For a gardener, spring is the most exciting season. One day, what looked dead shows signs of life. As long as humans have understood the natural world, spring has meant rebirth. Easter, the celebration of resurrection, and Passover, the re-creation of liberation, have their origins even further back in human social development, as do Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and Nowruz, the first day of the year in ancient Persia. Human nature celebrates nature itself.
Springtime means cleaning. Things pile up during winter, inside and outside the house: leaves, boxes, twigs and branches, dust, mud. When the house is finally opened to the air, when warmth opens dormant plants, the big mess that winter leaves becomes apparent. Once the ground thaws, the most pressing garden work is spring cleaning. One garden after another gets a face lift, a hard scrubbing, a close shave. Removing all that wrinkly brown dead stuff reveals what has already begun. Smooth bright green sprouts are pushing through to the light.
Springtime means repair. Winter is harder on material objects than on the resilience of people. Although we may come back in the spring with more weight and a painful back, the warmth and movement of spring allow our bodies to repair themselves. The roof can’t repair itself. Garden objects that stand up during the winter take a beating and need our help. This winter a small pergola that we acquired with our house many years ago finally listed too far to ignore. Broken branches on our biggest tree, a sugar maple that has never been tapped, needed pruning. Stones and bricks that mark our gardens mysteriously twist and glide a bit each winter, until they no longer look the way we want. By repairing winter damage, we impose our constructive will on the forces of nature.
Springtime means anticipation. The shoot poking through the soil and the bud swelling on the branch mean flowers will soon appear. Eight months after we first moved in, our inaugural spring displayed the gardening dreams of past owners. Pointy sprouts became daffodils, the carpet of bright green shoots grew into lilies, while magnolias, viburnum and dogwood blossomed. Since then, I have added a dozen flowering trees and spread bulbs across many gardens. Now, well before flowers open, I relish the anticipation of their color and smell. I know they will be lovely, but exactly when will it happen? Although we’ve seen it all before, the final opening of protective leaves, unveiling flowers of many shapes and sizes, is always new and renewing.
Springtime means hope. Will there be more blossoms than last year? Will life get better? Unexpected blooms and unforeseen popular movements erupt in spring. The gathering of armed rebels in Lexington and Concord in 1775, the meeting of the Estates General in Paris in 1789, and the liberalization of communism in Prague in 1968 were encouraged by the hopes of spring.
By the time spring ends, many of these hopes have disappeared. The sweet spring flowers have dropped onto the garden, leaving dead heads that call for more work. The ubiquitous garden undesirables threaten to drown their weaker neighbors that we insist are the real plants. Many of winter’s messes are still all around; humans have not repaired all the things we have broken.
We keep trying. Nature and human nature cannot be reduced to our arbitrary rules of good behavior and proper breeding. When we try too hard for perfection, we make the worst mistakes: the 19th-century passion for perfecting human society became sterilization, mass deportations and genocide in the 20th. But still we must seek improvement.
Gardening takes patience. Planting some seedlings this year won’t make a garden next year or the year after. A clear vision of the future must be combined with the patience to keep tending immature plants. Even more patience is needed to nurture the immature children, the immature organizations and programs and systems we create. Not every plant will survive, nor look right if it does. Not every political reform will produce the desired results. Gardening and politics require constant correction.
Maybe we can do more than produce good gardens. Maybe we can produce better societies, if we keep trying.
Spring always comes back. We get another chance.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 6, 2014