Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Arranged Suburban Marriages

“Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men,
Go into the suburbs and never come out again,
Who lose their pretty faces, and dim their pretty eyes,
Because no one has skill or courage to organize.

What do these pretty women suffer when they marry?
They bear a boy who is like Uncle Harry,
A girl who is like Aunt Eliza, and not new,
These old, dull races must breed true.

I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run;
I would steal their dull clothes and go away,
And leave the pretty naked things to play.

Then I would make a contract with hard Fate
That they see all the men in the world and choose a mate,
And I would summon all the pipers in the town
That they dance with Love at a feast, and dance him down.

From the gay unions of choice
We'd have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice.
The World whips frank, gay love with rods,
But frankly, gaily shall we get the gods. “

- Anna Wickham, Meditation at Kew, 1921

Parts of my backyard garden are like an arranged marriage between incompatible plants - and work as well together as you'd expect under such circumstances. Once I insisted on putting things together that nature never would. For example, I’ve tried to grow a weeping cherry tree at the foot of my waterfall. But the soil it too hot and dry there, especially now that much of the shade canopy has been lost as the giant pine in the center of the yard self-prunes to survive.

Once, I planted tulip bulbs next to watsonia bulbs in the place where the cherry tree died more than ten years ago. Natives to South Africa, watsonia (aka sword lily) need little water, thrive in hot weather, and survive in any old soil. Tulips, not so much. Once I fertilized the crap out of everything I planted, mistakenly believing all growing things liked hefty doses of chemical vitamins. In my harsh climate unsustainable things like cherry trees need richly composted soil and appreciate fertilizers. Natives aren’t fussy about soil, and clearly are not amused by fertilizer.

I’ve always loved this meditation best of all Anna Wickham’s poems. I’m particularly drawn to the first two lines. I think she was way ahead of her time about the effect of dull suburbia that Betty Friedan captured 30 years later in The Feminine Mystique (1965). She described suburbia as modeled in the prototypical post-war suburb Levittown PA, where The Greatest Generation(tm) - our parents - settled to breed boys like Uncle Harry, and to mow identical lawns. Fortunately, one metaphor that doesn’t fit my garden these days is the dull suburban landscape – boxwood hedges flanking the front door and each boundary between yards marked with singularly unimaginative borders of hothouse pastel button-shaped flowers.

When I grew up, Mrs. G, a few houses up the hill across the street used to spend summer afternoons with an old screwdriver and a plastic bucket, crawling around her front yard and meticulously digging up dandelions that dared to encroach on the uniform green patch nobody was permitted to cut across. Perhaps she was pretty once, but my recollection of her is a woman in a faded gingham apron, dulled by her narrow life.

I graduated from high school the year Betty’s book came out and changed my life. Those were the days when Mrs. G embodied the opposite of Goethe's man who could stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.

But – holy crap – who wants to groom a flat green slab nobody may touch - especially in the dry desert my yard is becoming? My yard is decorated this rainy season, by yellow oxalis and dandelions, both unruly yellow weeds. They are my yard’s stubborn anarchists, sewing insurgent chaos for me amid a succession of ordinary days. I may not be ready to dance naked in the sun – but to this day, I can’t bear to dig up a dandelion.


kate smudges said...

Considering Anna Wickham wrote in 1921, this was pretty revolutionary. As I was reading the poem, I was certain it was written by a contemporary of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem.

It certainly doesn't paint a pretty picture. My mum somehow broke out of this mold and went off to university. She wasn't very popular among the neighbourhood housewives who were certain her children were being neglected.

I'd be most happy at the moment with some dandelions in my garden. Anything but snow - I am tired of white.

I sent an email to you - it was rejected twice so I used my gmail account to send it to you. If you receive it, could you please let me know? Thanks Kate

Kylee said...

I'll have to admit, I've been known to dig up a dandelion in the garden, but in the yard, well, they just make me smile, so I let them be. :-)

Weeping Sore said...

I've got to get my tech support/spouse to investigate. Try this address: mayers1@juno.com
But no way am I mailing you a dandelion ;)

kate smudges said...

I've just sent off the message to this address.

No dandelions in the mail? sob... sob...

greeny said...

WS, I am always amused, enlightened, lightened, and amazed in general when I come around and read your blog.
I have had so little engagement with women of your calibre, through my own choices of course. I appreciate your way of expression and your thought process.
Thanks for sharing yourself in your gentle, yet powerful way.
Hope that all made sense....

Martha in Michigan said...

The way you feel about and act towards dandelions is how I react to gill-over-the-ground / Creeping Charlie / ground ivy. It's a member of the mint family and spreads just as aggressively, but I don't care. It has long grown under the evergreens that screen my compost piles, and I am deliberately letting it take over my backyard. It has tiny, delicate, orchid-like, purple and blue flowers. In the spring, when I mow high, the lawn is a riot of blue (and yellow dandelions) that is just gorgeous. It seems to flower most of the growing season, although I lose much of that where I mow lower. I let it grow taller up fences and under trees just to enjoy the flowers. When you mow it, it releases this lovely, spicy odor. Most people would call it a weed, but I think it's a wildflower. Then again, my veggie garden is in raised beds and thus somewhat immune. I might think differently if I were battling this invader there.

No Rain said...

The thing is, dull is not all bad. As we become more enamored with everything exotic, foreign and different, I don't think all the folks who live what they call "full, exciting lives" are any happier than Uncle Harry and Aunt Eliza. Maybe the dullness is in the eye of the beholder rather than the beholden. I've sought out to have a dull life and have never felt I've missed a thing.