Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu, 07 Mar 2002 08:21:43 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: A Few Lessons From the Garden

I was listening to an National Public Radio program yesterday. The discussion was how gardening is an "aerating filter" and a "lens sharpener" about life and all its fascets. Maybe that's why, as an avid amateur gardener, I like to use my garden as analogy and metaphor of my teaching. I can borrow from my garden to help my teaching grow.

I was grounded by the boss these past few mornings. Too cold. It was back down into the high twenties. Not today. Goosebumby low forties! I was out as fast as whatever comes to mind. Four miles in forty-four chilly minutes. After my return, as the sky grayed, I went on my usual morning "garden patrol" to see what I had successfully protected against the icy air blanket that has been coming and going over my yard this past week. I know what one of the writers meant when he said that if you focus on one area of the garden, you can see what has changed overnight. I've been watching my newly planted roses. Along the driveway, I have been desparately covering them with black garbage bags at night to protect them against our late freeze's attempted death blow and uncovering them so they won't roast in a hot house effect. A white plastic tent, taped to the dogwood trunk, looks like a Mothra like tent catipillar cocoon, as I struggled to protect the amarylis field from this freeze's last swipe. In the back yard, the wrapped huge phildenrons look like something out from the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Ah, now that winter is coming to an end, it is beginning to feel and look like winter. Runny, stuffy noses, reddened eyes adorn the classrooms. Hacking coughs resound across the campus. Chilly. Windy. The cold snap has left the ground bare. Everywhere my gardens look like they are in ruins. The early Azalea flowers have the look of tiny balls of crumpled crepe paper. A white powdery frost covers the line of rabbit's ear. The stalks of individual blooming amarylis, deceived by the early warmth and lulled out from their slumber, now are sadly deflowered. Blackened and colorless spider plant hang limp and lifeless. Twiggy grape vines strangle the uprights of the percola. Frost-bitten regal lillies leaves are draped in drooping, mushy clusters. Shriveled and browned African daisies sag defeated. Leafless woody sticks of old echinea and Autumn rudibeckea stems topped by empty starburst seedpod protrude from undug beds. The bare, stick-like branches of the dogwoods are distant from the time they were blossoming with south Georgia "snow. The dazzling leafs of Persian Shield are crumbled. All are memories of last spring and summer's glorious color.

They may be memories. They are also promises of next spring and summer. And so,I have to honor the heart of heartless winter. It is not, as a poet reminded me, a seasonal shank. It is not a period of death. It is not a period of darkness. It is not a somber season. It is not a season that doesn't belong. It isn't a dormant season. There is beauty in the sublime and subtle. A dark, cold winter day can be just as beautiful as a warm, sunny, summer day.

We told that this is a time of rest. And yet, there is restlessness; it is a time of preparation; it is a time of anticipation. Beneath the surface, it is a time of life. As an avid gardener, in the midst of this cold I have to have warm visions. With a faith, hope, and belief in the coming Spring and Summer, I am rooting, tilling, nurturing, toiling, trimming, planting, transplanting, seeding, culling, and crafting.

In the midst of the colorless, I have to see that priceless, special colorful magic is occuring. My patrols are exercises in noticing. I look around in awe and can see, if I look for it, all of the possible colors that will soon explode. In the midst of the shriveled, I see a swelled engagement in life. I can see slight evidence of seedlings poking out from the ground. I had a feeling of being overjoyed this morning at the goosebumps peppered my skin. At first glance everything seems in discouraging stasis. And yet, everything is moving joyfully forward. I walked through what I saw was a vast field of an unimaginable amount of potential, of hidden becoming, of secret process, of silent opportunity, of subtle growth, of sublime change.

I suppose I could complain about the freeze and feel sorry about myself that my garden wouldn't be as glorious as it could have been. Of what value would that be. The freeze reminds me that if I want magic to occur every day in my garden, I have to work at working magic. The freeze doesn't matter. It is how I deal with it that does. Running from the challenge of the freeze would only yield excuses, blames, and regrets. I suppose I could have stayed in the comfort of the fire that blazed in the den and merely bought some replacement plants. I am not sure I really would have been comfortable with doing that. I don't think that would have lasted too long. Too much comfort can smother my life as a gardner. And, there are many times, as this freeze reminded me that I have to unwrap myself in order to wrap the plants, that I have to step up to commitment, that I have to help make it happen, and not merely plan or dream or wish about or watch or look forward to or look backward at or talk about or criticize.

Yeah, I suppose I could have been annoyed at having to cover the newly planted rose bushes in the chilling darkness with cold, wet hands that began to numb, to bag individual amaryllis stalks, to struggle to decide how to protect seedlings, to fashion those plastic cocoons. But, why waste all that energy being annoyed and feeling unpleasant when I can see how all that effort will give me a fuller, genuine experience of gardening that is much more valuable and fulfilling than the empty pleasures and temorary comforts of buying fully grown plants from some garden shop. The freeze in a way made gardening this year more exciting. The freeze merely strengthens my commitment and perseverence to the garden. It won't be an empty trinket this season. The garden, I assure you, will be more rewarding. The sense of accomplishment will be greater. The sense of gain larger. How do I know? In the midst of this dreariness, as I unwrapped the protective covering there are about me signs of coming magnificance if I look for them: the Gallaridia and Echinechea seedlings in my cold frame, a cluster or two of green leaves of a peeking Asian lilly tightly hugging the ground, new spines forming on the rose bushes, the clumps of Daylillies. They all tell me that in the midst of the winter's chill, I should not dismay.

All this demands that in this chill I be warmly optimistic about summer's coming warmth. These are for me a few lessons from the garden. I can't only focus on the garden I desire. I have to focus on the efforts necessary to make it a reality. So many of us cringe and shiver and complain in the chilling, dead of colorless winter in each student rather than see the vibrant potential of colorful birthing spring in each of them.

I just got hit with a thought as I thought I finished. It's not the beautiful garden I want. That I can get by hiring a landscape architect. That's like getting something for nothing. Emptiness. What I want is to be a good gardener. After all, the garden can be taken away by a freeze, a dry spell, a fungus, an insect, a critter. But, my efforts to be that good garden does not depend on them. My strength, confidence, belief, hope, faith, commitment, perserverance and love to be a gardener will always be with me. Maybe that's the true lesson of the garden this freeze has for my teaching.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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