Today is the birthday of German writer, Herman Hesse (1877-1962). While many of my contemporaries were reading Siddhartha and Steppenwolf thanks to the writings of Timothy Leary and joining whatever was the counter-culture in the late 1960’s and 1970’s I was desperately trying to become a member of the Establishment, no dropping out or turning on or tuning in for me. Hesse and his works held no charm then. Life allows for the new…
It turns out that Hesse’s family was deeply involved with the Serbian Pietist church. His parents served at a mission in India. He attended seminary. While espousing a politics of detachment about Hitler’s regime, in 1933, he helped Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann make their travel into exile from Nazi Germany. After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 he said, “Not the preached, but the practiced Christianity, among the powers that shaped and moulded me, has been the strongest”. .
And today’s quote from The Writer’s Almanac: “The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment, every sin already carries grace in it.”
Neither the gardener or the garden is imperfect. Both are perfect at ever moment, however many weeds or straggly branches or extra pounds or unkempt beds, carrying grace within them.
The Charleston Massacre has gotten in the way. I originally intended to write about personal things using my garden and yard as a starting point and source of metaphor and meditation. The murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has gotten in the way,
Yankees and Rebs was as much a part of childhood play when I was growing up as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. The good guys were the Confederate Rebels because Kansas City was part of border state Missouri that was more southern than northern. There was no deep discussion but a good deal of romanticism. There were somehow still wounds from having been on the losing side; somehow the Yankees were still seen as oppressors.
Whenever any whiff of understanding about the burdens of being African-American pierced the veil of subtle white supremacy (the murder of Emmett Till, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock) it never really had anything to do with us. My mother had enough to worry about as a single parent and an uncertain blue collar job.
It was really only in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school that I began to understand. I went on a bus tour of the southeast United States organized by the Missouri synod of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I saw “white” and “colored” drinking fountains in Arkansas and the “white” and “colored” waiting rooms in the Montgomery, Alabama bus station. We stayed in dorms in predominantly black colleges including Tuskegee Institute and at Berea College. Even with that introduction to the segregated South I am embarrassed and ashamed to say that I never took part in any of the Civil Rights struggles. I became a Barry Goldwater conservative Republican.
Then as part of a college course I read the speeches of George Wallace and realized with sickening clarity that it was not about fiscal responsibility or small government, it was about racism. The only states right he and his followers cared about was the right of state governments to keep Colored/Black/African-Americans in their place which meant out of white schools, neighborhoods, churches, swimming pools. It meant blaming them for the economic problems of poor whites. It meant not separate and equal but separate and inferior.
We thought the Voting Rights Act and other federal legislative and judicial and executive actions would move this country beyond that racism. Instead Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their southern strategy made the party of Lincoln into the party Strom Thurmond and Ted Cruz. Racism became more subtle and genteel. The robes of the KKK were replaced by business suits. Voting rights protection were attacked. And many Southerners continued to see themselves as victims clinging to the Lost Cause and never looking at the reality of life in the slave-based economy that made possible their comfortable way of life and their fine mansions.
Now Mother Emanuel and the nine people martyred by a 21 year old white supremacist who wanted to start a race war. What to do? Begin by stripping away the romantic haze around the Confederate battle flag. Take it off state flags and pickup trucks and t-shirts. Let white people listen to what the emblem means to their African-American brothers and sisters. At a deeper level let us understand that racism is still alive and well and operating in our political and economic systems. How can we eliminate it if we won’t acknowledge it?
I really would have preferred to write about radishes today. For the first time I actually have a root crop that is thriving. Maybe it is the fertilizer I added or the cool, rainy weather. Whatever the reason, they are beautiful.
Today I ask God to give me the love and courage to confront my own prejudices and to not let the prejudice of others go unchallenged.
Gardening magazines are a snare and a delusion. I once watched photographers and set designers from a magazine set up my boss’s home for a “shoot.” They rearranged furniture, brought in flowers and vases, and put tropical plants just outside the doors and windows to make the rented house and garden look richer and fuller. Lovely yet gone once the people and the plants got in the truck and were driven away.
This spring and early summer have been wetter than normal. Some docks on the lake have floated away. Ours is partially underwater with cattails thrusting up between the planks. The grass grows luxuriantly. The dehumidifiers run nonstop. Things have gone unplanted. The clematis mingles with the strawberry vines because every time the guy who will put up the netting is scheduled to appear, it rains. There’s a truce in the war on the dandelions. No one would pay to come visit our garden. No magazine would feature it in its pages.
At the same time this is a wonderful garden. The peonies are about ready to pop including one that miraculously appeared in a bed devoted to an ornamental grass. While the rains have been beating down I’ve have been reading the daily emailed meditations of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar behind the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rohr and St. Francis have provided solace for a gardener feeling less than diligent and dedicated.
All this week Rohr has been writing about perfection and imperfection. Yesterday he said, “If we expect or need things (including ourselves) to be perfect or even “to our liking,” we have created a certain plan for a very unhappy life.” Today he wrote, “Francis of Assisi, like Jesus, refused to exclude things from the garden of grace; there is no exclusionary instinct in either of them–except toward exclusion itself!”
The temptation of striving for perfection is one that calls to me even in the garden. “No weeds,” it says. “Everything neat,” it goes on. “If you only spend more time tidying and feeding and edging and trimming, you will have your perfect garden.” Behind that, of course, is the unspoken, “Beverly, if you only control your actions, eat properly, exercise more, you can be perfect.” Of course, even if I did all that I would still not be perfect because there are always more blanks to fill just as you can always find more work to do in a garden.
The sun is out. No rain in the forecast. Perhaps today the radishes will get thinned, the second group of gladioli planted, and bedding plants put in the window boxes. Maybe not. My imperfect garden will still be loved by its imperfect gardener.
It is, I know, a losing cause, this peculiar obsession of the lawn-obsessed: a swatch of green, grass, with no cheery, yellow dandelion flower intruding on its uniformity. There is such a patch outside the window of my office. Bordered by the house, the path to the front porch, the driveway and the deck it measures 16 by 20 feet, roughly 320 square feet.
This year I decided to focus attention on this particular part of our landscape. Is landscape too fancy a word for the ground surrounding our cottage? Do landscapes require formal gardens, English borders, tree shaped vistas or can they be the side yard, the patch between the house and road, flat lawn by the river, raised vegetable beds, an almost unmowable hill and my dandelion-free patch.
Here was my list. 1. I will figure out a trellis for the clematis. 2. Plant another clematis, perhaps the favorite Clematis jackmanii with its dark lavender/blue leaves, against the chimney. 3. Divide and transplant the ornamental grass. 4. And get rid of the dandelions. The challenge for me is that I am prone to considering every stray blade of grass, every strange of creeping Charlie, every dandelion the enemy. I don’t stop until it is plucked, dug or hoed out of my sight.
The Great Dandelion War of 2015 was declared two weeks ago today. My only weapons are an asparagus digger, gloves, kneeling pad and a bucket. Whenever any yellow blossom appears it gets rooted out. This morning I spotted only three wayward plants. We’re making progress.
The other challenge is that while dandelions from the French dent-de-lion (lion’s tooth) for the shape of their leaves, may be a noxious weed some places and a nuisance to us gardeners or gardeners wannabe, they have their virtues.
If I were an industrious homemaker/cook/locavore I would turn the flowers into wine, blanch and saute the leaves for dinner. Their seeds are food for some birds. Their long and tenacious tap-root brings up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants, adds minerals and nitrogen to soil. And It attracts pollinating insects.
I could disregard all those benefits and expand the battlefront if it wasn’t that when I was a kid dandelions were things of wonder and delight. They were the first and often only flower on my city street, growing through cracks in the sidewalk.
When we visited friends in the country my mother would pluck the blossom and hold it under my chin. “Let’s see,” she would say. “Oh yes, the skin is yellow, you do like butter.” She’d smile, chuckle and give me a hug. It took me a while to figure out that it was light and reflection not butter that made my chin yellow.
When the hundreds of florets in a flower had turned into the fluffball of the seedhead she would say, “Now make a wish. If you can blow away all that fluff your wish will come true.” I don’t think I ever made it.
The Kid and the Gardener today have signed a peace treaty. This is the compromise. Every other bit of ground, except my vegetable beds and this one patch, I give over to the dandelion. And I make this vow: this summer I will introduce at least one child to its wonder. And I will see if my husband likes butter and make a wish on a seedhead.
Just over two weeks ago, rhubarb came to my garden. The transplants were from the neighbor’s patch. This morning they are firmly established. Even the one that looked as though it would shrivel and die now has two healthy leaves and a reddish stalk. The mother patch is also doing well with one of the plants pushing up its seed stalk.
Plants are amazing things. They take most of their energy from the sun and use photosynthesis to thrive. They have evolved to survive and we have used selection to produce what we want from them. With rhubarb, however, we have not been able to eliminate the poisonous oxalic acid in their leaves.
In the country, every farm garden had its rhubarb patch. A sure sign of spring was when my grandmother made strawberry rhubarb pie. One of the best cooks at our church freezes bags of rhubarb for the rhubarb cobbler that graces every church supper.
It is rhubarb’s nature as a perennial that is a challenge for many gardeners. Do you dedicate part of a suburban garden to rhubarb when you may move in a year of two? If you have only a balcony, there’s no room for rhubarb. Rhubarb is about choices. Beans or tomatoes will be gone in the fall. Rhubarb gives you the hope of Spring.