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Pumpkins into Princes

I SAID we should have pulled the pumpkins up. They were too big, I said, and their color was too strong. Proud and persnickety, we were trying hard to get things right: Our small garden was to be one of 2,000 open to the public in aid of the National Gardens Scheme of England and Wales. We hadn't a clue who would come, or from where, but the night before our first visitors were due, to us the garden looked fit to be seen by the Queen. The hedge had lost all its loose locks and stood at attention, sharp as a sentry in soldier's green. Weedless lawn flowed up to curving, meticulously edged flowering borders. Carefully chosen plants, disciplined with invisible stakes, held leafy skirts above rich, mulched earth. All was poised, as near perfection as we could get it, except for those overgrown, overbright pumpkins.

Next morning, about 25 middle-aged people, some with dogs on leads, queued outside our passage door. They were visually impaired. Their leader introduced them to us: the Gardening Club of St. Dunstan's, a rehabilitation center for people without sight in Brighton. We hoped our welcome covered our confusion ... we didn't know what to say or what to do, but they did.

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They walked into the garden confidently, as though they knew the lay of the land. Then, with expectant pleasure, they became as much a part of it as though they'd grown in it. Some knelt on the grass tracing creature's paths. Some embraced trees, ears against bark, listening as birds landed on branches, and leaves stirred in gentle winds. They identified plants by scent and respectful touch, tasted herbs, assessed soil composition by sifting bits of earth through sensitive fingers. Each sense remaining to them fully stretched, they were communicating with natural elements and each other. They had learned fresh ways of looking at things.

The garden, burgeoning with spirited people and patient, obedient dogs, was having a party. Relaxing after all our coaxing and curbing, it was following its own inclinations: Clematis tendrils floated free from constraint, buddleia plumes swayed and sagged, heavy with butterflies. Pungent heads of cat mint and lavender lolled onto a lawn lightly patterned with people.

Then somebody discovered the pumpkins. Everybody else gathered to stroke their fleshy, smooth skins. We cut a giant one from its stem, offering it with a pen knife and a candle ... and they went to work. Taking turns, combining imagination and skill, they created a spectacular character: a zucchini for its nose, apples for cheeks, pine cones for teeth, enormous squash leaves for ears, and a plaited posy garland with strawberry rubies for a crown. Their personage had no eyes ... it saw no evil. Lit from within, its special persona shone through.

Our guests, at ease themselves, had put us and our garden at ease. Their delight, fed by unquenchable joy, was infectious. With courage and humor they had overcome, turning loss to gain, and pumpkins into princes.

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