I remember my first flower garden, a thick batch of blooms grown from seeds sown in one ambitious spurt in the spring of my second pregnancy … and then left to their own devices all through the summer. I was twenty-three, married for two whole years already, and had never in my whole life had a real garden. My young husband and I had a one-year-old daughter in tow and had planted ourselves in a pretty old Victorian in a small town forty-five minutes out of Minneapolis, where he taught school. His days as a commuter were long, and my days at home with a baby were hectic in that perplexing slow-fast way that all mothers understand.
Suffice it to say my garden suffered from pathetic neglect, all under the watchful gaze of our easterly neighbor. Both of our next-door neighbors were master gardeners, as fate would have it, but the one to the west was kind, loved children, and leaned toward the abundant chaos of an English garden. Whereas the one to the east preferred all growth in tidy, well-manicured rows, and was affronted by her view of our scraggly side yard. She frequently and chirpily pointed out—from her vantage point in her own flourishing garden, watering hose suspended in her green-gloved hand, eyes shaded by wide-brimmed gardening hat—“Nature does tend to take over when left to its own devices, doesn’t it?”
Of course she was right. My garden was a disaster. Tiny seedlings fought silently for breath beneath a thicket of weeds that multiplied frantically, choking my would-be flowers out bit by bit. The weeds would surely have prevailed, had I not inadvertently, in my clumsiness and enthusiasm, spread the flower seeds so thickly. I was not then and am still not a gardener, only a lover of gardens: I don’t know the names of the flowers whose seeds I cheered along that summer, I remember only the colors of the flowers that finally erupted—mostly yellow and orange, marigolds (my least favorite), some prettier reds and pinks, and a smattering of much loved purple ones.
I spent the afternoon before I gave birth to my second child, Max, weeding my beleaguered flower bed, bent over my huge, unwieldy, sweaty self in all manner of squatting and reaching as I pulled, picked, yanked, and dug out the unwanted growth. Later that night, during each contraction that seized my pelvic floor, I saw another weed come up through the soil, long pale roots intact, black dirt clinging to fine-haired tendrils. I wanted to visualize my cervix pulling open, as I’d been told to, but mainly what I saw in the blackness behind my eyelids was weeds, just weeds, emerging one after the other, making space for the tenacious flowers yearning for sun from below.
So went my initiation into the powerful relationship between life as a mother and my connection to the earth. In that simple vision of labor—weeds drawn from fertile soil over and over again—lay a mystery so profound it has taken me years to unravel, and I am unraveling it still: the earth is called mother for a reason, and as she sighs and moves and blooms and dies, she speaks and offers us a path to follow.
Perhaps this mystery remained beyond my grasp for so for a very simple reason: I didn’t have much time as a young mother to ponder the deepest meanings of the earth’s vibrations. Most of my time was spent running late, breaking dishes, searching for socks and mittens and notebooks and leotards, lamenting the disastrous mess scattered everywhere around me, desperately trying to finagle enough time to go to the bathroom all by myself, nagging my children to hurry up, slow down, use their inside voices, stop hitting, put their shoes away … until I’d catch a disturbing glimpse of my pinched face in a mirror, brown-green eyes flashing, and finally stop cold and breathe.
But that’s not true either. I did spend my time in all those harried ways, but surely I spent more time in better ways: the years upon years of lounging in a chair, a baby at my breast and a book in my hand, one or two other children nudged up against me like pups. And the sleeping! That counts too, thousands of naps and nighttimes, surrounded by small warm bodies and stereophonic breathing, a choir of air. And the walking, hundreds of miles of exploring outdoors, on sidewalks and creek beds and shorelines and beaches and cliffs and paved streets and dirt roads and stone paths and green grass. But even in these sweetnesses, I connected with the earth’s power only momentarily, like an elusive radio signal with a flash of clarity that fades to static before you can catch the melody.
Remembering my childhood helps. The greatest solace I ever took was outside. Only the earth was big enough to make the pains of growing up a little smaller. Throughout many childhood moves, the earth stood staunchly in place, or at least it seemed so to me then. Mountains replaced pine forests somewhere along the route from Minnesota to Wyoming, but the wind still blew and the dirt was still brown under my feet. Houses came and went, no bedroom was really mine, no house big enough for hiding, but the earth held secret places and the possibility of escape.
Nature mesmerized me, from the clay that could be dug out from the earth to the flowering trees in spring to the wetness of dew on morning grass. All through my childhood, I searched for hidden spots that could be mine alone, for portals into other worlds. Sometimes I found them, on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, and far out in the desolate prairie of Wyoming. Like in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Or A Wrinkle in Time. Or The Secret Garden. I saw doorways into alternate realities in every bowed tree branch, every deserted stretch of land, every tunnel of lilacs. Until one day, I didn’t.
Overnight, it seemed, just around the time of pimples and braces, I stopped seeing anything more than dirt, rocks, and trees. I forgot having ever searched. Those memories lay dormant for years, only to be awakened by the heady smell of dirt on weeds, the awkward act of pulling life from life, a weed to die and a baby to live, and crossing the threshold of motherhood.