Saturday, December 1, 2012

Oh, the things we say...

We bought paper towels at Costco many weeks ago--you know, the gigantic "500 saver pack" that requires a McMansion to store them--and in the throes of frustration cleaning up cat vomit (do cats ever NOT vomit?! And why do they ALWAYS vomit on my expensive Herats or Kashmiris, or my Bijar or favorite Suzani?) I paused long enough to spy that which I did not--or refused--to earlier see: nasty little depictions of potted flowers accompanied by kitschy garden sayings designed for the "country kitchen."

"Friends are flowers in a life's garden."


"No two days are the same in one garden."

This one is palatable, as is this one: "No two gardens are the same." Both are very true, empirically speaking.

"You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt" resonates, while "the flowers of tomorrow are the seeds of today"  nauseates.

And "gardening is a way of showing you believe in tomorrow" just makes me want to hurl.

Separately, one can overlook (er, ignore) them (as I have done), but together, they constitute a veritable menagerie of the most unattractive cutesy kitsch. 

But then I began to think of other garden- or agricultural-inspired aphorisms.

"We make our own beds, and we must lie in them."

"We reap what we sow."

"Even the most beautiful roses have thorns."

We populate our lives with adages, "old wives' tales," aphorisms, and proverbs. Their veracity is reified and magnified by an economy of words; their effects are seemingly more damning if we neglect their wisdom.

Pithiness in the world of adages is empowerment; wisdom trickles, then oozes, from the spoken word.

A parallel phenomenon happens in the garden at this time of year. Amidst the clutter of fallen leaves stand poignant reminders of the mix of seasons and the dominance of an emerging chill that lays to rest all that has lived.

The camellia blooms while the mums retreat, and the berries of Nandina sharpen in fiery intensity, signalling a  transition to barren fulfillment.

{Please note: I have exceeded the photo storage capacity of Blogger and therefore cannot post additional photos.}

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Why do you garden?"

Sometimes, it's what we say.

Other times, it's how we say it.

One day this week I encountered one of my students on the street. We exchanged pleasantries. He is on a sports team and missed the previous day's class because of a tournament. I asked about the team's performance, and he reported they won.

"That's so great! Congratulations!"

"Thanks," he replied. "So we're going to the finals next week, which means I won't be in class on Tuesday. Oh well."  {Oh well was voiced in a particular blasé tone.)

"I see." Did you have to say 'oh well', which is the linguistic equivalent of unceremonious dismissal? Really?

And then came the unexpected.

"So, about yesterday. Did you, uh, say anything important?"

Ahem. What?!

Did. You. Uh. Say. Anything. Important.

He did not ask the faculty-despised, de rigueur question asked by this generation of American students: "did I miss anything important?"

Instead, he opted to impugn and diminish my very existence in the classroom. 

I quickly abandoned the ship of support and enthusiasm, which had foundered on the shoals of his pitilessness, opting instead for salvation on the lifeboat of ill-will.

Yet my inner censor (which rarely acts the way it is supposed to act) hampered my venomous stream of profanity and invective from assaulting his iteration of idiocy. No. I did not treat this as a teaching moment, indicating why his question was inappropriate. As usual, I sublimated my needs, along with my anger/frustration, and redirected it inward. Translation: I tasted a trickle of my own blood, as I clamped down a little too hard and caught my inner lip on incisors.

My inner bitch raged.

"You'd better get the notes because I went over material that is on the quiz tomorrow."

"Huh? Quiz? Oh, yeah, that's right," he grunted and then chuckled.

I omit my dirty thoughts.

The exchange brought to mind a series of other exchanges in which language and silences compelled mini-existential crises and varying degrees of misanthropy to germinate.

"Why do you garden?"

Oh no, dear reader, the question is not innocuous. The question stings.

My Downton Abbey / Howards End / name-your-English-country-manor-period-film-bred sensibilities are offended when asked that question.

But let me be clear: it is not the question that rattles my peace and irritates my soul. I actually welcome it when truly the interrogator is genuinely interested in the act of gardening. No: it is the tone in which it is oft delivered and the manner in which it is oft asked, for the question, as it has been asked of me, never had anything to do with me (why I garden; what gardening means to me), but became an opportunity for others to exercise their narrow-minded-bred judgmental haughtiness.

Truth be told: I refer not to one specific instance, but to several.

In one instance, my inquisitor followed up the question with an explanation: "Isn't it a waste of time? I mean, I have so many other things to do that the last thing I have time for or want to do is to go into the yard to do that."

No Interpretation is necessary. [By the way, dear gardener-reader,I hear you. I hear our collective iteration, 'No wonder your property looks like...']

In another encounter, the person with whom I spoke issued an innocuous qualifier--"I have a black thumb"--which tempered the initial query which was delivered with an incredulous tone.

Charitable interpretation: "this point has nothing to do with why I garden, but thanks for the indirect compliment."

Unsympathetic interpretation: "Oh, so you think you're better than everyone else, eh? Most normal people have limited abilities. Show off."

Once someone--a fellow academic, so this was an instance of the pot calling the kettle black--immediately scoffed upon asking the question (which dripped with palpable disdain), "It's sooo anti-social." That was a conversation stopper, as he turned and walked away. I thought of two rhyming words, both ending in -ick.

Yes, dear reader, I am a very dirty gardener.

And, on fourth occasion, my interlocutor surpassed my elitism by indicating that he hired someone to do "that work" for him, incredulous that I'd actually get my hands dirty. (Of course, I should have shoved my hands in his face, declaring that I occasionally land my hands in a pile of soft, mushy Gramsci-poo fertilizer.)

Uncharitable interpretation: I cannot comment. I assume the reader intuits the bile seething from the screen.

Whoa. Not very becoming for my first blog entry after so long an illness-and-work-imposed hiatus. What a curmudgeon, my dear reader must be thinking.

There is a point in all of this: individual human beings find relevance and meaning in a range of activities, and while we may question others about the derived value of such activities, we really ought to exercise our internal censors and prohibit questions with such judgments at their base, or as in the first anecdote, think more carefully about how we frame our queries and comments.

So I found delight in today's news: the American President visited Myanmar. And he spoke with reporters with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her manicured garden. Dan Rivers of CNN summed it up best: miracles in Suu Kyi's garden.

She remained under house arrest for nearly 15 years. Her garden and her house became a prison. But the garden, I surmise, served also as her source of a liberation, an enjoyment and mental escape from confinement, an object of care and concern when her own family had been exiled by the military leaders and her activity strictly monitored and curtailed.

One famous photo, taken by the famed photojournalist Steve McCurry in 1996, captures a moment that speaks a universalism: Suu Kyi reading in her garden. 


McCurry noted with respect to the photo: "everywhere I go in the world, I see young and old, rich and poor, reading books. Whether readers are engaged in the sacred or the secular, they are, for a time, transported to another world."

I surmise the photo was staged. But no matter. One can imagine this a natural exercise for someone confined for nearly 15 years.
While his commentary emphasizes less the garden, I cannot help but think that each of the beds, and the garden in its entirety, creates a context or a permissive atmosphere of escape.

I thought of The Garden: a documentary by Scott Hamilton Kennedy about a vast, 14 acre community garden in the middle of Los Angeles that emerged as a healing experiment in the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots.

Anti-social? Hardly. It brought people together and engendered a community in an otherwise violence ridden, impoverished section of the city.

A waste of time? Stupid comment, as it generated food for a developing community.

Solipsistic? Think about it. Gardening teaches us the art of care, no matter if one is confined or if one tends the soil with a multitude of others. And care has eminently social effects.

In that space--whether it be in a garden or in a book, at a sports event or in a museum, in a yoga or an art class--we may think unencumbered. We may rejuvenate. We may erase the troubles and stresses and anxieties of the world.

And yes: if only briefly, we have stolen a moment of time to shine our armor, to replenish our reserves to repel all of the idiocy and stupidity and judgments of all those around us, and master an art of living appropriate to our individual lives.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Other worlds

My father has an arsenal of adages and aphorisms (not to mention jokes, both naughty and nice) at his disposal.

Recently, two of his (my?) favorites came to mind: "a blind man picked up a hammer and saw," and, despite its probable lack of political correctness, "a deaf and dumb man picked up a wheel and spoke."

Such double entendres helped sharpen the mind, especially for a young person. They at least made me aware of the power (and ambiguity) of language. One had to listen to my father, not just hear him, and, because he is such a trickster at heart, one really has to watch him, not just see him.

Since Thursday evening, I've been without a voice. An upper respiratory infection has caused bronchitis, and the resulting convulsive coughing has strained my voice and vocal chords so much as to obliterate any sound above a whisper.

I awoke 2 a.m. on Friday panicked, hyperventilating even, once I realized the voice was completely gone: what if I needed to call for help?What if an intruder entered the room? Hypotheticals can damn the soul; the mind becomes one's worse enemy when the world of the "what if" is permitted to dominate rationality.

I've adjusted to my not-silent world, but my world in which I am not permitted a speaking role. It's oddly liberating: I can only be (many days have been bed-bound, with momentary bouts of that which I'd like to call energy punctuating this lumbering existence....bouts which have permitted me to finish grading exams for one class, and respond to some work emails).  But lacking a voice is, overall, very much imprisoning. And frightening.

{Update: cracks of a voice emerge again this late Saturday afternoon. Antibiotics are working.}

For several weeks I have had these photos, but lacked a conceptual hook on which to hang them. My voicelessness gave me such a hook.

For how many people around us look but do not see, or hear but do not listen, or speak but communicate nothing?

This spider web is virtually invisible, save for when the sun during one point in the afternoon shines upon it.

A few nights ago, I (in my infinite insomnia) went down to get a drink of water and saw this refection of the moon in a bowl of dirty water in the kitchen sink.

There is something special in those transitory moments when the world stands still: when it all comes down to a spider web floating in air,

or the moon caught in a bowl of water,

when we are suspended in the eye of the web,

 or when a mere metric movement of ours frees Earth's celestial partner from watery entrapment.

Friday, September 28, 2012

On The Power of Suggestion: My Rimpa Retreat

We end every yoga session with Shavasana, or corpse pose. It's rather fitting, since at the end of it your muscles have been so thoroughly stretched and pushed to their limits, and your limbs twisted in every possible direction, that you rather feel, well, dead.

Usually, the time devoted to Shavasana is a quiet one: both meditative and restorative. Today, our substitute instructor did things a little differently and talked us through the imagination of a blank white space and its gradual transformation into our particular visions of retreat / safe space, compelling us during our imagination to alternate between sweeping vistas of the space, and close-ups of specific aspects of it.

I pictured a square, walled space. Inside it, at first, was a simple square border, mirroring the layout of the walls. In other words, a typical English cottage-style garden. But then my vision erased the angularity of the space and imposed inside the walls a circular garden border. At each cardinal point stood a tall, narrow Japanese yew, and in the center stood me. I was soon replaced--Me. Replaced. By my own Damn Mind--by an ill-defined structure.

The austerity of the design was considerably relaxed by the mass plantings. There were pastel anemones contrasted with richly hued chrysanthemums, cobalt blue irises against the heathered levity of lavender. (No one said the design had to be seasonally accurate.)

It must have been the power of suggestion; otherwise, gardens really must be deeply ingrained in my psyche.

Today's New York Times featured an article about "two shimmering fall exhibitions" at the Met and the Japan Society. How evocative the opening line: "Have any artists ever, anywhere, caught the hello-ness of spring and the farewell-ness of autumn more sweetly and sharply than the Rimpa painters of Japan?" Holland Cutter deserves another Pulitzer, just for that line.

More an aesthetic than a school, Rimpa captures a moment, a mood in nature (mostly of seasonal change), as a poetic composition of bold colors and crisp lines. Rimpa suspends us in time--an assemblage of kermetic Acer palmatum leaves or a pink profusion of cherry blossoms--and also in space--a landscape no matter how contrived that forces us back to the naturalness of origins and nothingness.

My retreat was awash in colors both autumnal and vernal: a seasonal constellation in my romanticized, idealized worldview, the quintessential juxtaposition that constitutes wabi-sabi in which we can feel both the immense, incalculable pleasure of life, but the pangs of sadness we feel knowing the moment, that moment, shall soon be lost to eternity.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On This Equinox: Ambivalence

Americans are a curious sort.

Many seem to distrust or outright despise the very rich.

Many are more than suspicious of, or even, sadly, disdainful towards, the very poor.

One might think Americans intuitively know something about the common good, about the dangers of extremes and the benefits of moderation, despite the divisive rhetoric of our politicians.

One might even venture to think that Americans are natural Marxists, equalizers at heart.

Those are fightin' words, to be sure, so we shan't politicize any further our gardening thoughts. But gardening thoughts are dirty thoughts, and politics, increasingly so, is very dirty indeed. So we find, ahem, common ground betwixt them.

My brain meanders today, on this, our first day of autumn. I lurched from international law and state recognition to gardening; from sifting through white pages in search of answers, to packing rich black organic compost around the base of a newly planted white flowering rhododendron; from showering to dousing myself with mosquito spray.

Words, too, mingled. Equinox, equality, vernal, autumnal, equity, ex aequo et bono, equivalent, coeval, equivocal, vocal, vocation.

And I become aware of so much ambivalence in life on this day.

Equinox: from aequus, equal, + nox, or night.

Why does the Latin privilege the night over the day? For reasons of celestial and terminological harmony (solstice, or sun still / equinox, or equal night)?

Equity: the direct descendant of the Latin aequus, meaning equal, just, even.

Equivocal: also from aequus, but conjoined with vox, or voice, a derivative of vocare, meaning to call. In Latin, it is aequivocus, meaning of equal voice, though it has come to refer to that which is indeterminate or ambiguous. That which is equal, it seems, is indistinguishable. Hence the need to ratchet up the divisive, dirty, political rhetoric I suppose. As if facts weren't enough...well, perhaps if one party didn't disavow facts.... oh my. What a mess.

Vocation: from the Latin vocatus, past participle of vocare, "to call;" it has come to mean a calling, as in a spiritual one or, in its secular variant, a profession.

Today is an equivocal day here in northern Delaware: the warm breezes and lows 80s feel like summer; walk into the shade and you feel autumn's presence. Tomorrow will bring much cooler temperatures, we are told, and we wait. At least I wait.

And the colors of summer begin to mix with fiery autumn colors: some buds on the mums are about to burst, while Rose Mallow sails her triumphant ruby sails, and the greenery of her leaves begins to signal that life is about to change.
Ambivalence. Of both strengths. The warmth of summer and the coolness of autumn. That transition of Becoming once again.


Writing is not easy.

Reading, I suspect, alters our perception.

We pick up a book and relish the prose, yet think not of the craft. We consume, yet think not of the production.

Gifted writers entice and captivate with rivulets and torrents of words which, in their very juxtaposition, generate images, evoke feelings, signify a mood, set a scene. Good writing belies the labor of the craft, for it impresses upon the reader an eloquence, a rhythm, a flow, an economy of words that, in its precision, exemplifies efficiency.

The activity of writing is much, much messier.
Nay, writing is brutal: brutal only because good writing entails not simply composition but editing, or a curious, objective, unsentimental, unforgiving approach to one's work. Editing demands disposal of the product, excision of text; reconstruction of prose; revision of ideas. It demands we confront our best work and declare it ineffective, in need of improvement.

Nature proves an apt model. I've complained this summer of my Sclerotium rolfsii which has killed ever so much in my garden. I've complained of drought. And now I complain about all of the empty spaces.

But as I walked around this morning, I was struck by how effective an editor nature really is.

What remains is an essence: a prominence of elegant burgundies and purples, as supplied by the vibrant ethereal hues of Tall Purpletop Verbena against those svelte limbs of Rose Mallow, which deepen in intensity as the days grow shorter,

which contrast so perfectly with the silvery hues of Helene von Stein Lamb's Ear when set against a backdrop of the Happy Single Flame dahlia (which has produced hundreds of buds and few flowers owing to a parasite that eats the buds from the inside out). 

On the lower level in the front garden, Helene von Stein finds company with Eupatorium 'Chocolate' Snakeroot, which itself is paired (deliberately) with Lavatera Red Rum so as to accentuate the latter's burgundy stems.

The effect is, if I may, one of Teutonic efficiency, and militaristic precision.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sneaky Snakes

Some things about childhood remain with us.

The brain in our youth is a sponge, and unless it is forcibly rung out over the years, we can conjure obscure moments and seemingly arcane pieces of knowledge well into our time on this earth.

That noted, I do not recall  exactly where or when I heard the song, "Sneaky Snake." The now-retired American country singer Tom T. Hall (born 1936) was noted for, among other things (including his earliest successful song-writing venture, "Harper Valley PTA"), his children-oriented songs. The recording here was made in 1983, but the song predates that by nine years.

I hardly think that I learned the song in 1974, for I had not yet entered kindergarten--and I do recall with certainty singing the song with other children in a classroom. And I remember the record player. And the teacher with medium length blond hair who always wore skirts that fell below her knees. She was tall and slender, and her pale blond hair angelic.  

In any case, walking in the garden a few days ago--something I had not done for many weeks--I spied upon a snake skin wrapped up in the Golden Euonymous:  sneaky snake slithered up the branches and shed its now useless exterior.


And a bit creepy.

And if they can do that, who knows what else they can do?!  Maybe they really can steal your root beer!

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Stop! In the Name of Love"

like a thin anemone,
displays his silken leaf,
and in a morn decays.

"See! yon anemones their leaves unfold, 
with rubies flaming and with living gold."

--Sir William Jones (1746 - 1794)

If ever there was a story of a flower that exemplifies wabi-sabi, it is the anemone, a.k.a. wind-flower.

The Chinese attributed celestial significance to the anemone, associating it with passage into the afterlife and calling it the death flower.

Greco-Roman myth has it that the anemone was born out of sorrow.

Alas, the Paphian! fair Adonis slain! 
Tears plenteous as his blood she pours amain, but gentle flowers are born and bloom around 
from every drop that falls upon the ground: 
where streams his blood, there blushing springs the rose; 
and where a tear has dropped, 
a wind-flower blows.

Only the goddess Venus / Aphrodite could produce a flower so exquisite, so tender, so delicate, from a grief so consuming.

But focusing only on the funereal element seems to me one-sided.

Yes, tears were born out of grief.

Yet grief was born out of love.

And love compels us to do what we otherwise might not.

So, for instance, already running late for work the other day, I let Gramsci out into the garden only to discover the variegated magenta / pink anemone(which had been incorrectly tagged at the garden center as a double varietal, hence I do not know its name) was displaying a mass of flowers.

Upstairs I ran to grab the camera.

Paired with Toad Lily, another autumnal beauty, Anemone looks smashing.

Yesterday morning, I was compelled again to capture the pairing of the waning crescent moon with Jupiter, even though my unsophisticated camera would not provide for a quality photograph.

The remainder of the day I thought of the Supremes, forcing myself in the middle of lecture not to break out into song: "stop in the name of love!"

Cheating aside, how appropriate the lyrics, I mused. For those of us who love anemones, we mourn their ephemeral existence; a stiff wind and the petals fall.

Evening approaches, and the flowers are no more.

Nature's barometer, too, moisture in the air, signalling the presence of impending rain, cause the petals curl and the flower passes on. (European peasants mused that tired fairies take their evening slumber in the plush golden rods at the center of the flower, curling the leaves over them for protection.)

During these days of waning sunshine, we beseech our beloved anemone to stop--to stop in the name of our love and to stay awhile longer.

To commune with us.

To radiate.

To stave off impending cold.

 But in the end we cannot change fate.

And we realize: if we lose the moment, well...we've lost the moment.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Kiku Matsuri

Today, the ninth day of the ninth month, is, according to the traditional Japanese calendar, Kiku Matsuri, the fifth (Go, 五) and final of the Go-Sekku, or seasonal festivals (五節句): the Chrysanthemum Festival!

Remnants of time past, the Go-Sekku reflect a life lived according to the passage of seasons and the inexorable rhythmic cycle of birth-maturation-aging-death. These were agriculturally oriented festivals--markers in a passage of time that assured some regularity to our unpredictable lives--when farmers sought the good graces of the kami (gods) as some assurance for healthy, bountiful harvests.
Last year we visited the annual Longwood Gardens Autumn Festival which, for several weeks, includes a Chrysanthemum Festival inside the Conservatory. This year, the chrysanthemum portion of the seasonal celebration is scheduled from 27 October - 18 November.

Of course, this was a veritable treat for me. Kiku, meaning chrysanthemum yet a term that captures the art of that flower, were everywhere on display. Last year's visitors were greeted by a series of vaulted archways; the aroma of chrysanthemum proved a powerful, invigorating autumnal aphrodisiac that belied that rather warm and slightly humid mid-Atlantic November day.

Ozukuri--the thousand bloom chrysanthemum (on a single stem!)--deserves pride of place in any Kiku Matsuri, and Longwood did not disappoint.

The shield is another popular (and single-stemmed) design, achieved by grafting stems from different colored chrysanthemums onto one plant.

Cascading chrysanthemums are popular too, and simply must elicit that most basic of responses: wow.

 I saw on display a particular favorite: the Thistle Mum.

I found this brief video about Kiku Matsuri.  I am sure you will enjoy it.

To honor Kiku Matsuri, I did the obvious: I visited my favorite garden center and bought hybrid Japanese anemones. I'll save that story for another day....

Saturday, August 18, 2012



Every gardener is aware of the micro-climate phenomenon: that space alongside a southerly facing brick wall in which you can grow a plant 2 zones beyond the designated USDA hardiness zone; or that desertified space under your maple tree in which Solomon Seal flourishes while your astilbe does not, though it may several feet away; or even that spot of shade in your full sun garden in which a tender hosta, sheltered as it were, defies logic and thrives.


Our human lives, too, occupy micro-climates: infinitesimal spaces in a nearly unfathomable macrocosm.

Celestial objects, majestic mountains, dinosaur fossils, even (human-made) technology which becomes grander than the minds that gave birth to the machine (and the bomb): no wonder we should occasionally experience smallness as an existential condition.

It seems to me we humans have spent the entire history of existence trying to overcome nature, to control and subdue it. Even we gardeners, who I like to think are appreciative of the natural world, do our part towards subduing and controlling nature by nurturing and directing aspects of it. We weed. We prune. We divide. We eradicate. We expand our borders by cutting into the forest or field that abuts our property. We supplant native species with ornamentals from abroad.

The whole experience--our interaction with nature--is humbling from my point of view (though I know a number of people who will scoff at the notion, and find no moral element in our presumably G-d-given right to dominate). After all, G-d granted Adam the right to name things (perhaps there was no right granted; it was simply a perceived opportunity...I need to check this). By naming, we appropriate and exert a form of intellectual control (and a concomitant sense of ownership).

Hence, as awful as it sounds, the hurricane, the tornado, the earthquake produce a kind of melancholic satisfaction: that we are not masters of everything for we cannot control these forces of nature. We cannot even predict them. We are, in all of our naked humanness, in all of our fallibility, objects of nature, exposed in our hubristic fantasy that we dominate nature. We become, if for a moment of time in the face of these forces, infinitesimally small. You'd think we'd have learned some humility by now.

But many don't. No wonder some continue to think humans have negligible impact on the environment: because we are objects enacted upon by nature. We are the objects of disease and drought, heat waves and deep freezes, not to mention nature's more spontaneous, headline-grabbing forms of violence.

But just as we may get lost in our bigness, we may also get lost in our smallness. We hang by proverbial threads. We intuit our irrelevance or, more appropriately stated, our relevance but in the most miniscule and limited of (geographic, social, intellectual) ways. There are, to be sure, personalities that shift the course of history. There are "larger-than-life" figures. But most of us are not in any grand historical sense, even if we may be to those who intimately know us.

Several days ago, while engaged in my own inner drama, feeling infinitely small and gripped by inability (to write, to think, to be the professional I was trained to be) I took a garden stroll. This wasn't the best idea: I was confronted everywhere by evidence of my own failures. I've been too preoccupied this summer trying to finish the book I was contracted to write, and hence have spent little time gardening. I had just been away for eight days, with another brief jaunt unexpectedly appended to it. And drought, Gramsci "fertilization" and "watering," and a fatal fungus have taken heavy tolls on the garden; many of my prized ornamental hostas (Golden Tiarra, June Plantain) have succumbed to that wicked Scerlototium rolfsii that, once confined to southern tropical climates, has eased its way north (global warming?). The rear shade garden looks quite the mess.

And then I spied this gossamer thread: that delicate filament with improbable tensile strength comparable to high-grade alloy steel.

And not only the gossamer thread, but this bud on the early spring-blooming Kerria japonica.

And not only a bud, but a flower.

And I felt that smallness melt away. The tenacity of the spider, the toughness of the filament, paired with the fluorescence of Japanese Rose: these were little victories in this annus horribilis of gardening. And along that gossamer thread, I found the insignificance of my research, the irrelevance of my self, and the frustration with gardening inadvertently and unexpectedly projected away, spun out upwards into the universe and thus out of my existence.

Later, perhaps in an act of penance for the destruction he has caused, I witnessed Gramsci communing with Buddha. Or perhaps he was just contemplating what needed additional watering. One little cat (okay...not so little), one big impact. 

Never underestimate smallness: its effects are anything but.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shades of Purple, Shades of Perfection

Something about this pairing struck me.

Complementary coloration, perhaps. The aubergine foliage of Happy Single Flame Dahlia, juxtaposed to the overt magentic tones of the lily illustrate just how vast is the spectrum of the color purple.

Or is it competition?

Or might it be the struggle for perfection: which of the two has won this elusive quest?

Some amongst us are obsessed with perfection. Yes, there are aesthetes who find and are deeply satisfied by the presence of beauty in art and nature. They find perfection in the stroke of a brush, or the petal of a flower.

But can these things be perfect? Whatever is meant by perfection in the case of a landscape or a painting?

Aristotle long ago (in Book Delta of Metaphysics) mused on perfection, and defined it as:

(a) that which is complete,
(b) that which is so good that nothing could be better, or,
(c) that which has attained its purpose.

But what is complete? If we refer to mortal things, then no mortal could logically be perfect in this first sense of the term until we die: for only then is our life complete. Perfection, then, is a judgment or assessment made by others. But by completeness, Aristotle meant that which contains all requisite parts, or, put differently, to that which is whole or undivided. On that view, we mortal beings are complete in a biological sense, but in a social sense we are not complete or perfect as automatons: we are, as Aristotle noted in The Politics, social animals, political ones even, who become complete by living amongst and with, in community if not always in communion with others. And so, we are perfect in this specific sense.

But what has attained its purpose? Is a flower perfect only after it has given its pollen to the bee or to the wind so that it may be reproduced? Or is a flower perfect only by virtue of being itself? The aesthete would favor the latter position, of course. For us mortal beings, perfection in this teleological sense is, as with the first sense, seemingly a judgment made by others--one made properly after we have passed. Yet that is but one side of the proverbial coin, no? Here, Aristotle might have answered the question  in his Ethics (gosh, human beings were so productive before the age of the television, the Wii, and sundry other electronic sources of entertainment).

Eudaimonia--commonly translated as happiness, but more appropriately construed as human welfare or human flourishing--is the highest good for humans, even if the specific content of our flourishing or living well is disputed. But is a "good" the same thing as "purpose" or "end" or telos? Technically no, but an argument can be made that defining what flourishing and living well means for us as individuals is our telos, our purpose. We each discover what this means--and in our various modes of individual flourishing, we contribute to human flourishing. And so we become perfect in this sense.

But what of perfection in the second sense? Innocuously, it might instigate us to hyperbole: "This is the most beautiful or perfect flower or landscape or vista," or "this dinner is perfect." How many of us have done that? This might be the aesthete's cold or virus.

More dangerously, though, this conception of perfection is the most problematic, for defining it as that which is so good that nothing could be better is the cell that introduces the malignant disease of perfectionism. And each of us knows perfectionists: those possessive of, and possessed by, an insatiable need to create that which is beyond reproach, or who berates the self for not being X enough (X may be variously defined as skinny, beautiful, smart, sexy, kind, caring, worthy, creative, happy, optimistic, and sundry other judgments).

We berate ourselves for our too lumpy mashed potatoes, or the smudge on our painting, or the dried leaves on our prized plant before visitors are about to descend on one's garden. We can't write because we deem our prose not eloquent enough. We proclaim ourselves stupid. Perfectionism is healthy in small doses, but a fetid sore when we exceed our daily recommended dosage.

Perfectionism, it seems to me, is the antithesis of perfection, for it might be yet another example of an ideology. Ideologies, Hannah Arendt wrote, are "isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise." To modify this a bit, perfectionists can explain every failing by measuring it against a single, idealized image or premise. We think we are Chopin, yet our piano playing can never quite match Chopin's. Well, I ask: "why the hell should it? Are you Chopin? No. He died a long time ago."

We are who we are, and that is perhaps the most difficult and challenging realization many of us must make during our lives. We are not Martha Stewart, try as I might (er, confession anyone?), nor are we Chopin. We are not the hottie gymnast (uh, pluralize that) on the US men's gymnastics Olympic team--so no, our body doesn't look that great (perhaps it would if we devoted 3/4 of our waking days to training), and no, we can't sleep with them (damn subconscious!). We are who we are.

Sure, we will fail at things and screw up at others. But we will excel in others--and even that in which we excel will sometimes challenge us. Only through challenges will we flourish.

Perfection, like purple, comes in so many shades. The point is to realize it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

"The Rose of Sharon"

National Flower of South Korea Mugunghwa

I had always thought that the Rose of Sharon was a type of Hibiscus (Hibiscus syriacus, to be exact). A visit to most garden centers will confirm this, though the hibiscus in question eponymously, and quite erroneously, attributes its origins to Syria when in fact it hails from East Asia (and is in fact the national flower of South Korea).

But Rose of Sharon, I have learned, also refers to Hypericum calycinum, better known as St. John's Wort, which of course bears no resemblance or filial relation to the hibiscus. 

So we have two different plants with the same common name. Curious, isn't it?

Sort of, but not really, because Rose of Sharon also has come to be attached to a crocus (this is confirmed as a mistranslation of the Hebrew  כרכום, karkōm, which grew on the plains of Sharon along the Mediterranean Sea in what is today northern Israel). Confusion may have stemmed from the fact that the crocus bears some resemblance to a previously unidentified, onion-like flowering bulb, Chavatzelet HaSharon, חבצלת השרון, which has been authoritatively identified as Pancratium maritimum, a.k.a. Sand Lily or Sand Daffodil, pictured below.

And the name has been attached to a type of tulip.

And to a type of lily.

Confusion is nothing new.

This is why I try to learn the formal botanical (Latin) names for plants: because their common names mislead.

But then so too do the Latin names, as knowledge becomes more precise, and as knowledge is created.

I do not have the Rose of Sharon, but I do have Rose Mallow in my garden. I've written about her several times; she is a stunning addition to any garden, and responds well to being accorded a place of prominence where she is permitted to be the belle of the ball.

(For comparison: I spied a Rose Mallow in the Chanticleer Pond Garden [toward the upper left of the photograph], but it rather gets lost. This is not a point of criticism, for Chanticleer is designed as an Impressionistic tapestry, each plant prominent only for its placement in and contribution to a wider order, a punctuation of color and texture; in the small garden, plants must be selected that both contribute to a wider order and that stand alone as exemplars of a moment or a vision.)

My friend and neighbor, Sharon, loved my Rose Mallow. In fact, she wanted it after we began her garden.

For a moment, I choked. How could I tell her that while Rose Mallow is surprisingly unfussy, she is the botanical equivalent of a bibber, our summer drinks on the porch notwithstanding? And my Sharon made it quite clear she needed low maintenance plants because she had a self-professed "black thumb."

I responded that I'd be happy to divide her once she became acclimated, but that she needed copious amounts of water.

And out came classic Sharon: "'d best keep her over there so I can look at her pretty!  You be bothered, but I can't be.  Just as well: I can look out at her everyday, so keep her growing. I get all the pretty and you all the work!"

And we laughed.

Last year, Rose Mallow reached approximately 12 feet with five stalks.  This year, she sports seven stalks, at approximately the same height. And oh, the flowers she produces!

Our Sharon, our beautiful Sharon, took her leave late yesterday from this earthly existence. She...died. (Take note: how powerful are our words, but more so the tenses of our verbs.) She took her enormous heart, and her infinite goodness, out into other worlds.

And so my Rose Mallow becomes my inadvertent Rose of Sharon. Perhaps this is how these common names come to refer to a wide variety of plants: our proclivities and personal experiences, our understandings and our misunderstandings, shape our perceptions and we locate, create, linkages between otherwise disparate items. These common names create order where there was none, provide comfort and assurance in a world of uncertainty and confusion.

Genesis: the beginning. A beginning. Naming: Adam's contribution to that beginning. And where there are no names, or when names are altered at will for self-benefit, or when names lose their meaning...well, we need only think of Thucydides' account of the stasis at Corcyra to understand the peril the befalls us.

We all felt bereft last night, huddled together, remembering and laughing and sharing stories: our mortal way to grasp onto ethereal meaning. We have to reiterate names, name names, ascribe meaning and importance to them all over again...lest we lose them too.  That is what we humans do: we attempt to regularize and stabilize; some might call this an exercise of proprietorship, but that misses the mark. We are all mortal in an immortal world. We seek a continuity otherwise lost to us ephemeral beings.

For me, Sharon--the woman, the name--will always be synonymous with strength and fortitude, not just of physicality, but of character and spirit. She did not tolerate intolerance or bigotry, rudeness or shenanigans. She rose above the fray and taught all of us, in her no-nonsense, genuine, and always sassy kind of way, how to be human.

She was a beacon of light, just as Rose Mallow is a mid- to late-summer floral beacon on our block. 

Now, Rose Mallow stands alone, bereft of that other rose in our lives.

Rose Mallow extends into the sky, stretching forth, always there, a beacon, to guide the spirit of Sharon back to the place of her earthly life.

** In memory of our beloved Sharon Thompson **