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Staying present in the garden

Garden Muse

While I'm making my garden with great purpose, Mother Nature and her crew are doing their own thing. Bees pollinate flowers willy nilly, birds eat berries and plop the seeds right in the middle of the best perennial border. The wind blows dandelion fluff all across the lawn and mullein seed onto the paths.

All of this clutter sneaks up on the garden through the year, and I don't recognize just how much has built up until late fall when there's time to look around. It's easy to panic over the chaos, but luckily the season provides me with a job that calms me down.

In autumn, my daily meditation is raking leaves that drop from what is probably Portland's largest sweet gum tree. Unlike better behaved trees that defoliate in one big release, my sweet gum takes its sweet time. Starting in October, leaves slowly flutter to the lawn, and continue descending over the next few months. It's a slow dance as leaves float in the air, spinning and twirling with every breeze.

Some days I get cranky about this long period of cleanup. So I remind myself that raking gives me a daily workout without going to the gym. But even beyond the exercise, raking often brings me great joy. With each long sweep of the rake, I breathe in the damp fall air. I remember how the sweet gum has sheltered my home from the southern sun all summer long, cooling the air all around it.

Now it's my turn to tend it, raking its yellow leaves into big piles, scooping them into the wheelbarrow, then unloading them onto the big compost pile. In a year they'll become black compost for topping the beds and mixing into potting soil.

Raking has a way of grounding me. The repeated pulls on the rake allow me to concentrate on just one thing. While my mind and body are occupied with these simple motions, worries and fears melt away. Thinking continues for a while, but soon slows down and trails off, leaving me quiet and peaceful.

Then I can look at the garden with a softer gaze - surprisingly, it looks quite beautiful, even imperfect as it is. I see the big picture: the backdrop trees, the sky, the vista, the way the garden sits in the midst of a larger landscape. I appreciate what I have created for going on 25 years now, step by step. I remember that it's the process of taking care of this place that's the gift. If it were perfect, I'd have nothing left to do, and what good would that be? I love to tinker in my plant playground.

Lately I've been remembering the sheer pleasure of gardening when I was a beginner. Everything was new - earthworms wriggling through the soil, the scent of sweet alyssum, cobalt blue delphiniums. As I set foot into this brand new territory, my mind was wide open to learn, to experience the wonder of cosmos emerging from seed to shoot to bud to blossom.

How could I keep that sense of amazement, that feeling of 'Wow!' alive? For me, it takes slowing down to stay awake and present. Maybe because I'm taking a class on mindfulness, maybe because I'm frustrated with the fast pace of contemporary life, maybe because at heart I'm a turtle and not a hare, I long to go at a slower pace.

So recently I've decided to take my watch off when I go out to the garden. Instead of checking the time every few minutes to see if I'm getting enough accomplished, to see how much time I have left, I simply garden without the pressure of minutes ticking away.

'Time is an illusion that only makes us pant,' says the hero of 'The Life of Pi.' I keep that quote on my desk to remind me not to succumb to the pressure of time. I also learn from my cats, who are totally immune to the concept of time. They live through their ears and noses: Do I hear the can opener turning? Do I smell a freshly opened can of tuna? Do those footsteps mean she's coming to pet me? Oh yeah!

Out in the garden, without my watch, I listen to the bush tits flitting through the shrubs for insects, I watch the robins flying to the top of the grape arbor to peck at the remaining Concords, sweetest now after the cooler nights. I take a few tastes myself to savor the flavor, enjoying this moment, now.