“Hands tremulous as cherry branches kept
Faith with struggling seedlings till the earth
Kept faith with him, claimed him as he slept
Cold in the sun beside his upright spade.”
Phoebe Hesketh, Death of a Gardener
A sad thing happened yesterday. A friend died, quietly and peacefully after a mercifully brief illness. I never actually knew her as a gardener. By the time we met in the garden, we were both retired, and she was slowing down. She was a teacher of gardeners, patiently naming plants and demonstrating a tough and quiet wisdom that could be mistaken for a grouchy unsociability in those who didn't know better.
She embodied the spirit of volunteerism in both its meanings. She was a person who performed services willingly and without pay, providing an example to others who may have come to the garden for personal growth but stayed to cultivate that passion in others. But she was also like a stubborn volunteer plant, flourishing in our communal garden without being planted or cultivated.
She had slowed down by the time I met her, but still had more energy and curiosity than many people half her age. She and her guide dog no longer walked the garden paths instructing and inspiring us with her insatiable thirst for knowledge and her example of patient service. By the time I became a volunteer, she preferred to work alone – sitting every Saturday in the information booth, greeting visitors and answering their horticultural questions.
Once I helped her on a guided tour of the garden, given to mostly blind adults. She showed them how to touch the soft fuzzy lamb’s ears, and to gently rub the leaves of scented geraniums and lavenders to release their fragrance. This opened a whole new world to me when I listened, touched and smelled, and the only way I can hope to repay her for what she gave me is to try to show it to others.
So many garden metaphors come to mind when I consider this remarkable woman. But there is one that comes to my mind now, as I begin to contemplate her loss in this golden autumn season when acorns are falling from the coast live oak tree. Dorcas embodied the gardener’s faith that the ground we prepare, and the seeds we sow today, will bear fruit in the future – regardless of whether today’s gardeners will be there to witness the next harvest. While she will be greatly missed, the volunteers that she inspired will continue her work for many seasons to come.