Monday, December 22, 2008

A Winter Test

My "green thumb" was tested last week during the New England ice storm. I am primarily an outdoor gardener, but I have a few prized houseplants that I have nursed to healthy heights. In the past, I have purchased houseplants to get me through the winter - to add a little greenery to the white and gray that surrounds us in New Hampshire this time of year. Every year, after a month or so of care, I slowly forget my houseplants. I stop watering them. I stop feeding them. I stop talking to them, stroking their leaves, and moving them around the house to cheer them up. But one plant in particular has not cared how I treat it. My peace lily is about four feet across. It was given to me by my friend Sara when I moved to this house four years ago. It is a symbol of our friendship. It is also a symbol of nature's strength because no matter how it is treated it thrives, giving up beautiful white flowers in my most tiresome winter moments.

Last year, I made a concerted effort to change my houseplant habits. After reading a book called "Growing Me" by Judith Handelsman, I had a new-found respect for my potted greenery. My houseplants have grown immensely in a year. Plants that languished without care for years, took on new life, blooming and slowly creeping out of pots. Last winter, my peace lily flowered multiple times instead of just once like it has in the past.

Last week, we lost power for four days. As my house grew colder than the outdoors, I watched my peace lily whither. While we stayed warm in a family member's apartment, I left my houseplants behind. On day three of the cold, we gathered the cats from the house and brought them with us. The houseplants were still left behind. On day four (before the power returned) my husband and I came to the house to check the temperatures of the pipes and otherwise make sure the house was safe. I walked past the peace lily. It looked awful and cried out to me "Goodbye, Melissa." I responded, "I'm sorry, I can't help you! Please try to hold on!" It was heartbreaking.

A very good friend of mine lost all of his tropical fish when we all lost power. Last year, we watched his tanks getting built into the basement walls when he had the room finished. With pride, my friend added coral and brightly colored beauties to the aquariums. Last week, we went to their house for dinner the night the power went out. They have a gas stove and we don't, so a simple meal was prepared in a darkened kitchen. Our kids played "watch the monster!" They ran into the basement with flashlights and asked me to join them, making shadows on the walls for entertainment. I turned my light to the fish. A clown fish bobbbed up and down. "Help me!" He cried. "I'm sorry, I cannot help you," I replied. He was gone the next morning.

When the power returned to my house. Most of my plants, with the exception of the ferns (surprisingly) appeared despondent. "I am so sorry!" I thought as I looked around the room while the heat slowly rose. I stuck a finger in the soil of each pot. They were still slightly damp, but very cold. I walked around the house a couple of times that day, feeling the life of my houseplants, but unsure which way they would turn. The next morning, the peace lily had two leaves perked up. "I'm going to give you just a little water buddy." Over the course of the day, slowly, each plant perked up. "I thought you were goners guys. Thanks for coming back!" I felt the life in the house again.

Living without power for a few days brings a heavy heart. Sure, we had a place to go, but we obviously missed the conveniences of modern living in our own space. But among the worst of all, trudging through our empty, lifeless house was terrible. There were no sounds , no refrigerator humming or heater pumping. Beyond that, there was also no pulse - by that I mean there was no feeling of this shell being our home. Large tree limbs had fallen around us. The rooms were dark and we were unsure when that would change. The houseplants stood as a symbol of mother nature's test and of a slowing pulse of life.

Over this past weekend we received about two feet of snow. While I was shoveling walkways this morning, I thought about the plants under the snow. I could feel their pulse. They are resting up for their spring duties. The snow serves as a blanket, unlike the deadly ice before it that despite its twinkling brilliance served only as a threat of nature's threatening powers. It is my goal this winter to keep feeling the pulse of nature. I want to feel that cosmic thread with my plants, wherever they are and in whatever stage of life they are maintaining this time of year. As I do every year, I will get through this test. Maybe if I am more clever, I can learn to enjoy this season.