A Rose Ramble, a Rose Rent
I was digging in the garden plots around the back porch yesterday, taking ownership of my home. I still feel like I'm just staying here, much of the time, not like I own my home. I'm still getting used to the idea. And I am restless, and wanting to travel again soon. I planted a new rose bush behind the porch, where, when it eventually blossoms, the scents will come into the porch on the evening breeze.
The earth my home was built on is old glacial outwash, once farmed, long empty before the builders came. It is hard-packed clay, mixed with rounded gravel and river-smoothed stones ranging in size from pebbles up to boulders. Farming here must have been hardscrabble. The clay packs so tight and hard that rain can run right off it rather than soak in. I was trenching out the empty spaces between those bushes planted by the previous owner. I am making flower beds, and creating new topsoil. Dig out the old, put in a new mix of softer, water-absorbent soil, a mix of peat moss and potting soil and some of the original dirt. I've got a few trenches dug, and some new rose bushes put in, with plans to do more as the weather finally warms towards spring.
My father was always a gardener, it was his major hobby, his relaxation, his therapy. He loved bright flowers, especially tulips. Red in all its varieties was his favorite color. I remember from when I was a boy: when my father was working as a doctor, he would come home after work, change into old clothes, and go out and work in the garden for awhile every evening before dinner. I learned early in life that this was a kind of healing magic for him, although he would have just called it relaxing. I understand earth magic in my bones: kneading bread and digging in the dirt are both earth magic. My father would go out into the garden for awhile, shed all the cares and worries and bad experiences of his work day, literally put those emotions into the dirt; then he would come in for dinner happy, his sense of humor restored. My dad was renowned for his sense of humor, and this is how he balanced it, I now know.
When I moved into my new home last year, one thing I did was to transplant some of my father's flowers and other plants. I transplanted some bulbs, and a couple of hosta from under the old pine trees. I brought over the pink rosebush that he had grown out in front of hte house for many years. Whenever it produced a blossom, he cut it and gave it my mother. He did this even after we'd had to put her in the Alzheimer's care facility; he cut the rose, put it in a little vase or glass of water, and drove it over to her. So that rose bush remains very special to me. It is a memorial now to both of my parents. It lives near the foot of the crabapple tree shading my front walkway.
I've loved roses forever. As plants they fascinate me, and as scent-givers they fill the air with intoxication. I remember: Visiting the Berkeley Rose Garden in its amphitheater in the hills above the Bay, spending an afternoon making photographs, the attar was overwhelming, even consciousness-altering. As symbols, roses carry more meaning and history than than can be ever listed. They are life itself. The bees tell the news to the roses, every summer, and the roses waft it on.
Thus it was that I purchased new rose bushes and planted them here last spring. One of them died over the summer, never very hardy; yet the other rose thrived, and produced many blossoms. My father's pink rose bush, which I tended with care over the summer, and which I thought would need a year or two, to recover from being transplanted, before it produced any new blossoms, actually did produce a bud near the end of October. If we hadn't had our first frost right after All Hallow's, last fall, I would have had a rare November rose. Thus does life go on, even in the darkest of days.
So, now I've got two rose bushes that I mulched and protected over the winter. Even though the crocuses are now coming up, and so are the other bulbs I planted last fall, the rose bushes look dry still. Roses require patience: they look dead in spring for some time; then you see green start to creep up the branches, eventually filling out their tips with new tendrils, and here a bud, there a blossom. Roses need to be pruned in fall, not in spring: by year's end, you know which of the branch-posts have no life in them, and need to be removed to strengthen the rest of the plant. I'm told I must pinch off any bulbs on the new roses this year, to firm up the roots and fill out of the leaves; but I don't know if I have the strength to put off seeing the new roses bloom till next season. I struggle with that kind of delayed gratification, regarding this flowering heaven I am trying to create around my home.
I will this month plant several more roses around the house, especially around the porch sides, so in the autumn evenings, if they bloom this year, they'll scent the air as I sit out there watching the sunset light fade to pink and purple. This is the festival of the changing of the light.
Each rose plant is a different variety, giving me a range of colors and odors. They are all bush roses rather than climbers. My father's pink rose is a tea rose, I believe. I don't know much about varietals yet.
I'm not going to be a rose breeder, cross-pollinating and nursing new varieties, pure or mixed. That's a time-intensive hobby in which I have no interest. All my garden plants need to be durable, not finicky. I travel too often. The plants need to be able to withstand benign neglect. I don't even know all the names of their varieties, or what's available. First-time home-gardener's ignorance is a factor here. My inexperience leads me towards sensuality, a garden ramble, rather than towards mastery of any rose's intentioned rent.
For me this is all about stopping to smell the roses along the way. it's about creating a place where I can stop and smell the roses as much as I desire.
Now I more deeply understand what my father's gardening meant to him, and what it gave back to him. Gardening is still a new practice in my life. I've never owned a home before, or had my own flower beds that I could do with as I wished. I've lived in many apartments, I've been homeless or traveling a lot, I've lived on the road, I've lived in trailers, in spare rooms, in the back of the truck, in a tent. I'm a nomad by nature, I have the wanderlust, the restless feet. I'm semi-nomadic even in the toughest times. I've never been able to create my own gardens before now. I'm discovering gardening's sensual pleasures and rewards. This is my home base here, for now, for who knows how long; thus my goal is to make it into some place I want to come back to, each time I return. The beauty of these gardens is part of that design.
I'm also making stone feaures in the garden, a little bit like a Japanese Zen garden, and a little bit like a modern sculpture garden. Think Isamu Noguchi, think Henry Moore, think Andy Goldsworthy. I continue to build and add to the stone features in my garden plots. I've already placed stones gathered from many favorite places, sacred places, gathered during my travels: pink granite from the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming; a slab of green serpentine from coastal California; red quartzite from Devil's Lake in Wisconsin; dreamstones from Cailfornia, Oregon, and Michigan. Some of the rocks my mother gathered are also being worked into the garden.
The goal is to be able to sit on my steps or my porch and look at the stone patterns, the flowers, and be at peace, be tranquil, be in beauty. One of my favorite Navajo prayers, a long excerpt from the Night Chant, concludes: Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to my sides, beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty all around me. It is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty. That's one of my life-long favorite prayers, sending out for the gods to hear what I most deeply value. Beauty, harmony: hozho.
I remember: my father had a strawberry patch at our home in Ann Arbor. It was in a raised bed between railroad ties in the back corner near the fence. We all loved strawberries. My father had a serious sweet tooth. Strawberry shortcake with cream or ice cream, made with his own home-grown strawberries, was sheer bliss. I still love strawberries, but am content to get them at the farmer's market, rather than try to grow them myself.
I live next to the woods, shading the floodplain of Turtle Creek, with deer and rabbits passing through every night. To grow vegetables or fruit would require fencing the garden beds, and I'm not ready to do that just yet. Because my photography and other creative work takes me on the road several times a year, I am garden for beauty and durability, so perennial flowers are the main thing for now, including the roses. When I pull into the driveway, returning home after a road trip, the bright colors will be there, in summer, surrounding my home with beauty in the sun and wind.
Stone and flower and water and light: the elements of the garden. It is finished in beauty.