July 05, 2010

Life Lessons in the Garden

Much we can learn about ourselves and life can be found in garden work. It’s hard to think of a more profound, straightforward teacher. I was inspired to venture into some heavy work that I hadn’t taken on for awhile. There are always excuses: oh, my aching back, so much work inside, the awful rainy weather. The inspiration came from reading about my pioneer sisters and what they endured in the settlements on the Kansas frontier.

Last year I read about the incredible challenges of pioneer women and began a series of poems about their experiences. Then I put the poems aside and let them be. Last evening I returned to the reading and was inspired today to undertake some muscle work in the garden just because it was there to do and it was empowering to do it. Usually I would wait for help with taking down some large, thick bushes, but today, taking my time and working slowly, I accomplished the task. The physical work gave me inspiration to finish writing the series of poems in tribute to the lives of pioneer women.

Because I was alone in the garden and having to move wisely, after all I’m not as strong as I once was and it takes longer to do things, I could be aware of the lessons that gardening brings. Pull too hard and you can injure yourself and risk pulling a plant apart from its roots. Push too hard and you injure the plants. Easy to notice symbiosis among plants and insects and realize how easy it is to overtake a habitat of helpful insects. Leave a path of ground bare and you invite predatory weeds. Pull some weeds the wrong way and you risk spitting seeds out to 25 feet. A variety of weeds balances the pH in the soil. Pull out all the weeds and you turn the soil alkaline. Moss will grow abundantly. Carelessness with tools can destroy them, can cause injury to oneself. All of these situations and hundreds more in the garden are metaphors for life lessons.

I thought of the women working the grasslands in Kansas, a windblown, unmerciful place mostly without trees. A house made of sod dug into the edge of a mound, the floor turning to mud when it rained. How they managed in the long absences of their husbands gone for weeks on end in search of supplies, food, and fuel. How they longed for company, hearing only wolves and coyotes in the darkness and listening to the persistent wind while protecting and caring for their babes. In today’s world I can hardly imagine what they sacrificed. What inner strength and wisdom they must have come to, with the land, the soil as their only reliance, the relentless, unremitting teaching of the soil.

Here is one of the poems:

Mrs. Hilton

Kansas Pioneer, 1872

Here you filed your claim and made your home in Norton County

in the dugout of a nameless hill where Indians and unwelcome travelers would

not find you.

You and Mr. Hilton plowed treeless land mesmerizing the eye as far north

as Dakota Badlands.

When winds came to the prairie nights you huddled in dense blackness

with your few pieces of Pennsylvania wood beginning to rot

in the damp sod.

In rains, you hauled buckets of water from inside your dugout,

poured it into the gulley that fed the little stream beside sprouting

corn and beans.

With fires, locusts and raids, you held your ground, never giving in to

desolate winters that wrapped the landscape in white sorrow when

nothing happened or moved.

Here, for years you stayed, month after month with silence, alone at times

when Mr. Hilton went into town for supplies, and you listened to the song

of the cricket, wind curled patterns on prairie grass above that dark

settlement. You caught fallen bull snakes on the hoe and scuttled them

out to the grass.

You went into Little River for wood, no longer able to stay away, both of

you climbing into the wagon and driving east for three days.

At the edge of town on the north fork of the Cheyenne, for the first time in

two years you saw a tree.

Climbing off the wagon, you stretched your arms around the firm trunk

of a cottonwood, pressing your forehead against the bark, crying for hours

into the wood, your own tears feeding the roots with agony and release.

Mr. Hilton helpless to know what to do found two women from the hotel

who came to the river, pried you loose and held you in the soft pink and

yellow of their taffeta skirts.

Eido Frances Carney copyright 2010