A Piece of Fertile Ground

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I worked on the property today. Just a few weeks ago I cleared a brush area to the side of the very front of the driveway out near the road and mulched it, put in some sea grass looking stuff, and placed a birdbath in the middle. From the road it looks nice, and in the early mornings deer drink from the bath and a rabbit hangs out in the area. I’m glad they’re there. Another group of about six deer seems to be living along the back path somewhere. They have their own birdbath behind the patio. 

I enjoy working outside because, well, first of all it’s outside, and that just feels healthy. When I look at my life I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much time inside. Even as an adult I was more of a hunter and food gatherer than a cave-dweller. In Arizona, I was out daily hiking up into Bear Canyon or out at the Sonora Desert Museum, or of course down in Mexico. In Massachusetts it was Mt Wachusett or simply long walks around the reservoir where I hiked to Bob’s Hot Dog Truck parked near the Old Stone Church. In Pennsylvania I spent not nearly enough days in Pinchot State Park near home, and here, well, I might as well just sleep in the hammock. I’m always outside. It’s healthy.

And inexpensive. Today, for instance, I was outside for hours clearing away more brush, weeding the area, and I found some beautiful small plants in other places on the property that I’m going to transplant to the area; maybe move a bench up there and put a rain barrel I have behind the shed near the bench. I’ll clean it up and put it where the birds can find it and where I can use the rain water for the transplanted flowers.

Today’s work area was just a little further down the driveway around the next turn from the recently fixed up part. On the left where there had been brush I cleared out two “alcoves” so that now the first 150 feet of the left side of the driveway will be mostly landscaped. I have extra block stones I’m going to use for trim. It’s a good workout and I didn’t have to go to a single store except to get an ice cream sandwich. Plus no snakes during the entire process.

But it’s more than that.

The therapy value of working out there all day cannot be duplicated in anyone’s chair or even, perhaps, with a prescription. I was completely in the moment, focused almost entirely on the soil and the brush, the symmetry and the casual atmosphere I was trying to create. Even music, which is almost always playing, would not work today, not with the sky bluer than anything I’ve seen in some time, and the sun warm enough to draw quite a sweat but not scorching enough to make me think about its presence. Today was about balance; in nature, in my new landscaping project, in my mind, which has needed to be tended to for quite some time. Today I think it was a good session.

According to the health editor, Caroline, at Good Housekeeping, I accomplished more today than just trying to make the left side of the driveway look better. Apparently, I burned calories, lowered my blood pressure, absorbed enough Vitamin D to strengthen my bones, reduced stress by focusing on something other than all the aspects of life which cause me stress, which, really, is everything except working outside, and provided an immediate sense of accomplishment.

That’s a big one. So much in my life for so very long cannot be quickly calculated. Writing on the one hand affords me the ability to measure how productive I’ve been in a day, but I’m never quite sure if it sucks or not, even after publication—very often especially after publication—you see the weeds more than the tilled and manicured sections. Teaching, likewise, is equally frustrating for never quite knowing if they understand what you want them to understand. Even a little.

But outside with clippers, a bottle of water, and a shovel, and I can go to work and stand back four hours later and say, yes, look, I did that and the deer and rabbit will love it. Birds too.

I might follow the lead of a friend and put in a bee and butterfly garden, but that would take more than the resources I already have behind the shed, and my goal is repurposing. I can’t wait to do more. I have a clearing near the road—maybe 70 feet wide by about 100 feet long, that I want to put a raised pond in the middle with oyster shell paths in a cool pattern, between which will be a variety of flowers and vegetables. I’m copying that idea from a garden in Williamsburg. That might have to wait until the next pandemic. And anyway, for now I still have a few hundred more feet of driveway to contend with.

There’s another more subtle benefit. Working by myself outside combats depressive thoughts when someone like me becomes overwhelmed by the swift passing of time and the absence of friends and family—especially during these times. It says that right now, with these fleeting moments, I’m going to help something grow, surround myself with beauty, and appreciate the absorption of sun, the dirt under my nails, my toes deep in the soil (yes, flip flops). We are so very rarely in the moment in which we find ourselves, too often remembering or planning. But here, now, my walk to the other end of the driveway to spend the day playing around with nature is such an internal pilgrimage I forget the time and I lose myself out there, singing quietly David Mallett’s Garden Song:

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row
Please bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down

Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
‘Cause the time is close at hand

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