What the Stones Remember

by Patrick Lane

Notes from the garden on a life rediscovered

I am withdrawing from the scourge of 45 years of drinking. Two months ago I stumbled into a treatment center for alcohol and drug addiction. Now, I am barely detoxed. Standing here among the sword ferns my senses seem to be thin glass, so acute at their edges I am afraid I will cut myself simply by touching the silicon edge of a bamboo leaf. The flicker's blade of beak as it slices into the apple makes me wince. My hands are pale animals. The smallest sounds, a junco flitting between viburnum leaves, a drop of water falling on the cedar deck, make me cringe. I can smell the bitter iron in the mosses on the apple tree's branches. My flesh at times is in agony, and I feel as if I have come out from some shadowed place into light for the first time. I feel, for the first time in years, alive.

The opal drop of water the chickadee drank is no different than the droplet at the tip of a bare apple tree bud that I lift my hand to. I extend my trembling finger and the water slides onto my fingernail. I lift it to my lips and take a sip of what was once fog. It is a single cold on the tip of my tongue. I feel I am some delicate creature come newly to this place for, though I know it well, I must learn again this small half-acre of land with its intricate beauties, its many arrangements of earth, air, water, and stone.

The garden begins with my body. I am this place, though I feel it at the most attenuated level imaginable. Once dead, I am come alive again. Forty-five years of addiction and I am a strangeling in this simple world. To be sober, to be without alcohol and drugs in my cells, is new to me and every thing near me is both familiar and strange.

The chickadee is back on the bird feeder staring at me with cocky delight. Welcome, he seems to say. Where have you been?

I could tell him I've been ill for a long time and I could also tell him I've been in a ten-year-old's body in the high mountains, but I don't. The tiny bird is in the now and so should I be. He dips his bright beak and takes a black sunflower seed from the feeder. With the seed wedged securely under an obsidian claw, he strips away the shell and lifts out the kernel. Welcome back, he seems to say, and flicks up into the plum tree to eat his first seed of the morning.

The chickadees are friendly little birds, quite brazen. I call them with the sound of a kiss on my lips, the breath inward, and they cock their heads and fly over to see what I am talking about. Sometimes they get quite angry, and I wonder if the sound I make is a long, complicated avian curse. I kiss a lisp with my tongue and lips and the chickadee chitters back at me, his head cocked sideways, irritated by my song. For God's sake, get it right, he says.

The red-shafted flicker lifts his head from the apple. Whatever he has heard or seen has made him suddenly aware he is grounded. Basho, our young cat, named for the Japanese poet, makes a golden rush from under the viburnum by the deck. He is still quite young and a hapless hunter. The flicker rises above the lawn on his sharp wings. His flight is an undulating sway, a rise and fall like a sleeping breath. He crests the fence and is gone.

Basho stops by the partly eaten apple and grooms his ruff. Once more the yard is his but for the chickadees and pine siskins who scold him from the branches above. On the deck Roxy, our other cat, colored like a Guernsey cow, rises and arches her back. She has watched Basho's run and is slightly weary with it all. She reminds me of a chubby Audrey Hepburn, slightly rotund, yet graceful on her slender, delicate legs. The garden is her purview and she seems to reign over it, benign and bored, though, truth be told, she has been banished to the deck by Basho.

A northwest crow passes over and gives a hoarse cry at nothing and everything. The songbirds ignore his black silhouette, sharp as a blade. They know he is not the Cooper's hawk who hunts this garden every four or five days. He is only a crow carrying a potato chip robbed from some garbage bag down the street. He passes over in the way of crows, with a destination in mind I do not know just as I do not know where the flicker went when he lifted over the fence.

Theirs are the way of birds. Their paths are known only to themselves, though if you watch them closely you can see them following invisible pathways in the air. Only when they are frightened do they break their patterns of travel, and that shattering of habit is more about survival than chaos. As it is in the bird world, so in ours. We break our path when fear tells us to live.

The appearance of the Cooper's hawk or his more common relative the sharp-shinned hawk sends all the birds into a panic and they rush wildly into the thickets of branches near them. Usually the hawks make a kill one out of three tries, a rare chickadee but usually a siskin or junco. All of them come and go from this winter garden.

"Gardens, like the wild places of nature, are the premises of transcendence." Des Kennedy said that and I agree. I touch upon the beauty of mine every day. I sit by the pond on a block of raw jade from the Coquihalla River and look at the slate path as it lifts over a fir root and descends behind the two bronze cranes that stand at the edge of the water. Above the path a tight solar system of tiny male flies circles and circles around a nonexistent sun. The insects are waiting for a female to be drawn into their frenzied dance so one of them can mate with her.

I always think these flies appear too early, yet I trust their nature and know they are here because it is the right time for them, just as it is the right time for me to be in the garden. The flies are beautiful and their dance is not much different than my own human dance. The transcendent is always there at my fingertips. I touch upon it all the time, but I've learned not to grasp it for when I do it slips away. Right now an unseen god takes the shape of a breeze among sword ferns. There is no wind, only a slight and visible parting of the fronds as the god moves towards the pebble path I cannot see, the one just beyond the ferns beside the forsythia and the birdbath. There and gone. I turn back and the flies are gone as well.

These first weeks back from the treatment center are a blessing. I am not thinking of what I will do, I am just trying to feel where I am. Perhaps because of this new body I have, these cells that no longer stare through the cold mask of vodka and cocaine, I am feeling the garden in the way a child feels thing. I imagine myself touching sand for the first time, or a pebble from the Kootenay Mountains I must have touched when I was a baby on a blanket below the mine where my father worked. What must it have felt like to feel something cold for the first time? What was mountain water from Sheep Creek like when my mother dripped it on my skin? My presence here is that new.

From What the Stones Remember by Patrick Lane © 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston MA.

Original art courtesy Rob Grom.

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Patrick Lane has authored more than 25 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children's poetry. He has received most of Canada's top literary awards and a number of grants and fellowships from the Canada Council for the Arts. His writing appears in all major Canadian anthologies of English literature. He is considered to be one of the finest poets of his generation, and his gardening skills have been featured in the Recreating Eden television series.

Lane has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, Concordia University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Alberta. He lives in British Columbia, with his wife, the poet Lorna Crozier.

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