“We both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.” — Beverley Nichols
Though many of her husband’s projects are likely to be uprooted, there is good news for Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.
Looks like Melania Trump is fond of gardening, too. Or at least fond of gardens.
This weekend, Mrs.Trump accompanied Akie Abe, the wife of the Japanese prime minister, to Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden in Delray, Florida. Based on the brief video footage available, it looks like the two women strolled around the gardens somewhat awkwardly, posing for pictures, smiling at the guide, and feeding some koi.
But it is this statement from Mrs. Trump that is most noteworthy if you’ve been fretting about the fate of the White House gardens: ‘As a mother and as the First Lady of this country, Mrs. Trump is committed to the preservation and continuation of the White House Gardens, specifically the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden and the Rose Garden.’
Trump also spoke of the positive effect of gardens and nature on young people: ‘I hope that together Mrs. Abe and I can continue to inspire our youth to enjoy the beauty around them and to restore their minds in the peacefulness of their surroundings.’
There are many minds that need to be restored in the aftermath of this election — I won’t say whose! — and one thing most of us can agree on is that gardens are a good place to do that.
It’s interesting that before she left the White House, Mrs. Obama reinforced her garden with more permanent fixtures of cement, stone, and wood; she did not want this thing torn out! It will be ironic if something as mutable and unpredictable as a garden turns out to be the most enduring Obama initiative of them all.
One more tidbit from Henry Mitchell before I have to return the book to the library:
When I peer about my little garden, which is sometimes so beautiful, I never admire this plant or that plant without a certain awe that beneath the surface and structural beauty that even the coarsest human eye can see lies a creative dynamic truth at the heart of all life that is still hidden from simple men like me but that will one day be clear to all.
from On Gardening
(the photo was taken at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on an exceptionally hot day in 2012.)
“People like gardening because it differs from the “efficiency” of modern life. People like to dig, and they like to dig with the same spade or fork that their predecessors used a thousand years before them.
They like to tie up grapevines. They like to prune great climbing roses. They like to stake lilies. I once had 2,500 bloom stalks of irises in May and 250 stakes that I moved about as needed. I quite enjoyed staking the irises, because the idea was not to save time but to gaze at each stalk one by one, and of the perhaps 20,000 iris flowers that year, not one opened and not one faded but I noticed it and, while it was in bloom, gazed at it.”
— Henry Mitchell, from Henry Mitchell On Gardening
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.
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.
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.
One of Beatrix Ferrand’s most famous projects is the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, which is known for its lavish garden rooms and magnificent attention to detail. As you can see in the map below, each garden “room” has its own name — Rose Garden, Urn Terrace, Pebble Garden, etc. — and each room is masterfully designed and delightful to experience. Continue reading
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.”
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.”
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.)