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Noticing Stuff

Bill Meredith

"I know this much: that there is objective time,
but also subjective time,
the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist,
next to where the pulse lies.
And this personal time, which is the true time,
is measured in your relationship to memory."
    - Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

(July, 2015) You wouldnít have to be very observant to notice that it has been wet around here lately. Back in March, I got the garden tractor ready to plow a few rows so I could plant my potatoes on St. Patrickís Day, but when the day came it was too wet. I hunted up the spade that we bought for our first garden back in 1960, dug a trench about a foot wide across the garden, and planted the potatoes in the mud. They didnít seem to mind; they were a little reluctant to get started, but eventually they came up and now they look healthy and contented. But it was well into April before it got dry enough to use the tractor.

It hasnít been all that long ago that, when it finally got dry enough, I could have plowed the whole garden in an hour or less, depending on how many coffee breaks I took. But this year, everything seems to take longer. I found myself getting winded after about three furrows, so I had to set a lawn chair in the shade at the end of the garden and rest a bit before the next three furrows. When you do it that way, it doesnít just take longer; you begin to notice things, and then your mind begins to wander. Time seems to slow down, but actually itís speeding up; and first thing you know, itís time for lunch. And then you need a nap. And by that time, itís got too hot to plow any more, so you decide to finish tomorrow. But tomorrow, it rains. So, first thing you know, itís June, and you still havenít got the whole garden done.

The first thing I noticed after starting the work-rest-work pattern was how much our garden slopes; itís less than 40 feet long, but the bottom must be nearly five feet lower than the top. I knew it sloped, of course, but being from West Virginia, I never had paid attention to it. As a child I was in my parentsí and grandparentsí gardens all the time; they were on hillsides, so I just assumed gardens were supposed to slope. I still remember what a shocking experience it was, back in the summer of 1939, when I was six; we went to visit relatives in Indiana, and I discovered that out there, gardens were flat. In fact, everything was flat; there wasnít even a hill in sight, let alone a mountain. It was as unsettling as being in another world.

The pace of civilization has brought changes to our garden in the past 10 years. Across the road above the garden there used to be lawns and graveled driveways, so when it rained much of the water would soak into the ground. Now, most of that area is paved, so the water runs off of it; and it flows down through the garden faster than the soil can soak it up. Thus the lower fourth of the garden is wetter than the rest, and if we get more than an inch of rain we will have a miniature lake down there for a few days. In a year like this, I knew nothing would grow well there; but I finished the plowing anyway. When you start a job, thereís no satisfaction to be gained unless you finish it. I canít remember who told me that; it was a long time ago. But itís one of the memories that stayed with me.

Sitting there, not looking for anything in particular, I often find four-leaved clovers. My wife is frustrated by this, for she never finds them. I donít know how I do it, because I donít actually look for them. I think maybe the nerve connections that developed before I was born caused my brain to be programmed to see patterns, so when I see hundreds of 3-leaved objects, the odd 4-leafed one stands out. Maybe thatís why biology came so easily to me 65 years ago.

Coincidences happen. On the day I finished plowing, I sat longer than usual, and found that I wasnít in the shade any more. I got up to move the chair, and noticed a mother chipping sparrow feeding a fledgling on the ground under the bird feeder. It was a nice domestic scene, easily misinterpreted as an example of human feelings such as motherís love; but something was wrong. The baby bird was more than twice as big as the "mother;" he was a cowbird, and was perfectly capable of feeding himself, which he did when she flew away for a moment. But she came back, and he immediately started beggingÖ and she started feeding him again. The only human-like feeling that fit the picture was stupidityÖ and for a moment I applied it to her. But I had to relent. She is a prisoner of her instincts.

It rained again that afternoon (during my nap), so after supper I went out and sat by the garden for a few minutes to bask in the glory of a job finally finished. Sometime last fall, a lightning bug had laid an egg in the flower bed by my chair; the egg hatched into a larva, which hibernated in the litter that I didnít get around to cleaning up, and after feeding and growing this spring, it pupated. It must have emerged from the pupa case that morning, probably while I sat in the chair dripping sweat on it; and now, as twilight deepened, it crawled up the arm of my chair and out onto the end of my finger, rubbed the sleep out of its eyes, turned on its tail-light, and flew off to seek its fortune. It was the first lightning bug of the summer. If my grandmother had been here, she probably wouldnít have known the first part of that story; but the last part is how she would have told it, if I had been three years old and sitting on her lap. I am now older than she was when she died in 1948; but when a memory like that comes, I seem to go back to those times.

So, here we are; June is over, 2015 is half gone, the garden is plowed and mostly planted, and the weeds are growing faster than the vegetables. My personal timeÖ the true time, according to Julian BarnesÖ is slipping past in fits and starts. I sit in the shade and notice stuff, and remember how things got to be the way they are. Lately recent memories are less clear than the older ones. Maybe thatís as it should be.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith