“I am Part or Particle of God.” — R.W. Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes) – which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
These lofty thoughts were penned by 19th-century philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Once upon a time, it would appear, in these very United States, when people sought diversion or inspiration, they took a walk in the woods. This was ages ago, before life lived in front of screens – movie, television and computer – began.
The question is: Can the creations of Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Bill Gates – to which we are increasingly beholden – inspire us half as much as a walk in the woods?
Such ruminations are the natural consequence of browsing used book stores and perusing volumes such as “An Age of Flowers: Nature, Sense & Sentiment in Victorian America” (Chatham Press, 1975). Written by Doris Swarthout, this book was published just as ecological awareness was dawning and the so-called “save the planet” movement had begun. Swarthout believed that the new environmentalists of the 1970s were enlightened, sober incarnations of their more fanciful Victorian counterparts.
In the 1800s, John Burroughs confidently wrote: “At least one thing is certain as the result of man’s sojourn on this planet: He is becoming more and more at home on it, more and more on good terms with the nature around him.” This premature optimism was expressed long before the dangers of pollution were exposed. Yet the thought behind these words still rings true, especially among gardeners and guardians of the Earth.
Veteran gardeners, as opposed to novices, are on such good terms with nature, so at home in it, that they do not require eye-popping color in their gardens. Just look at the Japanese garden, which contains color only as it represents seasonal change, as in briefly flowering azaleas and peach trees or in the quickly vanished golds and reds of leaves on deciduous trees this time of year. Virtually all plants in the Japanese garden are evergreens – such as juniper and pine – that change little in appearance from one season to the next. The reason for this is that the Japanese garden seeks to imitate the natural landscape of Japan which, when viewed from a distance, is basically green throughout the year.
Veteran gardeners everywhere, I suspect, especially nowadays, gravitate toward native plants. The English garden everyone seems to want was first conceived in Victorian England by Gertrude Jekyll only a hundred years ago. The English garden’s claim to fame was that it contained the same species of plants that would be encountered when walking through the English countryside. Yes, many of these plants had nice flowers, and certainly they bloomed better under the gardener’s watchful eye than in the wild. But, just the same, they were mostly plants native to England.
There are more than 7,000 species of plants native to California, which is more than the number found in the other 47 continental states combined. Among these 7,000 plants, there are more than enough to create a California garden that could match up with the most of English of English gardens. People who complain that gardens of California natives lack color are unfamiliar with the incredible wildflowers, which, grown from seed, provide color from late winter to early summer. There are also California native perennials, such as irises, roses, penstemons, mallows and monkey flowers – to name a few – which should keep the color-conscious happy the rest of the year.
But here, again, we are missing the point. Gardens should not require color to make their proprietors happy. In fact, color is often a source of anxiety in the garden, rather than a cause of celebration. Recently, several dozen azaleas and cylamens in full bloom were introduced into a garden that had formerly lacked vibrant color. Immediately, those familiar with the garden started to fret. “But how long will the azaleas flower?” they asked in trepidation, and “Will the cyclamen flower like that again next year?” “There, there,” a Victorian would have calmed them. “The plants will do what they are meant to do, in complete accordance with nature. That knowledge, even more than flowers, should sustain us admirably.”
Tip of the week: The Victorians were great dryers and preservers of flowers. A hundred years ago, this is how they did it: After cutting flowers, they dried them out thoroughly at room temperature for an hour or two (wet flowers will not keep their color), then pressed them between pieces of blotting paper for eight to 10 days, changing the paper halfway through the pressing process.

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