Gardens, however modest, are visions of paradise. As such they are the setting for activities that take me out of time. Gardens reconcile me to time on the grandest scale. In gardens I engage in the pleasures I would be enjoying continually if life were more like heaven.
What pleasures? I sit and talk with a friend, I drink a cup of tea, I look at buds that will turn the wisteria into a blue river free of gravity, I daydream, I flirt, I attend a wedding, a party. The garden confers on these pleasures a sense of occasion. Because of gardens’ evocation of heaven, we sometimes give them our dead.
Gardens can be places of memory and regret. In the 18th Century, cemeteries became gardens. That is, when our civilization became secular, we began to bury ourselves in idealized nature rather than the urban churchyard. Cemeteries are public parks, recreations of the Elysian fields where death’s moment stands still in the form of eternal monuments, which then are softened by the seasonal time of trees and rolling lawns; eventually the marble is worn smooth and reclaimed by the seasons. That softening of stone is part of the charm of all garden sculpture, not just tombstones.
We stage our acts of mourning in gardens. I helped my friends spread the ashes of their parents or lovers by the roots of apple trees, by a Japanese stone lantern, by a patch of irises, under a pomegranate tree.
So when my dog Lily died, I buried her in my garden. This is not a new idea: my family’s yards have been the final resting place of praying mantises, turtles, mice, and a snake. In Peggy Guggenheim’s famous sculpture garden in Venice, a corner is devoted to Sir Herbert, Lola, Lulu, Kachina, Imperator, and finally Peggy herself!
Lily led a charmed dog life for 16 years. I was proud that she lived in apparently indestructible health and that she was the object of so much affection. She sickened on the morning of a day in December. At eight in the evening, she stretched into a trembling bow and subsided. My neighbors thought the weeping they heard was caused by the departure of my lover — he would never be the cause of grief that pure! Her body scared me a little. Sluggish fleas crawled out of her blond fur as it cooled.
The next morning, friends came over to help me bury her. I had just constructed my garden, so it was a good time. Where I live, the shale and clay are so hard that I’d had to use a jackhammer to create some room for topsoil. In a way, I had made a container garden in the earth. That morning we dug about three feet into this soil rich with chicken manure, and I laid Lily’s stiff body at the bottom. A little dirt smudged her snout. I went to rub it off — and then I realized that she was actually going to be surrounded by dirt. The fact that I was going to take someone I loved who had just stopped and put her into a hole in the ground seemed more incredible to me than the idea of heaven or resurrection.
I sat down and wept in earnest. I waved my friends away and they sort of crept out of the yard. My unrestrained tears came from some place beyond my control, while in some other place I was getting Lily’s blanket to protect her — from what? The death-rich soil? I could not let anyone help me close up her grave.
Later, I planted two old climbing roses over Lily. The Gloire de Dijon is a lovely Tea from 1853, with creamy buff flowers that hold a dazzle of apricot-gold within. Those were the colors of Lily’s fur. The Gloire de Dijon is a tender plant — it limps along, asking for more fungicide, more fertilizer, and I often think of replacing it, but then the blooms appear and I am appeased for another year. The hybrid musk Kathleen makes large sprays of China pink buds opening to white, single- petaled “apple blossoms.” The trunk is thick as my wrist and hearty as a tree. Kathleen is more vigorous than the Gloire de Dijon, more pest free, freer of mildew, of rust, of black spot...
But that’s jumping the gun. I buried Lily in December, before the rains began. I had noticed that the soil I bought was warming up — as though the organic matter had not entirely decomposed. As the rains proceeded, a weird smell began to rise from that section of the yard. The basin I had jackhammered out of shale could not empty as fast as rain filled it up. The stench was like nothing I had ever encountered, and it sent a loud and clear olfactory message: something had gone very wrong in my Elysian field. The plants didn’t seem to mind the smell even when it grew stronger and more negative. I guess they were making the point that plants are not people. The stink could have risen from the underripe manure, but I began calling it Dog Soup.
Reluctantly, I took action. I had created a monster in my garden, and this time I did not wave my friends away to be alone with my emotion. I begged Richard, a stalwart gardener, to tackle the problem, because I did not want to run into Lily. He dug out the contaminated soil, and we shoveled in some fresh dirt mixed with sand and compost. Lily stayed where she was; she emitted no further messages, unless you count the cream and apricot roses on the climbing Tea. My feeling of horror subsided. The grave in my garden marks a spot to think about Lily in passing, to locate feelings of tenderness. I make a joke and say that I live next to the graves of my ancestors, but in our mix-and-match culture it is something even to live by the grave of your dog.