I started my wildflower garden six years ago. My husband and I bought a house, and it needed a new septic tank. The contractors dug up the east side, tearing up the grass. They left dirt. I decided to cast seeds on top of the sewage. Then, a year later, with the raw dirt, one-year perennial starts and a 2-year-old, my husband left me.
I took to the garden.
Certainly, then, I thought I was making blooms out of sewage. Certainly I thought I would transform the wreckage inside the house, inside the family, with seed. Certainly I thought I was proving something to the world: See how I am growing flowers on top of diseased soil. Do not pity me. Smell the peonies. See how the daisy patch grows every year. But I can’t get it all in order, and the metaphors are too easy: nature red in tooth and claw, the triumph of experience over hope, all that.
My garden is a bed of conflict. It gives me satisfaction, it gives me something to do when I’m bored or my son wants to play outside by himself and I’m stuck idly wandering about. It creates beauty, even if a rough and imperfect beauty. I told my son, who is trying to figure out who or what God is, that for me gardening is a little like talking to God. Now he sometimes asks, when I’m squatting down in some bed, what I’m saying to my maker.
But my garden serves me ill, too. It taunts me when I step out on the porch to smoke a cigarette in the morning, as I survey the weeds, the failed projects, the ideas begun with great enthusiasm and little forethought. Those ideas stay unfinished, ill-conceived, out for all to see, literal manifestations of all the other promises to myself I have broken. I gauge the success of my life via my garden, and I crave external validation. When visitors come, I stare intently to see their expressions—a mess or charming? Too much or enviously ambitious?—and seek through their answers my own.
Today, outside my kitchen window, are daisies, rudbeckia, Sweet William, coreopsis, lilies, yarrow, Dame’s Rocket, forget-me-nots, evening primrose, Echinacea, lupines, wild raspberry stalks, Siberian wallflower, Indian flowers, Indian’s blanket, asters, foxglove. And lots of weeds.
I like weeding the wildflowers, though. It’s rewarding in a perverse, Sisyphean way. The weeds are thick and thigh-high, hard and strong. I fling them into the next field over. I play little games: If I throw the daisy deadheads over in that weedy section, maybe a seed will take? I cut down the grasses to create paths. The grass grows back. I lay down black plastic for a future swath. Sunflowers maybe?
To say that flowers are like life, that gardening is like living, is too easy. What can I say? Once there was grass growing in tidy predictability; once there was raw sewage; once there were small seeds; once there were promising patches. Today there is a feral field of blooms, a pretense at untended nature, a surprising patch of exuberance, weeds, wasted hours, time passed. However you see it, it does have something to do with talking to God, with faith, with being all too human, anything but a plant.
I told someone recently that I had wildflowers growing outside my kitchen window. “But they’re not really wild, right?” he responded. “They’re not feral or anything. And you planted them, right?” Unable to slip into easy sentimentality in the face of such clever cynicism, all I could do was respond that yes, they are my pale imitation of controlled uncertainty.
Sometimes there’s nothing better to do than wander into an overgrown meadow of one’s own making, deciding what should go and what should grow, unafraid to change one’s mind about every invidious, trivial, arbitrary distinction, making the best of . . . and smelling the . . . and sowing the . . . and small in the face of . . . Talking to God every single minute, someone’s crazy mother pulling weeds above the old septic tank.
Anne Trubek is a professor at Oberlin College. Her essays have appeared in The Believer, The Washington Post, Tikkun and other publications.