I can kill most anything green. Intentions are great manure. Whoever coined the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts,” most certainly was a lousy gardener.
I live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where mild winters and balmy summers allow me to grow a vibrant carpet of dandelions. I love those perfect yellow flowers with their meaty foliage sprouting like lettuce. And crab grass. That stuff is a fantastic invention.
However, across the street a field of winter wheat is ripening into gentle tans and auburns. Planted last fall, the short stalks overwintered a dark green, windblown flat by a gale’s giant rolling pin. In March, they sprouted upright again, undaunted, shouting the brighter shade of new growth. Everyone here on the Eastern Shore seems to be a gardener, yet somehow dandelions and crabgrass are the only crop I can raise. Without that dynamic duo, my yard would look like an advertisement for a Utah national park.
Four years ago on Earth Day, my kids spotted a white banner stretched near the entrance of our community college. It announced Free Trees as it flapped in a humid breeze on the lush lawn, devoid of a single yellow flower. Maybe I could learn something here, I thought. We drove in, each selecting a plant to kill.
Our house’s prior owner was a gardener and nurtured life in eclectic flower beds throughout the yard. Before buying, we strolled with her amongst them as she patiently explained each shrub. I think she was speaking in Latin. Instructing me how to care for plants is futile, like expecting your spouse to check the oil in the car. But the results of her labor and expertise, we later learned, meant something is always blooming around our home. Daffodils and forsythia greet us each spring in bright yellow, announcing winter’s demise. Fifty different colors of lilies bloom all summer. And loads of purple stuff I still can’t name put the gardens asleep each fall.
I don’t remember which family member selected the native magnolia as we stood on the community college campus that day. A botanist explained it was an indigenous variety, not like the traditional magnolias I was used to, with hand grenade sized pods that sabotage ankles, causing a rush each spring on the hospital emergency room. He spoke in Latin as well, but managed to explain this breed, being of local vintage, would be quite hearty. Which was a good thing, considering the trial it was about to face with my family.
He picked up a bundle of brown twigs with a few shallow roots twisted and knotted together. When he pulled one loose from the pack and held it out to me, I laughed to think this thing would live. The poor guy knew nothing of the assassin to whom he entrusted the sprig. We returned home where I dug shallow graves in the yard for our seedlings with a spade point shovel.
Miracles happen. Our magnolia is still alive.
The other three plants we gathered that day aren’t even a memory. I can’t recall where we
buried planted them. But this tree is a survivor. One particularly dry summer when it was barely a foot tall, all its leaves shriveled brown and blew away. A spark of remembrance of the botanist’s encouragement – This one will be hearty, he’d said – challenged me to not cut it down. Or maybe I was just being lazy. But by the next April shoots sprang from its roots. I trimmed off deadwood and life started anew.
As a child, I enjoyed climbing trees. The farm on which I sprouted rests only a few miles from my present home. The front yard is full of hundred-year-old magnolias, the old-fashioned ankle-breaking kind. I’d climb their sturdy limbs to the top where moist breeze would sway my perch as I gazed across soybean fields and a horse pasture, forty feet below.
This summer, our young Earth Day tree finally caught its stride. Only a month into the season, it has grown three feet. Not long ago I noticed two stalks were competing to become the main leader, so I placed pruning shears across one and snipped it halfway down, just above a soft bud, how a YouTube video instructed me. Now that bud is off and running, almost twelve inches of delicate growth.
I stare at that tender new sprig, shooting off at a right angle, then curling upward toward the sun. How will it look in a hundred years? By then, it will be a thick bough, easily sturdy enough for a child to climb. The scar left by the pruning shears will be healed and buried inside thick bark and wood, only noticeable to a trained eye that can detect how human interaction had ever shaped its form.
A profound sense settled into my mind as I studied that crook. Family…God entrusted them to me. But unlike that poor botanist, God knew what an idiot I am, and that chances for survival were thin. We’ve weathered dry summers and enjoyed damp springs. Pruning shears have cut, left scars, and new growth has overcome.
I hope in a hundred years some kid will place a foot on that same crook of this tree’s sturdy limb. If all goes well, they won’t even notice why it branches off at such an angle, perfect for their hands to grip and hoist themselves higher. And they’ll climb to the top, wrap arms around limbs not even a bud today, and survey the yard full of dandelions, and the field across, and take for granted the tree that is beneath them.