Act: Inspiration

Not a Garden

September 7, 2022

To begin with, I have a mild case of COVID again. (Because, hello, People in Charge of Workplace COVID Policies, working in close quarters with someone who has tested positive in the last fortnight, even if masked, means certain transmission for many of us. But, by all means, pay me to sit at home and moan.) It is mild, in that I can breathe and be upright and work with sharp objects with no more than the usual potential for blood loss (unlike my first two rounds with this viral critter). But being positive, I did not get to go to the folk music festival that I so wanted to see. So Son#1 is using my ticket… Instead, here was my Labor Day Weekend.

Made yogurt, hummus, and egg bread (it’s September… getting in challah practice…). And a tomato-squash-baby potato stew thing with sort of Middle Eastern-inflected flavors. (Though I really can’t taste much right now, so it’s sort of wasted on me…) Cleaned the house and washed the laundry. (Was going to do that before hit with COVID. Still had to… Nobody else is going to do it.) Weeded the garden and tied up cucurbits and beans. Cut back the raspberry and spirea out front. Reined in this viburnum thing that has a clear case of the grumps right in front of my porch. (Don’t know if this is a permanent solution or if permanent will only happen if I cut the thing down. Not sure whether I like it anyway.) Dead-headed all the summer stuff. Picked over-ripe cucumbers for a co-worker’s guinea pigs. And started bringing in the tender potted plants. Or at least started making room for them. (Where does that space go every year? They came out of the house just a few months ago. Why can’t they just go back? Every damn year!)

I also read quite a lot and wrote a bit. (For example, read on…)

I’m reading Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book):. (I’m not sure what significance there is in the punctuation, but that’s how she titled the book, so there it is…) She is just my kind of gardener. Probably my kind of person. And she survived New England with all her quirk intact. I’m taking this as hope.

She has read all the gardening books, unlike me. And in reading her account of reading all the gardening books, I now have a deeper understanding of why people like Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West have never elicited much of a response from me other than a vague grimace. I now know that I am not a gardener. And books by authorities, particularly of the blue-blood bent, are books written for real gardeners. These garden authorities would find my garden (not-a-garden) absolute anathema. Kincaid’s garden (not-a-garden) too, I imagine. I am sure that at least there would be sneering. I can feel the sneering radiating out of the pages of their books, and they probably never even imagined my not-a-garden. (Though they probably suspected the general moral slide would eventually lead to things like my not-a-garden and packed in a reservoir of sneering against that inevitable day.)

I, in turn, am not overly fond of most garden books. Nor am I fond of the depictions of a garden to be found in garden book pages on average. In fact, the more lavishly illustrated the book, the less I like it. (This is true of all coffee-table books… I am generally opposed to pretentious picture spreads… if you’re going to write, then write… otherwise, find some other medium.) But even where there are words and few images, I get annoyed with garden books. Because so many of them seem rather short on describing what the garden is and rather obsessed with disctating how a garden should be. In their most elevated opinion, of course.

My garden does not get along with should. Nor do I. But my garden really takes exception. This has been true of every garden I have ever loved. The ones that I initiate are so far from should they do not qualify as gardens at all by the measure of these garden book authorities. In reading Kincaid I’ve discovered that “collection of plants” might be the pursed-lip term they might apply. There might even be words like “common” and “gauche”.

Which, ok, granted. I like dandelions. Doesn’t get any more common than that. But I also like watching what a patch of green things will do with only a little help from me. (Largely to rein in the aggressions of plants that have been introduced into my home region… introduced largely under the influence of the likes of Gertrude Jekyll and others with exotic manias.) I would be embarrassed if my garden looked as nervously oppressed as Sissinghurst, for example. Designed gardens look so very… suburban… precious… cookie-cutter, even in their quest for sublimely unique plants. All that color matching and coordination of form and bloom time and so on. It’s like Garanimals clothing made out of plants.

I could not care less if the echinacea doesn’t match the hollyhocks and the russian sage and the monarda. They all have the same purpose in my garden — drawing birds, bees and butterflies into my life — so they go together in whatever arrangement works for them — and for the birds and bees and butterflies. I am not overly put out by the juxtaposition of color wheel adjacents or creating an over-arching harmony of palette and form. On the other hand, I don’t much like broad swaths of color or a sweeping bed of all one kind of plant (unless it’s potatoes, who will not abide neighbors…). That sort of plant engineering feels jarringly synthetic, artificial, un-alive. Or maybe un-dead.

My garden is a living thing, an organism of many cooperating parts all jumbled together as they see fit. My garden has its own designs, and I see very little reason to insert my own into their business. They know what they’re doing. I’m just the tool and am happy to follow their lead. My garden experiences run more to exclamations like “Wow! Look at this stunning blue! What is it and where did it come from?!?” Or “You have to come see this black widow annihilating the squash bug nymphs.” Or “I think you’re perfectly adorable and I don’t want to kill you, so please leave my chiles alone.” (See now? I can be territorial… )

Some formal gardens speak to me (as opposed to shouting at the world). Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is one such place. But I like the rolling meadows and the rambling woodland paths more than the pruned hedges, which I think are rather the weak point. And I really love the home’s library and the summer Shakespeare festivals and the weird sculpture lurking in unlikely corners, and it’s hard to tweeze out all that love from the love that I feel for the garden. If the garden itself were anywhere else, I think I might consider it bland. As it is, I find it shockingly deficient in fruit trees. And nary a bean plant on the whole property.

You see, I don’t garden. I assist the green living things around me in their quest to make beautiful nourishment. For myself and for many other creatures. Our needs run further than merely creating an aesthetically determined back-drop to an oh-so-charming life or a view to idly contemplate while sipping sauvignon blanc under a cerulean June sky. You see, I rather disapprove of making other living things into a tableau reflection of my refined tastes. (Yeah…)

Nope, nope and nope… I am not in charge and I do not want to be. I am not nearly as creative as a morning glory vine given just a smidgeon of latitude. So why should I impose my ideas?

Like Kincaid, I find that most garden books, and particularly those written by authorities, are mostly about imposition. Forcing the human will onto the landscape. The formal gardens they describe feel more an expression of control and ego than anything about the intrinsic beauty of vibrant, living systems. Living systems do not like ego. Do not follow conventions. Do not conform to the color wheel. They do what they want, what they must, to live, to thrive.

Moreover, refined tastes and posing and imposed will are all sort of a problem. Maybe the problem. It is certainly what led us to here, where I no longer have monarch butterflies dancing over the milkweed. (In fact, monarchs were added to Vermont’s endangered list this summer…) Refined tastes is also what brought us COVID. Or at least a taste for rare tidbits. Things that carry baggage that can overwhelm human bodies because human bodies do not have prior experience adapting to these rarities.

Did you know that giant hogweed, poison ivy, and tree of heaven (also known as stinking sumac) were all introduced into the English landscape by gardeners? Planted intentionally! Given pride of place! Then there’s Amur honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, Oriental bittersweet, and Norway maple all introduced into gardens here in New England — where there are beautiful native versions of each of those plants! — and now running riot over the whole landscape. This is the sort of thing that happens when refined tastes run amok. But more to the point, this is what happens when the human ego tries to control living systems. We end up making a mess when we impose our will on the land. Not least because we don’t even have a solid grip on what that will wants. We look to authorities to tell us what is delightful. We read about complementary bloom color and don’t even consider what those colors are designed to do. (HINT: it isn’t “match your formal tableware”.)

Might be a better idea to learn from the plants, let them show us what vibrant beauty means and what it’s for. Because happily, beauty is usually the result of a system that is rich in nourishment for all kinds of organisms, including us. This is not a coincidence… our aesthetic sense comes from the body, which prizes food above nearly all else…

So I let the garden do its thing. Or the not-garden if viewed through the lens of authorities. I am happy to discover that I’m not alone in my style of not-gardening. And if any of you have a mild case of COVID to slow you down and a love of growing things, I recommend My Garden (Book): for the sheer cheek. I suspect if you tolerate my blathering, you’ll love Jamaica Kincaid!

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient ecosystems, gardening