In 1922, T.S. Eliot began his monumental modern poem “The Waste Land” with the words “April is the cruelest month.” Eliot, of course, was not looking ahead to our pandemic a century later, but his words resonate with me during this epic and alarmingly cruel month of April 2020.
“The Waste Land” contains exhaustive literary allusions. It is generally agreed that Eliot’s opening was a somber response to the opening lines of Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”: “When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March hath pierced to the root …” It’s probably also worth mentioning that Eliot was in an unhappy marriage and suffered from severe depression.
Eliot, who lived his life in climates more northerly than my Alabama, was most directly evoking the struggle of plants to come forth from the frozen ground of a winter recently passed. He was writing soon after the end of World War I – “the war to end all wars,” they thought – and, even more recently for him, the 1918-20 flu pandemic, which claimed anywhere from 17-100 million lives world-wide (record-keeping then, as now, is shockingly unreliable).
My maternal grandfather in Cullman County, Alabama, lost his mother and a sister to the 1918 pandemic; I, of course, knew that bit of family history but, until now, it seemed so very distant.
In these days of being housebound, I have gone back to the contemplative writings of Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose meditations on “The Rural Life” were a regular column in The New York Times a decade or so ago. Klinkenborg’s knack for quietly observing the sublime in the common occurrences of nature every day is wise and comforting.
The natural triumphs of April 2020 are overshadowed by the medical challenges, but they are abundant still. A humble backyard project, begun a year ago, has finally achieved my goals. A decade ago, I harvested cuttings from a wild and unruly rose bush off the shore of a small lake across from the house of friends. Most of the cuttings died. The few that survived, however, are prolific and now live in a somewhat stressed piece of pottery outside my back gate. “Stressed” means this Mexican pot, which was once red, I think, is bursting at its seams and may not last another year.
Inspired by English cottage gardens and a house in my mother’s neighborhood, my goal was to train my wild rose over the back fence and across the gate. When it blooms, the blooms only last a few weeks in mid-spring but I carefully trimmed and trained last summer in anticipation of when those fleeting moments might occur.
In this beautiful but cruel April, my mission is accomplished; the bush began to blossom and bloom a couple of weeks ago and today it appears to be near its peak. It has become my habit to take my morning cup of tea at the table in the back yard and admire the tiny flowers as I prepare for another day of remote teaching from the dining room table.
When I went out this morning, a neighborhood cat was calmly balanced atop my back fence, preening among the roses, undeterred by the threat of thorns all around.