Monday, May 02, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (May 1, 2011)

Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” More importantly, Georges Braque, the famous French 20th century Cubist, said: “In art, progress lies not in extension, but in a knowledge of limitations.” So it is with gardening in the high country. If we don’t know our limitations, we’re in trouble, but if we do, then we can have beautiful gardens.

Now, some people, even well-known horticulturalists, gripe and whine about the limitations of gardening in Flagstaff, fondly recalling other climes and cultures where “all you had to do was stick a plant in the ground.” Now, those fondly-recalled climes are often hot, humid, sticky, and buggy. More important, however, than their short memories of yucky climates is their tendency to “look at the present through a rear-view mirror” to quote Marshall McLuhan. Lot’s wife also stole a fond rear-view glance of Sodom and Gomorrah as she fled their destruction, and for that she was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26.)

Rear-view, preserved-in-salt people aside, gardening is a tutor for the way inevitability and necessity beget creativity. We all work within limits, and it’s important to know them. For Calvinists, it’s the doctrine of freedom within destiny. Freedom is always within limitations, such as being born male or female. This awareness of limitations applies not only to art, but to gardening in Flagstaff.

Although gardens are artificial, human constructions, as are paintings, they’re extensions of the wild, or else they won’t work. The wilderness is the testing grounds for gardens.

Braque began his career painting landscapes in 1908; however, he, alongside Picasso, discovered the advantages of painting still lifes instead. Braque explained that he, “… began to concentrate on still-lifes, because in the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space… This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them.”

Braque touched on the genius of gardening as a form of art. It’s reaching out to touch, hear, taste, and smell, to bring life up close and personal. Seeing often keeps things at a distance, as in “over there.” However, if something is tangible, it is limited to time and circumstance. As Robert Frost said, “I play tennis better because the net is there.”

Rather than importing plants that don’t belong in Flagstaff, it’s far better to garden with the plants that work in Flagstaff. The sad fact is that we can never fully trust the advice of someone who anticipates making money off their advice whether it’s cars, clothing, or plants. It’s called caveat emptor, buyer beware. It’s not that they can’t be trusted, it’s that their advice needs to be checked. The late President Reagan said, “Trust and verify.”

Most of us have the greatest ever research tool available sitting somewhere in our homes or at work. It’s called the Internet. The things to look for in the search
are climate zones, last and first frosts, length of growing season, water, soil, and so forth. Perhaps, the best guide for gardening in the high country is Busco and Morin’s Native Plants for High Elevation Western Gardens. It’s the real skinny on plants suitable for Flagstaff’s gardens.

We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. If we take our cues from the beauty around us, we can have beautiful gardens in Flagstaff that will rival gardens anywhere. It’s all a matter of accepting the limitations inherent in the beauty of our environment. We’re not necessarily limited to native plants, but if we go beyond, we have to make sure they’re adaptable. As it is psychologically, so it is horticulturally, it’s a matter of authenticity, being faithful to ourselves and our place, and not pretending to be someone else or somewhere else.

Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian and philosopher, told the story of an aged pious man, Rabbi Susya, who became fearful as death drew near. His friends chided him, "What! Are you afraid that you'll be reproached that you weren't Moses?" "No," the rabbi replied, "that I was not Susya."

“Go ahead! Make my day!”

Dana Prom Smith © Copyright 2011

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