Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Other Peoples' Gardens: Aunt Annie

I have previously mused on the phenomenon of heroes in our lives. We all have them--and if we don't, we live a bereft life (that's my verdict, anyway). Far from being vestiges of childhood fantasies, heroes provide us senses of purpose and grounding, advice and example. We look to them precisely because of the struggles they endured and overcame, their accomplishments and perhaps even their foibles and flaws which we effortlessly navigate around because as exemplars, our heroes are not necessarily irreproachable but serve as shorthand for standards by which we wish to live our lives.

During these winter weeks--and yes, even during this improbably mild winter when I actually edged some garden beds over the weekend wearing nothing but a lightweight sweater (and pants, of course!) sans the warmth of any of my beloved scarves--I've been consuming garden books written about or by garden experts or heroes: Gertrude Jeckyll; Vita Sackville-West and the other-worldly Sissinghurst to which I made a pilgrimage for my 40th birthday in 2010; the spirited W. Gary Smith; and Christopher (Christo) Lloyd of Great Dixter fame. Gardening continues to provide a refuge during the inclement (or not so inclement) months.

I was terribly remiss yesterday, the birthday of my Aunt Annie, Master Gardener of New York, the transmitter (to a 6 year old me) of family gardening practices, and the inculcator of my love of gardening, for not posting this (alas, we become busy with work and "things to do;" mind you, dear reader, I did call her and we had a splendidly long conversation).

We spoke, of course, about gardening...but also about aging and houses and upkeep (of both houses and the body) and a myriad of other things. But mostly we spoke about gardening: plans, designs, new plants, color combinations. In particular, she inquired about the addition of structure and height to my garden.

Of course, I haven't room to include a Greco-Roman inspired garden structure to which to retreat on warm summer days, flanked as hers is by the muscular Petasites japonica, robust hostas, and luxurious cream-margined hostas perfectly accented by foxgloves.

But still, she entreated, I needed to provide more instances of height--to give the garden variation, visual intrigue. I should import structure not in the sense of more plants, though that I could do, but through large urns or trellises or arbors. Those hard materials provide dramatic interludes, their edges softened by surrounding plants, surrounding plants clarified by the juxtaposition.

Knowing my garden was not of the American country sort or English cottage style, she reported the she clipped a photo from a magazine of something that would suit my aesthetic. I am intrigued. Aunt Annie does not lack in the taste department: de gustibus non est disputandum.

(Though I foresee in the future, with different property, a set of very tall matching urns situated somewhere in a bed, perhaps punctuating an allee of decorative trees...)

I spoke of my desire to buy a new house. "Why," she asked, "when you have done such a lovely job with the one you have?"

"Well, we compromised on the fireplace and off-street parking," I noted, "and I'd like to have a detached house. And we need more space. All of Viet's things are still in Denver."

"Those are good reasons; I can see that. But those aren't necessities, especially if you've been living well without those things, right?"

"Oh yes, of course you are right. But, I really want more space to garden. I need it."

That was the definitive argument. "Naturally," she responded enthusiastically, "Of course you do! So now we need to work on that."

I am sure we had similar visions:

seating areas,

and long gardens (I like that she called this her long garden, which runs half the length of her property--a considerable distance of which I've photographed only a quarter, and not the long border, as I've previously ranted)

areas for large swaths of cheery Evening Primose to greet the wanderer as one bends around the barn,

 and little nooks in which to situate little bits of happy, such as collections of blue-tinted hostas,

or Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells) and ferns, which when paired provide an eye-catching study of foliage juxtaposition,

or places to experiment with color, such as her emerging purple corner which bunny seems to love

and room to create dramatic vignettes of Smoke Bush paired with Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow,

 as well as new sun gardens when one darn well feels like it,

or new shade gardens when the urge strikes

so that the kitties and the owls can play (Aunt Annie still possesses a girlish charm and playful spirit),

opposite impeccably arranged beds alongside centuries old outbuildings (in the case the old cookhouse, which served as the 18th and 19th century kitchen to the late-18th century original stone house you see in the background) .

Admittedly my photos are of poor quality as I took them on a bright, sunny day when the sun reached its zenith, and I only photographed small areas of her vast gardening network (other areas were too drenched in sun, the photos horribly over-exposed), but they nevertheless testify to her love of gardening and the great care she bestows upon making her slice of the world beautiful.

Happy (now belated) birthday, Aunt Annie!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Adult Pleasures XV: Boundary Setting & Breaking

There are certain things we are taught never to do while in public: pass gas (though it happens frequently; some Wilmington grocery stores seem to elicit this particular olfactory intrusion--this is, truth be told, one of the reasons why I stopped shopping at Acme), pick one's nose (drive and look around: how astonishing that 21st century Americans truly believe they are invisible while driving), have sex or engage in sexualized acts (this is, of course, illegal, but it doesn't stop certain public displays of affection that go beyond, well...), or urinate or defecate (I've visited a few countries that could use a law prohibiting such things, and I did witness a drunken Red Sox fan water the hedge in front of my living room window in Back Bay, Boston).

Boundaries--indicators of limits--are necessary.

There is the ordering function of boundaries.

We need rules of social decorum, else there be disorder and sown seeds of disgust that could morph into hatred (you know, separate water fountains; back seats on the bus; and all that...).

We need to know where to walk in the garden, else we trample on helpless plants (I've seen people traipse through plantings, oblivious to the more subtle boundaries of beds, perhaps thinking that flowers translate into gardens, and spaces sans flowers mean the absence of a garden).

We need to know where the laws of one country reach their physical limits of application, and the laws of another take effect. Maps provide the quintessential expression of the boundary.

But then there is the transgressive function of boundaries: an invitation to flex against them, to push the envelope, to test them. This may not, obviously, be an inherent function of the boundary itself but rather a response we have to the existence of a limit.

I think of the boundaries of physical exertion we feel on the treadmill. Or the interior, psycho-emotional-intellectual limits we feel when faced with the choice of adding yet another work project to our overburdened professional lives. We often do not know our limits until we test them. That makes me think that transgression is an inherent property of borders. Borders are very much psycho-social constructions, and psycho-social constructions are very much predicated on common understandings and, I would add, on silence; borders remain if we do not question.

I happened to begin writing this post yesterday, as the Wilmington snows began to melt under weight of temperate air and light rain. The borders of the garden began to reappear, stark, blackened lines of rock, perfect contrasts to winter white. These borders may be set: yet the garden in its exuberance spills out over those rock walls, wayward roots searching for prime real estate to claim, and foliage masks portions of those walls, softening their effect, producing a harmonious mix of structure and process.

Many gardeners often excise those roots and the sprawling selves of desirous plants; the border is sanctified, and order prevails.

Yet some gardeners, look upon those sprawling selves and the new finds at garden centers and question the position of the boundary itself. The gardener may buy himself a little happy, and be forced to re-situate those rock walls, as has happened since he created the garden at 410.

I was thus pleasantly surprised when I saw a little ditty in The New York Times' "Opinionator" this morning: an article on "the world's most exclusive condominium," Pheasant Island, situated, to use my language, IN the border between France and Spain. It is not "on" the border, nor is it "near" the border; neither is it "at" the border, nor is "it" the border. Rather, the island, off-limits to tourists, is situated in that psycho-social space inside the border.

The island, the author notes, "was a favorite royal meeting place, often serving as a bridal exchange." This may sound inconsequential to modern ears, but in the age of royal politics, marriage was a way to enlarge or cleave one's territorial claims (and hence space of rule). Modern European countries owe their borders to these kinds of exchanges (as well as to wars and conquests and revolutions). And so Pheasant Island, site of marital unions and border amendments, itself became consecrated as a space within a Franco-Spanish border, a shared space, a condominium. It is for six months of the year French (Île de la Conférence), and for six months of the year Spanish.

Along the Mosel River, a condominium arrangement between Germany and Luxembourg (made in 1815) there are spaces that are not alternately one or the other but simultaneously German and Luxembourg. That makes me think of the Four Corners in the southwestern United States, and all of those hokey tourist photos where people splay themselves across the pinpoint to be in four states at once. Go to the bridge at Echternach (Luxembourgish)/Echternacherbrücke (German) and you need not get on all fours and other contortionist poses, for you are simultaneously there and here.

So perhaps in the end transgression is a property and a function of borders.  So long as you are willing to situate yourself within the border, and not on either side, you can see and experience the possibilities of transgression, and with it the sheer impermanence of the boundary.

It just feels so right.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Adult Pleasures XIV: Strategizing

Call it what you will: arranging, calculating, conspiring, contriving, designing, framing, manipulating, mapping, planning, plotting, scheming, strategizing. Sure, these are variations on a theme, each distinguished from the other by etymological and practical dint, but they get at what we do in our personal and professional lives, and what we witness on reality television shows and soap operas (really, is there a difference?!). We often think out how we might most efficiently and effectively secure our preferred outcome.

Put basely, we want to get our own way, and we work to ensure that we do.

Recently, a colleague offered an unexpected retort to a position I took involving some matter: "you really hate to make this political, but..."

One can interpret that statement, taken out of context as it were, in a variety of ways, no doubt "you are naive" being one of them. That thought crossed my mind for a fleeting moment. I was at first slightly taken aback, but only slightly. I have the utmost respect for this particular colleague, and so quickly dismissed my negative mind and focused on the broader issue. (I do not think that was the underlying meaning intended by my colleague...but who knows? Perhaps it was and I really am naive! Ha! Self-deprecation is such an effective analgesic, a salve to let slide ever so much.). The statement is true.

Aside from the fact that I find some academic politics distasteful, petty, ridiculous, and even trivial (I suppose I can never be department chair), I approach these issues and battles to be with the (admittedly) pollyannish view, "why would we want to muddy what has got to be the best job in the world?"  (Sorry Madeleine Albright, who once quipped that being Secretary of State is the best job in the world. True, she has served as our country's top diplomat and has taught, and thus may possess inside information I do not. But I can only speak to what I have known and experienced.)

And so I work to build consensus and avoid the squabbles, as another colleague recently mentioned. Hmmm...might that be my strategy?!

In any case, I approached the arrival of winter at the gardens of 410 this morning with a strategy. I could simply throw will-nilly the somewhat wet and heavy snow onto the plants that peered through the snow, crushing them or breaking their perhaps now brittle branches, or I could neatly arrange it around the bases of plants, to capitalize on moisture as it were.

Nearly an hour later, I achieved my goal:

snow placed strategically around Blue Fescue

and Kerria japonica and the Holly ferns;

between the Burning Bush, which still sports a few red berries (the birds have been feasting) and Hypericum (St. John's Wort),

and atop Creeping Phlox.

Yes. I was proud of myself. Strategic placement of disposable snow, a nod to environmentalism and plant appreciation and preservation. Sure it took a bit more time than usual, but I got what I wanted.

Taking off my winter wear, I smiled, and then heard the tell-tale sign of the brash strategic plan of the neighbor: throw the snow wherever. I peered out just in time to see him dump a heap of wet heavy snow onto the Rosemary I rooted from the parent plant in the main garden late this summer.

Sigh. Conflicting strategies. This is how battles really get started.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Celestial Musings

Each time I fly and am treated to an evening sky amidst the stars--whether over the western United States or the South China Sea, the north Atlantic or north Pacific, the Mediterranean or the Balkan Peninsula--I take stock of the blackness of space, punctuated as it were by tiny beacons of light, and then pause for a moment, seized, when I spy an old friend, the moon.

Being a Cancer, I am ruled by the moon (so astrology informs me). Perhaps that explains my fascination with it, my need to see the rising Harvest Moon, my need to spot the waxing crescent moon just as its new cycle begins, my inability to sleep given the brightness of the Full Wolf Moon which occurred a few days ago. Being born on the cusp--literally on the cusp, as had I been born 4 minutes later I would technically be a Leo--I am also governed considerably by the sun.  Talk about bipolar personality.

How many people stop to gaze at it, to ponder not its existence per se, but its meanings--meanings that no doubt become the moon's existence and its essence?

It is such an ordinary thing that we hardly notice it. There it is, that celestial object of ours, dependent on Earth's gravitational pull which drastically slows the moon's rotational speed and locks the moon in orbit, suspended in a state of perpetual revolution appearing each night in different form yet repeating itself exactly every 29.5 days.

The appearance of the thing--not its substance, not its essence--changes. And yet we treat those appearances as essential: waxing or waning, full or new, gibbous or crescent. These phases brought on by cyclical regularity become an essence, a feature around which cultures have forged calendars and thus make sense of time.

A calendar: not merely does it possess a specific structural form as an outline of days, weeks, months, and years, but also a broader, natural-ideational rendering of the passage of time. Pure lunar based calendars such as the Hijri or Islamic calendar are not synchronous with the solar calendar, and thus are not seasonally based. The Jewish lunisolar calendar, in contrast, compensates for the moon's annual drift of 11 or 12 days by inserting an additional month, Adar II, every two or three years to keep cultural and religious holidays in synch with the seasons (so as to to retain some connection between the socio-cultural construction of time and the seasons lest Passover fall in autumn and Hanukkah in July). 

There is something primordially attractive about the rendering of time based not on 12 solar months but on the 13 cycles of the moon that occur within those 12 solar months. Native American tribes attributed names to the full moons--names that also applied between the new moons. Here in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region, we find the Algonquin tribe's names to be most familiar: the Full Wolf Moon (January) and the Full Pink Moon (April), the Full Buck Moon (July) and the Full Beaver Moon (November) may appear evocative to us, a throwback to something past, but in reality they corresponded to "events:" the gathering of packs of hungry wolves outside camps as the snows grew deeper and food scarcer; the appearance of wild ground phlox, one of the earliest spring blooming plants; the time when the antlers of male deer emerged, covered with velvety fur.

Calendars: incantations as it were.

To what: well, that is up to us, to the cultures which forge their renderings of time and mark not just is passing but foretell its coming with cyclical regularity.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Color in the Garden: On Color

In a season festooned with vibrant reds and jovial greens, glistening whites and royal blues, sparkling silvers and gleaming golds, the hit television show Glee opted to forgo some of the more eye-catching spectacles in its 2011 Christmas offering. Bathed in black and white and peppered with suave banter, the episode was a show within a show: an homage to a 1963 Judy Garland Christmas show (mixed with, in my narrow view, ridiculous references to a 1978 Star Wars holiday special).

In our color saturated world, black and white stands out: it is construed either as the antithesis of color or the absence of color. Black and white (taken in the singular) is the "there-ness" of that which is simultaneously "there" and "not there." The mandala riot of color of our everyday lived lives becomes, in the black-and-white rendition, a monochromatic subduction. The interplay of light and shadow rendered as variations of gray, not a panoply of color, expresses mood and emotion, and manifests an artistic, yet no less realistic, version of life. Black and white: subject matter in stark relief.

Yet we live our lives in color: we cannot escape it, save for in (some) photography or cinema. By comparison, the use of black and white seems almost indulgent--indulgent not in the contemporary sense of self-gratification (always immediate and always perpetual) yet in the ecclesiastical sense: a remission of punishment, a forgiveness, an act of reconciliation.

Viewed through that prism, black and white dons an ethereal character: a "there-ness" of the seemingly improbable that otherwise would go unnoticed.

And it is this fleetingness of our exposure to the black and white image, the flirtation with the "there-ness" that is simultaneously "there" and "not there," an almost mystical experience with rawness that I find a parallel to the appearance of COLOR in the garden: not color in an ordinary sense, but those pops of preternatural colors that elicit certain responses of wonderment. These are the rich colors of sunrises and sunsets, but also of unexpected juxtapositions of color that, by virtue of the juxtaposition, make a particular color seem more other-worldly than it really is.

If color writ large is merely a vehicle to help us view the world, it is those preternatural pops of color or the unexpected juxtapositions or the black and white moment that really teach us how to see that world.

Perhaps that is the underlying, enduring significance of the garden: not only are they spaces of pleasure, not only are they places of escape, but they serve the wider function of helping us--whether gardener and doer, or visitor and viewer--to see, to understand, to interpret, and to Be.

And so on this New Year's morning, I was fortunate to catch this fleeting glimpse of the first sunrise of 2012 from my third floor:

The sight reminded me of a photo I took of a sunset on 19 November, yet this morning's coloration scheme differed.

The cool intellectual blues of the morning give way to the burning promise of the dawn. The coloration represents a day unadulterated, a calmness of spirit and mind, a readiness.

But compare this to the burnt sky in the November sunset: this is a day in decline, a day spent and readying for its respite.

And then I thought of the cerulean blue of the Hardy Geranium Rozanne (a.k.a. Cranesbill), an unexpected late autumnal appearance in a world dominated by a warm/hot palette of simultaneously fiery yet subdued hues of ochres, red, oranges, yellows and rusts.

And that starkness reminded me of a seemingly distant spring, and the creaminess of White Feather Hosta that soon gave way to a snowy white, complemented as it were by Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow (which died during this summer): an unexpected color if only because it appeared not as flower but as foliage.

Those blues....yes, those blues arrest me. The blue-purple of the Ajuga proves a stunning sea in early spring, and thus makes an exquisite addition to any garden. Yet it relinquishes some of its singular drama when paired with this June Plantain Hosta, the blues of each complementing and accentuating the virtues of the other,

while Ajuga properly fades into the background when the gardener needs it to do so, as when paired with this Lemon Drop hosta. 

Blue Fescue Grass proves a diaphanous companion to Crocosmia Lucifer. Far from dousing the devilish heat of Lucifer, Blue Fescue spurs it on to extravagant license, all the while Crocosmia urges Blue Fescue into hypnotic decadence.

Likewise, red makes otherwise pedestrian greens burst in improbable ways. This blood-red geranium (no, the photos do not capture this) accentuates the dappled texture of the otherwise ordinary green of the Sum and Substance Hosta, while making the blue/gray greens of the Iris' sword-like leaves sharper, crisper. Of what did these swords prick or penetrate to make the blood run so red?

At the same time, the black pansies appear as spent embers of a blazing fire, each flower both a backdrop and a centerpiece.

A blanket of gold created by fallen gingko leaves does enliven the otherwise drab landscape. But notice what else it does: it allows the greens to self-distinguish to sublime effect,

just as the bronzing leaves and burgundy legs of Rose Mallow in the mid-autumn garden allow the varying greens of Blue Star Lithodora, the sheaths of Spiderwort, and the gossamers of (a now faded) Blue Fescue to announce their differences in ways they otherwise could not.

But I leave the final word to red, not because it is my favorite color (it is not), but because of the harbinger of spring the photo represents. The quintessential vernal flower--the tulip, in this case, Corona kaufmanniana tulip (the earliest blooming varietal, which I brought back from the Netherlands)--converses with Euphorbia x martinii Rudolph Waleuphrud.

They speak, by virtue of the coloration they share, the same language. Yet like the old year that has passed, Rudolph Waleuphrud appears aged and speaks in hushed, measured tones, while Corona, adorned in vibrant attire, speaks with alacrity and a brightness appropriate for youth. The conversation, though, would hardly be complete without the other, and in this briefest of moments we intuit the "there-ness" we otherwise miss, experience the subduction of all that occupies and seduces, and revel in the majesty that is.

Happy New Year to all!!!