One of the few good things about growing up for a lot of my childhood in the rural Midwest was nature. Fern-framed boulders embedded in old tree lines, left as fields were cleared; the bright trickle of tiny, accidental streams created by springtime rainfall and its ensuing scent of rich black earth; the greenery in all places, casting chromatic shadows, which undulated softly with a breeze. These simple and pure moments stand out to me, and I miss how they envelope my senses. New York also envelopes your senses, but in various pulses and cadences, which I find exhilarating. But cleansing is damp soil and leaves.
I went to the Boboli Gardens in Florence this morning. I arrived at nine, and hardly anyone was there. When you enter, it's magisterial: Medici glory and abundance, an arcing amphitheater lined with statues in front with the cut stone facade of the Pitti Palace behind you. But once you begin to explore, you realize that the Medici, while appreciative of symmetrical colonnades and geometrically laid out vistas, also departed from the neat hedges of their English garden counterparts. Before long, a lot of the gardens give way to what Americans would consider a park: little paths linking various avenues, an organic glen interspersed with pebbled trails.
Tucked into niches and corners, peering down at you from mossy pedestals, are more statues. Some are noble, fit for the villas of Ancient Rome. Some are comical, such as young boys with their aloof dogs. But all could be nymphs or satyrs or forest guardians. A stone hand could point to a tuft of grass where fairies played a minute ago. All have the air of watching you: stewards of the gardens, yet woven from their same fabric. Everywhere you peek, more hidden paths and shaded corners emerge where shafts of sunlight turn grasses into an almost blinding gold. Weathered archways reveal where feet have tread for centuries, yet look abandoned now; breezes urge you in, and yet they quietly speak of the supernatural, the elves, the mystical sprites that dance emerald. And because this is the Old World, you get the impression that they have been dancing there since memory.
One of my favorite childhood books was Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. My morning peering into the dewy recesses made me understand Mary's wonder at discovering her own, secret "bit of earth." This was where one dreamt of love, or fell in it. The bells of Florence tolled in the distance, a gentle reminder of the outside world, yet, in this moment, I felt a guest of the fairies, a wide-eyed child, and for a morning, I once again was innocent.
In The Secret Garden, Mary tells Colin a story from India of a boy rajah, and how when he opened his mouth, you could see the whole universe in his throat. As a child it puzzled me. But as an adult, I've experienced several moments in my life that clarified its metaphor. I saw the universe in my father's knotted brow as he laid in a hospital bed. I saw it in my husband's hands the first time I watched him sculpt. I see it, sometimes, in the eyes of a subway passenger, when the train emerges above ground into Queens and I know that I am where my life needs me to be.
And I saw it this morning, in the roots of a tree, the one I'm sitting against as I type this. All of life in its birth and growth and death is here. The rajah's throat is embedded in moss and surrounded by little stones and fallen acorns. One glance through its leaves reveals the slumbering, verdant mountains of Tuscany in the distance. From one perch, I can both watch an ant crawl, and see mountains. The universe in its minutiae and its monumentality are taken in with one look.
The guardians of this glen are playful denizens of a mythical and ancient tradition. I imagine they regard me as a little ant, too, though this morning I am thinking mountain thoughts.