Friday, May 05, 2006

Cultivating generosity, wisdom over the years

Something in this old "gardening" article spoke to me:

Cultivating generosity, wisdom over the years
By Charles Fenyvesi
Washington Post
April 2001

WASHINGTON -- In 19 years of filing a weekly garden column, I celebrated two kinds of gardeners. An exemplar of the first kind was Frank Santamour Jr. of the U.S. National Arboretum, author of numerous scholarly studies on trees, who died last year.
He concluded that the longevity of trees is related to their ability to compartmentalize wounds.

The second kind was an adventurous gardener, such as the late Charles Thomson, a pillar of the Men's Garden Club of Montgomery County (Md.), who credited the extraordinary vigor of his daffodils and tulips to his practice of putting the bulbs an inch deeper than called for by the instructions.

People devoted to cultivating plants tend to be naturally gregarious. Sharing their know-how and presenting their arguments, they invite visitors into their private domains beyond the palisades of conventional wisdom.

Santamour's theory about wound compartmentalization holds that once the damage is done, the tree reacts so the problem (which also could be an infection or an onslaught by pests) is isolated, spreads no farther and the plant returns to its usual enterprise of growth.

Although a strict rationalist, he did not object to the metaphor that at least some trees have a kind of central authority that evolved a system to cope with problems. He would not call it wisdom, and he would have hated to be taken for a druid.
Look at the empirical side, Santamour would emphasize: The mechanism for proper compartmentalization is in a narrow collar around a limb or a branch as it grows out of the trunk or another limb or branch. Therefore, we must not saw off a limb or a branch flush, but leave something like a clerical collar around the growth we remove.
Thomson's thinking also fitted into a larger vision of plant life. But he distrusted science as "only partial truth or truth-in-becoming." To him, the garden was not just a testing ground but reality itself. He was a whimsical gardener who loved the biblical story of a seemingly dead almond staff rooting itself in the soil and bursting into bud and bloom.
I think he accepted me as a friend when I cited an even wilder analogy: Moses turning his staff into a snake, and then making a point with the Pharaoh by having that snake devour the other snakes that the Pharaoh's magicians conjured up the same way.

Almost everything in the garden depends on the gardener, Thomson used to say, but first the soil must be made ready: deep dug and enriched constantly. His daffodil and tulip bulbs and their numerous offsets cradled in the deep earth would have choked for lack of oxygen or drowned when waterlogged if he had not added manure and compost to a depth of 2feet. The stalks seemed to rise out of his bulbs as effortlessly as if the medium had been soft, uniform sand rather than upgraded clay.
He much preferred to unlock what he believed were the treasures of clay, and he did not like the idea of adding to what he called the bottomless pit of nutrient-poor sand.

The garden is the space where the tangible and the metaphoric shift back and forth, and the demands of soil and soul, humdrum routine and magical exception run parallel and then intersect, again and again.

One secret I learned is to dig deeper and keep devising ways to improve the soil, the part of the world that is in our hands. And when the time comes for transplanting, we must make the new site even more hospitable than the old.

This was Charles Fenyvesi's final column for The Washington Post.

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