This essay first appeared on Ruminate Magazine’s blog.
Adventures in Extreme Gardening
About a half hour into putting some tender green basil plants into the brand new, waist-high, raised-bed planter on my patio, I felt pretty good. I am notorious for my ability to kill plants despite my best efforts. This will be my year, I thought to myself. I sifted the cool soil through my fingers, digging out a deep hole in which to place the quivering plants. “Don’t worry,” I said to them, “it’ll be okay.” Though I was not fully convinced of this, I felt some renewed confidence nevertheless. And as I stood at that wood and metal planter, I thought about my new book project, something I’ve been trying to put on paper for a long time – a sort of theology of the body with a metaphorical gardening theme.
There is one problem I have in writing the outline for this book about the body, about the spirit, about the garden. I’m a terrible gardener. How can I write a book about seeing the body as a garden needing tending, when I’m a terrible gardener? So I promised I would conquer this garden; I would force it to flourish, and I felt good. I’d even hit upon an approach that might work with the outline as I completed the work on the patio plantings.
I thought I had it all under control as I finished filling the raised bed finally and grabbed two plants that remained on the red brick patio. These would find their new home on the deck above the garage. I would place these plants gently into those clay pots waiting. I would talk to them sweetly. I would assure them I could be trusted with their little lives and future blooms. I was having all kinds of amazing revelations, from fingers digging into dirt and all that. I paid no attention to the soggy flip flops on my feet, the tiredness in my arms, the heat of the day and I missed a step going up, simple enough, but with no hands to break my fall it was my face that met the edge of the wooden steps.
I lay there only a moment before I standing up. I was still processing what had happened when the blood poured from my face, dripping on the stairs in ripe, round dots. I ran inside swearing and crying a little too. I grabbed a clean dishtowel and pressed it to my bleeding, throbbing face. My husband called out to ask if I was all right, to which I answered a loud and definite, “no.” As he ran inside to survey the damage, I lay on the kitchen floor, pressing that towel to my nose. He asked to take a look but I was afraid to release my grip – my eye hurt, my nose hurt, my hands hurt, but, eventually, I relented. I kept my eyes closed tightly, as though that would allay the damage.
“How bad is it?” I asked and when he hesitated I withdrew the question, “Never mind, don’t tell me.” I pressed the towel back to my face, and I thought about the book again, about how good I felt only a moment ago, about those tender plants I’d carried, almost blooming already and in need of replanting. I struggled to remember the name, finally finding it in my memory, “Salvia.”
I chose the Salvia because they’re beautiful and hard to kill. They tolerate drought conditions and neglect and they produce a stalk of tiny blue flowers that they say attracts hummingbirds. I’ve never seen a hummingbird in Chicago but I thought it was worth a try. I savored the irony that the name of the plant derives from the Latin salvere “to feel well and healthy, to heal.”
As I lay there bleeding, I worried that I’d broken my nose; I worried that I’d punctured my eye; I wondered about the lasting effects of my clumsiness on that familiar landscape of my face. I thanked God I’d had my author photo taken the previous week for the book I’d already written. I thanked God that I was not alone on the kitchen floor and that my husband was making the plan for our move from the floor to the Emergency Room. My two younger boys rushed in and sat near me after hearing the commotion, and, when Dave told them I was hurt, they stroked my head and my hair, “Don’t worry,” they said, “it’ll be okay.”
In those moments before the bleeding finally stemmed enough for me to move, a thousand thoughts raced in my head about the body and the garden and the hidden dangers of gardening and flip-flops. I told my husband that just before the fall I’d finally gotten a slippery grip on the approach for the new book and that after this was all over he should remind me of that so that I could write it down. “Maybe this will go in the book,” I said, but he was busy arranging our move to the car.
On the way to the ER I joked that I planned on calling it, “The Badass Gardener’s Guide to Spirituality.” I said I might put a picture of myself with my newly blackened eye, of the gash across the bridge of my nose and the thoroughly skinned knuckles on both hands. Behind me, I thought, we’d have a flourishing garden next to an old Army tank being used as a planter. I’d wear camouflage overalls and combat boots. I’d carry a rake and a hymnal.
When the nurse asked what happened I said, “Extreme gardening. It’s all the rage.” When she didn’t respond, I copped to the more reasonable but terribly boring explanation, “I fell up the stairs of my deck carrying two plants. My face broke my fall.” She nodded at this, took my vitals and offered me an ice pack while I waited. I thought of the stitches that were sure to come, the black eye already developing, the bruised thigh and scraped knuckles and of the Salvia still sprawled out on the offending steps, scattered and spilling soil, withering in the heat of the lingering afternoon sun. Salvia, meaning, “to heal.”