It’s spring in the Pacific Northwest. Early Monday morning, after rain pounded the roof during the night and before the faint light that passes for dawn some days lightened the sky, the wind whistled and moaned through the trees and the plastic Adirondack chairs scraped along on the deck outside my bedroom window. Earlier days I sat in the chair with my lunch, my mother’s visor shading my eyes as the sun warmed my face and melted the Ghirardelli dark chocolate square I’d brought out for dessert.
My reaction to the pandemic runs hot and cold too. One day I’m enjoying the slow down and reveling in Zoom gatherings with friends and relatives that never would have happened in ordinary time, and curious about how this all will play out; and the next I’m anxious about going to the grocery store, and apprehensive about the future and what will remain of life as we’ve known it.
A week ago, I finally figured out how to use the lightweight, battery-powered weedeater I got last year, and whacked away at the vinca major run amok under the lilac, quince, and ceonothus bushes below the house. It’s one of tasks I never seem to get to and the vinca—along with sweet peas—has been growing up into the bushes and threatening a take-over of the yard.
Sunday dawned sunny and fresh. I went out early to finish the vinca before the clouds were due to roll in, then moved on to the multi-year job of thinning and cropping the quince. As I worked with clippers, loppers, and my small folding saw on the steep hillside, my mind turned to my parents, as it often does on the property they tended for nearly 60 years. My father did all this work by himself, through the years of his career with little time and then in retirement as the pain of polymyalgia and the uncertainty of heart disease limited his ability; and, no doubt, in stubborn defiance of my mother’s pleas for him to stop. “He wouldn’t hire help,” she told me, after her own aging body kept her from the gardens and from climbing onto the flat roof in her 80s to clear the downspouts.
After my father died, my mother worked hard too, doing what she could do and telling hired help what to do (and how to do) other tasks. She tended to some parts of the four acres and ignored what her decreasing vision kept from awareness. Like the quince and the vinca.
This is the third or fourth non-consecutive year I’ve clipped and pulled cross-growing water sprouts out of the dense bush and tried to shape the top, some of which I can’t reach; it never seems done. I figured if I kept at it, a bit each year, some day I will have it and the flanking lilac and ceonothus it grows into looking more like landscape and less like impenetrable jungle.
After I drag, by myself, three two-person loads of branches on a tarp uphill to the disposal pile up the driveway—losing only the third load on the way up the steep, narrow trail—I step back and look at my work. Not bad. Maybe a little like a Covid-19 DIY haircut, but hey, no money was spent and no one was asked to leave their home. The stubborn gene didn’t fall far from the tree.
Of course, while I do one job, I see another five that cry out for attention. On Tuesday I tend to the sword fern.
My mother used to cut the previous year’s sword fern foliage; the ones close to the house and along the driveway. By the time I moved home, she was paying Dan the Handy Man to do the task. I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time and resources. Last year’s leaves begin to turn a bit brown interspersed with the bright green of the new fronds, those from the year before that become part of the soil. The woods are full of sword fern—the ones near the house are transplants—and the old foliage isn’t cut there, so why here? I didn’t do it last summer. Or the two years before that after Dan left and my mother moved. So why am I doing it now?
Because it reminds me of her, is why. Because it honors her. I don’t know if she always pruned them, (I can’t imagine that my father did it), or if she started doing it because it was something she could do, until she finally turned it over to Dan.
I hold the old leaves out away from the unfurling fronds (I waited too late to do it, now I have to be careful with the clippers), thank them for their life that has enriched my own, and snip them off. And I imagine her clipping off their forbears. When my back starts aching from bending over, I feel her standing upright to stretch.
After three days, I figure I’ve pruned some 50 ferns. I like how they look, fresh and ready to show off new growth. Kind of like how I will feel after a post-Corona haircut. It has high satisfaction value and, unlike weeding and pulling the yet-to-be tended-to blackberry vines, it won’t grow back in five minutes.
I don’t take care of this land like my parents did. I tend to tasks untended by them and let others go. But this spring, in the time of Corona, I realize I have changed tactics. Instead of lists of what has to be done, like my mother had and so have I, I’ve been wandering around noticing what rouses my curiosity. What would that small area under the vine maple between the trail and the yard waste pile look like without the dead leafless salal and winter blowdown in it? What if I planted succulents in the planters on the newly-painted shelf under the overhang, instead of the geraniums by mother grew beautifully because she or someone else watered them every day, and I did not?
What if I did yard work based on curiosity? What if I viewed this time of isolation with curiosity? What if we viewed an uncertain future with curiosity? How can we use this crisis for a better future instead of setting a goal to get back to “life as usual”?
What will remain of the old…and what will surge into something new? What if we said “Let’s not go back, let’s go forward”?