Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Backyard Parable

We’ve had two weeks of cool and foggy weather, a harbinger of the winter rains to come. But this week, the sun graced us for several days with its swan song, bathing everything in a golden light.

It was a good week to clean out the garden. We chopped back the last of the flowers, popped the squash vines into the yard waste container, and took down the sunflower stalks. (I can sense the resident sweetie reading this over my shoulder and commenting, “We? You said WE?”  I’ll gratefully admit he did the lion’s share of the work.)

This annual clean-up is part of the gardening year that Margaret Roach writes about in Backyard Parables.  She describes the cycle in human terms, beginning with Conception – ordering seeds and planning for your “baby”. Birth happens when the first green shoots poke through the ground, offering signs of life and new beginnings. Such joy and excitement!

When everything begins growing fast, you know the season of Youth has arrived. Like children, the plants outgrow the space you allotted them, and every time you turn around, they’re testing the boundaries. Thank goodness that is followed by Adulthood, when full potential is reached. Flowers bloom brilliantly, vegetables produce abundantly, and the bees and butterflies flit from plant to plant.  This is what it’s all about, you think, as you admire the fruits of your labour and bask in reflected glory. Oh, if only we could just freeze this moment in time.

But you can’t. The adult garden turns into an old lady. It has entered Senescence, (in biology, the process of deterioration that comes with age). “It’s the start of the downhill slope, the winding down,” says Roach.

And that’s where we are at with our garden. She may be old, but the lady is still beautiful. The leaves of the blueberry, the dogwood, and the oregon grape are turning red, orange and gold. The Japanese maple has dropped her leaves, and her lovely drooping limbs are showing through. The overwintering birds, perky juncos and sparrows, have arrived, along with a towhee, a grosbeak and a flicker, pecking at the seeds on the ground and on the feeders. The last of the roses have burst into beautiful reds and pinks. The plants have finished their work of producing seeds, so now this old lady can just “be” in the autumn sunshine. And in being, she brings much pleasure.

But then, in her garden year description, Roach barges right on like a runaway car tooting its horn to get our attention. Hey! Listen up! This isn’t just about the garden. Senescence, she writes, is “a wise, rich, and also unsettling moment of letting go in our lives and backyards as we witness and hopefully start to embrace the inevitable.”

Senescence is happening to all of us at a certain age: cells quit reproducing, and our bodies don’t work quite as well anymore. Collagen doesn’t get replaced, so skin begins to wrinkle and sag. The hair turns grey because the pigments go into retirement. We are faced with ... and asked to embrace ... the inevitable. Winter’s coming, don’t you know?

And yet, as my garden has taught me, this season in our life has the potential for its own beauty. When we clear away the debris of previous seasons in our life, when we let go and dump the garbage, we uncover many gifts we still have time to give. Love, wisdom, service, joy, practical help, friendship, a listening ear ... senescence only clarifies and focuses these possibilities. And just by being our older selves, we can enrich the world.

Roach concludes her six seasons of the garden with Death and the Afterlife. “Parts of the garden go into hiding,” she says. “But life will rise again, dust to dust, from the compost heap.”

And will resurrection happen in our lives, too? Oh, yes indeed, I do believe so. 

Margaret Roach, author of Backyard Parables, has a website at  
This is a work in progress, trying to capture our fall garden. "All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today."

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