In Spring, Alyssum and Apocalypse 

The front page features a book by Kevin Phillips, who predicted the resurgence of American conservatism in the Nixon years. Now he warns of a growing militant theocratic movement within the world of American evangelical Christianity that hopes to seize power and impose Taliban-style restrictions on us all.

Should I clean my rifle or tend the perfectly shaped basil seedlings in the window box? I sip my coffee and try again in the other week's copy. Two more reviews with ominous titles get me fretting about the stresses civilization will face as climate change wrecks entire ecosystems while we clueless, hairless apes dither.

Well, then, I'll try history or fiction! Yet even the best-sellers cast an ominous shadow. Jared Diamond's "Collapse" discusses why societies fail and Stephen King's "Cell" has a pulse through the cell-phone network which turns millions of people into homicidal maniacs, bringing down civilization in half an hour.

There is the small comfort, at least, that the lists lack any of the "Left Behind" series, books as scary to me for their wretched prose as for their bring-on-the-end-times wishful thinking.

Time to go back to the garden. I shake my head ruefully at the flowers and go behind the shed, where I split wood until I feel like dropping. Something, at least, gets done. Time to rest. After lunch the garden will still be there, as will my copies of the book reviews.

Food mellows the mind. I take up the damned reviews again. Such books cannot merely be dismissed as "let's scare ourselves silly" fodder for the declining population of those of us who read for pleasure. No, the books fit a strange longing for the apocalyptic that seems to hang in the air every day, as if the crawl of daily bad news were not enough. I first sensed this mood in the run-up the Y2K deadline. It seems as though with the ending of the Cold War and the constant threat of mutual assured destruction, we need a new terror of the week. Perhaps a meteor, a terrorist WMD strike, or a horde of flesh-eating zombies can satisfy our jaded sensibilities after 9/11?

If you don't believe me, listen any morning to NPR's lead stories or check the front pages of a newspaper or news-related Web site. I do not watch TV news, but I do know that "the murder or accident du jour" is usually the lead. I was so shocked once, when a local television station led with a story about University of Richmond volunteers doing repairs for a local school that I thought some terrible mistake had been made in the news room. When the reporter actually put a camera on me, I knew that there was truly no other news that day.

With such thoughts in my head I get back to the garden and finish the day's tasks. I can again focus on the daffodils and the still-bare branches of a crape myrtle reaching like fingers into a sky the color of a finely made dress shirt. Like a good gardener I make my plans for the year ahead. Later that night we gather with friends who garden. As we start packets of alyssum seeds and make our wishes for spring and the year beyond, we toast the growing season with good wine. Spring is here.

So are the prophets of gloom. As long as I can recall, each spring writers dutifully trot out their battered copies of T.S. Eliot's poetry to quote from "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." This sentiment, written in the wake of the First World War's mindless slaughters, appeared continually through he Cold War, when a flower did indeed seem futile in its defiance of megadeath.

Now, however, the former Soviet arsenal is deteriorating through lack of maintenance and cash, and bulbs I planted in the last years of the Cold War are still blooming. Yet Eliot's words continue to appear each spring, and through annual overuse that once evocative line of poetry has become a cliché to represent the ennui that progressives, and now many conservatives, have felt creep over them during the Bush years.

If 20,000 Soviet warheads could not ruin my love for gardening, I would surely be one of Eliot's "Hollow Men" if one bumbling man's follies made me shut the garden shed for good.

Eliot ends "The Wasteland" with the refrain "Shantih shantih shantih": peace peace peace. That is what I'll recall this gardening season, every time a voice of doom sounds in my ear. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond and is owned by an organic vegetable and herb garden.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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