This Land is My Land, All Mine!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means, as a gardener, to actually own my own piece of property.  Sometimes when I am taking my vegetable scraps out to the compost heap, following a route that spans the full expanse of my backyard, I marvel at the fact that the entire vast swath is mine to do with as I wish. The soil, the trees, the rocks, the grass (weeds), every dip and sweep of this somewhat pie-shaped, .49 acre lot is all mine!  For a single human, a half an acre is a king’s riches.  It is more than enough to keep a solitary gardener busy and fretting with planting schemes and projects for a lifetime.

A quarter acre would be enough.  An eighth.  A 10′ x 15′ rectangle.  It’s mine, I own it, I am content.  I would rather own a sunny balcony with an array of pots than merely occupy a 50-acre estate.  Mary Lennox, recall, pleaded only for “a bit of earth.”  A bit.  But she wanted it for herself.

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The whole idea of private land ownership is fundamental in American culture, obviously, but I think it’s in our genes as well.  Even hunter-gatherer societies who couldn’t conceive of private property clashed with one another over hunting grounds and resources.

But of course, they were just being practical.

We gardeners like to covet and control.  There is no sugar-coating it.  We see our gardens as a means of self-expression, whether we are decorating them as fussily as we would our living rooms or attempting to create native plant wilderness.  We tend, shape, manipulate.  What’s less obvious is that the rose garden and the bird habitat are shaped with equal passion.

I know that there is a certain class of gardener — protégés of Sara Stein, for example — who seeks to return their property to a Rousseauian state of nature, whereby they need no longer prune, nor weed, nor remove leaves, etc.  Even these good folk, I suspect, would dash out the back door with a giant machete at the first sight of Japanese honeysuckle overtaking their sassafras grove.  And who would blame them?  They spent 10 years getting those sassafras established!

I know I’m not the first gardener who developed the passion only after purchasing my own property, because the same thing happened to the famous garden writer Beverley Nichols.  In this passage from Down the Garden Path Nichols describes the joy he felt in performing even onerous tasks in his very first garden:

Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy.  You may say, ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that?  You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle…and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds that break off above the root…you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason…because you do not own the garden.  All gardeners will know what I mean.  Ownership makes all the difference in the world.  I suppose it is like the difference between one’s own baby and somebody else’s.  If it is your own baby you probably quite enjoy wiping its nose.  If it is somebody else’s you would have to use a long pole with a handkerchief on the end.  That was why I loved all this early work, because the garden was the first thing I had ever really owned.

What about community gardens?  Well, the community vegetable garden near me is sliced up like a pan of brownies at a kids’ party, with each gardener carefully guarding his portion.  Most community gardens appear to be set up this way, with fences making it very clear whose plot is whose.  The gardeners may share hoses and wheelbarrows, but they don’t often share the earth itself.

This is all kind of a paradox, because gardeners are also known to be very generous.  We are all quick to share our extra vegetables, divisions, seed packs, and of course, unsolicited advice.  And I know there are many gardeners out there who donate their time at public gardens, which is generous indeed.

For most of us, though, ownership is fundamental to the experience of being a gardener.  We are happy to yank up hateful little weeds — whether they’re sprouting in a pot, a city garden, or a 50-acre estate — because they are our hateful little weeds.

Annie Dillard — Suburban Pilgrim

For years I have worshipped Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prize winning meditation on nature written back in the 1970’s.  I keep a copy of it on my Kindle, and whenever the world feels too much with me, I like to retreat into a few of its pages.  Her descriptions of giant water bugs and mating wood ducks, intertwined with questions of creation and invocations of the great philosophers and scientists, are beautiful and strange and calming.

pilgrim-image

Dillard was living near Roanoke, Virginia, at the time she wrote it, and Pilgrim gives the impression that it was a solitary existence, that she was living in a secluded cabin in the woods, like Thoreau or Muir, spending her days trekking along the streams and through the fields without much human contact.

But no.

When I discovered that this was not true, when I discovered that Dillard was living in an ordinary suburban house with her husband when she wrote Pilgrim, I felt betrayed.  And part of me still feels it is a deception. To describe the wonder of the praying mantis egg cases but fail to mention that they exist in the shadow of a 1960’s brick rambler seems, at best, disingenuous.

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a piece about this revelation that the wildness in Pilgrim was really an illusion deliberately created by Dillard.  The article gives some interesting insights into Dillard’s motivations for creating this illusion.  Turns out she was afraid that her book would not make it into the the canon of wilderness literature if she didn’t portray herself as the archetypal solitary wanderer, or if she revealed that her surroundings were blemished by other human beings.  Heck, she was also worried that the American public wouldn’t accept a wilderness narrative written by a woman, but happily that turned out not to be true.

Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic article describing Dillard’s reaction to discovering how her readers perceived Pilgrim:

“Even still, [Dillard] said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’

Please.  I have a hard time believing that a writer as shrewd as Dillard wouldn’t realize exactly what she was doing when she wrote the book.

Anyway, my favorite passage from the article is this one, which reminds us that our wanderings through suburbia CAN be as awe-inspiring as Dillard’s were in Pilgrim if we take the time to look:

“But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.”

Yes, here in suburbia there is too much lawn, there are leaf blowers, plastic wishing wells, and basketball courts.

There are giant inflatable snowmen.

I guess forty years ago Dillard felt she had to pretend those things didn’t exist in order to write about the natural wonders among them.

Here’s hoping times have changed and that we now understand that the real illusion is the idea that all wilderness is “out there” and not (to paraphrase Thoreau) right under our feet.  Here’s hoping we can all recognize the wildness and wonder even in our suburban wanderings.

P.S.  Here is an excellent blog post by David Ryan which includes pictures of Tinker Creek and the neighborhood in which Dillard wandered.

“Malignant Magenta”

Some interesting revelations in a book I’m currently reading called One Writer’s Garden, which is about the Jackson, Mississippi garden of Eudora Welty and her mother Chestina

Last night I read this explanation for the shunning of magenta flowers back in Welty’s day (early 20th century, but the magenta aversion continues today for many gardeners):

“Historian Susan Lanman..points out that arsenic was was commonly used in pesticides, giving crops a magenta color that indicated that the lethal poison had been applied.  [Gertrude] Jekyll and others distressed by the effects of industrialization eschewed [magenta]for such associations with pollution, and its manufacture from aniline dyes, which themselves were derived from the coal whose smoke blackened England’s skies.”

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Byzantine gladiolus. http://www.bulbhunter.com

Ew.  So magenta=toxic was part of the reason they didn’t like it. 

But also many gardeners and designers just found the color plain nasty.  Apparently, Gertrude Jekyll is the one who tagged it “malignant magenta” and another British garden writer called the color “that awful form of original sin.”

Geez.

Poor magenta.  It doesn’t seem fair.  Everyone has their tastes, but who wouldn’t want to stumble upon that lovely sweep of Byzantine Gladioli (pictured above) on a drive through the country?

(Source: One Writer’s Garden, by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown.)

Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

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David Culp’s Layered Garden Includes Black Walnuts!

layeredMore good news for those of us living with Juglans nigra! In his new book The Layered Garden, David Culp describes several genera that he has grown with success beneath these anti-social trees, including:

Smilacina — (Smilacena racemosa — False Solomon’s Sealan interesting perennial with white flowers in spring followed by green/red berries).

Asarum(cute little gingers!)

Aucuba — (Evergreen, Gold Speckles. Reminds me of the upholstery on the couch from my childhood family room, circa 1976. What’s not to love?)

Pulmonaria(I am always reading about how great these are — why don’t I grow them?)

Convallaria(I actually have Lily-of-the-Valley growing under a Silver Maple, which means they will officially grow anywhere.)

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“Now Entering the Xeric Hardpan Forest”

Recently I purchased and read Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont.

Now, before you go labeling me as a mega-dweeb, you should know that plant communities are super hot right now. All the coolest middle aged suburban garden bloggers are talking about them and how they can be used as inspirations for design.

Where have you been?

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Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Art and the Garden

Take a look at the pair of images below.  What would you say they have in common?

Left: “The Arch of Nero” by Thomas Cole Right: Photo by John Glover.

Now, I’m pretty sure the garden vignette on the right was not modelled directly after Thomas Cole’s painting (on the left), but the two certainly do seem to share some genetic material, don’t they?  The arches, the vines, the muted colors, the effort to capture antiquity — all are present in both painting and garden.  

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Keep Writing, Keep Digging, Mr. Merwin

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced Natasha Tretheway, a Pulitzer-prize winner and professor at Emory University, as the new poet laureate.  I’m not familiar with her writing, but I like that she is from the South and that she is very young for a poet laureate.  I will check out her poems soon.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this quote from the outgoing poet laureate, W.S. Merwin.  I have loved Merwin’s poetry since I stumbled upon it in college, but I had no idea that he lived in Hawaii and is totally into gardening.  Apparently, he lives on a former pineapple plantation in Maui, and has made it his mission to plant scores of endangered palms on his land.  What a cool guy.

Merwin in his garden. http://www.oprah.com

This quote comes from his 1997 essay entitled “The Shape of Water” :

“Obviously the garden is not a wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some sense of its composition, its appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relation, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished.” 

I also like that Merwin acknowledges that “the natural world is what is right in front of you.  You don’t have to go to national parks or something, just look in your backyard and you’ll find plants and bugs.”

I think Ms. Tretheway has some big, dirt-encrusted shoes to fill.

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