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Prodigal April

It's the last day of my April vacation, and I've got the blues. There's always so much more to be done than there is time to do it in.

This week has been full of outdoor things. Peter and I planted a small orchard--eight semi-dwarf apple trees, in holes dug with friends, and with expertise borrowed from friends. One of the two perennial beds has been weeded; heaps of brush and dead branches have been hacked up and removed. The big hemlock tree is being treated for wooly adelgids, and the arborist thinks we can save it; I've notified the Girl Scouts next door that one of their trees is infested, too, and given them the contact information for the arborist.

I walked in the woods with friends who love forests, and learned new ways to care for blight-affected American chestnut stump-sprouts. My daughter and her friends went walking in the woods, and together we cut back some of the invasive Japanese Knotweed that's back there. And I took a few long walks of my own, though I still have not made it farther than the granite outcrop to the north of our house. I saw deer, and red squirrels, and leaves so green they were practically hallucinogens.

And indoors, I baked bread, made yogurt, read, wrote, and cooked for friends.

And everything, from the outdoor work to my indoor reading, has seemed threaded together with an awareness of its interconnectedness.

I recently picked up again Barbara Kingsolver's book, Prodigal Summer. I'd tried to get into it before, but found myself unable to make it more than a chapter or two. Not enough action, or maybe not enough of a hook to the characters to draw me in. I'm not sure. In some ways, it is an unusual book for Kingsolver: so often, her books rest on the unique and charming voice of a vivid narrator. Not this book--here, the story, such as it is, is told in third person omnicient, and moves back and forth between three separate story lines: "Predators," "Moth Love," and "Old Chestnuts." I'm a handful of chapters from the end, now, and I still don't know if the story lines are going to bump up against one another in anything more than casual and transitory ways, although there is a level on which they are deeply connected.

And that's the point of the book, actually. It is typical Barbara Kingsolver to have her fascination for biological science and for environmentalism run through a book. What is a little odd, and made it hard to get pulled into this book, is the degree to which the ecosystem, not the characters, is the center of the story.

I say "story," but it's not exactly a plot-driven book. It's something else, a connection-driven book, perhaps, which allows me, as a reader, to gradually understand more about the invisible connections that join not just people, but societies and whole biomes of life in webs as much joined by invisible species and unnoticed interdependencies as by the ones the human characters see and name.

And that fits with this time of coming into deeper relationship with this piece of land where we now live.

We planted apple trees? We went off into the woods, and found humus from under the leaves at the foot of a wild apple, to innoculate the soil around the roots of the new trees with appropriate mycorrhiza to encourage their growth.

We weeded perennials? We spoke at length with the next door neighbor about the man who planted those beds, and cultivated them for decades, and then "gave" her a small shrub to transplant that had become completely overshadowed where it was. I watched her plant it along the stone wall between our yards. (Can you "give" a living thing to anyone? Who owns a garden? The one who plants it? The one who loves it most, or longest? Or the one who holds a deed from a courthouse?)

Places, events, even objects in Prodigal Summer resonate with my experiences this week.

For instance, there is a chestnut log deep in the forest that is mentioned in the book, the hollow trunk of a giant that was, once cut down, too large to move. In the novel, one character, Deanna, thinks of it as her own special place in the woods, a perfect retreat. When she discovers that the young man she is falling in love with has camped there before they met, she is angry with him for having invaded, without her knowledge, a place so important to her. Another character, an old man, remembers that the log was cut by his family in the years before the chestnut blight, and remembers running through it with friends as a boy. And yet that log may lie on the land of yet a third character, an outsider whose husband has died and left to her their family farm. Theoretically the "owner" of the log, she does not even know it exists.

Anyone who has spent time walking through the New England woods can relate to the tension between ownership and experience of a place in nature. But beyond that, not only is it true that this house which I love has been loved before, and for long years more than I have known it, but the very places I go to be away from humans have been loved, used, sold, tallied up in stacks of silver and sold again by humans... and nothing out there in those woods actually belongs to me. Or, perhaps, to anyone.

What do we own? What do we have to hold on to? Maybe just a brief, flickering band of days, or a single season.

In the novel, one character, Jewel, is dying of cancer. At the beginning of the summer, she has some hope as she undergoes her chemotherapy, but by the time August rolls around, she knows she will not live to see another summer, and that she has to find a home for her two children who will soon be orphans.

Reading it, my heart breaks all over again for my friend Abby's death last fall.

Jewel shook her head, keeping her eyes steady on Lusa. "I'm not going to see another summer. I'll be gone before you're done eating the canned goods in your pantry."

"I'm sorry," Lusa whispered. She reached up to take both of Jewel's hands in hers and held on to them without speaking for several minutes. An occasional syllable of the children's shouts drifted in through the open window. The position eventually became awkward for Lusa and she had to let go, stroking her sister-in-law's fingers gently as she did.
I am grateful I was able to be with Abby before she died. And I know that no one ever forgets those moments in which the body's awkwardness interferes with the heart's willingness to hold, to touch, to be with someone in the face of pain and loss. Just as I know that this house, this land, is more my home because I have mourned a friend here. Or maybe, is it the other way around: that I am more this land's, not that it is mine?

We don't get to hold onto anything. We don't get to own anything. I may live here for another forty years--or another three, or less. There is no way to know, and, of course the thing to do is to live here fully and lustfully, being entirely present to each perfect spring day I can be present to. I can't spend too much time cringing back from mistakes, because it may turn out that the mistakes and the things I thought of as the warm up act for my "real life" are all I actually get.

As Jewel explains, later in the book,
"They came to our wedding... ...It was here, in this house. But they left before the reception--that's how they were. They never approved, they said we were too young. We were too young. But just think." She looked back at Lusa, intense. "What if I'd been sensible and waited, instead of marrying Shel? There'd be no Crystal and Lowell."

"That's true," Lusa said.

Jewel narrowed her eyes. "Remember that. Don't wait around thinking you've got all the time in the world. Maybe you've just got this one summer. Will you remember that? Will you tell the kids for me?"

Melancholy thoughts, for the last day of a vacation. We all have so little time. And it's so easy to lose track of.

And nothing is ever really, fully, our own.


It depends, I guess, on what we call our.

I have been having vibrant intimations that it is, in fact, all Us - there is nothing that is not Us, as well as nothing that is only me.

Besides - the land and ourselves are, apart from being almost-interchangeable aspects of One Thing, interpenetrating and interdependent.

Or so I realise, in my more lucid moments. :)

Terri in Joburg
I think maybe what I'm trying to say is that we don't get to own anything... but maybe, if we live well, we get to be part of something.

Does that sound about right, Terri?
Damned right, Cat. :)


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