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.