Friday, April 4, 2014

When Your Therapy is Sh-t...

Therapy comes in many forms.

Black leather chaise lounges and bearded, cigar-smoking psychologists may be somewhat passe, but the paid professional who listens, advises, suggests, (gently) prods, and tells you your hour is up is not.

Noticeably, however, this once private, near-monologue of disclosures and discoveries has become very public: too public, perhaps. In our pill-popping, post-it on Facebook, Tweet-it-on-Twitter, snap-it-on-your-mobile, expose-all society, "therapy" is everywhere--and with it, all those private affairs. We post in public venues to share and celebrate our accomplishments, and yes, our woes and irritations;  call it Facebook-therapy. We justify disclosing our (in)discretions on various grounds: empowering others; being honest; taking responsibility to be healthy and whole (once again). But I think most people post to receive some kind of affirmation--and this, in my humble, non-professional opinion, perhaps leads us to become too addicted to affirmation. What happens when we don't receive it? A recent study has linked lower self-esteem to Facebook use.

Advances in biomedical technology and drug therapy have greatly democratized therapy: a panoply of spring pastel-colored pills abound! Pink pills for anxiety, little blue ones for depression, yellow for OCD. Happiness has become yet another commodity--one to be taken with a full glass of water! (With all due respect to those for whom drug therapy offers substantial relief and, it must be said, the opportunity to live.)

This commodification of happiness appears in other ways. Our wellness-conscious society has democratized not-so-new types of therapy: yoga, meditation, zumba, and exercise writ large have become our barometers of not simply physical but mental health as well. I admit that ten days away from running (bum knee) and the gym and I have descended into a pit of woe and misery.

That populist instrument--the ubiquitous mobile--has made finding people who readily talk about their therapy / psychotherapy/ couple's counseling / addictions both shocking and shockingly easy. Yesterday as I made my way to the front garden, I heard a male voice--disembodied at first--discussing to a friend the fact that his girlfriend kicked him out after weeks of tension, argument, and suspicion. He was feeling blue, he told his friend, but was trying to get from day to day by overloading himself with work obligations. I tried not to listen, but his booming, baritone voice made it difficult not to hear. A man suddenly appeared: a workman, across the street. He looked at me. I panicked and looked at the ground. He lowered his voice out of embarrassment, perhaps, or a sudden need for privacy. But then, as if I did not exist, he resumed speaking in his need-to-be-heard-in-this-large-and-crowded-lecture-hall-voice roughly 45 seconds later--about his degree of complicity in the doomed relationship. (Hey, at least he was mature enough to admit his own shortcomings.)

Like this workman, I, too, was in desperate need of therapy earlier this week, weighed down with concerns of various sorts. So I took a few mental health days and wallowed in my sh-t.

No, not metaphorical sh-t. Actual cow sh-t.

Yes, dear reader: I played in the garden (I despise that phrase, "work in the garden," for it signifies something that gardening decidedly is not) and, in doing so, discovered that playing in cow sh-t is an excellent form of therapy.

Winter finally and rapidly retreated in the mid-Atlantic and this week we were treated to warm temperatures and bountiful sun. I had to capitalize on the moment before more plants began to poke up from the ground and so laid 1,200 pounds of composted cow manure in the front sun and rear shade gardens.

By the way: NEVER apply fresh cow manure to your garden beds: the nitrogen will burn your plants and their roots--in other words, it will kill them--and will impede or even prevent seed germination. You MUST ONLY use composted cow manure, which will slowly release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium down into the soil. And if you are applying the manure to already planted beds, either top-dress the beds, or, if you are certain you won't disturb tender plant roots, then you may work the manure into the soil.

I know there are metaphors galore regarding surface sh-t and deep sh-t, but I leave those to you.

For now, I simply relish in the fact of feeling better, more grounded, as I now stand ankle deep in cow sh-t.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Long Gardening Life

Two great gardeners died on Monday, 17 March 2014.

Mrs. Rachel Mellon died at her estate in Virginia at the age of 103. Though many may not have heard of her, I am certain that all Americans know of her most famous work: the redesign of the White House Rose Garden.

Mrs. Mellon (a.k.a. Bunny) possessed tremendous botanical prowess and had an eye for grand and poignant design. But her considerable wealth, which placed her in the social circles of people like the Kennedys and Queen Elizabeth, among other social, political, and cultural luminaries, no doubt aided in the achievement of her fame. If wealth catapulted Bunny's horticultural 'career' into the stratosphere, then writing and weekly gardening columns allowed other eventually renowned gardeners (such as Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, and Katharine White--E.B.'s wife for those in the know) to achieve their national and international stature.

They represent one class of gardeners, if I can so boldly categorize gardeners as belonging to one of two groups. The fame of other gardeners--most gardeners, like my uncle, Jim VanDervort and his wife, my Aunt Annie--is more local, bred within the communities within which they lived. This is not to suggest that their abilities are lesser than the famous gardeners who cultivate, and cultivated, this earth. Not in the least. In fact, I tend to think their gardens are more aesthetically experimental, more personal and thus more accessible intellectually and artistically because they are more intimate, unhampered as it were by committees and commissions and the need to tame expansive swaths of land into gardens for hordes of visitors to enjoy.

Jim and Aunt Annie's gardens--an assortment of brilliant and sublime spaces such as the long border, the Greco-Roman shade garden, the cookhouse beds, the savannah behind the barn--illustrate an aesthetic appreciation for life and for the natural world that filtered through their lives. Anyone who has visited their house knows this.

I always enjoyed wandering their house, asking Jim 'who painted that?' or 'is that English or Dutch?', or simply commenting on the beauty of a porcelain bowl or a table, which, I knew, would always elicit a story. Hopefully they did not think of me as the nosy nephew; I asked because I wanted to hear the stories which Jim would almost always begin with a sleight of hand, and one particular utterance: 'oh, that old thing...'

Far from being dismissive, 'that old thing' exuded playful familiarity--akin to things old married couples say to each other, I imagine. It prefaced the telling of a history, a sharing, a knowledge of provenance mixed with personal anecdote related to the object's acquisition. 'That old thing', I have come to realize in the days since his passing, summarized what Jim taught and what he offered to me: an appreciation of the past and, through gardening, an appreciation of the present.

He taught me--they taught me--through example, to be a steward of the past by caring for the myriad of old things that survive the ages, despite my klutziness and the fact that I once ran through a screen door and bent its frame, at considerable cost to them. Still, they have entrusted valuable items to my care.

And he taught me--they taught me--to be a steward of this earth by gardening.  If I owe my gardening life to Aunt Annie who taught me, at the age of six, how to properly dig a hole for a new plant and water it, and how to be attuned to the needs of particular plants and how to situate them in ways to create rich tapestries of color and composition, then both Aunt Annie and Jim cultivated that growing passion into my adulthood.

If I owe my appreciation for 'old things' to both of them, then it is only through the example of their care of things that I learned what appreciation as a practice and what being a steward really mean.
In Memoriam
James K. VanDervort 
(18 September 1932 - 17 March 2014) 

Monday, November 18, 2013

On Silences and Absences

There is no reason why a garden cannot be both beautiful and functional. The late and widely acclaimed British gardener Rosemary Verey designed some fabulous potagers, including her own at Barnsley House in the Cotswalds.

My garden contains rosemary, lavender, chives, occasionally sage and basil, very little mint (given Gramsci's "affection" for it), and the errant perilla which the Japanese call shiso, all of which are interspersed among flowers and foliage. While the front sun garden would be the perfect space to plant an assortment of vegetables, I cannot do so since my garden occasionally attracts those who prefer five-finger discounts on flowers. I can only imagine how much attention the spectacle of unguarded vegetables would garner!

This summer, we decided to venture into fruit and I planted a Brown Turkey Fig Tree in the rear garden. Given last week's flirtation with below-freezing evening temperatures, I struggled with the issue of protecting it during its first year. In the end, I decided a little extra investment in the fig tree might actually be in my (and its) best interest. While at the store, however, I happened upon the remaining stock of bulbs, and purchased 15 Allium 'Purple Sensation', a very large and reputedly 'most purple' of the purple alliums.

I decided on a spot and began digging, only to discover a clump of (now I remember) Dutch red with blue veining tulips. Oops.

I decided on another perfect spot and begin digging, only to violate yet another clump of tulip bulbs--this time the double reds.  Damn it.

At first irritated with my own faulty memory, I quickly took pride in the fact that the bulbs appeared to be 'perennializing' (I hesitate to write 'naturalize', because that implies a permanence for which the tulip is not known, unlike say, daffodils). If you plant the tulip bulb deeply enough--I plant mine 8-10 inches below ground, several inches below the recommended depth--I find that the tulip will continue to flower for several years even if this year (the third after my private tulip mania in Amsterdam), some of the tulips produced fewer flowers than the previous two years. But I owe that to increased shading by larger, neighboring plants, which means it is time to move them. 

Still: the presence of those little "bulbettes" made me understand that something profound was happening beyond view.

Much of our lives is measured by activity and visibility. We must be attuned to presence, not absence, the visible, not the invisible. Yet we pay indirect homage to silences and absences in the form of "catching up" periodically with friends--not a charitable or obligatory act, but one born out of the pleasures of human contact. True: our quotidian lives occupy us; geography imposes; work and home-life demand. But always, in the moment of contact--whether in the form of an email or a Facebook posting/bilateral connection, a phone call or a good old fashioned hand-written letter or card, the heart flutters, the spirit soars, and we feel at one with the world, or at least our small portion of it, again, precisely because we are connected to it.

That's how I felt when I saw the tulip bulbs and their babes.

Of course, they may not have felt the same towards me, jostling them from their procreative, subterranean bliss. But that's life: sometimes we just don't connect, sometimes we are simply "off." Sometimes we unwittingly slip, inadvertently dig up the tulips, and damage the relationship. In those instances, time and space perform the work of repair. Or at least we hope, especially when our spade slices through the largest of the bulbs.

Sometimes we grow out of each other, though in those instances the feeling is usually mutual, even if we don't always have the honesty to admit it. Tulips sometimes tire of us and the conditions we provide (conditions over which we usually have little control), and decide to take their leave. If the Dutch have perfected their affairs with tulips (sandy soil and climactic conditions help), then Americans seem to prefer to treat their tulips as annuals, unsentimentally ripping them out after bloom time. Perhaps waiting for the foliage to fully die back--a necessity if the tulip is to bloom again and 'perennialize'--annoys fussy, impatient American gardeners. (Ahem, folks, send those bulbs to me. My inner Dutch boy will take care of them.)

Relationships are rarely one-sided. But in the case of tulips, the proof of the strength of the relationship always appears (or not) in the spring--and it is for the tulip to decide. This is the pain of a gardening life, mitigated only by the fact that for most of the year, we do not see any evidence of the tulip's existence. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, especially when gardening lives are filled with so many other performances. But when we come to expect a presence--and for the spring blooming tulips, expectation is a scheduled, annual affair--then the aphorism reveals its veracity. And our hearts sink in their absence. Sure, we may ensure proper drainage and placement, bestow care in the form of bone meal, and leave its increasingly unsightly foliage intact, but in the end, the tulip decides, as it must.

Still, despite the uncertainty of it all, it is nice to wonder on occasion what is going on with your friends underground. For a brief moment, it connects disparate worlds.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Inferiority, and Silliness

So the beautiful tree hydrangea that I purchased this summer, managed to transport home in the MINI with nary a leaf spared, planted to partially remedy the sudden lack of shade in my shade garden, rejoiced in finding, and began to use as a fulcrum around which the new, formerly known as the East-Side-Shade-Bed would be redesigned, is dead.

As a doornail, the Marley to my Scrooge.

As in ding dong--though wicked witch it was not.

As in brittle twigs, brown on the inside dead.

Actually, it seems to have died while I was away in September, though I secretly hoped it wasn't so (even if I prefer not to rip it out of the ground until next spring...just to make sure).

Talk about feeling inferior: I can hardly grow something notoriously easy to grow. True. Neither can I grow mint, which has the well-earned reputation of being invasive, nor most hellebores (only 2 of 6 have survived), nor Lady's Mantle. Though I am sure soil type has something to do with pervasive death in my garden, I am convinced that the cause of death of these minor players in the garden drama owes to my overzealous little watering buddy, Gramsci, having caught him in the act many times.

But the tree hydrangea? No idea what killed it so suddenly.

The death got me thinking about inferiority.

Professionally, I act in a world in which inferiority abounds. It's a disease with which most of us are infected during graduate school, since it is the job of advisors to strengthen the mettle of their graduate students, which they (we) do by pointing out all of the flaws and shortcomings in their advisees' scholarship. True stuff. Only the method of delivering such news differs, though even the most humanitarian of advisors will sometimes lose patience and tap into unadulterated, unadorned, audacious brusqueness. In any case, given that scholarship is the outward appearance of our thinking, many have a difficult time distinguishing criticism of scholarship from criticism of self, and hence the seed is planted; the cancer cell born. If cultivated properly, they sprout or metastasize (use whichever metaphor you prefer).

Graduation, and the earned privilege of being addressed with the honorific "doctor" (which the non-PhD holding world will continually remind that you are not a "real doctor"), does not curtail the disease. In fact, the criticism of scholarship (accomplished via the "anonymous review" process) may sometimes be harsher; the disease spreads. Many of us (secretly) think our scholarship is inferior to that produced by others, especially when confronted by the several peacocks and prima donas who strut about singing their operatic graces. At a conference recently, I was gently chastised after my presentation by a senior scholar who holds a prominent research chair at prestigious university Y for doing what she had already done; "read my book," she implored me (nay, dictated).

I looked at her book. No: our work may converse, but there is no correlation or even remote similarity. I happened to mention the incident in passing to a friend, and he reported that the same senior scholar said the same thing to him and to one of his acquaintances. It's her shtick, we suppose, caused by a clear surfeit of ego.

But this is not a "dirty academic secrets revealed" blog, but a gardening blog. Right. Carry on.

I do not pretend that I do not feel inferior--whether with respect to physical appearance (fashionable clothes and fabulous sport coats and ties which I always buy at discounted prices help divert attention), physical strength (sabbatical gives me more time to go to the gym and work on this!), intelligence (meh...I work hard to make up for the dearth of natural smarts), strength of scholarship (not so noticed in the wider academic realm of what I do), culinary skills (ahem, Mara, and Viet, and, and...), and yes, gardening.

Most of the time, I, as most of us do, "just get on with it" and pay no further heed to the inferiority complexes we develop and, dare I admit it, cultivate. Indeed, most of the time these complexes become fuel for self-improvement and self-construction, save for when the aging body revolts against the plan to run a half marathon in a few months by inflaming the Achilles heel and igniting furnace-like flames in the knees to make simple movement from bed-to-bathroom a whole new experience in pain. Or when reviewers force us to rethink our intellectual choices and arguments. Or, or, or...

But these various complexes make us stronger in the sense of turning us into individuals. Platitude? Hardly. It really is true. 

I've occasionally felt inferior to Viet's many considerable talents and knowledges. Take movies, for instance (he keeps a blog, My Criterion Life). The man is an encyclopedia: from film noir to slasher flicks, from classic to contemporary, Viet can name directors, reconstruct plots, and launch into effortless exegesis on meaning/symbolism/perspective/you-name-it--such cinematic prowess variously deployed as valuable social currency (dazzling at receptions!) or scholarly research.

Yesterday morning I was reminded of that particular inferiority. Famous scholar-in-my-field Cynthia Enloe wrote in a 1996 article:

"Looking at NAFTA from Chiapas, giving Indian women and men voices and visibility in an analysis of this major post-Cold War political construction, is not a matter of simply choosing post-positivist 'Roshomon' over Enlightenment-inspired 'Dragnet'. Roshomon was the highly acclaimed Japanese film that told the story of a highway robbery and abduction not just from the omnipotent - 'true' - perspective of the film-maker, but from the multiple - perhaps all 'true' - perspectives of several of the characters...It does indeed appear to make far more sense to adopt a 'Roshomon' posture, to assume that people playing different roles in any international phenomenon will understand its causes and its meanings differently."

Viet-worthy analysis. Why can't I watch films as Viet and Cynthia Enloe do, and as Susan Sontag did, and interpret them so intelligently? Oh, that's right: because that presupposes one stays awake to watch the film in its entirety. 

Yes, dear reader, the passage and the thought made me stop my work. For a moment, the wave of inferiority got the better of me. Rather, I allowed it to.

Oh, right. This is a gardening blog, not "Confessions 101."

And then I thought: how silly we humans are, always measuring ourselves against each other and feeling inferior or superior as a result. This is the worst kind of hierarchy we humans construct, for it easily morphs into an Otherization by the superior of the inferior, which then translates behaviorally.  But I digress, as usual.

Most of our inferiority complexes, I have come to realize, are silly, even if they may be based on some degree of truth (e.g. we may not be able to run a marathon, though our friends can; our pies may taste good, but look rather amateur compared to the exceptional pies made by friends; we have recognized/celebrated taste in home decorating and pairing furnishings with exquisite wall color, but our execution shows on the ceiling). These things are silly mostly because, I am convinced, they stem from unrealistic expectations, misguided notions of perfection, lack of complete information (usually about others and their own realities), and (a prime culprit) impatience.

Gardening teaches me the folly and sheer silliness of major aspects of our human lives: the folly of worrying (an art I have perfected), the folly of self-abnegation (likewise an activity in which I have excelled), the folly of feeling inferior to others. While I may still worry (admittedly, sometimes about really crazy things, like the bookshelf next to the bed toppling over and decapitating cat--and yes, dear reader, I actually stressed about this for a while), I have learned to treat myself and splurge once in a while.

But feeling inferior? Sure, one of its forms rears its ugly little head on occasion, but that's cue for taking action.

Nurse our wounds for a moment, and then focus on the repair. In gardening, it's a little easier: identify the problem and rip it out. Or, if one feels a bit more 'plantitarian,' bestow extra care on the source of our inferiority. And if it doesn't perform, rip it out and get another one. Sentimentality does not a beautiful garden make.

With the human psyche, the situation is more complex. But here, too, we can take our cue from gardening. Gardening is a process. Both plants and the garden itself unfold over time. Each plant and flower should be celebrated for what IT specifically offers to the garden, and, importantly, for what IT in itself and for itself is. We wouldn't impose upon the elegant (though must be staked) stalks of cobalt blue delphiniums the demands we bestow upon the daffodil, which ushers us out of winter blues. Only exceptionally silly (read: unrealistic) people (who are well beyond the help of this doctor!) think that Helianthus, Yarrow, and the Mallows--all flowers for the mid summer garden--should bloom in April.

If we are not exceptionally silly, then:

(a) determine if the subject of inferiority is something we actually want (a "better" physique? a reputation amongst our friends for being a great cook? etc.), and, if so, then consciously and patiently strive for the objective;

(b) determine, soberly, the nature of the objective:
         -- if realistic and achievable, go back to (a);
         -- if unrealistic but enjoyable (e.g. being as skilled a cellist as Yo-Yo Ma though you only just, at the age of 40, started playing the cello), drop the pretenses and inferiority and pursue it because of its enjoyment and enrichment factors, no matter how flawed our efforts may be;
         -- if unrealistic and not enjoyable, take your cue from a gardening life: rip it out of your life and fill the space with something else.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Vocabulary

I pulled back the curtains in the study this morning (our "This Old House" exudes its charms this time of year in the form of drafts, and curtains are a handy way to block the more egregious of them) to discover a rear shade garden awash in shades of yellow--the populist color, as Christopher Lloyd dubbed it.

At this time of year, I can't imagine the eye NOT attuned to lighting and coloration which change daily. Yet our modern, busy lives increasingly orient us away from the spectacle of the world and towards the entrapped, elusive light of the screen.

But there it was: an overnight metamorphosis providing the bookend to the 2013 gardening season. If we began with spring yellows, we end with autumnal ochres.

The Solomon's Seal--comparatively, the least exuberant of the garden yellows at the moment--caught my attention, for its transfiguration has only just begun, its flavescent leaves suspended just for today in a curious interregnum as viridity yields to heraldic gold.

In less than a minute the following happened.

I wanted to jot a haiku in its honor, but Polygonatum just seemed, visually, too bulky a word, even if, syllabically, it conveniently satisfied first line requirements.

I then began to think of (or rather look up) the diversity of words we have to capture one color and its multiple hues and shades:

aurulent, chartruese, citreous, citrine, flavescent, gamboge, goldenrod, icteritious, isabelline (like graying-yellow hair we hope to avoid), jessamy, luteolous, luteous, lutescent, melichrous (like honey), meline, ochre, ochroleucous, or, primrose, sulphureous, tawny, tilleul, topaz, vittelary, and xanthic.

What language!

I spied a fulvous aging white port  in the lower leaves of Carolina Allspice, which reminded me of a nearly-forgotten bottle and my time in Porto in 2011.

There was a wheaten sunset supplied by a potted Sum and Substance Hosta at the base of Mount (Sawtooth) Aucuba, while on the other side, was a rising icterine sun in the form of Kerria japonica 'Golden Guinea'. A most pleasing microcosm of our world.

And then there was the white.

No: not the white from the errant flowers of the leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnun rhytidophyllum) or the few remaining chrysanthemums or even the Camellia sassanqua.


This was the white of falling snow: one bookend overlapping with another.

This is our world: a panoply, a diversity, a richness, a mutability that we dismiss by calling it cyclical (as if to say, "if you miss it this year, it will happen again next"). How much of it goes increasingly unnoticed? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Discipline

When I began this blog, I freely admitted my promiscuity.

In fact, the confessional appeared in my second entry, Public Confession #1. Lena Scotch Broom, with her tantalizingly tangelo and lemon yellow flowers, was the Ariadne to my Theseus.

Of course, most gardeners are promiscuous. When allured by the brazen sexuality of a flower with an extended stamen or a fleshy pistil, or a flashy dress of petals; when seduced by color, whether bold or subtle, the hue of which captures light "just right" and brightens (and broadens) our perspectives; when enchanted by the elfin charm of an exotic or unusual varietal; when embraced by the brawn of a handsome plant, we gardeners genuflect before the pot or the price tag, our prurient desires satisfied--always thinking, "just one plant won't hurt."

And yet they usually do hurt, that is, if the garden is one of design and the paramour in question introduces yet another shade of desire. Otherwise, a riot of color in an unplanned garden may (a highly contingent "may," mind you) actually look quite good--an homage of sorts to the quintessential English cottage garden.

Recently, owing to changes on the other side of the fence, I've had to rethink the backyard shade garden (yesterday, more was removed, yet this time I was so gratefully consulted by the owner and tall, tanned, sandy-haired, and toned-muscular landscaper; my eye-candy must have thought my flirtations importunate yet, at the same time, flattering, because he repeatedly asked if his work and pruning satisfied me). But I digress...discipline...oh yes, right.

Knowing the predicament I faced, a friend, Rich, so thoughtfully introduced me to his gardener friend, Kevin, who faced the opposite situation: enlarged trees and shrubs created increasing shade for what was once a predominantly sun garden. We met and exchanged some plants, one of which was this Agastache (above and aside), the blooms of which are more diminutive than is customary whose Greek nomenclature directs us to its many tall spikes of purple flowers--but I did shock her by transplanting just prior to flowering. I paired it with Baby Blue hosta, which I think, once both become fuller next year, will look smashing together.

With the transplanted Heliopsis--also a gift from Kevin--and the spring-blooming Kerria (which is happily offering the occasional "Japanese rose" even now in waning summer), I was suddenly reminded of my original design scheme, at least for the front garden: blue and white. Confronted with the specter of the present--yellows, blues, purples, and whites--and reminded of the pleasures of the recent past--a sporadic sprinkling of pink to accent those colors--I felt the disciplinary compulsion to reign in the garden and realize a design that went beyond a generic and loose commitment to 'East meets West', 'Japanese meets English cottage garden aesthetic' principles. Panoptikon lives.

Any garden designer (or magazine article on garden design)--even those who specialize in cottage gardens, which appear to the untrained eye as a simple melange but which really are not--will in varying degrees recommend or downright insist on discipline, even if that discipline manifests itself only as a limitation of color combinations along a particular segment of the color wheel (say, the yellow-greens to the reds for a fiesta of heat and salsa, or the red-violets to the dark greens to achieve a cooler, more meditative atmosphere), or to an analogic color scheme (colors alongside a given color), or, more restrictive still, to a composition of complementary or opposite colors (say, green and red, or blue and orange). The gardener and visitor alike (nay, the eye) will be rewarded, so we are told, by the commitment to a scheme.

I think there is an added, often curiously unstated, benefit: the gardener becomes well versed in a particular array of plants and flowers. Surely, one can visit the local garden center and purchase what is available. But the garden becomes more special, and is elevated in stature and meaning, when the gardener invests some time and energy to research and seek out, though internet and catalog perusal, unusual specimens that conform to a selected palette (keeping in mind that color comes from both flower and foliage!). And for garden snobs--surely, a Lady Mary lives in each of us!--there is no greater pleasure in showing off our finds and artistry. 

Of course, the $64,000 question (or the $1 million question when adjusted for inflation!) is whether I have enough discipline to realize and maintain my garden coloration scheme.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The other day, I emerged from my house and spied a massive spider web strung across my entry walkway, from the Japanese Tree Lilac to the Rose Mallow--an appreciable distance. The bulk of the web was off to the side nearest the Tree Lilac, thus enabling us to pass under it without harming this remarkable display of fortitude. Returning from the grocery store, one of our neighbors greeted us: he did not wish us to walk into it, so he destroyed the web. 

A rush of conflicting emotions short-circuited my ability to respond: how very thoughtful, but...oh my gosh! You destroyed her home! I felt a pang of sadness, and thought of Charlotte (yes, E.B. White fans). The next day, the web reappeared, but I could not get a decent picture of it in the sun. 
Today's violent early morning storms erased all traces of it. I wonder what happened to Charlotte. Was she washed away with the torrent of water rushing down the street and side-walk? Did she cling to the underside of a Tree Lilac leaf and thus survive our "emergency alert" producing storms?

That perfect "arch" across my walkway evoked a "memory" of sorts.

For twenty-five years (4 July 1906 - 7 December 1931), a majestic and (in my opinion) unusual arch stood in front of Denver's Union Station. Greeting arriving visitors, the arch proudly offered a hearty "welcome" in large font across the main, decorative massive steel beam which was supported by two square columns, and flanked on either side by two smaller entryways.

Yet the arch received its name from the word that appeared on the other, city-facing side: Mizpah (מִצְפָּה), a Hebrew word meaning, in its simplest articulation, a watchtower.

It makes some sense, for the grand arch, "wider than a basketball court is long," stood watch over thousands of passengers entering and departing the Mile High via rail service.

But its more nuanced, substantive meaning derives from Genesis 31: 44-49:

"'Come, then, let us [Laban and Jacob] make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.' And Jacob said to his kinsmen, 'Gather stones'. So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound....And Laban declared, 'This mound is a witness between you and me this day'...and it was called Mizpah because he said, 'May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.'"

Mind you, this tale of Jacob and Laban is one of deceit; hence a "watchtower" or "policing presence" seemed quite necessary. But how Mizpah came to signify the emotional bond between people who are separated by geography or by death (the word is often found on Jewish tombstones) is thus beyond me, unless of course we equate this watchtower with commitment; commitment with integrity; integrity with trust; and trust with connection. Talmudic scholars: please advise!

No matter: Denver's Mizpah Arch stood as a physical testament to the very bonds of love--romantic, filial, Platonic, or otherwise--that make us human and embed us in community with each other. Indeed, Mayor Robert Speer's dedication evoked that deeper meaning: the arch, he declared, "would stand 'for ages as an expression of love, good wishes and kind feelings of our citizens to the stranger who enters our gates.'" Obviously, his words were not that prophetic. (A small group of very influential--read: wealthy and politically connected--Denverites are trying to resurrect the arch, though very little movement seems to have been made since a 2009 fund-raising event.)

Architectures of transition--our arches and arbors and pergolas and hallways and tunnels--matter. They help demarcate and link different spaces, and, through their function of connection, help define zones of activity.  But they matter for a much deeper reason.

These architectures of transition also are a particular kind of space in and of themselves and thus deserve more sustained reflection and attention, and command respect we otherwise fail to give them. For passing through them, we transition: we connect and separate simultaneously. The American artist James Turrell understands this. I think here of his "Skyspace" at the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House (in Houston) and his tunnel of light (formally, "The Wilson Tunnel") at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where I worked for two years. [A superb, brief video with views of both can be found here.]

The transition is simultaneously a movement (an action), and a space (a thing). Only in stillness are we able to understand both.

I think of Charlotte (the spider) and her home (my improbable arch), and I stare upon my arbor, and I wonder: Denver's Mizpah Arch had it just right. Our architectures of transitions are at their best when they force us to stop, if only for a moment, and acknowledge and pay homage to our very human propensities to connect and love, to separate and distinguish, and to ease our movement when we need to move.