I blame Lewis Thomas for my fixation on autonomy. In his essay by that name he talked about happily giving control of his liver, heart, and the rest of his insides to his body. It does a much better job of regulating these functions that he would, he reasoned, though conceding, “it might be something of a temptation to take over my brain …”
While working in my garden, I decided that I felt similarly about my foxglove. It’s a temptation to exert the heavy hand of control, but so much more satisfying to let it happen. It is not an overly enthusiastic seeder, which suggests that most of the thousand of dust-like seeds that every plant sheds fall in places that they do not much like. When they sprout, they tend to do so in smallish groupings. I see them in the shade of an undersized dogwood tree that tries in vain, every winter, to rise above the deer browse line. I spot them trying to compete for space with hundreds of robust Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) seedlings. Now and then, I step in. I give autonomy a hand. In my book, foxglove trumps milkweed.
Now in my mother’s deer-infested garden in the Adirondack mountains, the foxglove were entirely self-sufficient, co-existing with hay-scented fern—a perfect pair of deer-repellant partners. Beautiful! Here in Pennsylvania, though, they need my help. I manage the competition. I scuff the soil a bit to release a little nitrogen. Anything, for my foxglove.
The thing about getting older is that we get better at knowing the needs of our companion species. And with luck and a little contemplation, we get more proficient at recognizing good earth for our own purposes too, knowing where we want to be, and what we’d rather avoid. Some rage against tyranny to the bitter end. Others, like me, find our spaces, gravitating toward joy. Settling into a place, a community, a relationship must feel deeply right. If all goes well, personal autonomy and equilibrium go hand in hand.
But it’s a given that change happens, expectedly or catastrophically. Trees crash, foxgloves get laid low by a rough winter, lives fall apart. Comebacks take time; they take energy. Comebacks don’t just happen. And when they do, it’s in fits and starts.
In 1988, I first came upon the advice of Joseph Campbell on living a life of autonomy.
“I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be,” he wrote. “If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”
It grated. At the time, I was somewhat mindlessly managing the bliss of a family of five. My bliss was absolute last on the agenda.
But now, it feels doable, this autonomy thing. I’ve had a taste of freedom; I’ve enjoyed the benefits of making my own work schedule, discovering that others value my particular skills. This is exhilarating and freeing. And yet, we are not really programmed for the independent life. The exhilaration, no matter how powerful, goes against our instinctive penchant for stability–the security of a regular paycheck.
And, too, autonomy competes with the comfort of coupledom. So ingrained is this lure to connect, one on one, that we do not even see the myriad compromises until the euphoria of coupling has settled into the routine of living. Too much autonomy, and we wake up one day to find ourselves incapable of compromise, or of the kind of love Campbell describes as “the burning point of life.” Too little, and we risk the well of despondency.
The grand irony is that as we scurry like ants, each on our own hero’s journey, our species operates with a cheeky sense of its own importance, an unstoppable autonomy. It is a self-directed behemoth, with no driver. We watch it moving inexorably toward its own demise; we are in fact it, even as we rail feebly against the machine. With our sights on “the rapture of being alive” we dream of personal freedom, but the terrible power is in the collective. True autonomy is impossible with us, just as it is with a single ant in a colony of millions, or a lone aphid. The tiny bit of sweet sap in a soft shell is only mighty because of its capacity to multiply, quickly and exponentially. It is only then that you feel its devastating power.
Today, the garden is glorious with dill, blooming chartreusely, accepting of the crowded conditions. But yes it’s true, it has help from me. If I go and nature has its way the whole bed will revert to dandelions and eventually, maple trees. Thinking that it, or foxglove has any autonomy at all is my conceit. Still, it’s a thought that satisfies me, just as my own perceived independence satisfies. I like to think that I’m being sensitive to the needs of my foxglove, and my dill. My modified hands-off approach requires concessions. Seeds will not emerge from under mulch. They will not stand for pre-emergent treatments, even organic ones. They do not abide total control. In fact, they remind me that total control is not a path to satisfaction, but leads to what feels briefly like satisfaction, but then fizzles to emptiness.
It’s all about good soil and good timing. It’s about finding niches of comfort and joy. Time is short. Life is precious. The foxglove is softly dominant in my garden in June, standing up to the night storms and the wilting noonday sun. Bumblebees ravage the insides of its hooded blooms that open in successive shifts up its stems. For two weeks foxglove is an absolute marvel, reminding me of what I should strive for: self-actualization, joy, sweetness. It reminds me that comebacks take time, and that autonomy, fact or fiction, is a gift we may choose to give to ourselves.
Look, listen, feel. Remember to breathe. And where the earth feels right, settle in. Revel in joy, and, when autonomy falters, hope that someone will be there to lend a hand