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?