The Bonsai Tree

Colorado, August 2010

Colorado, August 2010

The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain

Lately I have been enjoying gardening. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken from the honest work of tugging: weeds and clumps of crab grass. I enjoy the fragrance of the jasmine and the orange blossoms, and even the spent roses have an inviting smell. There is something else to know about the yard in which I garden. The landscaping here is riddled with imperfections. I dislike the thistles, stubborn and painful. The crab grass climbs through the shrubs in unattractive shoots. Mysterious groundcovers grow, sometimes generously, and the uninvited things love the wells around the newest trees where the water pools.

till split by lightning.

Til split by lightning, wrote poet Marge Piercy. I remembered this poem today in the backyard while gathering pine needles that dropped across the fence from the neighbor’s tree. The wind and the sky would conspire to shape the bonsai wherever it grew. Nature would take its toll. I see something like this here, in my own yard: there’s a large dead branch in the middle of the beloved orange tree that makes its profile uglier, like one dead finger of five.

But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.

What Piercy derides can also be understood as the work of water over smooth stones, I believe. This is how life has to go. In life we all pay in heartbreaks grand and minor, and we are all made to stomach misfortune and to confront imperfection. We are all both nine inches high and limitless, infinitely high. There is beauty in the miniature bonsai, of course there is, just as the smoothest stones are the ones most pleasant to touch. We are all composed of miniature things and of tinctures most lethal.

My mother was a careful gardener. She was tireless and disciplined, and she read gardening books and followed rules and, unlike me with my occasional weeding and my occasional raking, she was reliable. Springs and summers passed and my mother was often on her knees in her own patch of the outdoors. Marigolds and irises and a row of rose bushes decorated the front yard, and in the back there were more: twin ash trees and their perfect shade, a Jonathan apple tree, a large vegetable garden. Rhubarb, I knew when I was little, is a perennial. It grows back.

Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.

The gardener croons. Now my mother has forgotten many things. She just telephoned, as she often does on impulse, like a nerve firing alone. “Did you call?” she asked. Then she began mid-idea, as she often does. Her sister has gone through this many times, she said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I could’ve said. But as the years climb in number, I have learned not to. “Yes, she has. You’d better call her.” Later I will check to see if perhaps there are tornadoes in Nebraska.

With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.

My mother the careful gardener had the finest garden on the block, perhaps the best in the neighborhood. When she was a young mom she was rivaled by her neighbor, the old man named Jerry who smoked cigarettes with the orange plastic ash tray my parents kept for guests. He kept cherry trees and towering cottonwoods. After he moved away one year, the decay in his yard began. The later owners never did a thing back there, until the cottonwoods sprouted their own sham forest of volunteers, and the cherry tree died, and the deck off the kitchen fell down. The chain link fence between the two yards was less than four feet tall and the death of Jerry’s yard was impossible to miss. My mother’s green lawn and peony bushes, their flowers so heavy my father tied them up, was devastating in its contrast. Then one year after I’d grown up, someone tossed something over the west fence and my mother’s row of juniper bushes burned down.

She researched new bushes. She re-landscaped back there, the new baby bushes much smaller. They would grow, of course. More than a decade passed after the fire before my parents, too, moved away, and now my mother has forgotten many things. She and my father don’t have a back yard anymore, but their home backs to a pretty shared open space and they have their own roomy patio, enclosed by a half wall. Seven years ago, when they first moved in, my mother placed a dozen large pots out back and grew plants. Now most have been replaced by what has blown in. There’s a weed growing from several that’s the color of a plum tree’s leaves, a wild hairy thing that grows a couple of feet tall. I went to pick one not long ago and my mother was firm.

The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain

“I like them. They’re something to look at.” I think of the house where I grew up. My mom could weed for hours. In the front yard, there was a blue spruce tree that was a perfect cone shape and suggested a periwinkle tint. On summer evenings I’d help my mom pull the weeds from the flower bed at the base of that big tree. Bindweed, she’d lament.

Now I am grown, no longer young myself, and my mother has forgotten many things. Once, after the forgetting began, I tried to take her back home, back to the state in which she once shepherded her patch of the planet into horticultural perfection, and by evening she could not recall the visits she’d had with old friends earlier that day. She wanted to go home, she said.

I knew what home she meant. She wanted to return to twenty years prior and her rose bushes there and to pick Jonathan apples from the tree on Jerry’s side. A worm can dig into an apple, I learned when I was a girl. My mother could be eighty feet tall on the side of a mountain by now. She could win ribbons at the county fair for her beautiful flowers. She could, on a sojourn through Geneva, photograph the city’s clock made of flowers. Instead she did not know her date of birth last month when a nurse asked. “Oh, I should know that,” she said.

We garden, and we are gardened, we might say, and there is lightning that strikes the mountainsides. My back yard now is filled with imperfections, but in the morning before the sun’s climb or again when the sunset is recklessly late, the yard looks especially beautiful. It does not take effort to breathe that space in and pay no mind to the imperfections, to see the Indian hawthorn’s blossoms and not the flat stalks of crab grass that sneak between them. We are the splatter left behind by a bird’s joy in a birdbath, but we are also the leap upward from the bird’s beak, the water rising, the still image of our porous humanity. Emily Dickinson reminds us that hope is the thing with feathers.

My mother has forgotten many things. She the careful gardener has been gone for years and cannot return. My mother is eighty feet tall.