“Green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.
How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out
…To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.”
Summer has arrived here in the Southern Appalachians. For me, along with many gardeners, the resonance of a real garden is in the way it reflects passage of time. Perhaps better than anything I’ve known, this connection with plants and nature helps me notice and process the passing of days, weeks, seasons, years. We’re terrestrial beings –more corporeal than we are cerebral. We require physical contact with the sensory world to find our place in the natural order. We walk—we hear the intimate crunch of leaves beneath our feet; we blink—we note the glare from the midday sun, and on our skin we witness daily shifts in light and shadow. We sit—we observe the wind stirring the canopy and feel it lift the ends of our hair. And so we learn to locate our bodies in space. The tumble of a stream around our ankles forces our feet to find purchase on the sandy bed below; we learn balance. The ripples left in the moving water delineate our presence. Somewhat paradoxically, awakening to our senses is our one defense against time hurtling out ahead of us.
Up here on the Plateau heavy rains and a cooler May have yielded jungle-like vegetative growth. For me, the delight of the Appalachian spring is the parade of it—how it unfolds at a pace and succession that I can notice and enjoy. Today though, lavish greens paint the roadsides and the hills. Their insistent greenness fills these woods, reminding me that summer isn’t coming; rather, it’s here. Green is the essence of summer—its first principle—especially in these mountains, where the green takes its time to emerge but is irrepressible upon fulsome arrival. As I write, bloated clouds hang fat and happy below a blue sky. Drenched boughs of my Beech trees hang with distended satisfaction. It’s all fireflies and jewelweed. The birds’ chirping isn’t so frenzied; many of their nests have fledged and their world has settled. At every turn, organisms have moved from spring bourgeoning to summer ripening. And herein we find the sweetness of summer. The intimacy of it.
During this surreal spring of 2020, virtually all of us have experienced a strange relationship to time. For many of us, the order of our days slowed while the news cycle sped up. Daily uncertainty interrupted our travel, our graduations, and in some cases, our sleep.
Yet the landscape, with its daylight (or darkness) dependent itinerary, continues as always. Ground temperatures make their annual climb to activate soil microbes and warm-season growers. The lengthening of days augments available sunlight, fueling photosynthesis. Winter’s stored sugars migrate back inside plant cells, inciting respiration and phytogenesis. Here is our everyday magic: the sun appears, it rains, plants grow. We breathe fresh air. And so it goes. Never in my lifetime have I been more aware of nor grateful for fresh air.
I’ve heard a several people comment that it’s been the prettiest spring they remember. I wonder whether “remember” may be the operative word here. We’ve been grounded by this pandemic, at home, expending our nervous energy on walking, noticing, gardening—compulsory quiet. Most essentially, gardeners are keen observers, noting small distinctions in microclimates much in the way one observes the idiosyncrasies of a beloved. Ancestral tasks of cultivating a garden begin with noticing what is—in this moment—to guide our next move. The alchemy of horticulture is wrought from trial and error. It’s our human birthright to notice and tend, to enjoy the ripening, to harvest. Stay-at-home orders have connected us with this legacy. It all begins with attention and care.
In reading gardening magazines or home improvement shows, there is a sense that landscaping must offer curb appeal, resale value, provide utility. We defend public gardens by listing their value to the public, considering them as event spaces and commoditizing them. These exploits matter, to greater or lesser degree depending on the goals for a space. But I believe that this strange spring has reminded us that beauty has meaning and resonance that transcends the utility or instrument of the space. Ars gratia artis—beauty for the sake of beauty itself.
When I walk under the cathedral of trees at Southern Highlands Reserve, my conflicting desires, my ambitions, my ego sink into the oceans of moss, and I’m humbled by the rugged tumble of boulders reflected in the still pond. I become a witness to the breeze moving through the ferns, not merely the consumer of the pathway system the staff works hard to maintain. It’s summer, and spring’s proliferation has carried us into the year’s ripening. My mind quiets on this consecrated land, and I can hear nature’s conversation with this montane garden. Again, I look to Mary Oliver translate:
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come”