She was the mistress of her domain consisting of a modest colonial on a corner lot in an energetic post war suburb, with a husband and three sons, the oldest of which am I. She did not like the huge old tree in the center of the yard. Its gnarled and widespread apron of surfaced roots often wrecked the mower blades.
She recruited us and a wheelbarrow and a Saturday for the creation of a rock garden that would form a ten-foot diameter circle around that tree. We entered the adjacent woods where the old stonewalls of earlier settlers demarked neighborly agreement among farmers. We took rock with veins of mica and quartz and shimmering granite, and others slathered with lichen. The ghosts of the folks who built those walls seemed to have moved on or slept through our dismantling.
She directed the placement of the rocks and the filling of the circle with ten inches of dirt from those same woods simply dumped on top of the offensive roots. She purchased a variety of flowering plants and directed their festive introduction into the circle. Within two weeks, the flowers had died, starved for direct sunlight under the shade of the huge tree and thirsty for the water commandeered by its roots.
An odd thing happened. Sprouts and seeds that had come in from the woods with the dirt began to announce themselves. Indian pipe, cowslip, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns and fiddle heads, trillium, and a rampant blue myrtle, not native to these parts, that must have escaped from a neighbor's garden and wandered the woods until we found it and reintroduced it to civilization. Like a shipwrecked child rescued and given chocolate, the myrtle responded to us with energy and entirely blanketed any competitors.
She would sometimes look at that garden through the kitchen curtains and express her disappointment, but I loved it.
I learned that some plants grow so swiftly that you could almost see their tendrils extend before your eyes if you had the patience to be still when your friends were calling you off to the ball field. Driven by an acceptance of one summer and one autumn and one winter, they yearned to be all they could in the brief time allotted them.
Some of the rocks held small red and green crystals. These I pried loose and brought to my teacher for inspection. She told me they were garnet, a semi-precious stone. She patted my head and said that I had a jeweler's eye and perhaps someday I'd be a jeweler. I bristled at the suggestion that I'd be stooped over a counter taking orders for other people's jewelry. I bristled at the semi in her precious.
I turned over rocks to observe the colonial working of ants. Small black ones at 3 o'clock in the circle. Small red ones at 9' o'clock. And at 6 o'clock, a tribe that was half red and half black. These I assumed to be the result of intermarriage or begrudged mating by dint of our tumbling of the rocks that carried the ants out of the woods. They were all so task-oriented. Each one seemed to have an innate assignment. That one tends the eggs. That one looks for food. That one clears a channel. That one is the queen. So different from the annual Miss America pageant that I would never miss watching on the television. The winner inevitably wept when crowned, her hands flying up to her eyes to wipe the rivulets of teary mascara from her cheeks. In our species, one could rise above. In our species, life held an element of surprise, sometimes reward, sometimes disappointment.
At the top of the circle was a nest of yellow jackets discovered by my brother during his turn with the mower. I kept my distance from them but not my fascination. I learned that they preferred dark hollow spaces beneath old roots and rotting things. Later in life, because of these secretive hornets, I'd perfectly understand the gorgeous men who hang about the stoops of abandoned Harlem row houses. I wanted to know everything they did within their exotic lair and to be accepted rather than stung. I wanted to see them sleep in their restless, humid and forbidden beds.
The old tree at the center of all this gave no indication that it noticed the new and complex civilization that flanked its roots. Immutable and ignorant as God, it would calm and quiet all the lively industries of the garden with a thick blanket of curly brown leaves in November. Greater gods would add a comforter of snow and sometimes a glaze of ice so thick you could walk upon it and dance safely above the land of the yellow jackets.
When we moved on, family heirlooms went with us, but the one thing I wanted to take along could not be boxed. I miss the rock garden in which I learned everything I'd ever need to know about work and control and nature and God and community and war and sleep and desire and time, but nothing of love, which may be found when you walk into the woods again with all you've learned from the rocks.