Species, Genus, Family, Order: A Personal Essay by Lois Melina

By Lois Melina

Species, Genus, Family, Order

Not long after the snow on our north Idaho farm began to melt for the last time, the botanical ground hog that was iris reticulata poked its green head out of the earth, telling me there were only six more weeks of winter. By then, the catalogs with rich images of tomatoes, coneflower, roses, lilacs, and red osier dogwood rested at the bottom of a willow basket, covered by newspapers, our orders placed and paid for, awaiting shipment. This annual assurance of new growth sustained my husband and me as we sat side-by-side, chairs pulled close to the woodstove, sometimes in easy silence, sometimes defending a choice or sharing a vision, surrendering to January’s early darkness. The Greeks believed winter represented the grief of Demeter, Goddess of Grain and Growth, after her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. Demeter’s depression caused the fields to wither, fruit to dry up, the ground to appear barren. Only when she struck a deal for her daughter’s annual return was there the flourishing of fertility, the rebirth we call spring.

 

My garden selections centered on perennials. I was drawn to the certainty, the continuity from one summer to the next that tulips, roses, coneflowers, and chrysanthemum would return, even if the price that I paid was that I could only enjoy the blossoms briefly. I shied away from sowing seeds each spring. Either none of them germinated or more came up than my garden could accommodate, and I could not bear to sacrifice any. My choices arrived already started, fragile seedlings held in moist peat pots.

My garden was where my grown daughter looked for me when she wanted to talk. She would perch on a basalt boulder at the edge of the grass, hugging her knees, her brown skin deepening in the sun, her wavy dark hair a genetic mystery. I might hand her a bucket of weeds to dump or asked her to turn on the hose, but my desire to work the soil came from a heritage that I couldn’t impose on her.

 

roses 2Center stage in my garden were hybrid tea roses, the variety introduced in 1867, which is the demarcation between “old roses” and “modern roses.”  Roses date back to the estate of Josephine Bonaparte, to the monasteries of Benedictine monks, to the Persian gardens 5,000 years ago. Old roses, prized for their vigor and fragrance, exhibit seven unique scents: nasturtium, violet, apple, lemon, clove, tea, and something that only can be described as rose. Shakespeare said, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but a unique name had to be found for that singular scent, and it is rose. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, gardeners hybridized roses, breeding them in an attempt to create perpetual blooms with layers of petals and high centers, and colors other than pinks and creams. The fragrance often was surrendered. The most beautiful rose in my garden may have been Opening Night, forest green foliage against deep red petals that hold their color for days, extravagant blooms on long stems. But it makes a liar of Shakespeare.

A rose can be cloned easily by rooting a cutting or grafting it onto any strong rootstock. Propagating a rose from seed is more difficult. Seeds from the hips of a hybridized rose will yield surprise varieties, nothing that looks like their mother.

My roses began blooming tentatively in June, then picked up steam until taking a break at the peak of summer heat, returning in August until stopped by heavy frost in September or October. During the rush, I filled my sink with ice water before heading to the garden with shears, cut the stem of the chosen blossom at an angle, and submerged the entire cutting in the ice water before cutting the stem again, under water. After this shock, the rose would do what I wanted: open slowly, filling the house with scents of citrus and musk. I admired their ability to survive extreme weather and rough handling without losing any of their delicacy.

 

From my garden I could see my husband squatting in the pasture examining a clump of orchardgrass before heading off to the job that paid for the farm. Grass looks like grass to me, but he knew the stiff fingers of orchardgrass, the drooping spikelets of brome. He grew species that were drought-tolerant and thrived in cool weather, and he could tell the moisture content of a blade by caressing it between his thumb and index finger. He chose each species for its unique characteristics. Orchardgrass was palatable when it first emerged–especially to livestock that have been feeding all winter on hay. Bromegrass was appetizing later in the summer. Wheatgrass is livestock’s Brussels sprouts, only worth eating when everything else is gone; my husband planted it on the most eroded acres of our hilly land in an effort to limit grazing.

For my husband, the land and the grass and the animals on the grass were one organism. The soil held the nutrients that sustained the plants that nourished the animals. When he held a clump of orchardgrass in his hand, he saw the calf that later in the spring would be hidden there by its mother.

I planted flowers for quick reward; he planted grass and trees for longevity.

One year a horticulturist told my husband that our climate was ideal for black cherry trees. If the trees were pruned to direct growth to the trunk rather than the branches, in twenty years we could harvest the wood. My husband envisioned an orchard of richly grained bookshelves, Merlot-colored cabinets, polished coffee tables. He ordered 300 seedlings.

The trees and roses we ordered in January arrived each year near our son’s April birthday, when the temperature was still cool enough for successful relocation. Too much heat initially can produce a plant that appears to thrive but has insufficient roots to store nutrients and support its growth.

The cherry trees arrived a few days after a surgeon had opened my husband’s knee to remove a piece of loose cartilage torn in a fall. With my husband unable to kneel, it fell to me to plant the seedlings while he supervised, feeling impotent. The day was cold and breezy, and the clay soil was compacted with spring rain and the remnants of winter snow. It clung to the spade like chilled cookie dough. Every now and then I had to pause and scrape it off the shovel with my bare hands. My fingertips blanched with the cold and wet.

After I planted each tree, I tamped the ground around it, collapsing air pockets where moisture could collect and freeze around the tender roots. I could see my husband ached to handle the saplings, but he could only lean on his crutches planted on the sloped hillside and watch, reminding me over and over: “Don’t expose the roots to the wind.”

 

roses 1
Photo by Yair Haklai

Before I had a rose garden, I grew vegetables, like my father and grandfather before me. My grandfather had been a professional gardener, tending to some of the opulent, gated estates in the suburbs of Cleveland where he settled after immigrating from Hungary. His own garden began just a few steps from the back door of the house he had built himself: rows of pumpkins and acorn squash, beans and tomatoes tied to rough-cut poles. As a child, I ate those tomatoes like apples, plucking them from the vine and biting into the dense flesh, the orange-red juice running down my arm and dripping off my elbow. When our family moved to a new city, my father dug a vegetable garden in the back of our house, planted tomatoes, and when we moved again he repeated the ritual.

My first vegetable garden was in the back yard of a four-plex my husband and I rented when we were in school. A photo in an album shows my husband leaning against the garage, embracing a shovel. We’d begged permission from the landlord to dig an 18-inch wide piece of earth and nursed six tomato plants from seedlings, staking them as they grew. We knew when we planted them that we’d move before the fruit ripened, but it didn’t matter. This is how we claimed space, made it our own.

Some fifteen years later, not long after we’d moved onto our land, I turned the dirt on the south-facing side of our house into a vegetable garden with raised beds I built myself. I filled them with carefully measured proportions of topsoil, sand, compost, blood meal, and bone meal, concocting a balanced environment of calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium. I turned the mixture over and over, placing the spade into the dirt and stepping on the ledge of it, until the loam and the bone and stench were one.

When the soil was ready, I planted: basil and oregano and sage in peat pots that I started inside under ultraviolet light; sugar snap peas and red leaf lettuce early from seed; zucchini and spaghetti squash a little later; red peppers, Japanese eggplant, and, finally, Roma tomato seedlings when I was certain there was no chance of frost.

For a few years, we had fresh salads, well-seasoned chicken and fish, and an August of zesty stews made with peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. But the growing season in our microclimate was too unpredictable, too short. There were too many rows of green tomatoes hanging in the garage each fall. The rich soil and the cool climate, I decided, were better suited to roses like those my mother planted wherever we lived.

Despite my own passion to reproduce the gardens of my youth, I discouraged my husband from propagating our farm with the hardwoods that reminded him of his origins–oak, maple, and hickory–trees that grow slowly, live forever, and drop richly colored leaves in the fall. I’m fond of them, too, but I didn’t want to be like the early settlers of the West who brought cuttings of their favorite Eastern plants with them, trying to make the strange open spaces of the West look familiar. I didn’t want a farmhouse that pretended it was in Ohio. When my husband showed me a small hickory tree, I placed my hands on my hips before passing judgment. “Plant it behind the barn where I can’t see it,” I told him, as though it was a rusted old bicycle. He ignored me.

idahoOne day I looked out the kitchen window, across the lawn and part-way into the pasture, and saw him watering the tree. We squabbled over its location for a few days until he finally looked me in the eye, and with his chin set, said, “I want to be buried on this farm, beneath a tree like the ones we had in our yard when I was growing up.” He looked away before continuing. “And I want it to be in a place where you’ll see me when you look out the window.”

My husband was in good health, but as we moved into the second half of our lives, I understood not only his thinking about his own mortality, but the desire to have a sense of continuity–to bring his past to his present and imagine it his future. When we got married, my husband left the house he had lived in since he was one year old. He’d helped plant the hickory and maple in the front yard and measured his own growth with theirs. My family moved frequently. I learned to adapt to new environments. I did not become attached to a particular house, but to the gardens my parents created wherever we settled. When my husband planted hardwood trees and I planted tomatoes and roses, we were reproducing not just vegetation, but our histories. We were thinking of heritage and legacy, of unbroken chains, in broader ways than biological children, because we had to.

 

When I first began replacing vegetables with roses, I wasn’t particularly selective. I bought whatever appealed to me in those glossy winter catalogs. Individually, the flowers were attractive, but the garden wasn’t. In truth, it wasn’t just my garden that was unsatisfactory, but my life. My daughter had left home for college; my teenage son was pushing me away. My husband had retreated to the far edges of the farm, mending every fence but the ones that needed it most. I felt burdened and boxed in. One day I took a crowbar to the raised beds. Grunting, I wedged the lever under the wood and released each box from the soil that had compacted around it in a way that I could not release myself from my responsibilities. I lugged the boxes to the pasture, then collapsed in the dirt. Lying there, I felt the warmth of the soil on my back, smelled the humus I had stirred up and was reassured of the life-giving nutrients still in the earth.

I redesigned the garden, enlisting my husband and son to do the heavy work. I watched the two of them digging and hauling, communicating the way men do, over tools and muscle and sweat. Then I smoothed the rigid edges where the boxes had been, mounded and shaped the soil into irregular islands. All that summer, I carried flagstone, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle in sand placed over a layer of fine, compacted gravel, creating clay-colored rivers flowing around islands. When I had left all the weight of that summer in the garden, I swept the stones.

I filled those islands with carefully chosen varieties of roses–blush pinks, silvery blues, robust purples, nearly black reds, and deep corals. I bought Rio Samba for the joy of yellow petals that turned to orange along an edge as ruffled as the skirt on a salsa dancer. I bought Peace for its name and Billy Graham despite its name. I bought some for their dignity, some for their fortitude, and some for their attitude. I bought Sunset Celebration for the way its pinks bled into its oranges, Mr. Lincoln because it smelled the rosiest of all roses, and John F. Kennedy for sentiment. I planted then tenderly, piling peat moss and soil into a mound and arranging the roots over the mound as though untangling a young girl’s hair. The new garden did not follow the template from the past, but a vision of the future, like the one that had brought us to the farm in the rolling Palouse hills of the Idaho panhandle.

This unique landform was shaped six million years ago by deposits of windborne soil–called loess–from the Columbia River Basin. The hills look like dunes covered in wheat or peas or barley. But after those crops were harvested, the stubble turned under, and the ground tilled for next season’s planting, there was nothing to keep the fertile soil from being carried by the spring’s snowmelt into creeks and rivers. Around the time we moved to our farm, farmers started receiving a sufficient financial incentive to change those farming practices, but before that, the Palouse had some of the most eroded hillsides in the nation. We bought fifty-six acres of them.

At first glance, the land had little to recommend it. With the exception of some scrubby bushes in a draw, the place was treeless. We looked at those scoured hillsides and saw pine trees cradling quail. Where rich topsoil had washed into a depression on the southeast corner, we saw a pond with smallmouth bass, heard the echoes of bullfrogs on a summer night. When we allowed ourselves, we saw a young boy swinging on a tire roped to a tree limb, a little girl floating on the water in an inner tube.

We set about reclaiming the soil, planting grass to hold and revitalize it while providing a home for pheasant, quail, and Hungarian partridge. We dug the pond, and hauled the loam that had been deposited there up to the barren knoll where I imagined the garden. My husband planted 150 fast-growing Ponderosa pine. We spent years readying the land before building a house, finally moving to the farm when our children were seven and ten years old.

 

We began looking for a child about the same time we began searching for land. We had known even before we married that I might not be able to conceive. We tried anyway, and the foreknowledge of infertility didn’t lessen the pain. “We’ll adopt,” we said glibly, before experiencing the human drive to reproduce. After we had grieved for the children we would never have, the ones we assumed would embody only the positive traits we loved in each other, the ones who would keep our DNA in the gene pool, we created a new vision of family.

Our children are from Korea. My people are from Eastern Europe; my husband’s are from Poland and Italy. All our ancestors, though, are in the earth.

As a child, I slapped mud into patties, coiled bits of colored clay into pots and plates. I ran barefoot, feeling the warmth of the ground or its cool smoothness as it squished between my toes. As young lovers, my husband and I picnicked beneath a buckeye tree, stretching out on the grassy slope. I have stood in reverence as a loved one was returned to the ground, reaching to place a single bloom on the coffin that held their remains, a rose connected to the those of Babylon and Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.


Lois Ruskai Melina is the author of three books on adoption, including Raising Adopted Children (HarperCollins). Her essays have been published in the anthologies Borne on Air (Eastern Washington Press) and Forged in Fire (University of Oklahoma Press), Oregon Humanities magazine, and most recently, the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Lunch Ticket. An Ohio native, she lived in Idaho for 30 years before moving to her current home in Portland, Oregon, known as the City of Roses. She occasionally blogs at https://loismelina.wordpress.com.

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