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Gardens and Responsibility

BEFORE dawn I heard the cardinal's call. Soon I was outdoors, spreading over the garden the winter's accumulation of leaves and kitchen compost, and the detritus of last year's plantings. I edged the bed. (It is a circular garden; three enormous submerged rocks outline its circumference. To edge it precisely, I secure a line from a peg at its center to the edging spade.) And I began to turn over the soil with a shovel. A rhythm sets in - a little less quick than that of my father, whom I observed at this same ritual a half century ago. I garden against reason. I may begin in impatience or resentment at having to put this day off into the sprucing up of the yard. But in the spring there is often one terrific day, a surge of warmth. The night before, I am restless, and I look over the yard; a sequence of chores orders itself. With the early light, I begin.

A cardinal watches with an eye as clear as my father's.

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When I was a boy I would haul rabbit manure from across the gravel road. All winter Mr. Szymkowicz removed it from the hutches in his garage into a field next door. Bushel baskets stacked on my wagon, load by load, I would carry it to the corner of our yard. Over the years it produced a soil of extraordinary richness. On a recent visit to the old neighborhood, I observed that the current owners of our old house have seeded the garden to lawn, unaware of its potential.

After dinner my father would sit in the yard under the apricot tree, looking around the yard. The perennial border. The fruit trees in blossom. The tomatoes and greens and eggplants would be rotated each year. ``Watch,'' he would say. A cardinal would alight on a tomato stake, cock its head. Was it observing us? Soon it would dart into the foliage and alight again briefly, a fat ugly tomato worm in its beak, before flying off.

I have built three gardens before this one. Each a geometric novelty. A legacy of enriched soil and a border of raspberries for the next owner. And in each - in the Midwest, the Atlantic states, and New England - a cardinal has appeared to watch.

A friend of mine, Ed Giobbi, an artist, has done the same. In childhood, gardening was a chore. The theology of July weeding, which must come as close to a hair shirt in summer as anything adults can devise, escaped us. (Now we mulch. We keep a trove of last fall's leaves for that purpose.) With our first houses a compulsion to turn over a part of the yard overcame us.

For our first garden we could buy only a shovel and rake and edger. No hose. The tomatoes were scraggly. A neighbor raised beef cattle and brought truckloads of manure. In a few years the garden was exemplary.

I think they are really the cardinal's gardens. I am in the cardinal's employ.

My father learned to observe as a boy. A young man, blinded in a fight, would carry him on his back on the mountain paths near his village, asking all the while how the buds were doing, what the light was like across the valley, what stage the chestnut blossoms had reached, and the boy would tell what he saw. ``Observe, observe!'' my father always said to me.

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When I laid out my first garden, suddenly it all came back: The spacings of the rows, the depth of the troughs for seeding, the soaking of the freshly planted ground.

Today we do not need the shelves of canned fruits, beets, pickles, tomatoes that lined our family cellar. Chile and Mexico provide fresh produce through the winter.

The town composts leaves and sells the stuff for $1 a bushel. Szymkowicz gave us the manure for free.

A neighbor hired a man with a backhoe to clear a portion of his yard for lawn. Father had spread truckloads of fill and topsoil by hand. No matter. Something is working in my neighborhood to improve it. One house has two beds of tulips. Another has planted a rocky hillside to azaleas. Two lawns are prematurely, vivid green - steroid lawns as advertised by the chemical companies. The rest of us make do with moss under the oaks.

Someone else will live here. Families come and go. Will we leave the neighborhood better than when we came?

We each act out our private Earth Days.

Mine are watched by a cardinal with the eye of my father.


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