The not unpleasant smell of rotting fruit alerts the senses when one ventures into my backyard on these early summer days. “Our time is now,” that well-known maxim exhorted by coaches in pre-game locker rooms across the land, is nowhere more true than among the two prolific plum and pluot trees in said yard, which, like some urgent stream after a storm, can’t expel their bounty fast enough. I need a crew available at my immediate beck-and-call to scoop up the falling flesh that relitters my yard every day, no matter the removal effort that left it clear just hours before.
Plop plop plop they rain down, even as I am on hands and knees depositing their bruised brothers and sisters into my bucket, their waystation en route to the compost bin and their ultimate return to earth as dirt for next summer’s bounty.
Sorry, soup kitchen, church members, neighbors and friends with whom I otherwise may have shared these literal fruits of summer: I couldn’t keep up. Their relentless fecundity overwhelmed me.
And so the wheel of nature turns—always as prolific as any given organism’s predators and competitors will allow it to be.
“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls,” says the nature writer Annie Dillard on the second page of her essay on that word, which is among the 15 pieces that comprise her landmark early work, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. But then she offers a few ideas:
“I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives…”
My plums aren’t the only items running riot in my yard. After several years of drought, the hydrangeas in my front yard drank up this year’s more normal rainfall like those desert wanderers in the movies, staggering across the sands until happening upon an oasis and falling willingly into it, full immersion.
But what do any of us know about ‘letting go?’ Every living thing in existence, from the tiniest mitochondria to the behemoth whales, shares one essential program at the very depth of each of its cells: to keep going.
And just a few feet away from the plums, a small pomegranate tree has been shooting out buds all spring long—3, 4, 5 to a tiny cluster, 3 or 4 such clusters weighing down every minor little branch with their nascent, furiously striving selves.
In their abundance, they have no regard for how they will all be stunted in having to share the nutrients essential to the plump, people-pleasing fruit we behold at the farmers markets or on store shelves.
In my yard, it’s up to me, abortionist-in-chief, to cull them, if I have the time, plucking the smaller ones and discarding them unceremoniously to the ground or pail so that their chosen brethren can grow into their fullness. Ditto for my apples in the front yard.
It also does not go unobserved by me how casually nature aborts its own. Long before I can manage the time to selectively prune for quality fruit later on, nature has been busy at the task, its stillborn, barely formed embryos littering the ground beneath the tree, dust returning sooner than usual to the dust that spawned it.
Of course, none of the buds crowding up against the others and overweighting the branches care a whit about growing full for my benefit—their only goal is to keep on…and on…at whatever size they’re allowed, fulfilling their destiny in the endless, beautiful and awful cycle of nature, of life competing with all other life for more life, more of everything that may sustain it, until I interrupt it with my unnatural selection.
The following was as common as coastal fog when I was a Hospice volunteer tending to dying people and their families: an anguished adult child or spouse of the dying would be alongside the persons’s bed, where he or she lay unconscious and near comatose, and having been in that condition for perhaps day upon day.
“Why won’t he let go, just let go?” the loving relative would plead, not so much to me as to the heavens.
But what do any of us know about “letting go?” Every living thing in existence, from the tiniest mitochondria to the behemoth whales, shares one essential program at the very depth of each of its cells: to keep going.
Push, slash, burn, run, fly, hide, compromise, attack, retreat, convalesce, reconvene, plot anew: the baseline notion is to want more and more of the life we have—and to somehow figure out how to get it.
The late physician and surgeon Sherwin Nuland wrote a beautiful homage to this ferocity of will in his National Book Award-winning How We Die in 1994. In it, he related in meticulous and appreciative detail the specific physiological processes by which a host of diseases finally box the body into a corner and rob it of life.
More striking, though, are the lengths the body will go to, the frantic rearguard actions and compensations it pulls from its multiple bags of tricks, to resist the inevitable.
In its final breaths, the body attempts to summon forth just one more, and one more after that, until the summoning ends. There is much to admire in this futile quest for endless fecundity.
Dillard says essentially the same but beholds a different result when she observes a tulip tree limb that had been blown into the creek near her house, after which the waters receded and the entire, wholly detached limb lay exposed and drying in the sun. That’s when it started to grow leaves.
“I was amazed. It was like the old fable about a corpse’s growing a beard; it was as if the woodpile in my garage were suddenly to burst greenly into leaf. The way plants persevere in the bitterest of circumstances is utterly heartening. I can barely keep from unconsciously ascribing a will to these plants, a do-or-die courage, and I have to remind myself that coded cells and mute water pressure have no idea how grandly they are flying in the teeth of it all.”
I have a minor quibble with Dillard on her resistance to “ascribing a will to these plants.” Though it’s certainly not conscious in the human sense, their biological drivenness to adapt and make do in whatever way they can in the service of life preservation sure looks to reflect willfulness writ large to me.
When I went to India in March, we arranged for a young friend of my daughter’s to housesit for us, and one of the things I neglected to mention to her was to toss some water on our few houseplants, a couple of them in the kitchen. So my flourishing little green thing, species unknown, didn’t get water for some 13 days and had lost all its leaves, a dry dead stick jutting sadly to the ceiling, upon my return.
I watered it that first day back and kept it up, hoping for a miracle. After zero signs of any such miracle over the next couple of weeks, I was in the kitchen beholding the sad stalk when my daughter walked by and I asked her, “What do you think—any chance?”
She, who had taken a year of floral design classes and knows a thing or two about plants, just shook her head, looking slightly incredulous that I even bothered to ask a question when the answer was staring right at us, speaking volumes in its stark gray muteness.
I told her that this would become an experiment, in which I duly noted her dismissive contention that the plant was beyond help, my rational self inclined to agree, but my hope-springs-eternal self just curious and patient enough to opt for waiting and watching.
It took probably another two weeks for the first tiny bud to appear, a development that made me gush so ecstatically I forgot to record the moment for posterity. Another 10 weeks or so later, you can see off to the side here, in a photo shot this afternoon, that it’s still struggling to regain its former splendor, but it’s very much alive and doing some healthy leafing on what looks to be its long road to further recovery.
I must say: that is some impressive fecundity, but hardly surprising in a plant world in which scientists once studied a single winter rye grass plant and let it grow in a greenhouse for four months, at which time they carefully lifted away the top soil and began counting and measuring in that way that scientists do.
What they discovered, Dillard reports, was an astonishing 378 miles of root that the plant had laid down (about three miles a day), in an even more astonishing 14 million distinct roots.
Of course, no gardener emerging from her home after a few spring rains and beholding the bumper crop of weeds awaiting attention in what were last year’s flower beds would be all that astonished by these reports.
My own calculations on California’s north coast are that 10 minutes of weeding in the day loses all of it back to the 10 minutes of new weed growth that occurs overnight, so if you want to make any headway at all, you give it 30 minutes of weeding, minus 10 minutes for daily growth, for a net 20 minutes a day.
Keep that up for 60 days or so, and it should get you to summer, when you can begin to forego the weeding in order to pick up all the fruit that’s fallen and obscured every square inch of soil before you can find the time to dump it into the compost bin, its pungent wine-like aromas reminding you that life just keeps on pushing ahead in that singular way that it does—just as you have no doubt been doing yourself during your absence from your garden.
It’s astonishing, really, what goes on and what grows up when we’re not looking. Just as it does with our children…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
All plant photos by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/