The Constant Gardener
I’m resurrecting my garden after years of mistreatment and neglect.
It’s not a massive garden by any stretch, but it’s mine. When I last looked at it, I kicked myself at how poorly I had treated it. As I observed from a distance, it looked well-maintained – a square patch of lush verdancy, speckled with color and fruitfulness. Animals I loved would come by to nest or just hang out in the sun or get shelter from the rain. I even had a little wooden bench built that I could sit on and rest myself when I needed a break from the outside world.
But over time, I started to notice problems with taking care of a garden. Namely, it’s a lot of work. There’s watering and tilling the soil. There’s planting the right plants. There’s pulling weeds and trimming branches.
There’s keeping predators and vermin out.
Soon, the tasks get overwhelming. Eventually, I just shut the garden gates and decided to pop my head in, hose a few things down every now and then, and ignore the garden completely. But that comes with consequences.
Other people noticed how torrid my garden looked before I did. “Is everything ok?” someone asked. “You need some help?”
You think you can build a garden with high enough walls to keep people from seeing the mess you’ve cultivated. But they’ll see the overgrowth and dead leaves breaking off and outside. Those closest to you will ask you what’s wrong.
Before I yanked that gate open, I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I can do this by myself.”
I remember when this garden was empty, the soil was fertile, and the walls were just a shallow fence. I had a box of seeds and a watering can and plenty of tools. With no direction, I could just sow seeds into the wind and let them scatter into the ground. From each would grow a flower, a tree, a plant, mosses, — anything I wanted. In youth, the seeds are abundant and the possibilities of what they can grow are endless. Daisies and buttercups; carrots and beets, poplars and apples sprang up around me. Birds sang overhead, small mammals chittered and chattered along the fence, and wind whistled through the leaves.
Whether it rained or shined, I danced barefoot and laughed.
But one day I noticed tall, disapproving figures hanging over the fences, watching me. “We notice you don’t have these seeds in your garden,” they said, holding out their hands. “You should plant these seeds.”
The seeds they held were gnarled, and thorny. When I held them, they pricked my fingers.
“I don’t want to plant those seeds!” I cried, dropping them. But it was too late — the minute they slipped from my hands, they fell to the ground. And with the soil being so fertile at that age, they immediately took root.
They became strange plants – flower- and fruit-bearing, twisted and ugly. They choked my lovely wildflowers that were just starting to grow and killed about half of them. Others grew shorter or stiffer, never reaching their full height or potential. The ones that were left alone grew away from the others, for the soil around those new, gnarled seeds had grown toxic and sour.
I looked around my garden. It was still lush, still verdant. But I could feel a change had taken place.
I built the fences a bit higher.
Thankfully, I could contain the change. I was still young and I still had that magic box of seeds. The easiest way to overcome the toxicity of plants was to plant more seeds away from the bad plants. I continued sowing and laughing and dancing. Eventually, a few seeds planted in an extremely fertile spot in my garden and began to bloom pretty quickly.
A few people tiptoed up to my garden and peered over the fence at them. “Wow,” they commented. “Those are nice plants! I hope you continue to take care of them and do something with them when the time comes!”
“Thank you!” I said. “These are my favorites! I’m going to nurture them and make sure nothing bad happens to them!”
But as I spoke, I heard a clanging noise. I turned to look and saw a monster kicking at my garden’s gate.
I ran to confront it — all ten feet, three-hundred pounds of muscle, fat, and bloody fangs. “What are you doing?” I demanded. “I don’t want you in here!”
The monster cackled. “I will do anything I want to your garden,” it declared. “You can’t stop me!”
I screamed no! but it continued kicking my gate until it burst open and barged in. While I screamed and cried, the monster wreaked havoc. It ripped up my flowers, it broke the branches off my favorite trees, it even squished the fruitlings on my newest cultivars.
Panicked, I threw myself on my favorite plants. I knew I had to protect them.
When it was done, I raised my head and looked at the monster. “Now what are you going to do?”
It sat down in the corner of my garden, eyes glowing. “I think I will stay for as long as I can.”
My garden was trashed, a mess of greenery and scattered petals. The only other plants left standing were the toxic plants, and they stood stronger than ever.
Terrorized, I reached for that magic box of seeds to replace the ones I had lost. But when I shook the box, they were gone. The magic had run out finally.
Overhead, a storm churned. I would have to wait for my garden to grow naturally.
I built another two feet onto the walls and made them solid cement.
Then I became a teenager and I spent less time in the garden.
When the garden grew back, the monster fulfilled his promise to stay. It remained an unmoving gargoyle in that same corner, watching me but saying nothing. I spoke to it sometimes, daring it to speak back. “Why can’t you just leave?” I wondered. “Go away and give me room to fix what you ruined!”
Around the spot where he sat, the soil had grown white and sandy. Desert-like.
The rest of the garden grew incrementally, but I didn’t notice. I yanked back a vine every now and then, but I felt more comfortable building the walls higher. But I wouldn’t spend much time here. I would run in and out to tend to my best plants, tenderly spraying their leaves or feeding their soil. Or sometimes I would sit on my bench and just watch them lovingly grow and think, One day I will do something with these plants! I will be known for these plants!
But it got lonely in that garden by myself. Sometimes, I would be daring and invite people in to see my best plants.
Sometimes it went well: “Those are pretty cool,” others would say. “You sure are growing something.”
And other times it didn’t. “Eh, those suck,” they’d scoff. “I have those same plants but better.”
Immediately, I’d push those people out of my garden. Right after, weeds would spring up around my best plants that I’d scramble to yank out. Sometimes, those weeds would grow in too thick and I would hurt my hands pulling at them. Other times, I’d just let the weeds grow on purpose, watching with tears in my eyes, and think if someone else has a better plant, why bother letting this one grow? Then I’d panic again, watching my plants withering under the weeds and I would frantically dig up the weeds around them. But some damage had been done, I’d see. Some leaves and petals would droop or fall off. Or they stopped growing so steadily.
I blamed myself for letting others in.
But I had one person who I invited regularly into my garden. I didn’t just let them see my best plants though. I let them see all of it —carefully. I didn’t want to scare them. The garden was roughshod and unmanaged enough.
“This is, uh, fine,” they said, making a face. “But I don’t think I’m interested in this.”
Alarmed, I said, “I know I haven’t been tending it a lot, but it’s really not that bad.”
“No, that’s not it,” they said, leaving. “I just think I’d rather be in another garden.”
They didn’t come back. The monster’s eyes flashed in the darkness.
Maybe the problem wasn’t other people. The problem was that monster. I couldn’t be a good gardener if it was still lurking there. Someone was bound to see it. When I left, I decided to stay away for a while. That meant leaving my prized plants behind, despite them choking with weeds and dehydration.
Before I left , I put barbed wire around the walls and padlocked the gate.
A few years later, I met another gardener who welcomed me into their garden. Theirs was lush and sunny, warm and inviting. Their walls were down and their gate was always open.
“You’re always welcome here,” they said. “I’d love your company.”
“I like it here,” I replied. But I was envious of what I saw. Their garden grew wild and tall. No two plants were the same. Like me, though, they had some of those toxic plants growing in the back of their garden with some tough, deep-seated roots. “I’ve seen those plants before. They’re hard to get rid of once they’re here.”
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to get rid of them for a while.” They smiled. “Would you like to help me?”
Taken aback, I stammered. “Um, sure.”
This gardener and I decided to spend some time working in their garden together, pulling up some weeds and toxic plants. It was hard and it took a long time, but we did it together. We didn’t do it all at once. And we didn’t get everything. But we got a lot more accomplished as a couple than as a single entity.
Occasionally the gardener would stop and say, “Some day, can I see your garden?”
I would respond with a resounding, “No.”
They would say, “Ok. But can I ask why?”
We had spent so much time in their garden that I decided it was fair to be somewhat honest. “It’s a mess.”
“I can help you clear it out.”
“No. I should clear it out. I let it get that way.”
“But you don’t have to do all of the—”
“I said I can do it myself.” I snapped, uncomfortable again. I didn’t like being in this garden sometimes. It just reminded me about how much work I had to do on my own. It also made me realize I missed my garden, overgrowth and underbrush and all.
I paid my garden a visit and found my favorite plants. A few of them had died or were past the point of being nurtured into good health. One, however, remained strong enough despite a throng of deadly parasitic fungi and gluttonous locusts chewing at its stem. I dug up the plant, cut away the dead and dying bits, and replanted it in fertile soil. The plant was now a quarter of the size it was, but it was alive at least.
“I’ll take better care of you,” I promised. “I shouldn’t have let it get this far. I swear I will take care of you and only you if I have to.”
It bore me two small fruits. I’m so thankful that I collapsed in tears.
Before I left again, I looked over my shoulder. But vines, leaves, and branches had grown over the monster’s sitting place. I could no longer see it, but I could hear the steady rhythm of it’s breathing, and I knew it could still see me.
Over the years, I would get to meet other friends and see their gardens. Some people would invite me in, some wouldn’t. Those that would invite me in would let me see some parts of their gardens, others would only let me see through the gate. I never took it personally one way or the other. But I got to see a variety of high- and low-walled gardens. Some gardens were very toxic and I left immediately. Other gardens were pretty pure. No one ever forced me to open my garden to them, though they would make jokes about not seeing what’s in mine.
My favorite gardener and I stayed together. We worked in their garden, planting, digging, and cultivating a life together. They would bring up going into my garden, but I would either ignore the request or shut it down. Occasionally, I would run into my garden and bring something back to share. But I’d never let them in.
“I know you said you’re a mess,” they said one day, “but could you at least tell me what about your mess makes you so bad? Do you think I won’t love you?”
“That’s not it.”
“Well? What is it?”
“It’s too hard to explain!”
When you’re trying to sort through 35 years of toxic shit that has been planted, replanted, and yanked out but not excised, it’s fucking hard to parse it all to a convenient explainer. I have negative thoughts that smack me in the face from out of nowhere. Anxiety sprouts up and depression dangles down. The only way to explain any of it is to come up with a rambling yet coherent metaphor comparing my journey of self-discovery to cultivating a private garden — a metaphor I’m borrowing from Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are because it’s perfect. Humans are gardeners of their own private gardens, trying to grow luscious plants and flowers and fruits all while trying to dig out the poisonous, deadly stuff others threw in there without their consent.
I was trying to grow this garden, but the only plants that grew are the thorny creepers and the twisting nettles and the choking vines.
My favorite plant was starting to suffer. It was alive but not flourishing. It had been a long time since I got another fruit off of it. Other people with similar plants were getting fruit all the time. I found myself comparing my fruit to their fruit and asking myself, Why don’t people like the fruit off my plant the same way they like the fruit off of that tree? They’re the same plant! And then I would resent my plant for not being as good as another person’s plant and wonder Should I even bother growing this plant? But if I don’t grow this plant, what plants should I grow? All my other favorite plants died a long time ago and it’s too late to start growing them now. Who am I if I don’t grow these plants?
Not knowing what else to do, I sat down and I screamed.
Now we’re back to the beginning.
Just before I went inside, I picked up a machete. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back out unless I hacked away at something.
I went in and started swinging.
I cut through the thorns, the vines, the tendrils, the fungus, the creepers, the weeds — anything that stood in my way of cutting a path. In my wake, I left behind a hollow trail that snaked right up to a crisscross wall of branches. Behind it, lurked my real enemy, my nemesis.
I raised my weapon and took a breath. When I swung it, I braced myself to hit flesh and bone.
I sliced once and the branches fell away. I took a step back and gasped. Where my monster once stood, sat only a pile of dust.
It was gone. My monster was dead.
At first I laughed. I thought of those glowing yellow eyes and that ugly beast thundering through my garden now just a dust pile on thirsty soil and felt hysterical. But my cackling faded into tears once I realized, No, it’s truly over. It’s gone. It can’t hurt you any more. There’s no reason to look over your shoulder anymore because it’s no longer a threat to you.
Sobbing, I ran out of my garden and screamed “It’s dead! My monster’s dead”
My gardener and my friends came rushing up to my garden’s gate and said, “What monster, Nina?”
I looked around and realized I wasn’t surrounded by people who wanted to hurt me, but people who wanted to help me. But they had no idea what I was talking about.
I took a breath. “I had a monster,” I said, “that was the reason why I didn’t let a lot of people in. But I just found out that it died.”
The gardener took my hand and smiled. “Don’t you think now would be a good time to let people help you clear out some stuff?”
I looked back into my garden. I had cleared a path, but not the whole park. But I nodded.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’m going to need some help this time.”
When a monster dies in your garden, you don’t get to move on right away. It leaves behind a patch of hideous, infertile soil. Sometimes the patch is about the same as if the monster were still standing in place. I’m so used to having something cover it up.
My monster died and I reacted about the way I wrote it. First I laughed, then I cried — not for the monster, but for myself. I was free to move on without fear of it hurting me again, but that didn’t mean I had healed. This meant I could start healing, but it would be a very long time before I could plant anything in that soil again.
I don’t confide in a lot of people. This is to my detriment. It has affected my relationships and friendships. I don’t because I’ve been hurt and I’m afraid of being hurt again. But I’ve been fortunate to be around people who love and support me and don’t pry too deeply into my damage, just as I’ve also tried to be more forthcoming about said damage.
I’m still working on letting people help me, however. I don’t like asking for help. I never have. I hate being an inconvenience, I hate taking up space. Every time I ask for a favor, my first words are almost always Sorry to bother you, but…
M tells me to be more assertive in life. I am. I’m very assertive. I just don’t want to ask for help.
But I’m a constant gardener. I’ll till out this toxic soil. I’ll pull out these lifeless weeds. I’m going to make this garden grow wild and strong (with plenty of help this time).
My favorite plant will bear another fruit. And then another, and then another. I don’t think I can bring life back to the other plants that died all those years ago, but maybe I can find other favorites to nourish.
My garden will regrow and it will be beautiful. You’ll see.