thistles, gloriosa daisies, hollyhocks gone lush and wild, roses faded, finished, yet unclipped, and baby's breath - is teaching me in ways the most carefully tended garden never could. Last summer, for example, it was home to a family of rabbits. How long it had been a haven, I don't know. But when I'd finally gotten there with my trug of unused garden tools, I came upon them quite by accident.

I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a quiet scurry as I was tugging through the mass of weeds and vegetation, and looked up just in time to see a tiny, furry bottom - small round end of mole or mouse. Little enough to be a sparrow, except it didn't fly.

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Curious, I crept along the garden's border, following my sense of where the thing had scrambled, over to the far rosebush. I got down on my hands and knees and peered into the grasses. There, half hidden by the weeds and huddled up against a jagged leaf, I saw a baby bunny holding very, very still. Its ears were two tiny daisy petals, translucent like two small shells, pressed back against its head, a bright white spot as if a bird had left its mark on its tiny forehead.

I held my breath and watched; it did the same. This infant rabbit could not have been more than a few days old - still small and helpless, but old enough to have its baby fur. I longed to reach into the weeds and pet it, but I'd heard somewhere that mother rabbits fear the human smell, and so I crept back to my spot and continued with my tugging - gently now, not wanting to disturb it.

But just as I was reaching in again I sensed another shiver, looked up, and saw a second rabbit (same tiny bunny's bottom, same bright white forehead mark). I checked on bunny No. 1, but he was where I'd left him, small and still, tucked beneath a dandelion leaf, brown eyes closed and sleeping peacefully after his big fright. That made two babies that I had disturbed with my clumsy hands and sandaled feet.

I'd had enough - no use causing more distress. I went indoors and fixed some lemonade. I dreamed away the rest of the hot day sitting in the shade of our big spruce, watching pine needles shiver and hollyhocks sway with each small gust of wind.

My wild things keep teaching me each summer - to live at peace with nature's processes, to recognize its frailness, to be tender, patient, not to fear. To realize that this nature that we live with - are a part of - has its laws and rhythms, and that we cannot intervene.

These creatures, all unknowing, are teaching me to recognize there's little I can do about my garden snake, the one I saw last week, jagged into pieces by the mower's edge.

I felt a sadness when I came upon it dead and quiet in the grass. Mute I stared at it, half in horror, half in awe, for the life it had lived so vigorously in my garden eating bugs and insects, and weeding in its way. I felt a quiet fascination, a sort of helpless reverence for this also helpless thing.

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I'm growing more accustomed to what happens in my garden, more patient, more accepting. Like just this morning when I opened up the curtains in our living room to let in the early morning light and saw a tangled clump of gray partly hidden in the unmowed grass. In an instant I knew it was our orioles' nest, downed by last night's thunderstorm.

I felt a little shock as I remembered how I'd seen it every morning before this, hanging so precariously on the edge of a dead branch, high up in one of our old maples, swaying with each ruffle of the leaves. I'd always been concerned when I'd seen this ragged, scraggly thing - wondered over, worried for our brave, bright birds.

But this morning when I looked across the lawn I felt a small wave of relief, because I realized that the nest must have been empty, bright flash of orange and sharp, whistling chirps having been but just an echo these past few weeks.

I start out every summer worrying over wild things - the baby rabbits that we have about, our helpful garden snakes, the nesting orioles, whose house hangs by a fragile filament. I think I'm learning, slowly, to be at peace with this precariousness, to love my wild things, to let them be.

I've learned to be content with the little that I can do: creep quietly into the house so a small brown thing can nap; gather up my snake and bury it beside a quiet birch; pick up the ragged nest and gently place it by our back step. Watch and wait and feel that thrill of wonder when the orioles return, flashing brilliant in the lilacs and starting to weave again their fragile house.

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