Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Has the sublime found a new disguise in my garden?

 Last year, my spring and early summer gardening was haunted by "should."  I felt the pressure of being behind for much of the spring, so the pleasure was leached out of planting and flower-shopping.  I also hadn't fully absorbed the gardener's first rule.  My mother used to say "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today."  Yeah, Mom.  But the gardener's version of that is "If you have two nice days to get the vegetable garden turned over, do it on the first of those days."  You never know when weather or rain or you aching back or your vertigo will intervene to make work impossible.  I thought I'd fully understood that principle, but our weather this spring--rain and heat going on for days at a time--turned two weeks of time to turn over the vegetable garden into two days.  As I turned over a row of garden and then used my trowel to scrape the mud off my shovel--mud that made the shovel a good ten pounds heavier by the end of a row--I realized two things.  One was that I hadn't fully absorbed the "Never put off" rule for gardeners.  The other was that I wasn't an old lady yet.  

But something else has lurked around the edges of my moods this spring.  I've had trouble finding a name for it.  It wasn't despair or dismay or depression.  I could call it a deep sadness, except that isn't quite right.  If I were to give it a simile, I'd say it was like forcing your eyes to stay open in the face of...not disaster or tragedy, though there was something equally plangent about it.  My eyes were forced to stay attuned to beauty.  To the rich texture of a stand of trees.  To the smell of lilacs and lily of the valley.  To the wedge of gold at dusk that found its way between two strips of grey cloud.  To the tight rose buds on my Henry Hudson, to my clematis furling up its trellis, though with some encouragement from me.  To the order of ferns. To the almost violent green of my lawn after the two bouts of rain we've had this spring.  Can you feel assaulted by beauty?

Maybe it's the pandemic and the way it's shifted our relationship to beauty.  The pandemic has been nature at its most disorderly, from a  human perspective, at least.  The virus is just looking for good homes, but really shouldn't kill its hosts.  I've been critical in this blog of the way various leaders have dealt with the pandemic, but at the same time have fully felt COVID's puzzles and uncertainties.  It's true that places that closed down hard and fast had better outcomes.  It's also true that places with female leaders did better than average while places with autocrats did much poorer.  But really, could we have anticipated how much more contagious the variants from the UK or India could be?  When would kids be back in school? Uncertainty has greeted us every day.  When would vaccines come?  How effective would they be?  When will vaccines be approved for children? When have we ever lived through such an uncertain time on a world scale since World War II, the numbers of deaths greeting us each morning like casualty lists during the war.

Beauty is usually associated with order, so it's been a kind of antidote to the radical uncertainty we've been living with for the last fifteen months.  Whether beauty is expressed by a painting or a garden or a home run, it's rare and unified and balanced; it follows some laws, the way the centre of a sunflower conforms to the Fibonacci sequence or the way a poem obeys the need for unity Aristotle wrote about. A tree, tangled as it is, some of its branches nearly straight, some of them ramifying in disorderly kinks and bends, remains a unified whole, even on windy days.  Beauty nearly flaunts other rules, like the beauty of an overgrown garden that barely manage to be a unified whole, that's held in only by wire fencing and the paths bordering it.  Beauty has parameters, though it also leaks into our experience of it

During the pandemic, beauty has been priceless.  No, that's not the word I want; it speaks too much of something we might buy.  Beyond price.  Crucial.  A counterweight to chaos and, in the case of art, a path into the mind of someone not ourselves, which, in our isolation, we are heartily sick of.  I've watched this spring more carefully than I ever have.  I've studied each scintilla of green or brown of bud or whorl of fern reaching upward. Each was a promise.  Turning over the garden or pruning the roses or cleaning out the bed with ferns, I've felt privileged to be in beauty as well as helping beauty happen.   Yet each made me sad.  It was as if the beauty I was experiencing had been cut out of its context and fixed in a collage with an empty black background that threatened to leach into blooming irises or full-fledged ferns. There was this darkness that pressed in on everything.

How to rise above that sombre mood?  Weeding.  Putting my head down and simply becoming beauty's handmaiden, doing what I can.



  1. Your last pic -- is that an elder? I've had one spring up in the flowerbed under my burr oaks, and one of those plant-identification apps says that's what it is. I don't trust the app though and hope someone who knows for sure can confirm for me. Thanks in advance, Kathleen, if you can. -Kate