Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Little Hot Air

or A Study in Contrasts

There is a stretch of highway between Vaughn and Roswell, New Mexico, where you do not see a human habitation for about 75 miles.  The dirt-road entrance to a ranch or two, sure; some water tanks with a herd of Black Angus and maybe a longhorn or so grazing nearby; and at the little outpost of Mesa, a defunct gas station; but nothing else.  (The outpost of Mesa consists entirely of the defunct gas station and a sign that says, "Mesa.")  The land is flat and treeless, with mile after mile of needlegrass and cholla and prickly poppies.  Larks linger at the side of the road and flutter up like dust as you drive past.  You can see the curvature of the earth in all directions; the sky is a stronger feature of the landscape than the actual landscape.  It is an empty land, one that people usually drive through as fast as possible.  I love it.  It is a place where I feel like I can breathe, where the relief of not being closed in by buildings or walls or trees is absolute.  (I begin to suspect that I am mildly claustrophobic.)

Between enclosure and confinement lies a very fine line. The line moves unexpectedly sometimes, but fortunately, my garden usually sits on the right side of it.  Surrounded by walls, the garden offers privacy but also (if you look through the right place between buildings) a view of the Sandia Mountains, downtown Albuquerque (through a different notch between buildings), and of course, that gorgeous New Mexico sky (straight up, all you could possibly want).    It is a safe and pleasant place, a nested place, where beautiful rituals of home are enacted:  morning coffee on the patio, the New York Times crossword puzzle, the daily tending of the container plants, the leisurely amble around the path just to look at things, the leisurely amble in the other direction just to look at things a different way.

With the International Balloon Fiesta fast approaching, the walls of privacy are for the moment broken down.  Albuquerque is one of the world's best places for hot air ballooning, so we see balloonists off and on all year; in the days leading up to the Fiesta that begins this weekend, however, they all come out to play at once.  The most popular flying route is along the Rio Grande, and my home is just close enough to the river that some of the strays who want a more urban ballooning experience (?) go overhead.  (And for some reason nothing makes you aware that you're still in your bathrobe like having a balloon crew sail past within shouting distance.)

The garden rituals take on a different tone; an awareness of the outside world punctuates the sense of small and familiar things.  I wander around the path (in one direction or another) inspecting a leaf here and there (the tips of the sand cherries turning red), a late blossom (feverfew leaning to reach the sunshine), an empty pot (the spider web still stretched inside it, a leaf suspended in mid-air), new growth (ipheion, already putting out leaves for spring), a loss (the Mt. Atlas daisies gone).  And in the midst of all this beautiful downward glancing (shattering a seedhead in passing), the puff of fire above, the exhale of propane burners holding a hot-air balloon aloft (a mildly asthmatic dragon come to call), a boat with a jester's-motley sail, an entire silent carnival floating past, hinting of adventure and discovery and birds-eye views and going yonder, yonder, yonder.

Despite the previous sentence I wouldn't exactly say that I go dreamy-eyed about balloons—not enough to hanker after any of the stained glass or painted silk or dried gourd replicas of them that fill the shops in Old Town this time of year (and that make an odd counterpoint to the Pueblo pottery, silver, and turquoise in the shop windows beside them).  But seeing them from the garden makes my heart leap; the contrast between groundedness and flight, between nestedness and adventure, is so striking.  There is a bittersweetness to the contrast that is beautiful in itself, and that reminds me somehow of that morning coffee—intense and strong and invigorating on a cool September morning of primary colors, of pure, shining tones, when sunshine feels good again and the wind is fresh, and home and adventure, space and enclosure, both beckon with equal pleasure.

But oh, the yonder sounds like fun.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella

(Because I Seem to Have Left All of Mine in Vermont)

The first time I read Winnie the Pooh and came across Christopher Robin wandering up and down under the honey tree saying, "Tut-tut, it looks like rain," I was deeply perplexed by two things:
  1. I could not see the point of saying "tut-tut."
  2. I did not know what an umbrella was.
I had never seen one.  My family didn't own one, nor did anyone else I knew.  Growing up in Colorado, with its 300+ days of sunshine a year, an umbrella wasn't exactly a necessity, and I couldn't even begin to imagine a place where rain was such a steady feature of the climate that one needed a shield against it.  After having Winnie the Pooh explained to me, umbrellas seemed like the height of exotic mystery, curios owned by people in far-away lands where people said "tut-tut," and did stoutness exercises in their spare time.

What with all the mystique surrounding them, I naturally asked my parents for an umbrella of my very own; just as naturally (to them), they said no.  I thought they were unreasonable—it wasn't as though I'd asked for a Hundred Acre Wood, after all, or to live under the name of Sanders; I just wanted an umbrella.  What my parents didn't say, but no doubt thought, was that I would probably poke my eye out with it, fight my sister over and/or with it, break a few knick-knacks by playing games with it in the house, and generally get in trouble, but I sure wouldn't need to use it against actual rain.  Some eventualities don't need to be prepared for, and others—well, let's just say that my parents knew which eventualities were the most likely to happen in this instance.   What with the aura of disapproval surrounding them, umbrellas became even more alluring and desirable...

Then I moved to the northeastern United States, and that pretty much took care of that.  Umbrellas became one of the drearier facts of life, and I owned far too many of them:  the light-weight golf umbrella I took to walk Luther T. Dog in the rain; the heavy-weight golf umbrella for walks in rain and wind; the collapsible; the mini-collapsible; the other collapsible I bought when I thought I'd lost the first one; the dressy umbrella (for formal rainstorms?  Don't ask me what I was thinking, because I don't know.); the broken umbrella to be used in Desperate Need.

I have been in Albuquerque for five years this month, and this past week had one of those moments of realization when you're suddenly struck by how your life has changed. Both your former set of expectations and the new reality stand side by side in equal detail, and somehow an umbrella summed them both up.  We've had record-setting rainfall here—the most that has ever fallen in a 24-hour period (get ready to be impressed):  1.77 inches.  That beats the last record of 1.05 inches, set in 1929, by a walloping margin, and most of it fell as good, steady, soaking rain—the kind tailor-made for umbrellas.

But I don't know where mine are.  I'm pretty sure I moved them with me from Vermont, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.  In five years, I have not needed an umbrella; a smile really has been adequate protection—that or simply waiting out the storm.  Probably they're buried in a closet somewhere, no doubt behind the snow boots, parkas, wool sweaters, and other useless things.  I could look for them, but why?  If it's another 81 years before we get this much rain again, my needing an umbrella is an unlikely eventuality, the kind I probably don't need to be prepared for.

Vermont is a beautiful state—you have to hunt long and hard to find anything that isn't breath-takingly lovely (until mud-season, at any rate).  But it is not a kind climate for someone with CFS and fibromyalgia, both of which are made worse by cold, damp weather.  I spent every September there in dread of the coming months, hunting for new ways to protect myself from pain and exhaustion, trying to hedge myself against the loneliness of being trapped inside for every leisure hour of a long, nasty winter—battles that would get harder each year and leave me less resilient, more wounded, and ever wearier of having to carry on a battle at all.  I don't really believe in spending a lot of time looking backward, but I have occasionally wondered whether the decision to leave academia and move to New Mexico was a wise one.  To realize that all my umbrellas have gone missing, and that that is just fine, is a big thumbs up as far as I'm concerned.

As I walked out the door the other day in the lightly falling rain, for a brief moment I wanted an umbrella.  Then, for the first time in my life, I found myself channeling my grandmother.  In exactly the same irritated tone she reserved for those who tried to take care of her, in exactly her gruff alto, I heard myself growling, "I'm not made out of sugar or salt."  Grandma would have been mildly annoyed that we were trying to shelter her from a sudden shower, that we would dare to think that she, a woman in her mid-90's, was not perfectly stout, that she needed protection from something that just didn't matter.

Isn't that lovely?  The rain just doesn't matter.

If I ever find my umbrellas, I shall show them to my youngest nephew, who has probably never seen one.  They will be rusty and faded and open complainingly, and we will look at them, shake our heads sadly, and say "tut-tut" together.

Because a smile is really all the umbrella we need.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tipping Point

Turpentine bush on the verge of blooming
or Ode on the Autumn Equinox

Today we are at balance, poised between day and night, summer and winter.  For one brief moment both sides of the story are equal, even though we know how this scene will end—the balance tipped toward frost, toward breath clouds in the morning air, afternoons that never warm up and that end early, piles of comforters on the bed, an outside world reduced to its bare bones.

In Vermont the tipping point comes fast and strikes out hard for the downhill side.  Autumn is a brief fire soon spent, sparking vividly against a cool, blue sky, every maple leaf an ember that burns gloriously before fading into ash, into the dull gray of November.

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, autumn is Thanksgiving Day writ large.  It waxes slowly into fulness.   It glows with the joy of harvest rightfully earned, of grapes heavy on the vine, of butternut squash and cornfields, of apples to be put up in haste and tasted at leisure; a celebration of bounty and Providence and community; a last toast, a final burst of fellow-feeling, before the light wanes into winter, and the gray months strike, and your settle in just to endure.

Here in south-central New Mexico, autumn is a long, slow sigh of relief, a gentle relaxing into the sleep of winter.  We reach a tipping point, but the slope is an easy one; we tumble into winter softly.  The trees turn kind by kind, week by somnolent week, first the honey locusts, then the desert willows, the desert olives, the ornamentals from China, Japan, the Mediterranean, the pears and hawthorns and ashes, and finally, most spectacularly, the giants among Western trees—los alamos, the cottonwoods.   They set the bosques along the Rio Grande to shining with a gold that reflects the sun's mellow warmth—its newly welcome warmth—back skyward.

Rabbit brush, or chamisa, after a rain shower

Closer to the earth, the Maximillian's sunflowers open their towers of golden blossoms; sulphury clouds of rabbit brush balance on supple, sage-green stems, blowing gently in the slightest breeze; the flowers of turpentine bush glow against resiny, juniper-needle leaves; and the angelita daisies continue to emblazon the most bruised, abandoned places with life and color.  These are not the happy-go-lucky yellows of spring; they are deep golds that resonate with knowledge and loss and profound joy, that have seen a brutal summer and lived to tell the tale.

In the sky, too, each day is like gold—the sun still just too hot for comfort, but slowly—oh, so slowly—passing from the white heat of summer through autumn's honey warmth and back again to the cold, white gleam of winter; the sunsets are liquid, rose-gold, the color of cooling metal.

We stand at the cusp, poised between moments.  The earth and its axis are about to tell against us.  The sun retreats to the south; the long, slow journey into nighttime lies ahead.  But the journey, as always, is the heart of the tale, the story of earth and sky and their passage worth more in the telling than the loss of the summer behind us.

We take a long, deep breath and descend into the shimmering valley of autumn.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Praying mantis studying me through the study window
or When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

When Alice talks with the White Queen in the famous scene from Through the Looking Glass, she clings to realism for all it's worth:  "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen.  "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.  Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I'm always intrigued in a work of art—whether fiction, film, opera, or anything else—at the fine line between what's believable and what isn't, and the tipping point between the two.  You go along through the whole work, perfectly willing to suspend disbelief, and then suddenly wham!  As far as you're concerned it has "jumped the shark," and it's all downhill from there.  There may have been half a dozen equally over-the-top moments along the way, but for some reason one feature among the rest swings the balance for you between "coming along for the ride" and "give me a break."

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was like that for me.  I was happy to go along with logical fallacy after logical fallacy for the sake of a fast plot and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, but when it was revealed (possible spoiler alert, but not a very big one) that Debussy had been a keeper of the great secret, I threw the book down in disgust.  Debussy was a jerk, a nasty piece of work; no one in his right mind would have given him a sacred trust.  If Brown was fool enough to believe that Debussy was a trustworthy and noble fellow just because he composed some nice music (rather than being a creep who happened to be handy with notes), I was done with him.

Reality, of course, is sometimes even stranger than fiction.  Take giraffes, for example.  It's easy enough to believe in each individual feature of a giraffe, but added up they come to something a little too over the top—about 15 feet over the top, in fact, and most of it neck.  (It's odd how the balance can tip back toward belief, too.  The last time I was at the zoo to disbelieve in the giraffes, one came over to say hello, bent down its head, and dribbled a bunch of green plant gunk all over the enclosure railing.  There's something all too real about dribbly green plant gunk, and now I believe in giraffes again.)

Or flamingos.  As if their color isn't startling enough, the way they sleep on one leg with their necks turned around 180° and snaked along their backs—sorry, but that's just a little too Maurice Sendak (or Roald Dahl) for me to accept.  I used to find the way their knees bend backward to be a little too strange and then discovered that those are their ankles; their knees are right under their hips and hidden by feathers, which doesn't exactly make things any better.

But even in our own backyards, there are plenty of creatures I'm not quite ready to suspend disbelief for.  Spittle bugs are a case in point.  The thought of an insect surrounding itself in a cloud of spit for protection ("You can't tell I'm here, Mr. Predator, because I'm hidden in my own saliva!")...Hmm.

Spittle bug(s?)

How about twig caterpillars?  They're a kind of inchworm.  This one seems to have gotten a little confused by the concept of camouflage—it's not enough to look like a twig, little caterpillar; you also have to hang out with the twigs.  I've only seen this kind of inchworm once and have no idea what its moth form looks like.  It's sufficiently twig-like that the moment when it started "measuring" was pretty disconcerting—I almost expected it to snap in half.

Redroot amaranth flowers with out of place camouflaged twig

Praying mantises?  Albuquerque is probably too close to Roswell for me to see them as anything other than space aliens, come to study our culture and then report back to the mother ship.

"Interesting.  Ve-ry interesting."
Then we have this little spider, which was (and still is, for all I know) about half an inch long.  If a sock monkey were crossed with a tarantula and then shrunk in the wash, this is what we would get.

And it has this gorgeous mask on its back (as if its front weren't scary enough).  Tattoo?  Gang symbol?  Tribal marking?  (You can click on the photo to enlarge it.)  (If you're into that kind of thing.)

I've been practicing believing in them all before breakfast—before I've even finished my coffee on the patio, no less, because that's when I always see them.  (I'm up to four unbelievable things now—two to go, and I tie the White Queen!)  For me, they're all right on the cusp of credibility.  One more oddity, one more human-common-sense defying quirk, and they'd jump the shark.

They'd better not make any silly claims about Debussy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cranking Up the Volume

or Wild Thing, I Think You Move Me

Weddings don't seem to be for the faint of heart.   Even simple weddings in one's own family home with a frighteningly competent mother in charge have truckloads of small details that can't be pulled together until the last minute, frazzling brides who are normally calm and ultra-together.   I attended a wedding like that many years ago now (and, if anyone knows where all those years have gone, by all means let me know).   One of my dearest friends, whom we shall call S, was marrying an easy-going sweetheart of a gentleman out of her parents' home in California.

S is such a sensible person that, if she weren't also warm and generous and impulsive and loving, she would drive you insane by being sane all the time.   As a mutual friend put it, "She is the kind of person who sees that something is bad for her and so doesn't want it."   She considers eating small amounts of dark chocolate to be a vice; she has no other.   She doesn't procrastinate; she accepts criticism well; she runs five miles a day.   Even with all those strikes against her, however, somehow she's still quite lovable, but like the rest of us, S has her moments of human frailty.  Everything on the day of her wedding was going well and under control, but there were enough extra thises and thats demanding her attention—just extra, extra, EXTRA—that she began to fray around the edges.

In the midst of all the activity, S's 4-year-old niece had gotten wound up to bursting point and was racing around making a world-class racket.   The noise set S's teeth on edge, but when she asked her niece to be quiet, the little girl plumped down on a bench in a swirl of flouncing skirts, and with the wickedest twinkle in her eye that it has ever been my privilege to see, began chanting, "BE LOUD!   BE LOUD!   BE LOUD!" at the top of her lungs.

A part of me understood my friend's irritation and was pretty irritated myself;  the rest of me was filled with awe and envy:   awe that a 4-year-old should have such fearless confidence, should be so certain of her right to make a noise in the world; envy that she should feel so gleeful about being herself in the face of disapproval from every adult in the room.   Yes, I concurred, she needed to be sent to her room and put on bread and water for—well, for years; but secretly I was cheering her on.   While I hope she's learned better timing and a little consideration for others since then (now that she's starting college and all), I hope she still has the capacity to live at the top of her bent.   I don't know that I've ever been loud like that in my life, and I think it's a mighty fine thing for a girl to be.   Especially when she lives thousands of miles away from me.

We wind up our celebration of botanical vulgarity this week with a look at the loudest plant in my garden, one that puts even orange marigolds to shame—Wild Thing autumn sage (Salvia greggii Wild Thing).

It really is that color.

The funny thing is that, since being saddled with CFS and fibromyalgia, I can't handle noise at all, whether aural, mental, or visual; whatever mechanism we have to sort through stimuli and prioritize them seems to have gone awry.   All the useful "how to cope" materials, which the better kinds of physicians give you, offer tips for dealing with a broad range of situations, but when it comes to noise, they just say, "AVOID THIS."   (Oops—but not in block caps, because that's the online equivalent of shouting, which is very noisy.   Sorry.)   I generally seek out peace, quiet, tranquility; cool watery blues, gentle forest greens, pale buttery yellows.   Calm colors.   Serene colors.   But there are always exceptions that I can't explain, like orange marigolds and Wild Thing autumn sage.

I fell in love with this plant the first time I saw it, and I don't even like pink.   Yet now I have an entire baby hedgelet of astonishingly noisy flowers blooming in the garden.   Even at noon in mid-summer, when paler colors look faded and washed out under the New Mexico sun, Wild Thing is gleefully shouting, "Pink!   Pink!   Pink!"   It is the equivalent of a noisy little girl who, yes, was way too loud, but by golly, was loud with a vengeance.

I wouldn't call its contrast with the garden walls a subtle one.
Is loudness vulgarity, or is it vividness?   Garishness or glee?   Misbehavior or joie de vivre?   None of those options is mutually exclusive; the admirable qualities live side by side with those we turn our noses up at.   (So sorry—with those at which we turn up our noses.)   Do you really want to forgo the glee to avoid the garish?   Lose vividness to whatever passes for today's good taste?   Stifle joie de vivre in the name of good behavior?   If everyone is equally loud, of course, you can't hear anyone over the clamor; I suspect Wild Thing makes me so happy because it takes all the solos, while the greens and buttery yellows croon a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" in the background.   So by all means be smart in your timing, and definitely be considerate of others.

But go live loud today.   Make a noise in the world.

For what it's worth, I promise not to send you to your room.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

When Onions Get Uppity

or Th-th-th-that's Allium, Folks!

Every year just as the February doldrums hit, the city of Burlington, Vermont, hosts a winter festival complete with snow sculpting and ice carving competitions.   Some of the entrants are quite serious, and the winner goes on to the national snow sculpting competition in Wisconsin.   Even without the lure of a championship trophy and the warm feeling inside of a job well done, however, the challenge of sculpting in a variable medium like snow could well be its own artistic reward.   (I'd sure love to see someone try it with Rocky Mountain powder.)   Perhaps knowing that your work will melt away when winter ends—which in Vermont is, what, late May, early June at the outside—adds a certain zest to the act of creation.   I can't believe that a snow sculptor wouldn't constantly be rejoicing in the irony of his or her chosen medium:   instead of immortalizing a moment in ageless marble or bronze or stone, the snow sculptor creates something for the moment only, something that is meant to be appreciated briefly before disappearing forever while conveniently also watering the lawn.

The spectator, standing in Waterfront Park under a featureless, white sky on a -10°F day while the winds blow at 25 mph straight down from the Arctic and across Lake Champlain, to watch people sculpt snow because gosh darn it, it's a winter festival and we may as well be festive, is liable to find her thoughts turning to the poignancy of a medium that foregrounds its own impermanence.   She might contemplate the awareness inherent in a "live for the moment" artwork that the moment is soon lost, and that the loss is eternal.   Her enjoyment of the sculptures before her may be tinged with a hint of bittersweetness, a reminder of the fleeting nature of time, of our own mortality, of the passing away of all things.   You know, festive thoughts.

Onions are like that, too.   Not thoughtful, that is, or particularly festive, but imbued with a sense of poignancy, bittersweetness, etc.   Surely you must have noticed it?   As we continue celebrating the vulgar plants this week, let's turn our attention to this culinary staple, which in the scale of fine cooking sits firmly earthed at the bottom, right down there with "all this garlic of low cuisine," as Verlaine put it.   If ever there was a plant that talked too loudly, smelled too much, and never knew when to quit, it would have to be an onion.

And if ever there was a plant with sculptural merit in the garden, whether of the delicate, sturdy, or whimsical variety, it would have to be an onion.   I'm not talking about the officially ornamental alliums here—the kinds with names like "Star of Persia," "Ambassador," or "Mount Everest."   No, I'm just thinking of your everyday, run of the mill, garden to table onion.

I’m currently growing two kinds that have sparked my artistic interest.   The first is He-shi-ko, a perennial bunching onion (Allium fistulosum), which blooms in the spring of its second year (and every year thereafter), with symmetrical, two-inch globes of delicate florets that dry to a papery ivory and produce jet black seeds.

Bunching onions - true "scallions" rather than simply young bulb onions

Egyptian walking onion bulbils
The second is Egyptian walking onion (Allium proliferum).   Rather than flowers, these plants produce bulbils—a head of edible, miniature onions—that eventually get heavy enough to bend their growing stalk to the ground, where the bulbils root and establish themselves.
Egyptian walking onion, caught in the very act of "walking"

And while we're at it, let's throw in a cousin of theirs, Allium tuberosum, or garlic chives, which send up flower heads in late summer that have the precise, branching symmetry of snowflakes (though they all look pretty much the same).   The flowers last for a few short days, after which you would be wise to deadhead them, unless you really, really like garlic chives.

Garlic chives

In each case the blossoms (or bulbils) are more sculptural than painterly;  their three-dimensional shape is more striking than the interplay of color and form.   Generally, however, when we talk about sculptural plants we mean the four-season ones—yucca, agave, ocotillos—the ones with a commanding presence all year.   A sculptural yucca is always sculptural, with or without blooms  (which are equally worthy of sculpting, by the way).   An onion—the rest of the time, it's an onion.   The beauty in these living sculptures is partly in their very evanescence, the necessity to appreciate them while they last.   For myself  (and I realize that I may need to get out more), they foreground their impermanence in ways that more flower-ly flowers do not, precisely because they are sculptural, and we do not generally look to sculpture for change.

By being sculptural, alliums also flirt shamelessly with the high art-low art divide.   An onion with striking blossoms—  Frankly, just writing the phrase “onion with striking blossoms” makes me want to laugh;  the juxtaposition of ideas is so absurd.   If an artichoke is sculptural (and it is), well, that is just right and proper.   It is a delicacy.   One expects it.   In an onion, however, sculptedness seems a bit over the top—a surprising burst of high spirits, of sheer, charming frivolity.   It's almost as if the onion does not know its place on the culinary scale, does not realize that it is low and vulgar and common and smelly and loud.   What is that onion thinking??   It ignores the categories of taste almost as if those categories were imposed arbitrarily from the outside and have no intrinsic merit...Oh, what a dangerous thought; the proletariat has marched in the streets because of thoughts like that (on a somewhat larger scale, of course).

As long as we're being pedantic, let us summarize:  in the onion we have a plant with sculptural beauty and culinary usefulness that is not only a helpful prompt to aesthetic philosophy, but that also contains the seeds of revolution  (N.B. another good reason to deadhead your garlic chives), all to be enjoyed from the comfort of your own garden on a pleasantly sunny September day without a lot of pesky snow sculptors around to disturb your peace.

If nothing else, it's an impressive multi-tasker.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

That Color Is So U!

or On Second Thought, It Isn't U at All

When I met one of my dearest friends of all time at a summer science program many years ago, she presented me with this card:

Now, I don't remember feeling strongly about orange one way or the other at the time, but apparently, to some 16-year-olds, the fact of orange can be way beyond the pale (so to speak).  In a life where not much of consequence has happened—or perhaps where you don't yet have enough context to embrace the events of consequence—orange can seem important, and if you don't like it, you might feel compelled to take steps against it.

I haven't questioned this particular friend lately about the role of orangeness in her life (note to self:   call WB), but I'd be willing to bet that her attitude these days is more live-and-let-live.   She always did have a good head on her shoulders as well as a boundless capacity to see the humor in things, and if she does still have a problem with orangehood in general, she probably expresses it with her tongue even more firmly in cheek now than she did then.   Any confusion of taste and principle will be tempered with a strong dose of irony and a twinkle.

I've been thinking more since my last post about snobbery, reverse snobbery, social class, the teaching of Classical music history, and marigolds.   All this was prompted by a garden essay I read not too long ago that made a snarky comment on growers of orange marigolds.  The comment (as I remembered it) radiated class consciousness in ways that surprised me from this author, who has always struck me as being a pretty independent thinker.  So I returned to her work this week—an essay called "Blues," by Eleanor Perényi, anthologized in Green Thoughts:   A Writer in the Garden—and was pleased to discover that she had been rolling her eyes at others who considered orange marigolds to be vulgar, or, as she put it, "non-U."  I hadn't come across the "U/non-U" distinction before, but it resonated loudly; even though the parameters may have changed since the 1950's when the terms were coined, we still have plenty of ways of distinguishing between upper class (U) and middle class (non-U) values today.

Perényi was writing in the 1970's, so it's possible that orange marigolds have become U again in the last 40 years and I missed it; but trust me, if they have, something else has taken their place as being too, too tacky.   I think the real question, however, is not so much "Are they U?" or the reverse-snob version, "Aren't they wonderfully non-U?"   Instead, the real question is, "Are they you?"   Us and Them almost always have some hint of class about them, but You and Not You?   I think that's a gap that can be bridged.

This brings us back to the teaching of music history.   (Really.)   What an education in any of the arts does best, I think, is to teach people how to disagree.   So few objective standards exist that we are always coming up against the "barrier" of taste.   Crusading to have the works we don't like eliminated (The Society for the Prevention of Bruckner Symphonies, perhaps) isn't really an option (in a free society, at least); whitewashing all differences in a way that pretends to be respectful ("Everyone's entitled to their taste") but that really refuses to engage other opinions, doesn't satisfy.   The civilized arts—among which are music and pleasure gardening—are in part about civilized behavior, including the ability to explore taste and distaste with those who disagree.

So I won't reverse-snob our orange marigolds today.   Instead I'll point out what I love about them:   the delicately etched curves of the petals, like the whorls inside a seashell;

their luxuriant, flamenco skirt ruffles;

the way they stand their ground in the brightest sunshine instead of fading meekly before it, and sing out with full voice from shade; the vibrancy of a color as pure and unshadowed as stained glass, but with the softness of skin;

the scrollwork libraries of the buds, where the petals are not interleaved but rolled; the way they unfurl individually, so that each petal looks almost like a rosebud.

Those are some of the reasons that orange marigolds are me.

Are they also you?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Got No Class

or  Us and Them

Until the last few years, I spent my professional life in the academic side of the arts, where the difference between "high" and "low" art is traditionally quite important for reasons that have a great deal to do with status and power and very little to do with honesty or generosity.   As a music historian at a well-endowed private liberal arts college in New England (which in American parlance shouts "Snobbery!" from the rooftops, even though the reality was much more down to earth), I often felt as if what I was primarily doing was teaching the music of previous oppressor classes to the future oppressor class in the hopes that at least they would be able to oppress people more tastefully.   (No one wants to be oppressed by someone who says "Mose-art"; it's almost as bad as being oppressed by someone who says "nucular"...)

Every field, perhaps every human endeavor, has its own set of signs that divide the in-crowd from the outsiders, those in the know from the Philistines.   In music the signs that you're an outsider might include tapping your feet to a symphony, enjoying Pachelbel's Canon, or calling a piano piece a "song."   These actions do no harm to anyone, but they distinguish between Us and Them, always elevating Us and diminishing Them.

It's a lot like high school.

What we call Classical music has always been the realm of the ruling classes, and, no matter what its genuine beauties and virtues, it retains that taint today.   Gardening, like Classical music, has its roots (ahaha) in the world of the European aristocracy.   Few are the gardening books that do not refer at least once to Sissinghurst and Villandry, possibly Chatsworth and Versailles, with a tip of the (top) hat somewhere along the line to Capability Brown, 18th-century landscape architect to the British gentry.   Most capital-G Gardeners, somewhere in their heart of hearts, have indelibly stamped as a Platonic ideal toward which they strive, The British Garden à la Capability Brown.   (A tip of my own hat, if I had one, to novelist Terry Pratchett for inventing Bloody Stupid Johnson, Brown's incompetent alter ego.)   Lower-case gardeners have their own snobberies, and the distinctions grow ever finer—those who preach The Organic Way vs. those who swear by Roundup; those who grow only native plants vs. those who must have the latest cultivars; those who adore hothouse annuals vs. those who decry them; those who lawn vs. those who ground-cover; those who ground-cover vs. those who gravel; those who like garden gnomes and those who Do Not.

It's not about gardening;  it's about Us and Them, even if we have to go out of our way to create a Them.   Gardening is (yet another) place where we stake our claim for self-hood; it is all too often a tool that allows us to elevate ourselves by diminishing others (who are, for the record, doing us no harm).

I sometimes wish that Edvard Munch, in addition to The Scream, had given us a painting called The Sneer.

A friend who had been employed for years in a more than ordinarily cutthroat music department once asked the dean of his institution why it was so vicious and judgmental.   The dean replied, "Because the stakes are so low."

Because the stakes are so low.   Yes.   I do believe that in some aspects of gardening the stakes are quite large.   Some methods foster biodiversity while others destroy it;  some build the soil while others strip it; some hoard water while others waste it.   But when it comes to the placement (or not) of garden gnomes, I hope we can all agree that the long-term consequences are few.   I recently read a garden essay—by an author whose work I enjoy—that sneered at people who grow orange marigolds.   Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in and think about the stakes here...

Full disclosure:   I grow orange marigolds.  I love orange marigolds.   Apparently, people like me are a type—and rather a vulgar, déclassé type at that.   I'm not actually offended at the discovery, and please don't feel the need to reassure me that I'm still an OK Person.   The comment actually made me laugh out loud.   It also made me think about the degree to which our snobberies extend, and I'm afraid it set the reverse snob in me into high gear.   So the next couple of blog posts will celebrate the vulgar plants, the gauche plants—the ones that laugh a little too loudly, that wear a little too much makeup, that talk with a little too much twang, that belch a little too often in public.   (Well, not that.   That would be rude.)   And why not?

The stakes, after all, are so low.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Will to Thrive

In Which We Admire a Lady

I have been thinking about role models lately—those whom I admire, honor, and do my best to emulate; and do you know, it's astonishing how few of them are plants.   People, absolutely—I can think of plenty of people before whose large-heartedness, strength, courage, and grace I have been happy to bow.   Animals, yes—Luther T. Dog had a streak of joy running through him the likes of which I have never seen before or since, and he was an endlessly good sport to boot.   If I had those two traits of his in that measure, I would call my life a success.

But plants?   I can't remember a single occasion when I have found myself saying, "If I study hard enough, eat all my vegetables, and think good thoughts, maybe someday I too can be like this bit of greenery."   That is, until now.   I planted a Lady Banks rose this year, and I am in awe.

Lady Banks is a climbing rose native to China that is evergreen, almost thornless, and tolerant of drought.   It blooms only once each year, with lightly fragrant pale yellow (or white) roses, but that single blooming is so abundant, so profligate, that it lingers in memory for months.   And it is as tough as nails.

I had had a Lady Banks rose growing in a pot for two full years before planting it this spring—and I don't mean a large, spacious, room-to-grow-in sort of pot, but just the flimsy black plastic jobby from the nursery.   I'd purchased the rose with an idea in mind of where to plant it, but it didn't really work out in the garden.   Stymied, I resorted to hoping that a brilliant plan and about 15 feet of new gardening space would miraculously come to me.   (They didn't.)   It wasn't until I dug out three elder berry bushes late last winter that a good spot for the rose became apparent.

Meanwhile, Lady Banks had rather a rough time over the course of those two years.   I'd done what I could to shield the roots in their sun-intensifying black pot from the full blast of summer by hiding it in the middle of some perennials (catmint and Lady Banks work well together, in case you were wondering), and that seemed to help, but I was never sure quite how much to water it in the winter (which, being interpreted, means that I usually forgot about it altogether), and I often found myself pruning off dead growth (erm, a lot of dead growth).   By the time I was finally ready to put the rose in the ground this spring, literally two-thirds of its roots had been eaten away, possibly by roly-polies, judging from the number of them squirming around in the sudden sunshine.   What soil was left had been reduced to some odd-textured, sandy pellet-y stuff.   In fact, there was so little soil left that a black widow spider had taken up residence in the bottom, empty two-thirds of the pot.

Yet even with all those strikes against it, the rose is doing beautifully.   To have so few roots left and survive transplant shock, let alone summer heat and drought, is impressive enough, but it has survived—survived, settled in, and grown.   It is still a small plant but now thickly leaved and lush;  it recently sent up a new cane about eight feet tall.   This is a plant that wants to thrive, even though I had given it every reason to die.

Why?   Why is it that some plants, whether entire species or single examples, are so eager to take hold, given the least bit of encouragement—or none at all?   Why do others, in the same conditions, sulk or pine or fade away or even, as far as I can tell, spontaneously combust?   Why do some plants—some people—thrive, positively reveling in growth, while others merely live?   I out and out admire the Lady Banks rose—not for its beauty or blooms or shape or texture or usefulness or any of the other things I usually admire about a plant.   No, I admire the plant itself, for its sheer stubborn will to thrive, for the way it buckled down and hung on when its very roots were being eaten out from under it, and then leapt enthusiastically into life the first opportunity it had.

It does occur to me that the other plants I've known with the same indomitable spirit have been, not to put too fine a point on it, noxious weeds—you know, bindweed, goat's heads, poison ivy... And the example of the Tombstone Rose does provide rather a cautionary tale for someone with a small urban lot.   But pruning shears are my friends, and, on the off-chance that this particular plant should reach world record proportions several decades from now, by then it will be someone else's problem.   In the meantime, I am off to study hard, eat lots of vegetables, and think good thoughts.

Because Lady Banks is my idea of a lady.