It is midsummer, presumably the moment of ultimate glory in the garden--a riotous, golden, powerfully scented, near-delirious time, one that redeems all those nasty days of bending and stooping and digging in early March. Then why is everybody so silent? By "everybody," I mean principally those lyricists of horticulture who once a year (in April) drop their gardening columns on us ("I love my Burpee's catalog . . . I always plant too much, silly me . . .") and then revert to their more normal twice-weekly syndicated analyses of the effects of high interest rates on regionalism.
I will tell you why. They are silent because the whole thing was a bust. It always is. That is the pathos of gardening. The pathology of it is that even in the face of this year's inevitable evidence of ruin, we are all setting aside for careful scrutiny the brightly colored new catalogs that are already coming in from the nurserymen and seed emporia. Against overwhelming odds and immutable natural laws, we are--yes-- going to try again next year.
What does this say about the estimated millions of us in this country who make attempted gardening our prime recreation and obsession? What does it say about our character and educability in comparison with someone who--to take a hypothetical case--might prefer to spend his leisure time riding horses or hacking underbrush?
I often think that the expulsion of our first forebears from the Garden of Eden has been misconstrued over the years, that it was in fact not so much an act of punishment as of mercy, since the Almighty, having created all living things--including, unfortunately, the whitefly and the blackspot fungi--knew what the place was going to look like in two weeks. It was going to look more or less the way my garden looks now.
There is, of course, a brighter side if you have an acquisitive or boastful nature. I believe I have, for instance, what is probably the largest privately owned collection of spider mite on the East Coast at the present time, at least judging from the denuded cosmos stalks that adorn the flower beds. But to draw solace or justification from this goes against the gardener's nature: we cultivate gloom--that is the first thing about us--and we do so rather more successfully than we cultivate anything else.
A friend of mine once had the nerve to tell me that I was lacking in the proper temperament for a gardener, what he described as a kind of Thomas Hardy-like acquiescence in the great maddening elements that determine our fate: wind, water, light, dark, heat, cold in all their cruel and unpredictable manifestations. He said this merely because I was worried that rainstorms were about to ruin the peonies for the sixth year in a row and this would be an outrage and did he think the damp would also get the campanula and what should I do to prevent this unacceptable situation.
But he was only half right in his appraisal. For while it is true that I lack the fatalistic nature appropriate to a gardener, it is also true that all gardeners lack it. This, in fact, is the second characteristic that defines us. We are not just gloomy, we are also endlessly anxious and complaining, the important and, of course, wholly unfounded assumption being that things really could be different, actually might work out. This is as close to optimism as we come. It is more in the nature of unrealism, however, a baseless faith that everyone else is making it come out right and that just as soon as we get the knack or pry loose the secret or reach the end of this particular run of rotten luck, well, our gardens will look like that too. "That" is the cover or illustrations of any of the innumerable gardening catalogs and manuals we pore over.
Now here is the real secret: there is no "that." Nothing in life, including--I will go bail for it--Eden, ever looked like "that." But the whole culture of gardening is a conspiracy to persuade the gardener otherwise. All gardeners are, accordingly, always off-balance, feeling insecure and slightly out of step, convinced that all the others are off together somewhere sporting in the horticultural mainstream, growing, to take the most egregious example, kale.
The kale issue illustrates exactly how the conspiracy is conducted. I don't know anyone who eats kale. Before you conclude that this is an elitist, snobbish statement, let me add that I go plenty of places where the moral equivalent of kale is eaten and that I grew up in a household that believed no green was too pale and fetid and no squash too watery and foul-smelling to force on the children and make a condition of their ever leaving the table again. And yet, even for these tortures, we never got kale. I don't know anyone who grows it, either. Nevertheless, the literature gives over fully half its space to this purported vegetable, to new varieties and old blights and two-column features about how a new chemical on the market (diazine-chloridophetaminhyde) can control the destructive kale weevil and is now available in most hardware stores and so forth. The point is to reinforce the gardener's sense of insecurity, out-of-itness and failure.
Generally it works. Gardeners don't tell as many lies as fishermen, but they do stretch the truth a bit in their competition, and they all pretend to be part of that mythical mainstream of success while secretly fearing they are the only ones not in and of it. Vegetable gardeners will compete by hauling huge and inedible produce, zucchinis that look like A-bombs, to the office; flower gardeners by bringing the one gorgeous lily that escaped the rot and letting the idea get around that the whole yard is aburst with these. So we only confirm each other's illusions that it can go well, whereas it can't.
Anxiety, gloom, baseless faith that something useful can be done--surely this suits the observer/complainer/editorialist better than all that underbrush hacking and horsemanship that reflect an entirely different set of assumptions. The doers versus the doomed. Reagan's pastimes suit him. Beloved Hubert was a cheerful wall-and floor-washer in his off-hours--i.e., metaphorically, a do-gooder. Jimmy Carter is reported (are you surprised?) to be absolutely consumed with the details of woodworking and cabinetry now, inlaying and beveling all of Plains. These recreations tell you something. I will tell you something, too. I have just ordered next year's lilies.
Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.