Wednesday, October 13, 2010


or Micro-Mastery

One of the feverfew plants in my garden has decided to bloom a second time this year—not an entirely unexpected event, although I didn't exactly plan any parties around it, either.  Whereas the stalk that bloomed in June stood up properly, the fall-blooming stalk isn't so lucky.  The sun has shifted, and now the plant has to lean over to reach the light.  The flowers have tilted at an angle to the almost horizontal stem.

A lot of my garden plants end up tilting at sunlight.  A small townhouse garden surrounded by walls is essentially a checkerboard of micro-climates with the added trick that the squares morph spontaneously from one climate to another as the seasons change.  In a place with a short growing season, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but in an environment where I can reasonably expect some plants to continue blooming into December (go, Wild Thing autumn sage!), it really kind of is.  Light is the biggest issue.  Areas that receive full sun all summer might be in full shade all winter; flowers that bloom happily while the sun shines from the north begin leaning desperately toward the light when it heads back south again.  I'm not sure whether I'm learning to garden so much as learning my garden—learning which incredibly specific needs each square foot of ground has and finding what will thrive in that one tiny, idiosyncratic space.

It's a lot like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.  (Really.)  I've finished book after book of the collected puzzles over the last few years—enough that now I can generally finish the Sunday puzzle in about 30 minutes, or maybe more if the Sunday morning pancakes are especially tasty and distracting.  It's not as if I actually know the answers, though—for the most part I've just learned what to expect from the New York Times crossword.  I feel like I could meet Will Shortz, the puzzle editor, and be in comfortable mental territory.  We would have a fascinating conversation about French needle cases (a four-letter word starting with E:  etui), and I would be able to supply every third word or so in his sentences; one of those words, I can tell you now, would be Esso; chances are good that another one would be snee.  I am familiar with Shortz's style, his editing, the bent of the clues he approves from his different puzzle authors.  But give me an older puzzle edited by Eugene Maleska and I'll be sneaking peeks at the answer key in short order.  I haven't mastered puzzles in general, just (more or less) the New York Times crossword as edited by Will Shortz.

Similarly, an elderly friend (who would be most upset with me if she knew I was calling her elderly) recently moved house for the first time in about 50 years.   For weeks she complained that the new house was confusing—the light switches were in the wrong places, the drawers weren't where they ought to be, the dishes weren't in the right cupboards.  While those of us who have been more nomadic have learned that you just have to keep opening (different) cupboard doors and eventually dishes will appear, it was a shock to my friend to learn that she hadn't mastered the art of living in Houses in General but just of living in one particular house.   

One of my favorite lessons from gardening is how limited mastery is.  You learn to work with a particular location, to enhance the gifts of your little plot of earth, but you don't necessarily master gardening at large, any more than you ever master living:  you just master (if you're lucky) the art of living within your own set of circumstances for right now.  A well-suited plant adapts to new demands with remarkable grace.  The feverfew may be leaning and twisting and growing in strange directions, none of which will show up in a botany text or plant catalog or internet database, yet it is every inch a feverfew, fulfilling its genetic destiny, living out its feverfewhood, no matter at what angle.  It has mastered the art of blooming in October, 2010, in a tiny little corner of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And that's all anyone could expect it to do.


  1. As you anticipate the answer to the crossword clue, so we anticipate a quirky interesting post that will reward us for reading. You do have a gift for bringing out something unexpected each time!

  2. Thank you, EE—that's so kind of you. I always appreciate your comments!

  3. Blessings to the feverfew to inspire in us the rules of nature (there aren't any)- don't look for straight lines and 90 degree turns - if you must have sunshine then bend and twist and appear to be at odds with your neighbor plant - then do a little self examination and realize that diversity is a real life natural thing!
    Just my opinion....

  4. It's real life natural—and incredibly beautiful.