Many of the fires, including the one that killed the Yeskie men, occurred in Ward 3, the neck of the woods where I live. There was an anxiousness attending on the fires at the time ... they seemed to be random and without purpose: Who knew who might be next? People talked and worried in Ward 3. Anxiety and sorrow were measured out according to who was assessing the events and telling the tale.
I only knew Paul Yeskie Sr. from a single meeting. I met him because, somehow, I felt I had to meet him. Driving home "the back way" from one errand or another, I would pass by Yeskie's garden that was tucked in among the corn fields across the dike that lies about 200 yards from here. It was a pretty big garden -- I would guess 150 by 100 feet -- but it was invariably immaculate.
Looking from the road I drove on, the garden had a museum-quality perfection -- squash and tomatoes and other produce dotted here and there with flowers. There was not a weed in sight, the rows were straight ... it was almost fake in its garden-ness, as if created by high school students preparing for the senior school play. In my eye, it was beautiful, and I am a sucker for beauty.
On the day I tucked my car in behind Yeskie's pickup, he was near the road, became aware that I wanted to talk to him, and ambled over. He was a thin man, stringy perhaps, with a taciturn face that hardly lost its composure as I approached. And the closer I came to him, the more tongue-tied I felt: There was a deep compulsion to stop and try to praise his work and yet what words could I find that really filled the bill as his garden filled my heart? There really weren't any.
Finally, I simply opened my mouth and spoke the inadequate words ... that I had admired his garden for a long time and just wanted to say so out loud. He listened to me politely, with the sort of friendly disinterest a man might show to anyone when he knew what he was doing and needed no assistance, pro or con, and yet would meet the circumstances as they arose. The conversation was friendly, but I had a sense that, in some small way, I was wasting his time. Praise doesn't grown cucumbers and blame does not hinder the flowers. "Beauty" is a luxury item whose imperious luster is lost when the mouth opens.
Talking to this man, it occurred to me he might be stupid. It occurred to me he might be content. It occurred to me that what occurred to me was entirely beside the point. There was a beautiful garden. There was a man who tended it. It might blow my socks off, but that was entirely my responsibility ... like putting icing on an already-iced cake.
The meeting lasted under three minutes, I would guess. It was the last I heard of him until he died. And when the newspaper reported Paul Yeskie's death, it included the fact that he gardened and then gave his produce to various organizations -- the hospital, food pantries, etc. -- for free. And in my mind, what had been spectacularly beautiful opened out into an even more spectacularly beautiful realm. What was freely given in Yeskie's garden was then freely given. Nothing special, in one sense and yet, when left to my own devices, it was enough to reduce me to tears.
Across the dike that lies perhaps 200 yards from my house, the plot that Paul Yeskie worked is now high with weeds. What was is gone. I do not wish it were otherwise. I am grateful for the nudge that nudged me, for the silent and mundane soaring of my heart. It may be gone, but that's not possible:
Beauty is still my responsibility and joy and Paul Yeskie was one of my very good instructors.