The Self-Taught Gardener: A backward glance

Advice from Lee Buttala, our Self-Taught Gardener, to all his misguided fellow gardeners: Learn to live in the moment!

While I was on vacation in Nantucket, a bit of summer reading and several garden tours left my mind relaxed enough to think about the nature of being a gardener. As I roamed Nantucket and visited some glorious gardens, a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road stuck with me. In this work, the famous African-American writer dissects notions of race and differentiation, and the nature of her community often lamenting about its own members, “My people, my people.” Hurston, whose opinions on race and civil rights were complicated to say the least, struggled with the notion that all people had to be seen through the prism of race, and not as individuals. And her focus on individualism has merit, as much today as back when she wrote her book.

This moment in a Nantucket garden will serve as a memory long after the moment itself has passed.

I found myself paraphrasing this lament and thinking, “my fellow gardeners, my fellow gardeners,” for gardeners almost universally cling to a behavior that has little merit: we hold the glories of moments past in our garden and future possibilities higher than the beauty of the present moment. Every visit to a garden seems to open with a statement from its creator that if only you had been here last week when the lilies were in bloom, or last year when the summer was cooler, versus the present moment, you would see its true beauty. Or to come three months hence, when the dahlias are in bloom.

I can look at this moment in my garden and see the weeds that require removal, but in my memory I will only recall the glory of the moment.

In my experience, the gardener sees the shortcomings of the present while the visitor sees the garden for all that it offers in the moment. Without the past to draw from, what lies in front of us shines, for it is not subsumed by the thought of past glory, a thought colored and enhanced by the passage of time, nor by the promise of an idealized future yet to come. While this romanticization of the past and future is understandable, it casts a cloud over the beauty of the present and minimizes the joy of every moment in the garden.

Here again in my own garden, the camera removes my worries about edging a border and all the other things that need to be done, and shows me the beauty that lies before me.

When I lament my people on this front, it is not without an understanding of my own complicity in this act. When people ask to see the chaotic and raucous garden that remains at my house in the Berkshires, I always claim it is not the moment to see it. It is unweeded, unmown, and needs attention before it merits a visit. I rarely show pictures that capture its unkempt state and the beauty that comes with that, focusing instead on close-ups of flowers that call to mind the lines of Wordsworth’s Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Childhood, in which past glories come to light and are seen with a youthful eye capable of seeing beauty for all that it offers. How can the present ever compete with our youthful, romantic notions of beauty? But in his poem, Wordworth commends a movement forward from such nostalgic myopia.

“Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind,

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be,

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering,

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.” 

Every time I look at a flower or grass in bloom or seed, I think of Wordsworth’s ode. For the full poem, click here.

I have struggled with these lines, while weeding in the garden, while rereading them on my bed in Nantucket early one morning, and every day as I try to see the world through both lenses, not losing sight of the past, but finding something worth seeing in the present that moves my understanding of the world forward, allowing me to see a richer present worth inhabiting. It is this maturity of vision, as a gardener and as a person, to which we all aspire. It is my belief that we should hold dearly to the full-heartedness of memory, and to use it to see the present with a similar fullness of spirit.

The effusiveness of some flowers captured through what appears to be a concrete lens, shows how our memory can overlook the weeds and chaos sitting outside of our purview.

And now it is time for me to go back to weeding and managing the landscape that lies before me.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.