Friday, April 4, 2014

When Your Therapy is Sh-t...

Therapy comes in many forms.

Black leather chaise lounges and bearded, cigar-smoking psychologists may be somewhat passe, but the paid professional who listens, advises, suggests, (gently) prods, and tells you your hour is up is not.

Noticeably, however, this once private, near-monologue of disclosures and discoveries has become very public: too public, perhaps. In our pill-popping, post-it on Facebook, Tweet-it-on-Twitter, snap-it-on-your-mobile, expose-all society, "therapy" is everywhere--and with it, all those private affairs. We post in public venues to share and celebrate our accomplishments, and yes, our woes and irritations;  call it Facebook-therapy. We justify disclosing our (in)discretions on various grounds: empowering others; being honest; taking responsibility to be healthy and whole (once again). But I think most people post to receive some kind of affirmation--and this, in my humble, non-professional opinion, perhaps leads us to become too addicted to affirmation. What happens when we don't receive it? A recent study has linked lower self-esteem to Facebook use.

Advances in biomedical technology and drug therapy have greatly democratized therapy: a panoply of spring pastel-colored pills abound! Pink pills for anxiety, little blue ones for depression, yellow for OCD. Happiness has become yet another commodity--one to be taken with a full glass of water! (With all due respect to those for whom drug therapy offers substantial relief and, it must be said, the opportunity to live.)

This commodification of happiness appears in other ways. Our wellness-conscious society has democratized not-so-new types of therapy: yoga, meditation, zumba, and exercise writ large have become our barometers of not simply physical but mental health as well. I admit that ten days away from running (bum knee) and the gym and I have descended into a pit of woe and misery.

That populist instrument--the ubiquitous mobile--has made finding people who readily talk about their therapy / psychotherapy/ couple's counseling / addictions both shocking and shockingly easy. Yesterday as I made my way to the front garden, I heard a male voice--disembodied at first--discussing to a friend the fact that his girlfriend kicked him out after weeks of tension, argument, and suspicion. He was feeling blue, he told his friend, but was trying to get from day to day by overloading himself with work obligations. I tried not to listen, but his booming, baritone voice made it difficult not to hear. A man suddenly appeared: a workman, across the street. He looked at me. I panicked and looked at the ground. He lowered his voice out of embarrassment, perhaps, or a sudden need for privacy. But then, as if I did not exist, he resumed speaking in his need-to-be-heard-in-this-large-and-crowded-lecture-hall-voice roughly 45 seconds later--about his degree of complicity in the doomed relationship. (Hey, at least he was mature enough to admit his own shortcomings.)

Like this workman, I, too, was in desperate need of therapy earlier this week, weighed down with concerns of various sorts. So I took a few mental health days and wallowed in my sh-t.

No, not metaphorical sh-t. Actual cow sh-t.

Yes, dear reader: I played in the garden (I despise that phrase, "work in the garden," for it signifies something that gardening decidedly is not) and, in doing so, discovered that playing in cow sh-t is an excellent form of therapy.

Winter finally and rapidly retreated in the mid-Atlantic and this week we were treated to warm temperatures and bountiful sun. I had to capitalize on the moment before more plants began to poke up from the ground and so laid 1,200 pounds of composted cow manure in the front sun and rear shade gardens.

By the way: NEVER apply fresh cow manure to your garden beds: the nitrogen will burn your plants and their roots--in other words, it will kill them--and will impede or even prevent seed germination. You MUST ONLY use composted cow manure, which will slowly release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium down into the soil. And if you are applying the manure to already planted beds, either top-dress the beds, or, if you are certain you won't disturb tender plant roots, then you may work the manure into the soil.

I know there are metaphors galore regarding surface sh-t and deep sh-t, but I leave those to you.

For now, I simply relish in the fact of feeling better, more grounded, as I now stand ankle deep in cow sh-t.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Long Gardening Life

Two great gardeners died on Monday, 17 March 2014.

Mrs. Rachel Mellon died at her estate in Virginia at the age of 103. Though many may not have heard of her, I am certain that all Americans know of her most famous work: the redesign of the White House Rose Garden.

Mrs. Mellon (a.k.a. Bunny) possessed tremendous botanical prowess and had an eye for grand and poignant design. But her considerable wealth, which placed her in the social circles of people like the Kennedys and Queen Elizabeth, among other social, political, and cultural luminaries, no doubt aided in the achievement of her fame. If wealth catapulted Bunny's horticultural 'career' into the stratosphere, then writing and weekly gardening columns allowed other eventually renowned gardeners (such as Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, and Katharine White--E.B.'s wife for those in the know) to achieve their national and international stature.

They represent one class of gardeners, if I can so boldly categorize gardeners as belonging to one of two groups. The fame of other gardeners--most gardeners, like my uncle, Jim VanDervort and his wife, my Aunt Annie--is more local, bred within the communities within which they lived. This is not to suggest that their abilities are lesser than the famous gardeners who cultivate, and cultivated, this earth. Not in the least. In fact, I tend to think their gardens are more aesthetically experimental, more personal and thus more accessible intellectually and artistically because they are more intimate, unhampered as it were by committees and commissions and the need to tame expansive swaths of land into gardens for hordes of visitors to enjoy.

Jim and Aunt Annie's gardens--an assortment of brilliant and sublime spaces such as the long border, the Greco-Roman shade garden, the cookhouse beds, the savannah behind the barn--illustrate an aesthetic appreciation for life and for the natural world that filtered through their lives. Anyone who has visited their house knows this.

I always enjoyed wandering their house, asking Jim 'who painted that?' or 'is that English or Dutch?', or simply commenting on the beauty of a porcelain bowl or a table, which, I knew, would always elicit a story. Hopefully they did not think of me as the nosy nephew; I asked because I wanted to hear the stories which Jim would almost always begin with a sleight of hand, and one particular utterance: 'oh, that old thing...'

Far from being dismissive, 'that old thing' exuded playful familiarity--akin to things old married couples say to each other, I imagine. It prefaced the telling of a history, a sharing, a knowledge of provenance mixed with personal anecdote related to the object's acquisition. 'That old thing', I have come to realize in the days since his passing, summarized what Jim taught and what he offered to me: an appreciation of the past and, through gardening, an appreciation of the present.

He taught me--they taught me--through example, to be a steward of the past by caring for the myriad of old things that survive the ages, despite my klutziness and the fact that I once ran through a screen door and bent its frame, at considerable cost to them. Still, they have entrusted valuable items to my care.

And he taught me--they taught me--to be a steward of this earth by gardening.  If I owe my gardening life to Aunt Annie who taught me, at the age of six, how to properly dig a hole for a new plant and water it, and how to be attuned to the needs of particular plants and how to situate them in ways to create rich tapestries of color and composition, then both Aunt Annie and Jim cultivated that growing passion into my adulthood.

If I owe my appreciation for 'old things' to both of them, then it is only through the example of their care of things that I learned what appreciation as a practice and what being a steward really mean.
In Memoriam
James K. VanDervort 
(18 September 1932 - 17 March 2014)