Monday, October 5, 2009

Don’t give up the fight

October arrives and right on schedule, it’s cold. Under fifty when I get out of bed. Not too cold for the plants yet, which look the same as the day and the week before as I regard them from the other side of the window, but too cold for me to want to step outdoors before breakfast and take a closer look. That’s the difference. I miss my morning garden service. The freedom of just opening the door and (without “dressing for the weather”) taking the slow walk through the front and then the back gardens. A tour of inspection at some moments; but more fundamentally a physical, sense-based reconciliation to fleshly existence. Sealed in the book of life once more! The gift of life (or lucky accident: choose your metaphor) in a beautiful world! It’s still here, and we’re still in it. What luck!... Yet somehow I just don’t have the urge to go out and experience all that for the simple reason that I’ll be – cold. Forty-nine degrees is not my friend. It works for others, but not for me. I want all outdoors to love me. I want to feel the sun, the heat, the light. I want those molecules jumping.
The other day, when some at least of those conditions were obtaining, I was out front performing one of my little late-season maintenance chores, re-staking the zinnia for the third or fourth time. We had had wind and rain, and the top heavy, heavily-flowered, thick-stalked annual had pitched to the side at a forty-five degree angle, hanging on its supports. The plant is about four feet tall. Its flowers are red and round and very large. The remarkable thing about the size is that it is our only zinnia, grown from seed, under this year’s innovation, the cold frame. Of course I did not set out to grow one zinnia. I must have transplanted about thirty seedlings. But the weather was terrible in June, rain or clouds every day, not enough sun; I watched them all weaken, develop holes in their little leaves, fade away like – spilt milk, words writ on water. Some seedlings do not prosper; it is the way of things. I took about a half dozen of the most likely survivors and transplanted them to the front, where the sun is steadiest and, after a couple of weeks, only one remained. I don’t know why. Did it consume all the usable nutrients, suck the life out from underneath the others? As in some sort of fable, all the other seedlings sicken and die, and one boffo bonanza oversized flower grows tall and colorful and eats sun like air.
So, as everything slowly fades, even the perennials that held their banners high through the late declining season, our one zinnia continues to add biomass and flowers, and weight (evidently), and strains against the bamboo poles I use to hold it up and wants to come crashing down like a redwood under the ax.
I grab a few more bamboo stakes, thrust them in the ground, tie a few more bonds around the branches to lever up the main stalk, the mast of my autumn schooner, and tie the knot.
As I’m engaged in this struggle, the neighbor from across the street – whose own yard is filled with marigolds and mums, pretty good fall flowers – calls out, “Give it up! It’s all over!”
This is meant as companionable banter, a kind of cheerfully cynical New England-knowing piece of advice. But all I can do is shake my head.
No. Never. Never give up.
I will keep trimming, deadheading, watering, and otherwise manipulating plant material to see what I can keep alive, what sort of show I can maintain, for as long as I can. I remember annuals blooming in December some years; flowers under the snow: pansies. I think I’ll go get some pansies.
As for the red zinnia, the new support system has held. It’s tall and straight and blazing. And now the sun has come out. What a beautiful world!