@

The lyre-leaved sage emerged with vigor the following spring. A true perennial, it returned in the same place it had been planted, and then some. Several descendants appeared nearby. They announced themselves in rosette bursts of dark green leaves alive with purpled veins. Started by seeds, I thought. Happy ones. Within weeks, tall stalks—dotted with rows of pale blue-violet blossoms—grew straight up from the leafy centers. Each flower had a triangular yawn with a wide protruding lower lip and thin top one. Noticing the sage’s effortless replication and early color among the other sleepy perennials, I let them sprout forth.

They went to seed sooner than I expected. I had a habit of cutting back what exhausted itself. My decision to leave these plants alone was a matter of curiosity. This plant had been in my garden only one year. I didn’t know what would happen. Cyclical study had not been my horticultural m.o.

On the cusp of summer, I sat near thriving echinacea, the hearty clerodendron, and spent sage. The sage’s narrow stalks were dry and brittle. Two little finches rushed into the stems. They gripped the stalks with their feet and leaned over to ones nearby. At the throats of dead blossoms were seeds. Dozens were still attached. The finches had a feast.

Had I read of this relationship, it would not have sparked the bright, simple pleasure of witnessing it for the first time myself.

* * *

For a gardener like me, red salvia is a perfect specimen. It spreads by seed, transplants easily, tolerates drought, attracts bees and butterflies, and blooms for months—late spring through fall. The brilliant blossoms snap fire in the air, against almost any background.

salvia multiple blossom crop

In all the years I’ve grown them, I’ve enjoyed their attractiveness in color and of critter. I cut them back when the stalks stopped blooming and turned brown. This promoted new growth. More color, more nectar. The seeds that dropped and germinated were allowed to keep growing. I left them rooted in the earth itself.

But this year, I planted some of the spring seedlings in the large pots on the patio. Typically, I filled those with fuchsia and red pentas, favorites among local beasties. The salvia went in because they were free—homegrown—and something different. When I sat in my office, on the chair that faced the patio, I liked the promise of long red-blossomed spikes for months to come.

Summer sun and air didn’t have a chance to dry out the pots. The salvia thrived under my care. This was a bittersweet stewardship. Almost every morning, I took my 16-year-old cat outside to walk on the patio. She was living with lymphoma, with tumors in her abdomen and behind her right eye. Ariel had spent her life indoors, protected, basking in the light filtered through windows. I felt compelled to give her whatever comfort fresh air and dappled sun could bring.

Too frail to run, she strolled around the patio or sat still gazing at the world through her strong left eye. I drank coffee, watered plants, watched the birds and squirrels with her. I tried to stay in the moment, in the presence of her life, in the beauty of our own back yard.

Ar walk pause

The salvia grew, bloomed, went to seed. No stalks were cut to encourage more flowers, although I had done so in the past. The profusion of blooms waned, as did the visiting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (oh, they were a surprise). It was all I could do to simply keep the plants alive. I let things go as Ariel prepared to leave.

* * *

Several days after Ariel’s peaceful death, I rested in the chair in my office and looked into the yard. The coreopsis had no yellow flowers, only spent ones. Several areas required weeding. Young shrubs planted in spring needed more water. The fig tree had tripled in size.

The salvia had random speckles of red. I thought to myself that it needed a serious trim to bring back some life and color. There was time for one more push before fall. In that instant, a finch landed on a brown stem. It reached out and nibbled a stalk.

salvia seed stalk butter gard

The finch ate the seeds.

I remembered the lyre-leaved sage and my delight of discovery. I didn’t know the red salvia gave food in another form as well. Then I realized the plants were in the same family, their stems and flowers almost alike. The connection between them had been lost to me until the bird arrived.

The finch continued to eat. The moment held complicated gentleness. My patience with the sage and my willingness to watch taught me about its cycle. Ariel’s illness stripped away all that was not essential, disrupting my patterns, leaving me open to what happens when things are left to be. There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.

Sitting there, I smiled even as I grieved.

salvia bush 4

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

33 Responses to “Cyclical Surprise of the Seeds”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    This is a lovely story, Ronlyn.
    Insightful, that Ariel’s dying had an affect on your vision of things.
    Sorry for your loss.

    • Thanks, Irene. Once I finish my second novel, I intend to write a book about Ariel and the journey to her death. I’m not quite the same person after that experience.

      Hugs to you! Hope you’re painting!

      • Irene Zion says:

        Hey Ronlyn,

        A week from Friday we fly down to New Orleans to an Art Opening at a Gallery showing three of my paintings!
        Woohoo!

  2. Jude says:

    This is just lovely. It has such a feeling of peace and serenity about it. If we can be still in this mad world we live in, even just for a moment, nature has so much to share with us.

    I’m so sorry for your loss; it’s so very hard to lose a pet that has been part of your family for so long. My thoughts are with you. xxx

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Nature has been my anchor through chaos. I agree, it’s a mad world—but I think we humans make it that way. Thanks for the condolences. It WAS hard, and still is. But it’s getting better. XOXO back at you.

      • Kristen says:

        “Nature has been my anchor through chaos.”

        Love this. Had a similar thought on watching the eclipse the other night. The (relative) predictability of nature/natural cycles can feel so grounding.

        Your language throughout this piece sings. Hardly a surprise, that, but it’s always such a delight to take in.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Thanks, Kristen.

          The rarity of the eclipse prompted me to set an alarm to see it. However, I woke up at 10 minutes to 2 a.m. on my own. The skies were clear and I had an unobstructed view. Such an awesome sight.

        • Kristen says:

          Love those natural wake-ups. Meaningful. And it was indeed an awesome sight. Struggled to stop staring transfixed and get myself to bed before 4.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Miss Ronlyn,
    Your descriptions leave me breathless.
    “The brilliant blossoms snap fire in the air” What a stunning image.
    You have the most deft touch with your words, they fall ,dream like, off the page. Strong and soft in equal measure. Your gift is stunning.

    I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet Ariel. She was a beautiful pussycat. I still remember her walking down your hall, looking around like a wise old owl, taking us in. She was gorgeous and I am so sorry that you lost her.

    And your garden is beautiful. Full of colour and life and tender things. It was so peaceful there and your house and garden were like tonic for me. Thank you for sharing them with me and with us all on this page.

    Oh, and I’m so glad you mentioned the squirrels. Is there a more perfectly cute critter? I don’t think so.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      This year has been a slow shift into a new realm of writing. Many thanks for your kind words and appreciation! There will be more of this quietude in prose in months to come.

      Ariel enjoyed your company and cuddles! I’m glad she met you, too.

      Peace for all who enter is what I wish for those who visit. Fortunately, our neighborhood does its part to share a little beauty. I couldn’t live in a treeless suburb. No trees, therefore few birds and no squirrels. Awful. The furred ones await your return, by the way.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    We are, alas, no strangers to cat death in this house. I feel your pain — a sixteen-year-old cat is indelibly part of the family. One wonders what raced through her mind, out on the patio…

    Beautiful piece, Ronlyn. You have such a keen eye for things that I tend to miss.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Yeah, I wonder what she thought, too. I think she really liked the outings because she would wait at the back door in the morning in anticipation. I’m sorry about your cat friend. They are truly little beings who share our lives. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Richard Cox says:

    Being new to gardening, it was interesting to read this meditative piece and see the world through your curious eye. I haven’t developed this connection yet with nature. I just planted herbs and vegetables so I could eat them.

    So sorry about Ariel. But I’m glad her passing was peaceful.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      This ability to “see” is a new development. Circumstances in my life allowed for a far different pace from the one I’d had before. Having experienced this, I can’t go back. If you want such a connection, it WILL come, but please be patient with yourself. Enjoy those veggies!

      I’m glad her death was peaceful, too. She was home with us, surrounded by love.

  6. Alison Aucoin says:

    This piece of writing is a perfect representation of the quiet healing power of the home you create. Of course the setting & architecture are part of the equation in this particular house but I know from twenty years (Lord we’re old!) of experience that the place you call home is indelibly marked with your grace. Where ever you lay your head is, in some way, always my home.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    Ronlyn, I admire the meditative tone coupled with action — action of other beings in your garden. It’s so easy to forget that although we may plant flowers and shrubs to please our eyes, other animals use them too, and that this extends even to dead or dying plants that offer up that one last resource.

    This summer I was going to take down a good-sized tree that had been dead for a few years, when a friend reminded me that many animals make good use of dead trees. It’s not going to do any harm when falls of its own accord, so I’ve let it be.

    And yet I — like you — don’t always remember that the same is true for the plants we grow for our own pleasure, such as your red salvia. It’s a good lesson and I thank you for reminding me of it.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Oh, how wonderful you spared the tree! Our neighbor cut down a dying sweet gum two years ago, which could have fallen on their house or ours. I understood the necessity but was still sad about it. I watched several generations of baby raccoons poke their heads out of the nesting hole at the top.

      Thanks for your comments, Don. I’m right with you in letting some things be for their own sake.

  8. jmblaine says:

    Pets, they love us
    so unconditionally.

    I’ve always thought
    dogs & cats
    in captivity
    should have the
    lifespan of humans.
    I’d have another dog
    if so.

    Loved the Annie Dillard
    touches, quite nice.

    • Zara Potts says:

      Oh JMB – This is the truth.
      I look at my doggie who has just turned nine and I wish, wish, wish she wasn’t aging.
      It’s the only drawback about sharing your life with a pet. It’s the hardest thing to love something so much and to know that they only have a limited time with you.
      But as painful as it is – the years of devotion and love they give us is worth the inevitable grief.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        There’s a terrible beauty in the limit, though. After her diagnosis, and I knew time was very short, I willed myself to do something I’ve never been able to before–to be in the moment. Sometimes those full, loving moments were very, very brief but they got me through the sleepless nights.

        Hugs to Pepper and you!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      No one had more patience with me than Ariel. She was a Buddha. I wish we’d had more time together, but I guess that’s how it always is.

      I love Dillard. I appreciate being included in her literary company.

  9. Judy Prince says:

    How intensely beautiful, Ronlyn, in every way.

    You have the garden I have tried to have for so many years, often succeeding in some part. That is, the inimitably bright and delicate-looking red salvia (cinnamon salvia, as I recall one of its names), a fig tree, purple echinacea and the critters that rely on them and vice versa.

    Thank you, especially, as well, for these words—-for the way you’ve said them, the context, and the reminder:

    “Ariel’s illness stripped away all that was not essential, disrupting my patterns, leaving me open to what happens when things are left to be. There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.”

    Sitting there, I smiled even as I grieved.”

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Oh, Judy, thanks! I think success has different measures. That particular part of our yard turned out to be the right spot for those plants. Nature made its ultimate choice, rather than me.

      Funny that when I set out to write this piece, I wasn’t even thinking of Ariel. Then I realized how linked she was to what I observed.

      Hope you’re well and writing!

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    I remember talking with a friend about pets a while back – he shook his head and said ‘Man. It sucks when they die.’

    He wasn’t trying to be glib; there was a bitterness and upset in his words that summed it up completely for me. I’ve said goodbye to three cats now, all of whom made it to ripe old ages, so there’s that to be thankful for. They never had to worry about starving or sleeping rough, and they were always loved and protected, as I’m sure Ariel, who was a lovely cat, was.

    Your garden is a beautiful one, Ronlyn – I enjoyed this piece very much.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Sucks big time. Major big time.

      I’ve lost several animals since I was a child, but Ariel’s death was the most difficult for me. I connected with her as a being–not as “just an animal”–and this transformed the way I move through the world now. She was indeed loved and protected, but a part of me grieves for the wildness of spirit she didn’t get to experience. That’s both because of her breed (Persians were bred to eliminate many natural instincts–I learned that when she was sick) and my wish to keep her away from dangers outside.

      Thanks for visiting the garden, and this essay, Mr. Simon.

  11. “Throats of dead blossoms were seeds” The seeds are songs uttered from the dead throats therefore were not dead at all, I think. “Blossoms snap fire in the air” Poincianas here in Miami really do enflame the sky like explosive baby sunsets armed with orange crayons. “Stewardship” Hmmm. The gardener as an elder in her church whose flowers are stained glass windows. “There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.” I’ll have to ponder that for the rest of the day but my initial thought is that victory sometimes comes in surrender wherein resistance is no longer necessary. Do you have leaf minor bugs? Tomato plants attract them so never mix with flower garden. Used to put cigarette butts w/water in windex spray bottle until turns tea color and spray. Kills them off and is organic. Do beetles invade the flowers? We used to catch them in buckets of water as they are attracted to that and then bury them as fertilizer. Daffodils my favorite.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Not dead…well, that gets into mystical questions, doesn’t it?

      There is victory in surrender. In this particular case, it was peace but it wasn’t without pain.

      Yes, we have those bugs. So far, they haven’t been a big problem. I’ve heard of the tobacco trick but haven’t had the opportunity to try it.

      Right now, my favorite is a little native violet that grows all over the yard.

  12. [...] recently, Shambhala Sun.  This last publication seems an ideal fit for her, given her love of the beauty of nature and her hatred of [...]

  13. Dear Ronlyn,

    I know you wrote this three years ago, although I have only just read it. What a lovely surprise. I was dealing with a problem, too hard. with my publisher, before I slept last night. Naturally I woke up with a nightmare. So rather than try to sleep I got up and wrote the email I should have written before I attempted sleep.
    I then made myself a coffee and relaxed read my messages and facebook, only to be thrilled and delighted to join you and Ariel’s journey together in her last days in your beautiful garden.
    Thank you for sharing, now I will sleep with beautiful thoughts it is 4am
    Sylvia Harvie

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