Saturday, September 1, 2012

R.I.P. Garden Elf

In the wee morning hours of August 16, my mother passed away in her bed. She was 85 years old, and from what we can figure her heart just wore out, giving her an ending that’s becoming rare in the western world: a natural death.

I mention this here because she was a key player in my yard and garden life -- my personal “garden elf” -- and it’s fitting that we can use the word “natural” when discussing her demise. She was an ardent lover of the natural world, particularly plants and birds, and devoted much of her life to enjoying and supporting it.

As a birder, she ventured all over North America with folks who became her lifelong friends. As a mother, she exposed her family to the magnificence of our country through a trip across the United States featuring the national parks, and gave us a chance to know nature on a small scale in our suburban backyard and annual vacations to Cape Cod.

As a woman who lived her beliefs, she donated time and money to organizations that support the great outdoors -- The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and a local preserve, Roaring Brook Nature Center. And as a gardener, she grew flowers and cultivated habitat wherever she lived.

Her biggest canvas was our home in south-central Vermont. This offered 11 acres of abandoned perennial gardens, new annual beds, retired hayfields, rock piles and walls, third-growth deciduous forest, a pond, and acres of irregular lawn. The whole has always been more than my husband and I can manage, so each spring, summer, and fall since we moved here -- 15 years -- Mom drove up from Connecticut every few weeks to spend a few days helping.

This is why I considered her my garden elf. While my husband manned the machines and did all the heavy work, and I did all the medium work and hand maintance, Mom did all the finish work: trimming edges of the lawn that the mower can’t reach, weeding spaces between terrace pavers and pots and garden borders, raking up mountains of pine needles, pruning neglected shrubs, making everything tidy and lovely.

Throughout, she listened to and watched the birds. Our location offers mixed habitats that attract 20-40 species according to season. Several of these species don’t frequent her neighborhood 150 road-miles south and gave her much joy. Their arrival each spring warranted a phone call or e-mail. Fox sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ravens, and the kestrel topped the list. Ditto the first daffodils, peonies, and black-eyed Susans.

We kept a species list whenever she visited; which, combined with the varying forms of journal I’ve tried over the years, built up a reliable record of wildlife in our neck of the woods. While I mainly bird out the window, Mom often would wander down the road in the early mornings and catch species that don’t come to the feeder. She taught me to identify many of them by song.

At the end of a gardening day, we would draw up chairs, pour ourselves a drink, and kick back to watch the feeders. Some of our best conversations took place during that ritual. After dinner, we would walk the property to admire our work and the view, along with the wildflowers, then turn in early -- country style -- to start again the next day.

Many of my friends envied me having a personal garden elf and offered to hire her. She turned them down, wanting just to do what she loved with her family in a beautiful place. Her devotion gave me an opportunity to develop a good relationship with my mother -- another thing that many people envy, for not all are so lucky.

Mom’s legacy is what I see and walk through every day, giving year-round reminder of all that was good between us. It’s comforting to know that once my turn comes to move on, the gardens we nurtured together will still be there for the next folks who come along.

Her formal obituary is at

 Birding at Cape Cod, early 1970s

At home in Unionville, CT, early 2000s

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