The Self-Taught Gardener: Quietly overtaken

Good advice from our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala: Nature renews herself. So can we.

A late season snow causes a willow to topple, a bear appears in our garden in the center of Ashley Falls, around the country wild jackals are seen entering city parks now emptied of human users. The world around us seems to be searching for a new equilibrium between the footprint of humankind and the actions of the natural world. Just like a cleared patch of earth in our garden is quickly greened up by plantlets that find their way forward from the seed bank that each bed contains. Nature truly does abhor a vacuum, and quickly responds to changing conditions.

And in the slowed universe that we all have come to inhabit this spring as we are sequestered away, it is easier than ever to observe nature’s ability to seize new opportunities. This has become apparent in my own garden, where cleared beds, prepped for new plantings in a burst of activity one quiet day, are quickly repopulated by celandine poppies and wood violets, but such activity is also evident in the broader landscape that surrounds us. While some public sites remain closed (the grounds of the Berkshire Botanical Garden and many of the sites managed by the Trustees), others (such as Hollister House Garden in Washington, Conn., the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Farmington, Conn, Bartholomew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls, and Edith Wharton’s The Mount in Lenox) are open for visitation with some restrictions. For me, visiting gardens and natural sites wherever possible this spring has provided solace and a sense of healing that makes me all the more appreciative of the resources that surround us in this region.

The pleached lime walk at The Mount is civilized and controlled, and a study in humankind’s effort to manage nature.

One morning this week, Brian and I set off to explore The Mount. After traversing the lime walk, an allée of pleached and tightly clipped lindens that remind me of parks in Paris and Berlin (prime examples of humankind’s desire to manage and shape nature), Brian and I headed into the surrounding woods to leave the civilized world behind for an hour. We were quickly reminded that the natural world has its own way of filling in the blanks and dealing with destruction and decay. The loop that heads off from Wharton’s garden into the woods feels like the setting for a scene out of one of her novels, where a serpentine path might lead her characters into the wilderness where plants are left to their own devices to make sense of the world around them. Here, trees topped by storms over the years are left on the ground to decay and to provide a host site for an array of mosses with varied greens that capture the very essence of spring. Other felled trees provide an opening for sun to break through the canopy, and a field of wild ramps has overtaken the area, creating a forager’s dream. A few hundred feet down the path, a trout lily puts forth its mottled leaves. Further on, we see blue cohosh and the unfurling fronds of young ferns coming into their own as the greening of the season continues.

A small trout lily raises its head amongst its mottled foliage and will soon break into flower.

These moments, beautiful on their own, come at an important moment for us. Weeks into sequestration and isolation, we are worn down by the uncertainty of what lies ahead and how we will adapt to a world that seems to change daily. These moments move us forward through the world, transforming unexpected actions and events into moments not of despair, but of opportunity. And while certainty is not at hand, a sense of faith in our ability to heal and accept change can carry us through.

These cut logs, a perfect host for moss, almost take on the form of an art installation by Andy Goldsworthy.

As we arrive home from The Mount, we pass the point on our driveway where a willow had stood only days before and is now found leaning against the house, shattered into pieces large and small. We looked at each other and saw not what yesterday would have been viewed as bad news, but what tomorrow might look like an opportunity for something new.

When we saw the remains of the willow, up against the house (miraculously not pushing through any panes of glass), Brian and I quickly asked how this change would impact what lies ahead. We knew the next day would involve cleaning it up and what happens beyond that, only time will tell.

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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.