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Berkshire Garden Style: We Are Wilder Than You Think

November 2022 • a Viridissima blog

Long November shadows - a pause on the site of a driveway renovation.

This time of year is one associated with coldness and darkness. The garden season is wrapped up as much as it can be. Things have stopped growing, are starting to freeze. I’ve been going like hell to try and get it all done, but it’s never done, and thank goodness the earth is shutting down – at least in our climate – because the earth knows that it’s time to pause. A few days ago, I happily planted a few peonies for a client who couldn’t resist ordering more. I chipped through three inches of frost to get through the soil to plant, and I had to put pieces of frost back on top of soil like little puzzle pieces. The ground is telling me: time to stop digging. There’s no need to be in the garden every morning. It’s too cold to be outside all day.

Frost crystals on Sedum ternatum 'Larinern Park'.

As I rush around wrapping up loose ends, I notice how beautiful the sunlight is right now. It has that sharp side angle. There’s drama in the shortness of the day. 2:45 in the afternoon is the new 5 PM, and it struck me recently as I wrestled a tree into a pot (it had been sitting on a heating pad so that the soil wouldn’t freeze and I could work it) that there was this perfect, golden, crystalline quality to the light. It was gorgeous. As praise-worthy as any summer sunset.

American Beech leaves aglow as chlorophyll production has ceased, bringing up those tawny tones.

Seedheads of Angelica sylvestris in the foreground.

Some people dread this time of year. After all, our lives have to go on: even if everything outside is going through this dramatic change, our jobs and our schedules overall don’t change much. Thank goodness for electricity and heat, invented so that we can keep on working! Or so it feels, sometimes. The darkness and cold really are impediments to the continual churn of productivity. But for me, as a gardener, I fully embrace winter. I think there’s a beautiful celebration in the concept of wintering, and I like to think of it as a verb, because for me winter represents an active change in my lifestyle. I do not keep churning out productively. I embrace the depression that comes with this slowing down. Thank god for winter, because it gives me an opportunity to pause and recalibrate.

Pause means more time with paws - Bodi and Freya.

The pause allows for time – sweet, precious, sought-after time – to take in new information. I get to think and reflect. Whereas winter is a kind of contraction, the garden decaying, our daylight shrinking, the time and space it affords allows for another kind of expansion. With senescence comes regrowth.

Frost-kissed dahlias.

I’m able to find the time to read again, and one thing I’ve been reading is Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. In the book, Marris argues against the notion that wilderness is “pristine,” and that over time humans and nature have become separated from one another. We think of nature as “out there,” something distant, not right here all around us. Not us at all. We have grown to think of ourselves as something completely separate from nature. We think that anything we touch – a garden, say – can’t possibly be wild, as though human hands can only taint the land, even as we tend to it. I truly identify with Marris’s urge to dismantle this line of thinking. In this November pause, I think, finally, someone who gets it and articulates it so clearly.

Sitting in the dooryard garden overseeing the driveway renovation in rustic and wild Middlefield, Massachusetts.

For me, as a gardener, I know I am nature. And this time of year is such a wonderful reminder of that, because even though the clock says it’s 4 PM, my stomach is telling me dinner time. And even though the clock says it’s too early to go to sleep, my circadian rhythm has other ideas. Even though society wants me to work, work, work, produce, produce, produce, the darkness and the way it subdues me tells me that my humanness is intermingled with the earth. And the earth is telling me it’s winter, folks, or just about. Time to go quiet.

It is hard to imagine this residential landscape without these decades-old spruce trunks, planted by the gardener's hand.

I’ve believed for a long time that the preservation of land doesn’t have to mean separating humans out. We know that humans have been shaping the earth’s landscapes for thousands of years. One recent study claims that humans have shaped most of the nature found on earth for at least 12,000 years. Our altering of the landscape isn’t a recent phenomenon, only the severity to which we now do it is: the clear cuts, mountain top removals, toxification of waterways, etc. But indigenous communities have always slowly and carefully shaped the landscapes, selected for plants, and trusted themselves as pieces of the environmental picture. Around here, we know that the Mohicans did controlled burns to maintain open spaces and that when the colonists landed the forests they found weren’t “untouched” – the people already living here had created a vast garden of fruit and nut-bearing trees and diverse forests that provided habitat for wildlife that was precious sustenance. What seemed like a wilderness to those colonists was actually a garden – one just too vast for European settlers to comprehend. Their estimation of the people already living here was too low to ever imagine them being sophisticated enough to have shaped such a wild landscape.

Shadows cast long this time of year on this half-wild, long-trodden tract of land.

Over time, even as we grasp at ways to try and stay connected to nature, it seems like we are getting further from it. We invent things like “forest bathing” because we go indoors to fill our larder. Just a couple generations back we didn’t need to forest bathe because being outside was required of us: we had to engage with the earth to grow our food to supplement the pantry. We had to sow a few seeds or make a handful of perennial divisions to pass along or fill a gap in the garden. It’s now cheaper to buy manufactured food than to grow the real thing. It’s often more convenient to buy a package of romaine hearts or a flat of snapdragons than to grow our own. Land is a luxury. Real food is too. As is time! Time is like our new precious commodity, which is why I think we should embrace winter more, because that’s what winter gives us: time.

We always leave the Herb Garden intact during fall cleanup for late harvest.

Many herbs are quite cold hardy and a great addition to the holiday meals.

To tend the land and engage with our plant friends is a most humble way to nourish and protect the earth. Think of the guards at a gate of the kingdom versus the police officer who lives within the community he protects. I just can’t help but be struck by the name of my great grandfather, Ernest Worthy, humbly born and passed. He was a worker, a lifelong steward of the earth. He reminds me that my work is to remember how to work with the land, to follow the rhythm of the seasons. It feels right to give in to the lack of light, the lower temperatures. When I do so, it reminds me that we’ve always been partners, people and nature. We’ve never been separate entities at all.

Looking through a front window at The Viridissima Meadow.


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