As any gardener will tell you, every plant tells a story. But only a handful revealed their stories to me before I discovered a passion for gardening in my middle years. Lilac and iris meant the arrival of spring. Peonies heralded my June birthdays. Marigolds brought back memories of the mingling of their scent with the cherry pipe tobacco that clung to my grandfather as he taught me how to pull weeds and told me of the effort to coax a garden out of his suburban lot. Yew, a plant-kingdom cliché, was never on my list of story-telling plants.
It was not surprising, then, that I paid slight attention to the struggling shrub tucked beneath a window at my friends’ house in upstate New York, where I would visit on weekends. When my friends decided to redesign their garden beds, the yew was the first on their get-rid-of list. One day the removal of the beds began in earnest, and the shrub was pulled carelessly from its bearings and unceremoniously dumped in a pile at the back of the property. When I arrived the following weekend, I noticed that despite my friends’ deliberate neglect the yew’s waxy needles had retained their intense green. Intrigued by the plant’s tenacious will to survive, I decided it deserved another chance. And so, one Sunday evening, I tossed the shrub in the back of my van and drove south to my city garden.
My Brooklyn garden was tucked behind a wrought-iron fence between a brownstone housing our parlor-floor apartment and a restored nineteenth-century brick carriage house next door. The then-neglected garden had been planted decades before by an Italian immigrant family. Compelled by agrarian memories too insistent to ignore, the family had planted what would become a fruitful oasis of two sour-cherry trees, a pear, an apple, a peach, and one green and one black fig tree. With the nurturing of their skilled hands, the whips grew over time within the garden’s constricted circumstances into grand specimens and, in their maturity, bore improbably bountiful harvests of fruit.
My own maiden planting was tucked in beneath the cherry trees that stood next to a crumbling concrete slab at the center of the garden. At a loss to understand why anyone would mar the garden’s natural beauty, I imagined a superstitious gardener pouring the unyielding material in hopes of obscuring the garden’s true nature, trying desperately to overcome the fear that something so ravishingly beautiful would not be left in peace to endure. Apart from these fanciful musings, I was sure the reason for installing the concrete was far more mundane. I guessed that one disinterested property owner, finding the task of pulling up uninvited urban flora too repetitive to endure, found it easier to sweep and hose than weed and tend. This was the garden, rich with hidden stories and memories, to which I brought the forlorn yew. I dug the tangle of its remaining thickened roots into fertile soil in which two generations of fervent Sicilian gardeners had buried their tabbies and mutts.
That garden and brownstone became a nurturing place for my husband, myself, and our then-baby daughter. In our tenth year there, on the morning of September 11, my husband climbed the stairs to the roof of our building and with numbed disbelief photographed the plume of gray dust and sparkling shards emanating from what had been Manhattan’s tallest towers. Before we rushed out of the building to retrieve our daughter from school, my husband had captured in sequential snapshots the hypnotic drift of the detritus over the East River to our Brooklyn neighborhood.
For several days, shock kept us from venturing out into a garden transformed by fallout and the sound of fighter jets scanning the skies overhead. Fragments of charred office memos blanketed the soil between plantings, the names of their recipients sometimes still legible. From our bedroom window we could see how the gray powder had settled thickly on leaves, at once outlining and then obscuring their silhouettes in a frost-like show. When I finally stepped out, my gardening boots stamped perfectly sized 7 ½ imprints on the dust-covered path. Although it felt almost too soon, my husband and I gathered the paper scraps, swatted the plants’ leaves with a broom, and then sprayed them with a strong stream of water until they shed their dull coats.
That December we bought a house in upstate New York. I knew I would bring with me the plants I had nurtured during those ten years of my ever-increasing fervor for gardening.
Among the plants that made the trip north was the yew, which had thrived in the fecund soil of the Brooklyn garden and now was returned to its roots. I had faithfully pruned, watered, and fertilized. Rewarding my attentions, it grew into a bushy two-foot-round ball that settled in at the northerly edge of a bed between our newly renovated 1780s house and a wooden outbuilding.
That first full winter in the country I observed how the relentless foraging of our deer herds nearly returned the yew to its former state of decrepitude. I realized then that the survivor would need renewed pampering. In the first warmth of our second spring in the country, I combed through the yew’s center to remove any dead, loose needles left behind by the deer’s voracious nibbling. As my fingers probed the deep recesses they dislodged a light cloud of spectral gray dust that rose and hung in the air for the briefest of moments, like the puff of the extinguishment of a flame, before being dissipated by a sunny breeze.
This spring, five since that fall in September, I impatiently busy myself to meet the new season. As I have every year, I note the condition of the yew. As I stroll through the garden taking stock of the day’s tasks, I am reminded that among the other things I brought with me to my new home are the remains of that September dust tucked within the sphere of the rescued yew and mixed into the earth that clings to the roots of the other transplants. The shrubs, perennials, and herbs have grown large, bloomed fragrantly and abundantly, and multiplied robustly in the co-mingling of Brooklyn’s loamy soil and the pebbly soil of upstate. In this quiet place, where no grand ambitions need be fulfilled nor competing interests appeased, the yew has become a part of my story. It has become my own modest, improbable memorial to the world-shattering events of one clear fall day.
[Editor’s note: On September 11, 2001, Renee Shur was living in Brooklyn, New York. She wrote this reminiscence five years later, and she is sharing it here for the first time.]