The fronds were thin and stringy. The fern, my wife said, has to go into the ground.
The reason I became anxious had nothing to do with the fact that, a few hundred miles away, a tornado ripped up a shop and killed a man.
What is odd about my neighborhood is that nearly all the extreme weather that devastates so many, tends to happen elsewhere. Tornadoes have touched down a few miles away. Rain water has flooded streets and houses on the other side of the hill I can see from my window, but our street remained safe.
I was unsettled because I am not quite comfortable with nature, and this region can be a challenge to a gardener because the soil is mostly clay clinging to hard granite.
I write in a small room in a small house on what was once a farmer’s field. The farm is now houses, schools, churches, gas stations, office buildings and many, many places where you can shop. Behind and between (and sometimes beneath busy roads) are mostly paved, landscaped trails winding past creeks, ponds, meadows and small forests and parks. Despite the fact that the trails are nearly overwhelmed by trees, shrubs and vines, when my wife and I want to put a plant into the ground near our house, we must surround the plant with “organic” soil that comes in a sealed plastic sack.
Drive a few miles south, west or north (east is Washington, D.C. and all those houses and businesses and buildings that want to be near it), and you can still see farms growing corn and, more commonly now, grapes that go into bottles sold at vineyards that have funny names and offer entertainment on the weekends. I’ve been told that nearly all the wine grapes grown in the United States (with the exception of some in California that were imported from France), are distant relatives of a species that, unlike grapes grown elsewhere, can endure more humidity and greater extremes of heat and cold.
Founding father, university founder, writer, inventor, philosopher, Francophile, wine fancier, diplomat, president, slave-owner and gardener Thomas Jefferson settled 110 miles away in Charlottesville. A fig that, according to the Montecello gift shop, descends from one that grew in his garden, sprouts broad green leaves in our garden.
I don’t believe the current president is a gardener. I interviewed him a few years ago when he had his name on Atlantic City casino hotels. He told me vanilla his favorite ice cream flavor. The topic of agriculture did not come up.
Is there a gardening personality? Does the regular care of plants make you a different person from, say, those who hunt animals, or pull fish out of water? In his Ecologues, the great Roman poet Virgil suggested that gardens make us better people, though some critics feel that this was one more attempt to find virtues in the country that seem to missing in the big bad city.
Others have written on the gardening tendency, habit, and compulsion, as if the custom of chosing, aranging and caring for plants was not only natural, but a connection to a point in our anthropological history.
As the theory goes, our species made a vital shift from hunting and gathering, to the systematic cultivation of plants. As much as this may have given us a more reliable source of food and clothing (when this reliability was not threatened by drought, freezing cold, plagues, floods, pestilence and diseases carried by other creatures that enjoyed what we planted), it may have also given us our first sense of territoriality. You can’t wander about if you’re a planter. You stay with the crop and do your best to protect it from those that would take it, or destroy it.
And that’s the fun part. When you take what you don’t need to the big bad city to sell it, all the trouble starts.
Did early religious ideas come from agriculture? As far as anyone knows, hunter-gatherers had an you-are-what-you-eat concept: the parts of the animals you consume, as well as the hides, bones and sinews used for clothing, connect you with the spirit of the animal. The word berserk comes from a Scandanavian form of “bear-skirt,” or bear hide that fighers wrapped around themselves. The spirit of the bear then entered and possessed them, providing them with an unusually brutal ferocity.
Not so with iceberg lettuce, until someone with enormous courage drank the stinking, foaming liquid oozing from fermenting grain seeds. In contemporary times, the worst effect a meat eater might suffer after a meal is an immediate sleepiness. But alcohol, in the form of the Bacchus, or 180 proof Caribbean rum, still brings out the worst in us.
But plants can bring out the best. The Summerians knew of the healing power of the willow, which contains the acid we now ingest in aspirin. Like trees struggling for sunlight, remedies derived from plants fight for space with vitamins, minerals and so many other medicines on drug store shelves.
I remember one science fiction film that recognized the human qualities of gardening, a rather crazy, downbeat 1972 environmental alegory called Silent Running that presumes a future in which the planet Earth becomes so overcrowded that forests are loaded on a spaceship and sent somewhere.
In nearly every other science fiction film or TV show I’ve seen, what we call “nature” is almost always dangerous, especially on alien worlds, and gardening on a space ship is a matter of pulling green things–almost like bagged supermarket salads–out of the “hydroponic” cabinet. If you want to look at something pretty, peaceful or spiritually rewarding, you look at a screen.
My mother became a gardener when her bossy sister-in-law said she lacked the ability to keep a house plant alive. My mother accepted this as a challenge. Every place she lived was filled with plants, inside and out. She joined the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. I’ve been told some variety of rose has been named for her.
I grew up with respiratory allergies that made me hate the outdoors. Among my chores were watering the exterior shrubs and trees, and mowing the lawn. Both rendered me a sneezing, wheezing mess when I didn’t take my allergy medication. When I did, I was too sluggish to do anything more than drag myself to my room, turn on the air conditioner, shut the door and read a book.
And I never liked bugs. Bugs and gardens go together. With one you get the other.
And yet, gardens, for me, were a utopian space that I thought I might inhabit if, like Voltaire’s Candide, I lived in the best of all possible worlds (in which someone cured my allergies and kept all the bugs away from me) and I could retire to tend my green place. When I lived in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C ., Dumbarton Oaks became a beloved “third space” of quiet, beauty and whimsy, thanks to Beatrix Ferrand’s blurring of classical and natural lines. As a tourist, when allergy season did not threaten, I visited gardens of Versailles, Tivoli, Kew, Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens and the Jardins des Plantes, New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
It’s not surprising, then, that I married a gardener, who would spend the occasional Saturday afternoon with an early morning trip to the landscape shop (we have at least six within driving distance), buy things in pots and great big sacks of dirt. I’d help her dig the hole and stand back as things went into the ground and, mostly, survived. She believes that our marriage is one reason that the no-longer-withered dogwood at the corner of our house came back to life.
When I lived in Philadelphia, and the sad little tree stuck in a little patch of soil died, my mother insisted that I replace it with another. I did. My mother was not alive when a willow in front of my current house succumbed to a parasite, though I felt her sense of urgency. We replaced the tree with a crepe mertil, whose four spindly shoots endured a punishingly cold, windy winter. When the weather warmed, the tree just stood there while others bloomed. I thought it was dead until, after just about every living thing in the neighborhood given its performance, ours became a shimmer of tiny white flowers that drew the requisite bugs, and then dropped, the petals like snow flakes slowly coming down.
My wife had to go to work and said she’d help me stick the fern in the ground when she came back. I watched her go from a window streaked with rain.
Then I had one of those mornings when the words wouldn’t come. Every writer gets them.
I thought of the tree at the front of our house blooming. I remembered the ferns I saw growing on the sides of the fells–what people in England’s Lake District call mountains. The fern she wanted me to plant was similar to those ferns.
Outside was what resembled a typical English morning. The mood was almost, but not quite dreary. The cool, overcast, mostly gray sky had descended with a hint of mist. A steady, windless rain soaked everything and scrubbed the air of the vehicle exhaust from the roads, parkways, highways and nearby internal airport that make my neighborhood so desireable to people who want to work or travel someplace close.
I have five raincoats. I bought one of them hours before a Bruce Springsteen stadium concert on an evening when every source of weather prediction promised a deluge of Biblical proportions. When the concert began, Springsteen looked at the darkening heavens and said that it wouldn’t rain. It didn’t.
I don’t know why I didn’t wear any of my raincoats. I went out into the cold, fragrant air and I was wet before I could open the garage and remove the shovel and the sack of dirt.
I didn’t care. I wasn’t sneezing. I didn’t see any bugs.
My wife didn’t say where she wanted the fern planted, and I lapsed into that discerning, analytical mood that powerful must have when they realize the great decision they are about to make is a matter of placement.
Where should I put the thing?
I carried the potted fern to a vacant, shady place under a tree on the side of the house facing the street. I put the blade of the shovel on the surface of the wet ground. It went in easily.
Suddenly I was a child at the beach, digging a hole in the sand. How far down can I go before it falls in? How far down can I go before I hit something that shouldn’t be there? How far down can I go before some grown up looks at the hole and says I’m crazy?
I pulled up ruddy red clay and rounded up a hole slightly larger than the pot the fern inhabited. I gently pulled the pot away, exposing a tangle of roots and soil. When I put it in the hole, I could almost feel the plant thanking me.
I packed in the “imported” dirt and stood back. I noticed my hands were dirty. Blobs of soil adhered to my clothing. Rainwater had trickled down the back of my spine.
I stuck out my hands and the rain began to move some, but not all, of the dirt away. A sudden vision of myself taking a hot shower compelled me to fetch the shovel, drag the bag of dirt away and store both in the garage before going upstairs and letting the a jet of heated water do what nature would not.
My wife was delighted that I had stuck the fern in the ground. For the next few weeks, whenever I was outside, walking or driving, I scrutinized that fern like a concerned parent.
I’m happy to say that the fern survived the winter. Thanks to the sunlight and water (and whatever was added to the organic dirt) it has grown to twice its potted dimensions.
And it has neighbors.