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.

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