Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: When all is Upheaval and Change, Still the Natural World and its Ground

The last week I was in Pittsburgh, I had the visceral sensation of ripping myself up by the roots--it felt that rough at times, all the goodbyes to my family of friends--these loved ones--Karen and Steve and their beautiful family, Barbara, Ellen, Raymond, Joy and Rob and Chance, Jeff, Lynn, Bea, Connie, Blake, Casey and Dan, Ellen and Scott, Keely and Amadeo, Rob, Stacey, Jason, Bill, Samantha, Jonathon, Amanda-- the list goes on and on--who had been there for me through everything, who inspired my poetry, who laughed at my silliness and hugged me on the darker days--and I grew frightened over the prospect of "transplanting" myself. As a gardener, I'm very aware that though many flowers will transplant and flourish, no matter what the conditions, there are those plants that go into shock and never quite rally after losing their homeground. (I know that sounds dramatic. If you haven't figured it out from my blog yet, I have a streak of the dramatic in me. ;-) )

As my life has never been what one might call a traditionally "secure" one--not financially, not in terms of the traditional marriage root (route!), not job-wise--I have learned what keeps me sane, rooted, held to this earth. Two things: my art-making and teaching about art and the earth itself, the natural world that reaches out during all of my times of change and upheaval, which breathes deeply in its humid air and blows out stabilizing winds and shows me in countless ways: there are cycles in the world, there are resurrections in nature, there are instincts that override and outlive logic, there is a time, as the bible says, "to sow and a time to reap."

The life of my countless small gardens in Pittsburgh (each one left behind as I moved to new apartments) that continue to live in me. The feathery purple cosmos that outgrew the hedges in my first Northumberland Street apartment, where my son, a 4 year old boy, would play hide and seek with Peter and Zack. The hollyhocks and rose bush growing against the fence in my Ridgeville Street apartment I shared with my son, with R., a man I deeply loved and his huge German Shepherd, Samson. (And there is a mum plant that my son gave me when he was about 10 that still grows and blooms out front of that Ridgeville Street apartment. I walked by it the last week I was in town.) The daisies and butterfly bush in my Friendship apartment that hid my friend Jeff and I as we talked in shaken tones about the horror of planes crashing into and taking down the World Trade Centers that terrible September 11 day. And my colorful sidewalk garden that cheered me every time I walked around the corner of the house I've lived in for the last 4 years.

Each garden continued to teach me in quiet ways: to keep paying attention, to not lose sight of the beauty always offered if one looks, to dig deep, to view roots as sacred things and tend them carefully, to nurture and take care of all the living things (people, animal, plant) that you have taken responsibility for. On some days, the garden was the only slice of world that had any coherence and clarity to it.

During my latest upheaval, two small garden anecdotes: The first was the explosion of monarch and swallowtail butterflies that rode the brutally hot air and delicately walked the orange cones of my coneflowers this past summer. I had nurtured this garden, as I said, for four years. During that time, I was puzzled by the lack of bees and butterflies in my small garden. I had one butterfly in the entire four years. But this summer, all I had to do was walk into the yard and butterflies flitted everywhere. I'm not sure where the sudden burst of butterflies came from this year, whether they thrived in the drought conditions, or were drawn to my yard because of the daily-filled cool water in the birdbath, but they were everywhere: orange monarchs, the swallowtails that looked like shards of sun edged in black, the black butterflies with their royal blue markings.

It does not take a poet to know the symbolism of butterflies as I prepared to leave Pittsburgh: the joyful succession of changes the caterpillar labors through to become the tissue-thin bits of controlled light, who feed for their short lives on the giddy reds, corals and yellows of blossoms. Transformation. The embodiment of turning the low crawler to a soarer in wind. Change. Beauty revealed from a process of labor and isolation (cocooning.)

My friend, Ellen said, "Trust your instincts about this. I think the natural world is sending you a message. And it looks pretty hopeful." Again, nature provided a map of meaning on the days where I wondered, for the thousandth time: "why am I moving, again?"

The last two weeks of living in Pittsburgh, I stole free minutes here and there (away from the packing) and deadheaded the daisies, watered daily the spread of 4 o'clocks, cosmos, coneflowers and balloon flowers on those never-ending 90-degree days. I had my usual visitors--the 4 pairs of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and yellow finches still combing the ground for the bags of seed I'd dumped there as a "farewell." I'd already given the feeders and birdbath to dear friends Ellen and Scott by then (and my friends have made me so happy, reporting that their own garden, which pinwheels in dahlias, every subtle shade and nuance of scarlet, orange and violet--is now a continual source of joy to them as they sit outside and watch the "flurry of movement" from the squirrels, birds and chipmunks visiting the new local bird bistro.)

There was something in the act of keeping the garden blooming and flourishing in those last days that never failed to cheer me and steady me. The ground WAS literally my grounding! The slumping new guinea impatiens visibly perked up and stretched striped foliage toward the rose petunias. The 4'oclocks, fainting under the noon sun, suddenly were active climbers on the trellis, keeping the secrets of their yellow and pink blooms until it was time. The yard was, as always, full of wild rabbits, who under the cloak of night, would venture toward the bird seed and eat their fill. The only thing missing was "my" herd of deer, the five that spent winter days, their legs buried in the snow (last winter was a very snowy one) jostling one another to lick the seed out of the feeders.

Until moving day: Sunday, August 29, my former co-worker, Jonathon and his friend Dave came over to move my houseful of boxes and furniture into the back of the U-Haul truck. How lucky I was to have their help--good workers, cheerful and steady, smart and funny--under their strength, the rooms emptied out swiftly. The most strategic "movers" I've ever met, they carefully planned the space each piece would fit into--especially thoughtful about my huge paintings (all the glass, glass, glass) to make sure none would be broken enroute. As we chatted, the guys commented on the "hidden refuge" type feel of my apartment--tucked away on a lovely (dead-end) red-bricked road, a sprawling side lawn, up on a hilltop from Frick Park. I told them about my wildlife visitors, including the deer. And expressed a regret that I wouldn't get to see them again.

Not 20 minutes later, dusk falling and the apartment echoing with lamp light and its own emptiness, Jonathon ran into the space:

"Come outside NOW! You won't believe this."

I followed him out to the UHaul, half afraid that a favorite painting had fallen and shattered on the gravel.

"Look up there." Jonathon pointed toward the hilly backyard. Dave was staring upwards from the truck's interior.

I turned and followed his gaze. Lined up, their white tails visible in the waning sun, were five deer staring down at us. It was growing steadily dark enough that their muzzles were starting to mute into the shadows. We stood gazing at each other--humans and animals-- quietly. I had not seen the herd of deer since March, when the snows finally melted and spring seemed a foregone conclusion-- and there they were all in a row, the two fawns, a step or two behind the older deer, standing still as the crescent moon that began to appear in the sky. I felt so grateful that they'd come to say goodbye. I felt that sense of how solid this orbiting earth felt at that moment, Venus polishing off and swinging under the moon like a woman's pendant, the deer lifting their heads to catch our scent. I was so grateful for their appearance. And then the buck took a leap away, tail flashing and the others followed swiftly into the dark trees beyond.


  1. This is beautiful Sharon. Someone told me recently that if a butterfly is accidentally or purposefully cut out of its cocoon before it has struggled to get out by itself, it will die. In other words, struggling to get out is necessary to their actual survival. I loved knowing that. xo

  2. Sharon, you are one of the few people in this world that I do believe nature speaks to and through. I am very happy to hear that your transplanting was met with so many wonderful signs.