Here is the Native Plant garden: a terraced pool with geometric cascades; a wet hot corridor of mountain laurel and rhododendron; a bird-bath pond, frequented just as often by turtles and frogs. Pollinators feasting on a rainbow of stalks and sundials. Hawks in flight overhead or perched in the neighboring woods. Squirrels, black and slender, skittering close, fearless in their quest for lunch crumbs.
I teach my daughter the word insectivore as we peer inside the belly of a pitcher plant. River birch line the exit from this one small paradise to the next, all of it inside the great New York Botanical Garden: a crag-field scattered with cactus, redolent of northern Yellowstone. I wonder, here against this undeniably beautiful, non-wild wilderness, how great a sin against wildness it might be to love the garden, too.
It is ninety-six degrees on this Wednesday afternoon, so we head for the woods, where I remind my hot body how much relief can be obtained by flirting with the shadows. My toddler comes to life in this green corridor, and I let her, grateful for a span of safe and screenless running space. Here she is free to relocate rocks, stroke leaves, and change direction as often as she likes.
She is wise to my threats of leaving and will walk, then run, determinedly and laughingly away from me. When we reunite she will open a fist to show off her newest collectible, grinning and labeling it with the closest vocabulary she can conjure. Then she will make several insistent claims: “off,” she shouts, pulling at her shirt, and I undress her, knowing this is a command and not a request. She pries my hands off the handles and tugs the stroller along herself, asserting with concentrated brow, “Baby do dat.”
At the end of our hike we eat wild, too, by prowling the garden’s weekly farmer’s market. A vendor doubles my swiss chard purchase for free. He is happy, he tells me, that I will sautee it and put it into a little creature’s belly. Then we buy raspberries and eat the whole pint before they can melt in my tote bag.
I look at my shirtless, sweaty-curled, smiling daughter, raspberries all up and down her neck and tummy, dirt on her knees, and I think: This is the summer I wanted to give her.
I remember coming here two years ago. The same blooms were alive in the Native Garden, and the same baby in tow. She was not born yet but was plenty active, rolling away inside me like the whale I felt like. Far too cetacean to do any real hiking, I laid down on a park bench half-draped across my husband. We watched monk parakeets chase each other in the tops of border trees and listened to bluejays who thought they were red-tailed hawks. I remember imagining that I could know how much chaos was about to unleash itself on me and my more patient companion. You have no bloody idea, this golden-haired creature might have told me, could she speak or foresee how splendid she would become.
I’ve been thinking how hard it is for me to write authentically about wildness. How all I really want to pen—and all I feel that life qualifies me to document right now—is the awe that arises each time this small human accomplishes a daily miracle.
She is my authentic wildness. Wildly, I am mothering this two-year-old berry-stained creature, half naked in a garden on a summer afternoon.