Friday, January 18, 2008

Victory of a Prudent Gardener

“That ignorance must be banished
What monster is that?
It is the Sphinx.
Why does it have the bright face of a virgin, the feathers of a bird, and the limbs of a lion?
Ignorance of things has taken on this appearance: which is to say that the root cause of so much evil is threefold. Some men are made ignorant by levity of mind, some by seductive pleasure, and some by arrogance of spirit. But they who know the power of the Delphic message slit the relentless monster's terrible throat. For man himself is also a two-footed, three-footed, four-footed thing, and the first victory of the prudent man is to know what man is.”
Emblem 188, Alcatio's Book of Emblems

Back in the pre-internet days, men remembered things. Emblems were ways to encode an entire story in a single picture. Often the story was a lesson or some spiritual guidance. One early book that compiled a bunch of these emblems in Latin is “a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems, each consisting of a motto (a proverb or other short enigmatic expression), a picture, and an epigrammatic text. Alciato's book was first published in 1531…” Check out Alciato's Book of Emblems for more. The emblem above signifies that “ignorance must be banished”, and instructs on the threefold evils that cause ignorance: Levity of Mind; Seductive Pleasure; or Arrogance of Spirit. The mythical monster, seen above attacking my garden in winter, combines them all.

Contemplating the “threefold causes” is an exercise in deciding whether one form of ignorance is better or worse than another. For me, no question that the last is the worst kind of ignorance. Having a sense of humor, or a sense of pleasure, might be a sufficient reward to remain ignorant. At least you’d have a good time before you were banished, or before some gay priestess slit your throat. The arrogant ignorant (Insert your own contemporary example here) seem to cause the most harm these days, perhaps because such harm is so avoidable.

I’m feeling a strong seasonal pull, the subliminal tug on the arm into the dark ying of the year. Where I live, the night sky is never clearer than winter. Orion strides across the Southern sky earlier each evening. A clarity of sky leads to a clarity of mind in some of those short but dark nights of the soul. And such thoughts lead me, inevitably, to foggy ignorance. Darkness can also be a metaphor for unenlightened minds, blighted by ignorance as sure as some of my tender plants were murdered one recent night by Jack Frost.

Ignorant people don’t grow, just like my garden these days. Seeing my once-vibrant yard reduced to silence makes me feel ignorant of Nature. Just at the point where I thought I had learned some stuff, the weather still surprises.

The promise of soothing soft rain for days on end – made earlier in this young year – has already been broken. Things look dry; even the air is dry because all the moisture escapes into the universe on cold nights if it’s not tucked cozily beneath a layer of cloud covers. The air in the morning is chilly and bumpy without the softening scents carried aloft on dewy morning breezes.

Winter is our rainy season, and I depend on winter rains not only to nourish the trees, but to wash away many of my unspeakable garden mistakes and crimes. I have not been spared this cleansing forgiveness so far this year. I can still see where I should have done something different and avoided harm. Bodies of bulbs remain unburied. Frost damaged dead tips have not been trimmed – correctly it turns out, because cutting back the dead branch will only coax it to grow; it would be sending the unborn buds to a premature death like their predecessors. But even if not cutting frost damage the right thing to do, it looks like a lot of bodies strewn on a battlefield long after the battle has ended.

Here is a picture of a jumble of rocks across the canyon in somebody else’s back yard. You can see a cleared space at the bottom – somebody clearly lives inside, even if it isn’t a hibernating bear.

As I turn the page on the calendar to 2008 something hibernating in the most primitive cave of my brain begins to stir. I can already feel the days getting longer. Soon, it will be time for me to banish ignorance and slay the mythical symbol of ignorance before it does my garden more harm. Then again, as a prudent gardener, I should probably wait until March before concluding there will be no more frost. I’ll settle in to wait two more months before I plant those nifty seeds calling to me from their storage cupboard. Winter is what it is.


Martha in Michigan said...

Up here, I have been enjoying the glitter of full moon on snow for a few days. I can't say why it thrills me, even or especially from the warmth of my house, but it does. I bask in it from the kitchen at night before retiring and again from my bedroom window upon awakening.

This snow covers the viburnum buds and the iris leaves that were profligately produced during our recent 60-degree weather. Fooled again! I laugh at your March end of frost danger.

When I first moved here 30 years ago, the safe planting date was May 31. I routinely plant tomato seedlings by April 30 now, although in walls-o'-water just in case. The climate has changed. And recent talk from Marylanders makes me realize that it no longer has the climate of our youth, either. What year was it that the snow was so heavy we were out of school for over a week? That's not happening anymore.

Some day, you'll beg to join me here in the new temperate zone!

kate said...

I enjoyed this post and the three causes of ignorance's hard remaining a prudent gardener when one wants so badly to get back outside.

I hope you get some rain. It sounds as if you need some - one year ago, I was in San Diego. It felt heavenly and far from winter-like to me.