Monday, November 18, 2013

On Silences and Absences

There is no reason why a garden cannot be both beautiful and functional. The late and widely acclaimed British gardener Rosemary Verey designed some fabulous potagers, including her own at Barnsley House in the Cotswalds.

My garden contains rosemary, lavender, chives, occasionally sage and basil, very little mint (given Gramsci's "affection" for it), and the errant perilla which the Japanese call shiso, all of which are interspersed among flowers and foliage. While the front sun garden would be the perfect space to plant an assortment of vegetables, I cannot do so since my garden occasionally attracts those who prefer five-finger discounts on flowers. I can only imagine how much attention the spectacle of unguarded vegetables would garner!

This summer, we decided to venture into fruit and I planted a Brown Turkey Fig Tree in the rear garden. Given last week's flirtation with below-freezing evening temperatures, I struggled with the issue of protecting it during its first year. In the end, I decided a little extra investment in the fig tree might actually be in my (and its) best interest. While at the store, however, I happened upon the remaining stock of bulbs, and purchased 15 Allium 'Purple Sensation', a very large and reputedly 'most purple' of the purple alliums.

I decided on a spot and began digging, only to discover a clump of (now I remember) Dutch red with blue veining tulips. Oops.

I decided on another perfect spot and begin digging, only to violate yet another clump of tulip bulbs--this time the double reds.  Damn it.

At first irritated with my own faulty memory, I quickly took pride in the fact that the bulbs appeared to be 'perennializing' (I hesitate to write 'naturalize', because that implies a permanence for which the tulip is not known, unlike say, daffodils). If you plant the tulip bulb deeply enough--I plant mine 8-10 inches below ground, several inches below the recommended depth--I find that the tulip will continue to flower for several years even if this year (the third after my private tulip mania in Amsterdam), some of the tulips produced fewer flowers than the previous two years. But I owe that to increased shading by larger, neighboring plants, which means it is time to move them. 

Still: the presence of those little "bulbettes" made me understand that something profound was happening beyond view.

Much of our lives is measured by activity and visibility. We must be attuned to presence, not absence, the visible, not the invisible. Yet we pay indirect homage to silences and absences in the form of "catching up" periodically with friends--not a charitable or obligatory act, but one born out of the pleasures of human contact. True: our quotidian lives occupy us; geography imposes; work and home-life demand. But always, in the moment of contact--whether in the form of an email or a Facebook posting/bilateral connection, a phone call or a good old fashioned hand-written letter or card, the heart flutters, the spirit soars, and we feel at one with the world, or at least our small portion of it, again, precisely because we are connected to it.

That's how I felt when I saw the tulip bulbs and their babes.

Of course, they may not have felt the same towards me, jostling them from their procreative, subterranean bliss. But that's life: sometimes we just don't connect, sometimes we are simply "off." Sometimes we unwittingly slip, inadvertently dig up the tulips, and damage the relationship. In those instances, time and space perform the work of repair. Or at least we hope, especially when our spade slices through the largest of the bulbs.

Sometimes we grow out of each other, though in those instances the feeling is usually mutual, even if we don't always have the honesty to admit it. Tulips sometimes tire of us and the conditions we provide (conditions over which we usually have little control), and decide to take their leave. If the Dutch have perfected their affairs with tulips (sandy soil and climactic conditions help), then Americans seem to prefer to treat their tulips as annuals, unsentimentally ripping them out after bloom time. Perhaps waiting for the foliage to fully die back--a necessity if the tulip is to bloom again and 'perennialize'--annoys fussy, impatient American gardeners. (Ahem, folks, send those bulbs to me. My inner Dutch boy will take care of them.)

Relationships are rarely one-sided. But in the case of tulips, the proof of the strength of the relationship always appears (or not) in the spring--and it is for the tulip to decide. This is the pain of a gardening life, mitigated only by the fact that for most of the year, we do not see any evidence of the tulip's existence. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, especially when gardening lives are filled with so many other performances. But when we come to expect a presence--and for the spring blooming tulips, expectation is a scheduled, annual affair--then the aphorism reveals its veracity. And our hearts sink in their absence. Sure, we may ensure proper drainage and placement, bestow care in the form of bone meal, and leave its increasingly unsightly foliage intact, but in the end, the tulip decides, as it must.

Still, despite the uncertainty of it all, it is nice to wonder on occasion what is going on with your friends underground. For a brief moment, it connects disparate worlds.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Inferiority, and Silliness

So the beautiful tree hydrangea that I purchased this summer, managed to transport home in the MINI with nary a leaf spared, planted to partially remedy the sudden lack of shade in my shade garden, rejoiced in finding, and began to use as a fulcrum around which the new, formerly known as the East-Side-Shade-Bed would be redesigned, is dead.

As a doornail, the Marley to my Scrooge.

As in ding dong--though wicked witch it was not.

As in brittle twigs, brown on the inside dead.

Actually, it seems to have died while I was away in September, though I secretly hoped it wasn't so (even if I prefer not to rip it out of the ground until next spring...just to make sure).

Talk about feeling inferior: I can hardly grow something notoriously easy to grow. True. Neither can I grow mint, which has the well-earned reputation of being invasive, nor most hellebores (only 2 of 6 have survived), nor Lady's Mantle. Though I am sure soil type has something to do with pervasive death in my garden, I am convinced that the cause of death of these minor players in the garden drama owes to my overzealous little watering buddy, Gramsci, having caught him in the act many times.

But the tree hydrangea? No idea what killed it so suddenly.

The death got me thinking about inferiority.

Professionally, I act in a world in which inferiority abounds. It's a disease with which most of us are infected during graduate school, since it is the job of advisors to strengthen the mettle of their graduate students, which they (we) do by pointing out all of the flaws and shortcomings in their advisees' scholarship. True stuff. Only the method of delivering such news differs, though even the most humanitarian of advisors will sometimes lose patience and tap into unadulterated, unadorned, audacious brusqueness. In any case, given that scholarship is the outward appearance of our thinking, many have a difficult time distinguishing criticism of scholarship from criticism of self, and hence the seed is planted; the cancer cell born. If cultivated properly, they sprout or metastasize (use whichever metaphor you prefer).

Graduation, and the earned privilege of being addressed with the honorific "doctor" (which the non-PhD holding world will continually remind that you are not a "real doctor"), does not curtail the disease. In fact, the criticism of scholarship (accomplished via the "anonymous review" process) may sometimes be harsher; the disease spreads. Many of us (secretly) think our scholarship is inferior to that produced by others, especially when confronted by the several peacocks and prima donas who strut about singing their operatic graces. At a conference recently, I was gently chastised after my presentation by a senior scholar who holds a prominent research chair at prestigious university Y for doing what she had already done; "read my book," she implored me (nay, dictated).

I looked at her book. No: our work may converse, but there is no correlation or even remote similarity. I happened to mention the incident in passing to a friend, and he reported that the same senior scholar said the same thing to him and to one of his acquaintances. It's her shtick, we suppose, caused by a clear surfeit of ego.

But this is not a "dirty academic secrets revealed" blog, but a gardening blog. Right. Carry on.

I do not pretend that I do not feel inferior--whether with respect to physical appearance (fashionable clothes and fabulous sport coats and ties which I always buy at discounted prices help divert attention), physical strength (sabbatical gives me more time to go to the gym and work on this!), intelligence (meh...I work hard to make up for the dearth of natural smarts), strength of scholarship (not so noticed in the wider academic realm of what I do), culinary skills (ahem, Mara, and Viet, and, and...), and yes, gardening.

Most of the time, I, as most of us do, "just get on with it" and pay no further heed to the inferiority complexes we develop and, dare I admit it, cultivate. Indeed, most of the time these complexes become fuel for self-improvement and self-construction, save for when the aging body revolts against the plan to run a half marathon in a few months by inflaming the Achilles heel and igniting furnace-like flames in the knees to make simple movement from bed-to-bathroom a whole new experience in pain. Or when reviewers force us to rethink our intellectual choices and arguments. Or, or, or...

But these various complexes make us stronger in the sense of turning us into individuals. Platitude? Hardly. It really is true. 

I've occasionally felt inferior to Viet's many considerable talents and knowledges. Take movies, for instance (he keeps a blog, My Criterion Life). The man is an encyclopedia: from film noir to slasher flicks, from classic to contemporary, Viet can name directors, reconstruct plots, and launch into effortless exegesis on meaning/symbolism/perspective/you-name-it--such cinematic prowess variously deployed as valuable social currency (dazzling at receptions!) or scholarly research.

Yesterday morning I was reminded of that particular inferiority. Famous scholar-in-my-field Cynthia Enloe wrote in a 1996 article:

"Looking at NAFTA from Chiapas, giving Indian women and men voices and visibility in an analysis of this major post-Cold War political construction, is not a matter of simply choosing post-positivist 'Roshomon' over Enlightenment-inspired 'Dragnet'. Roshomon was the highly acclaimed Japanese film that told the story of a highway robbery and abduction not just from the omnipotent - 'true' - perspective of the film-maker, but from the multiple - perhaps all 'true' - perspectives of several of the characters...It does indeed appear to make far more sense to adopt a 'Roshomon' posture, to assume that people playing different roles in any international phenomenon will understand its causes and its meanings differently."

Viet-worthy analysis. Why can't I watch films as Viet and Cynthia Enloe do, and as Susan Sontag did, and interpret them so intelligently? Oh, that's right: because that presupposes one stays awake to watch the film in its entirety. 

Yes, dear reader, the passage and the thought made me stop my work. For a moment, the wave of inferiority got the better of me. Rather, I allowed it to.

Oh, right. This is a gardening blog, not "Confessions 101."

And then I thought: how silly we humans are, always measuring ourselves against each other and feeling inferior or superior as a result. This is the worst kind of hierarchy we humans construct, for it easily morphs into an Otherization by the superior of the inferior, which then translates behaviorally.  But I digress, as usual.

Most of our inferiority complexes, I have come to realize, are silly, even if they may be based on some degree of truth (e.g. we may not be able to run a marathon, though our friends can; our pies may taste good, but look rather amateur compared to the exceptional pies made by friends; we have recognized/celebrated taste in home decorating and pairing furnishings with exquisite wall color, but our execution shows on the ceiling). These things are silly mostly because, I am convinced, they stem from unrealistic expectations, misguided notions of perfection, lack of complete information (usually about others and their own realities), and (a prime culprit) impatience.

Gardening teaches me the folly and sheer silliness of major aspects of our human lives: the folly of worrying (an art I have perfected), the folly of self-abnegation (likewise an activity in which I have excelled), the folly of feeling inferior to others. While I may still worry (admittedly, sometimes about really crazy things, like the bookshelf next to the bed toppling over and decapitating cat--and yes, dear reader, I actually stressed about this for a while), I have learned to treat myself and splurge once in a while.

But feeling inferior? Sure, one of its forms rears its ugly little head on occasion, but that's cue for taking action.

Nurse our wounds for a moment, and then focus on the repair. In gardening, it's a little easier: identify the problem and rip it out. Or, if one feels a bit more 'plantitarian,' bestow extra care on the source of our inferiority. And if it doesn't perform, rip it out and get another one. Sentimentality does not a beautiful garden make.

With the human psyche, the situation is more complex. But here, too, we can take our cue from gardening. Gardening is a process. Both plants and the garden itself unfold over time. Each plant and flower should be celebrated for what IT specifically offers to the garden, and, importantly, for what IT in itself and for itself is. We wouldn't impose upon the elegant (though must be staked) stalks of cobalt blue delphiniums the demands we bestow upon the daffodil, which ushers us out of winter blues. Only exceptionally silly (read: unrealistic) people (who are well beyond the help of this doctor!) think that Helianthus, Yarrow, and the Mallows--all flowers for the mid summer garden--should bloom in April.

If we are not exceptionally silly, then:

(a) determine if the subject of inferiority is something we actually want (a "better" physique? a reputation amongst our friends for being a great cook? etc.), and, if so, then consciously and patiently strive for the objective;

(b) determine, soberly, the nature of the objective:
         -- if realistic and achievable, go back to (a);
         -- if unrealistic but enjoyable (e.g. being as skilled a cellist as Yo-Yo Ma though you only just, at the age of 40, started playing the cello), drop the pretenses and inferiority and pursue it because of its enjoyment and enrichment factors, no matter how flawed our efforts may be;
         -- if unrealistic and not enjoyable, take your cue from a gardening life: rip it out of your life and fill the space with something else.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Vocabulary

I pulled back the curtains in the study this morning (our "This Old House" exudes its charms this time of year in the form of drafts, and curtains are a handy way to block the more egregious of them) to discover a rear shade garden awash in shades of yellow--the populist color, as Christopher Lloyd dubbed it.

At this time of year, I can't imagine the eye NOT attuned to lighting and coloration which change daily. Yet our modern, busy lives increasingly orient us away from the spectacle of the world and towards the entrapped, elusive light of the screen.

But there it was: an overnight metamorphosis providing the bookend to the 2013 gardening season. If we began with spring yellows, we end with autumnal ochres.

The Solomon's Seal--comparatively, the least exuberant of the garden yellows at the moment--caught my attention, for its transfiguration has only just begun, its flavescent leaves suspended just for today in a curious interregnum as viridity yields to heraldic gold.

In less than a minute the following happened.

I wanted to jot a haiku in its honor, but Polygonatum just seemed, visually, too bulky a word, even if, syllabically, it conveniently satisfied first line requirements.

I then began to think of (or rather look up) the diversity of words we have to capture one color and its multiple hues and shades:

aurulent, chartruese, citreous, citrine, flavescent, gamboge, goldenrod, icteritious, isabelline (like graying-yellow hair we hope to avoid), jessamy, luteolous, luteous, lutescent, melichrous (like honey), meline, ochre, ochroleucous, or, primrose, sulphureous, tawny, tilleul, topaz, vittelary, and xanthic.

What language!

I spied a fulvous aging white port  in the lower leaves of Carolina Allspice, which reminded me of a nearly-forgotten bottle and my time in Porto in 2011.

There was a wheaten sunset supplied by a potted Sum and Substance Hosta at the base of Mount (Sawtooth) Aucuba, while on the other side, was a rising icterine sun in the form of Kerria japonica 'Golden Guinea'. A most pleasing microcosm of our world.

And then there was the white.

No: not the white from the errant flowers of the leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnun rhytidophyllum) or the few remaining chrysanthemums or even the Camellia sassanqua.


This was the white of falling snow: one bookend overlapping with another.

This is our world: a panoply, a diversity, a richness, a mutability that we dismiss by calling it cyclical (as if to say, "if you miss it this year, it will happen again next"). How much of it goes increasingly unnoticed? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Discipline

When I began this blog, I freely admitted my promiscuity.

In fact, the confessional appeared in my second entry, Public Confession #1. Lena Scotch Broom, with her tantalizingly tangelo and lemon yellow flowers, was the Ariadne to my Theseus.

Of course, most gardeners are promiscuous. When allured by the brazen sexuality of a flower with an extended stamen or a fleshy pistil, or a flashy dress of petals; when seduced by color, whether bold or subtle, the hue of which captures light "just right" and brightens (and broadens) our perspectives; when enchanted by the elfin charm of an exotic or unusual varietal; when embraced by the brawn of a handsome plant, we gardeners genuflect before the pot or the price tag, our prurient desires satisfied--always thinking, "just one plant won't hurt."

And yet they usually do hurt, that is, if the garden is one of design and the paramour in question introduces yet another shade of desire. Otherwise, a riot of color in an unplanned garden may (a highly contingent "may," mind you) actually look quite good--an homage of sorts to the quintessential English cottage garden.

Recently, owing to changes on the other side of the fence, I've had to rethink the backyard shade garden (yesterday, more was removed, yet this time I was so gratefully consulted by the owner and tall, tanned, sandy-haired, and toned-muscular landscaper; my eye-candy must have thought my flirtations importunate yet, at the same time, flattering, because he repeatedly asked if his work and pruning satisfied me). But I digress...discipline...oh yes, right.

Knowing the predicament I faced, a friend, Rich, so thoughtfully introduced me to his gardener friend, Kevin, who faced the opposite situation: enlarged trees and shrubs created increasing shade for what was once a predominantly sun garden. We met and exchanged some plants, one of which was this Agastache (above and aside), the blooms of which are more diminutive than is customary whose Greek nomenclature directs us to its many tall spikes of purple flowers--but I did shock her by transplanting just prior to flowering. I paired it with Baby Blue hosta, which I think, once both become fuller next year, will look smashing together.

With the transplanted Heliopsis--also a gift from Kevin--and the spring-blooming Kerria (which is happily offering the occasional "Japanese rose" even now in waning summer), I was suddenly reminded of my original design scheme, at least for the front garden: blue and white. Confronted with the specter of the present--yellows, blues, purples, and whites--and reminded of the pleasures of the recent past--a sporadic sprinkling of pink to accent those colors--I felt the disciplinary compulsion to reign in the garden and realize a design that went beyond a generic and loose commitment to 'East meets West', 'Japanese meets English cottage garden aesthetic' principles. Panoptikon lives.

Any garden designer (or magazine article on garden design)--even those who specialize in cottage gardens, which appear to the untrained eye as a simple melange but which really are not--will in varying degrees recommend or downright insist on discipline, even if that discipline manifests itself only as a limitation of color combinations along a particular segment of the color wheel (say, the yellow-greens to the reds for a fiesta of heat and salsa, or the red-violets to the dark greens to achieve a cooler, more meditative atmosphere), or to an analogic color scheme (colors alongside a given color), or, more restrictive still, to a composition of complementary or opposite colors (say, green and red, or blue and orange). The gardener and visitor alike (nay, the eye) will be rewarded, so we are told, by the commitment to a scheme.

I think there is an added, often curiously unstated, benefit: the gardener becomes well versed in a particular array of plants and flowers. Surely, one can visit the local garden center and purchase what is available. But the garden becomes more special, and is elevated in stature and meaning, when the gardener invests some time and energy to research and seek out, though internet and catalog perusal, unusual specimens that conform to a selected palette (keeping in mind that color comes from both flower and foliage!). And for garden snobs--surely, a Lady Mary lives in each of us!--there is no greater pleasure in showing off our finds and artistry. 

Of course, the $64,000 question (or the $1 million question when adjusted for inflation!) is whether I have enough discipline to realize and maintain my garden coloration scheme.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The other day, I emerged from my house and spied a massive spider web strung across my entry walkway, from the Japanese Tree Lilac to the Rose Mallow--an appreciable distance. The bulk of the web was off to the side nearest the Tree Lilac, thus enabling us to pass under it without harming this remarkable display of fortitude. Returning from the grocery store, one of our neighbors greeted us: he did not wish us to walk into it, so he destroyed the web. 

A rush of conflicting emotions short-circuited my ability to respond: how very thoughtful, but...oh my gosh! You destroyed her home! I felt a pang of sadness, and thought of Charlotte (yes, E.B. White fans). The next day, the web reappeared, but I could not get a decent picture of it in the sun. 
Today's violent early morning storms erased all traces of it. I wonder what happened to Charlotte. Was she washed away with the torrent of water rushing down the street and side-walk? Did she cling to the underside of a Tree Lilac leaf and thus survive our "emergency alert" producing storms?

That perfect "arch" across my walkway evoked a "memory" of sorts.

For twenty-five years (4 July 1906 - 7 December 1931), a majestic and (in my opinion) unusual arch stood in front of Denver's Union Station. Greeting arriving visitors, the arch proudly offered a hearty "welcome" in large font across the main, decorative massive steel beam which was supported by two square columns, and flanked on either side by two smaller entryways.

Yet the arch received its name from the word that appeared on the other, city-facing side: Mizpah (מִצְפָּה), a Hebrew word meaning, in its simplest articulation, a watchtower.

It makes some sense, for the grand arch, "wider than a basketball court is long," stood watch over thousands of passengers entering and departing the Mile High via rail service.

But its more nuanced, substantive meaning derives from Genesis 31: 44-49:

"'Come, then, let us [Laban and Jacob] make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.' And Jacob said to his kinsmen, 'Gather stones'. So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound....And Laban declared, 'This mound is a witness between you and me this day'...and it was called Mizpah because he said, 'May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.'"

Mind you, this tale of Jacob and Laban is one of deceit; hence a "watchtower" or "policing presence" seemed quite necessary. But how Mizpah came to signify the emotional bond between people who are separated by geography or by death (the word is often found on Jewish tombstones) is thus beyond me, unless of course we equate this watchtower with commitment; commitment with integrity; integrity with trust; and trust with connection. Talmudic scholars: please advise!

No matter: Denver's Mizpah Arch stood as a physical testament to the very bonds of love--romantic, filial, Platonic, or otherwise--that make us human and embed us in community with each other. Indeed, Mayor Robert Speer's dedication evoked that deeper meaning: the arch, he declared, "would stand 'for ages as an expression of love, good wishes and kind feelings of our citizens to the stranger who enters our gates.'" Obviously, his words were not that prophetic. (A small group of very influential--read: wealthy and politically connected--Denverites are trying to resurrect the arch, though very little movement seems to have been made since a 2009 fund-raising event.)

Architectures of transition--our arches and arbors and pergolas and hallways and tunnels--matter. They help demarcate and link different spaces, and, through their function of connection, help define zones of activity.  But they matter for a much deeper reason.

These architectures of transition also are a particular kind of space in and of themselves and thus deserve more sustained reflection and attention, and command respect we otherwise fail to give them. For passing through them, we transition: we connect and separate simultaneously. The American artist James Turrell understands this. I think here of his "Skyspace" at the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House (in Houston) and his tunnel of light (formally, "The Wilson Tunnel") at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where I worked for two years. [A superb, brief video with views of both can be found here.]

The transition is simultaneously a movement (an action), and a space (a thing). Only in stillness are we able to understand both.

I think of Charlotte (the spider) and her home (my improbable arch), and I stare upon my arbor, and I wonder: Denver's Mizpah Arch had it just right. Our architectures of transitions are at their best when they force us to stop, if only for a moment, and acknowledge and pay homage to our very human propensities to connect and love, to separate and distinguish, and to ease our movement when we need to move.

Monday, July 29, 2013

My Rose of Sharon, One Year Later

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.

Sometimes we must genuflect before the poignant confluence of art and life. 

A crimson sky bathed the rear garden in an ethereal glow moments before darkness shrouded this part of the world--yet it was not at the time conceived of as a prelude to the dramatic storms that would follow several hours later. 

Torrents of wind-driven rain produced a turbulent river down the street, carrying the detritus of human life and the limbs and leaves of trees with it; rolling crescendos peaked into the denouement of piercing claps of thunder; and razor-sharp streaks of lighting slashed the skies while illuminating black, angry clouds.

I did hear thunder and I did remember her: our beloved Sharon who left this world one year ago today.

And this morning she appeared to me in different form: an exuberant display of her favorite flower in my garden: Blaze Starr Rose Mallow, which last year in commemoration of her brief life and indescribably humbling relationship with her cancer, I dubbed my Rose of Sharon.

Not to be overly metaphysical about it. 

But Sharon identified with the flower: for her, looking across the street every morning for weeks during summer's midpoint and decrescendo, she absorbed its beauty, mused on it.  It was often the opening salvo of our daily morning conversations, her sitting on her stoop having coffee, me, emerging to feed the outdoor cats.

But the sunset, the storms, the Akhmatova poem (a particular favorite of mine), Rose Mallow's first display of more than 6 flowers at a time: their junction struck me as a sign.

But the cancer...

But it was her cancer. She took ownership of it in order to accept it. She did not fight in the way we normally attribute "struggles" or "battles" with cancer; in this way, she lived Susan Sontag's exegesis, Illness as Metaphor. And her ownership of this virulent, fast-consuming thing, we think, helped her move forward and live "normally" for months with few ostensible effects. And then suddenly, one morning she awoke, and she appeared different, for the cancer, overnight, transformed the physicality of our beloved Sharon. And such began the rapid descent...

We may find and derive meaning in and from the lives of others: what they do and how they are helps us intuit their Being. And Sharon did ever so much, welcoming us into a predominantly African-American neighborhood, when many looked down upon us with disgust and suspicion, and warding off the vitriol sent our way. And over the years, we cultivated a harmony and camaraderie because, as she occasionally said, we are all in this together. That's what Sharon brought to this world. And what she left us.

And so today I see signs of her, and celebrate her life, even if the celebration is marked by tears and pangs of pain, much like the fuchsia droppings of Rose Mallow as she discards those magnificent blossoms daily, during the evening, as if exhausted from serving as a vanguard of beauty.

Such is the residue of a powerful life lived that all of us must bear.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


 I am increasingly convinced that a majority of the successes of gardening owe not to design and careful planning and planting, but to the happy accident we call serendipity.

Two years ago, I was a beneficiary (one of thousands) of the Delaware Center for Horticulture's tree planting program. Six of us on the block received Syringa reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac), a small to medium sized tree, perfect for urban living, upright and compact, distinguished by its mass plumes of showy white flowers in late spring (no picture available).

I asked the DCH team to plant my new Tree Lilac not on the mass of my front sun garden, but slightly on my side of this neighborhood's ubiquitous waste-land: that sliver parcel of property that marks the division between all of the semi-detached homes with which no one quite knows what to do.

The tree was situated just in front of the bed of pale yellow bearded irises. In previous years, the mass of irises bloomed in unison, though the few pale lavender irises which somehow became mixed up in the yellow bunch bloom slightly earlier. This year, however, the irises bloomed as a successive wave: those that get full sun bloomed first, followed by the irises that were only partly shaded by the tree lilac, which were succeeded by those that received sun starting in the very late morning. The results were spectacular, and my blooms lasted for several weeks!

I am sure more seasoned gardeners know this design trick, but for me it was accidental discovery at its finest.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the joys of serendipity--one of those nearly inappreciable moments of time that usually get lost in the shuffle of doing but, when noticed, strike one as a sublime manifestation of Being.

After the nursery folks helped me carefully load a 6 foot Paniculata Tree Hydrangea into my MINI (yes, you read that correctly!), I turned on the ignition, completely shocked that the tree fit, and feeling rather smug.

My smugness quickly turned to ethereal awe and a bizarre sense of humility when Handel's triumphal Music for the Royal Fireworks played on the Symphony channel of Sirius Radio.

Neither could the moment have been more perfect, nor could I have planned it. Serendipity.

On the drive home, during which nary a leaf was lost, I felt that which the audience in London's Green Park must have felt back in 1749 when the music was first performed: relief that the War of the Austrian Succession was over, and joy in the certitude of life.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Social Event of the Season

Every community seems to have its "social event of the season:" Baron's Balls, black tie dinners, silent auctions, banquets, garden parties, regattas, casino royales, art galas, opera first nights, opera-under-the-stars--all organized for some philanthropic endeavor. These are events not simply for the social mavens, doyens, debutantes, and more aged afficionados to display their finest attire and jewelry, but for others to be welcomed not merely to the charitable circle of donors, but to the hierarchy of society itself. Simply stated, one obtains social standing.

Today, social events of the season seem not to be a thing of the past, but certainly a vestige of the past. In an age of Facebook and Twitter, video and instantaneous communication, almost any event ascends to the hierarchy of attention given proper dissemination. Wrapped in hyperbole, nearly every event arrives at the pinnacle of importance which, of course, only demands that the next be characterized more effusively.

Somehow, these events seem to have lost their privilege and with it, their meaning. At least in my warped vision of the past and the present. But it need not be that way.

For instance, let's consider the following. Bill Cunningham of the famed fashion pages of The New York Times delivers weekly to a worldwide audience a display of (usually) New York fashion, such that you would think this week's 'Baked Apple' play on the 'Big Apple' was the social event of the summer fashion scene. Perhaps it is.

Please dear reader: I emphatically plead with you not to misinterpret. I love Bill and crave his weekly insights. He rises above the din and places his finger, effortlessly, perspicaciously, on the pulse of life. Or at least of an aspect of life. I would not have it any other way. It's the way he sees beyond and through people and their superficialities and captures a moment's essence that has, seemingly, arisen and presented itself organically, unconsciously, and only constitutes a trend--and this is critical--because Bill has observed and decreed it as such. Therein lies the power of a social event of the season.

But here is where, somehow, most of our social events of the season part company with Bill Cunningham and seem less peculiar and special moments in time for which we prepare weeks if not months than an instance among many on a streaming calendar of life. We are all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and status updates and tweets: we are moments vying for attention. And somehow we lose our way.

Perhaps indicative of the poverty of my social life, one event does appear on my calendar: the appearance of Blaze Starr Rose Mallow, which today offered her first dazzling spectacle. It is the summer solstice of gardening.

Like any social event of the season, she is larger than life. Well, now, that surely is an exaggeration, but seriously: the flower is enormous. Here, for scale, I photographed it from across the street against the backdrop of No. 410.  And she dazzles. Her fiery fuchsia and morphing lavender-to-magenta-and-plum colored stems, along with those palmate leaves: well now, that is one chic gown she sports!

Like any social event of the season, she lasts for a brief period of time, her moment on this earth infused with a curious mix of frivolity and seriousness that defines it. More properly stated, each flower lasts one day, though she blooms from mid-to late July into well into September.

And, like any social event of the season, she heightens one's sense of anticipation such that when she arrives, one feels relief and satisfaction, and somehow more alive having experienced it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opposites Do Not Always Attract

Romantic lore (er, wisdom?) has it that opposites attract.

You know: the petite blond attracted to the strapping tall, dark, and handsome specimen of humanity, positive ions attracted to negative ions, and all that.

My intended research on the origin of the adage yielded not a linguistic history, but affirmations and denials, and an eponymous Paula Abdul song.

One website claimed that when it comes to values and qualities, people actually seek the similar.

Another claimed that in terms of the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, people usually are attracted to their opposite with respect to the Introversion/Extroversion and Judging/Perceiving scales.

Silliness: life is an amalgamation of many truths, not singular ones.

Yet I can affirm that at least one pair of opposites do not attract: sun and shade.

My neighbor recently spoke to me about trimming the shade- and privacy-providing, albeit severely overgrown and misshapen hedge that divides our properties. I understood him to be asking for permission to pick up any debris that happened to land on my property.

On Sunday morning, after a delightful Saturday away, I awoke, turned on the computer, and glanced out the study window to look upon the garden. What greeted me was horror: the trimming of the hedge row more properly stated proved to be an extermination. The yews. His pogrom--one designed to trim the mass as it were--clearly, quickly morphed into a genocide. My East Side Shade Bed (ESSB) was now the East Side Full-Sun Bed, though I could think of a four-letter F word that would nicely take the place of "Full" and express my feelings.

Sure, he left several feet of bare trunks to protrude (oddly) from the ground, a memorial marking for what once stood on his property, and nothing else save for a rhododendron which he recognized, and the two final bushes that marked the end of the hedge: a yew and the enormous Viburnum.

Soon, I heard not the metal clacking sounds of a hand-held shears, but the gas-motorized roar of a mini-chainsaw.  Out the door I ran.

He greeted me with, "Oh my God, where were you yesterday?! I needed you...."

I started with recognition of his property rights.  "Hi X. Please don't misinterpret, for you have every right to do whatever you wish to your property. But I admit I am shocked and now extremely worried about my plants. I thought you were going to trim the yews, but you.... you,"  (I stammered, overcome with shock) " cut them to the ground."

"I know, I know: I didn't know what I was doing!  I am so sorry! That's why I needed you yesterday but you weren't around! I am so sorry!"  Not the reaction I expected, but good. My genocidaire was actually reasonable. To a degree.

"This isn't your problem," I continued, "but I have some very expensive unusual specimens in that bed that need full shade. I haven't time to relocate an entire bed of plants, so if I could plead with you, could you please not chop down the remaining yew and the Viburnum?"

"The what? What's a Vi-....whatever you just said."

So we talked. And, together, we trimmed and shaped the remaining yew, which shades the Buddha bed and my now-beloved, and expensive, Edgeworthia. And the Viburnum remains....vibrant.

Over the last few days, in the wee hours of the morning before the temperatures quickly reach the 90s and the humidity level makes gardening unbearable, I've been moving things around. Not quickly enough, however. Yesterday's high heat and full day of sun were not kind to the plants of the Formerly-Known-as-the-ESSB.

But that's what gardening is all about: successes and losses. And in the gardening world, those opposites certainly always do attract.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Morning Haiku

Vermilion morning:
Bodhisattvas dancing on
material dreams.

--haiku for the sunrise, 25 January 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Illusive Garden

"Gardeners are often good letter writers, and whether they write to describe what's blooming today or to remember a flower from childhood, their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put away tool in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden. Because it is impossible to achieve the ind of perfection they dream of, they try to come to terms with their dreams by talking back and forth about their successes and failures. Sometimes they like to have visitors who can walk with them along the paths and admire their handiwork, but at other times, they feel more confident if they can keep visitors at a distance. No matter how lovely the garden looks, as soon as the gardener hears that someone is coming, [the gardener] feels compelled to warn, 'Don't expect much; we haven't had rain.' The perfect flower today can wilt under the eye of tomorrow's visitor. Even a visit to Monet's garden may find us standing in a line in the rain only to notice an unweeded bed. It is far easier to maintain the illusion of a garden in a letter.

Which brings us to the idea of a garden as an illusion, for it is the constant hope of the gardener that enriching this bed and plating that shrub will result in an aesthetic experience that lives up to the dream. So, what is the gardener's dream but a dream of the ideal order in which beauty can be expressed and loss absorbed? Often the struggle between what is hoped for and what is accomplished meets with unexpected disappointments: weeds and varmints are insistent, a flower bed looks poorly. But as the gardener moves along with worried brow, suddenly the smell of a particular flower provides transport to a garden from one's childhood...Memory is awakened, the world made whole, if only for a moment. But in that moment some sort of healing takes place, or so gardeners have believed for centuries."

--Emily Herring Wilson, "Introduction," Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters, pp. vii-viii