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)