A Cape Cod Notebook 5/22/07

listenOf Marriages and Gardens

By Robert Finch

Most gardens, like most marriages, are begun in innocence. Both are full of high expectations, an intoxicating sense of independence, and a passion for possession. A garden is something we seek to cordon off from nature, to make over into our own image, to give human shape to, as a way of finishing the earth. At the very least we tend to think of our gardens as a form of personal expression, and so we take umbrage when disease, weeds, and pests mangle, chew and rot our well-formed and articulated rows of vegetables and flowers. In this sense, gardening is often our first step outside of a strictly human enclosure into a wider field of experience. It is, for many of us, the closest we ever get to wilderness, for it contains a surprising and often unsettling amount of unexpected contact and confrontation with nature, contact that can challenge our ideas and assumptions about ourselves. I remember a soft May evening during the first year I had a garden here. I was inside the house when suddenly the gentle piping of the spring peepers was pierced by a loud, prolonged squeal that filled the air and tightened my bones. I froze, for it sounded like the scream of a very young child. Then it came again, a high-pitched yelp, more animal-like this time and coming from the direction of the garden. I rushed out of the house and down to the edge of the dark square of earth that I had recently planted. I could make out the gray form of my cat there. He had something in his paws, which he released and caught again, playing with his prey. It was a baby rabbit, a tiny frightened little thing no more than five inches long. The cat pounced once more with sheathed claws and the rabbit again let out that pitiful, human-like squeal. An irrational anger welled up in me. Picking up a stone, I drove the feline villain off into the night. The tiny rabbit, scared to death, flattened itself with its ears back, close to the ground. It looked steadily at me with large, black BB eyes, but would not move until I prodded it with my finger. It had such touching faith in its limited subterfuge of simply staying still. Yet it was so full of terror, so tense with holding it in, that it seemed it might literally die of fright. Nothing so vulnerable, I thought, should have to be so terrified, so scared of such a preordained fate. That night I kept the cat in; but as spring wore on and the lettuce began to come up in my unfenced garden, I found myself letting him out again in the evenings with less compunction and more philosophy. After all, I thought, many of the rabbitÂ?s natural predators had been displaced by my human presence, and the cat was only in some sense replacing them. Later, I would lie in bed thinking such thoughts, as a series of high, small, final screams punctuated the night air, bringing me visions of rabbit skulls being crunched in the bower of catbrier next to the garden.