A Failure of Sorts
Yet we have no eyes for it.
I am a failed gardener; that is, I am learning to fail. The plants are teaching me, though they care not whether I learn their lessons. They have their own plans, none of which take any notice of me. They seem quick, though, to bend my floundering to their purpose.
You must know that "my land" is rather modest, a good bit more than a city window box or two, but far less than my dream would have. Still, in my 0.27 acre lot, half of which is house, I have ample room for folly, and for delightful, small surprises. Yet a few, short years ago I began with a vision of The Garden Beautiful.
I would design a set of gardens around the house, full-sun in the west-facing front, deep shade in the tree-covered back, and partial shade on the sides. Each would display great botanical complexity, with plant color, texture, shape and height in perfect balance, synchronized with bloom time and duration. Sight and scent would captivate equally. Yes, I would live in a Better Homes and Gardens world.
The plants, however, got in the way. The Dame’s rocket, phlox, and coreopsis I had planted close to the house have since migrated across the sidewalk leading to the front door and have moved in next to the chrysanthemum and muscari that I had planted facing the lawn. The layered, tiered arrangement I'd planned next to the house is a shambles--the monarda, purple coneflower, and orange butterfly weed are nomadically carefree and refuse to stay in one place. The flocks of goldfinches that feasted on the flowerheads of black-eyed susan, lance-leaf coreopsis, and summer phlox scattered enough seeds to put tiny new plants all over the garden. And the lily of the valley continues to wander, its rhizomes sending up new leaves here and there.
Then came the vagabonds--flowers I'd never planted, like the Virginia honeysuckle near the front door, the hollyhocks and ox-eye daisy beside the driveway, and buttercups and white yarrow from who-knows-where, spreading and spreading. Borne on the wind, the seeds of common milkweed, calico aster, joe-pye weed, and daisy fleabane found new places for themselves. This has been going on now for three years, progressively dismantling my vision of The Garden of Delights. Yet I found that some part of me didn’t care.
Yet beauty still abounds, if you look closely. The way the blossoms of Phlox stand goofily erect like tiny phalluses, petals curled in on themselves. Butter-yellow crab spiders hide amid the coreopsis petals, waiting for leafhoppers or other unlucky insects to wander by. Late each spring, when I forget to stake the Shasta daisies, groups of 2-foot tall stalks fall over of their own weight, then heliotropically turn their blossom heads upward, like ranks of tiny Swiss alpine horns. Last summer, a single ornamental squash vine, grown from some discarded seed, gracefully bisected the rock garden with its curving rows of leaves, erect in a line, like tiny opened umbrellas. Nearby, a stalk of purple verbena had fallen down only to rise up next to a white chamomile flower, the juxtaposition of color, texture, and form so delicately charming. Who could plan any of this?
I give up. I can’t order it, can’t arrange it in precise patterns of color and texture and bloom time. Yet still I cling to my illusions--"After I get the basic landscaping done around the house ... after I decide where to put each flower ... after I get the last fruit trees planted, and the stone wall finished, and the blackberries added to the raspberries, and ... then I can begin to study what I have, and perhaps dream again of what I want." Part of me resists giving up the illusion of control.
Yet I am learning to let go. One late spring twilight, with my mind lost in the worries of dry earth, I happened to look up at the gray sky, streaked with patches of steel blue and pale rose. From the still air, the slightest of breezes blew across my face. My eyes then fell on the crabtree, aflame in pale pink blossoms. Walking over to it, I pushed my face into a mass of petals, feeling their cool softness on my cheeks, on the delicate skin of my closed eyelids, the air suddenly full of their faintly sweet scent.
A few weeks ago, in late October, I was foolishly "tidying up" the garden, giving in to the urgings of others as well as my own weaker self. I pulled a dead milkweed cane out of the ground, its seed pod still attached and slightly open as it dried, the seeds and their silky parachutes intact. Breaking the pod off the stalk to scoop out the seeds, I gently pried the husk open a bit more. Then I stopped.
Inside the pod my eyes found a marvel of design, color, and form. The small brown seeds, packed together like brown fish scales, made me think of the chain-mail of a Chinese warrior; the seeds' silken parachutes lay yet unfurled in rows of tiny white tubes. The light-gray inside skin of the pod reflected those rows of brown seeds, the moment of their fullness captured in a pattern of criss-crossing lines, like tiny waves in a pool. Finally, as I slowly pried the pod further open, I found a cluster of aphids hidden on the other side of the tube of seeds, their small bodies translucent like bright red rubies. I gazed in wonder.
I can't explain what those moments mean to me. I only know that time stops. Surrounded by this simple beauty and this quiet joy, I forget myself, my aging bones and stiffening joints, and am lifted far above all my worries. And if such moments are still possible in this sad world, and in my life, then a part of that life is redeemed. Thus I am slowly letting go of my desire to command my gardens. More and more I just stand and gaze, overwhelmed by the force, the willfulness of mere flowers, their delicate stems breaking from a rough touch, their seeds scattered wherever I don't imagine.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 2008