Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Which We Take Our Time

And Find Ourselves Craving Italian Food

He was an older man on the scruffy side.  Gray hair leaked out from under a dark, woollen watch cap, a beard spilled over layered sweatshirts.  He sat on a retaining wall that girded one of the large office buildings downtown, across from the apartment where I lived at the time; even from a distance his nose and fingers showed red with cold.  Despite the frost, he was working slowly, carefully in the early sunlight, trimming back the catmint that in summer billowed over the retaining walls from the raised beds behind.  As Luther and I approached, he didn't bother to look up, but Luther—never one to pass a living being without comment—began wagging and squirming, making the little contralto trill in the back of his throat that meant he was trying hard not to bark.  The man raised washed-out blue eyes, nodded to me, peaceably held out his hand to Luther, and returned to his work, slowly, carefully trimming one stem at a time, aligning the trimmings in neat rows on the wall beside him, the first step toward bundling them into the bulging canvas sack at his feet.

I don't know that I have ever seen anyone quite so engaged in his work, so taken with a simple task.  Where most people—including myself—would be inclined to whack away and finish the job in a hurry, he lingered, he enjoyed, he sculpted.  He inspected each stem once he'd trimmed it with the same mild look he'd given Luther and me; he laid each one gently in its row.  When he was done, every catmint around the entire city-block of a building was a work of art, a perfectly shaped little hemisphere.  Finishing the whole thing took him weeks.

I was thinking about this leisurely gardener as I started doing some winter clean-up this weekend.  I had whacked my way through the catmint before realizing in a "hit-by-a-ton-of-bricks" (well, maybe not a ton, but a good handful) sort of way, "Wait a second—what's the hurry?"

What was the hurry?  I have a small garden and a light schedule, i.e., not much to do and plenty of time to do it in, and it was a mild, sunny day—why rush through a rather pleasant task?  If I didn't finish it this weekend, there would always be next weekend, and still quite a few more weekends before spring.  Why hurry enjoyment along?  And why be business-like and utilitarian about it?  I resolved to linger, enjoy, and sculpt my way through the central bed of oregano, yarrow, and tarragon.  

It took forever.

Not very artistic trimmings, gently laid in rows.
And it's no work of art.  Even so, after a few minutes of slowly, carefully trimming stems, of inspecting them with mild glances, of gently laying them in rows, I found myself in a dreamy state, the kind where a cloud of loosely related thoughts and memories interweave themselves with your work.  I fondly remembered an old friend (the sun warm on my shoulders), thought about an e-mail from a friend in Canada (the chipper call of a housefinch), recalled images from a vacation to Newfoundland (the tickle of dust in my throat) and a recent National Geographic photograph of cotton grass in Iceland (the tinkle of hollow stems hitting the path), thought of islands in the Mediterranean (the nubs of new tarragon peeking through the dirt), tomatoes (the scent of oregano in the sun), a couple of cloves of garlic (the scent of oregano in the sun), an onion (the scent of oregano in the sun), some ricotta cheese and perhaps a touch of rosemary...

By the time I had finished trimming the oregano, I had completely revised my dinner menu—not that I had one to start with, but still... It turned out to be a very good dinner, with lots of oregano.  It took a while to make.

But after all, what's the hurry?


  1. Stacy - I agree - what is the hurry... Where are we going that we need to speed up the process? Relax - slow down and enjoy time well spent - and just smell the oregano!

  2. Mark - For myself, I find that as soon as I write something on a to-do list it becomes a chore to be done and x'ed off, and it's all about efficiency. I'm kind of rethinking the nature of "work" these days! Because you're right - it's really about time well spent.

  3. Thanks for the gyroids. Did you also read about photographing flies on black paper? Then, they too have iridescent rainbow patterned wings to rival butterflies! But we never knew because they are usually photographed on white card, which kills their colours!

    I usually prune thoughtfully, meditatively. I HATE the garden to look hacked off, so it takes time. A lot of time, to work up one path and down the next.

  4. I found it -

  5. Diana, that's fascinating--even just the physics of it, let alone the colors and patterns. Thanks for the link!