I love the weather. I follow forecasts with enthusiasm and get a feeling of expectation when a major change in the weather is predicted. Weather adds variety. It also offers rare opportunities for perspective in a society that is all about the ability to control conditions and choose how, where, and when for everything. I especially celebrate weather extremes, even when discomfort is involved. Few things give me greater pleasure than watching a crowd of outdoor concert goers run shrieking for cover from a sudden cloud burst or the rare snow-covered Louisville street, filled with people studying the stuck and abandoned cars.
Over the past several years something frustrating happened to me. Aberrant weather, while still something I tried to get excited about, was becoming more of an inconvenience, a stressor with no payoff. For a while I figured it was me growing up but I started to realize a bigger problem was that while living in apartments in New York and Louisville I had no natural space, however small, to call my own. The beauty of weather is its ability to disrupt our scheduled lives, to re-orient us toward a more universal order. But if you are truly disrupted then digesting the new perspective is difficult without some sort of soft bed to catch your fall. In this case, the inhabitable, natural world with all our living comrades vegetable and animal. Enter the natural yard, a textured, living landscape of plants and animals.
My yard has provided a bit of an awakening regarding the weather but it’s an ongoing process. It had been so long since I’d really felt a big storm I’d gotten a bit twisted around with how it works. When I started trying to write about my yard last spring as a means to better re-connect with natural space but was struggling with where to start I immediately thought of severe weather. That would be a perfect new beginning. When an evening forecast called for morning thunderstorms I went to bed ready. I woke up late to a heavy grey western sky punctuated by flashes of lightening and ominous rolls of thunder. I dashed outside to make sure all the tools were in the shed and do some last minute staking in the vegetable garden, but the storm was bearing down exhilaratingly fast. I got wet on my way back in. And then I made my coffee and spent my afternoon in the kitchen watching rain lash the windows and lightening open a sky that was as dark at 1:00pm as it usually is at 7:00pm. On paper the whole incident had been scripted perfectly, but the re-orientation and mental clarity that I wanted to write about never really played out. I’d forced it a little bit. My vegetable garden hadn’t even needed staking. I just ran outside so I’d have the opportunity to run back in, an orchestrated dash for cover.
It was several months later, into the early fall, that I finally got blindsided. I’d gotten behind in the gardens, having become consumed with boring, adult economic problems: money, gainful employment, unavoidable home maintenance issues, and a 401K transfer that brought on several days of morose ruminating on my fleeting youth and looming mortality. Overlaid on these realities was the pre-winter to-do list. There was outdoor painting to be done everywhere I looked, 2 new gardens to prep and plant, a new sidewalk to lay, and trees to plant. I didn’t have time for slow mornings watching storms. Rain meant lost work which meant tree seedlings that wouldn’t get planted which meant that much less of a chance that I see mature specimens before I die. So I awoke to a low grey sky and drizzle with a moan. A steady rain set in by the early afternoon and built through the evening. I just spent the day doing useless circles around the house, not hearing pleasing rain drops, just thinking of inaction, unfinished work, lost time I’ll pay for the rest of my life.
I work 3rd shift outdoors as part of an airport operation on 60-acres of cold, blustery tarmac. If the day was inconvenient and marked by displeasure, the night was downright miserable. I had spent the day lamenting the lack of progress on my personal projects and ambitions; I spent the night obsessing over my soaking socks and frigid fingers and toes. Around 4:00am, tasked with keeping a stack of envelopes dry, I sought shelter under the rear fuselage of a jet in the narrow band between the sheets of water cascading off the curved sides. It was then, for the first time all night, that the wind really picked up, 20 miles per hour or more, gusting the rain sideways under the plane. The dark, broad tail of the plane loomed over me, the exhaust roared over the rain pounding on my back and I clutched those envelopes with numb fingers to keep them from being blown into that bleak, forlorn night. It now feels so obviously trivial but that’s when I threw in the proverbial towel. “You win, atmosphere.” After the plane went out I went home and crawled into bed wet, sweaty, clothed, my teeth unbrushed.
I woke to a September morning after a big rain, cool, clean. I was just as somber as I’d been the night before. I drank my coffee looking out the kitchen window, absentmindedly watching the plants in the garden beds in the filtered light of big puffy clouds, rain showers straggling along the back end of a big front. I watched the plants for at least a half an hour before I really saw them. They were growing. Twenty four hours of cold rain and dark skies had come and gone and they’d waited it out, responding to light patterns, temperatures, and changing soil moisture. I squinted through the screen and the glare on the glass and noticed shades of purple, brown, and orange creeping into leaves. Who told them fall was afoot? I might have laughed. How many billions of years of evolutionary selection have acted on their DNA? They don’t need me.
Summer was turning into fall. The rain came and went for four hours. I watched it happen from the kitchen window, then under the overhang on the back porch, finally out amongst the goldenrods and asters, smelling rich soil and moisture, getting my head wet. A ruffled sky moved overhead; the temperature dropped from 70°F the day before to 30 by that evening. I stayed outside until my hands were numb. On a day like that it’s good to be underdressed, otherwise how would you know when it’s time to go inside?
Why has all this come back to me now? It is nearly February, the third month of winter. Louisville winters are on the mild side but I’m still tired of being damp and cold. I’m tired of cold floors in the morning and gusting winds while I take out the trash. Mostly, though, I miss the infectious sense of progress that comes from being around a growing plant. We’ve had an all-day drizzle today and I walked around the backyard for the first time this week. The dried leaves and flower stalks of the perennials look smaller than they did in September, and the areas where I cleared out wintercreeper in December have become muddy expanses. Even the turf grass looks more desolate than usual. But as I sat by the fire this evening I thought of that afternoon in the fall when I looked out my window and failed to see the world growing and living around me. I can’t move time and I can’t change the weather. Since about 11:00 pm the temperature has dropped off rapidly, from 44 into the high 20’s now at 2:00 am. The drizzle has switched over to snow which is blowing under the streetlight and against our darkened front window.
If you look right you can see all kinds of things in a dark window. I am having visions of the Minnesota spring. At my college there was an inevitable day when the sun was out and the temperature poked into the 40’s when kids from all over the country, shell-shocked and hardened by three months of on-again, off-again sub-zero temperatures, stumbled out of their dorms and lay down on sidewalks in the sun. I would always put on shorts and a t-shirt, finally, and run through the fields on the edge of town, churning with adrenaline, whooping at everything I saw, slipping, sliding and falling in the 12 inches of melting snow, ice, and topsoil. Something like that is only available to those who have waited, willingly or not.
I relocated my desk next to the fire for today. It’s warm here, and the warmth has fooled the thermostat into neglecting the rest of the house. There is a cat curled up on either side of me. My wife made a vat of lentil soup. The plants outside lie dormant in the frozen ground, protected, waiting. I couldn’t have scripted the night any better.