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When a son reflects on a childhood of gardening with his mother, he finds clues to a family lineage built around silences,

distance, and forgetfulness. Eventually, his mother begins to openly reveal a past that confronts the authors own dark nature. In the history of gardens there are great tragedies and triumphs, and in the garden we continue to discover our truest selves. The day before the authors wedding, his grandmother is in a serious accident a mile from the church. This event sets in motion a quest to discover the origins of mysterious letters sent from strangers, hints by aunts about their father, debilitating migraines, and the Anderson family personathe ability to swiftly and sternly cut off an offending family member for years at a time for a seemingly trivial matter. MORNING GLORY: A STORY OF FAMILY AND CULTURE IN THE GARDEN explores the wary and subdued relationship between mother and son, a relationship which typifies our species own with nature. As a son grows up learning about gardening with his mother, he eventually earns the right to ask questions about who she is, and who he is in her shadow. Revealing her own childhood of poverty, abuse, and religious fundamentalism, two people begin to understand themselves and their lineage of solitude and depression in a new lightparticularly for the son in a difficult and new marriage. As this son looks at diverse cultural attempts to connect place with self, a powerful metaphor develops between gardening and emotional balance, and how ending our violence toward ourselves and each other is synonymous with ending our violence toward the planet. Ultimately, the only way to understand ourselves is to understand the garden, and vice versa.

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MORNING GLORY: A STORY OF FAMILY AND CULTURE IN THE GARDEN

Aztec priests ground up the [morning glory] seeds as a potion which they used in ointments to make themselves fearless, or to appease pain. D.C. Watts, Elseviers Dictionary of Plant Lore

I cup the massive head of a pink peony blossom in both my hands as if dipping them into water, bringing up a cold splash to my heavy eyes and warm cheeks. From inside the deeply furled petals that clamor out from the balled center, drops of dew tip-toe out and dive to the bed of rocks below. Each drop carries on its back the secret chemical combination that licks my nose and stings my brain into momentary euphoria. How can one explain such a smell? Only the action of it, the result of it. This sensationof smelling such a potent bloom from even several feet awayis so brief it could easily be forgotten. And yet the smallest moments in our lives are often the most intense, the ones that linger. The weight of a peony bloom is intense compared to others in the garden; its denseness easily makes it close to a pound, particularly after a rain when its thick spread of petals seem to act as a sponge gathering a hundred small ponds. Its as if glaciation has taken place, pock marked the plants very heart, and left behind a crater-like landscape where it could deposit its sweet self. Touching my nose briefly to the hidden yellow inside where the stamen rest, I feel a simultaneous embrace and giving way that dampens my face. I feel hungry, joyful, peaceful, purposefulI belong here as much as any other creature. And if from a distance someone glances, notices me bent down into this secret place in the corner of the garden, they wouldnt see an oversized bee or hummingbird planted unnaturally in the ground next to the peony bush: theyd see a fountain or waterfall coming from the rose-pink center thats fused itself into my

skin, and for a time grazed the surface of the earth. Theyd understand that for this moment, and for many after, something of the scent, touch, and taste of two bodies would leave portions of each in the other for years to come. Perhaps on an afternoon when I was fourteen my mother saw me doing this. Perhaps when the three peony bushes became too large and the new garden was put in, she kept the one that remembered me. The garden is full of ghosts, and I am one of them.

***

With no specific day, with no specific event marking it as extraordinary, I remember this from my childhood: tagging along with my mother to go to the nursery. Somewhere around the age of twelve or thirteen I did this several times over the summer, getting up early around nine or ten to tackle the manmade jungle among rows sheltered by half-translucent green plastic overhead. Nurseries are strange places. The consumer itch for immediacy and razzle-dazzle meets the relatively nave and simplistic beauty of plants becoming themselves. Ive never known a good nursery to be modern and chic, either. By this I mean pulling into the parking lot and being wowed by clean, simplistic lines of design, the less is more strategy. In fact, Ive never known a nursery thats had a paved parking lot, or a parking lot that could accommodate more than a dozen or so cars. Even before you make it to the dooran arbor covered in clematis or ivythe idea that your world is really not yours hits home. The pathways between the rows of wet-leafed plants from the morning watering are covered in thick mulch. When I went along with my mother on big shopping days, I had to pull the nursery-provided red-flyer along through the mulch. At first, being a skinny teenager wasnt so badthe wagon rolled along somewhat easily

across the wood. Later, as the plants accumulated and as the black plastic containers grew larger, Id find myself several rows over from my mother trying to diligently trace her snakelike path. Boy, where are you. Cmon up here so I can put these flowers in the cart. Im coming Mom. She winces, turns not just her head but her whole body, and meets the cart halfway plopping the plants into the metal din of the cart. Youve got to keep up with me. I need your help. She didnt smile, but turned back and faded into the turns of another rowI knew Id never catch up with her. Wed have this conversation a few more times before the morning was out and eventually, planting in the garden, Id either be forgiven and shed let me do the planting, or Id be rejected into the artificial air of my cool bedroom and video games. The name of the garden center I remember most is, appropriately, The Garden Patch. It was a twenty to thirty minute drive because my mother didnt like ones closer to our house. This nursery was off the side of a relatively busy, two lane county highway in the southern suburb of Shakopee. As cars pulled off into the dirt parking lot they had to make a considerable effort to slow down, so traffic behind became briefly bottle-necked. But approach the lot too fast and you might hit a pool of mud and get stuck, or knock out your shocks from the un-graded moon-like landscape. This plant refectory reeked of dampness, protein, soil nutrients, stale un-circulated air and the people who worked the sticky brown cash register. Just inside the front arbor were two lines of twenty red-flyer wagons, lined up like shopping carts but tantalizingly playful. The first row of plants, small ornamental trees, pines and maples, shade plants, was relatively wide and open inviting like a great hall or a mansions entryway. But once through, the rows split left and right and were so narrow no two wagons could pass by one another. My mother stood obliviously

among them as I constantly had to angle out and make way for another poor childs laborious route behind his mother. But even though the load became progressively worse, there was a solemn joy and sense of purpose that emanated from the rows of artificially grown plants. My mother would thumb through stacks of annuals as if it were a recipe book, and I would patiently wait a few feet behind, if Id caught up, fingering leaves of nearby plants, letting drips of water collect in the middle and slide down the tip, off into the mulch below. As Mom decided which plants would work in what amount of sunlight and in what soil and what time of year, I became mesmerized by the shades of green accented by the black plastic shadows: light green, dark green, silver green, frothy green, milky green, brilliant green, lizard green, vomit green, soft green, prickly green, green green it was too much and not enough at once. Even the idea of all that life in such a small space is intoxicating and numbing. How could all these plants thrive in this small space, and would they, like old lettuce in the grocery store, be tossed away if not bought before their roots outgrew their containers? When I walk through a forest or a dense park I always get dizzytheres too much to sense and observe that it becomes overwhelming. I cant stop every few feet to observe a stone or branch because Id never make it home in time for the next millennium; and if I stop for an hour or two just to take in the sense of one space and map it, really listen and look, I feel Id miss 99.9% of whats there. These aisles, my mothers patient discoveries, the weight of my cart, warm green light transfusing around it all, the thick smell of soila person might drown. Where is the car, the asphalt road, the brick and stucco buildings selling lawnmowers and chainsaws, the Minneapolis skyscrapers trumping the natural world around them a hundred fold. Where are the open, sterile spaces of mans dominance that sets me free, the reliable highway arteries and overpasses and

cloverleaves slapped down firm upon knocked down woods and open grasslands. In those nurseries I relished in the depth and intensity of life and becoming, of color and detail, I sank in the damp mulch and felt the bottoms of my feet warming in the insulation. But just as much I craved the release of artificiality, as if among life and living I had held my breath until I passed through itjust as wed do on the school bus when it passed through the Lowry tunnel downtown, underneath the Walkers outdoor sculpture garden. Somewhere between the nursery, the cars full trunk, and the plants huddled on the grass beside the garage, I exhaled and wanted to breathe in again, wanted to go back to the nursery. It was, in a strange way, thrilling deprived of nature and over compensated with it. I couldnt wait until early evening when wed move through the garden slowly like maple shadows and find our way again.

*** Wait for a rainy day, and youll see a sharp change in the house. I dont mean the typical sadness, malaise, and boredom that can accompany a young family in mid summer when the outside world is taken away from them. I mean deeply rooted and out-of-the-blue depression. Often, when I was growing up, it didnt even have to be raining. I imagine my mom getting up around eight in the morning, walking out to the kitchen thinking of fully waking up, noticing how dark and damp it is outside, and giving upheading back to bed until eleven or noon. If its a weekday the rest of us may get up, careful of our steps, how soon we flush toilets and take showers, or how loudly we close doors. Simply put, the way Mom went was the way we went. Maybe wed get lucky and all go to the theater, or wed talk her into playing a board game on the kitchen table. Maybe shed feel determined enough from

her good rest that shed push forth and come watch television with us in the basement where we were camped out, or at least check on us before going back to her solitude. But only on one rainy day in ten did any of these things happen. No, it was depression. Even the quiet the rest of us in the house practiced would only heighten and focus this malaise, a sort of wary hope with a constricting residue that weighted down every object in the house. I wonder where this depression came from, because it always seemed more than a response to exhaustion or illness or weather. There were days my mom just seemed to give up, knew she had to, and that it would soon enough be over as it had in the past. As Mom grew older, her menopause became worse, too. Infrequent bouts of depression were exasperated by intense cramps, hormonal swings, hot flashes, cold flashes, and ultimately debilitating migraines that literally blacked her out. Silence and stillness were now the only things we could do to help her recover, and wed wait for what seemed likeand sometimes wereseveral days. She tried medication after medication, had a hysterectomy, ultimately she began giving herself shots when she felt the pain swirling above her temples, but now uses Zomig, a successful pill that knocks her out then leaves her wired over the course of a day and a half. Im going to go lay down for a while, shed tell everyone at once when I was younger, gathering us in the living room for a briefing. Id appreciate it if you all were quiet so I can maybe get rid of this headache before I make dinner. Sometimes, wed order pizza or warm up frozen dinners in the oven because, after several hours, she still hadnt come out of the bedroom. My sister and I would convince Dadthough he said it was never a big dealto go see if she was awake or not, and as we waited like statues in the living room hed carefully open the door,

tiptoe in, and within seconds come back with the report. Still asleep, hed whisper. What do you guys want to do? Maybe we should go out. My sister has the tendency to drop thingsshampoo bottles in the shower, makeup on the tiled bathroom floor, books and coins and cassette tapes precariously perched on a desk top corner. She is, by her very nature, not a quiet person. Imagine my sister then, who had the unfortunate luck of having her room over my parents, as she closed dresser drawers for twenty minutes late at night, walked across creaks in the floor, opened the closet door and shuffled through its shelves, ran bath water after dropping an entire drawers contents on to the floor (or so it seemed to us as we watched television below in the living room, often staring up at the ceiling dumbfounded and laughing). Then, thundering from either a crack in my mothers bedroom door or the houses intercom system, Whoever is making that racket better shut up now! This was not playful. This was not a tornado watch. It was a warning. Funnel on the ground, one mile wide, chewing up and spitting out sharp pieces of glass and woodwe wouldnt be going to the theater today to enjoy a movie, but to give my mother space and to seek a refuge of our own. Many times I felt as if I was walking on hot coals in the house, the singe of the heat beneath pulsing up my veins into my stomach where it settled, churned, and spiked. Id often feel paralyzedin my room, in the basement, preparing lunch in the kitchen without ever really touching a plate, the counter, or the refrigerator door. My muscles would be so tense Id have to lay down on my bed to relax, listening to Enya on my Walkman while counting the dried drops of the popcorn ceiling. It was a full body Charlie horse, and was probably caused just as much by, if not more, my own intense shyness and genetic disposition for quiet. But where did my fear come from? Was it the result of a house that was never quiet enough at the right moments,

moments that were mercurial in their appearance? Or was my fear actually some auto immune response my mother passed on to me in some deeper recesses of my blood? Was she herself afraid? And of what? When my mother was low she was low, but when she was high she was highI suppose I get this from her. Theres no middle, and when I try to act my way to a good or happy or congenial attitude, I find I expend ten times more energy then if I were running a marathon. I cant last long at all doing that. My mom could act like this on the occasional family swim day on Sundays in summer, a birthday party, Easter, Thanksgiving, but she wasnt about to waste this energy and talent on her immediate family, and why should she? This house was as much her solace and refuge to be herself as it was ours. Still, when my mother has the flu she miraculously gets up, works on the computer, cooks a quick dinner, and takes a walk around the house. Me? I lay in agony for days on my bed until my flesh and moans and groans fuse into the sheets as I give in to the solitude of pain. This uncanny skill of hers, what else can I call it because I admire it so much, was clearly a conquering. It was not a negotiation or a truce. It was willpower of incredible proportion. When I was sick Id get kicked out of bed to dizzily eat a piece of toast or swallow some pills with my mom impatiently standing above my bent-over form in the kitchen. I cant eat anything. It huuuurts too much, Id cry. And the response? You will eat this toast and swallow these pills if I have to wait here all day long and cram them down your mouth with my fingers. Then youll really feel bad, wont you? Maybe this is what a parent is supposed to do, what a mother does, but when she acted like this I had no options. Not a one. She terrified me in an honestly comforting sort of way. And back up in my bed, an hour later, feeling a pulse of life slowly threading its way back into me, I thanked her in

my mind. Without that fearful encouragement I wouldnt be able to make myself get up and live my life when the clouds roll in, the air turns damp like a cold steam, and I want to surrender to my body and emotions. On those real and metaphorical rainy days of my youth, I suppose Mom wasnt giving in, though at the time it appeared so. No, she was recalibrating, preparing, waiting, storing up. She was fighting something off the only way she knew how, and even the rain was necessary for this to happensomeday it would finally weather away whatever it was that had a hold of my mother for so long. In the stillness of a summer shower I pause, I close down, I recalculate and plan out tomorrow when Mom will emerge as if from a cocoon, transformed and energized until the next breaking point, and the next, for however long she needs. And when wed finally see her in the garden we knew the corner had been turned. Yet outside it seemed as if she were both burying and tending herself, a constant ceremony whose solitude became mildly mythic and left me wondering what was out there, what was really happening. The answers always seemed to lay in the garden just below the surface. But unsure of myself, Ive never known how to approach them, or where they might actually be.

***

At about thirteen or fourteen I was allowed a small portion of the yard to grow strawberries. This spot was, literally, the far corner of usable space for my mother, and a place that was last on her list for planting. It was also by the pool, so chlorinated water often found its way into the roots of sickly looking daylilies and various shrubs which had little landscaping value to my momsomething had to be grown by the pool, beneath the canopy of large maple trees. My corner would get just enough sun to redden a few dozen berries. Id show Mom.

And so she helped me buy the plants, stick them in the ground, and then stood back: this was my patch. They took off fast, assuredly spreading and blooming with fragrant white flowers in early summer. Weeds were also spreading assuredly. A couple times per week Id get a kind reminderread, what the heck are you doing to my landscape, boythat weeds were overtaking the strawberry plants. Id hustle out when the pressure became as much as I could bear, often during a light rain shower on a sleepy weekend morning, and plunge my fingers into the mud. Yes, indeed, the weeds were huge, say one to two inches tall, and maybe six to ten in total. It was an invasion of the highest order, and my poor strawberries were clearly on the threshold of hell. Needless to say, I tried thereafter to keep one step ahead of the master gardener. I, the bumbling apprentice, was given a four by three foot plot at the corner of the pool, right at the edge of a six foot retaining wall perched atop a steep forty foot hill, and if I failed the whole house and garden would be lost, perhaps tumbling down to the lakeshore. Id weed when Mom was at the grocery store or had to make a run to Target. Id sneak away from helping her in the front rock garden and slip into the distant land of the backyard, slyly hugging the chain link fence to reach my strawberries. I learned. I weeded. I got dirty. The flowers turned to whitechocolate hearts of fruit, which turned pink, which turned red. The scent grew sweeter by the day in the far off land of strawberriesplants that yielded not only aesthetic beauty, but actual physical sustenance. Perhaps this was why I kneeled with my plants in this secluded and undesirable place: Mom didnt want the plants to replace her, and by giving me this third-rate spot of land they would, assuredly, die. So Id give up. Or Id try even hardereither way Id be a gardener like her, and the millions that surely came before us. Strawberries can do more than tease the tongue and satisfy the groans of a belly. Their leaves, mixed with parsley and blueberry leaves, can be steeped to create a drink thats good for

combating diabetes. Strawberry juice and its dried roots can effectively remove tartar from teeth and heal the gums. Crushed, the fruit can treat ringworm, skin cancer, and sunburn. It is a skin cleanser. It can relieve sore eyes. The Victorians believed strawberries represented absolute perfection in their language of flowers. Researchers at Kew Gardens in England have genetically identified that strawberries are most closely related to marijuana. In the late seventeenth century the French laid the groundwork for strawberry cultivation: Jean de la Quintine, the royal gardener at Louis XIVs Versaille, kept the details on how to develop larger berries and how to ward off pests. I could use his expertise. Mon dieu, the squirrels and birds come by the hundred. Each morning I check the patch to see half eaten fruit, or the last red and white remnants hanging like hacked flesh from the stem. I try a black netting that you secure to the ground with thin, metal U stakes. This works a little. I try doubling up the layer, but the problem isnt the thickness, its the fact that it lays on the plants themselves, so even though squirrels cant reach through the net with their larger paws, birds can still delicately balance on the covering and peck their way into the fruit. I try elevating the net, but cant find a good support system, and the wind is no help. Eventually, as all gardeners learn, you have to understand that plants arent yours, but that you share them with the world around you. Gardening is an act of sacrifice in more ways than one. Thered be plenty of berries for me and my family to enjoy. I wouldnt pick the half eaten ones, but leave them for the animals, hoping theyd come back to finish what they started and not start anew. Still, I wanted to stand on the deck overlooking the landscape, prop a gun on the railing, and pick off whatever I saw. In the corner of a closet Dad had a duck gun he used decades ago. Can you imagine what the suburban neighbors would say while day and night loud cracks and booms echoed across the lake valley? And the carnage. The strawberries would be

submerged by dead and dying robins and grey squirrelsyou cant easily wash off death from sugary-rose-smelling fruit shaped like a heart. Maybe all they wanted was to treat their sunburns or polish their beaks. The netting helped just enough and for two years I had a good yield. Id share the strawberries, but there was really only enough for my insatiable appetite, and the few I allowed for my dad who loved fresh fruit (we were the only men in the house, not counting two neutered cats, so it seemed natural to share only with him). At the time, my only preferences for healthy food were green beans and strawberrieseverything else was poison. When I came inside with a bowl of strawberries Mom was quick to let everyone know these were mine, so when you were snooping around in the fridge beware, and ask her son first if you wanted anyI had joined the cultivated landscape and climbed a rung up the green-thumb ladder. These were exciting times. Somehow it was a connection between my days in grade school growing green beans in Styrofoam cups, and whatever future I might have experimenting with my own small garden. Perhaps my two favorite produce products were green beans and strawberries because I was allowed, encouraged, to grow them. If when I was six wed planted squash and broccoli and tomatoes, I might have had a more diverse appreciation for sustenance. Candy and french fries did not grow on trees. Nor did time. Which is why, during the third year of my patch when the plants lay dying and the weeds were truly knee high, Mom tilled the corner of the garden and planted orange daylilies, which were on the bottom rung of her perennial listthe message was obvious. That summer strawberries kept emerging from the soil, little fingers of vines with one or two flowers, and Mom hacked them out like weeds. I had lost my interest and energy to video games and homework. Perhaps she was genuinely disappointed, or perhaps she had anticipated this and

accepted it long ago. Maybe the seed of gardening was all that needed planting, and at over 200 per strawberry, something was bound to stick inside of me and develop down the road. This made the patch worthwhile, and since my mother was a gardener she knew patience and instinct of a higher, or lower order. Something would bloom. Id be a gardener some day.

***

Like any family, mine has secrets that get slowly revealed to its members through the decades. Its sort of an honor, I suppose, part of growing older and being recognized as an adult and no longer a child. Its a mixed blessing: cursed with knowledge and blessed with next-toimpossible-to-earn respect. Through bits and pieces Ive come to learn my grandfather was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. At first, some years ago, my mother hinted at such when her biological father sent her a Christmas card after decades of silence. This event brought to light that the grandfather I loved was a stand in of sorts. My grandmothernow a staunch Christiangave birth to my mom, her oldest child of five, at the age of seventeen. She, too, was an alcoholic and rather freewheeling, from what I gather. But again, the pickings are slim, I dont really know, and no one wants to talk, not even picturesthese were burned long ago by my grandmother, so the only physical history I have to trace is on my fathers relatively normal side of the family. When my real grandfather sent his card, my mother had no choice but to tell her kids phase one of many phases I doubt Ill ever get to the end of. Years later I heard the grandfather I knew beat his two boys, and now one has estranged himself from the family blaming his mother for not protecting them. Not too long ago, after my grandmothers failed trip to visit her son, my

mom explained again why he was so aloof. Leaning against the edge of the living room couch, half on its thick arm, my mom crosses her tan arms and goes on. He blames your grandma for not protecting us kids from your grandpa. She looks toward the blank screen of the TV, then down to her feet. She couldnt do anything of course, and things change anyway. People grow up. It was a long time ago. Its your mother, for petes sake. She says this last bit looking at me, maybe planting the seed for anything I yet dont know about, or for something unforeseen which might happen. Its your mother. But stranger in this is, as she looks to the floor, to me, around the room, to me, the floor againstrangest of all this are the words protecting us kids. She said this in a different way than before. She didnt say boys, and her eyes became a darker black than they usually were. They didnt swell, but the pupils expanded. I cant forget this one detail. Like a cat, or some animal backed into a corner, those eyes opened and seemed to see something I couldnt. They were waiting, ready, simultaneously fierce and afraid. And it was brief. I imagine, as the oldest child who cooked for the family, mended clothes that were handed down from her to her younger siblings, she must have had to stand ground in that house in Racine that I drove by only once, as a small child, on the way to a family reunion. She didnt say what I hoped she would, but I suppose I didnt want to hear either. But I did. I wanted to hear it. I did. I wanted to hear how Grandpa, smoking and drinking, memories of Korea playing along like the TV in the living room, all came knocking against her arms, her face, her back. How the children ran screaming through the house, huddled together in closets, Grandma sitting at the kitchen table waiting for it to end as it always did after a few moments. Just take it, she might whisper to herself. Im sorry, Im sorry, but I cant take it for you.

I dont know what changed. Religion. Growing up. Working things out of yourself. Moving away. Patience. Long after whatever happened the youngest son, retired from the army, was killed by a drunk driver. Then Grandpa got cancer after years of mourning, bearing the loss as he was chipped away by disease. Maybe my uncle, the estranged son, rejoiced. Maybe this is what made him who he was. But my mom, passing out bits of a life I cant possibly imagine in the people I love so dearly, wont live by the memories anymore. She moves on. She takes me out to the garden, where we silently worked together for years, and says she planted morning glories because the scent reminds her of her grandmothers house, how much fun it was to go there. And without knowing it, either of us perhaps, something else comes up from the earth and slightly opens to the light.

***

Eleanor Perenyi, author of the classic collection of garden essays Green Thoughts, states that women invented horticulture. When men stopped hunting beasts they quickly made her from inventor into goddess. Men were always terrified of womens complicity with nature and the power it gave them. Such fear can be seen in the accusation of witchcraft among puritans in America, where women who knew of herbal remedies were quickly accused of a higher (evil) mystical power. Perenyi goes on to suggest that flowers are the least menacing plants in the biosphere, and that their sole purpose is simply to look beautiful, which is why men give them as gifts to women, to remind them of their place in a patriarchal society. And yet such a possible intention was turned on its head by the Japanese art of flower arrangement called ikebanu, whose masters are now male. Its originally believed that this art

came from women who used flowers as a means of silent communication with stern samurai husbands to whom spoken words would have been insulting and unacceptable. Illiterate women in Ottoman harems created a language of flowers to subvert the enforced ban of literacy and language placed upon them. This act was later brought to the west by Charlotte de la Tour, who published Le Langage des Fleurs in 1819one of many plant dictionaries of the timespawning the Victorian vogue of florigraphy. This art conveyed secret messages of admiration and amorous intention beneath the established decorum and conservatism of the Victorian society. What some of those bouquets must have said, one can only imagine. And what would a man or woman see upon immediately opening the front door to their home, a messenger holding a bouquet. Perhaps such a grouping of flowers and cuttings would go something like this: snowdrop, jonquil, bluebells. Petunia, peach, daisy, peony, sunflower, tulip, violet. P.S. dill, chamomile, apple, fuschia. Dont have your dictionary handy? Though there was no one standard translation, my message comes out something like this: I hope you return my affection with constant adoration. Never despair, I am your captive always, your loyal love, I love you purely and eternally, my perfect lover I adore you faithfully. P.S., I lust for your exuberance, I am tempted by your taste. I suppose this might be a quite a big arrangement, and I doubt they were ever this elaborate or even translated so clearly, but if I were to receive a bouquet this might be a good one to get. Unless it were inverted upside down, which would reverse the meaning.

***

There is a small corner of my moms garden near where the stream begins on the hill. It is an angled slat of space against the wall of trellises taken up by a weeping evergreen shrub whose long branches finger the water sliding over river rock. In cold fall mornings the needles hold minute icicles, and the shrub becomes the water, just as the water reflects the shrub in summer. Though this area is no more than four feet wide by six feet long, and is open in view to the rest of the garden and the backyard, it is a place that is solitary, that almost feels sheltered and cloistered in some unexplainable way. I come to kneel here against the stones, to be no taller than the shrub or the nearby irises. From here one can trace the stream, follow its implied direction all the way to the pool, and beyond, the lake. Somehow in this place I feel the most calm Ive felt in months. Landscape designer and Zen priest Shunmyo Masuno says that when someone decides to create something, they are not aware of what and how they are going to make that thing up until the moment that they actually begin. However, once they have started, they become completely absorbed in what they are doing and the unconscious mind instantly takes over. In other words, when the mind, hands, body, time, and materials merge into one then the unconscious, which goes beyond the bounds of consciousness, is responsible for creating things. This means that the spirit of the person, who has created the thing, becomes part of it. Even in the planned garden, the rules that began as guides slowly fall away in moments of inspiration. The gardener colors outside the lines, and in this way connects to the larger world aroundand perhaps to the deeper one within. Everywhere these indelible marks exist, inspire, and instruct, if we are silent and still enough to understand them.

The first Japanese garden treatise is known as the Sakuteiki, written sometime around 1050. It preaches to keep close to your heart the works of past masters, and not to copy nature but to interpret it, subtly adding or taking away just a few things so it becomes your own design. Japanese design has always been predicated on the basis of environmental awareness and stewardship, and as such a Japanese garden can occur anywhereas long as you use local materials. In Japan, these are evergreens, maples, and stone, all condensed images of nearby mountains and forests, which is where our ideas of Japanese garden appearance come from. But a Japanese garden can also be prairie grasses, rudbeckia, liatris, and cottonwood. When you look at a restored prairie, or the 1% left untouched in America, there is Japanese garden potential waiting to be craftedthe Sakuteiki states that 90% of all designs are already given in the form of the natural landscape, all you have to do is tinker. Shunmyo Masuno discusses his process in using local material in a spiritual way: Buddhism sees stones and trees as having souls [the Japanese word is kokoro, which is usually translated as heart / mind / spirit of things]. Finding the right stone is something like meeting a person. When I encounter a stone that seems right, whose voice and energy and heart are right for the garden, then I sketch it and take measurements and find its place in the garden. Here is one of the many instances in which Buddhist training and practice are in complete congruence with the art of landscape design. I always feel at one with the plants, when I am planting them and with the stones, when I am arranging them. This is the moment when you know instinctively that everything is right, the moment of realization, which in Zen is called jikishitanden. Tea gardens are the epitome of melding Zen Buddhist teaching with Japanese landscapes. On a small island, penned in and cut off by mountains and valleys, the vistas are lush and immediate, but you must be careful to watch where you are and where you are going, because

the paths skirt slopes and pass over jagged stones. This is why it is so important to have uneven stepping stones (tobi-ishi) on winding paths, so that the garden visitor is forced to keep their head down and watch where they are going. At a certain point, determined by the garden designer, a large, flat stone is placed where the visitor can rest, look up, and see the intended view. By extension, when passing over water, an eight plank bridgeyatsuhashiis often used. Each section turns in sharp angles, both forcing a mindful experience in the garden as well as ensuring that evil spirits cannot follow you (these spirits can only walk in straight lines). Gardens in the Japanese style rely not on symmetry, but spacial balance. That often means contrasting elements used near one another, for example the sacred triad of threeoften three dimensional stonesamong or near a two dimensional plane, like sand, crushed stone, or a mossy berm which mimics snowfall. In some gardens, the sand is raked by Buddhist priests who, in an act of meditation, are inscribing or translating the feeling of wind or water through their motions. No matter what, no single object is dominate, and the eye is never meant to stop and rest on anything but to always be led back to a source of the designthe path, the stream. Ma is also important, translated from the Zen Buddhist concept of mu, or nothingness; the space around an object influences the visitors experience of that space, through balance and harmony, as much as the actual object itselfin visual art one would call this negative space. Here, yohaku-no-bi, the beauty of paucity, can be experienced. Just as a designer may become connected to a stone and its placement, or a shrub and its bonsai-like careful trimming decade after decade, an experience of transference occurs. All of your emotion is let go and you allow yourself entry into some minimalist existence, some cleansed or focused view of your place in the landscapeone in which we hardly have any more.

In these gardensand perhaps in my mothers gardenabsences are places to connect ourselves to the landscape as we are reminded of our continued need to be vigilant about our precariousness in the world, via winding pathways and non-dominate objects in the garden. There is time for reflection and time to be opened to something more through the narrowest vistas. In the garden, as in the tradition of bonsai, balance is achieved through letting go in concentration, through the determined, joyful tension of focuslike a spring carefully coiled tightly then released. The nearness of our minute and exact perception is invigorated by the largeness of a blossoming greater perception, and the only thing left is the silence of understanding without knowing. Perhaps this is the beginning of faith. All of this can be summed up elegantly and efficiently, of course, in the following proverb where a 16th century Japanese tea garden master designed a space for a client using the principle of Shakkei: Sen no Rikyu built a garden enclosed by a tall hedge that blocked the view of the sea. The client for whom the garden was built was unhappyuntil he bent to wash his hands in the water basin. The sea then became visible in a gap between the hedges and the client smiled. As the tea master had hoped, the client realized the intent behind the design as his mind made the connection between the water in the basin and the great ocean, and thus between himself and the infinite universe.

***

Mind if I join you, or are you doing your solitary writer thing? My mother approaches the edge of the circular brick patio at the base of her back garden, and seems at once sincere and sarcastic. I had had my eyes closed for just a few minutes, so Im not sure where she came from.

No. Go ahead. Im happy shes come by. Usually, I feel disruptive when I corner her outsidethere seems to be simultaneous tension and complacence to my presence in the world surrounding my childhood home. Maybe she feels the same, Id never thought of that before. Maybe she, a woman Ive always taken to be strong-willed, bull-headed, and good for a kick in the pants when needed, maybe she always feels like shes interrupting me. Id been outside in the early evening before dinner just for the warm shade and the inaudible soft mists that touch my legs, coming from the two foot waterfall just feet away. The smell of juniperone that piggybacks along several specific memories in my lifesweetens and clouds the moment to the point of blissful confusion. Being in nature is like being on a merry-goround set at 180 rpmso much to focus on, so much to see, smell, touch, and hear. Squirrels perform Cirque du Soleil twirls and leaps on thin branches high above in the maple and oak canopy; sparrows, finches, and cardinals call themselves home in the waning hours of sunlight that begin to cool between the limbs and shadows. Mom settles into her chair without making the slightest sound, or if she does it blends into the hesitant rustle of leaves in a light breeze. I look at her by looking around her, into the garden we tended together when I was younger. I glance from butterfly bush to her flower-printed shirt speckled in dirt, from the manicured weeping spruce to her thick dark hair still combed in waves that blend into the crisscross pattern of the black chain link fence behind her. The curved metal legs of the glass table mimic her recline: a head that sticks out a little from the torso, eager and patient to hold the world around it, the curve of the thickening neck back in toward a body that settles out around it, just wide enough to hold firm against the ground. Her tennis shoesthe sides and bottoms green from lawn mowinggive her the mark of being partly absorbed into something other, stained by some place, some landscape where Id never been.

Its very peaceful out here this time of day, she says suddenly, but the comment blends into the pause between breezes and flighty chickadees whose feet are stuck into maple trunks. A moment later she says, My favorite time of day, hazarding a response from me, or maybe the distant clouded growl of a motorboat passing down on the lake. I say nothing, but lift one leg atop the other to give myself, unconsciously, the reposed, thoughtful and participatory look a person might have in a business meeting. She took the hint of attention without flinching, and without turning from her gaze over the hillside to the water. How are you doing? Im fine. I think. I add the latter bit simply to lighten the moment, orlooking on me and my familys tendency to avoid intimacy and opennessused a hint of sarcasm and humor to detach myself from the depth of emotion growing around me. I mean, she begins more directly. I mean no more stomach problems. After college Id had issues with acid reflux disease, a newly-coined term in the medical world, that had kept me from eating normally for months at a time and made me lose a bit too much weightall of this likely due to my post-college depression. But even Moms question surprises me. It isnt what I thought she meant, or was going to ask. Im fine. No more problems. I say. This is the truth, and I knew she knew that. We both felt it wasnt the question she wanted to ask, but couldnt find the right metaphorical question to mask the more important one. Every question has an imbedded or hidden question, and in my family thats the one being asked. If you answer to the obvious question it also serves as an answer for the imbedded question no one is brave enough or forthright enough to ask. But even if you only intend, and believe, youre answering the simpler more obvious question, its always, always taken as the others answer. Confused? It can all be boiled down to being asked, Hows the chicken. And by replying that its very good, you are also saying I feel happy, content, and

am glad to be here with you. Maybe its like this in other families, but Ive never seen one more concerned with innuendos, subtleties, and roundabout attempts at saying things other families take for grantedthe I love you or I have to get something off my chest or Can we sit down and talk. Nobody just sits down to talk. But even in my mothers quiet gestures theres the nurturing quality of perfection, tinkering, deadheading the past so something new can bloom in its place. Her body might lumber, exhausted at the end of the day, but her arms settle like feathers into the chair, a walk, putting sheets of cookie dough into the oveneverything seems at once gentle and confidently precise as if she were a surgeon. So, after answering her question about how I feel, I knew this also meant that I was happy, that my life seemed good, that things were in balance in grad school and that I was living how and what I wanted to live. But maybe this question was also one that begged for reciprocity, to be reflected back, to have a dialogue of questions with answers that nobody knew how to answer correctly. How are you doing? I ask, looking straight into the side of her eyes. Im ok, she says smiling into the snow-in-summer circling the patio. Bingo. Everything Ive been taking has helped balance me out. I went to the doctor two weeks ago and he seems to be confident with the hormone treatment. She pauses, tastes the sun flecked through leaves, which are like signs on a highway at night, or runway lights. Ive had no headaches this month, and Im finally having some good nights of sleep. Her protracted and intense menopause had nearly pushed our family to the brink of annihilation over the years. There was still much to be repaired in the wake of this, but it seemed that my mothermy parents relationshiphad come back up gingerly from themselves, together, was testing what it was like in the new life

that medicine provided. Sometimes though, being back here in this house more as a visitor than a son, I have a doubly hard time of seeing the real people that have made this world, this tiny existencethat have made me. I dont have a clue of who my mother really is. I dont think I ever will, but Im resigned to having to pretend that I do, or at least trying to find her through other lives and other places, through the natural landscapes that have come to define who I am as much as my mother. Im very happy to hear that, Mom. Hopefully, you can start to live your life again. Me too. I just hope this stuff works and doesnt wear off. Its time to move on. Not being ourselves makes us understand ourselves, who we are, more importantly who we want to be. Who doesnt have a dozen cathartic moments after having had the flu for a week? After attending someones funeral? What kind of thoughts and feelings do you have after years upon years of not being who you are? Do you suddenly become someone else? What I want to ask is this: Are you content. Do you still love Dad. Do you enjoy each others company. Do you like living in Minnesota, in this house. Is this the life you want. Is this the person you want to be, and if not, what is that person and what are you going to do to get to that person without sacrificing what you have built till now. Is that possible. What do you think about what Im doing, about who I am, where Im headed. Tell me these things. I might be able to use them in my own life. I cant believe how that clematis has taken off this year. Thats what I say. Thats my metaphor. Thats what Ive inherited from my mother and I think I detest it while I recognize the power behind itthe power that I think has led me to words in my life, to the skin-deep beauty of sound and rhythm, to how incredible words look on a page in a book, to how they feel but never what they mean. Metaphor.

Ive worked so hard on that thing, she says. Ive spent years fertilizing it, trying to get it to stick, to establish. Finally, its grasped itself and just keeps blooming. It makes me happy to see it doing so well. She looks from the clematis bunched up, thick, wildly fragrant and alive with dark pink buds and flowers, turns toward me and then slides her eyes back to the thick trunks of the trees on the hill anchoring the entire landscape with their deep, complex fingers hidden beneath the soilanchoring the whole garden, the house, this part of the street. I think Im almost done with the garden. Almost done all I can do. We sit there for another fifteen minutes, undisturbed by anyone else. The stream and waterfall going on and on, constant, decisive, furious and calming like a heartbeat. The light retreats from the garden to the roof of the neighbors house, steps up as if to see further than was possible in the low solitude of the world my mother tends day after day. The sparrows and cardinals and squirrels go on preparing for night, rushing toward themselves and their small purposes that seem so profound to them, to us at this moment. My mother shifts her weight a few times over the course of ten minutes, her head and eyes as still and patient as stone. When she decides to get up shes slow about it, as if she were conscious of the fact shed left something behind, didnt know what it was, but couldnt quite leave without figuring it out. She walks in an unaware zigzag through her garden, fingering a few blooms, turning over a few leaves, tossing twigs down the hillside before finally moving toward the top and past the side of the house. Somewhere between me and the plants, the shade and the sun, she saw what shed been eluding.

Benjamin Vogt is the author of the poetry collection Afterimage (SFA Press), and acolection of garden essays, Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University. Benjamins nonfiction and poetry have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in over fifty journals, newspapers, anthologies, and textbooks, including American Life in Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, Haydens Ferry Review, ISLE, Orion, Puerto del Sol, Souwester, Subtropics, The Sun, and Verse Daily. He is also the author of the blog The Deep Middle where he rants about writing and his 2,000 foot native prairie garden. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife.