Saturday, April 30, 2011

4.28 The Green Rush

Sun in snatches only this week. On Easter morning, and a few hours here and there. A warm front came up from the south and ran into ocean-chilled cold air on the coast, resulting in clouds and sort of half-drizzle days where it seems it’s about to rain for eight hours and then drizzles a little bit after dark.
Yesterday, the warm air finally won as the temperature went from sixties to seventy, back to sixties, then spiked up to eighty. We went from a nice early spring
morning to a mid-summer afternoon all in one day -- the classic New England April weather-shock.
I’m trying to remember. Does shock treatment cure insanity, or cause it?
But something there is that likes all this moisture. Plants.
Today, for the first time this year, the back garden has its definitive green look. Not all that much color yet, color in spots – the Labrador violets are a glamorously vivid purple backed by all that green – but green over all the land in spears and leafy shrubs and low interwoven groundcovers, pulling up the green juice from the earth, mixed with a lot of rainwater. It’s the visual equivalent of a sugar rush.
The green rush.
I’m working on the hypothesis that it’s good for the soul. Has anybody worked out a calculus yet between sensual stimulus and the state of the soul… or maybe even something as sociologically measurable as self-esteem?
After the minimalism of the winter landscape, plus all that clothing, and the deprivation of growing-flowering-fertilizing smells, spring’s new greenleaf time feels like coming home. Remember the first thawing days when even mud, decay, and chilly breezes smelled good? A kind of early March cocktail? It was good to be able smell outdoors, period.
What the thawed earth does for smell, and bird song for the ears, green does for the eye – and when it comes to the senses we humans are first of all creatures of the eye. Think how much we like pictures.
We’re seeing pictures all the time now. When it’s not raining; weather permitting, that is. Even in the rain, there’s plenty to see. Whole strips of pavement color-spattered with pink cherry blossoms or the red vanguards of leafing time on the maple trees.
Here the bi-colored leafs on the small dogwood tree have just emerged. They are delicate and stunning against the reddish hue of the bark. The stella do’oro daylilies have thickened up marvelously, eating up the brown earth between them in a lively color contrast. Even the light-green color on the fresh leafs of the raspberry canes – an unsentimental and thornish plant – adds light to the picture. And, yes, the wild, ordinary, lawn-creeping violets are beginning at last to bloom.
How can we keep from singing?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

4.23 Who Are "You"?

In the garden, I know that you live forever until you don’t, and forever may begin at any moment. In fact, it may have already started.
I wrote that two years ago. But who am “I” talking to? Who are “you”?
Substituting “you” for “me” is an interesting stylistic tendency of modern English that can probably be traced back to somewhere in the twentieth century. When we use it, we objectify (or distance) our feelings and experiences and name their subject “you.”
We report our mental, conscious life, our thought process, and we say, “you think things will change,” “so then you wonder,” “you can’t help wishing,” “you wish you could do it over” and a million other common locutions putting “you” in the driver’s seat when the consciousness behind the wheel of thought is clearly me, myself, and I.
So is the “you” the one who knows that you live forever? My thoughts will forever, is that what I mean? That the realm of time, in which human life is bounded, and the realm of human consciousness are not exactly identical?
It’s a bold idea to claim as one's own, so maybe that’s why I want to pawn it off on some unidentifiable “you.” But it if were my proposition, maybe this is what I would say in its behalf.
Proposition: We are living in forever. Not merely in the temporal dimension in which all things material come and go and slip away like the pages from the calendar.
Do I experience this transcendence of linear time in the garden – and believe others experience it too – because plants live in time, as we do, but also persist through a different sort of time?
In the garden there will always be oak trees, they will always leaf in May and de-leaf in autumn, bombard the earth with acorns, and sprout again in the spring. In some ages of the earth, conditions do not permit oak trees to grow here, but the earth will always be what it is – and not something else – because oak trees have grown on and under and above its surface. They have mediated the atmosphere, breathed in its carbon, shaded the rays of the sun, held down its soil, turned its richness into tree – woody trunk and branches, green photosynthesizing leaves, water-seeking roots.
In the garden native daylilies grow and disappear and come back again each spring. The same ones? A successor generation? We can consider the lilies, but it’s hard to consider an individual lily. The plant has a root, but that root expands, colonizes, produces new shoots, combines and mats with other roots. Do lilies have a common root? You have to cut them apart to make an individual for purposes of transplanting. Are plants “individuals” aside from the distinctions and divisions our way of seeing things imposes on them?
Plants give a new meaning to sameness and collectivity. Maybe there are genius lilies and oaks out there in the plant kingdom, painting masterpiece blooms and pioneering new strategies for spreading the seed, but what we experience is reliability, conformity to type, the predictable return of an old friend each spring.
We don’t mourn for the loss of the leaves in autumn, the drying and falling off of the flower and foliage from perennial, favorite plants, because they will be back again. They don’t grow old, not the way we do, and when a plant “dies,” we know they are replaceable because their existence is predictable. Truly it is, as the poet says, Margaret that we mourn for.
We will name a dog, but not a tree. All plants partake of plant-ness, nature. And nature is always here, it’s forever. If it’s not, we’re not, and then there’s no one left to consider all that is the case.
So in the garden we live forever, at least a little bit the way that plants do. We are always loosening the earth in spring, pulling weeds, picking up handfuls of last year’s brown leaves. Admiring new sprouts, exulting at fresh blossoms. We do as people have always done. And the world is what it is, and not something else, because we do it.
And “you”? You, perhaps, are simply something that knows. And you will still be here when we short-lived beings of flesh are no longer.

4.23 Waiting for Gardot

A not very good pun on Beckett’s famous play about the uncertainty of meaning in a world we never made.
I could also call this “waiting for April,” because I have a persistent notion that spring is about to burst into color this month, but April is running out of days. Was I mistaken? Or am I thinking of some other month?
I am still waiting for the orange flowers to pop open from the anonymous plant that looks like a miniature Lady’s Mantle, round omelet-sized leaves forming a mounded plant shape with protruding flower stems. Though I can’t pin a name on this early performer by searching the internet for photos, I have clear memory picture of the bright poppy-orange blossoms that provided a dramatic splash of color in the early weeks of spring.
Looking on the brighter side of things, the weeping cherry tree has opened like an overturned bowl of freshly exploded popcorn, the blossoms still tight and self-contained but offering a brilliant cool-weather focal point for this muted April. Last year the white cherry blossoms opened fast in much milder weather and probably faded faster as a result of the same warm temperatures. Today they get rain and forties. I get to stay indoors and contemplate the scene through the window.
In truth, some spots are shining up well beneath the cool, shady-day April rain. When the sun is damped down behind cloud cover, the world is under-lit by the bright green and multi-hued foliage sprouting from the earth. We have daffodils open to full bloom today out front. Not there yesterday, when the sky was mostly clear and a cool wind blew, but shining today like buttery little suns. They’re joined by a few early-showing red tulips, a scattering of blue star bulbs and some heavy-handed pink hyacinths that flop over unconventionally but show a bright pastel color. Other plants in the front garden are greening up as well – the row of sedums along the sidewalk strip, which don’t blossom till fall, have leafed out bright green. The strip is also brightened by pansy heads and a few bulbs, including a good thatch of deep-blue grape narcissus.
The really stunning difference between this and every other spring since we’ve been here is that I am still waiting for the semi-wild purple violets to blossom. They emerge from the cool earth late this year, and their flowers are still later. Starting from our first summer here six years ago I have transplanted them, and they have multiplied their holdings nearly everywhere throughout the garden. Their absence from our April bouquet makes me how much I rely on them for the deep purple that complements the new green.
We shall know thee by thy absence.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

4.2 Braving April

Classic April Fool’s weather. A snowstorm on April 1. For us a few inches of white slush. Locations not far west or north of here got eight inches.
Anne goes to work as always, rain snow or sleet, that morning and keeps a sharp lookout for the well-being of assorted spring blossoms. Her report, from Boston’s Park Street station:

At One Beacon Street
The pansies are shivering
In the snow

As much as the gathering slush was dousing my enthusiasm for a go at the back garden, I had been staring at a green banner raised by reliably strong early showing by the daylilies. On the basis of that strength I felt a reply was called for:

At One-Seven-Four
The lilies lift their fingers
To wave in the slush

Saturday, forecast as a sunny, low fifties good outdoors day, turns out to be a good deal cooler in the morning, and the wind keeps up all day. I rake in the afternoon, feeling cool whenever a cloud gets between me and the sun and the wind blows, as it’s determined to do. Then there’s a good patch when the clouds miss my sun on their trek to somebody else’s sun and I am too warm to wear my jacket. That’s the place I want to get to more often.
I should emulate the indifference of the crocuses. I had worried that the snow would harm their blossoms, which were late enough opening this year. But even before the snow had finished melting on the sidewalk strip, the crocuses were standing up straight and strong, brightly colored faces raised to the sun.
They are the very image of bravery, Anne said.
Inspired by landscapers of Beacon Street, Anne and I decide to go buy some pansies our own and plant them out front in that strip. A few rain drops fall from the now cloud-furrowed sky as we drive back home. We go to work anyway, digging up a patch in front of the house, but then the wind picks up and the clouds thicken and move with apparent determination toward steady drizzle.
We go indoors to have tea.
The sky clears and bright heavens beam from behind the storm door and windows. It’s too late.
When you cool your jets too many times, it’s hard to start them up again. That’s the way the days go in April.

3.29 Everything Is An Herb (In Its Own Way)

Somewhere in a coat pocket I have a list of all kinds and descriptions plants that merit the title of herb. It’s a long list, but still a very partial one. An herb, according to one widely cited definition, is a plant “that is valued for flavor, scent, or other qualities.”
The Herb Society of America, presumably an expert on the subject, states that it is dedicated “to promoting herbs for use and delight.”
Does that mean that so long as a plant is grown consciously for “delight,” it can be considered an herb? If so, then if you planted it – unless you’re a masochist – it’s an herb. And your garden, whether you know it or not, has some call to be considered an herb garden.
This expansive definition is good news for those of us (and I am among them, pretty much always) looking for reasons to acquire some new and interesting plants. Basically, we don’t need a reason to do this, it’s kind of a steady-state condition, but it does get more extreme in late March, like the return of an old addiction. (O Cynara!, the poet cried, I am sick of an old passion!)
Anglers are lured and baited. Sailors shiver their timbers. Plant lovers go buy plants.
Those of us without an expansive knowledge of the Latin names of plants can learn from the expertise of Doveflower Cottage Designs. That list in my coat pocket, which I have now recovered, was provided by Doveflower’s master gardener Susan Leigh Anthony at a lecture we attended at a flower show.
Susan Leigh Anthony, who cited the Herb Society of America’s credo of “herbs for use and delight,” offered us a “big tent” approach to herb gardening. Come on in and invite your friends.
Here are the names, some common, Latin, of herbs chosen almost at random from Anthony’s long list. Herbs of low height: sage, miniature basils, santolina, comfrey-Hidcote blue. Annuals: nasturtium, prostrate rosemary, English daisy, nigella. Medium height: tarragon (French), anchusa, garden sage, anthemis tinctoria, lovage. Tall herbs: fennel (bronze), dill (annual), angelica-patrinia, valerian.
I for one truly appreciate a list of good names.
Some of the plants on her lists of herbs we have in our garden (or at least had last year) include: chamomile, lady’s mantle, catmint, lavender, parsley, alpine strawberry, oregano, ajuga, dianthus, germander, phlox, artemisia, beel balm, tarragon, basil, aliums, some roses, tall peonies, lilac, butterfly bush, and mint.
We’ve planted some of the annuals on her list too, with mixed success. I tried some nasturtiums late last summer, and found the remains of a dried orange flower under the melted snow. I’m a little surprised to find English daisy listed as an annual; I was under the impression that I had acquired a perennial. Maybe I shouldn’t be expecting back. And dill is something I have remind myself to put in every year.
Other names I welcome as opportunities for learning. What is santolina? Comfrey I remember, though I don’t remember what it looks like or what it was supposed to cure. There’s a “garden sage”? (Is that one of those little stone Buddhas?) Why is rosemary prostate? (It sounds slightly indecent.) Lovage is a lovely word, but I know nothing of thing itself. Valerian makes tea and cures stomach upsets, but what’s it like to grow it?
This inclusive approach to the green and charming universe of herbs puts to shame our tiny, segregated so-called “herb patch,” a modest affair surrounded by log-shaped extra lumber pieces, cut to a modest, chunky size. This patch has, judging by what I see so far this March, chives which come back every year, something that I believe is a garlic-leek, which is rather surprisingly back this year, and oregano, which also has come back every year reliably.
Oregano, or “joy of the mountain,” is one of what Anthony calls “the Mediterranean herbs,” which need sun and well-drained, though not necessarily rich soil. We had rosemary last year, which smells like pine, but I’m told to my surprise not to expect it back this year. Once again, I assumed perennial status. We’ve have tarragon, which has hung in there for a few years, but I don’t see it yet this year. We had some thyme, but it’s gone.
We have parsley – is that an herb? Isn’t it also a green? Does a popular folk song give it a special status? So far our parsley winters over and then throws down some new seed to keep the patch growing. I don’t know why we don’t have sage.
Here’s just a few – the few whose names I can remembers – of the dozens of attractive and remarkable plants Anthony’s slide-lecture introduced us to.
Daphne – Carol Mackie. There appear to be lots of varieties of this plant, all called Carol Mackie (there’s fame for you). Lots of starry pink flowers, some with variegated leaves, three feet high, flowering in May.
Viburnum. A plant with lots of shapes and floral patterns, and a variety called viburnum plicatum Summer Snowflake (quite enough name for anyone), blooms white at various months (depending on the variety), looks good as a tall background shrub, produces a late summer fruit – and smells good. I’m sold.
Fairy candles (Actaea racemosa), which have other-worldly, pointy flower spires of tall white blossoms that live up to their name. They’re partial to full shade, 4-6 feet high, bloom in midsummer, and like their soil kept moist.
Borage. It looks classical herb-like to me. Beautiful small blue flowers and fuzzy leaves. An annual, it self-seeds, blooms midsummer, grows 18-36 inches. Dead head it to keep blooming; attracts bees. I’ll put it on the list.
I am glad to be reminded that there’s plenty of unexplored territory. In a journey of a thousand miles I feel well on my way along the first half-dozen steps or so.
We’re looking forward to taking a few new ones this year, just as soon as the April Fool’s snowfall melts off.