THE PIN OAK does not color as bright in the fall as the red or scarlet or white oaks, but is handsome enough in deep bronze and russet and sober muted crimson.
This year, with me, it colored almost a month earlier than usual, and was at its best before the red maple of our American woodland had colored at all.
So for a change the maple and the oak were both beautiful together -- the oak on its way out, the maple on its way in.
Regular mortals would probable have enjoyed the sight, but no gardener would. Not if they were his trees.
I am sure something is wrong with the oak. Tropical fishes often color unexpectedly just before death, you know. And an iris that is about to depart forever often produces flowers of such astonishing excellence that the gardener knows something is wrong.
Now the gardener knows how irregular, how chancy, how variable, how clumsy, how capricious, the world of nature is. Only by the highest abstraction do we comfort ourselves that she runs by unalterable law.
People are always trotting up with some trifling variation that has struck them dumb and often I reassure them it is all quite acceptable and ordinary and not to worry. For some reason, they carry on when apple trees, pears: (the commonest trees to bloom off-season), Oriental magnolias, azaleas and so on put out flowers in the fall. And yet I never knew a fall in which fruit trees, azaleas, magnolias did not have a sprinkling of flowers.
But that is not at all like my subject today.
I am talking about my oak. It has been very beautiful, yes. But something is surely the matter.
It is not a case of some piddling azalea. But an oak. And mine. Believe me, it makes a difference.
For a second, let me change gears and state that pansies are outdoor plants.
Just this week I met a fellow pleased with himself for having got the pansy plants indoors before the freeze. He thought he was supposed to keep them in the house all winter.
The idea, needless to say, leaves a gardener winded. Do you reckon he will dig up the elms and yellow poplars? Will he bring in the Potomac?
And yet the flower of the pansy, come to think of it, is at least as exotic as the orchid, and a great deal more sumptuous than any carnation or rose. What is more reasonable than to imagine it cannot take frost?
The world, believe me, is spinning at various speeds. Some groundlings (myself among them) are still surprised the sun rises in the east, while others (more sophisticated, starwise) take the Andromeda nebula as casually as a can of grated cheese.
I am angry if I am treated like an imbecile, merely because I am uninformed of some exotic fact or other. One cannot know everything, after all. Both editors and automobile mechanics, let me say, are very bad in this respect. They assume you know who the Secretary of Labor is or what brake linings are, whereas in fact only hobbyists and specialized scholars know such things.
And yet old gardeners assume equally bizarre things and suppose everybody knows that ice floes, oaks and pansies are outdoor phenomena.
Let me say ignorance is no handicap, ultimately, in gardening or anything else. You will often fail, through ignorance. But then you will often fail through knowledge, too. As a gardener you will fail most of the time, for one reason or another, until you learn to stop thinking of triumphs and disasters. If I were a better gardener, I would not worry about my oak, especially since I indeed know there is not much I can do about it. And if it goes, it will let in more sun.
When I was first a gardener, I grafted a carnation on a cactus, not knowing this like trying to breed hounds with antlers. Worse than that, I did not know then that it would have been a step backward if it had succeeded.
There is so much to learn (the younger gardener thinks) that it will take forever, and of course he is right. What he ought to know, since it would be a comfort, is that he will learn what he needs and what he can manage, and while he will never know much, still that anxiety of darkness of darkness will disappear and he will be on firm ground. He will know, for example, that oaks and pansies endure cold while cattleyas and basil do not.
You could never tell by looking. But you learn surprisingly quickly and really it is not painful at all. Or not very.
What I think you do learn is a certain awe at creatures like pokeweed, say, that you never even looked at or thought about before. You come to admire dandelions, after a while. You even begin to notice the common dogwood is a more distinguished plant than the Chinese dogwood (a rare instance; usually the Asian forms are handsome).
The day the gardener perceives that the mimosa, the chinaberry, the hackberry, the shadblow, the wild persimmon, the sassafrass, are very distinguished plants, that is the day he has been graduated from the kindergarten of marigolds.
Almost always a wild plant is more beautiful than a garden-variety plant. That is a hard saying for any new gardener who has just discovered garden peonies, roses, irises, tulips, daffodils and so on.
It's something you learn. It's a truth that at last you begin to notice. But you cannot notice it at first, because you are not ready to see it.
It never occurs to a kid -- at least it never occurred to me -- that the wild persimmons of my country are as elegant as any camellia, or that a sophisticated gardener would prefer the persimmon to the Davidea (a tree that most gardeners are seduced by in their oatsy days). It's not that the gardener grows more astrigent, but that he begins to see what is there, not what he dreams is there.
Davidias are rare, persimmons are common. You can't expect a new gardener to see the persimmon is more ornamental, or that it has a richness, a character, an elegance, quite lacking in the davidia. For one thing, he does not know what "elegance" is in a plant, he only knows what he reads.
But later he will know for himself.
You can't expect him at first to rank the gorgeous hybrid orchids well below certain others. The gorgeousness of the one he will quickly see, but it will take him time, usually, to see the beauty of less flashy orchids. And it's not a case of surfeit, by which the gardener says there is such a thing as too much gorgeousness. It's just that color and flash come before proportion, harmony, unity, serenity, drama, articulation and other zub zub zub virtues.
It's not perversity, either. (As some travelers say you should bypass Chartres and visit St. Raisin in the Muffin which, they assure you, is far nobler.) Not perversity, but enlarged perception.
The beauty of Iris versicolor is not an imagined beauty but a real thing. It's just that most gardeners can't see it at first, while their eyes are full of the gorgeous Japanese irises.
Gardening is essentially a gradual clearing of the eyes, even as they perhaps fade a bit, and a gradual comprehension that the humble hobby is somewhat grander than they first supposed.
As a kid learning the alphabet thinks the point is to learn, like the big boys, to read about seeing Jane and how Spot runs. Only later does he see that the alphabet leads to more than his primer ever dreamed of or prepared him for.
Let me say here I am rather a young man, approaching middle age perhaps, despite all this wisdom.
And the youngest gardener should know he will never have to stop growing marigolds, or garden peonies and irises (indeed, the more he learns the more he will admire them) merely because he has learned the chief rewards of gardening do not come from them, exciting and worthy though they may be.
Our fathers lived in forests and painted themselves blue and the only thing they could think of was a gold buckle or hilt set with garnets to be buried with.
Blue is still almost every man's favorite color.
And gold, they say, is still seen here and there even today.
But since the Druids, since the Saxons, even since the Danes and the Normans, new worlds have opened up. They were always there, and they were developing, those new worlds, even as the Brits (on whom be peace) were poking around for woad.
The Roman gardens in England were not copied because they meant nothing to the savages round about. The Brits saw them all right, as later they saw some of the splendors of Syria in the Crusades, but almost nothing was brought back home. Not because they didn't see the richness, but because they were not yet able to see it might apply to them. Only later did they surpass all others in gardens.
It took a long time. It takes a long time. And the gardener who scratches his head which was is up with daffodil bulbs (the pointed end goes up) is on his way.