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....