When we moved into our house last summer, we moved into a home where the house had been fixed up (it was built in 1926), but the yard was – well – a trash heap, in the back at least. The front yard was mostly weeds, some prettier than others. Because we wanted Ginger’s dad to be able to enjoy the backyard, since we could secure it, we put our energy there, building a fence and a deck (thanks to our friend, Cameron) and, with the help and expertise of the folks at Bountiful Backyards, we turned the trash heap into an edible, beautiful landscape. This week, which has been my spring break from school, it was time to do something about the front. Ginger and I bought some plants, were given many more by Mary Anne, our generous neighbor, and I went to work.
I started this morning by digging a hole for a camellia and I kept hitting bricks. After about the sixth one (yes, I catch on quick) I realized I was hitting more than some random refuse. Rather than digging down, I started scraping the top layer off of what turned out to be a brick walkway that ran across half the yard. The bricks were in good condition and lined up beautifully. In the nearly ninety year history of our house, it has spent little time unoccupied. Granted, our neighborhood has been what is called euphemistically “transitional,” but people have been in the house. I had to wonder how people could forget a brick walkway. At the same time, I knew how people forget sidewalks and even cities. I remembered a passage from Annie Dillard’s wonderful book, For the Time Being.
New York City’s street level rises every century. The rate at which the dirt buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortes walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except Mexico City itself has started sinking. Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average of 4.7 feet per century. King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago; the famous Western Wall is a top layer of old retaining wall neat the peak of Mount Moriah. From the present bottom of the Western Wall to bedrock is sixty feet.
Quick: Why aren’t you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place but to forestall burial. (123)
I planted azalea bushes that are about eighteen inches tall, a Japanese maple seedling that after three years has almost grown two feet, a hydrangea that isn’t much taller. Our neighbor to the right has one azalea that almost covers the whole front of her porch. She has no idea how old it is because it preceded her. Whoever planted them is long gone. Spending my day digging and planting was an exercise in mortality, in all that is temporal. I was not doing eternal work. I was planting living things whose days, like mine, are numbered. And, somehow, I was enlivened by the process. After seven hours of hard work, I came in energized as much by the process as whatever I might have accomplished.
About the time I bought Annie Dillard’s book, I also heard Dave Mallet sing. I used to volunteer to run sound at Club Passim in Cambridge MA and he was one of the performers I worked with. He had a number of very cool songs, but the one he is perhaps most remembered for is called “The Garden Song,” or as it is often referred, “Inch by Inch, Row by Row.” One of the verses says:
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature’s chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land
The last two lines describe how I felt digging around today: in tune with the land, with the eternity that lives in passing moments and daily gestures of mortality, with the hope I find in planting something I will not see full grown, with the connections in the conversations with passing neighbors, with the holy that lives in hard work. I have spent the day in the dirt, the very stuff we are made of, planting things that will bloom and die.
I am ready for resurrection.