I came to Civitella with the hope of finishing my second novel, and I got a long ways toward getting that done. I also found myself rehabilitating some old abandoned shorter works, like this essay on rose gardens, which is almost done. I had been spending long hours on the far side of the castle where you can look out across the hills and the rose garden, and in the moments I didn’t have answers on my novel, I worked on the essay. I remember joking with Phillip Lopate about how it was almost too beautiful to do any work, so it was ironic to me that the garden brought this draft back to life.
The excerpt here is from the beginning of the essay now, new and written at Civitella Ranieri. I’m incredibly grateful for the time I had to work there.
Previous to becoming a rose gardener, I had no talent for gardening anyone knew about, ever, and no known interest in it, either. As a child I was mostly known for spending time indoors reading, though when prompted to go out, I went into the woods alone, hunting for Lady Slippers. When I found them I only looked at them, knowing they were rare and endangered. There was one at the edge of our neighborhood, on what our neighborhood called a “nature walk”, a path that went through the woods on our horseshoe-shaped street, and I visited it like it was a friend. The kids in my neighborhood eventually nicknamed me Nature Boy for this.
And as for roses and the tending of roses, I preferred wild flowers. I found the flower-store varieties of roses sad and hopeless as a teenager, and even wondered, each Valentine’s Day, why a dozen roses were thought to be a beautiful gift. To me they looked stiff and sad, like something trying to behave itself. My mother would have me help her with hers when I was as a child, but what I recall of that is placing pine needles and styrofoam cones over them in late November, to insulate them for the long Maine winter. Sometimes, after the snow fell, I’d strike a buried cone with a shovel as I built a tunnel through the snow bank, and glimpse the darkness where the rose slept. This made me feel only guilty and afraid of making my mother sad.
I grew up, moved away to college, and after graduation, raced off to do adult versions of the bookish things I loved in childhood, first in San Francisco and then in New York, and no one who knew me well would have accused me of wanting to spend a great deal of time outdoors among living things, and this included me. And then at the beginning of the mildest winter anyone could remember, a few years into my thirties, I go to see an apartment in Brooklyn with a broker who apologizes for it as soon as she opens the door.
It’s small, she says, as we walk in. It’s a large studio and kitchen with high ceilings and a wood floor buffed to a high gloss. Beyond that sliding glass door extends a small well-made wooden deck into a yard as large as the apartment. In winter it was just a mud-slick striped through the center with a stone walkway, lined by wooden seven-foot-tall picket fences, a chain-link fence marking off the back.
I don’t respond to the broker right away.
Following her into the apartment, the sun had filled the back window, and I imagined it full of roses. Red, pink, orange, white, all lit up by the sun, blooms tossing in the air like it a parade and then gone, as if it had been painted on a curtain and drawn back. The winter mud, dead grass and snow, so evidently what is in fact here, now all seem like lies.
I follow the broker back through the sliding door into the apartment and she talks through the apartment’s qualities, a short list: The rent is cheap. So cheap that I ask why.
Too many people moved in and out, raising the rent too high, and so this lease has a rider attached giving it a 500.00 discount, she answers. She says this as I look back out to the garden, and see, to the right, a rubble-strewn yard next door, visible through three missing teeth in the wooden fence. As the broker moves me to the front door, I know that I am unwilling to go further in my search. This feels like the place I was looking for—it already feels like my apartment. I can easily afford it but also my eye is already measuring the angle of the sun at this time of day and guessing I have a south-eastern exposure.
This bit of information thrusts itself to the front of my thoughts, as if I have held on to it, waiting all this time, to be a gardener.