Saturday, June 18, 2011

13 Years and Counting

Thirteen years ago last month, my beloved and I left California and headed east to start a new life in Maine. We'd given ourselves a month to get there, stopping along the way to visit people and places that had played important roles in our lives. In Michigan, the destination was Aunt Judy.

Over the decades and with the help of a plan drawn by her father, my Aunt Judy has transformed a flat, windswept plot of construction dirt into a magical garden. Tiny trees planted when her own children were young have become tall, majestic creatures that keep the outside world at bay and reach out to welcome you in. When I think of Frances Hodgson Burnett and her secret garden, I think of Aunt Judy's house.

I still remember opening the car door and being immediately hit with that intoxicating fragrance of earth and plants and life—a Michigan summer in full swing. I remember feeling ecstatic that I was finally moving back to a place whose climate would allow such a garden—and where, I hoped, I would actually have a home in which to create it.

Aunt Judy's garden contained "rooms" of different trees and bushes and plants, following traditional garden design principles. Behind her house was a tall, seemingly impenetrable hedge that concealed a circle of the most beautiful dogwoods I'd ever seen, also in full bloom.

I gasped, "Do you think these would grow in Maine?" She smiled and went back to the house for a trowel.

Two spindly dogwood seedlings rode to Maine with us, packed with their soil in a green paperboard box that'd originally held strawberries. They sat indoors on my only south-facing windowsill for over a year. One seedling survived. I planted it the following year, and it managed to take hold and grow a little more.

Then I moved again, this time to the place I now call home. On a brisk October afternoon I dug a hole for my spindly twig, tucked it in, and said a quiet prayer. For years, I have cosseted this tree, covering it with layers of straw for winter protection, creating a makeshift cage around it during the summer to make sure nobody stepped on it by mistake. I talked to it—I still do. And even now when the wind blows, I worry.

Slowly but surely, my little tree has grown. First a few inches, then a foot, then two, then three. Last year for the first time I noticed a bird sitting on one of its branches. Only one thing has baffled me: This tree has never, ever bloomed.

I tried all sorts of things, and I consulted with Aunt Judy, and we could only declare it a genetic mystery. Mine was a non-blooming dogwood. What was I to expect, considering its humble roots? While I've allowed myself the occasional glance at "normal" dogwoods at the garden store, I love my little non-blooming dogwood dearly and wouldn't have it any other way.

You'll imagine my worry when, last weekend, Clare yelled up from the garden, "Is this what I think it is?"

In the past, this question has meant bad news, like poison ivy, a woodchuck hole, or the beginning of some terrible plant virus. But this time, when I ran outside to see what she was talking about, I was greeted by this:

In the face of fast-fast-fast - the instant gratification, quick-knitting, no-knead, instant-download, replace-it-every-year world we've created - I love that this took 13 years. In the life lesson department, nature always wins.