Your one wild and precious life
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
–from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
I. Summer, 2010
It was August. I was weeding the asparagus patch, fully absorbed in extracting every unwelcome intruder— talking to myself about how weeds thrive in mulch, including the cardboard that was supposed to smother them. I resisted harvesting a few delectable shoots—asparagus needs time to recoup for the next season.
Lathered up with sunscreen and smelling of Avon insect repellent, I did my weeding very early in the morning. Dew-laden feathery asparagus ferns drooped and doused me as I crawled between the rows. The roiling rumble-sound of Chuck’s Dodge Dakota truck firing up distracted me (I called it the Harley truck), and I stood up to wave at him as he drove past. He didn’t see me, probably because our dog Bela, a Viszla that is a perpetual puppy in middle age, was sitting tall in the front seat, a profile of undistracted canine engagement with the excitement of a morning ride. In that moment when my husband and dog rolled by on their way to some errand on the farm, however, I was caught off guard; I felt a rush of love, a snapshot of one brief moment I treasured so dearly that tears welled up with my savoring of it. In that instant, I also rehearsed the grief that hovers whenever one gives herself or himself so completely to love.
Perhaps I was vulnerable to this feeling because I had recently conducted a memorial service for a woman who died suddenly at the age of 47. She was taking a bath—just taking a bath— when her heart stopped. It was a day like any other day, when her teenage children rushed off to school without saying good-bye, when her husband, as always, kissed her perfunctorily at the kitchen door as he left for work. She was probably thinking about what she might prepare for dinner when death took one greedy gulp and left her body limp and naked for her daughter to discover when she came home from school.
I went back to my asparagus, carefully picking even the tiniest weeds away from the stalks. While some plants had grown three or four feet tall, others barely sprouted emergent tips of greenish-purple tenderness. Mmmmmm. In the fall, I would get out my leaf-whacker, cover my nose and mouth with a painters’ mask to filter the leaf-dust, and chop up enough leaves to mulch the asparagus with a two-inch layer. Cardboard and bark mulch would be laid down between the rows in early spring, along with composted manure over the dormant crowns. Since I planted blackberries too close to the asparagus, there would be blackberry shoots to dig out, pot up, and sell or give away. Growing asparagus isn’t just gardening; it is a year-round project of devotion.
The black Harley truck rumbled back into view, and again I stood to wave. This time Chuck threw me an air kiss and stopped long enough to open the door. Bela leapt out and bounded toward me, as Chuck went on to his next chore. Fortunately Bela had not yet made the connection between the spiky things coming up in the garden and those little green bits that he begs for when I snap asparagus at the kitchen sink. Even if he is in a deep sleep at the other end of the house, the sound of the first asparagus spear being trimmed of its woody end stirs him into a classic Pavlov dash to the kitchen. Then he sits, obediently waiting for the delicious discards to be parceled out. Oh, my, how he does love asparagus!
I counted them. There were about ten shoots just right for eating. Some were perfect—nice thick stems that would produce sturdy stalks and nourish next year’s crop with abundant growth. Others, more spindly and camouflaged with weeds, eluded me until I was crawling among them, eyelevel. Those, too, once salvaged and given room to flourish, would make their contribution to next year’s spring feast.
Then I thought about the woman relaxing in the bathtub, planning what she would prepare for dinner. “Yes,” I said, aloud, “we will have asparagus tonight!”
II. Summer, 2011
The following autumn, Chuck gathered up the leaves in piles, and I told myself, “You have to get out there and chop leaves and mulch the asparagus.” Then it rained, and I told myself, “The leaves are wet now; as soon as they dry out, you had better get out there and get those leaves chopped up.” Then family came to visit…and then it was Thanksgiving…and then the leaves were emitting the steamy smokiness of compost.
In the spring, we mulched the asparagus with shredded hardwood and enjoyed a slightly diminished harvest. I weeded faithfully in May. The following summer was the hottest on record in our mountain community. Weeds flourished and my early mornings were occupied now with milking goats and making cheese. “You have to get out there and pull those weeds,” I said to myself, but temperatures in the 90’s wilted me into a lethargic lump.
By early September, summer was waning, and the trees were sprinkling a new crop of leaves into the yard. The asparagus would give me another chance, perhaps, to get my lazy body out there to get the weeds under control. Armed with a machete, I hacked my way through shoulder-high weeds and grasses. I passed three rows of blueberries engulfed in nettles and tall grass. They would have to wait. I was on an errand of redemption, and could not let the blueberries tug me off course.
With the determination of a quarterback pushing his way through a wall of 300-lb linesmen, I pressed on to the feathery green asparagus foliage, now decorated with strands of morning glory–their heart-shaped leaves and bright pink blossoms floating over the ferny branches like Christmas tree lights. I dropped to my knees to pull the lovely morning glory vines by the roots, along with nettles, Virginia Creeper, and several weeds that I cannot identify except in terms of how difficult they are to extract. Two horses leaned over the fence from the adjacent pasture, pleading for handouts, and I tossed them armfuls of pokeweed, ground ivy, and morning glory.
As I cleared grass and clover at the base of asparagus stalks, I exposed a few spindly late-season spears. They did not tempt me. I was in a different frame of mind, this year, doing penance for my neglect. Whether or not I would be around for next year’s harvest was of no importance. My simple act of reparation was enough. I was satisfied with giving things a chance to grow, and pleased to invest today’s energy in the promise of tomorrow’s harvest.
III. Summer 2012
We enjoyed the last asparagus of the season for dinner last night. Now, I am seriously considering abandoning the asparagus bed to the weeds. I am thinking about how I want to spend what is left of this wild and precious life, and weeding the asparagus doesn’t make the bucket list. It isn’t even hot yet, and I am wilting at the thought of crawling through the rows to redeem my crop. I am glad I kept up with it for all these years, but it also feels good to free myself of a summer spent sweating over my neglect of a little crop of asparagus. No, I will not redeem the crop, and no, I will not do penance for my neglect. It is time to let go and enjoy a summer day.
We have always had two wild asparagus patches on the property. Now we will have three.