by Mimi Hedl
Kuan-yin stands near the edge of the old asparagus beds. In Buddhist mythology, she represents the Goddess of Mercy. In paintings of Kuan-yin, she has a dove flying toward her, representing fecundity. We all want a fertile garden, so we chose this particular aspect of her nature to accentuate. We could call on her mercy when the early frosts came or droughts threatened. Over the years we found it easier to give simple titles to our yard art, a catchy phrase for visitors to latch onto. More complete explanations could come later, when we sat down at the kitchen table to visit.
Ron, ever-resourceful, made her body out of a steel tomato cage with an old lamp shade frame wired to the top of the cage. After four years on Strawdog, we had a surplus of old canning lids, the gilt for her magnificent presence. We hammered holes in the lids, two together, to sparkle on both sides, wired them in long strands, and soon Kuan-yin came alive.
In those early years, the trees and shrubs we began to plant hadn’t made much of a presence. You could see our place from D highway, the state road 400 feet away. When we erected her, we had strangers stopping by wanting to know what that sparkling thing was. “It’s so bright it nearly blinded me as I drove by,” said one farmer. He didn’t know about Buddhism, but he did know about helping things grow. Since we already had the title of “those weird folks,” this only added fuel.
About seven years ago, the Mary Washington asparagus we started from seed, directly sown in the four beds, tenderly weeded by Ron, began to slow down, as did this gardener. At first I simply mowed the paths between the beds instead of mulching them. That helped, but it still seemed like too much labor for little return. Then, during the dog days one summer, feeling defeated, I stopped mowing those paths, stopped weeding the beds too. Abandoning those beds, that carried my footprints as well as asparagus, over many years, made me sad.
Little by little, I began to see subtle changes. The natives from bed #5, the native propagation bed, began to seed in both bed #6, the comfrey bed, and the paths of the asparagus beds. That made me happy. The royal catchfly, silene regia, a tall, red hummingbird flower, went wild, as if it had waited for this moment. Seedlings began to appear everywhere. Suddenly, hundreds of plants appeared. Notoriously difficult, they became the envy of the wildflower folks. I demurred, I had nothing to do with it, just stopped mowing.
It baffled me to watch the changes. Purple poppy mallow grew in paths, in beds, under asparagus, near Hollis’s thistle. (Every time I see one of these evil dudes, I put a bamboo stake in the ground, so I know where to attack with pitch fork.)The aromatic aster ─ so named because as soon as you find yourself brushing up against it, you swoon ─ knew no bounds. A favorite with the migrating monarchs, another nectar source multiplied.
And the blue-eyed prairie grass appeared out of nowhere. It belongs in the iris family, though so small as to appeal to fairies. Once you realize you look at an iris, you see the family characteristics, but until then, you don’t know how to look at the plant.
This new prairie has taught me how to look. I visit it early in the morning, before the sun rises, and later in the evening when the sun has begun to set. The light at those times fascinates me. I see plants and insects at one time that I couldn’t see at another time.Down on all fours, the best way to become part of a landscape, I find tiny seedlings, wild lettuce that has to come out so as not to contaminate the seed I’ll save from cultivated lettuce, and asparagus I’d missed in the morning. Like a child, I explore and savor, lying down now and then, to look up at the clouds.
As with wild places, a sense of peace, different from more heavily worked parts of the homestead, fills this space. That probably explains why I visit it so often. I like to pick the asparagus too, if only a handful a day. My evolution as a gardener, as a woman, seems present here. Memories drift by as I walk in the twilight. I pause for a moment, let them in, then watch them disappear as a firefly glides by. Kuan-yin accompanies me. She still blesses the gardens with fecundity and me with her mercy.