Suppose for some reason you were to cast your mind back to your high school English class and the classic conflicts in literature. I know ... I can’t think of a reason either. Maybe you’re getting a root canal and the TV on the ceiling of the dentist’s office is tuned to “Jeopardy.” Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society. It’s like trying to name the Seven Dwarfs, only fewer people care about the answer.
And I see that my lizard brain, storehouse of vital data memorized early in the Jurassic Period, has not made the update to recognize the presence of women in the world. Let me just correct that: Person vs. Self, Person vs. Fate. Or for today’s purposes: Woman vs. Nature.
My garden is out to get me. Like so much else over the years, my garden and I have gone through phases. It started with the Earth Mother phase early in our life together. I planted vegetables, envisioning bountiful harvests, rows of jars gleaming like jewels. Back then all was hopeful. All was in front of us. All was eaten by the groundhog.
I moved on to small fruit production: black raspberries from the Illinois house I grew up in. They thrived until we acquired our first weed whacker, with which they apparently had some unresolved issues. Eventually the weed whacker resolved the issues – and the raspberries. The details are hazy in my memory. Seduced by the seed catalog description, I put in a row of red currant bushes without ever having tasted red currants. Luckily they lived up to the promises of the catalog, and we had pies and red currant jelly, tart and sweet, the deep, translucent red of rubies. Hoping for similar success, I put in a pair of beach plum bushes. Alas, the beach plum jelly of my Long Island childhood was not to be. Seems beach plums are one of those plants that needs a mate. One of the planted pair took, one didn’t. A single love-lorn bush left us jelly-less. Perhaps out of respect for true love lost, I never got around to planting another. Eventually the grieving widow/widower went the way of all plants considered extraneous and obstructive by the lawn mower. Who knows what did in the dwarf fruit trees. By that time reality – and children – had settled in. We lived minutes from more fresh, affordable fruit and vegetables than I could possibly can, cook, jelly or pickle. Thus endeth the Earth Mother phase. I turned to flowers and herbs.
For a time, albeit a very short time, the garden I’d created in front of the house was lovely. It wasn’t huge; it wasn’t even big. But from the road and from my kitchen window, it was colorful, well maintained, and just eclectic enough to be charming. It gave me joy. I was successful. This was the Gardener of Camelot phase. Then my success – and my garden – turned on me.
If this small garden is doing so well, I reasoned, obviously what I need is more. More space. More plants. More flowers. All the flowers. I need all the flowers, gardens everywhere. I had entered the Queen Midas phase.
Then I went back to teaching. And leapt into a teaching and writing program that totally consumed at least four weeks each summer. I discovered that, unfortunately, in gardening as in many areas of my life, it was so much easier and more exciting to start something than it was to maintain it – or most elusive of all – finish it. I had entered the Absentee Gardener phase. Snowflake perennials gave way to the tenacious and prolific: phlox, Siberian irises, and creeping bellflower. The creeping bellflower I had acquired in my freelance rototilling days when the homeowner wanted to be rid of them and told me to run the tiller right over them. “You can’t kill those old things,” she’d said. Their continued prominence throughout my garden 30 years later is a testament to her faith – or her disgust.
I am proud to say I have recently entered my newest phase and have embraced it with enthusiasm. It is the Bartleby, the Scrivner gardening phase. For those who can’t quite place old Bartleby, a creation of Herman Melville, he’s know for saying “I would prefer not to.” And what a wonderfully freeing phrase that is. Turns out more is not better when it comes to square feet of weed patches. I am downsizing. Weeding out the weed patches. Returning to small and charming. Phlox are great, but they’re not the only flower in the garden. At least they won’t be when I’m done.
Pen Campbell lives in Benton Harbor.