The Illusion of Control


The garden is generous with metaphors for living. Bone tired, stooped beyond straightening, encrusted in dirt and decorated with prickly seeds, I’ve harvested more truths in the garden than I could ever have known were ripe for the picking.

Each truth, in its time, and stunningly clear. When I was depressed, my garden urged me to wonder about what next spring would bring, gently coaxing me on, convincing me the seasons ahead would bring good things. When I was bored, it filled me with wonder. When I thought I had nothing to give, I saw all the plants that needed dividing and, therefore, sharing. The spirits of the garden are generous, indeed.

The abundance continues, even when my approach to garden chores is something less than meditative.

As summer retreated and fall stepped coolly into the garden during this past couple of weeks, and as I shed my cast and, later, my ankle brace, I ventured out bravely, tools in hand. I was greeted by a garden that had found its own way for almost the entire season. A garden unabashedly out of control.

My garden had spent the spring and summer enjoying a long, raucous party, while I paid it little attention. To my right, I saw a climbing rose (named Mary Louise, after her ancestor across town) that had so completely occupied her trellis that she reached upward and outward several feet in every direction, looking for new support. (Could that be yet another garden metaphor?) Lilacs, sending up suckers far and wide. The lamium that will never quit, scrambling over a small wood pile, just for fun. Woody vines of unknown provenance, twirling and dancing their way into the air, the branches of the old white oak clearly in their sights. Weeds, weeds, everywhere.

My newfound mobility and the brisk early autumn air combined forces, nudging me outside me with an unstoppable urge to get things under control. Under control. After a summer spent with nothing close to a sense of control over my life, my body, my neighborhood, I would find my power in the garden, for sure.

How many times have I been around this loop? How many times have I gasped in frustration at the frightening reality that the forces of nature would swallow my garden, my house and even me, if I just sat still for a couple of years? Is there such a thing as “under control,” really?

Morning glory

Several times in the last two or three days, I’ve found myself in conversations with friends and family about control. Specifically, the futility of trying to control so much in our lives that is beyond our control. Starting with the premise that we awaken each day with a fixed amount of energy, and accepting the fact that each day offers a finite number of hours, each and every day becomes a long series of choices. Where can I focus my energy so that I’ll experience the joy of efforts bearing fruit? Where am I needed, and where can I create something good? If I could regain just a tiny portion of the energy I’ve expended fretting and worrying about problems so far beyond my influence—well, it’s beyond the scope of my imagination to know what I’d do with all that energy.

Life has a way of sorting these things out, if we’re paying attention (more precisely, if we’re not paying attention). Over time, and perhaps with the gathering of years, we find our way to a sort of equilibrium: a place of peace somewhere between order and chaos. We control what we can, dream dreams of the world as we want it to be, and make thoughtful choices about where we focus our energy. Some would say we learn to choose our battles.

Gardening teaches us to find that delicate balance between control and surrender.

When I first began gardening on this property, I bought in fully to the illusion of total control. Mine is a small yard. I can pace side to side and front to back in less time than it takes to boil water for a cup of tea. Small enough that fencing it in completely didn’t break the bank when I chose privacy, some fifteen years ago. Small enough that I imagined a garden growing lushly, but tamely, under loving, nurturing—total—control.

During what I can most aptly call my peak gardening years (funny, those years coincided with what I’d call my peak years of physical strength) every inch of my tiny yard represented a potential microclimate. Pushing out from the back door, a foot or so at a time, I endeavored to excavate, plant, nip, tuck and otherwise tame every inch of my territory. That urge, however, was in direct conflict with my appreciation for what nature had already given me in this pine barrens place I call home. Did I really want to obliterate every last low-bush blueberry, scrub oak, cherry, winterberry and wood violet, to name just a few?

No, of course not. At first, I tried to bring the wild ones under my control by transplanting them, pruning them—generally arranging them according to my design. They did not cooperate, and instead demanded to be left alone.

Thus came the idea of the wild corner. Why not give one corner of the garden to the whims of nature? A perfect solution, I thought. I’d focus my weeding, trimming, pinching, coaxing, composting and mulching efforts elsewhere, and still enjoy a spot of nature, right here in my city yard. I created the “wild corner,” a triangular area not more than thirty feet across on its hypotenuse. My imagination conjured a tranquil, diminutive garden in the woods, cleared trail and all.

It turned out to be more complicated than that.

How much I had yet to learn. I soon found I was unable to sit calmly by, watching nature—and all the invasive plants of the region—rather quickly gobble up my garden in the woods. The wild corner, I learned, needed some attention after all.

Against all notions of what’s right and stepping out of my comfort zone, I purchased a weedwacker.

About once a year, I reluctantly join the chorus of neighborhood mowers, weedwackers, leaf vacuums and chainsaws. On one day, usually late in the season—just when things bust intolerably out of control—I dust off my trusty electric weedwacker (original tag still dangling from its handle, a sure sign of a tentative, ambivalent purchase), unfurl the long yellow power cord, tuck my pants into my socks, and head to the wild corner.

I really do prefer the gentler aspects of gardening: coaxing weeds out of moist soil, deadheading bee balm, and pinching back the basil as it’s about to give way to blooms. All this, while listening to the chatter of birds, chipmunks, insects and squirrels. I enjoy practicing the art of tuning out neighborhood sounds, focusing ever inward, hearing only the sounds of my work and the creatures with whom I share this space.

My sensibilities are upset by the frustrations and irritations that come with fighting with a tangled power cord and struggling to remember (again) the intricacies of refilling the weedwacker’s store of deadly blue cutting line. The violence of it all.

In spite of it all, I’m soon whipping my way through the wild corner, taming it once again. Wielding the whirring line with as much delicacy as I can muster, I hover just above and around all that I hope will thrive—the winterberry, those blueberry bushes, a few ferns, lilies of the valley and even the somewhat invasive sweet woodruff and inexcusably invasive lamium.


As if a gift to me, forgiving my violent intrusion, the air fills with the sweet scent of winterberry (remember teaberry gum?) now and then, when I slip up and whip a patch to smithereens. (Did you know, nibbling on a few leaves of winterberry will ward off a headache? I bend to pinch a few, just in case.) Gone with the bittersweet, raspberry canes (persistent as they are, lacking enough sun to set fruit) and countless giant weeds I’ve yet to find time or discipline to identify. The illusion of control, restored for now.

Wild Corner

I emerge at the other end, splattered in green, muscles buzzing. No total control, here. Just another year of holding off the inevitable, making peace with the forces of nature. We’ll share this place, okay?

Soon I’ll tuck away the garden tools and make my haphazard preparations for winter. I never quite complete that process as I think I should. It’s that control thing, again.

Spring will come anyway, and it will bring good things once again.

To those of you who so lovingly have inquired about my absence: I’ve been fine, although it appears that visitations of the Nourishing Words muse are more likely when I’m tending to the needs of the garden. I’ve tended to lots of other needs, including unearthing and getting to know dozens of dead ancestors, thanks to an exciting foray into family genealogy. I’m grateful for the September breezes and shedding of my cast and brace for nudging me into the garden again.


26 responses

  1. Thank You, again, for a wonderful ‘read’. I’m so happy for you that the cast and brace are off and that you have regained layers of Freedom that have been on hold for so long. The beauty and invigoration of Fall is just around the corner… enjoy!!

  2. Welcome back, Eleanor, your always thoughtful presence in the blogsphere was missed! I think this is why gardening can be so therapeutic, it gives us a sense of control, or at least a place for action, when so much of the world’s doings seem so much out of our control. I’m glad to know that you are once again mobile, as well as writing, another place of making order out of chaos.

  3. I love to read your Blog and so happy you are back “in business” again. Each year I fight on the Cape a battle agains the creeping bittersweet, and hope to remain in a stalemate with it, that is the closest I get to control. Glad you are feeling better too! And, would love to hear your thoughts/blog on becoming a grandmother…

    • I think bittersweet could swallow New England one of these days, judging by the state of the woods around here. It’s a monster!!! Yes, becoming a grandmother feels like a really big, big deal. Too close to the heart to write about it now, but I’m sure the topic will begin creeping in soon. See you soon, Terry.

  4. Happy Almost Fall Eleanor! I’m at my desk trying to “control” my emails and face my ongoing responsibilities. What a nice escape to read your words. See you out there…..

Your comments mean the world to me; please let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: