Monday, June 22, 2009

Plant Associations, Trailing Through Life

Earlier today, in writing my review of Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, I came upon a passage I had underlined that I want to share. On page 65, they wrote, "Plants, like words in poetry, are both beautiful in themselves and also for the associations they trail behind, the histories they have in the world and in one's own life."

Everytime I've read those lines, my mind starts wandering to plants that have associations in my own life....

My first memory of a garden is from when I was about 8 years old. We'd driven to visit my Great Aunt Elsie and Great Uncle Oscar in upper New York state. I remember little of Elsie and Oscar or their home, but I remember vividly their backyard garden. It was narrow and deep, with rich flower beds curving gently along the sides, completely surrounding the open grassy area in the middle. About halfway back the beds came out into the yard a little farther, making the area behind them seem hidden and mysterious and extra-special. That garden fascinated me and I think that, ever since, my memory of it has formed the basis of what a "real" garden should be like.

Also when I was about 8, my parents planted a weeping birch tree in our own front yard. It was a sapling, probably 6 feet tall, with just a couple branches hanging down, but I remember "sheltering" under the one weeping branch that hung the lowest, imagining myself in some sort of hidden grotto. As barren and open as that spot was, it seemed magical and hidden to my young mind.

From first grade through fourth grade, my favorite place to play was in the woods, along the creek, at the bottom of the hill upon which our house was perched. I would try to capture tadpoles or crayfish, then get bored and switch to pretending I was a princess on my own private island in the middle of the creek. Some days I just explored, other days I went to favorite places like the grove of young holly trees where I constructed elaborate stories in which I was, of course, the heroine of the day. I knew what holly was, even then, and I remember learning what sassafras leaves looked like in that woodland. I don't think that I saw another sassafras until I was in my late 40's in Mobile, but right away I knew exactly what young tree sapling had sprung up in my front garden bed there.

Eastern deciduous woodlands played a big part in my growing up a few years later, too. During my early adolescence in suburban Massachusetts, my best friend and I would sneak over to the little bait shop one street over from ours and buy snacks, then walk over to a hillside overlooking the local "pond" (which was actually a lake, by Kansas standards). There we would sit on a big log right beside the path and watch the water of the pond through the woodland trees, feeling both adult and slightly naughty and illicit, eating our candy bars and discussing all of those important adolescent issues that filled our minds so completely in those years.

When we first moved to Massachusetts, the year I'd turned 10, I remember helping Mom try to make 2 flower beds in our new backyard. She'd outlined the bed shapes that she wanted and we started digging. Or, rather, we started trying to dig. The soil was full of rocks of all shapes and sizes; digging was downright slow and painful. I think we finally did get some semblance of flower bed dug out, but since then I've had a visceral memory of the stoniness of New England soil that flares up whenever history lessons mention the trials of the early European settlers farming that land.

After 2 years in Massachusetts, we moved to the Panama Canal Zone. Thinking of my junior high years there brings memories of huge bougainvillea shrubs, their branches covered in blooms, hanging over the sidewalks. There were tall palm trees everywhere, a big bamboo grove right next to our home's clothes lines outside my room, and, not infrequently, sloths hanging from trees in the neighborhood. Once I even saw a small band of monkeys chattering and travelling through the treetops while my best friend and I walked from her house to the movie theater.

Beautiful plants and interesting animals. Beautiful memories associated with them all. Even in, especially in childhood, plants and gardens and wild areas enriched my life. Those memories continue to enrich my life, even now.

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