Friday, June 11, 2010

The Persistent Garden

"Gardens are only temporary works of art which nature and time try ceaselessly to erase."

So I came across this striking sentence on the Sweetbay blog. It isn't how I usually think of gardens--I'm so interested in things like trees and antique roses in part because of their permanence, and part of the charm of bulbs like crinums and oxbloods is that they can persist after the the structures they were once planted around have crumbled--they're like little time capsules.

(To be fair, I think Sweetbay is more design focused than I am, so her conception of a garden is probably a lot more formal than mine. She seems to have a good bit more intentionality and nuance about what she puts in the ground than I do. I stumble across something pretty and stick it anyplace it'll fit. I figure a garden has survived if a couple of shrubs and a handful of bulbs are still with us.)

But at the same time, I'm only now coming to appreciate how much mutability is an integral part of a garden, which is part of why I was so struck by her statement. (The other reason is that it's a nice, resonant bit of epigram--it has that same sort of long, measured euphoniousness as the opening of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'--"Thou foster-chiiiiild of Siiiilence and slow Tiiiiiime...") I think this has to do with the whole "grown up" thing. Like most kids, I used to assume that adults reached a sort of stasis by about 21 (hah!) and pretty much just plateaued for next 50-odd years. And even though I know this is complete bollocks and would be ghastly if it were true, I sometimes discover that I have failed to recalibrate some of my assumptions in light of this little epiphany.

So, for example, I'm unpleasantly surprised when I realize that a bed I went to great pains to install is too narrow or too short, or needs its major plantings dug up and replaced. So it turns out that adulthood is not about weighing your options, cogitating deeply, making the best, perfectest choice, and then living with it--like the Honeychurches' drawing room furniture in Room with a View--for the rest of your life.

As soothing as it would be to be infallible, it turns out that adulthood--and apparently garden design--is about taking your best guess, sticking a shovel in the ground, and screwing up. (Why did you plant those pink Echinacea in front of the red '4th of July' rose? Why did you give valuable rose garden space to that nameless orphan that turned out to be a totally charmless, formless magenta--ick--semi-double? Why did you make that walkway so skinny? Why are all your trees crooked? Should you have really planted that oak so close to the mutabilis? &c., &c. Arrrrgh!)

A writer named Kathryn Schulz, who is evidently also quite a good interviewer, has been doing a series for Slate on being wrong, which includes this encouraging quotation from Ira Glass: "If you do creative work, there's a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired." Or, to translate into horticultural terms, keep transplanting that poor rose, and you'll eventually find a spot where it works.

But even if time & nature are eroding Sweetbay's garden, and wrongness is constantly subverting mine, sometime, every now and then, you're going to plant something strong and sturdy in the right spot and it's going to stay there for the next 100 years until someone from some future generation comes by and thinks, "Gosh, that's a nice, shady tree. I'm sure glad someone planted it here." Or "What a lovely old rosebush this is--they don't make them like this anymore." Or "These big old lilies are so fragrant--I wonder how long they've been here?" And that's good enough for me.

Future generations: feel free to admire our 'Little Gem' Magnolia grandiflora

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