Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Garden of Summer Flowers

 Summer Flowers: A Poem

            Another way to say this is: all I want is the pictures.

            Point number one. Nothing lasts.

            Point number two. There's always tomorrow.

            Here's a list of summer bloomers that comes by way of a favorite plant center, Kennedy Gardens in Scituate. They divided their list into full sun perennials and shade perennials. This batch below is the full sun crew:  

            "Brighten up your yard with Echinacea, Coreopsis, Daylilies, Delphinium, Shasta Daisies, Helenium, Monarda, Achillea, Phlox, and others." 
            Let's start at the top. We have Echinacea. For the second year in a row this "full sun" plant has bloomed with a fair degree of lavish in our clearly part-shade back garden. We don't really have a full sun spot behind the house; ask my tomatoes. It took these plants (pictured top left) five or six years to really establish themselves, which may be due to their struggling along on rationed sunshine. They don't seem to need any special care and they stand up well to our nearly annual summer heat wave/drought.

            The picture here shows our violet Echinacea paired with Black-Eyed Susans. While a different genus, Rudbckia, Black-Eyed Susans they share the nickname "cone flowers" with Echinacea.

            We have a form of Coreopsis that started blooming in late June. It expands every year. I've included a photo (second on left) of this plant at its best. By late July however, almost all the blooms in this photo are faded and I'm faced with deadheading a couple hundred spent flower heads to stimulate it to make some more. I will get to it, he said.

            Many, many varieties of this flower; most all of them have yellow flowers. Some large as daisies. Our plant,with probably the smallest flowers, on the small side of asters, appears to be the variety called "moonbeam threadleaf." The leaves are reduced to thin little green lines and the flowers though tiny are many. Again, in our less than full sun took longer to establish this plant, but it looks great when blowing full blast.

            Daylilies you've heard a lot about lately. I'm going to include a pic (third down) of one of our latest varieties, anyway.

            I have no luck with Delphinium. They die. They don't even try. Something about their not liking "noon sun on their roots." Too much sun is not our problem here, and yet they die.

            Shasta Daisies on the other hand proliferated all over the garden after I grew them from seed in an act of wintery devotion I will never repeat. However they grow weaker every year, as my tree cover grew shadier; hardier more adaptable plants elbowed them out.

            Helenium I've never grown. Monarda (fourth pic down), also known as bee balm, makes brilliant red rugged herb-looking flowers. The tough, wild look of the bloom is part of its charm. This another flower that peaked a few years ago and then died back, probably starved for sun. But the best, tallest variety we had lost a lot of ground two years ago after a very mild winter. I think the plant disease that is so endemic to this species that the specimens they sell you at the nursery already come with it simply kept growing all winter and did the plant in. I am now rooting for "real" winters with lots of snow for water in the ground and a good cold spell to kill off some of the plant diseases and pests.

            I am now growing a plant called Crocosmia to make up for the loss of red flowers. It's supposedly a "part sun" favorite. The proof is in the persistence.

            That leaves Achillea, the old-fashioned herb called yarrow. We have some here, but the plant did much better in a sunny spot at our previous home.

            Phlox (fifth down), however, gets a big vote from me for a plant that's sure to show up in mid-summer and stay a good long time. It spreads. If you don't want it everywhere, you'll have to step in.  

            Summer plants we like not mentioned here: balloon flower. They're blue (see pic, sixth down), they spread and so far they're carefree. Gay flower, or Liatris. It's purple and brushy; see photo (seventh down; bottom photo). The loosestrifes, yellow and gooseneck. Rose of Sharon, a late summer shrub that now comes in mid-summer. When August is settled in, where shall I find another? The same goes Hibiscus. 
           Final line to that poem:
           Enjoy them while they last.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Growing People: Birth, Life, and Lots of Choices

There's a lot to think about when you go to a sperm bank and pick out a genetic mate for your baby. Frankly, I suspect that many readers of this new book of intriguing multi-layered short stories have never thought about the choices involved in this transaction. (I'm one of them.) Just as frankly, the whole subject still kind of freaks me out. The characters in the first group of stories in "Germs of Truth" by Heather Tosteson sign up with a sperm bank and gain access to a website full of information about potential donors. What the donors look like, how smart or athletic they are; facts about national and racial background. Sure, there's no certainty that the characteristics of the father will be passed down to his offspring, but once these whole-person bios are made available to would be parents seeking, well, desirable sperm, you end up inevitably going shopping.
Out of this premise, the author spins a catalogue of engaging, thought-provoking stories. Almost all of them are thoughtful, professional, articulate people. Some have a child from a previous relationship. Many, but not all, of the would be parents are Mom-and-Mom couples. In some of the stories women discuss the potential donor options with friends or family members. In "More," a man discovers that his desirable traits have made him a donor-daddy star over three states, with enough families carrying his genetic inheritance to make for annual get-togethers.
In another story a couple has made a deal; you carry the first, I'll carry the second. But the first child proves a handful; do they really have room in their lives for the second partner to have her baby? In "More," one of the stories that has stayed with me the longest and perhaps a cautionary tale in taking the notion of a designer child too seriously, after a woman delivers her baby she is convinced she has been given the wrong infant. She feels nothing for it, so it must be the wrong one. Her husband, while sympathetic to his wife's absolutist temperament -- a touch incredibly so in my opinion -- has already made up his own mind on the subject of "right" or "wrong" babies. Nobody, he thinks, is taking this baby from me. You go, Dad, I thought as I read this story. Maybe because I am a dad myself this was one of the book's most satisfying moments.
Some of my favorite stories in this deep collection are found in the section titled "Whose life is it anyway?" They deal with the personal, emotional, psychological "life issues" among people who are almost always capable and likable. We can identify with these characters and yet, as we know they must from our own lives, problems arise.
In "Lifeboat," the central figure, Derek, a painter who has put down his brush, works as a pedicab driver who carries leftover food from high-end restaurants to various homeless shelters and other human services. These errands are vividly rendered. So is Derek's partner Phuong, a Vietnamese refugee who endures her mother's putdowns -- her dead children, the mother tells everyone, were better -- and makes a drastic intervention in Derek's life to help him get back to what he loves. It's not whether someone else hangs you in a museum, she tells him in effect, it's what you choose to do here on earth that matters. "What you miss," she says, "is the experience of painting." Exactly, I thought. This is "truth."
Again and again in "Germs of Truth," we find stories that are ultimately about health: how people discover what they need to do and how to care for those they love.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Daylilies Take It A Day At A Time

My story on a Daylily Display Garden in Scituate, MA in the Boston Globe. It ran earlier this month, but the garden is still open to visitors on July 31 and on Aug. 3-4.

Many backyard gardeners grow daylilies. They’re hardy, take care of themselves, and make a flashy show of color when they come into bloom in late June and July.
But since each daylily flower lasts only one day — hence the name — in a few weeks at most your prized daylily patch has exhausted its voice. In Janet and Stephen Tooker’s garden in Scituate, however, the music goes on from May to October. That’s because the Tookers grow more than 740 varieties of daylily. The scope and size of their plantings are hard to imagine for most gardeners, the number of blossoms uncountable.
Called Collamore Field Gardens after an old name for their area along Tilden Road, the Tookers’ array holds special status with the American Hemerocallis Society. Deemed an official “display garden’’ by the national daylily organization, it is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., this month and the first weekend of August. The garden at 397 Tilden Road will also be open on July 31 for members of the New England Daylily Society, but others are welcome, too.
According to the Hemerocallis Society, the daylily is often regarded as the “perfect perennial” because it requires little care, thrives in various landscapes, has few pest or disease problems, adapts to soil and light conditions, produces blooms in many shapes and colors, and offers varieties that bloom from spring to autumn. While a blossom lasts only a day, each stalk has many buds and each daylily clump may have many stalks, so the flowering stretches out. And it makes new gardeners think they know what they’re doing.Judging from their garden, the Tookers know what they’re doing. “I’ve always been able to make things grow,” Stephen Tooker said recently.
The couple’s perennial garden is a series of stunning flower beds starting from the daylily display in front of the house, winding along its wraparound porch like a colorfully dressed escort, consuming what had once been strawberry and vegetable beds behind the house, and stretching into a long plain of rank upon rank of daylily plantings, each carefully labeled for the education of the public and the eye of the specialist. The plantings continue behind a barn and into a small wooded area graced with unusual varieties of rhododendron discovered when they cleared away the underbrush, and the largest and strangest jack-in-the-pulpit you’re ever likely to see.
Their daylily collection became a display garden three years ago, after the Hemerocallis Society asked them to join its program. The purpose is to “display the very best daylily cultivars to the general public,” the society states, and “to educate the visitor about modern daylilies and how they can be used effectively in landscapes.”
Keeping up a display garden takes some work. Tooker scrupulously labels the new cultivars he’s planted and deadheads his plants — removing the spent blossoms — before visiting days. In mid-July, when the daylilies are really rocking, that can take hours.
“If people enjoy it and it educates them,” said Tooker, retired from teaching English at Massasoit Community College, he’s glad to do it. “I’m basically a teacher at heart.”
The couple, who bought their house in the 1970s, began growing daylilies when a friend asked them to split an order of “50 daylilies for $50” from a nursery in Connecticut. They ended up with 33 plants, and since, as Janet Tooker put it, “Stephen has no trouble getting things to grow,” they all came up.
“It was a great surprise to us,” Janet said of learning how many varieties hybridists and growers have produced. The world of daylily cultivation opened up to them. People gave them gift certificates to other growers, and visits to these nurseries became their trips to the candy store. Their flower gardens expanded.
“The gardens didn’t look anything like they look now,” Janet said. “They’ve evolved.”
The couple gave up on the dwarf apple trees in the front garden — “We didn’t like spraying them,” Janet said — and replaced them with the killer display of daylilies.
“We still walk around there and sit out there and look at it,” Janet said. As the season peaks and more varieties start to flower, it’s the big picture with its nearly endless variety of color, shape, and pattern in the blossom that attracts the eye, she said.
Stephen, who can recognize and — astonishingly — name all of the garden’s daylily varieties, also knows the technical vocabulary of the trade. The flowers not only have petals, he explained, they have sepals (the bud’s outer covering), “throats, eyes, watermarks, halos” — terms used to distinguish the appearance of one cultivar’s flower from another.
The variety and beauty of the flowers are a magnet for botanical artists.
“We’re lucky to have this,” said Sara Roche, a botanical artist and teacher from Cohasset who recently led a group of her students on a sketching session in the Tookers’ garden.
Roche, founding director of the New England Society of Botanical Artists, teaches botanical art at Wellesley College and at the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset. Some of her students, often artists and designers in their own right, were working on paintings to submit for the art society’s certification requirement. They chose among flowers such as Kindly Light, a clear yellow with ruffled petals; Velvet Ice, a purple-white flower with a dark purple “eye’’ around its center; Cranberry Cove, an intense red with a green throat (the tube where flowers emerge from the plant’s stem); and White Dancer, white with some pink in the sepals.
“This is a beautiful thing to do,” said Lianne Gillespie of Pembroke as she worked at capturing a flower’s complex layered architecture.
Ellen Duarte was drawing the “common daylily plant,” the kind you see growing all over New England and opening their bright orange flowers in midsummer. Often called “ditch lilies,” they are among the “roadside attractions” Duarte is painting for her certification group.
Roche, who has worked as a freelance botanical artist and has illustrated both books and periodicals, said you can make money from botanical art, though “it’s hard to make a full living as a freelancer.
“You’re usually working for a designer,” she said. “You fill the space the designer left for you.” Showings in exhibitions can also lead to sales of paintings (or prints, cards, and notepaper), and to commissions for a highly aesthetic gift for a special someone.
While the aesthetics of the garden are what it’s all about for most visitors this time of year, Stephen Tooker said, “My concern is the aesthetic issue with the cell tower.” The Tookers and some of their neighbors are challenging a plan to build a large cellphone tower nearby.
Their garden’s other problems are “deer and water,” he said — though a rainy season did not appear to be bothering the daylilies.
Janet Tooker mentioned another: “It’s Scituate,” she said, so visitors may want to consider bug spray.
In the end it’s all about the daylily. Scituate artist Madeline Merchant summed up its bittersweet appeal: “It’s a single flower, the most beautiful in the garden. But it lasts only a day.”

Daylily facts of life:

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Garden of History

"The Black Count" by Tom Reiss is the best and most intriguing piece of history writing I've read in a long while, in part because it told me so much about the events of the decade of Revolutionary France following the Declaration of the Rights of Mankind in 1789. This is a stunning book told with perceptiveness, a feeling for the times, occasional humor, and deft use of original sources. It also restores to his rightful place a figure with a singular biography and a central role in the revolutionary period who seems to have been forgotten by almost everybody.
Reiss's account of a general whose battlefield heroism led to major French Republican triumphs, in particular the liberation of Italy from its Austrian rulers and its monarchial and feudal past, falls into the truth is stranger than fiction category. Even today, when Hollywood gives us an ex-slave gun-slinging his family to freedom over degenerate white Americans, audiences would likely dismiss as too improbable the story of a dark-skinned Haitian boy of mixed black and white parentage, sold into slavery by his disgraced aristocratic father, rising to prominence in 18th century Europe. The boy's father later redeemed him -- Reiss found the pawn ticket in the course of his almost baroquely persistent research -- brought him back to France and put him in the finest fencing school in Paris where he soon becomes the country's finest swordsman at a time when the sabre was still an important battlefield weapon. His mother and siblings are left behind, however, in the French colony known then as Saint-Domingue, where African slaves were worked to death to produce a commodity, sugar, that powered a nation's economy the way fossil fuels do in our day.
The son is Alex Dumas, none other than the father of the writer Alexandre Dumas, the author of perhaps the world's most popular swashbuckling tales,"The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." As Reiss's books shows in convincing detail -- he found both father and son's journals and other writings -- the black man who was the author's father and a legitimate hero of the Revolution is the model for the heroism, and suffering, of the "Count of Monte Cristo" and of the high style of the heroics of the "Musketeers."
Alex Dumas, even more engagingly for a world still trying to get over racial divisions, was a perfect embodiment of the idealism of revolution based on "liberte, fraternite, and egalite." For a brief period -- nearly a hundred years ahead of its time -- French law explicitly extended "egalite" to people of color while eliminating the privileges of birth. No one believed in and personified these ideals more strongly than Dumas.
A common soldier before the revolution (when only aristocrats able to buy their commissions became officers), Dumas rose quickly as the Revolution offered opportunity for merit no matter who possessed it. As the author points out, France's revolutionary government was also passing laws banning slavery in its colonies in addition to guaranteeing people of color what we now call civil rights. (None of these advances, unhappily, would survive the Napoleonic period.)
On the field of battle at the head of troops or picked swords, large cavalry units and sometimes whole armies, Dumas engineered and led the breakthrough victory in the Alps that opened northern Italy to French Republican armies. He then led the cavalry charges that turned near disaster into victory in a string of battles that drove the Austrians out of Italy -- including the crucial siege of Mantua -- and opened the entire peninsula to a campaign that overthrew duchies and kingdoms left and right in favor of new republican governments.
As a French commanding general reported, Dumas "performs fantastic charges, capturing two thousand prisoners here, one thousand there." And as he drove them back to their own borders, the Austrians came up with a name for this relentless French battlefield scourge, "the Black Devil."
An angel in his personal life as well as a revolutionary idealist, Dumas's career ran afoul of Napoleon's jealousy of his success. When at the end of Napoleon's hubristic Egyptian campaign, Dumas's ship ran aground on the coast of Sicily and he was imprisoned by a hostile regime, the now dictatorial French government allowed him to rot in prison as his health deteriorated. After his eventual release the now emperor Napoleon disappeared him from the French military and civil establishment, denying him back pay and his widow a pension after his early death, probably from the poisoning and obscene medical treatments he suffered during his imprisonment.
The neglect of an iconic Revolutionary figure persists even today in France, as the author points out. Part of the pleasure of the "Black Count" is the story behind the author's discovery of so many original documents in a long-past-its-peak French town with more bureaucrats than brains. But I'll stop here and leave that pleasure, along with so many others, for other readers of "The Black Count" to discover for themselves.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What to do in July

I found this useful "list of things to do in July" on a gardening website, called "Kitchen Gardeners International" (at list of things to do in July? At once I set to work on my own list of what to do with July:
1. Complain about the humidity. 2. Hope the heat and humidity doesn't shrivel up your plants beyond redemption. 3. Hope your baseball team doesn't nosedive, crash and burn with two whole months of agony remaining in the season. 4. Make plans to go to the beach that you loved as a child and know that you almost certainly will not carry these plans out. File this notion under "you can't go home again." It's not even home any more. You're not even you. 5. Discuss the air conditioning option with your spouse. 6. Discuss Scotland.
Anyway, here we go with the useful website's list of "garden tasks" to do in July.
Number one: Mulch. As in "gather grass clippings, leaves, straw, seaweed..." Now where did I put those 22 brown paper bags filled with dried leaves? I could use some now. Oh yeah, on the curb for the alternate-week spring "yard waste" pickup. Maybe yard waste pickup will bring me some back if I ask nicely. No? On to grass clippings. Oh yeah, we don't grow grass any more. Weed clippings then? See number two above: too hot and humid even to grow weeds. Hurry up weeds, I need you to make mulch. Mulch is so good for... stopping weeds from growing.
Two: Water. "Water accounts for 90 percent of the weight for most fruits and vegetables." That must explain why my fruits and vegetables failed to put on any noticeable poundage when, last week, we had eight straight rainless days of 90 degrees or above. But wait, I watered all the time, and some of my veggie plants still look anorexic. The idea that plants, especially annual vegetable plants that make all their growth in one short New England season need watering is something I really do get. But I'm still hung up on the arithmetic. What percentage of fruit and vegetable weight is attributable to sun? I might have said all of it.
Three: Write Stuff Down. "The only difference between science and screwing around is writing it down." Sorry, but thousands of words later I'm still screwing around.
Four: Sowing. The advice here is "to remove plants that have stopped producing and sow new ones" -- seeds, they mean -- "in their place for a late summer harvest."
And in fact most gardeners do have plants that have stopped producing by this time of year. And some of us (that's my hand in the air) have not in fact removed those old pea plant vines that are merely taking up space on the support structure out of a sentimental reluctance to cut our ties with the optimism of spring. Hope springs eternal. Midsummer report cards generally tell a so-so story. As for sowing seeds in July, why does that never, ever work?
Five: Harvesting. "Keep up with production." This is good advice. I'm always trying to coax a little something extra out of those fruits on the vine. Does anybody else recognize these thin seismic cracks that form along the top of your tomatoes?
Six: Cooking. For instance, "garlic scape pesto." I'll take their word for it that it's possible to turn garlic stems into pesto, but what I've really got a ton of right now is mint. Anybody have an idea what to do with a bushel of mint? Mojitos? OK, party at our house.
Seven: Donate extra food to food pantries. We have done this some years. Unfortunately, unless the rain and sun and some slow-to-produce plants come through more consistently than they have so far, this is not going to be one of those years.
Some communities, I've been told, have begun organizing garden co-ops that comb their neighborhood for undeveloped plots that could be put into garden production, with a harvest shared by all who need it. That's a "to do" list I could get behind.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yellow Loosestrife, or Lysimachia vulgaris (I think)

The Joni Mitchell song, and the old expression, goes "you don't know what you've got till it's gone." Only sometimes you don't know what you've got even when you have it.
            Such is the case with the plant I acquired a couple years ago at a garden sale at a local church. The annual sale is one of those great deals where the members of a garden club dig up their extras, pot them and put a modest price tag with the name of species on a little wooden ice cream stick pushed into the soil right next to the newly divided sale-away traveling plant.
            The plant in question, with that heavenly flurry of delicate but long-lasting yellow flowers, was labeled "Yellow Loosestrife/ Lysimachia vulgaris," or so I remember. Obviously I got those words from somewhere and wrote them down. But you know how memory can play tricks.
            I planted a couple my new acquisition that spring along a winding section of path peopled mostly by low ground-covering plants. Plus a few medium types, some yellow primrose, a Rose Campion, a heliotrope. I hoped the new arrival would grow reasonably tall and complement the low-growers beside it.
            Say goodbye, low profile. Say hello to the skyscrapers.
            By midsummer the first year I liked the way it grew. It grew tall straight stalks with dark green leaves (hint of purple maybe) and flowed with little yellow blossoms running up and down the top half of the stalks. The flowers lasted a good long period, longer than the perennials with big showy flowers. It was still blooming when my daylilies came and went. "Lasting" is a big virtue in a perennial garden when the star turns, the peonies and lilies, the lilacs and laurel, shed their feathers so quickly.
            The following year, the yellow loosestrife patch thickened, expanded; waved in the summer breezes along with the tall purple phlox and black-eyed Susans of later July.
            This year my garden club sale acquisition turned into the egglplant that ate Chicago as the old nonsensical "folk song" hyperbolized. It dominated. I had to dig up and transplant some of the stems to another corner of the show, in the wrong season (when do I not do this in the wrong season), in order to let some of the shorter, low-growing neighbors see some sun. That's the way of skyscrapers.
            I transplanted the Rose Campion. I'm not sure Rose will forgive me. The jury is still out on whether it survives the operation.
            This long-lasting perennial remains in close cahoots with another plant not nearly so tall that I acquired at the same time, attracted to the idea that both shared the common name of loosestrife. This one has bending tapering white flowers, giving it the name "gooseneck loosestrife" because of its looping shape. I assume the name "loosestrife" is some folkish contribution rather than anything scientific, earning this plant street cred by belonging to the folklorish world of old-fashioned gardening that I continue to find so charming.
            The first online definition I found for loosestrife is this: "Any of various plants of the genus Lysimachia, having usually yellow flowers. 2. Any of various plants of the genus Lythrum, having purple or white flowers." That covers a lot of ground, and some of the other definitions I found did not exactly agree.
            But for largely sentimental reasons I hope the name I was given, or remember, is the right name. I don't know what the 'Lysimachia' means, but I'm happy with the 'vulgaris.' That word means of the people. We are all the people (plants included).
            That's why I go to garden club sales and the like, and borrow friends we haven't met yet from other people's gardens.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peak Season: Look Out for Those Valleys

The only problem with peak season in your garden, that brief period when it's looking absolutely its best, is you know the valley is coming right up behind.
Its been haunting me, this dynamic; this inevitable sequence in the nature of things. Two weeks ago I said to myself, "OK, this is the peak. Garden life this year will never be better than this." Sure enough, today I can say without hesitaton we are past the peak.
I measure this decline from the near complete exhaustion of our supply of blooms on the "common daylily" (as I have learned to call it), that gives our perennial garden the strongest color field of any of our species. The orange common daylily grow everywhere, they grow on the edges of fields and along country roads -- earning the nickname "ditch lilies -- so there is no special claim of virtue in growing a thick batch of these summer bloomers. But I have always enjoyed seeing them popping up in the traffic triangles and roadsides of the Berkshires and everywhere else in western Massachusetts, and so was delighted to find them growing here in Quincy. I divided them, expanded their territory, watched them thrive.
The "early" summer peak in New England gardens, from the Summer Solstice through the first weeks of July , doesn't rely on daylilies alone of course. For me it's also a time when my roses are fresh, my lavender smells of purple, the white Shasta raise their yellow seed-core centers to the color mix, and countless other species also lend a voice to the chorus. And other gardens naturally have other peaks, possibly at quite different points in the growing season.
But for me daylilies stick close to the path of the sun, which has considerably more influence on the garden than I do. Coming into bloom right around the longest day, the summer solstice, lilies stand up and salute the sun. They answer the call.
By mid-July the sun is coming back down from its highest point in the sky, the slight decline in the length of the day noticed by those who stay outdoors in the evening, going to the ballpark, walking the dog, playing with their kids, sitting on a stoop, or a porch or in a park somewhere. July feels like the beginning of the summer to many of us because of the traditional school schedule. July and August are the two months kids learn they can count on for freedom. July is generally the warmest month of the year, the month with the longest heat wave. August is generally the next warmest because of the steady build-up of heat in the atmosphere, and in the earth; there's a steady "seasonal lag" behind the progress of the sun.
Water warms up even more slowly, and cools more slowly, so July and August (and even September) are the best swimming months, the beach months.
All of these factors make us think summer's still peaking. But it's not. We're past it.
Lots of us are past our peak too. Personally speaking, I'm so far past mine I've stopped doing the arithmetic -- choosing, instead, to live now, and now, and now; or even, as a correspondent recently put it: "looking forward... always looking forward!"
The trick is to look ahead while you are living now, without cheating either direction. You bring the shape of the future, and the shaping of it -- the way you wish to shape it -- up close against the way you are -- the way you think, live. And so your vision is part of your living now.
And the past, that peak you achieve just moments before you begin your descent, is what you grow out of. It feeds you, fertilizes you.
So I bid farewell to another peak growing season (bye, bye daylilies, see you next year) and go about the business of contemplating the garden of the present day. And business of keeping it growing.
So let me see, what can I do now to make things interesting in August and September?
Valleys are just a dip on the way to the next mountain. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Garden of Memory: Gettysburg

What did the gardens of Gettysburg look like on the first day of July as Confederate troops marched toward that quiet town from Chambersburg, PA,which one of their units had left in flames in reprisal for Federal burnings in the Shenandoah Valley?
Would they have looked like New England fields and woodlands? June roses aglow on some vines, fading on others? Daylilies dancing in borders along picket fences or in roadside ditches? Blue hydrangea. White daisies with yellow centers. Wild strawberries ripe in meadows, raspberries coming into season in the thickets, the woodlands thick with the dark green of the fully leaved hardwoods, fireflies dancing in the night.
In American history, the first week of July belongs to the Garden of Memory, never more so than this year, the 150th anniversary of the three days when the "high tide of the Confederacy" came crashing down into disaster in both the epic battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg that gave control of the Mississippi to a Union army commanded by Ulysses S. Grant.
On July 4th the nation celebrates its founding by the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, brave words from brave and often brilliant men that framed the idea of a new independent nation based on popular government that seven years of war would turn into a reality.
And in the first days of July of 1863 the great battles were fought in the East and concluded in the West that preserved the idea of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Preservation of the Union was not a foregone conclusion.Things could have gone differently once the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North following two savagely decisive victories over the larger but ineptly led Army of the Potomac. In the waning days of 1862, Robert E. Lee's army slaughtered waves of Union infantry sent by General Burnside to attack fortified positions in Fredericksburg, Va. In the spring of 1863, Lee's brilliant corps commander Stonewall Jackson executed a daring flanking maneuver through deep forests to fall on the rear of the Union army commanded by Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, sending the Yankees into a demoralized retreat.
At Gettysburg, under competent, but brand new commander George Meade, the Union army held to its well chosen positions, sometimes by the skin of its teeth, against Confederate attacks, forcing Lee into a final throw of a dice in the suicidal assault on strongly held Union center and suffer a costly and crushing defeat. The South would never again have the resources to seize the initiative in battle, though the war dragged on for almost two more increasingly destructive years.
Gettysburg, in the form of the myriad accounts (and one unforgettable "address") given to the three-day clash of military titans, is the American Iliad, the battle that will never be forgotten. Part of reason that a war or battle is unforgettable is that no one with a heart and a pulse would have wished it to be fought.
Everything that happened in previous Civil War battles was reprised at Gettysburg: The two massive armies blundering blindly into one another. The withering open field assaults that ran first one way, and then another (as in Antietam, the previous apex of bloodletting between these two heavyweights). The bold flanking maneuver to find weak spot in the enemies lines that nearly brought the Confederates victory in the battle's bloody second day. The fortunate arrival of fresh troops to one side or another to stem disaster at a climactic moment. And the desperate decision by an unheralded lower officer, a civilian before 1861 who knew nothing about war until history required soldiers, to save a battle with a brilliant maneuver -- this was Maine college professors Joshua Chamberlain's command to send the remnants of his regiment, out of ammunition, hurling like demons down the wooded hillside of Little Round Top in an outmoded bayonet charge that somehow succeeded in saving the Federal line of battle.
Finally, the valiant but doomed Confederate assault known as Pickett's charge on Cemetery Hill that so closely reprised the Federal disaster of six months before that Federal troops chanted "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" as they shot their exposed enemy down.
Ghosts are present at Gettysburg today. The stillness of its grassy fields on a warm summer morning makes memories grow louder. The absence of the armies sings of bullets. The earth remembers blood.
My visit there almost ten years ago surfaced all the old ambivalences. I honored the valor of those who risked and in so many cases lost their lost their lives there, while wondering whether the cause, the preservation of the Union, was worth such a sacrifice. Whenever a nation or group pays for its survival in blood, the cause receives the permanent elevation of memory. The truths Jefferson touted in the Declaration were "self-evident." Now they became sacred.
Once the ideal of nation a society dedicated to the belief that all human beings are created equal had been "consecrated" by our ancestors, how could could you give it up without a fight?
But how could anybody know that the fight would cost so many lives.