The Fall Clearing




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After the first killing frost of autumn, it is time to prepare the garden for a winter rest.

The dead tomato, squash, and pepper plants were pulled up and added to the compost. Hollyhock stems and gigantic mullein stalks were removed with the aid of scissors and saws. Some remaining weeds were pulled, and occasional left-over flowerheads were removed from the perennials. It's generally a good idea to take such dead plant material to the compost, rather than leave it in place, as it can encourage pests and diseases to overwinter.

The garden (especially a new one like ours) now looks pretty sparse and bare once again. I'm covering some of the flower beds with bark chip mulch, which will stay on next year for weed control and moisture retention. The main vegetable garden may get a covering of raked leaves. (It's not always easy to know if this is a good idea. Leaves can become waterlogged over winter and prevent air from getting into the soil. They can sometimes harbor diseases as well. Here in New Mexico, however, they are likely to crumble and make a kind of leaf-mold compost on the surface of the garden, contributing organic matter and a little insulation. If in doubt, try it on a small area and see what you think of the results when spring comes around.

Every ending is a new beginning, and this is easy to see in the garden. With the annuals and vegetables gone, the garden returns to a simple state, pristine and quiet. It's not hard to look out and anticipate seeds sprouting and new growth emerging from the perennials.

But before that happens, there will be a long rest. The resting time is a welcome thing, for both garden and gardener. Roots continue to grow underground, slowly and opportunistically as weather allows. Mostly, however, it is just a quiet time. Many animals reduce their activities or migrate in search of easier food. Before long, the snows will descend, and disguise all evidence of summers past. For the gardener, the times of keeping up with watering, weeding, and harvesting are gone. In the winter, one's relationship with the garden is more like visiting a wild landscape that can be enjoyed without activity or burden.

This is a welcome part of the cycle of the year, as sleep is welcome after a tiring day. There is the promise of a fresh start in the future, and the present blessing of quietude. Autumn is always a mystical season for me. The cool air is like a breath of timelessness, a taste of being after so much doing.

The lessons of late autumn and early winter are profound ones, but uncomfortable for a society of consumerism to embrace. Instead of seeing cycles, we've come to think of time as a straight line, always upward into more, more, more. In this picture, we can acquire forever without releasing, we can work forever without resting, and we can live forever without dying. In our modern Western culture, if something is classified as an ending, it is likely to be treated as taboo: death, divorce, retirement . . .

This discomfort with endings is rooted in an illusion: that change is possible without loss. It is never so. Everything that comes into our lives, no matter how welcome, changes us and changes how we live. College graduation brings a diploma, but sweeps away the lingering mantle of youth and youthful friendships. The blessings of marriage and family clear away the life of autonomy and solitude. Creating your great masterpiece means no longer having your great masterpiece to work on.

My point is not to say that all endings are really good and all beginnings are really bad. It is just this: when something goes, something else comes; when something comes, something else goes. We mess ourselves up when we focus on only one side, feeling only elation at a beginning and only despair at a loss. Instead, we can replace the linear polarity of gain/lose, live/die, good/evil with something more centered: a self-renewing cycle of change.

This fall clearing, removing the skeletons of summer's life and letting the earth breathe freely again, is a kind of sacred act, an affirmation of change and a turning of the great wheel of life.

In the Garden is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters