Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Perfection

How utterly perfect is this Diamond Tiara Hosta? Fresh from the soil (last week’s hefty rain followed by our unseasonable Delaware warmth—90˚ (30.5̊ C) in early April?!—have made for increasingly and rapidly lush beds), Diamond Tiara’s tight clumping habit and pristine leaves (still unaffected by my arch enemy, the slug; celebrated survivor of Gramsci-style moisturizing and fertilizing) invites smiles and admiration.

And the early spring performance of this White Feather Hosta—new offshoots lining up in perfect sentinel formation in front of Pennsylvania red shale (this picture doesn’t quite capture the deep reddish hue of the stone), first pale green, then turning a bright white, and, as the season progresses, returning to delicate shades of green—strike me as a delightful coincidence of “plant agency” (thank you, Bob, for the terminology) with garden order and structure. By the way, I only planted two bare roots last spring, and now have 4 distinct plants; their linear arrangement perplexes, yet pleases. Perfection. Telos. Aristotle lives in my garden; surely these photos are proof.

But perfection is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we avidly consume images of perfection, perhaps to assuage our fears that our struggles for perfection are not in vain and that yes, perfection is attainable (sure, my garden can look exactly like that magazine, picture-perfect flower bed). We thus labor and nurture and tend, all in that quest to mimic, whether our ideal assumes the form of the cacophony that is English cottage gardening, rich in its diverse tapestry, appealing to every sense; or relates to the more austere, manicured geometry of French and English aristocratic gardens, or evokes the serenity of the raked stones and meticulously situated plants and rocks of Zen gardening.

On the other hand, not achieving those picture-perfect flower beds and the pristine, weed-free lawn (for those so inclined) can be a frustrating affair. Blame, guilt, and perhaps even anger rear their ugly little heads, even as we confront the cheerful daffodil, clad in her bright, welcoming yellows. And then come the accusations and the litanies of verbal assaults on our gardens, nay, on our very Being: we do not devote enough time to the project; we lack skills or knowledge or money; we lack vision; we lack energy and verve. Or we improperly direct blame elsewhere: do-it-your-selfers scoff at those who hire others to do their dirty work. Of course if I had the money or desire to hire a professional, or if I had staff to work my gardens and fluff my pillows, my X, Y, or Z would like just like theirs. Dirty thoughts indeed!

And so my image of perfection was assaulted yet again this morning, as I caught Gramsci watering, then fertilizing, a poor innocent Japanese Painted fern that had JUST emerged from the soil. In the act of covering his naughtiness, he destroyed most of the tendrils. I was furious. I fumed. I called him names. I made a spectacle of myself (no wonder my neighbors stood by the window, staring down upon this pitiful soul—um, me, not Gramsci—getting upset over something ever so trivial).

Perfection is indeed dirty business, in part because interruptions of our obsessive toils may compel us to do or say dirty things. But perfection ultimately motivates. It offers us a goal, even if unattainable by some measure, a destination, even if unreachable at certain times and in certain respects.

Perfection becomes especially dirty business when we equate it primarily or solely with control—a common equation, I think. I cannot control where Gramsci urinates or defecates any more than I can control the weather. But I can control my reaction, and recognize that perfection relates more to my efforts and less to externalities.

In that vein, plants for the gardener are not trivial (nor, apparently, are they trivial for those who seek to make a political statement; see this article on planting trees as an act of Palestinian non-violent resistance). Plants offer a spectacle of perfection, a retreat from an imperfect world. To be sure, gardening is about some degree of control. But the element of chance remains despite our best efforts and intentions. In the end, what we find perfect, others will not, for perfection resides in many respects in the eye of the beholder. Thus our efforts should be directed not at necessarily pleasing others, but pleasing ourselves. Whether we put forth our best efforts, whether we made a serious, concerted attempt to do our best, ought to be the measure of perfection. All the rest is secondary, and perhaps even eye-candy. My Diamond Tiara and White Feather Hostas prove that (to me at least).

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