Opinion | I Am in Love With Flowers That Are Ruined

How long can I stand at my window and watch the goldfinches, small flitting suns in their summer finery? For an hour I can stand there, hidden from wary eyes. For a joyful hour, for an entire joyful day, I can stand and watch the savage way they tear at my zinnias, yanking out petal after petal. They are searching for the seeds ripening at the end of each scrap of brightness. I am in love with the zinnias in their lopsided ruin, for they tell me the hungry goldfinches have had their fill.

For an hour, for a day, I can praise the ragged pokeweed and the tiny piles of green scat on each ravaged pokeweed leaf. I bend close, but I never find the young of the giant leopard moth, which has come in the night to lay her eggs. The purple pokeweed berries, drooping from their magenta stems, are a beacon to the mockingbirds and the brown thrashers, to the bluebirds and the cardinals. All will gladly gobble down any crawling thing they see among the berries. The caterpillars are in hiding, waiting to turn the pokeweed leaves into giant leopard moths taking flight in the dark.

I delight, too, in the nibbled daisy, back for a second bloom. A young cottontail in the pollinator garden has found favor with the glowing moons of its petals. It has nipped each one neatly in half, leaving the pollen-making parts of the flower to be harvested by bees. What a thing it is to be a feeder of rabbits and also a feeder of bumblebees! What a thing it must be, by night and by day, to keep the old world turning, to make the old world new.

It requires some effort, I admit, to glory in the powdery mildew. Beholding the worn-out garden, I ponder what good could come of this unsung artist of low-growing leaves. Which wild neighbors does it help? Then I remember that powdery mildew is a banquet for ladybugs. Studying the pumpkin leaves dusted with a patina of false frost, suddenly I remember to give thanks for something so utterly unexpected in this burning summer of a burning millennium: the grace of sufficient rain.

The orange pumpkins themselves have seen better days, but still I offer my heart to what’s left of the pumpkins carved out by squirrels. I offer my whole heart to the thick, pulpy flesh that fattens the chipmunks before their time of hunger. Long before winter, that fantasy of a season so distant in this heat, my collapsing pumpkins are fattening up the foxes and the opossums, the skunks and the raccoons. And now the spilled pumpkin seeds are drying in the sun, waiting to feed everybody else.

It will be some time yet before the fake Halloween webbing that’s so dangerous to wildlife appears again in suburban shrubbery, but already the real spiders are draping the creeping jenny with wisps of cotton candy webs. I stand at my window and watch a fly blunder into their artwork, and I watch the spider dart to the fly. I am grateful for them both. And all the while, I am dreaming of that April day when a hummingbird returns from Central America and arrives in my yard in Tennessee. Come April, I will stand at this window and watch her gathering spider silk to weave her miniature nest of thistledown and lichen and moss.

My heart lifts at the pinprick holes in the passionflower vines and the pinprick holes in the parsley, but I wait and wait for the pinprick holes in the milkweed leaves. There is milkweed all over this yard, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed and honeyvine milkweed, and nearly every day a monarch comes to feed in their flowers, but there is nary a caterpillar on the milkweed leaves. It is possible to give thanks for the gulf fritillary caterpillars in the passion vine and the black swallowtail caterpillars in the parsley and still be waiting for pinprick holes in the milkweed. Love and hope can’t help but come in pairs.

At the window I bless the redbird in the sadness of his molt. I bless his quiet suffering, his silent variance from the trumpeting triumph of spring. I bless his itchy baldness, his sparse and faded feathers, his helplessness in a sky filled with predators. I wish I could give him faith in his coming brightness. In the coming power of his dazzling wings.

I can’t help myself — I shout with joy for all this raggedness, for every hole in every plundered leaf, for every cracked acorn and every gnawed pumpkin and every plucked berry, for every glorious spiderweb draping the corners of every window and skeining the trailing stems of creeping jenny.

Give me an hour, and I will be at my window. Give me a day, and I will write praise song after praise song to this shabby, beat-up brokenness, this paltry plot of tattered abundance that feeds so many hungry ones in a hot, hungry world.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.

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