Saturday, November 15, 2014

The moment of the poppy and the moment of the boxwood

… to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.

I've been thinking a lot about time recently (not surprisingly - my new book is coming out soon) and of course particularly as it relates to plants, spurred on by two ideas. First, the Remembrance Day poppy. We've all seen photos of the lovely display at the Tower of London -

- with many thousands of ceramic poppies representing the dead of World War One. But it's even more poignant to consider why Papaver rhoeas took on this symbolism in the first place: because they are the first flowers to recolonize the fields of Europe after the damage caused by warfare. You could say, melodramatically, that they sprout out of ground soaked in blood, or more realistically that they do well in soil that's been stirred up into mud and had all its layers disturbed and then been compacted by feet and hooves and heavy vehicles. They are tough little plants, determined and opportunistic; not long-lived individually, they store a seed bank in the ground and keep coming when all other plants give up. They are practically designed to be symbolic of battalions of soldiers dying and being replaced until the seed bank is exhausted.

Secondly, I read Adrian Higgins' excellent article on tree planting this week in the Washington Post, and was struck especially by this ending paragraph:
But if you want to be far-sighted, you could follow the example of Huw Crompton, the landscape architect behind a 15-acre plantation of boxwood north of London, installed for the express purpose of providing authentic material for baroque woodwinds. It should be ready for harvest [] by the middle of the next century.
We have all sorts of timelines in the garden - the oak tree planted for the enjoyment of the next generation; the radish we're going to harvest three weeks from now; the bulbs we put in this fall for next spring and many springs after that - and nature has them too. One of the joys of spending years in a place, whether it includes carefully cultivated beds or wild areas or both, is getting to know its patterns of growth intimately: trees that you plant yourself and watch grow into maturity, trees that succumb to disease or old age and die, thirty-year-old daffodils and tulips that last only a season, the weeds that just keep appearing no matter how often you pull them out, the mushrooms that pop up after a rain and then vanish. Change is good, and so is continuity; more importantly, you can find both in ancient trees and annual flowers - even an old plant alters its form every year, and flowers that die in a season leave seeds behind for new growth (if they aren't bred to be sterile, but that's a human innovation). So go outside and watch time happen, and find your place in it: be humble and be creative and be an agent of change and continuity; be a gardener.

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