On a gorgeous April Wednesday I am filling in as substitute homeschool teacher. We do arithmetic; we do a language lesson about adverbs and Emily Dickinson. Then—did I mention the day is gorgeous? That the air through the window is crisp and fills the lungs with hope and delight? That the cardinals are courting round the bay tree and a wren is chirping from the buckthorn? That the sky is blue, the dandelions gold, the violets… er, violet? All this is so, and the substitute teacher, less inspired by whatever lies in the plan book before him than by the season swiftly unfolding outside the window, calls an audible….
I had to mow the grass today for the second time this year, an appalling side effect of global warming. (I know, I know: Entire countries are at risk of sinking beneath the ocean, and I’m complaining about mowing my grass an extra month of the year. It’s a first-world problem.) I didn’t think it looked all that bad — I could still see the tops of my shoes when I walked in it, and from my study window the dead nettle made a pretty sort of fuchsia haze over the yard — but with a reel mower you can’t let it get too long, and so I took my lunch break at yard work. With a reel mower, though, I can set the blade high enough to lop the tall weeds and reveal the lower-growing violets and the buttercups, which have crept through much of the back yard in the past few years.
So when John Henry retired from driving steel he moped around the house and he moped around the yard until Polly Ann shouted, “John Henry, why don’t you quit your moping around like a soggy pie and dig me a garden!” So John Henry picked up his shovel and he picked up his mattock and he started digging. But there was honeysuckle growing all over the fence, all up one side and down the other, and those vines ran underneath the ground from here to there and back again. John Henry dug from one end of the yard to the other, but everywhere he put his shovel, the honeysuckle vine reached up and snagged it. That honeysuckle snagged his shovel, it snagged its mattock, it even snagged John Henry’s foot. Ol’ John Henry put down his shovel and said, “Lord, that honeysuckle’s gonna be the death of me!”
Laugh at the vultures, who think you would steal
Their refuse. Love them anyway, and be grateful
For their meal. Say their grace.
Trade your house for a turtle, then set it free
In the woods, to find its way to water.
Rejoice in your hope.
Fall on your knees to see the wild flower
That grows in the ditch, its head erect
Among the paper cups and sandwich wrappers.
Then rise up. Go forth. Sing your song
As if you would make it so.
Work as if it mattered.
Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.
In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.
I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.
This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look.