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Going Wild | By R.E. Faro
| Faro’s winter garden–with its untamed flora, feral creatures, and mysterious happenings–reveals a wildness at heart.

Suddenly, the garden turns mysterious, untamed. Who is the transient here, seems to be the question. The oblique sunlight filtering through the liquidambar is as penetrating as Sister Cyrilla’s gaze in eighth grade, wondering whether you’ll grow up and get serious.

This happens every autumn, but this year there is an added pointedness, probably in part because the news has been a diet of epic disaster. It’s a wonder and blessing things are so peaceful here. Adding to the mystery, a couple of things have occurred in the garden for which there is no explanation.

Two mornings ago, cup of coffee in hand, idly gazing out the kitchen window, I noticed that the daylilies at the top of the garden were flat upon the ground. Limp from neglect, I assumed, although neglect has never much fazed them before. Their blossoms are a drab orange, and for years I have been intending to replace them with something with more pizzazz, but I only dig up a reservation or two. What else is going to survive the clay and inattention?

I went out to investigate. The flattened area was a well-defined oval. Clearly the cause was not drought, nor the usual fall defoliation. Something had hunkered down there, surrounded and partially hidden by a cluster of echiums. I imagined I could smell the animal presence and feel the heat still rising from the bed.

I was indignant. If the daylilies were going to be abused, I would be the one to do it, no one else. The obvious culprit was a deer, but the back garden is fenced off, and if a deer had gotten in through an open gate, the roses would have been decimated. Raccoons holding a powwow? There are no barking dogs in residence and no locks on the gates. Perhaps it was an addled fraternity boy, sleeping one off, or a street person, appropriating some real darkness and quiet, or some vagabond poet, like ageless Li Po, passing through. Maybe two humans having congress. Now that’s wild.

Something else was odd. Seven or eight branches of an adjacent leptospermum, a tree so juvenile it has only spindly branches, were snapped and drooping. Raccoons break the branches of my persimmon tree for the fruit, but I doubt they mistook the leptospermum for the persimmon. I could not see how a raccoon could get out so far on those thin branches to break them in those locations. The leptospermum stands alone, so is not a potential path from ground to a roof, or vice versa.

It appeared that something had fallen from above. I made my deduction: a meteor made of ice that melted, like the bullet that left no trace. I touched the soil around the daylilies. Noticeably damp.

Well, that was close.

This explanation, justly farfetched, did not dispel a lingering spookiness. I am used to the garden being somewhat out-of-control, a reality so familiar it has come to seem a mere reflection of who I am. This felt other. A part of me went on patrol.

I finished my coffee and idled down the steps to the patio. On the bench near the back door, still waiting for me to find it a home, sat the blechnum that Tom gave me weeks ago. He said Sunset Growers is calling it "Miriam," but whatever its name, this fern, with its elegant, ruffled gown of deep green, will dress up any motley array of plants. When I saw it in Tom’s garden, plant lust swelled. Tom had this offspring, which he parted with. The best gardeners have generous hearts.

I lifted the pot off the bench to test how the fern would look with the other ferns under the apple tree and saw peripherally that the web I’d been trying not to disturb, the one constructed at head-height just outside the back door, quivered, and a quadrant collapsed. The spider at its center went into a jig of panic and fled into the eaves. I was relieved. Sooner or later I would have draped my face with it. Here was the best of all worlds: the spider unharmed, the web beyond repair, and no hairy-legged, fanged mutha cavorting on my nose. Dominion was restored.

Yesterday morning the web was back, rebuilt in all its intricacy an inch or so higher than before. Did the spider make some intelligent realignment to take into account human interference? More likely, moving the pot made the difference. The web was still too low for comfort.

I had a few free hours to do some garden chores, starting with collecting the fallen apples that, except for the bruises from landing on the patio, were quite edible. It seemed a shame to let them go to waste.

I don’t know when I wrecked the web the second time. In the apple tree, movement had arrested my attention. Not a bird. A rat! The world was going down the toilet. What if rats nibbled and corrupted all the apples–a crop that this year is of a particularly satisfying profusion–and Lily and I can’t have our annual Pie Day? Next year she’ll be away at college.

Only a few apples had teeth marks, at least visible from below. I wondered if it was because they weren’t yet ripe. I had a new project: to severely prune the adjoining red Norway maple, into which the rat hightailed. If it was going to make its way into the apple tree, it would have to come up from the ground. I was thinking about snot-nosed Cindy, the semi-feral cat who has been on the premises almost as long as I have. She still has some of her mother’s fierceness. Kill, pussycat, kill.

I bounced from limb to limb, clipping back the long, supple branches of the maple and the peripheral new growth of the apple. Are rats as aerially adept as squirrels? I wondered if the pruning was all for naught in any case, since a dense planting of ferns and plectranthus grows at the base of the apple tree, ample cover for a rat trying to avoid a geriatric, somewhat deaf, overweight puss. Well, if nothing else, I was amassing a stunning collection of maple branches ablaze with hand-sized leaves of burgundy and orange. I could open a shop.

By the time I climbed out of the tree and collected the branches, the only trace of the web was a guying strand floating in the breeze. This time my relief had a higher proportion of dismay. I hoped the spider wasn’t taking it personally.

Since the world in no way can answer our craving,/

I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing-boat.

Li Po, from "A Farewell"

A new day dawns, with a pumpkin-colored light. I open the door at sunrise to put out food for Cindy (should I withhold just a little and give the old girl an edge?) and there is the web again, and Charlotte in her striped leotards. I’m delighted, absolved of guilt. And the web is constructed yet another inch higher so I can walk under it without cringing. Clever girl. Droplets of dew line the strands. I wonder if the moisture is a hindrance to alfresco dining. I feel like I have a new roommate whose preferences I am going to learn willy-nilly.

Cindy comes lumbering down the steps. That plump belly can’t be from the weight-watcher grub I dispense for her. She must be double-dipping somewhere. She approaches to within an arm’s length, but no closer. Touch me? Don’t even think about it. I nonetheless put forth a hand, covered by the sleeve of my sweatshirt, and she gives me a swipe with her paw that’s not as serious as it used to be, but not exactly affectionate.

As she eats, she periodically glances back over her shoulder. What she hears, and sees, often seems phantasmal, but this morning there is a visible object of her attention: Caspar, her brother, vanished two or so years ago, presumed dead. He’s terribly skinny but it’s unmistakably him: long, brown-black fur, grungy tail flecked with weeds and seed capsules. Where has he been?

Cindy hunches protectively over her pellets and crunches down, if a one-toothed cat can crunch. When she finally ambles away from the bowl, Caspar slinks forward, gulping the leftovers with a furtiveness bordering on panic. It gives me indigestion to watch. When I open the back door to refill the bowl, he scurries away. Years ago, I could get close enough to pet him, at least when his attention was diverted by food. I wonder what manner of subsistence he pieced together over the past two years.

I am pleased to see him, and a thought tickles me, that it is my good karma that now when I need an extra paw to defend my apples, Caspar shows up. More likely, it’s because he has worms in his guts. The look he directs toward me when I open the door to refill the bowl a second time is of undiluted wildness.

Wildness is everywhere I look in this domesticated place. The two cats, and the rat, raccoons, and deer, creatures great and small. Raking fallen leaves, I uncover a colony of flailing creatures the size of long-grained rice, that presto, disappear. A squirrel chases another in a spiral up the pine. Above the wooden steps winged termites hover and dart. Nearby, a jay, tipsy on cotoneaster berries, tries a bit of karaoke.

It doesn’t seem like much, but "in wildness," as Thoreau wrote, "is the preservation of the world." In contrast, the manicured, creature-less garden seems to me as artificial as a mortuary. But why worry? There’s no danger of that here. I will loosen my hair . . . .

I climb the stairs to the daylily bed to see if there is any further evidence of nocturnal romps. My instinct says yes, but my senses can’t verify it. The leptospermum appears no different, and I spend a few minutes trimming away the damaged branches. Then I pass by the apple tree to see if there are more rat nibbles, and, happily, see none. Everything in the garden seems preternaturally calm, as if waiting for me to notice something obvious, and revelatory, only I don’t know what to look for.

Instead of revelation, I settle for a moment of gratitude. Then I decide to pick some apples, even if they are still a bit green. Just in case.

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For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly. We are pleased to announce that Ithuriel’s Spear Press has just published them as a collection, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours. The book is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R. E. Faro can be reached at farospace@sbcglobal.net.

Click here to view the Faro's garden archive.

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