ESSAY- Rapidan garden: Nature teaches as much as books
Once the academic year ends, I trade in my teaching clothes for shorts and t-shirt, and set aside my backpack 'til September. Neighbors and acquaintances greet me with the same line, "So, are you off for the summer?
I never know quite how to answer that. I'm both off and not off. I'm off in that I'm not teaching summer school and not keeping regular office hours. But this is when I do most of my research and when I have more time to write. In that sense, I'm not off. I'm very much "on": I'm doing the very things English professors are expected to do when they're not in the classroom.
Still, one cannot research and write around the clock any more than one can practice medicine or build bridges. When I'm not at my desk at home, I'm often in the yard pulling weeds or watering zinnias or just eyeing the vegetable plants for signs of growth. When you do this every day, you see a lot, and the sudden appearance, truly overnight, of the first coiled threads on a cucumber plant can make the heart sing.
As I planned a trip to Virginia a few weeks ago– part business, part pleasure, part solemn duty– I looked forward to seeing family and friends. I looked forward to a change of scenery from my workaday life. But a part of me chafed at the thought of leaving unwatched and uncelebrated my flowers, my shrubs, and my newly patched lawn. Even though I have a housesitter who will no doubt enjoy the yard, I'm not getting to see the hydrangea blooms transform from grainy little disks into blue spheres of joy. Nor do I get to see green peppers the size of little thimbles.
Oh, well. I have other gardens and another lawn to occupy me here. Driving east from Charlottesville, I pass Keswick and then Gordonsville and Orange on my way to the family homestead in Rapidan. My father died there last Christmas, a dozen years after my mother's death, and now my sisters and I are trying to decide what to do with the property.
For now, there's still time to walk around the fishpond and look at the gardens my grandmother and then my parents tended, each in their turn, for a total of a hundred years. My father had an easy familiarity with gardening that I always admired. He knew the names of almost every tree, bush, and flower on his portion of God's earth and would happily tell us those names if we asked.
Last year, when he was in failing health, I spent much of the summer with him. I planted a little garden that he could see from the front porch, and I learned how to operate the mower he had ridden summer after summer on broiling hot days. Steering it was not as hard as I thought, though on the steep slopes near the house I could feel myself slipping precariously to one side as I swung from uphill to downhill.
On those July days a year ago, I could also feel my father's strength and determination coursing through my veins. I could do little to ease his physical hardship in his last months, but when I was in the yard, atop that mower, I was keeping up the property; I was doing the sort of work he had truly enjoyed.
In the old days, my father used to sit down at the supper table and tell my mother and sisters and me what he had done in the yard. Sometimes he had planted a new tree or bush-hogged part of the 16-acre field. Other times he had picked a handful of the yellow tomatoes he loved. These items passed for news on a slow summer day.
Every few days now, I drive from Charlottesville to Rapidan to check on his garden and his lawn. It's a way of staying in touch with my father, my family, and with a part of myself that cannot be nurtured by books or classroom teaching. The pollen-heavy daylilies, the towering hollyhocks, the marigolds I planted shortly after I arrived this summer– they greet me on each visit with the quiet news of their blossoming. And I know that when I get back to Lowell, the flowers and vegetables I planted in the spring will have their own news to tell.
There's so much of the world that cannot be crammed into a syllabus. Next time someone asks me whether I'm off for the summer, I think I'll just say yes– yes, I am– and let my life go on blooming without further explanation.
Hilary Holladay is Professor of English and director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.