The Spiritual Gardener: They Live Among Us

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“I do not mean this book to be in any avoidable way disagreeable or querulous; but expressive generally of my native disposition – which, though I say it, is extremely amiable, when I’m not bothered…”

-John Ruskin, writing in Praeteritus –

I have the same disposition as the elegant Mr. Ruskin, amiable when not bothered, but I am a bit bothered today, as you will see in a moment.

We had some rather snappy weather this week, when I almost wished to be wearing an overcoat while walking from the parking structure to the office, but I can’t quite bear to start wearing my raincoat because from there it is a slippery slope to the heavy cashmere coat with scarf and gloves that means: winter.

But this weekend we had a lovely dash of Indian summer and both weekend days were sunny and mild. Perfect weather for hand-waxing one’s car, if you are old school enough to still be hand-waxing your cars and like the hard, shiny and durable finish it gives you to last the year, as I do.

This is the view from our porch in autumn, where we can loaf when we should be doing garden chores. It’s perfect for spying on squirrels in the trees.

I took a break from this hard work, as it can be rather monotonous and one is not as hearty as one used to be after all, and was sitting on the patio with Cosimo, just loafing and enjoying the pleasant weather, something that does not come naturally to either of us. Near our patio is a tree whose name I don’t know, in my still vast ignorance, and in fall it is full of tiny nutkins that are the size of a large blueberry. The squirrels love these, and we watched them chewing these up and arguing among themselves about who gets to strip each branch of its nuts. It must be very tiresome to be a squirrel. Cosimo particularly enjoyed watching them course to and fro in the tree overhead.  I was also enjoying watching the numerous birds that came to join the autumn feast.  In just the short time I was sitting there, I saw several robins, two blue jays, numerous mockingbirds, two mourning doves, a pair of woodpeckers and, would you believe it, a male cardinal join the nutfest in this busy tree.

But the spell of this momentary delight was broken when I heard the sound of shattering glass. I looked up and saw two young boys hurrying away from our yard and went to investigate. I found they had pitched a soft drink bottle onto our driveway for the fun of seeing it explode and atomize there into glass shards.

Right where my dog walks, and anyone who has looked after a dog with a cut paw knows how painful such an injury is. I was speechless for a moment and considered hollering at them, but decided I didn’t want to be that person. Our home is on the corner of two streets, one of them rather busy and the other is a route that schoolchildren walk to and from the middle school down that street. Every weekend, one of my first chores is to take a plastic bucket, walk the length of both street frontages and pick up all the rubbish and litter that has been dropped there during the week. This is a bitter little chore, which I am more than a little resentful about, and I like to get it out of the way first thing.  But I must say, what are people thinking, to be so mindless and callow?

We call this our Christmas Rose, because it blooms bravely all fall and usually has a (rather ragged) bloom or two even as Christmas approaches.

Once, when we had just moved here, I was working in the oval garden near the street corner and in the dirt I found a little silver pellet, like a tiny silver egg.  I looked at it quizzically for a moment; that’s odd, I thought, whatever can it be? I threw it in my weed bucket, but then found another and another, then I noticed there were literally hundreds of them, all over my garden.

What on earth, I thought, are these things? I cut one open and saw it was chewing gum, neatly shaped into an egg form and wrapped in its foil. And in a second I knew where they came from: the crosswalk guard who parks at the intersection in front of our house and stops traffic in all weather for the kids to safely navigate the crosswalk on the busy street. I had noticed she is a smoker and no doubt a gum-chewer too, and over the course of the last year she had deposited hundreds of spent gum wads in my lovely garden, one per day, flicked lazily out her car window.  I could see it all so clearly in my mind’s eye.

All the elegant tropicals have yet to be touched by a hard frost, though it cannot be long for them now, the poor dears.

I knelt there in the garden rather thunderstruck by the implications of this and wondering what to do about it.  But I soon developed a course of action.  On Monday morning, as the crosswalk guard was working her beat, I went up to her and introduced myself, said I just wanted to thank her personally for her selfless volunteerism, her admirable diligence in keeping the kids safe in all weathers and throughout the year, and so on.

She beamed with pride and thanked me for saying that, it meant a lot to her.  “And by the way,” I said, “if you happen to see any of the kids dropping litter on their way to or from school, feel free to ask them to pick it up again. It’s shocking the amount of trash and chewing gum and so on that I find in the garden, and I know they don’t mean to do it, the dears, and just need a gentle reminder sometimes.”

She assured me she would watch for that, agreed it was appalling how thoughtless and careless some people are.  And that was the end of the gum in the garden.

The other litter continued largely unabated, however, and has always included lots of beer cans and beer bottles that I assume are jettisoned from cars by teenagers who cannot arrive home with empties and put them in their parents’ recycle bins, where they might be noticed.  I observe with dismay that smokers here fling their cigarette butts out of their cars when they are through with them, rather than use their ashtrays, something that would almost never happen in the West.

I was shocked the first time I saw that. But not as shocked as the first time I saw someone, stopped at a red light, open their car door and empty a very full ashtray right into the intersection. Really? We do that here?  Good heavens, whatever next?

Likewise the hydrangeas soldier on, seemingly oblivious to the shortening days, like these handsome blues.

Philadelphia, I notice, has little golf cart-like vehicles with big vacuums mounted on them, and these patrol the streets of the city, sucking up discarded cigarette butts and litter.  It is much better than not picking them up, of course, but what a sorry commentary that they are needed.  I have traveled in some very poor countries around the world and most of them, though poor, would never experience or tolerate this kind of trashy behavior.

Another thing I notice a lot of that really bothers me (not to sound too crotchety), is the way so many people like to cut off another driver who is trying to change lanes, but not letting them in, I guess on the theory that they are teaching them some kind of lesson.  I always let people in, even though I know some of them are just exploiting the nice guys; I always wave cheerfully to them, too.  Maybe some of them pay it forward; I would like to think so.

I also have noticed, driving into Philadelphia, where the busy street goes through part of Chinatown, that the streets there are perfectly immaculate in all seasons.  That is because most days a few local citizens are out, wearing those conical hats that field workers wear in Asia, picking up every scrap of litter in their part of town.  They have also planted a dozen magnificent trumpet vines on the long brick wall around one of their schools, and how spectacular these vines look planted just where they should be, in blazing sun all day, covered in masses and masses of red trumpets and neatly trimmed and cut down in autumn.  Needless to say, graffiti is never tolerated there either.  Some people among us just have low standards, or low self-respect, or poor upbringing…or something.

Others, as they do in Chinatown, have higher standards and simply refuse to accept the poor behavior of others.

Society has always had both sorts, has it not, and every individual has to decide which group he or she wants to be in. So, I carefully swept up all the broken glass in our driveway, in solidarity with my friends in Chinatown that I so much admire.  Others can choose another way; for myself, I am going to stand with those who want to make things better. Civilization belongs to us, and it is worth a bit of sweeping up after our careless fellows, here and there.

And further to my theme that they live among us, the other day I was walking down our small town’s Main Street enjoying the fine fall weather. It was a Saturday and we were having a fall festival and the street was closed off and made into a big pedestrian mall.  Every conceivable shop or club or interest group in town had built a booth and the street had a very festive air.

And as I strolled along looking at all the interesting booths and the quirky things they were selling or advertising or promoting, I thought: “This is just great.  This is small town America at its best, and I just love walking here and looking at everything, talking to everybody.”  So I was in a mellow, expansive mood when I walked past a booth that had a big banner over its front, saying: “OUR BEAUTY IS INTERIOR!”

And I thought, “I wonder what that is, some sort of spa probably.”  Just then, the woman staffing the booth turned around and I saw that she was extremely disfigured and misshapen, by something that looked like the affliction the Elephant Man suffered from. So were her two colleagues, who were also working the booth.  All three of them smiled at me, at the same time.

What a godsend for the honeybees abelia is, blooming profusely all fall. Ours are positively swarmed with bees all fall.

I did not see that coming, but I smiled back and said good morning and asked her how they were doing, and so on. And while we were standing there chatting, I knew instantly what they were about, without needing to be told.  Instead of hiding from a society that would stare at externals and make them feel uncomfortable, they were showing up at a festival to ask the world to look past their exterior, and to consider instead the beauty of the person that is inside. I was powerfully moved by this, deeply impressed by the courage it took and the strength of character to challenge conventional attitudes that way.

And I was thinking about how all the really important aspects of beauty are internal and of course the least important ones are external.  It is something that we gardeners – especially we interior gardeners – are instinct with.  For us, beauty is interior too, all the really great beauty is, and I walked away with a happy smile on my face and a profound feeling of solidarity with these brave young women trying to change the way people see and think, and glad that they live bravely and happily among us.