I’ve written about this poem before, I know, but I read it often, and today is a day when I need its wisdom. Maybe you need it too? Maybe you feel distant from those you love, the old fires abandoned, the horizon uncertain?
I see the milestones dwindlingtoward the horizonand the slow fires trailingfrom the abandoned camp-sites,over which scavenger angelswheel on heavy wings.Oh, I have made myself a tribeout of my true affections,and my tribe is scattered!How shall the heart be reconciledto its feast of losses?
My tribe is certainly scattered, the families I love, the far-flung friends, the recently discovered but distant (as in blood and geography) relatives. Yet I am surrounded by beauty. Just now, I went out to check that the little cucumber seedlings I planted yesterday are intact and yes, they are. I’ve been looking close to the ground these days, hunting the small slugs that are almost the colour of the earth, and so voracious they can eat a row of lettuces in a single night. But looking up, I saw the tree peonies in their full flowering, their colour so vivid on this grey day. Sometimes they open at the same time as the rose you can see in this photograph, a Tuscany Superb, a deeper shade of this incredible magenta.
It was an accident, planting them so close together, but they manage their own form of relationship, one holding the other’s canes in its sturdier scaffolding.
I came into the garden, angry at the slugs, though of course they’re doing what is in their nature to do. A young snake slithered by the hoses as I walked with my head bent down. Sometimes I walk out at night to check for slugs. Sometimes it’s late and almost too dark to see and I find I’m listening for the bear with a quick racing of my heart. It would be better to leave things be. To pay attention and care for things, yes, but also to know when to step away and let the garden do what it does on its own.
In my darkest night,when the moon was coveredand I roamed through wreckage,a nimbus-clouded voicedirected me:“Live in the layers,not on the litter.”
Stanley Kunitz, who wrote this poem, lived to be almost 101. He wrote a wonderful garden book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. And do yourself a favour and listen to him read “The Layers“.
Before I came back to the house just now, I stood by the gate for a few minutes, looking out. The honeysuckle is a week or two from flowering. I saw the old bathtub planted with marsh marigolds, rushes, and a few flag irises. Some years the Pacific tree frogs lay eggs there but not this year, though I heard them singing, singing. I see the ring of stones where we make fires on early summer evenings when our children and their children are here. Beyond it, the long cedar bench where we sit, now strewn with a few plant pots. The layers are there if we want them to be, beyond the litter, the darkness, the damage done by slugs and reckless bears looking for trouble. We do what we can, keep places intact for the future, though how that future will present itself is anyone’s guess.