Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GARDENS AND GARDENERS I’VE KNOWN

Yesterday at 7 a.m., fog hovered outside the altar window at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Sewanee, TN, hiding the mountains, and I watched dense clouds shift uneasily in the sky while I anticipated sunlight at The Table. Daily services at St. Mary’s (except on Wed.) combine Morning Prayer and the Holy Eucharist. Sister Julian moved about the altar, assisted by Deborah, who will be received as a novitiate in the St. Mary Community at noon Saturday. After the service yesterday, breakfast was served–again, the biscuits for which St. Mary is famous—and a congenial crowd welcomed us at two long tables in the refectory. We were happy to be among the Sewanee residents who love the Convent chapel and hospitable sisters of this Community of St. Mary, one of three of the oldest Order of Anglican nuns in the U.S.

Roses in the front garden at St. Mary’s could rival any British garden. They bloom heartily, showing off large yellow, red, and white faces. After breakfast, we returned to survey our own garden on Fairbanks Circle, bright with red snapdragons and begonias. I thought about C.S. Lewis’s comment that most true friendships were always about something, involved a central focus, and posed the question “Do you see the same truth?” Of course, he wasn’t referring to gardeners, but I reflected on the number of my close friends who love gardens and the natural world and understood Lewis’s question. In New Iberia, my friend, Janet Faulk, who directs the Chamber of Commerce there and who rents the apartment alongside my New Iberia home, puts down a variety of plants in my yard each Spring. She once started a sunflower enterprise called RADIANT FACES, planting varieties of the tall plants in a field she leased near Loreauville, Louisiana. Her happy-faced plants flourished but when harvested, they vied with vegetables in a run for the money at the Farmers Market in New Iberia (see poem below).

My friend Dr. Victoria Sullivan tends to favor wild species, especially ones I call “dirty, white weeds,” in the genus Eupatorium. She’s one of the experts who researched and wrote about this plant during her tenure at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. The sermon on lilies of the field in my previous blog reminded me of Vickie’s entry on Aletris, a wild lily genus of several species found in the eastern U.S., featured in a volume of the FLORA OF NORTH AMERICA. A field trip with Vickie includes her running broadcast of plant classifications, including “Oh, there’s Eupatorium capillifolium,” and other strange names that remind me I’m not even remotely an amateur botanist, much less a weed lover. However, Vickie also loves a cultivated garden and plants one each Spring.

Jane Bonin, another good friend who lives in Georgetown, is a retired English professor and former director in the Peace Corps in Malawi (and other African sites). She has a garden lining her patio in Georgetown that could also compete with an English garden. We have sat among her plants in this garden bordered by Rock Creek Park, enjoying a glass of Chardonnay and Jane’s cosmopolitan repartee, a non-stop talking experience. By the way, Jane has a blog at alionseye.blogspot.com that chronicles some of her adventures in Africa and in the art/music world of Washington, D.C. Log on!

Then there’s Anne Simon of New Iberia who said she couldn’t possibly write a long e-mail last night because she had to tend her plants before she left on a trip to Seattle, Washington to visit her son, Dr. Greg Simon. Anne, a retired District Judge of Louisiana, spends leisure time in her yard cultivating a garden. Again, she’s another one who appreciates the natural world, especially plants and birds. When I’m in New Iberia, we sometimes make a field trip to Lake Martin where egrets abound and roseate spoonbills nest. Often, we see more alligators than birds, those crafty reptiles pretending to be half-submerged logs and nestling among alligator weed. If we sight one heron or egret, she dubs the trip successful, and I enjoy her exultations about Louisiana flora and fauna.

Sarah Boykin, an architect who could function as well in a landscape architect profession, has a cabin at Sewanee, but she cultivates plants in her mother’s yard at Sewanee and leaves her cabin property almost undisturbed by spade, preferring the natural wilderness around her home. Sarah planted a field of white and yellow daffodils in her mother’s yard, and the crop bloomed so densely that people plucked them for “state affairs” in the village this Spring. Last week-end Sarah was busy planting edibles, and I’m sure her deft green thumb will produce a bumper crop of tomatoes and pole beans again this year.

My brother Paul, who lives in northern California, is perhaps the grandest gardener of all. An artist who paints abstracts, seascapes and landscapes, many of which have become the covers of my books, he’s equally an artist when laying out a garden. He and his wife Lori have created a small paradise, and one year when I visited, I found vistas everywhere–rose gardens, small pools, native stone benches, lattices with bougainvillea twisting through their slats, lush tracts of brilliant yellow nasturtiums, and rustic driftwood statues. Paul and Lori call the place WINDHAVEN, and this small paradise invites visitors to sit and contemplate the miracle of co-creation.

Here’s a snippet about Janet’s sunflowers that I mentioned earlier. It appears in my chapbook SOARING:

RADIANT FACES
Black noses now covered,
their drooping yellow fringes
hang from white plastic pots on the fence,
dying from the burden of cheering too long.
We watched them planted,
a hopeful project of myriad seed varieties,
Sundance Kid, Ring of Fire,
Peach Passion and Ikarus,
their germination so swift
we hardly had time to anticipate their faces.
Cut, displayed, advertised,
Radiant Faces were ignored at market,
the aesthetic surpassed by the Edible:
aka Big Boy tomatoes and thick-skinned eggplants.
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