David Dobbs writes about the environment, community, and science from his home in Vermont. A contributor to Audubon, Sierra, Vermont Life, Popular Science, and other magazines, he is co-author of The Northern Forest and is now writing a book on the New England fishery, to be published next year.

Sunday, 9 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

I meant to build my recycling bin in March or early April, Vermont’s mud season, when earth and air are slushy and murky and one has little desire to go outside. Alas, I procrastinated, and so ended up constructing the thing on this lovely, fishy spring Sunday instead. My good friend John Wagner came over, bringing the tools and skills that actually made the job possible, and we worked all morning and into the afternoon, making noise, sawdust, small talk, and ultimately a simple but attractive cabinet next to the dishwasher — a place to hide the milk crate and grocery bag into which my sweetheart Alice, my son Taylor, and I toss our recyclables.

David Dobbs (on left).

A satisfying job. But when in late afternoon I finally stepped off the property and walked with Alice to look at the river, I regretted missing the day. The first week of May brought rain following an uncharacteristically dry April, and both the gardens and streams, after warming in April’s unusual dryness and sun, are suddenly blooming. The tulips Alice plugged in last fall, having swollen full, have now redly erupted, our perennials have shot up in just days from sprouts to plants (the bleeding heart sweetly pink), and the maple is now leafy enough to hide the finches that perch there near the feeder. The early afternoon showers had left a fine damp ripeness to the air — a cool balminess. A Sunday like this, I’d ordinarily go fishing. Which I almost did, even though it was getting late, when Alice and I walked through the neighborhood to look at the river. The air over the water was full of bugs, the water above the dam dotted with rises. My rod, a block away in the garage, was mounted, strung, and armed with a bead-head hare’s ear nymph.

Yet I let the fish rest. I was tired, for one thing. I also wanted, after seeing how my garden had exploded, to walk the ‘hood and look at my neighbors’. I’ve lived here 6-1/2 years now, long enough not only to learn to really enjoy gardening (I moved almost constantly the 16 years before that, never tending so much as a flower pot), but to get to know, in semi-regular walks and bike rides through my densely settled, six-block neighborhood here in Montpelier, some of my neighbor’s gardens as well. I actually know more gardens than neighbors — maybe a third of the people, but all the front gardens. I know which ones have received creative care and attention, growing from plain-jane lawn and shrubs to richly textured plantings; which have hobbled along on auto-pilot while their owners tended to other business; which ones have declined because someone moved away, someone lost interest, someone got divorced, someone died.

Our neighborhood’s small front yards, typically about 15 by 30 feet, don’t provide room for grandiose statements. So people tend to use them not at all, or for more intimate communiques: the bright greeting (almost loud, but too full of cheer and color to bring anything but delight) of my gregarious neighbor John’s cutting garden full of tulips and daffodils; the quiet charm of another, nameless neighbor’s lungwort half-hidden under a hydrangea; the flawless execution — a sort of homage to garden aesthetic — of another neighbor’s classic arrangement of bulbs, perennials, and low picket fence; the half-finished but vaguely valiant efforts (iris, daffodils, a half-picked up pile of leaves) of the young single mother of two (preggers again, still single, still smiling) who rents the place on the corner.

Most of these people have bigger, better, and more private garden space in their backyards, and some do keep gardens there, of course. So that they take these labors out front, where they are not likely to gaze upon the fruits for more then a few minutes at a time, touches me: It seems an absurdly generous offering to the rest of us. Particularly as I consider all that can prevent or discourage it — the hassles, the grief, the kids, the work, just plain selfishness –I’ve come to appreciate more and more the simple gesture that tending a front garden extends to one’s neighbors — an affirmation, as we re-emerge from the wintry isolation of our indoors, that we share this space, and that life can offer beauty if we cultivate it. Maybe I’m getting old (I’m 40), but on the right evening, taking that in can almost beat fishing.