Sunday, November 28, 2010

Color in the Garden: Black

Black is not usually a color we associate with the garden, though black flowers are increasingly popular choices for those who wish to (a) make a statement; (b) create a “postmodern” flower garden—especially when the color palette is restricted to black, perhaps with pockets of white, and a few shades of deep purple—though I honestly have not seen such a garden, I certainly can envision it; and (c) cool down hot colors.

The choices are numerous: Queen of the Night Tulip (which I lugged back from the Netherlands this summer); “Superstition” Bearded Iris; Black Cosmos; “Romantika” Clematis; “Arabian Night” Dahlia; “Starling” Daylily; Fritillaria; Ace of Spades Scabiosa; and Sweet William Dianthus, among many others. However, for the purist, few of these will satisfy for the purple or maroon undertones are clearly present. 

Britons, however, will especially delight in the news that horticulturalist have bred into existence (after 4 years of attempts!) a new black petunia named “Black Velvet.” I seethe with jealousy.

But I refer not to black as the color of flowers, though now I’ve over-stimulated myself thinking of/planning a predominantly black flower bed, though I have no space for such indulgence.

No, the black I refer to is the black of the dahlia, post-frost. It is a pathetic color, nay, a condition or a malady that relegates once firm deep green leaves to a greenish-black mush, rather like those healthy veggie/fruit/grass concoctions one pays dearly for at Whole Foods.

Rest assured, these leaves are not going in my blender anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Fire that Was, but also Wasn’t

Every color in the garden speaks, and if one listens closely enough, one hears dramatic stories.

Some colors, of course, announce themselves with reckless abandon (Rose Mallow tends toward this extreme when in full bloom, though her stylish couture belies the fervency of her speech; but somehow we need and welcome her in the torpid height of summer). 

Others prefer to converse in whisper (lavender, so ethereal, prefers, I think, her understated elegance; she converses not primarily through vocalization but through scent).

Reds tend to be associated with the former category, for obvious reasons. But remarkably red, if used in particular sorts of ways, can actually mollify.

The fire that was, but also wasn't: fortunately I write of a metaphoric fire, to the blazing Burning Bush which, for the first time in residence at 410, has offered the fieriness its name promises. In a mere 4 days, Burning Bush shed its green-burgundy hue and bled a hellacious red.

Burning Bush usually conquers the autumn landscape. When situated in grand spaces, in groups and without attendant competition, Burning Bush makes a majestic statement. Along the Interstate 95 corridor in Delaware, one sees clumps of Burning Bush in the median between northbound and southbound lanes: and the effect is sublimely wondrous (no doubt placement was planned: for as with the the masses of forsythia in the spring, drivers slow down to absorb the display).  
Perhaps surprisingly, then, Burning Bush, when set against a tapestry of greens, purples, violets, and other reds, is subdued. Depending on its hue, and depending on the garden scape within which it is set, Burning Bush’s repertoire changes. 

It may perform the magisterial bass in the autumn garden opera, the weighty authority figure lamenting the declining kingdom or the high priest issuing last rites for those over whom it once presided.

Or it may become the baritonal villain: dominating the somber autumn garden opera since the gardener has, wittingly or unwittingly, not written into script the myriad of others who make the opera the dialogue it is supposed to be.

Or it may perform the tenor, the illustrious romantic lead who sings a dramatic climax in the company of his lover(s), or seeps into emotive, gut-wrenching soliloquy when the love object passes. I use Burning Bush in singular, dramatic dose. He is the tenor in my opera; but I temper his effects by filtering out his color throughout the garden. The Tall Purpletop Verbena exposes his purple undertones, while Euphorbia echoes his blushing burgundy, and the dahlias, my many sopranos, mirror the richness of his love.

This interplay and diffusion of red is best captured, I think, by Henri Matisse: his
The Red Studio (1911), on display at MoMa in New York and The Red Room (1908), on view at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, in particular portray red as the complex character it is. Red becomes but a background, establishes itself as a stage, and fades into itself: at once the necessary focal point, at once subdued, for other colors perform the work we usually attribute to red. But absent red, those other colors would fail to excite, and the paintings would be dull representations of themselves. Matisse intuited this, and gave us placated drama instead. The red in The Red Studio is a burnt, muted color, a one-dimensional caricature that, instead of instigating passion and artistry, simply feeds into itself, permitting the art and the objects within the studio to lift off the page and float in a mysterious space we want to be a room but may simply reflect the cerebral space of Matisse himself.

The Red Room (one of my favorite paintings) offers a study in contrast and complement. The green garden space, framed so beautifully by the window (or, we are compelled to ask, is it a painting of a garden?) soothes the eye, just as the flowers and vines on the walls and table cloth pull out the blue undertones of the red, thus subduing its harsher and titillating effects.  

Such is how I read red in the gardens at 410. Burning Bush commands this last act: he is the tenor belting out his principal aria in the moments before death. Yet Burning Bush also retreats back into itself and into the garden. And in the rear shade garden, the Oak Leaf Hydrangea, now a stunning shade of burgundy, somehow only becomes itself in the company of others. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Confusion is Nothing New...

I dare admit I have been the witness to such perverse high drama of late--and I nearly squeal with delight at the thought of sharing with my readers!  If the drama were not so public, I would surely be labeled a gossip (though who doesn't enjoy a bit of gossip now and then?! Hence: there must be gossips!).

Autumn--one of the two remarkable bookends of the "growing season"--is dominated, if not "owned" in a figurative sense of the word, by the venerable (if deceptive) House of Asteraceae, just as spring is "owned" by the crocuses, narcissus, tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, among others.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw these flowering trees yesterday morning on the University of Delaware campus. Cherry blossoms IN LATE NOVEMBER! Shocking!

And, bordering my backyard garden, this spring blooming Viburnum!

The Asteraceaes are in turmoil: upstaged by their spring antecedents.

True, there are autumn blooming cherry trees and viburnum, but these specimens belong to the spring. Odd weather we've had: an elongated, miserable summer of extremes, cold followed by a spell of moderate temperatures that confused these trees (and my narcissus which began to poke through the soil last week).

Confusion is certainly nothing new when it surrounds us in so many forms. 

The F-Word, Redux

We received our first frost this morning, 20 November 2010. It was a light frost, arresting but a few errant Sycamore leaves deposited by the wind from the trees up the road, and the elongated hairy leaves of the Creeping Phlox. The frost was so light in fact that the dahlias remain steadfastly erect, sentinel-like and proud as they endure the moments before their inevitable fate.

Oddly, I did not resort to frantic movement, or blurt the decidedly more ribald F-word, but rather walked silently down the steps to take a closer look at this particular kind of beauty--and to ascertain the extent of the damage (verdict: minimal). The scene, even if it was but a microcosm of the larger garden-scape, was perfectly perfect. The diminutive ice crystals (which my unsophisticated camera found too small on which to focus and thus could not capture) announced themselves with characteristic understatement. It is not the ice crystal, I came to think, that necessarily bedazzles, but our immediate experience with and interpretation of the ice crystal, our viewing of it that attaches to it a particular meaning.

Think of the sight of the late-November ice crystal: our reaction is one of awe. Compare that to the sight of an early-season ice crystal (say, late September), or a March ice crystal: we curse, we get annoyed, we feel a sense of injustice. In the former instance, we think the appearance of ice or frost is "too early," we lament the premature curtailment of our opportunities in the garden, and we mourn the passing of a summer. In the latter instance, our annoyance stems from the fact that we intuit the appearance of ice crystals to be "too late" in the season, we worry about the shoots of the spring bulbs that have begun to rear their pretty little heads above the soil, and because, no doubt, we are exhausted of the cold and are ready for seasonal change.

As indicative of my own awe, I began to think about the etymology of the word "frost." The Old English term is a variant of the Common Teutonic forst, meaning strong and masculine, which is a derivative of the Old Teutonic words frusto, a form of freusan, meaning to freeze. But if freusan emerged from the Proto-Germanic freus, then freus can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European root preus, meaning both to freeze and to burn.

It may be odd to think that a single word was used to denote opposites, and some may be inclined to treat this as evidence for the intellectual simplicity of our ancestors. But such is, in my estimation, itself a superficial view. Preus seems to have captured that phenomenon that is characteristic of both processes. I think immediately of the term freezer-burn; furthermore, anyone who skies knows that cheeks and that protruding nose burn when exposed to the raw, frigid elements if not treated properly. And so we come full circle: our intellectual proclivities to complicate and analyze the most microscopic of tendencies, to create specific words to describe specific things, in the end draws us back to a realm of similarity and to etymological origin.

I then got ahead of myself, hoping to find a connection between freusan and Friesland. Here, I revealed the superficiality of my own mind, thinking that the similar sounds of freeze and freusan and Friesland would yield complicity in the same etymological drama. But I was wrong. What I found instead, though, delighted!

Friesland, the name of that northern province in the Netherlands--the people of whom are called Frisians--means "belonging to the tribe of the Frisii." That may not sound so delightful, but here is where the story reaches its zenith. The Latin Frisii generated the Old Frisian term frisle, meaning curly haired. The French adapted the word which became for them friser, meaning to curl. And in my simple mind I now know the origin of the term frizzy, as in "frizzy hair!"  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shadows of a Former Self

Late autumn brings out the melancholic and introspective in me. Shadows of former selves proliferate as the garden daily retreats in preparation for winter hibernation.

I happened upon this image seared onto my deck--one of many--and was thrust into retrospection. Weeks earlier rustling in the breeze, the leaf is now a mere image, an imprint, an outline. Form outlasts substance; form becomes substance. Not a residual effect of an existence now past, the form now offers itself as primary existence, just as the forms of the garden--its architecture--are increasingly revealed to us as foliage withers and disintegrates.

I am propelled backwards in time, and compare, perhaps morbidly so, my image to other (in)famous images of substances being seared into time and reduced to one-dimensionality: photos of lost human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moving backwards further still, I think of the photograph itself which also reduces substance to surface matter, though, unlike the outline of the leaf and the image of a shadow of a self burned onto a concrete surface, the photograph still permits a sense of tri-dimensionality by visually evoking, and even capturing, depth and girth.

And so it is with my reading: propelled backwards. I purchased Robin Lane Fox's Thoughtful Gardening, and upon devouring the introduction, I instinctively turned not to the first page, "Winter," but to page 255, "Autumn," the beginning of the fourth and last section of the book. We are enmeshed in autumn, and it seems a sacrilege to acknowledge any other season.

But as we know, this too shall pass, and soon the moribund browns of late autumn will be covered with mounds of snow, which will give way to the animate muddiness that is early spring, and the buds and seemingly miraculous appearances of all things alive and green and gold. And substance will once again supplant form as the dominant sensual experience of the world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Women’s Work, And All That

One day last year I was busy working in the front garden, and a neighbor approached me. He admired my garden and admitted he appreciated the view from his house, but when he asked for advice on what he could do in his front space and I began to answer, he interjected, “Oh, I don’t garden. [Insert his hearty laughter here.] That’s a woman’s work.”

I don't recall what I did at the time, though I do remember the freezing of the moment, flying bugs suspended in air, and leaves arrested in mid-wind rustle. I think I stared, unable to move my lips and utter anything other than a decidedly unintelligent and inarticulate "uh..."

I now laugh at his naïveté, his rather traditional views, and I am sure while some might laugh along with me, others will find offense in his decidedly sexist comment.

And so this morning I decided to search for “gardening as woman’s work” and came across “hot pink” gardening gloves, gardening tools (pruners, trowels, and assorted paraphernalia of the gardening enterprise) “designed for women” (I assume that design means color), and gardening hats (which reminds me of “the Bean Queen” who lived near my father…she was so anointed by our family because each day she gardened—and gardened she did daily in her retirement!—she would only emerge from the house bedecked in a summer bonnet or wide-brimmed hat, color- and pattern-coordinated boots and gloves, and perfectly pressed khaki pants and pristine white shirt, looking very much like the centerfold of an L.L. Bean photo shoot than the intrepid gardener she proved herself to be. Oddly, we never did spot a speck of dirt on her impeccable clothes, even after hours in the garden…)

I also found this letter in The New York Times:

“Gardening as woman’s work. This has long seemed to me an employment in which women would not only gain health and strength, but in which the modest and retiring might find a congenial occupation, and the products of which are never depreciated because raised by a woman. A peck of peas has a certain market value, not depending upon the hands that raised them. A woman who works making pants receives fifty cents a day, not on account of the amount or quality of her work, but because she is a woman. [Yes, I, too, was struck by the abrupt transition from peas to pants, alliteration aside.] A man engaged in the same garments receives $2 a day, not because of the amount or quality of his work, but because he is a man. It is doubtless true that, in very many cases [Hold onto your hats, this one is a jaw-dropper!], the man does his work better than the woman; but [Okay, soft landing coming] it is not less true that, in a majority of cases, the difference in price grows out of the difference in sex. So of the school. A male teacher receives $1,000 a year [yeah, I know, correlated to the cost of living and compared to other professions, teaching salaries have advanced only marginally since] not because his moral influence is better, not because the pupils learn more, but because he is a man. A woman teaches in a similar school, and receives $400, not because of the inferiority of her moral influence in the school, not because the pupils learn less, but because she is a woman. Now, happily, all this is avoided in gardening. A man who would sell a beet is not obliged to put on a label, ‘raised by a man, ten cents’, and upon another, ‘raised by a woman, four cents’, but the article brings its market value. This is a great advantage, and one affording a special gratification to women of spirit [though presumably not to dispirited women?]. Besides, gardening is an occupation requiring very little capital, and, except in the fancy departments, comparatively little training. Near any of the cities a woman can earn more upon half an acre of land, with four months’ work, than she can earn by sewing twelve months, saying nothing of the healthfulness of gardening, and the unhealthfulness of sewing.
--Our Girls, by Dio Lewis, A.M. M.D.”  

The date: 12 March 1871.

My oh my: so much has changed, yet so much has remained the same. 

I am not sure what to take away from this: that women should flock to agriculture (Lewis, on my reading, seems to refer more to gardening as a business enterprise centered on the production of food, and less to gardening as a leisurely activity, mindful that such would have been an engagement 'afforded' by the wealthy only). Or that gardening is the great equalizer--and from that we as a society must take our cue and re-imagine and re-construct our social institutions, our practices, and our prejudices based on that more primordial understanding?

I rather like the latter interpretation, and resolve at the moment to don my wide-brimmed hat, my hot pink gloves, and become, if only for a time, my neighborhood's Bean Queen. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Color in the Garden: Harvest Gold

How jaunty! How dashing! What brilliance! What warmth!

I awoke yesterday morning, shuffled, sleep-deprived, into my home study yet possessed of a particular kind of energy that precipitates from the prospect of teaching in a few hours, and was greeted by a radiating brilliance in the backyard garden. Overnight, the Krossa Regal hostas flushed themselves of their viridity, leaving this most arresting shade of gold: a rich and fertile color that, in its exuberance, alights the dawn, anoints the harvest, and exudes gratitude for the gardener’s efforts throughout the rapidly ending season.

The metamorphosis is, I think, as spectacular as June Plantain’s bodacious, almost playful recoding of its color, though sadly June Plantain is longer of my garden (nasty Sclerotium rolfsii: a plague on your own house!). If a muted blue-green throughout the gardening season, a foil to its neighbors’ flamboyance, an adagio between allegros, Krossa Regal hosta becomes the unexpected microcosm of the autumnal world, its regality manifested most appropriately in the color of the season, the color of wealth and fortitude, strength and abundance. Long patient, content to allow others to command attention, it now very much becomes itself.

Harvest gold, for the briefest of moments, arrests the sun in the space of the garden, captures its rays, and reflects them back into the universe. This is not the cheekiness of yellow, that cautionary tale of contradiction and human frailty—as if yellow was given to us by the divine precisely to encourage us mortals to assault the divine by discovering and enacting our individual wills. No. This is very much the opposite. Harvest gold is of this earth, and emanates from it. It is magical humility, it is rootedness, it is joy in our union of sun and earth, divine and human.

Spring and autumn: the bookends of a season, each a magical moment in the macrocosmic passage of time, each possessed of its peculiar wonders. I find that the garden exposes itself more so in these bookends than at any point during the gardening season. Flash and flamboyance, brilliance and abundance: these are the summer garden’s attributes, its contributions. Such are easy to achieve. The early spring and autumn gardens, though: these are the times when each plant, each specimen, even in fleeting sorts of ways, offer to us their ethereal personalities, compel us into contemplation, and lure us back into ourselves so that we may be perfectly part of this world.