A Small Needful Fact. Sunday 7th June

A Small Needful Fact

Ross Gay

  • Is that Eric Garner worked
    for some time for the Parks and Rec.
    Horticultural Department, which means,
    perhaps, that with his very large hands,
    perhaps, in all likelihood,
    he put gently into the earth
    some plants which, most likely,
    some of them, in all likelihood,
    continue to grow, continue
    to do what such plants do, like house
    and feed small and necessary creatures,
    like being pleasant to touch and smell,
    like converting sunlight
    into food, like making it easier
    for us to breathe.

Before Brionna Taylor and George Floyd there was Eric Garner, and all those many many who went before and whose names we do not hear. They surely were spoken, those names, but did we hear those names?

I came to this poem yesterday, when it was quoted by Robin D.G. Kelley on a forum, The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point, hosted by the University of California Research Institute. I went into the zoom meeting feeling very low. Not for lack of gardening; on the contrary I’ve been working, hard, so that my muscles ache, hard so that exhaustion will eventually put me to sleep and block out all the despair and anxiety about the racial violence of the last 10 days, of the last 10 years, since 1619; about the pandemic; about my own health and the prospect of starting treatment this week with a series of very long infusions, no companions to sit by my side in the hospital. And the gardening seemed to make no difference to the look of things – all the weeding and pulling and thinning and trimming and pruning. It all looks more bare, less inviting. 

But the forum was fantastic, inspiring. 

Of course I know that spring in the garden is only possible because of this kind of stripping and weeding and nurturing. But for most of last week beauty seemed an abstract concept, it was hard to hold on to a vision of the future.

Rather than creating I seem to have been energetically engaged in activities like chopping down and reducing and shrinking. We had the dead tree 

at the back of the house

cut way back last week. This was a huge job. That tree, a kind of pepper tree, was one of the reasons I bought this house. The tree felt old, expansive and feathery, looming over the house, protecting it, spreading shade and providing support for an array of greenery and vines and flowers preferring coolness to the all-pervading heat. And birds sometimes made their nests in the high-up hidden recesses. But the tree has been slowly dying, though I kept believing it would make a come-back as each year it would tuft out on the extremity of one or two. boughs.

But as it became clear that it was really dead

it became a danger to the house, and also it dropped a sticky black sooty substance over the washing line. So we did the deed. Though I could not bring myself to cut it to the ground and yank it from the soil. So this is what we have 

I think it’s a beautiful shape, it still gives support, it is not so much a ghost as a testament to the after-life of trees. Yet I know that this is sentimental. It would be better to plant another tree in its place, to watch new life and greenery emerge. Part of me feels guilty, doubly so since this is not the first tree I have had cut down or removed. Seven years ago we removed a tree in what became the white garden so that

I could plant a mandarin in its place

The Hispanic guys who cut down that tree, before they began, linked arms, formed a circle and said a prayer. They told me they prayed for their own safety but also to honor the life of the tree.

I know now that I have to do more than make up for the loss of this tree – the loss is not just ours but a tiny loss for the whole planet. I have planted quite a few fruit trees in the front yard where I envisage an urban orchard taking shape, nourished by the grey water system installed prior to planting – a nectaplum, a nectarine, a pomegranate, a Surinam cherry, blueberries, a mandarinquat, an Australian finger lime, a curry leaf bush, and a persimmon. There are no fruit trees planted on the nature strip, though I have been half planning to expand the orchard across the public pathway. At the moment there is a duranta planted to contrast with the Altissima rose, a deep red single rose, that rhymes with one that grows against the house, outside our bedroom

I was inspired by a glorious site of intermingling red and purple at a wonderful Nursery that used to exist in Vista. The purple was provided by a butterfly bush, and so I planted one but it did badly in that spot, too leggy, not enough bloom. And so the duranta

In the forum, The Fire This Time, Angela Davis, by far the most famous person there – so many years of engaged activism, writing, teaching – was so unassuming, so gracious and deferential to the other panelists. And she was hopeful. Quietly she stressed the possibility of change in this moment, of the need to make alliances across political groups, to not think of this country in isolation as a special case, to be attuned to international resonances and possibilities for connection. Of course this moment will not last, she said, but the promises will and we must hold on to and act on those promises.

As my small orchard has been slowly taking shape – each year the little trees grow a bit and we harvest a few more fruit – I’ve been feeling pleased, even rather self-satisfied, prone to preening even. 

Then I’m caught up short by Lab Girl. At the end of her book Hope Jahren urges everyone who has any space, on owned or rented property, to plant a tree, just one tree and to resist the desire to make it a fruit tree. Make it something stronger and longer lasting. “If you do own the land it is planted on,” she writes, “create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down.”

Flooded with remorse I know I should have been more attentive to my deceased tree when it was still alive. But you can always teach an old dog new tricks (am thinking of including a small aside in the blogs called something like “the dog’s box” – mistakes I have made and new things I’m learning late in life. Like, for instance thinking I might get kabocha squash from some seeds sprouted in the compost, only to learn from Nan Sterman yesterday on the San Diego Gardener Facebook page that such seeds generally won’t produce true to type). But there is always the future. I will relinquish my plan for more fruit trees on the nature strip, I will choose carefully, first from what the city offers, to find trees suitable for the spot (the tricky part being finding trees that will not shade the garden in the crucial part of the day), or maybe I will even have to replace the brugmansia in the white garden with a proper tree, not necessarily with white flowers. Plus ca change. 

I’ve been lucky this week to receive some wonderful garden images from afar. I can’t reproduce them all here because of my limited skills with technology, but it made my phone buzz to see Helen Barnes’s maple in full autumnal splendor in Melbourne; Judy and Tracy are new to gardening but not to image formation.

This is Judy’s Australian hellebore

and here is Tracy in her new Wallaroo hat, watering her exotic (to us, in a semi-arid zone) Savannah garden                  

In Zimbabwe my very old friend Annette says that apart from the native trees few plants have survived the drought in her garden. She sometimes writes to me at 2 a.m, awake and haunted by the political persecution in the country. But during the day she says her favorite procrastinatory activity is to have her coffee on the verandah watching the birds and a small rat polishing off the mhunga (millet) on the bird feeder. Then she is in heaven. 

Of course I worry about her and other friends in Zim and in fact the whole country, facing the pandemic under circumstances hardly imaginable here. But when I do a bit of research on how African countries are coping with COVID-19 I’m knocked off my perch. In fact, thus far, many African countries – those countries we are so used to feeling sorry for – have coped remarkably well. My latest bulletin (25th May) on the political situation in Zimbabwe reports that the number of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases is 56, and the death toll remains at 4. Senegal, a nation of 16 million, by May 15 had only 30 deaths, each death acknowledged individually by the government, and condolences paid to the family, as reported in The Guardian May 21 by Afua Hirsch (“Why are Africa’s coronavirus successes being overlooked?”). Many Sub-Saharan and East African countries present similar profiles (not alas South Africa). Of course figures can change dramatically in the course of weeks and even days, but the significant thing is that these countries have not experienced the exponential increase in confirmed cases and deaths that we have seen in some European countries and the USA. There is much speculation about why, but in the end the concensus seems to be that it does not have to do with geography or climate, it has simply to do with an early and centrally organized (clear leadership) response.  These countries are mostly poor, they do not have extensive medical resources, but they shut down early and declared states of emergency even, in some instances, before there were any known cases. They worked creatively to track and to test. Why? 

Because they know what epidemics look like

During the Ebola crisis health workers in many of these countries were trained by disease-surveillance experts from the West, particularly from the U.S. C.D.C.. The irony is that the U.S. failed to follow the very protocols it had advocated. The reasons why are many, but a good part of it is that 

for the West epidemics were seen as something that happened elsewhere

 Because they reacted so slowly the medical systems of affluent white countries were soon overwhelmed, whereas many much poorer countries coped remarkably well with far few resources

The long-term view though is not necessarily optimistic. The West has sucked away skilled medical workers, and public health resources are meager in poor countries. If and when the virus escalates it will be devastating for a country like Zimbabwe, already so beleaguered.

Friends near and far. After seeing Kipps, my oncologist, on Tuesday Jeffrey and I decided to celebrate new more efficacious drugs rather than weep and wail, and so we made what for me was the first foray into the wider world, apart from hospitals

to have a distance lunch with Steve, and see his garden

We swung by our friends Jenny and Mike Eastwood who opened a café, Smallgoods, in La Jolla, just on the eve of the shut down. They sell fabulous American artisan cheeses and can tell you all about where they come from, how processed, by whom. Likewise with the cured meats they carry. They have been inventive – a farm sets up a stand twice a week outside their shop with fruit and vegetables, and they are supporting their farmers market colleagues by selling an amazing range of products.

For our picnic we got the best sandwiches imaginable made by Mike. We left too with some fresh and creamy buffalo milk mozzarella  to go with our second Flamme.

Steve’s garden at Stephanie’s house is like a Mediterranean vision.

Here he is cutting me some lemons  

Yesterday, Sunday, was another day of massive protests across the country. Something significant has shifted; as Angela Davis pointed out: where many people would say, a few years back, All lives matter (ie why black lives especially?) now you see the slogan “All lives will only matter when black lives matter.”

It is such a relief, after the horrific Trumpeting that goes on day and night, so heartening to see the ground swell, to see the crowds. I was wary, given my state of health, to risk being in crowds but Jeffrey went on his bike and came back with fabulous stories and images

Here he is, just returned, behind the Hollyhock which was on the verge of blooming in an earlier post

Buoyed up, we decided to watch the final episodes of Hollywood , a pretty cheesy mini-series, often drowning in the syrupy sauce of its own mawkish liberalism. But I loved it, for turning the tables on the ‘what if’ genre. Most ‘what if ‘ fictions are dystopian and run along the lines of ‘what if Hitler won the war?’ (recently we saw on TV the adaptation of Philip Roth’s The War Against America). Taking a very different tac Hollywood rewrites history in a utopian register. Spoiler alert coming up. It asks: What if a black writer could have had his name credited on a Hollywood production in the forties, what if gay actors could come out and still be stars, what if Anna May Wong got the part she deserved, what if a film could have been made with a black woman playing the romantic lead, and what if such a film cleaned up the Oscars in 1948? It mixes fact and fiction, real names with imagined characters. It’s hocus pocus. But it’s extravagantly performative and provokes us to ask:

How is history being written today? What if today the US of A could be a better place? how can we act on the promise of the moment?



5 thoughts on “A Small Needful Fact. Sunday 7th June

  1. Leslie,
    I enjoy your thoughts, like meandering through both your garden and your green garden, both real and vital. Blessings on your health procedures. Think of the Hispanic tree cutters and allow them to circle you, to protect you, and to honor you. You are a special lady. Glad Eleanor shared you with me.

  2. I am wrestling with tree angst as well. We have three large (and beautiful) trees in our front yard that need to be cut down. Horrible situation! I can’t bring myself to face the facts. They are Bradford pear trees –a quick google will tell you they are disastrously engineered specimens, a scourge of the South. (One of our many.) They grow branches too wide and heavy for the trunk to bear and then they split. We had one in the back yard that already did that. Half the tree went onto the neighbor’s house a couple of years ago. The tree was healthy and the day wasn’t even windy!

  3. Love love love hearing your writing voice. Your garden is so lovely (inadequate to describe I know) and I’m sorry about your tree. I’m about to watch Hollywood. And I was behind on reading your blog posts and only now caught up on the Baby Face one. : ) Miss you so much my friend. Marfa people always ask about you. XOX

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.