Sunday, October 24, 2010

10.20 Off the Shelf

It’s the time of year when I haunt big box stores for plant sales. This year it’s a Lowe’s in a neighboring town that I would never imagine going out of my way for – except for noticing on an unrelated errand that the store boats a “garden center,” half open to the elements, the way they are at all the big box stores. We went there looking for stone to beef up some of the paths in the back that get overrun by weeds over my thin layer of blue-gray pea stone. I like pea stone, and I don’t even mind overgrown paths, but that’s another story.
Having filed in my memory the intelligence that a plant sell-off of leftovers was taking place, I snuck back there the other day when the sun was shining on the chance that prices would be better than at the Home Depot stores I’ve already checked out. They were. I had a concise mental shopping list. Something for “winter interest against the back fence.” Some more shade-loving but flowering plants, a rarer combination to come across by accident, intended for the shady side of the house along a stone path made of irregular blue granite. We’ve already invested, both money and muscle, in this area, so I’m determined to keep improving it.
So far we have spring flowering groundcovers there, but not much for the rest of the season. By late summer it gets dull and this year a little barren along the path’s shady border. Worse, the long dry season this year took a toll on some of the groundcovers. The pitiful October roster: Violets that dissipate by autumn, with weather-bitten leaves. Hosta that begins losing interest in life as soon as their flowering season is over. Lilies of the valley that have done a vanishing act long before fall begins. The sweet woodruff which this year executed a classic bubble, to borrow a term from the still depressing dysfunction in the financial services sector, expanding at a stunning rate in the spring and dying back spectacularly in the hot months, leaving browned out patches where factories have shut down, main streets rolled up, whole families fleeing to the edge of cities to live in shantytowns. Someone should investigate, really.
So I need revival, renewal. I need to attract new industries. Or buy them, actually (which is why gardening is better than economic planning); and while fall is reputed a good planting season, October is running down, and the plants you can find on sale in plant centers have for the most part spent months growing root-bound in undersized plastic homes.
Location: a strip mall in Weymouth. In the near-empty garden center of a Lowe’s, one woman going round the joint with a shopping cart and a rather dashing hydrangea, no other evident customers, I find some good stuff, what might be just the stuff I’m looking for, and am confronted almost at once with a choice of generously under-priced holly shrubs to buy for the “winter interest” spot along the back fence. Where I can gaze at it all winter and be thankful for something green. There are hollies with red berries and then something called a “blue holly.” The blue holly have small berries in the formative stages of existence which currently appear whitish with a patina of what looks like freezer-fuzz but almost certainly isn’t. I am intrigued. It will give me a cold weather occupation, going out back every once in a while to check on the status of the freezer-fuzz.
So I settle on the blue. But how to choose which blue holly plant?
Oh sure, the best or healthiest looking. But I’m taking the longer view here. Most, even possibly all – at this time of year – of the rest are likely to end up in the dumpster. Or some sort of “recycled” equivalent adopted by a supplier; dumped on a mulch pile, perhaps. I suppose suppliers may take back some of the bigger, costlier products, the trees, if the investment in them justifies further costs, and winter them over, re-pot them in the spring, and give them another season of shelf-life.
But – shelf-life, think of it. What kind of life is that?
They wait in the garden center all season hoping someone will come and say, oh that one’s cute, and buy and take it home and release it into its proper element – the earth, I’m thinking here – and maybe give it a little water at the start and then basically get out of its way.
So now here I am, the last chance shopper, choosing one holly bush off the shelf – just one from a whole extended family of imprisoned plants -- to sit by a back garden fence and give me visual company. I’m playing god. It’s a customer selection which is different from most kinds of shoppers’ choices because after all I’m dealing with living things. And almost all the other aspiring trees, shrubs, and perennial flowering plants in the joint are likely to end up in some version of a trash can.
How “contingent” are the lives of living, natural beings! Contingent, the word I learned in philosophy class back when everything in the world was about to change (but didn’t), means dependent on chance. On the unpredictable, on breaks; on forces larger than oneself.
People are living, natural beings too. We’re part of the game as well. We take our chances. Someone picks us off the shelf and helps us grow, or doesn’t. Gives us a job or a scholarship, or gives it to someone else. All our constituent parts come together properly to form a healthy little unit, or they don’t. Some families function well; some don’t.
We make choices as well, certainly. We’re part of that greater “contingency” – and our choices affect others. But only those under the sway of the ruling American mythology, and truly only those when young, really believe that the course of our lives is up to us.
Stay healthy. Sure, but health is not always within an individual’s control. Work hard. Yeah, but you might get laid off or any number of macro-economic contingencies can pop up to constrain your prosperity. Survive. Good idea – so don’t smoke, drink and drive, text and drive, take drugs, have unprotected sex, chew and talk, put a slippery rug in the bathroom, or find yourself in a war or on an icy road. Clearly, there are a lot factors which may come into play, if you look at the big picture.
So mostly, understandably, we don’t look at the big picture. We look at the view close to home. At a garden, perhaps. At a small blue-holly shrub, which is now planted against a fence.
Odds are that bush isn’t thinking about all the others left behind in the store… I, however, may go back and buy them all.