Sunday, September 4, 2011

Solo, a capella

or Immediacy

Never underestimate the power of a voice.  That's the biggest lesson I carried away from a handful of years as a late-night radio announcer.  You'd "pot down" the mic, and right away the phone would light up.  People you'd never met would call in and begin one-sided conversations, telling you startlingly personal details about their lives—tales of heartache old and new, confessions of character flaws, catalogues of romantic conquests and failures (and once a yarn about a haunted house*). When I mentioned the calls to a friend, she said, "Can you wonder at it?  You're a presence in their home, a voice in their living room, speaking to them.  Radio is a lot more immediate than TV, where the news announcers are contained in a box.  Just a voice by itself is a lot more intimate."

Just a voice by itself.  I found myself thinking about that this week as I was looking at the little-leaf garden sage, Salvia officinalis 'Minimus'.  Like most of my kitchen herbs, this one is growing in a container, where it can be moved as the season changes either to chase or to avoid the sun.  Right now it's standing more or less alone against the big urn, where its sueded leaves show beautifully.  Their gentle green has been an oasis of cool through the last days of the hottest August on record.

The sage took a while this year to recover from last winter's damage.  It hasn't had blooms or pizzazz to offer, just the texture and color of its leaves, as distinctive as the timbre of a voice.  It's like listening to someone singing a capella—a lullaby, perhaps, or a Christmas carol, maybe a song to make a task go faster.  Or perhaps a child soprano in a chapel with magnificent stained glass windows and soaring rafters, where despite the grandeur of the surroundings, those clear, simple tones reach out and draw you into them.  Their immediacy, the intimacy of the sound, is hard to account for.  It's just a voice, by itself.  I have not yet reached the point of telling the salvia startlingly personal details of my life, but those days may not be far distant.

In a small garden you'd think that everything would be intimate, that the whole experience would touch you directly.  It doesn't, though.  The garden is still basically a "public" space writ small—a personal space, yes, maybe an idiosyncratic one, with all its elements hand chosen by the gardener, but it's still designed with broader principles in mind.  Jill at Landscape Lover writes about theatricality in large gardens, and to a much lesser extent a smaller garden tries to be theatrical as well.  It's crafted to look a certain way, to create a certain type of experience.

Small doesn't equal intimate.  Intimacy needs something that speaks directly to you, that reaches you with a kind of immediacy and draws you gently in.

It needs something like a voice—a voice, by itself.

* Apparently—and why should I doubt my source?—the University of Colorado's parapsychology team drinks a lot of beer.**
** Did you know that the University of Colorado had a parapsychology team? Neither did I.


  1. I like that description of the subtle sage as a single voice in your garden. Its foliage really is beautiful - and it's scent and flavour even more so...

    Your observation about intimacy vs. a "public" space writ small seems very acute, and I can definitely use that principle on the few moments when I turn an editing eye on my own garden.

  2. What a beautifully crafted post, Stacy. You have a wonderful way of looking at the world and describing it!

  3. Very lovely and apt description of sage. There is a big mound of it at the bottom of my back steps... A friend and I were sitting there the other day trying to come up with things to cook with it, and we said some brown butter chicken things, and some blackberry things, but not much else. Now I see why I love it anyway - it really does feed you in a way, by being soft and quiet and deep and fragrant.

  4. I agree that some plants speak to us. Lamb's ear does that to me. It's sometimes a pain, but I will always have it in my garden because it calls to me - to look at it, to touch it, to see it individually as well as a companion. Yes, some plants can have a voice, speaking to us intimately.

  5. Startling sage leaves - and I suddenly realise that blogs have that 'pictures are better on radio' quality. As I write, as you read, just the 2 of us have a virtual conversation. Then the conversation rolls over to the next 'Stacy and reader' conversation.

  6. Lovely, Stacy. Reading you always calms me down (and slows me down too). I grow the purple sage but love the sheen and texture on yours. May need to add it.

    So were you really, really famous like Frasier Crane?

  7. Your close-up of the sage leaves draw me in, and yes, I can her the sage talking! It seems well cared for and content.

  8. One of my favourite meals from my childhood is roast chicken with sage & onion stuffing (reconstituted from a packet). I now throw in some extra chopped fresh sage. Yours looks delicious.

  9. Søren, I've been looking at a lot of books on small gardens, and the difference between those very polished gardens in the glossy photos and more ordinary ones seems to be a matter of degree rather than of kind. I think most gardens are trying primarily to convey a certain impression, and the moments that “speak” are fewer and farther between—which is probably the way it should be.

    Janet, thank you—I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it!

    Zoe, the brown butter chicken things and blackberry things sound like they would make having a giant sage bush worthwhile even without all its other virtues... I like the way you describe it—sage is that rare plant that feeds almost every one of the senses.

    Holley, it's funny (and lovely) how one plant out of a whole garden-ful can touch a chord so strongly. I think sometimes that the touchable ones like lamb's ears reach us more directly than the “look only” kinds.

  10. Diana, I hadn't thought of blogs that way—what a gorgeous irony, that this medium that is broadcast worldwide actually has the (virtual) immediacy of one-to-one conversation. I'll have to think about that one some more.

    Dave, the leaves have such a wonderful texture. The fuzzy bits (sorry to go all technical on you) aren't as coarse as on “normal” sage. One of the other things I love about it is that it doesn't spend the winter looking like a warren of mournful, lop-eared bunnies the way regular sage does.

    Alas, I wasn't even remotely famous, except perhaps among a motley bunch of insomniacs.

    Deb, the plants in containers definitely get a different kind of nurture than the ones left to fend for themselves in the ground.

    b-a-g, that was one of my favorites, too (but with cornbread stuffing)! Wait—what do I mean “was”?