Miss Charlotte seems to have stepped out of a children's chapter book and straight into my life. She's in her 70s, comes to my shoulder, wears her tight white ringlets in a chinlength bob, is incredibly dedicated to folk wear in bright, bold patterns (it never goes out of style, she assures me, as she's been wearing it since the 60s), and is endlessly interested in everything--especially me and my children. She's a tour guide to the planet. Like I did for my children when they were in preschool, she explains the wonders of the world if you're near her, especially if you're next to her in her garden. She will answer all your questions, usually in parable. Sometimes she'll just wonder right along with you. She is my friend. I am extremely lucky to have her as my friend. She will squirm uncomfortably with every word I put down about her though they are all uniformly true. What are friends for, after all, if not to bewilder one another by mirroring back the most beautiful versions of our true selves? "That can't be me, I look too--" whatever the word is: kind, funny, smart, generous, wise, whimsical.
Well, Miss Charlotte, here you are. It's all true. And here I am too, in your garden, after receiving a text one afternoon in mid-June: "The blueberries are getting away from me, I already got two gallons from one bush. Please come."
The kids and I pulled up to her house on an evening near the solstice. We drove through a meandering driveway, through trees of different colors, plants in pots, in the ground, around a house that looked like it sprang out of the earth itself, nestled between young growth forest, a little lake, and a sprawling vegetable garden filled with raised beds. The evening air was sultry, full of fireflies and mosquitos.
The children tumbled out of the van, like they always do at Miss Charlotte's, ready to see something new. I stepped out and stood gazing at an evergreen tree, like the ones I grew up with in Pennsylvania. Fir? Spruce? I couldn't tell. Evergreens like that one are rare this far south. I stood entranced in front of the tree, which called back childhood snow days. Evergreen trees like this one have branches that gave a gentle s-hook curve toward the earth: first out, then down, inviting you--as a child--to hide in the space that hugs its trunk. Under the branches, you enter into a whole other world. Once, when I was six, I found an owl pellet under the big spruce tree near my house.
Miss Charlotte came up beside me while I was in my reverie.
"What kind of tree is that?" I asked.
"Foxtail spruce. Picea pungens. I love the color of the needles, that blue-green is just stunning. Do you know the best time to plant a tree?"
"I've heard this Chinese proverb: the best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago, the second best time is today," I said.
"Actually, it's 'the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today.' See that tree? We planted that tree 30 years ago. Come on, blueberries are this way. Thanks for coming, there are too many for me and I'd hate to see them going to waste."
We trouped up the crushed gravel path, past the chicken coop, past the cucumber plants and peculiar italian zucchini, past the banana tree that never quite got enough sun to produce any real bananas being too far north, past a fruit vine I forget the name of that puts out spectular, spiky purple flowers that are so peculiar and enchanting they look like they were made up by a child or disney animator. They might be imaginary except I've seen them. Up to the top of the hill, back of the garden, by the potting shed and compost heap, to the blueberry orchard, if dozens of berry bushes can constitute an orchard rather than a patch. It was larger than any berry patch I've ever been to. Highbush blueberries, lowbush native blueberries, everywhere you turned, blueberries fully ripe, so many they bent their branches toward the earth.
"Get to it, y'all."
The sound of blueberries dropping into an empty bucket is like a sporadic rain in a quiet house. Thud-dud-dud-dud-pause-thud-dud-dud-dud.
"Miss Charlotte is so lucky to have blueberries outside her door like this," said the 10 year-old.
"Lucky?" I said between the thud-dud-dud-duds, "This didn't just happen. She planted these bushes. She is literally reaping, which is another word for harvesting like we are right now, what she sowed, which is another word for planted." Thud-dud-dud-dud. "It's the law of reaping and sowing." Thud-dud-dud-dud. "That's not luck, kiddo." Thud-dud-dud-dud. "That's purpose" thud-dud-dud-dud "plus time."
From somewhere in the maze of bushes, Miss Charlotte added, "I heard the Lord tell me I needed to learn how to grow food back in 2000, so I planted these 20 years ago."
There was a long pause in one of the thud-dud-dud-duds as if the 10 year-old needed the extra time to work an abicus in his mind, before declaring with a sense of urgency, "Mom, we need to plant berry bushes at home like right now. Like RIGHT NOW."
We settled into the evening's work until we were mosquito bit, sweaty, and the youngest strained under the weight of the blueberries in her bucket.
Impossibly, ridiculously, there were still more blueberries.
On the way out, by our car, Miss Charlotte's husband, Mr. Denny found us--he had been working near the lake. I stood staring at the foxtail spruce again, wondering how old the trees near my childhood home were. I remembered, vaguely from childhood or maybe Miss Charlotte, if you counted the rings of branches around these sorts of evergreens, you could figure out how old it was. 1-2-3-4, Which is how Mr. Denny found me, silently counting the rings of branches on the foxtail spruce.
"Do you know the best time to plant your tree?" he asked.
"Twenty years ago or today?" I said.
"Thirty years ago or today, I thought it was."
"No, it's twenty years, dear," Charlotte said coming up behind him. "The proverb is: 'The best time to plant your tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.'" She handed me another gallon-sized bucket of blueberries.
"Thirty years ago or today, I thought it was. We planted that tree thirty years ago.""No, it's twenty years, dear," Charlotte said coming up behind him. "The proverb is: 'The best time to plant your tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.'"
She handed me another gallon-sized bucket of blueberries."Next time you come back, it should be early, close to sunrise. That's the best time to be outside right now," she said.
All June and July, I stared at that foxtail spruce on my way to get more blueberries. And each time, I wondered: What tree do I need to plant today?What is it? Is it a habit? A relationship? A calling that needs answered? A company that needs started? A regular bedtime? What tree do I need to plant today?
Plant the tree. Plant it. You won't ever regret planting something good.
Early next spring, when the plants are still asleep, Miss Charlotte is letting us come back and dig out some blueberry suckers from her garden, so we can start our own patch.