August 18, 2021
I apologize that I have again taken too long responding to your most recent letter. As you might recall, the main subject of your letter was how you managed to survive a great flood. The most harrowing part was about how your husband, Michael, using everything he learned about coming ashore on foreign beaches during his years with the Marine Corps, managed to ford raging waters to save two old vehicles, each of substantial sentimental value, from certain loss. I was especially moved by the part where he grabbed a pair of endangered otters with his free hand, threw them in the back, strapped them into car seats, and wound up saving their species by driving them to higher ground just as a barn that would have crushed them all floated by. Of course, I made up this last part but the loss of so much of your garden was just so heartbreaking that even a month later I feel a nervous need to lighten things up.
I did something kind of similar once. Twenty five years ago, maybe more. We were vacationing in Michigan–Michele, me, our kids, my sister, her then husband, and their kids. It was late afternoon and the kids were playing video games while the adults drank vodka and tonics on the porch and watched as a powerful storm crossed the lake. Next thing I know, huge waves are battering their motorboat and threatening to wash it off the lift, and, just as suddenly, my sister’s soon-to-be-ex and I are out there in the maelstrom trying to lash it down. This, as a thousand white-hot bolts of lightning laid waste to every tree in a three mile radius except for the two towering cottonwoods that whipped in the wind above us like inflatable tube men at a Kia dealership. True story. You might have heard, God looks out for children and drunken men.
I don’t think I’d do anything like that now. I mean, screw the boat. It was Phil’s and I hardly even liked him anyway. Besides, since then I have seen way too many drunken men swiftly dispatched, killed totally dead, to believe in that dumb expression anymore.
Our problem here is the opposite of yours–three weeks without rain. And hot! Remember last August when we carried on and on about how awful August is? We were onto something there. Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed. It took a while, but a lifestyle of trying to do too much all the time finally caught up with me. I got really, really stressed out, and, I’ve been told, a bit surly. I might need some time off. Off from work. Off from home. Off from writing. Off from dragging hoses. Time to do nothing but exist. Exist like a reptile exists. Just eat, drink, and, if I so choose, watch as the other reptiles come and go from the swim up bar. Maybe something like this would allow the tension to wind itself down from “Code Red: Catastrophic Failure Imminent” to simply “Code Yellow: Safe Working Load Exceeded.”
But, until I actually get around to planning a reptilian vacation, I’m dragging hoses. And hoses are the work of the devil! Evil, terrible products. Horrendous inventions from the very beginning. Inventions that, despite all our space exploration, computing prowess, 3D printing capacity, 24-hour cable news, live-streaming, smoke detectors, time shares, and a million other technological advancements, have never gotten any better! If you go back and read the primary sources, which I have done, early gardeners recorded complaint after complaint of hoses that kink, get caught on any protruding rock or stick or blade of grass, and beat up and bedraggle any young plants they get dragged over. In all my experience, and in all the experience of my friends, none of this has changed. You should see what people are writing on Reddit! I was shocked to learn that garden hoses are a leading cause of divorce. Over 100,000 just last year!
Last week I had a bad day. A truly rotten day. And then I had one kink in my hose too many. Now, I’m not proud of this, but I found myself standing there in my yard, gazing back and forth between my garden hose and a properly positioned tree branch. And you know what I was thinking? I was wondering if anyone has ever hanged themselves with a garden hose. Marianne, on that day, in that heat, I might have tried it had I even the foggiest notion of how to tie a noose. But I didn’t, so I grabbed my string trimmer and became an Angel of Death for many weeds that really, really wanted to live. Besides, for such a protest to truly be effective, hanging myself in my backyard with a garden hose simply would not do. It would have to be done in the parking lot of the Acme Garden Hose, TV remote, and Instruction Manual Company. Right as the Board Meeting was breaking up and thereby making witnesses out of all the top brass, causing them to have to talk to the cops and miss things they were looking forward to. This is how you make change in America, but, unfortunately, it takes the kind of planning I never have time for.
A final word about your flood. It was pretty devastating to hear of the losses you suffered. So much of what drives us in gardening is the vision of what our investment in time, money, and passion will someday yield. To have that so suddenly taken away is tough. Of course, the only thing to do is double down and dig in. Determine to persevere. Be stubborn. Be more stubborn than the whole spiteful, powerful Universe, and all the deer, rabbits, floods, fires, late frosts, invasive exotic pests, and any other slings and arrows it contains. It gets to where things seem futile, but once in a while, despite the odds, sheer pigheaded stubbornness actually pays off. And, when that happens, there you are, bewildered, and looking at something that resembles your vision coming to fruition. Insane! And it is pure, life-affirming, joyful triumph. Which, of course, only just encourages more stubbornness. Which results in a great many episodes of crushing heartache. Then, just as you’re about to quit, another unexpected joyful triumph! It’s a lot like gambling addiction.
But, that said, apart from the heat and lack of rain the last three weeks, this has been a good gardening year and it sure has been nice to get in a little social time during the intermission between the Pandemic’s first act and its second.
One of those social occasions, of course, was when you and Louisa drove down to Cincinnati and stayed with us after the Cultivate Show in Columbus. That was great fun and I can’t remember so much laughter! Sure, I got a little testy and might have said some things later in the evening when it became apparent that you and Michele were well on your way to becoming better friends than we are. I had, of course, predicted this very thing early on in our friendship. I knew it would happen. I had just wanted it to take longer in hopes that maybe having the regular presence of a younger, attractive woman in my life might give me a little leverage. For a while, anyway. Maybe it would cause Michele to try a little harder or something. Like maybe be around when I’m trying assemble an Ikea product or something. Anyway, I think that’s what was eating at me. That and the fact that I didn’t understand half the stuff you guys were laughing about and became convinced that most of it was at my expense.
But I got over it. I always do. And it was really exciting to receive a package in the mail from you a few weeks later. Of course, it included some wild mushrooms, which I almost threw away because I thought they were packing material. Thankfully Michele caught me just in the nick of time. I looked up how to cook “wood ears” and we will soon try them. Side note for our readers: If Michele and I should die in agony as a result of eating poisonous “wood ears,” someone, anyone, please call the authorities. Michele absolutely adored the cutesy little Jane Austen book you sent, which, of course, inspired her to reply with this effusive thank you note like some kind of anachronistic British lunatic.
My dearest Mrs. Willburn,
You can hardly imagine the excitement that sparkled through our household when the post brought your mysterious package! We were all astonishment. Such a bounty of treasure! What delights lay within!
Oh, the mirth when Mr. Beuerlein beheld the fruits of the forest you bestowed upon us, no doubt plucked from their hidden bower by some loyal manservant! You simply MUST impart the secret of how best to prepare these woodland treats, and also how to store them until Cook can turn her attention to them.
And what a marvelous little book was inside the package sealed with your signet wax! Surely you don’t think I myself could POSSIBLY be in need of instruction in the womanly arts; yet how very thoughtful of you to provide such a useful handbook so that I might improve the domestic sensibilities of my daughter-in-law, and of any future grand-daughters who will need to be settled with husbands. Oh, what a rigorous grand-mamma I shall be!
However, the finest gift of all was the unparalleled pleasure of having you and dear Mrs. Zimmerman-Roberts stop with us in our humble cottage. Taking a turn about the garden in your company was a splendid experience long anticipated. And what a diverting evening followed! I can hardly remember when I have enjoyed so much merriment. And such a refreshing wine you provided. It was my pleasure to reciprocate by sharing my favourite Bingley’s Tea with you the following morning. “Marianne’s Wild Abandon”–is that not the most amusing name for a tea? I can hardly contain my mirth at the memory of surprising you with it.
I trust you and Louisa were conveyed safely home to the bosom of your families. Mr. Beuerlein and I are counting the days when we might gaze upon your famous country estate, Oldmeadow, which we understand is the talk of the district. In fact, Mr. Beuerlein has become quite tiresome in that he will not cease chattering about spending the Season in Virginia. “Marianne this” and “Marianne that”–it sends him into such transports of joy that he is quite driving me to distraction. There is nothing for it but to plan our journey, to give my poor nerves some rest.
Oh, but surely you have guessed that I am being cross merely in jest. I assure you that I long to visit you and the excellent Mr. Willburn every bit as much as Mr. Beuerlein, though without his gibbering excesses.
Until that golden hour of reunion, I remain yours,
I truly hope I don’t come to hate you both.
Anyway, it is August. The world is hot. The garden is tired. I’m tired. The hibiscus and rudbeckia and anemones are trying to lure me outside into the heat of day and sometimes they do. And, as long as I’m out there, might as well drag some hoses and keep some of the garden alive. Early morning and evening can sometimes be pleasant enough, and the lower angle of the sun this time of year makes for some dramatic and beautiful highlights in the garden.
The other day an idea came to me. I think this time of year, late summer, is like 1:00AM at the pub for bugs. And, yes, I said pub. As in that new Irish one they built at the mall where the KMart used to be. The one that has some giant, fake family crest facing the PF Chang’s. Where there are always soccer matches on half of the TVs. Where some of the bartenders wear kilts. And where, occasionally, late at night, the regulars break out into doleful tunes they learned from Pogues records. Anyway, yes, after all of that, this time of year is, for bugs, just like 1:00AM in a Midwestern, suburban, Irish/Scottish pseudo-pub. It’s late. The bugs are all tired. Drunk. Emotional. For no real reason, one of them launches into a raspy, rhythmic, late summer song and all the other bugs quickly join in. Suddenly, the trees and weeds are filled with music. For me, those songs foreshadow fall’s beautiful and bittersweet melancholy. Which, in turn, foreshadows winter’s cold, dark need for spring.
Time drives inevitably forward. Try as I might, I can’t seem to slow it down or claim a little more of it as mine. It’s frustrating. All I really want is to experience a little more of each day. Alas.
Anyway, I promise I’ll reply sooner next time.
Until then, I am yours, standing in line behind Michele and slowly coming to the realization that she’s mouthing words because your facial expression can no longer contain your “mirth.” Ugh.