Saturday, March 22, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

“The more you study mankind, the more you discover every man is playing a part,” so wrote Richard Mansfield, the great American actor at the turn of the 20th century. Of course, he was echoing Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but with a twist. Shakespeare wrote about the various stages of life through which everyone progresses while Mansfield meant the personalities we develop as we cope with life’s vicissitudes, the parts we play. The psychotherapists call them “presenting personalities,” the masks or dramatis personae with which we face others, the personalities we begin developing when we first become aware of others.

As mothers know, children begin with types of personality, what might be called temperaments, qualities of personality, but those temperaments are affected as the child develops and begins coping with life’s demands. “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Everyone starts out as a twig but is bent on the way to maturity, often by which way the wind blows. The plant that grows well in Flagstaff will be differently bent if set beside the sea. So it is with a garden and its plants. Every plant has a temperament, but depending on its environment it develops a unique style, even in a garden’s microclimates as in a family’s order of birth.

Selecting trees, shrubs, plants, flowers, and vegetables is
something like choosing the types of people we want around us, a kind of horticultural family. Sometimes, they are an aide-mémoire, a memorandum of things past, which invariably brings to mind personal relationships out of the past. A geranium may bring to mind many remembrances of things past, a mother on a Middle Western winter’s day baking a birthday cake, the blue ribbons a father won for his geraniums at the county fair.

But our horticultural families are more than remembrances, they are reflections of the gardeners. Just as we are reflected in the friends we choose, so we are reflected in the plants we choose. Neglected yards reveal people who’ve been neglected and have neglected themselves. Ugly yards signify emotionally distorted people animated by repressed rage. The happy face of a pansy more than likely reveals the joy of the gardener. Pumpkins often reveal gardeners who relish their children.

Everyone has their favorite trees, bringing to mind images of colorful change, comfortable shade, and enduring stability. While the ponderosa pines bring to mind strong sentinels capable of enduring harsh climates, solid and enduring, akin to those strong, reliable friends or relatives who’ve held things together when nearly everyone else fell apart. Sometimes remote, always dependable, yet with the poignant awareness of the bark beetle, they are felled by the silent killer who can destroy even the strongest. A dead ponderosa standing silently in the forest is a poignant testimony life’s fragility, the fragility of the strongest.

How different are the images of the quaking aspen with its vertical limbs and the colorful maple with its great spreading limbs, one pointing, the other sheltering, one golden, the other red. As with of timbre of human voices, each one of these trees has its own voice in the breezes and winds, some whistling, some fluttering, some rustling. All the different voices evoke in us different emotions, sometimes recalling long-forgotten experiences.

Choosing a tree is like choosing a friend, only trees, like dogs, don’t disappoint us if we take care of them. The maple will shade us whether or not we are in a foul mood. The aspen will always be elegantly slim, a tree reliably attractive with which to grace a yard even though we may have turned sour. In short, trees have a sense of continuity. The word “treeless” sounds forlorn, “in full leaf” abundant.

Daffodils and tulips peter out too soon and leave the gardener with sere, flaccid remains, but after a winter grim in the early spring “daffodils,” as Shakespeare wrote, “come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.” They are always there, require little attention, and give the gift of cheer and beauty before anyone else as arisen from winter’s sleep, good friends although their time is short-lived. For the “cabined, cribbed, confined,” they beckon for a stroll on a crisp, clean, crystalline day in the spring.

And tomatoes, who would not welcome their cheery, round, red faces, hiding amidst the foliage, like small children peeking out from behind the curtains? Unlike the daffodils and the elegant bearded iris, tomatoes takes lots of attention, are easily offended, and sometimes inexplicably wilt away, but in the moment, as the existentialists would say, they are a moment of truth.

Ultimately, as any gardener knows, at the heart of gardening is a sense of beauty, and with that sense there is always a sense of fragility which underlies all beauty. Involved as they are in dirt, gardeners live with a sense of the surpassing mystery of beauty and with that Rudolf Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” As with friends,the garden is always at heart an unknown, behaving in ways the gardener didn’t expect. As much as we think we know about nature with our tidy, secular syllogisms, we actually know very little, just as we don’t know the heart of those closest to us any more than we can comprehend God, the author of it all.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

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