Under the surface
Publication date: 18 August 2020
In gilt-edged memories of summers gone, she and I tirelessly chase butterflies around a meadow beside the brook that tumbles through our village. We were as close as children could be, but it was inevitable, I suppose, that we would move apart, and start our own families, and see each other far less frequently.
I never really got to know her husband before the accident. On my occasional visits to their semi-detached atom of suburbia, he unfailingly busied himself in the sterile garden—with secateurs, his beloved mower, or whatever else the season called for.
The funeral took place on October 1st. It was a cold, impersonal ceremony, with few relatives and only a couple of friends. Back at the house, she stood for an hour or more by the rear window, gazing silently into the coming dusk. I wondered what was going on behind those aching grey eyes. I knew I could help her. I'd been through it myself. But the right words never came.
I excused myself and strolled back to a greengrocer's that I'd noticed on the solemn drive from the crematorium. I arrived as the shopkeeper was counting up the till and I bought a packet of wildflower seeds with exact change. The label said 'meadow mix'.
Back at the house, I presented the seeds. I think she understood my idea, and she placed the packet on a shelf, between piles of her husband's gardening books.
The next time I visited was the late May Bank Holiday.
'Hello,' I announced through the open front door.
'Come through,' she said, 'I'm in the back.'
As I walked through to the kitchen, I noticed that the gardening books had gone, but the seed packet still lay where she'd placed it, unopened. I found her staring out the back window.
I joined her and could see that the once-immaculate lawn was now a riot of ribwort plantain, creeping buttercup, and self-heal. These plants were relicts of a past year, suddenly given a new chance to thrive. The insects danced between them.
She gripped my palm in her warm, soft hand and held it for a long time. ■
All content © Joe Gray
"A lyrical mix of backyard naturalism, Do-It-Yourself rewilding, eco-philosophical exegeses, and reflections on 'the storm of now', Joe Gray's work is a grounded meditation on how we can meet the present-day Earth calamity. May humanity awaken to the love and awe that unassumingly flow from every page."
— Eileen Crist, author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization
"With Thirteen Paces by Four, Joe Gray has written a new classic of ecological literature. In its own unassuming way, it stands alongside the work of Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, John Muir, Annie Dillard and others in the same class—but especially, perhaps, that of Henry David Thoreau."
— Patrick Curry, author of Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life