Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Garden of Delight

Somewhere, I tell myself, there is a line in the collected poetry of William Blake that reads, "It is a garden of delight."
It's a moist day, but not quite raining, when I finish work at my desk and get myself outdoors. After a couple of wettish days, and another week of lengthening light, all the space between the plans is suddenly filled with green. Weeds force their way in, wherever they can, but lushness is all.
I feel like I'm in a rain forest. It's a garden of delight, I say to myself, exulting in all that green and varied growth. Somewhere, I think, in one of his poems William Blake has written the line "It is a garden of delight." And my memory is channeling it now under the stimulus of a moist spring day.
The trouble is I'm wrong. Blake never wrote "It is a garden of delight."
I search for the line in Blake's poems in the anthologies I've always used and which sum up my acquaintance with his poetry. It's not there.
I'm hearing his muisc, I finally realize, but I'm making up the words.
I find the line whose rhythm and urgency I am almost certainly hearing -- but misremembering -- in my thoughts. It comes in a poem called "Holy Thursday (II)" in which Blake questions the existence of hunger and misery "In a rich and fruitful land." The poem is one of the best known of his group of poems called "Songs of Experience" -- it's number two (II) because Blake wrote a poem with the same title in "Songs of Innocence." And the "Songs of Experience" have nothing to do with gardens or delight.
"And so many children poor?" the poem demands of the 1790s England he is writing of, before concluding the second stanza with this harrowing line:
"It is a land of poverty."
The concise, assertive, forward-thrusting movement of this line has stayed in my mind year after year, decade after decade, since encountering it in graduate school.
My memory has simply borrowed the aural bones of this line for purposes of my own. It's strong simple address is a repudiation of things as they are in Blake's  poem, as befits the theme of his "world of experience" in which our childish embrace of existence (in "innocence") is shocked and overturned by worldly experience. "Experience" is the Buddha's journey into the world of human suffering.
He concludes the third stanza with a similarly structured line: "It is eternal winter there."
I've turned the same construction -- a concise eight-syllable iambic line -- to offer a completely opposite image of the world: "a garden of delight."
A moment's review of his poems shows me how off base I am. Blake doesn't celebrate nature in this naive way some of us cling to. Nature, as we experience it in this fallen world, isn't Blake's subject -- religion is, and he invents his own.
But the words "garden" and "delight" do appear in his poems. His poem "The Lamb" offers the image of "clothing of delight." In "The Book of Thel," another poem that sets innocence and experience as contrairies, the speaker alludes to the original garden of Genesis and its creator God, referring to the voice "Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time." Garden is a symbol for Blake, not a real place where you pull weeds, celebrate flowers, and exult in nature's annual resurgence. In another of his disquieting visions of experience, the narrator of "The Garden of Love" finds the garden "filled with graves,/ And tombstones where flowers should be."
In other poems, of the sort the critics call prophetic, Blake uses garden and nature imagery to symbolize human potential, calling on us to build a "New Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."
That's the place I'm celebrating when I'm taken out of myself: "a garden of delight."
I have no problem with mis-remembering a line of poetry. In fact, realizing what my memory has done with something I've read (many times) over the years gives me an insight into how the mind works. On a moist and misty afternoon, everything thick and wet after a spell of gentle rain, I'm imagining a rain forest feeling. I've never been to a rain forest. But that's the point: I'm imagining it.
Blake believed that the imagination is the primary human faculty. Lots of scientists are coming around to the same view, particularly those who study how "consciousness" works. We imagine our world.
Blake's poetry does not spend a lot of time in real, actual gardens. Even his art -- an engraver, he illustrated all his poems -- deals with them symbolically.
But real gardens, where nature and human beings meet, are great places to grow the imagination. And great poets supply the words, rough hew them as we may.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Daylily Days

They come, the botanists, by the busload to Collamore Field Gardens, the Scituate garden of Stephen and Janet Tooker that has been certified by the daylily experts as an American Hemerocallis Society Display Garden. And on days when the garden has its annual plant sale, all us backyard gardeners show up as well.
How many varieties of dalylily are being grown here in this display garden? I pull a number out of the air, trying to recall my telephone conversation with the Scituate garden's maestro, Stephen Tooker. Two hundred? three hundred? No, seven hundred it says on this piece of paper.
How can there be 700 varieties of daylilies?
What a wonderful world this is.
It is an experience such as on first looking into the Tookers' garden that causes me to re-embrace my amateur status. In case we human beings ever gets bored with all other sources of amusment and learning, there is always so much to learn about -- to use a word we can all relate to -- flowers.
On last weekend's visit to Collamore Field Gardens (my first), though the daylilies were present in their hundreds I tried to focus on one or two varieties to make a single-step, incremental addition to my knowledge base in the field of Hemerocallis (the scientific word, I deduced, for daylilies). I even bought my two new varieties -- new to me -- but alas by the time I arrived home their names had eluded me.
Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to their blossoming, in season, June or July, when I intend to make up in admiration what I lack in science.
Since it's too early in the season for daylilies to flower, last weekend's annual plant sale at Collamore Field Gardens, Stephen posted photos of the many varieties for sale on the outside wall of the barn. You could look at the photo, learn the name, and then walk over to the area where daylilies potted up for sale, by the score -- several hundred of these -- waited for us row on row in their staging area. Arranged in alphabetical order with clearly written name labels.
Even before daylily season, the these gardens are a flower museum, with many species in flower. Stephen pointed out some primrose to me with long stems, two feet or so, before the blossoms start. When I picked out some other "shade tolerant" specimens he had potted for the sale, he showed me what they looked like, fully grown and expanding.
Shade tolerant are two of my favorite words. I am so looking for color in my shade garden. If the two babies I bought grow up to look like the one in his garden, I will jump for joy and pass out cigars (or some healthier substitute).
I bought a few other plants because they were also nicely potted, on sale, and either blooming or about to bloom, and I always go for the doggie in the window. I know the name of one of these because Stephen wrote it down for me after I tried to take his display sign with me as a reminder. It's Pulmonaria Silver Streamers Lungwort. Sounds like a respiratory infection, but its appearance is a breath of fresh air.
As for my acquaintance with Collamore Field's well populated universe of daylilies I intend to improve it with a return visit some weekend in June or July when the garden, I have no doubt, will be

dressed to kill.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Poppies Blow

            They grow all over Central Asia, where armies live off their market value. They grew for the British Empire. They grow in Iceland. I expect they grow in thousands of other places too, and they surely grow -- as the famous poem tells us -- in Flanders Field. But they don't necessarily grow that well in Massachusetts. I have planted a few over the years that have taken in vain the name of perennial. Not so hot the first year. A little worse the second year. Just, bam, gone after that.
            When we drew on professional counseling at a garden center of our choice before deciding on what to plant in the front of the house, our perennials expert cautioned me to lower my expectation that a poppy would contribute significantly to the color load on one side of the front walk. She said something like "My poppy plant in my garden at home? I got maybe two blossoms last year." She talked us into a hydrangea. I'm happy we have the hydrangea, though its appetite for water is a mid-summer burden, but I snuck in a poppy as well.
            I'm pretty sure we planted only one. Returns were moderate at best the first few years. Plus they have long skinny necks on which those extravagant heads float, like visitors from another planet. It's easy for somebody or something to crimp the neck or bite off the bud. It invites disasters, in the manner of only children. Of things waited for, and disproportionately precious. 
            I think we did a little better last year. Maybe three blossoms, maybe four.
            But maybe those Icelandic poppies they market in the US like cold winters. That's the only difference I see from last year. This year the poppy has spread, gone forth and multiplied, done whatever this plant does to propagate itself, because those long-necked stems are poking out wherever they can manage to find room between all the other plants packed into that crowded corner of earth -- the hydrangea, yes, rubbing elbows with the butterfly bush, the lavender, the little slow-growing boxwood hedge bushes, some other doughty plant that expands and flowers every year but whose name and origins have completely escaped my memory, not to mention the volunteer wild rose that insists on returning bigger every year no matter what I do it.
            More buds this year, more sinuous stems, more blossoms so far. More on the way.
            They look even more extra-terrestrial in greater numbers. Neon orange glowing in the air, they float in the distance like oddly colored planets or low-lying suns. And like other strongly colored objects, they appear to get brighter when the sky darkens. The greens and browns pull into together and gather darkness or dull, overcast skies unto themselves, but the orange flowers, red roses, and the purple clematis beam like headlights in the dusk.
            As for that World War I poem ("In Flanders Field" by John McCrae), how many of us were asked to memorize it? "In Flanders Field the poppies blow/  Beneath the crosses row on row/ That mark our place.../ We are the dead./ Short time ago..." But I'm already starting to guess.
            Here's how it actually goes:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

            I don't care for the conventional final stanza, but the poem is s great verbal music, especially at the start. And in their season the poppies do hold up their torches.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Something in the Air

            Something in the air. And in the light. And the water on the earth's surface following a downpour, a cleansing rain... changes -- everything.
            The ocean looked green and almost transparent. You could see through it right to the sand and stones at the bottom. As a rule you cannot see the ocean floor in Quincy Harbor, at any depth. Nor can you, for that matter, anywhere in the cold water of the North Atlantic. The semi-transparent water had a light green tint, influenced by darker hues as the ripples swayed. Lima green, I asked myself; or olive? More like the color of canned peas. Not the most inviting color, yet its translucence gave it that inviting quality that sometimes makes people feel they can live and breathe at the bottom of the sea. Until they find out differently.
            The change in water color and the startling purity arrived one noontime in the midst of several days of frontal weather. Downpours, followed by sudden breaks in the clouds. Golden light, warm air above, while dark unbroken clouds gather in another quarter of the sky. The rains were accompanied by strong tides pulled by the new moon. I saw the evidence of these tides in the wrack line. The sine curves of the dried seaweed marked their differing advances. Ah, I thought, water the color of seaweed.
            But the seaweed was dried and brown, and then I realized how strong was the smell. A pungent odor of sea and seashore that brought me back to all those rides to the beach when Mom would drive over a causeway on the way to the beach and we'd get the first whiff of sea-smell and she would exclaim, "Low tide!"
             Low tide was undesirable, the leavings of the sea smelled stronger then. Yet there was something stirring in that recognition, the familiarity of that unique smell: Yes, we Long Islanders have come back to the sea by the carful!
            (Later, I learn that the folks down the shore were complaining of a strong unbearably septic odor and blaming it on red tide. Not so, say the authorities, who attribute it to an algae.)
            But that wasn't all that looked (or smelled) strange and was somehow different this day from all the other days I have looked at the world from the very same point on the earth's surface at Wollaston Beach. The entire marsh area directly across the roadway from the beach -- the area I walk through time after time, week after week, every season of the year -- looked different. It was filled with water and the color had changed. I've seen it wet before but this time it looked like the ocean had poured through it while the heavens opened from above at the same time. The channels that wind through the marsh grass were rivers, or ponds; the water a gleaming pale blue, and the marsh grass itself flattened. The salt marsh is primarily a place of marsh grass (spartina patens and spartina alterniflora), two related grasses of different heights, both thick as a dog's hair, both ordinarily sticking straight up as porcupine quills. But both flat as a rug today.
            And the color was different. A reddish-brown, coppery tone drew the eye. Marsh grass is the color of winter hay until it greens up in summer. In the golden light of autumn, the dying grass gives off a beautiful red-golden shade. But what I saw wasn't that either; it was woody, and fiery.
            I realized finally it wasn't the grass I was seeing but the the marsh elder, a tall woody-stemmed wild shrub that drew the eye because it was the only thing standing up straight since the marsh grass had been flattened by the water. The mostly bare elder stems look brown up close, but life was in them and the strange, strong light bearing down on the flooded marsh sucked the life out of the stems and transformed their mass into copper.
            The more I looked at it, the more the beaten down but shining marsh, its gleaming waters, reflections everywhere, resembled a land newly emerged from a flood. A land where the waters were receding after the forty days.
            But that wasn't all. I turned back to the shore to look at the green see-through water, and the sky, so bright and cloudless above me, underwent a stark change far out on the horizon where the sea met the sky. It was dark and deep out there, purple thundercloud deep, an undifferentiated black cloud mass. The dark cloud covered only the last five percent of the sky perhaps, but it was as dark as superstorm doom. Painteresque. Something out of Turner or the Hudson School of insuperable nature painters.
            Directly above us on the shore, the ordinary traffic zooming by on the roadway, the sky remained clear and golden. Was that oceanic darkness a storm coming our way? But no movement appeared in the sky. All held steady; the impossible sky, the transformed earth, the green-glass ocean. Sunlight poured down, and I was warm, too warm for my sweater.
            I gazed on this most familiar of landscapes. Always the same, always different.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Opening Day for the Tree Peony

            It's that time again. Last year this time, just as the "tree peony" was opening its big red flowers, I wrote this post based  -- mostly: the facts, that is -- on sources found on the internet.
            Since the big tree/shrub began opening its flowers last weekend and it stands out by blooming early in the season, I'm posting the piece again, with some updating and other changes:
            With blossoms big as your hand, the “tree peony” was voted the “unofficial national flower” of China following a nationwide vote in the nineties. In Chinese culture, red is the color of good luck.
            The tree peony grows taller and has more of a classic branching-out tree shape than the more common peony shrub. It has a woody trunk and branches like a tree, and you don’t trim the woody parts back
            And it seems to bloom earlier. I was surprised the first time it bloomed early in May. Last year it bloomed in April. This year, a cooler, slower spring, the flowers first showed on May 11.
            It’s hard not to stare at the blossoms if you’re nearby. They’re the neon signs in the Times Square of springtime’s Nature City.
            I purchased ours six or seven years ago from the little garden shop in the Wollaston, our part of Quincy. The store owner had a few on hand in part because the red color of the blossoms appeals to the local Asian community.  
            According to an internet source (okay, Wikipedia), the common name “tree peony” has been given to four different species of peony. But judging by the photos, the variety we have is clearly “Rock’s tree peony” named for a Joseph Rock, who added it to the western catalogue of nature. The more interesting point is that the plant is in fact native to the mountains in the middle of China in a province called Gansu and in some of its neighbors.
            The plant is widely appreciated in this country too.
            A place called Linwood Gardens near Rochester, N.Y., has an extensive display of these peonies with blossoms in various colors. Describing itself as “an island set apart from the everyday world,” Lindwood Gardens is so proud of its collection of tree peonies that it celebrates their spring blossoming (in May) with a special event called the “Tree Peony Festival of Flowers.”
            That’s kind of how I feel too. By the time the big red blossoms of the tree peony open every year, life is good and the garden season has taken hold.
            Temperatures were cool today and some rain is expected tomorrow, so I’m hoping the blossoms will hold for a while. Like anything that’s truly perfect, they don’t last long.

Monday, May 13, 2013

All-In, All Over: Groundcover Week

            All the groundcovers are blooming. And spreading. And taking as much ground as they can get their little roots and stems and leaves into. And they're all running into one another. They can't help it, it's their nature. They have organizational problems. Or, more properly speaking, I do.
            These low-lying, ground-hugging plants have to get all they can while the getting is good because the taller perennials and the shade trees will in the next month or so grow tall, overtop them (to use the Elizabethan phrase), put them in the shade, put a period at the end of their sentence of seasonal growth.
            The groundcovers are blooming now because they have a direct line to the sun. If you're pachysandra, to take a large and prominent example, you have your little white thistle-like flowers ready to go in March and early April when you can be sure there will be no big forest of leafed-out shade trees to block the work of floral reproduction.
            If you're going to survive at ground level under the big guys, you better make hay when the sun shines. As it does early season. The pach pack puts out its vines, sends up flowers, makes its yearly statement, sets itself up to survive in the shady months follow.
            But it's not pachysandra fighting the little border wars that have me bent over, nose on the ground, trying to sort out who's who. It's the little guys that are giving me fits. I have many theoretical hierarchies I try to preserve as I try to keep the core territories (or homelands) between these species patches at least a little bit intact. I don't do clear definitions or straight lines. I reason that things growing over, on top of and through each other are the way of nature. Of course, we're not aiming for nature pure and wild here; we're aiming for a garden. I don't simply want to stand around mutely witnessing the survival of the fittest. I want to see a lot of different plants doing their thing. To keep the variety going, I'll step in.
            So here I am eye to eye with a very low-growing understory thyme patch. The groundcover varieties are wicked small. But there in the midst of a tiny green eden of Thymus Albiflora growing between two bricks is something else, with even thinner leaves, growing up through the thyme. It could be a blade of grass. It could be the start of a maple tree. It could be one of a couple dozen other species that I have either welcomed into this jumbled paradise or been unable to remove even though I have labeled them "weeds." Many of this latter category I know by sight but not by name. I remove them wherever I see them (that is, of course, when I get around to it).
            A middle category of desirability exists as well. Those tiny-leaved creepers that are kind of cute early in the spring when they hide among all the colonies, or between the bricks, and make even smaller whitish flowers. They trespass on the the "territories" of other tiny-leaved low-to-the ground, matted groundcovers we have invested some time and elbow grease in. When the invaders take up too much room, or run out of flowers, or stop being "cute," I pull them out. These are judgment calls.
            It's like life. Judgment calls all the time.
            The Mazus, to take an example from the small end of the size spectrum (yet not the smallest) probably give us more brightly flowering color per unit measure than any other groundcover we have planted, but their colonies consist of completely separate, very small plants with remarkably thin and shallow roots. You can pull up individual Mazus plants, especially when you don't want to, just by looking at them. Their roots are mere threads. So when you pull up the intruders in their midst-- violets,for instance, and any number of those nameless of "weed" varieties whose appearance and MO I am all too familiar with -- you're more than likely to get a few of the Mazus as well, no matter how carefully and surgically you manage these removals. Then you mutter to yourself, displeased with your effort, over the waste of pretty flowers.
            But remove -- extricate, eradicate, rescue, transplant, and just plain weed -- you must. We're looking at more border incursions and pure and simple territorial aggressions than ever this year. Anything growing in, among, or anywhere near the Irish moss spoils the effect. The delicate plant parts (they look like mini grass blades) are too vulnerable to sustain any sort of incursion. You can't pull a blade of ordinary grass out of the moss's low, shiny "mat" without taking some moss with it. But, where it flourishes, for however long, it has a bright fuzzy quality that makes you want to pet it. Think of the shortest-haired cat in the world. Or a guinea pig, maybe.
            We have a big hunk of sweet woodruff planting itself in the middle of a large island of low, thickly matted thyme. Our best thatch of thyme. The sweet woodruff is already up high and spreading; pulling it out will leave a hole. To complicate, the invader is already blossoming, holding up its white thimble-top blossom to the sky. The blossoms are delicate rather than broad, and not as showy as blossoms such as the Mazus.
            We have plots of speedwell blossoming now -- it's their season too -- along with the vinca, the violets, the phlox,the ajuga. But what to do about the sweet woodruff is the issue now, which has so altered its border (without any assistance from me) that I can barely anthropomorphize it as a country, a colony, a homeland with its own "natural" borders anywhere on the property. 
            These are cows in the cornfield, so to speak. I need to get them back into the corral. This year there are so many places where outsiders, whether weeds or visitors from another privileged species, encroach on the homeland colonies. You have to pick out the invaders -- once you've decided which are the invaders, and which might add a valuable "diversity" to the mix in a particular spot -- or else you will lose all order and separation and your garden will become a "state of nature" (an ironic phrase in the present context).
            All this, I say again, is a lot like life. The way the plant species blend into one another seems to resemble the way groups of people intermingle. Even very old places from the Old World are not homogeneously populated. So-called "nation states" are actually peopled by many nations, tribes, clans, "minorities," ethnic groups. England is not full of English. It has Celts, Britons, Saxons, Angles, Danes, Norsemen, Normans and people called the Welsh, Scots, and Irish, to mention some obvious contributors and, in more recent decades, people from all of the Commonwealth states. Russia, as we are learning from the headlines these days, includes national groups few people have ever heard of.
            This is far from an exact comparison, of course. Human beings are all one species. But plant migrations are fascinating subject, though they cause problems for gardeners. You can't help feeling you're "playing god."