Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wander Land

Anything you can do that's physically involving, repetitive enough so that it doesn't take a lot of thought to keep going, and outdoors -- that's a bonus -- creates a good space for what you might call "off-line thinking."
            Your mind is free to wander, you're not screwing up anything important by not paying steady attention -- you're not, that is, "focusing" (because, thank heaven!, for once you don't need to) -- and there's no pressure to be doing something else, or doing something productive or useful, because you are already doing something useful.
            You're pulling old leaves out of your plants. Or picking out weeds, or trimming foliage, or deadheading flowers, or sticking something sharp into the ground to loosen the soil. Or planting seedlings. Or even seeds.
            I'm still on the first of these. It's cosmetic, pulling last year's dried brown leaves from the grasp of this year's emerging green shoots just to make the whole flower garden plot look better. On the other hand, the whole flower garden plot is itself essentially cosmetic.
            So I'm doing what I'm doing. The synecdoche represents the whole.
            The garden, as both place and idea, is there all the time. We can't see it -- i.e. we can't see what we want to see -- when we look at a carpet of dead brown leaves. The perennials, probably all of them, will push their way out eventually by themselves if we did nothing at all... That hands-off approach would eventually, however, would lead to something more like a wildnerness. A garden going wild.What we're going for is the balance between "part of nature, part of us."
            So we are given an opportunity to meditate because while picking leaves out from the roots of plants, removing those trapped between the stalks, and (slowest of all) removing leaves, bits of leaves, broken twigs and other plant material from the clusters of low viney groundcovers -- the small-leafed euonymus is particularly challenging -- our hands are busy being practical.
            Let me that again: since our hands are busy, our brains can wander.
            We all have our own wander-land. The book we're reading, the TV show or movie we watched last night, the Red Sox or the Yankees, a relationship. Our boss; practical stuff at work or on the domestic front. But the longer we wander, and the more often we do it, the more likely we are to get into fresher regions.
            When you take care of plants, you don't necessarily think much about plants (though I'm still trying to remember the name of that ornamental grass with purple flowers) any more than you think about clothing or laundry when you're folding the wash. I don't think much about birds, though I hear them and stop working to look around when a woodpecker jackhammers the tree I'm squatting under and no matter how hard I look I can't find him. When I get tired of looking, I drop my eyes back on the ground I'm picking clean, and let my thoughts go where they will go.
            I begin to think, for a while this time (an OK Saturday, 53 degre
es, occasional sun) about some of the songs on a new album, meaning new to me, of previously unheard Woodie Guthrie songs set to music and sung by the folk music group Wilco and British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.
            One song, a perfect match of lyric, mood, and sound, has a haunting refrain that goes: "Ain't nobody that can sing like me/ Way over yonder in the minor key."
            That's true of us all. No one can sing our own songs, our own deepest and most peculiar songs, the way we can. Especially when we're free to feel them.