It was late summer, sometime in September when the shift from “then” to “now” would start. In control of almost nothing, I searched for anything I could truly manage and wreaked havoc in the yard of the house we had just moved into. Moved into and didn’t own. Moved into and could barely afford the minuscule rent. A rescue mission in action and certainly not part of the plan. A duplex upper practically gifted us by my parents living below. Purchased with my Grandmother’s passing and my mother’s determination. A safe place to land.
The entire yard was an over grown mess of beetle eaten Hostas, prehistoric dinosaur movie sized plants, shredded to an almost delicate lacy ness by invasive insects and slugs. The thigh-thick leaves covered moldy, mossy earth, hid mosquitos by the millions that would rise like the murmuration of swallows when a young boy and his old dogs ran through them.
They had to go.
I took all of my five feet and four inches in height, and a shovel just as tall, and started gutting the yard, front, back, and side. Jumping with my entire weight on the base of the shovel, uprooting root balls bigger than my head. It took almost a full week of laboring but I got them all. The desolation of dirt and poorly filled holes all that was left.
I had PLANS.
First on the list, I filled the front garden, along the windows of the house and down the hedge lining the walk, with Daffodil and Tulip bulbs. No matter what else happened, there would be flowers in the spring. I had so little experience, I had to read the instructions on the bags “how to plant”. I always say I can do anything with instructions.
I worked that yard and the house all that fall and into the first snows. The winter was long, and cold, in only the way a true Midwestern winter can be. I know, I know; Midwesterners -love- to go on and on about how hard the winters are, how unpredictable the weather. It wasn’t special in any way in its severity except for the way it would mirror the cold and unpredictable state of affairs at home. There were storms, and days and days of digging out. And finally, spring.
The Daffodils came first, buttery yellow heads bobbing at the ends of limber, green stems, at the same time as my own endings became beginnings. The Tulips followed, an absolute riot of color, reds and oranges and yellows and something purple and white with ragged edges that seemed to speak to their survival in this harsh climate. They made the yard look less decimated immediately, and distracted from my continued ham-fisted learning efforts.
There were oddly placed and completely random single sprigs of Peonies popping up all over the yard, suppressed for years by the harsh Hostas, taking deep breaths of freedom for the first time in an age. I did what I always do and I looked them up. I found a book about gardens and read. I didn’t know that Peony “bushes” really aren’t bushes. They’re just a grouping of stems. The book assured me that if I moved them they would certainly die. But then they would return. I dug them all up, very, very gently. Some thinner than my pinky, the whole “root” a thumb-tip length of milky white fiber. Maybe a dozen of them. I carried them to the front and planted them just as carefully two here, two a couple of feet away, two more further down. Planted and watered and hoped, even as I watched them die.
It would take almost six or seven years of that practiced replanting and hope, but stem by stem I would create a lush hedge of Peonies under the front windows that now grow higher then my shoulder and produce the biggest, loveliest, pink and white blooms…randomly, because I never figured out how to tell which was which so I could group them by color. Oops.
At the same time as I was transplanting orphaned Peony stems, the Hostas were trying to make a comeback all the way in the back of the house along the parking slab. Hidden between the parked car and the neighbors garage where they thought I couldn’t see them… they almost pulled it off. But I caught them and out they came. I planted some wildflowers and as the summer progressed and I focused on other things, that strip was left to go wild, a scrap tree gaining ground and some lovely flowering weeds popping up. Something strong and green I couldn’t identify, but it would bleed a thick, milky, sticky sap if you broke one of the leaves.
My very young son would “garden” back there, free to dig and plant whatever random things he pulled from the ground elsewhere. Insects of all shapes and colors abound back there, much to both our delights.
We were back there together when he spotted it; a caterpillar. A big, fat, yellow, black, and white striped caterpillar as thick as his little thumb. Crawling at speed along the underside of a Day Lilly leaf I can still hear his utterly delighted exclamation “MOMMY! LOOK!” And we oohed and aahed together.
“What kind is it?” He asked.
“I think it’s a Monarch caterpillar baby. Monarch’s are so beautiful.”
looked up for him on the Internet and he was suitably impressed by its size and flashy orange and black coloring.
“We see those in the prairie!” He exclaimed. He learned to walk hiking the woods and plains of our state (and would learn to read in the same places, placards naming trees and flowers and historic places. A four-year-old long suffering sigh when he would ask “What does it say?” And the inevitable response of “You tell me. Sound it out.”)
“Can we raise it???”
We learned that the large, heavy green plants that bled the thick white sap was Milkweed, and what a misnomer that is. We learned about instars and that our little guy was probably about to be a Chrysalis. We learned what the eggs looked like and lost our collective minds when we spotted our first, perfectly pearlescent, delicately striated, impossibly small under a leaf.
We also learned how much trouble they were in. Decades of pesticide use, habitat destruction, diseases, deforestation, and predation driving their numbers down to practically nothing.
One article said “The two most important things you can do to help Monarch Butterflies is one, plant milkweed. Two, if you can, bring them in to raise inside.”
When I was a child I held funerals for dead worms after heavy rains. Let ants crawl all over me just to watch their legs move. As a college kid raised a ladybug in a Gerbera Daisy that lived on my desk at work. She stayed with me for over six months, and I got to watch her eat the tiny mites living in the soil and fly from petal to leaf and never further.
“Well, I can bring them in”, I thought. “I can do that.”
I didn’t know that it would change everything.