Sunday, October 30, 2011

...and the Short of It

If autumn is the long season, then it also remains positioned on the precipice of disaster: and this we must not forget.

At this time of year, when the F-word begins to violate the gardener's consciousness, we come to appreciate the fragility of botanical existence even as we mentally fast-forward a few months to the promises of spring.

Yesterday, for many in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, autumn came to a screeching halt. The Long Season, it appears, was merely a rump.

Not as a matter of bragging--certainly not, dear reader, as I will eventually lament the passing of my own gardening world, and will feel the pain of it as I am left to face the reality from which gardening permits me an escape--but we here in Wilmington were spared.

Yes, we received snow and sleet and some ice and a very steely, wind-driven rain throughout the day and night (3 and 3/8 inches, to be exact), but there was no accumulation of which to speak.

The Cassia didymobotrya (a.k.a. Popcorn Plant), a native of southern Africa and hardy only to Zone 10 (that is, subtropical conditions at worst), was clearly shocked (especially as I ripped it--roots and all--from the garden (don't mind the unpainted banister which my neighbor replaced but did not yet paint). I do not know how I shall keep it alive this winter, as it demands sun and warmth--both of which my old house lacks.

Carolina Moonlight Baptisia, in a display indicative of its southern cognomen, turned this rich shade of black; so clearly it has gone into winter mourning.

The chrysanthemums have flattened, and the leaves of Lavatera 'Red Rum', at least the leaves which were not protected by the collapsing single petaled lavender chrysanthemum (at the very bottom of the photo below), are, this morning rather frosty-crunchy.

Ah, yes: the long and the short of it.

But still, autumn, at least at this point of latitude and longitude, marches inexorably on, towards its inevitable end.

The Long...

Hobbes wrote of the Long Parliament (in Behemoth).

Vita Sackville-West and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, once lived at Long Barn, Sevenoaks Weald, Kent, parts of which date to the 14th century. (Incidentally, Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow rented the house from Vita and Harold after their son had been abducted.)

I heard a lecture a few days ago that reflected on narratives that frame the "long civil rights movement."

Long Island needs no introduction, nor does one of my summer favorites, Long Island Ice Tea.

But there is another famous "long," but one about which we hear very little: the long season, as in the long season of autumn.

Its temperate days and cool nights offer a preservative to autumnal blooms; at no other time are we treated to such longevity of blossom or profusion of color. Spring's riot of color comes a close second. But spring's fickleness appears as daffodils or tulips that relinquish their petals within a week; these are some of the vanguard that offer themselves to the stubborn throes of winter, sacrificial lambs intent on heralding a new dawn. If the rapid succession of blooms is spring's assertion of its own existence, then the longevity of blooms and the gradualist, measured expression of autonomy is autumn's.

If spring is a marked struggle between warmth and chill, a perilous balance between exuberance and destruction, then autumn...well, autumn remains special, sui generis. Its vanguard is hardly a vanguard, for it remains. But neither is it an ancien regime, facing inevitable erasure by the austerity of winter.

When many lament the passing of a "year," I am arrested by autumnal brilliance--a brilliance that simply remains. This is the long season. In late August the chrysanthemums and asters, the Toad Lilies and the Corydalis (again) appear: and even into late October and early to mid November, at least in these parts, they remain, gently expressing the certitude of their own existence.    

Thursday, October 27, 2011


New Yorkers are a curious, fickle, unpredictable lot. One never quite knows where they might stand on any particular issue, in part because the element of surprise constitutes the supreme fiber of their being.What those outside the city think fabulous, New Yorkers declare a flop; what New Yorkers anoint fabulous others scratch their heads in bewilderment.

To think that New Yorkers might get excited about a refurbished elevated rail line might strike some as odd. To hear New Yorkers explain how delightful the view is "from up there" (a mere 30 feet above ground) is a peculiar iteration in a city known for its skyscrapers, both present and sadly past.

And yet to be present amidst the child-like enthusiasm amongst the throngs of patrons of the latest garden project in Manhattan--The High Line--is an other worldly, almost mystical experience.

Technically, The High Line is the latest addition to New York City parklands, yet I frame it as a garden: an intimate if elongated space, removed from a world yet constitutive of it. It is an effectuated imagination, an engineered design, a liberated vision--liberated precisely because it has been realized. The planting list is long; the design ingenious. At times one is funneled along narrow paths through groves of trees (the woodland flyover around W. 25th is a personal favorite). In other places, one enjoys open vistas afforded by lounge-worthy lawns or by prairie grasslands populated by just the right amount of blossom amidst undulating masses of sedges and panicums.

Last week, the Friends of the High Line received a $20 million gift to complete this botanical wonder from 30th Street (its current endpoint, or beginning, depending on your perspective) to 34th Street. The New York Times reported that "'a large number of staff burst into tears'" upon learning of the generous gift.

Yes: New Yorkers, saddled with the reputation of being hardened souls, burst into tears. Not over a tragedy, over which we expect tears, but over the salvation of a deteriorating rail line, an urban blight, the very affront to sanitized urban and cosmopolitan sensibilities. Rudolph Giuliani couldn't wait to tear it down. Fortunately, neighborhood preservationists saw beyond that once ugly deadweight, looked far into the future, and offered it an extension--one curiously rooted in the vegetative past that was once the wilds of Manhattan.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"The Horror! The Horror!"

Gardening is dirty business. 

Soiled clothes are a testament to busy bodies.

Calloused hands signify manual labor.

Dirty fingernails, no matter how unsightly, are always indicative of the tenderness we bestow upon our changelings.

But our surface dirt is no match for the real dirt in the garden: the carnage.

Yes, the carnage.

While figuring out where to plant my new Fritillaria bulbs, I happened upon a monarch butterfly flitting about, seeking sweet delicious nectar from the Tall Purpletop Verbena.

Suddenly, the Praying Mantis sprang and grabbed its prey, and before I could blink an eye, the mantis ripped the head right off the butterfly.


And then I did what any self-respecting blogger and gardener would do: I raced upstairs to get my camera to document the horror, THE HORROR!

And oh, what horror it was! Oh, Mr. Kurtz, you have no idea. Or had. he died. Or was fictional. Or both. So perhaps it doesn't matter what he said, but it certainly matters what I saw.

After documenting the carnage, I looked around. What a sorry state! A graveyard! Corpses of honey bees--so scarce as they are--littered various spider webs.

I felt somewhat bereft, unable to control nature the way gardeners do with plants, or try to do.

So the only thing I could do was to stand there, shooing away butterflies and moths as they came closer to my garden, aware that at least one mantis was stalking prey in one of the chrysanthemums, all in an effort to control nature by starving those murderous mantises.

And then I realized how ridiculous I must have appeared to the neighbors, who stood on their porches, speechless, mouths agape, staring.

Such horror.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Between Abundance and Annihilation

Autumn is that rare moment of horticultural certain uncertainty.

Okay: I understand that some would challenge me on that. I understand that even I, the author of such a view, stretch the bounds of my own logic. But hear me out. And before you "hear me out," let me remind that I write from a peculiar microclimate: in northern Delaware, just below Philadelphia, in the fair "city" of Wilmington that, I've often heard more-as-legend-than-documented-meteorological-fact, experiences less snow on average than Philadelphia just 27 miles to the north, but more snow than just a few miles south.

Summer remains that quintessential season of growth, whether it be hot or cool, dry or wet. Rarely do we face the threat of annihilation, even in the once-every-few-years July or early August hail storm.

Winter, well, here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast US, nothing really grows in winter, even if some stalwarts like the myriad evergreens (including the dioecious Aucubas, of which my garden now hosts two varietals, though much to my chagrin they have yet to engage in any amorous relations) reward us with all-season interest.

Spring, though, potentially rivals Autumn and thus may disprove my hypothesis. But no, it cannot. Sure, the threat of frost or a late season snow storm loom large. But early spring bloomers in their fortitude stave off frost and snow. Many a daffodil and crocus and paperwhite have survived the harsh ravages of early and mid-spring weather. The others? Well, they just know not to rise until the probability of winter-weather has been significantly reduced.

Autumn, though, is quite another story: the season teeters on the precipice between abundance and annihilation. One evening of frost can destroy it all. Uncertainty is certain. Certainty is uncertain.

Funny what mortality can do. We usually do not think of it; mortality recedes into the background, and we are emboldened by sheer illimitable possibility.

But autumn amplifies that rhythmic cycle that spring mutes and summer anesthetizes. We feel, whether in the chill of the autumn morning or the sting of a northerly breeze, movement; we see the omnipresence of metamorphic processes that signal, in the end, abandonment and release as chlorophyll drains, leaves fall, colors mutate. Wind-tousled landscapes become the norm.

And yet we also experience conspicuous abundance.

Flowers last longer: cool evenings act as preservatives, and we are treated to a floral multitude for just a while longer.

The garden accommodates in a way it previously could not. A mum past its prime hardly calls attention to itself in the way a declining daffodil or tulip demands immediate excision else the garden look unkempt. Indeed, senescence introduces a complexity and depth to the garden.

Colors intensify, as if to scoff at the gardener's attempt to restrain the palette.

And each day, we teeter, coming closer to an inevitable: so powerful is that inevitable we self-respecting gardeners dare not speak its name.

And therein we realize that other aspect of abundance: not the material abundance celebrated in the nearly ubiquitous image of the cornucopia brimming with vegetative success, or the masses of mums so tightly packed. No.

We come to experience the converse: an immaterial abundance, an incorporeality, a spirituality that is an abundance of thanks, an abundance of gratitude, a recognition born of time for all that lies before us and for all that we have experienced.

That might be the exception that proves the rule: autumn's only certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Color in the Garden: Burnt Pink/Dusty Rose

Season 4, Episode 11. “Jingle Balls.”

This was one of my favorite episodes—if not my favorite—of Will & Grace, that 8 season-long NBC  comedy about the antics of roommates Will, a gay lawyer (played by the dashing Eric McCormack) and Grace, a straight interior (played by that vibrant Debra Messing).

In that episode, Jack usurped Grace’s chance to design a Barney’s Christmas window. Of course, his dalliance, assisted by everyone’s favorite booze-aholic, pill-popping Karen, could not muster the approval of his boss, Darlene. Played by the ever quirky Parker Posey (side note: LOVE her!), Darlene expressed her disapproval in visceral sorts of ways. Grace, of course, unbeknownst came to Jack’s rescue.

At the unveiling of the window, Jack tried to soften the blow of his incompetence by introducing his window as “nothing for Christmas.” The curtain opens, and we are treated to Grace’s sophisticated vision.

And Darlene utters in perfect, deadpan prose with a hint of introspection, those lines: “It’s dark. It’s glam. It’s Christmas.”

With their raw pithiness, those 6 words stripped away the veneer and exposed an immutable core.
There is something innately compelling about somber, muted tones, whether sought out as alternatives to holiday garishness, or found as perennial autumnal offerings.  
Burnt Pink reminds me of Darlene’s interpretive variation, though I would amend it to read, “It’s moody. It’s glam. It’s romantic.”

Yes. Romance shares with holidays those darkest and most glamorous of times. Darkness and glamour: each the complement of the other, perhaps they are even synonymous.

Dusty Rose? Pathetic name for a glam color.

Burnt Pink?  It gets a little closer.

But what do they share in common? 
They are what remains.

After the cerulean veneer of the Nikko Blue Hydrangea has faded, and the improbable azure fluorescence of the Lady-in-Red Hydrangea bleeds out, burnt pink exudes its intensity.

No matter what we call this color--that "a rose by any other name" syndrome--the arrests you, and propels you backwards, just a little, as if to remind you that all that bling, and all that swag, and all that flash...all of it: it's veneer. Easily stripped away, easily forgotten.  Disposable.

But the glamour and the darkness, whether of holidays or romance: well, they give us pause, compel us really, to look deeply at that immutable core and reflect upon what really remains.