What the Gardener Knows, by Brenda Smith

Brenda Smith
What the Gardener Knows

I stand in a cultivated castle garden in Ireland, camera in hand, trying to preserve the moment. Leaning, shadows on leaves, pink more delicate than the inside of a cracked eggshell, the kind from those hens that lay brown speckled eggs. Leaning, not straight, hollyhocks, I think. The gardener knows that he could not make this living thing straight even if he wished it, fervently wished it. Nature and the draw of sunlight has an agenda all their own; scientific laws that govern the leanings of things, the swaying of things, even. All pale pink and feathery and leaning, almost dangerously, the hollyhock. My yearning would be to straighten the stalk for fear of its leaning itself to death, breaking the lifeline that keeps the juices flowing from earth to blossom. But all things die in their time. Whether it’s the real “right” time or not, I can’t consider here, and anyway, who am I to say what is death’s correct hour. Even if I could render that information, I think it would only tear my heart out, knowing of all the what-ifs surrounding each life and soul involved in the balance of the universe. A knowledge too heavy for anyone, even for a gardener. But a gardener is wise enough, at least, to not fret over the leaning of the fragilely pink hollyhocks.

Now there are brother hollyhocks surrounding my cockeyed friend that are straight and tall, but they are not the center of the photo. Straightness is not the draw here—the allure is all crookedness and waving light. Straightness suppresses the shadows and reminds the gardener of something too trained to be itself. He has had enough of that to last a lifetime. Sure, the owner of the garden, knowing virtually nothing of the way of plants, only of the “effect” she desires to impose upon her visitors, has instructed, in the most strict of manners, the design that the gardener was to maintain with his paths and trimmings and, so often, the designs were straight. Straight and narrow. But my flower of choice is pink and leaning, leaning out over its boundary to draw me in.

The foxglove leans, too. But it is a variety of magenta and is speckled, and is not nearly so delicate a color. More bold and in your face and it exudes a confidence in itself that it will endure all the leaning you care to send its way: even errant children with bats or the gales of a hurricane. Of course its confidence is false, what with baseball bats being made of stainless steel these days, and hurricanes blowing down houses of stone. The foxglove has built around its magenta self a false sense of security for sure. But not the hollyhock. That makes its leaning all the more brave.

Farther down the path are two more spires of hollyhocks, wearing a pink even more delicate than the leaner. These two companions are more straight, but then, you see, I’m not a scientist and nothing is really straight, is it? All you need to prove that is some kind of multimillion dollar instrument that measures the hell out of anything sent its way, mili-whatevers of measurement so small that I question the sanity of anyone who spends more than a mili-second worrying about them. And so, in the garden, with the gardener’s mind, I see a few hollyhocks, of the most magnificent fine pink, standing straighter. They told me they did this, on this particular day, just so I would have the leaner in better perspective. Just for the lesson I could wring from it. And now I feel badly about the lesson—the fact that I have to wring it from the stalks. (Sometimes the gardener, at the orders of the owners, is obliged to train them up in the way the owner feels they should go, so that when they are old they will not depart from it. We wouldn’t want an old plant leaning too far out into the path, would we?)

The gardener mourns with me that I should have to heave myself up onto a makeshift stepping rock to peer over the six-foot wall to see the river. All castles have water somewhere around them, it seems, but this garden has walled the water off from view. Now, if you are inside the castle, you can look out of the windows at the river as it glides by. The hollyhocks and I would prefer to have water much closer by, to gaze at, and to lean toward. Let me strain to see over this wall again. Willow trees trail into the water from the low grassy bank and the field is all mowed around them. Someone walks here then? I see a fence around one of the trees. I must ask the gardener what he knows about this, for my limited castle-deprived American mind does not have a clue why a tree must be fenced.

On downstream, if I climb through overgrown hedgerows of the garden’s outer rim, I can see a stone arched bridge over this river. The curved grace of the arch echoes the calm current and the quiet strength of the arch, that marvel of architecture. I wonder how exactly it happened that ancient man discovered the power of the arch. Was it by accident, by repeated scientific experiment, or maybe the gardener just watched a hollyhock bend over without breaking and suggested the construction, offhandedly, to his brother the stonemason?

Time to move on– up the hill and into the formal garden where the array of colors in the arranged beds is mesmerizing, even if the rows are planned by man. As always, I am magnetized toward the lavender bed, rioting out of its border and rendering the most fantastic scent known to mankind. (I realize that, to a hungry man, this scent is rivaled equally by the aroma of a grilling steak, but we are talking of what the gardener knows here, not the cook.) I stand with my camera behind the lavender explosion to capture it in the foreground, and see, that stretching out behind it, beneath carefully carved arches of squared-off shrubbery, is a straight path. It leads off into the heart of the garden, all laid-out in geometric grids, straight lines and such. But what the gardener knows is that in the beds between every carefully planned grid are the blossoming flowers, bursting their colors over the trimmed hedges and toward the path. They lean over the staid bushes meant to contain them. The escapees are pink, pale, and draping blue, using the sawed-off tops of the border shrubs as beds to recline on as they lean out. And they love the gardener for his seeming laxness, I think. They know that if bidden, or if he chooses, the gardener can trim them back, too. Then all will be neat and tidy.

Yet of all the occupations known to man, I think the gardener knows better that any other, that the quest to contain and control, the quest for perfection, is the least able to be attained by those in his profession. For as fast as he trims along one lane of paths, another lane is growing every second. (You know I could prove that if I wanted to invest in one of those multimillion dollar measuring devices used by the scientists. But I think instead I’ll just rely on my eyes as they watched a National Geographic special that featured sped-up nature photography of a flower blooming. Every second those rascals are growing, I tell you.) And so, that being proven, to my satisfaction at least, I come to the truth of what the gardener knows. He knows that nothing can be contained, nothing fully trained, if it is indeed a pure creation of nature. No matter how diligently man attempts to order the natural world around him, total control is impossible. Even partial control is illusive. The gardener knows, however, that he must still try. He knows that he must try, not because the future of his employment depends upon it (even though it does), but because we humans will not be able to survive without the constant battle to beat back nature at its own game of growing every second of every day.

Our survival depends upon it as surely as it depends upon anything. You only have to plant a stand of bamboo in your back yard to prove this to yourself. Every day the little garden of cane will advance toward its goal of taking over the entire mowed surface of your lawn. It is not even satisfied with that, as it demonstrates by insinuating itself into walls and buildings. Some has gotten loose in my own yard, you see, and I half expect it to creep in my bedroom window during a warm summer night and begin to stab holes into my mattress from its fortress under the bed.

Back to the gardener. He knows, too, in his quest for the aesthetically pleasing, that the battle of symmetrical over a leaning asymmetric hollyhock, is all about control. Without trying for control, the beauty of a garden could never be. If all earth was a mass of uncontained chaotic jungle, what is beautiful about an ordered garden could never be appreciated. Without the contrast of chaos, order would have no value. We only value what is hard-fought to obtain. The gardener knows this. The gardener knows this is his job security for all eternity.

The gardener knows that all of nature is a dance between every living atom to survive, to be noticed, to dominate. But in the end, knows the gardener, dominion is as unattainable as the perfect summer breeze, still vivid in the memory, from a random summer day in childhood, when perfection was neither sought nor recognized, but only fifty years later, acknowledged. The mind wants to hold forever this memory of perfection, but every day the thought of the breeze smoothing over a bare arm grows fainter. Control of all things natural is illusive: the hollyhocks we can touch, and the memories that fade no matter how desperately we work to make them stay.

The gardener bends slightly to caress the pinkness of the blossom and a perfect breeze caresses his arm. And the gardener knows, and smiles.

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