Reflections on death from the garden

The echinacea, once vibrant pink, is now black.

A friend told me that the word for aster in Hungarian means, literally, end of summer.

This time of year, as we approach Halloween, The Day of the Dead, and All Saints’ Day, I am often thinking of death. Granted, I am always a little bit morbid—my astrologer sister would say it’s because I’m a Scorpio. (I regret that I was too old to go Goth in my teen years, because I suspect I might have enjoyed that.) But right now, death is often lurking just under my mind’s surface.

My garden is one of the sources of my thoughts, and it is a place where there is plenty of room for such thoughts. This lovely, non-judgmental community of green friends, lets me think about whatever I fancy. And the garden is full of death. Every day I am pulling up or lopping off plants that have given their all—the perennials having given it for this year and likely to return, the annuals having lived their whole life in this one year. Farewell, I say to the enormous squash plant, as I pull it up and hold it by its roots. Farewell, I remember when you were just a seed!

The longer I garden, the more comfort I take in the ritual of going through the entire life cycle each year. I adore picking out seeds in the fall to plant in the spring. My grow light table in the basement has gotten bigger and bigger because having those tiny green babies means so much in March and early April, when the winter here in Minnesota has just gotten so long that I may go berserk if some tiny waft of a spring breeze doesn’t blow through, some tiny green weed doesn’t poke up under the snow. Tucking those seedlings into the May earth has all of the drama of sending my kid off to kindergarten, tucking tiny invisible notes into their invisible lunch boxes as I plant them. And then cheering for them in summer’s fullness as they grow up and begin to live out their life’s purpose—as zinnias’ shiny red petals glow in the sunlight, as basil or cilantro graces my table. And then, Minnesota fall means that all growing, all producing of food or flower, will cease for another long winter.

The more years I participate in this cycle, the more I love the dramatic resurrection stories so many of my plants tell me. Some are, simply, perennials, and I know as I cut them to the ground that they’ll bounce back in the spring, shiny green and new again. Others are busy throwing their seeds around the yard, winking at me and saying I’ll be impressed by their progeny. Other annuals are simply done, with no tales of regret to whisper in my ear as I say good-bye to them. All are amazing role models in giving it all away, in surrender, in generosity.

Some people believe that we’re perennials, that after our deaths, our souls reside eternally in one place or another. Some say we’ll be back, though perhaps in a different form. Whatever is and will be, I live my life as if I’m an annual—acting as if, if some part of me is to survive, it will be in the growth of the seeds I have sown in my lifetime.

With the help of wind, and birds, the exact location of the seeds which grow is unpredictable. Similarly, I don’t know which of the seeds I’ve sown will continue to bear their own seeds and keep growing after I’m gone. Given what I’ve seen in my life so far, my only prediction is that what of me keeps growing after I’m dead will be nothing I would ever predict.

My own mother, dead eleven years, increasingly comes back in memories that make me giggle. She wasn’t excessively funny when she was alive, but the memories of her humor are the ones that keep whispering in my ear now. Silly things she said forty years ago at dinner make me laugh out loud. This time of year she has more to say, I notice, as do other beloved ghosts. The pagans say that this is the time of year when the veil is thinnest between life and death, and in the garden, I feel that thinning all around me.

I don’t believe in a heaven in the sky, where St. Peter welcomes some and turns others away. But this time of year, in my garden, as the crows shout, squirrels scurry around, and geese fly over and honk their farewells, in the sweet grief of letting go and saying goodbye, I touch a tiny bit of heaven on earth.

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