Saturday, June 23, 2012

Head in the Clouds

How many dear readers spent lazy summer days as children watching billowing clouds pass by, and identifying animals and objects in their morphing presence?

How many dear readers continue this practice?

I occasionally spy a bird or a plane or elephant or, much more rarely, a country or continent (ahem, yes, I am a geek). Spotting those are always treats: veritable pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's as if the gods are paying fleeting homage to earthly constructs.

Summer surely invites fantasy, for our minds are about the only thing active when the body is oppressed by heat and humidity. Hence we adults find refuge in our juvenile antics.

Something about the "game" is suspect in my mind, however. What does it signify?  Is it really an exercise in imagination and fantasy? Or does it simply compel us to impose upon the world available, existing constructs?  Are we hence locked into the same patterns of behavior, confined by the same constructs, inhibited by the same shapes, wed to the same styles? Are our language, our thought, our conceptual categories preconditioned and arrested?  In the clouds do we not see alternative universes and modes of being--or are we enjoined (and condemned) to recreate ad infinitum that which have come to know?

Our course, the "rules of the game" dictate that we "see" existing categories and concepts and shapes and things into those clouds, and so the act of reading them onto those amorphous, ever-mutable entities is by definition one tethered to our human experience: not possible experience, but existing experience.

Yet the game teaches us how to see; it teaches us to see. How many times did we need to explain to our friends as we lay on our backs staring into the sky how we saw what we saw, and how many times did they need to reciprocate? The "a-ha!"  or "lightbulb" moment was always a thrilling one, and remains so.  Perhaps it is that latent creativity of sight, of interpretation, and the sharing of those multiple interpretations that fragment, however minutely so, all those available, existing constructs and modes and patterns in ways that inevitably help emancipate us from them.

Sometimes we just need to be less beholden to that which we have come to know in order to imagine alternative futures--all the while keeping in mind that those alternative futures are always borne from existing orders. There is continuity, and must be, between the various orders of our existence. (Could it be that I channel less Karl Marx and more Edmund Burke?!) I sometimes see morphing configurations of land in the clouds, millennia passing by in a matter of seconds, as inner lakes disappear when land masses collide, and continents are violently ripped apart. I see things I cannot identify--precisely because our conceptual languages do not yet contain their possible existence.

When I look at the clumps of flowers on Nandina, a.k.a. Heavenly Bamboo, or Oak Leaf Hydrangea, I can't help but think of ice cream cones and my summer ice cream parlor job about which I wrote a long while ago. I strain to find any other shape or concept or language in them. Perhaps grapes.

Yet I photographically traced their morphing shapes, their growth, for this is what biological life dictates: seasonally, it is a linear process.

Yet perennially, it is a cycle.

See?  It's all about how we see, and the frames and optics through which we see.

We simply need to learn how to so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"The New York City of Gardens"

The 30th Annual City of Wilmington Garden Contest, hosted by the Delaware Center for Horticulture, was held this past weekend. Dubbed the "People's Choice Tour," this year's contest was somewhat different. First, the city was divided into quadrants; there will be first (and presumably second and third) prizes in each quadrant, as opposed to single first, second, and third prize winners in each category. Second, contestants did not register for particular categories as we did last year. Third, there were no judges; rather, ticket-purchasing members of the public will vote for their favorite gardens. Finally, the event was held over two days as opposed to one last year.

On Saturday, I saw two cars slow, and then drive off, obviously caring not to stop. According to those who actually walked around, the rear shade garden was a treat, so not stopping was their loss. (Sticks out tongue, shakes finger.) Sunday was the slower of the two days, thought by early afternoon the pace of visitors quickened.

Most were complementary (really: can you be anything but?!), which only amplified the silence of three individuals. Perhaps small city gardens are not of their taste. Perhaps the fact that my garden was situated in the same quadrant as the Museum District and the Highlands (noted for their stunningly gorgeous mini-mansions--NOT McMansions, as these are stately old homes--and mature gardens) made mine seem paltry in comparison. Perhaps they were simply tired of walking or driving around town looking for all of the other gardens in the contest tour.

Regardless, two particular types of comments resonated.

The first concerned the Buddhas. Everyone loved the Buddha brothers, and many a camera clicked away.

The second concerned the sheer diversity of plant material and species present in my gardens (both the front sun and rear shade gardens). Some might construe that comment to have been underlined by negative thought ("he's one of those gardeners; he just can't control himself...and his garden shows it!") but I honestly believe that no one walked away with such an impression. After discussion of my design and aesthetic, most seemed enlivened ("ah! yes, I see it!" or  "I love how you paired these two; I wouldn't have thought such different foliage would work well but they do!" and, one of my favorites, "You are an artist. No, really, I mean it. The garden is your canvas.")

But one comment stands out above all others: "yours is the New York City of gardens."

For the NYC naysayer, that was most certainly an insult: that scurrilous city synonymous with my garden!

But I love New York. In my estimation, it was the highest compliment--and the woman who iterated it meant it as such, uttering it immediately upon entering the rear shade garden.

And she instantly understood me as a gardener and my garden, a morphology constructed around a locution of foliage of varying texture, shape, size, and color, and flowers assigned various diacritic and punctuation roles.

A babble of languages!

A phantasmagoria of visual, aural, cultural, and intellectual stimulation!

And a freedom and an exuberance to call my own.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Harvest Time!

Spring may not be that time of year we usually associate with the harvest, but those of us with stakes in CSAs (or farm cooperatives), or those who scout out roadside farm stands, or even those in big cities with fabulous farmers markets (there is something wildly amusing and thrilling about rising up from subterranean urban passages and finding oneself immersed in the middle of the Union Square Green Market in New York City, awash with a plethora of vegetables and cheeses and herbs and fruits and breads), know that spring--with its peas and various lettuces and chard and spinach and collard greens and kale and garlic scapes and tatsoi and and berries--is most certainly a time of plenty.

Yet we don't usually think of harvesting another commodity--one that became the center of a series of protests in Bolivia's third largest city: the Cochabamba Water Wars of 1999 - 2000. The city had contracted out the water supply to Aguas del Tunari (translation: the city privatized water). Prices for said water spiked. Ambiguities in the law, and the inability or unwillingness of both public and corporate officials to clarify such ambiguities and to answer the valid questions raised by ordinary citizens, generated a veritable Sturm und Drang. No, no, not an artistic and literary movement but high emotion and protests and revolts that, too, were associated with that late 18th century German movement.

Were pre-existing independently constructed, communal water systems covered? Did the law include water used by farmers to irrigate crops? Why did the government insist that the company also construct a dam--a move that was perceived by many, even inside the company, as an unnecessary "vanity project?" Was the company going to charge for the installation of water meters in each home? Did the contract include a provision that required home owners to apply for a license to collect rain water from their roofs? Was it really true--after all, one of the company's managers did state this publicly--that if people did not pay their water bills their water would be shut off?

Uncertainty, ambiguity, anxiety, rumor, senses of proprietorship, and good old fashioned digging in one's heals roused ire, stimulated mass protests--which did not end until a Bolivian army captain fired a rifle into the crowd on one particular day and killed a high school student. The result: public rage; company executives fled fearing for their safety; the contract was eventually "erased" (both parties agreed after lengthy legal proceedings to drop all financial claims against the other for presumed breach of contract and related damages); and the recognition that the crumbling, aged (and ill-functioning) water supply delivery system had itself been the victim too long of low tariffs, for without any source of adequate revenue to modernize the system, Cochabamba suffered from diminished and interrupted water service (hence the perceived need to "outsource").

A true collective action problem, or tragedy of the commons: all use it, but no one pays for it or wants to pay for it, or can pay for it. But as the now sadly departed Lin Ostrom, first female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics noted, the tragedy of the commons is not so tragic after all. Indeed, the tragedy seems to relate more to proposed solutions: either private ownership or government regulation. There is space in between the two positions: local "regulation" through social understanding. Observing practices of farmers, fisheries, and water works around the world for decades, Ostrom argued that so long as all users (of a common resource) maintained a long-term perspective, they would monitor each others' behavior and develop (informal, social) rules regarding use without having to resort to institutionalized property rights or government legislation.

And so it is.

Possessed of a long term perspective (logic: I love to garden + plants need water + it rarely seems to rain in northern Delaware anymore; ergo: I need to conserve water) and self-interest (I'd rather devote my disposable income to other, more entertaining ventures than to paying higher water bills because of overuse use), I (ahem, my father) installed a rain barrel. But my readers already knew that.

I harvest rain as it is raining. The neighbors used to think I was weird, but now they smile and wave when they see me trying to hold an umbrella in one hand and carry pales of water in the other.

Two days ago Mother Nature treated us to a magnificent day of rain: 2 and 1/16" of rain to be exact!

So I went outside as it poured and emptied the barrel's contents into various old cat litter containers that I've collected over the years (um, yes, we have prolific cats).

I have eight such containers, which is the equivalent of having another water barrel!  Storing them in the back of the house/basement has an added benefit: ease of shade garden watering.

Happy harvesting!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Flowers for Algernon

How many have read Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon?

I surmise the title may be more familiar than the tale, which has, despite being taught across the country, elicited attempts to ban it from libraries because of its sexual awakening content. That Charlie falls in love with his former teacher, Miss Kinnian--you know, because human beings DON'T ACTUALLY fall in love with each other--apparently is too much for adults to bear: their children. Human beings. With real emotions. Go figure.

No, no, this isn't an advocacy tale for adult-child relations. Goodness no. Bear with me.

But there is Platonic love in the story--a powerful kind of love that the world could really use more of (dangling participles be damned).

A surgical procedure to enhance intelligence had been developed, but first needs a trial run. The guinea pig comes in the form of Algernon, a laboratory rat. It works. So Charlie Gordon, with an IQ of 68, undergoes it. And it works. He falls in love with Miss Kinnian, blah, blah, blah, but as he develops intellectually, he can no longer relate to her (or anyone else) as his IQ reaches the stratosphere.

But what goes up must, the adage goes, come down.

As Charlie's intelligence rises, Algernon's declines.  Algernon dies.

And Charlie, in a note written before he leaves (or does he commit suicide?), inscribes a last wish: for someone to place flowers on Algernon's grave.

Flowers for Algernon. Everyone, everything deserves flowers. Remember the Yellow Bellies Flycatcher that Miss Gray Kitty killed? It too, received flowers: a sprig of lavender.

On two occasions, I've referred to my neighbor, "S."

"S" has a name: Sharon.

In one blog entry, "You Get my Rocks Off, Baby," I recounted Sharon's tale of our move to 410. If the neighbors feared for the block--two guys looking at 410 multiple times = frat-boy parties, garbage, and noise--my careful unpacking of my rock collection caused her to alert the neighbors that "those boys are gonna be okay, cuz they got rocks!"

In another, "A Parable," I  recounted a teaching moment for both of us: Sharon, a self-professed black thumb, needed help watering plants. I needed a lesson in learning how not to become easily agitated.

Sharon was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer just before Christmas. She has been doing well--the woman is made of steel--but even Iron Ladies must fall at some point. That is the law of mortality. The bargain.

[Insert expletives here.]

She told me two days ago that her cancer is very aggressive and the situation is not good. (For her privacy, I will not write details here.)

I helped her start her garden--identified low-maintenance plants that even "black-thumbs" can care for--and divided some from my own garden!  She was delighted!  And we became closer.

And she added to the mix without my assistance.

And she has a garden.

I surreptitiously took these photos from my second floor library, so they are not of the best quality. I love the way she paired the caramel colored heucheras with the lilies. She has enjoyed experimentation with color combinations--and we all very well know gardening is experimentation by another name.

Her lavender is stunning. Compact, deep purple flowers. She offered me a cutting two weeks ago. I refused--not because I don't want it, but because now is not the time. Autumn is. Or, better, next spring. Besides, I wanted it whole for her.

And all I can think of these days is "flowers for Sharon."  She must. We must. Now. And when that time comes.

She needs them.

We all do.

Friends with Benefits

Finding a mate is a difficult thing in this modern world of ours. Our jobs require marital-like commitment. Media serenade us with tales of rape and butchery and robbery. We learn of home invasions. We fear transmission of disease.

And if worrying about disease and sexual violence and sheer busyness are not hindrances, well, then: look around.

People just don't seem to care about their appearances. To wit, my grandmother would don make-up and fashionable clothes just to go to the grocery store. Today...goodness. We see our fellow shoppers with rear-ends hanging out of pants-sans-belts or pants with elastic bands (note: if you MUST, at least wear clean and attractive underwear), ripped and soiled shirts, and clothes that do not fit.

My motto: if you have to pull it up, pull it down, or pull it out, you shouldn't be wearing it. More people should take heed.

Single friends regale me with tales. My taxonomy is simple.

First, bad manners. I discern two general types. (a) There are those who lack ostensible control over bodily compulsions: passing gas, burping, picking one's nose, allowing food to fall from the mouth while dining, spitting while talking. (b) There are those who haven't a clue about inter-personal relations: those who are completely self-absorbed, those who ignore the date, those who are possessed of a curious inability to converse about anything in any depth save for the weather, those who disclose everything--every thing--on the first date. Transparency and honesty are values to be honored and cherished, but gees. Self-respect, anyone?

Second, self-representation/personality. I offer a tripartite classificatory scheme. (a) There are those who exhibit no overt sign of an education. "Like, you know, like, whatever, it's kinda like, you know..." Insert giggle/laugh here.  (b) There are those who are just desperate. "I know this is our second date, and this may surprise you, but, will you marry me?!" Or, on the other extreme, there are those with a seemingly singular interest in sex only/talk later. (c) There are those with no palpable interests in life: not cars, not travel, not food/cuisine, and certainly not gardening. "Nope, don't read. Too boring. I can't sit still that long." "Ah, so you must like sports."  "Nope, I don't watch sports. Don't even like doing them."  "Ah, you must like movies. (Oh wait, you can't sit still that long.)"  "Haven't been in a movie theater since my mother made me watch E.T. in 1982." News? "Hate that stuff; too depressing."  So what the f--k to you do in your spare time?!  My friends scream inside. (I frankly love these stories.)

Third, for those who engage on-line dating services, there is an entirely new set of problems: let's call this advertising. There are those who submit forms littered with typographical errors (really people? Ever heard of spell check?). Worse, there are those who prefer to brazenly misrepresent the self, either by uploading a very outdated photo of oneself (a deliberate attempt to hide something), or by describing oneself in questionable ways. Putting one's proverbial best foot forward shouldn't be interpreted as lying, or even stretching the truth, for the truth is not as elastic as we may think.

No wonder why the practice of "friends with benefits" developed: no commitment, and you know what you are getting.

I, ahem, cough, have friends with benefits.

(read aloud with Austin Powers voice) Benefits that get my rocks off, baby. Oh yeah!

Get my rocks off, indeed!  For off the truck they came, and came.


Rocks. And you all know about my rock fetish

Erin and her mom Linda recently brought me rocks: beautiful rocks.

Slates: slender and so sexy.

I ooze with delight.

So I finished some projects: a proper retaining wall around the Bed-Formerly-Known-as-the-Lantern-Bed,

and the crescent bed bordering the stone patio;

and a new terrace around the Itea, which I planted in front of the Japanese Tree Lilac in the front garden, and a new lavender bush.

With the rocks I once used, I was able to widen the Buddha bed to help alleviate some of the crowding in the East Side Shade Bed (though I have yet to finish moving some of those plants).

Rocks and slates (not to mention the Blue Star Linda brought me, or the Spiderwort and white and purple day lilies Erin also brought me two years ago): the best benefits friends-with-benefits can offer!

*** Many thanks to Linda B. and Erin B.***

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reaching New Heights

Several weeks ago, news media outlets paid homage to, or downright celebrated, the eclipsing of the Empire State Building as New York City's tallest skyscraper (a status it regained after that horrific day in September 2001) as the new World Trade Center Tower No. One (once dubbed the tacky, pretentious, and rather nativistic "Freedom Tower") rose to 1,271 feet above Manhattan streets.

The architectural world has long been preoccupied with heights and bigness--which in my base view is but a shameless intellectual version of men's locker room antics and furtive glances.

Bigger is better, right?  One would think so if one glanced at the seemingly never-ending quest to build higher and higher, not to mention more angular (really Libeskind? Another angular, jagged design? Oh my, how very original), or more arcing (oh, Calatrava, I thought I just saw that design...perhaps because I have?), or more twisted. Sigh. (Yes: I really can be an opinionated bitch. There, I said it.)

Burj Khalifa (2010 at 2,716 feet), Taipei 101 (2004 at 1,667 feet), the Petronas Towers (1998 at 1,483 feet), and the Sears Tower (1974 at 1,451 feet) have become (almost) household names, monuments to architectural and engineering prowess, if not hubris.

Recently, I've reached new heights. No, no, I haven't been climbing the tree, though I did perch an extension ladder a few weeks back against the maple to remove many of the lower branches and hence raise the canopy to allow more light (and rain) to access the beds below. Being scared of heights, I couldn't get beyond a few meager feet above the ground. Sigh.

No. My story of height and eclipse has really nothing to do with me.

Today, among the perennials in the front sun garden, Rose Mallow surpassed the Northern Sea Oats Grass in terms of height.

One just wonders: how will Rose outdo herself this year?

It's a question worth asking.

After all, she has to keep up with some famous architects.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ma, or, On Empty Space

We all know at least one person who cannot allow aural or, depending on one's role in a conversation, verbal space to remain empty. Such people must talk incessantly: perhaps to fill a need for acceptance, perhaps because their parents did not teach them the fine art of conversing.

For those of us in the education profession, it's rather telling (and entertaining) to watch students squirm, to sense rising collective discomfort when a question posed is met with silence.

We've seen art with negative or empty space--"unfinished" is usually the term used to describe such pieces, which may be a reflection of a Western bias towards filling space. (Case in point: Europeans variously labeled Australia and South America as "Empty"--no matter that aborigines inhabited the land in the former, and great empires existed on the latter.)

Viet and I visited the Barnes Collection last weekend and happened upon a few "unfinished" Cezanne pieces. He (meaning Viet) was particularly taken by the negative spaces in the landscape around buildings, and captivated by the tapestry under a still life of fruit that suddenly lost its articulation and vanished into the canvas. There is something compelling about emptiness, something necessary. 

We all know gardeners who pack their beds, leaving no ground exposed. Of course, we have little control over maturation; as years pass, plants grow (our "beds fill in" is the technical gardening terminology), the ground between plants gradually disappears, and the bed looks finished--always promising a profusion of color which is the preferred Western (American?) garden experience.

As the time for the annual Wilmington City Gardens Contest approaches, I become preoccupied with space: not with filling space, but with the concept of space. I continually rewind the mental tape of a conversation I had with one of the judges for the "Entrance Garden" category last year.

"So what annuals do you have?"

"None. I garden with perennials. I garden based on juxtaposition of foliage texture and color and shape."

"Well," she began, as she slipped her sunglasses to the end of her nose, looking down upon and around the garden, "that explains why there is no color."

Not to be mean, but.... whatever lady, if that's your idea of gardens..

I certainly didn't win that category, which is fine because I won the creme de la creme category: First Prize in the New Garden category!  Sorry; didn't mean for that to sound like sour grapes.

Japanese gardens are known for their many empty spaces. Ma, or, in Kanji, , refers to an interval. But ma is not simply the presence of absence or, framed more positively, space itself. It is also the consciousness of place, an awareness of form and non-form. Ma is thus both that which exists outside us, and that which exists inside us as imagination or consciousness.

Think of it this way: the stepping stones in a garden determine the way we should walk. The space between the stones determines our rhythm. This is ma.

Anyone who has visited my gardens would determine that I do not garden based on the principle of ma. True, in the beginning, there was ma: deliberate space between plants. Yet leaving space was less for aesthetic reasons than for pragmatic ones: plants must have room to grow, else their neighbors overtake the slow-growing ones, which, left to struggle for light, water, and nutrients, eventually die.

No. My gardens are nearly the opposite: most beds are crowded. Plants hug each other; some rely on their neighbors for support. Foliage intermingles, creating both sharp and subtle juxtapositions of foliage texture and coloration.

And yet, if you look closely, there is ma. My garden: a mix of English and Japanese design elements.

My garden: a Western appropriation of an Eastern concept.

The Japanese garden design aesthetic takes plants and situates them in space. Placements of plants recreate and represent particulars and experiences of the natural world. Plants--and rocks and bushes, for that matter--are residuals of a spatial universe, for space is the grand context within which we all exist. Without space, we fail to exist--or we fail to exist well and meaningfully.

In contrast, the Western garden design aesthetic (if I may overly generalize) situates space in plantings. Space is the residual, the dividend, the what-remains after we take into account all of those elements--plants, structures, urns, walls--that constitute the garden.

So where, given crowded beds, is ma?

Ma is the foliage. Ma is the space between color usually provided for by flowers. Without ma, without the foliage, the color blends into a riot, an unmediated mix. But in my estimation, it is not the profusion of color that makes the garden, but the space between color provided for by foliage that defines and accentuates coloration provided for by flowers.

What we sometimes fail to realize is that ma--space itself--has texture and shape and form and linearity and complexity and dimensionality and color and variation. Whereas the Japanese opt to emphasize what I call the individualization of space in grand kind of ways (e.g. through exaggerated distances between placement of stone and rock and plants), I opt to represent that space more tightly as it were, through the placement of objects (foliage) in the visual plane of space itself.

The effects in the end are the same. One either "gets it" and dives into the experience, or one doesn't and simply moves on, missing, sadly, all the richness and fullness of absence that ma really is.