Cutting Down

(Adapted from an essay written in 2004)

“Widespread frost expected,” warns the forecaster. It’s past sunset. We’ve already had a morning of shimmering windshields. Hauling containers full of fragile plants into shelter for the night takes a lot of effort, and for what few days until the next crystalline visit. So, I decide to take my chances by draping everything in old bed clothes.

“I’ll miss you if you’re gone in the morning,” I whisper as I tuck plants in. “Thank you for all the beauty.” Sheets and worn blankets spook me, looking like mounded snow in the post twilight. I leave the porch light on, as if its yellow glow will ward off freezing.

With an extra cover on my own bed, the open window narrowed to a crack, I snuggle down to sleep.

In the dream, I walk through a wood to an audience with a holy man. Along the way I pass an old friend reclining on a soft earthy mound. He seems lovely and quiet, full of knowing.

To the holy man I query, “How can we be both mortal and immortal at the same time?” He laughs, delighted. When I leave, I find my friend again. He greets me weakly, yet with good cheer. Near his shoulder, a gentle woman, clothed entirely in white, tends him. He is dyeing of aids. A bruise-red blotches his extremities. He turns an arm, admiring its autumnal color.

Then, I am awake. Morning spills into the sky. Even viewed from my pillow, something in the light informs me the frost didn’t come. The warning, the shroud-like sheets, the saying goodbye have only conspired to awaken a question. Like a spring bulb, whose roots break dormancy when the soil cools, my subterranean mind conjured a dream to help me ask it.

Out in the daylit garden, the colors ripen. The season of cutting down is here.

It’s a controversial subject, this cutting down. Some folks want everything cleared away. That way they can skip the reminders of the end of summer and have only the clear space of potential to look at through the winter. Some prefer to leave everything in place and let winter blanch and break and blow the plants into new forms. Seeds scatter this way. There is more to catch and hold the snow, more to soften the wind. Insects might take shelter. Birds find a seed or two.

My criteria are showing.

Even so, as each rooted resident succumbs to the process of perishing, I assess its contribution to the scene. When none can be found, it is cut down. Among the first to go were the sunflowers. All of mine were planted by squirrels. Weeks ago, they started shinnying the stalks, harvesting their bounty. For a while the leaning and headless trunks still had some charm, but when the leaves tarnished, the plants simply had to go. No meaningful second flowering, no functional value, not even a beak-full of treat for a visiting woodpecker warranted their staying.

While I have a fondness for certain forms, colors, seed-throwers, and wind-dancers, I also have my critic. The scraggly, the uninteresting, the very tired-looking come off at the base.

There is work to do. Striding into the garden with nippers and a tarp to catch debris, today, there is also a tenderness around my heart. I can’t simply judge and execute. I crunch leaves into mulch and pat it into place with my hands. I snip pithy stems for the compost. Remembering earlier glories and committing them to future soil, I give thanks.

I tend the garden, giving it effort and whimsey. And then I let it go, giving it respect and gratitude. And, yet, it’s the garden which grows me. What endurance is transplanted into my character? What compost is made for the seed-bed of my wisdom? What support provided for the delicate twining of my hopes?

I return to the house, spent and nourished. The lilac by the back stoop extends a twig of turning leaves. I admire the bruise-red color.

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