Heather Lende’s Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs was my favorite read of the summer. It came highly recommended by my cousin who’s a minister near Fairbanks. I opened it while sitting on my fire escape on a 90 degree day overlooking plots of grass belonging to strangers we’ve lived near for years. Beyond the three families in my building, I can count the people I sort of know on one hand. We’re neighbors according to the post office, but I couldn’t pick them out in a lineup.
These are wildly different living conditions from life in the small coastal town of Haines, Alaska. In a series of personal essays author Heather Lende shares what it was like to literally get run over by a truck and the physical and psychological healing that followed, as well as the pleasures of picking wild berries and making jam, and chewing on her mother’s final wish.
The best books never leave you empty handed, however random the intel. Apparently scientists believe that the Milky Way, my elusive Milky Way, has an odor and releases a chemical that gives raspberries their flavor. I never heard this until reading about it here. This book is a thinker. Time to think about life, death and the flavors in space.
Heather Lende is a busy bee. She’s a columnist on family and small-town life, an obituary writer and a volunteer hospice worker. Many of these essays feel like expanded columns, which was fine by me as I’d never read her work before. The thoughtful tone and flow of her writing drew me in right away. Reading this feels like getting a whole day to catch up with an old friend who will tell you all about going bear hunting and accepting the animal heads her hubby hangs around the house, but first the accident.
On an April day she was riding her bike one minute and down on the ground getting run over by a truck the next. Lying there with a broken pelvis, she had the presence of mind to stay calm and instruct people on how to help. Breaking a pelvis can be fatal. Haines doesn’t have a hospital so she had to be airlifted to a trauma center in Seattle. The following April she loses her mother to Leukemia.
The stories range from the challenges of her long recovery and really forgiving the driver, to how a local Tlingit man carved a new totem pole and 140 people, including Lende, helped raise it. Many of the passages are wise and don’t shy away from her spiritual side. I admire how she writes about her religion in an expansive, touching way. Then turns around and details an angry outburst at a new neighbor’s vicious dog after he eats her favorite chicken. She takes you through the highs and lows because that’s life. Reading about someone else’s life with such specificity can soften how you see your own.
I’m not sure how or when it happened that I became steady enough to traverse steep ridges and skin just-killed animals. In some ways, it’s not much different from the courage it takes to change a stranger’s bedpan or help a dying person breathe. It can be done, it really can, by ordinary people. It takes courage is all.
I look at my own fire escape/balcony/backyard and pet some neighbor’s cat who sneaks down the steps and meows at our window every morning. I give him water and bring out my morning cup of yerba mate and together we watch the birds and squirrels as construction workers three buildings down begin another 8 hours of drilling. We do not acknowledge the man in the top floor across the way who is almost always in his birthday suit and never closes his curtains. I’m out of lemons and bananas but there are eight grocery stores and produce stands within half a mile. Woohoo.
My favorite parts were the small details of life in Haines. Alaska sounds like a dramatically meaningful place to live, but it’s not easy. There are few supermarkets and, since the packaged food travels more than 1000 miles, it’s all very expensive. There are no roads into town. The only way there is via a 4 hour ferry or a small plane. She mentions having three neighbors die in plane crashes. Newspapers are flown in from Juneau and Anchorage, often a few days after printing. Yet people there love it. One of her neighbors said she’d rather be in her own backyard than heaven. I’d rather be in her backyard, too.