Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/23/09)

"When a plant does well, I propagate it, like those lilacs along the fence in the backyard. They all came from one lilac out front. Now, that lilac's dead, but all those out in the back are thriving legacies with beautiful blooms."

A tour through Grant and Nancy Gerver's garden is a tour of propagation from bearded irises to lilacs. A nurse at FMC, Nancy says, "I'm just a farm girl. I like to get my hands in the dirt and make things grow." Indeed, her garden is a potpourri of plants, all with histories, coming from other places in her garden.

Raised on a farm on Whidbey Island in the far reaches of Washington's Puget Sound, the island metaphor runs throughout her garden. A series of islands, islands of grass, ponds, flower beds, and gazeboes with no hard-edged rectangulars, gives her garden a sense of peace and ease.

Of course, some rectangles are allowed, a vegetable garden, a half basket ball court-cum-outdoor dining room with table and benches, and off the back door a shed and a deck with a hammock under great spreading trees, but they're off to the sides of the yard where they don't intrude.

At first glance, the back yard seems random, that is, until the visitor feels the pull of that line of sight, the draw of the islands, stepping stones leading one to the other. Islands of grass surrounded by graveled paths lead the eye to scattered isles of bedded flowers and then to three isles of ascending ponds of water knit together by waterfalls all the way to a small rustic gazebo set under an overhanging tree.

The line of islands isn't straight but a soft S curve, a subtle pattern giving both a sense of ease and power. A straight line is power spent while an S curve is power latent without stressed hard edges.

An island to read, think, chew the rag, sip a glass of wine, "two for tea and tea for two," and survey the whole of the garden, the gazebo is both the end of a journey and the beginning to see the journey from the other side. A retrospective, a looking backward gives the pilgrim opportunities to see what was not seen at first sight and what things look like the other way around.

What was not seen from the gazebo is another garden, again all
islands, with one big oval bed with smaller oval patches, as though they were satellites.

Nancy cautioned that the garden isn't finished, that "there's a lot to do," but, indeed, there's always lots to do in a garden. There were some weeds, ovals that weren't complete and drifted off, but such is the case with any gardener's garden. Never finished, it is always a work in progress with things that need to be done. The best way to die is to be finished and complete.

As a graduate student toiling on my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I took a seminar with the famous theologian Paul Tillich who was at end of his career. I'd read nearly everything he's written and anticipated a fascinating seminar. Not so, I was bored by a great man who was merely tidying up his ideas and had stopped breaking new ground a generation previous.

Later, I took a seminar from Anders Nygren of Uppsala of Agape and Eros fame. Far older than Tillich, he was still plowing unfurrowed fields and drew me along on his intellectual journey scrutinized by his single, monocled eye.

Nancy Gerver's garden isn't modeled from a leftover landscaper's grid. Born of her private visions, sui generis, it's still a developing and growing place of peace and curiosity. Over to the left, unnoticed in her line of islands and pools, is a statue of Saint Francis holding a small pond of water. Once belonging to a neighbor of hers now dead but whose memory she cherishes, it is one end of an axis with the gazebo, holding those remembrances of things past, allowing the mind to follow the S curves in life, finding the other sides of reality.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

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