Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Back to the Rough Ground

“We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!“
- Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

I’m wondering again if I have already failed the test of time. Not a great way to begin the long slow slide through a new year. Winter is a difficult time to have a garden, as I spend most of the time indoors.

When I do stroll through the yard on a mild sunny morning, I walk the rain-drenched, and wind-whipped paths seeming to notice only what has been lost: the deadheaded mums, the bloomed out resting rose bushes, and other evidence of death and dying. The gardens are a sorry mess, with small plants smashed by wind and rain and yet to recover. They seem to be sleeping in heaps on the ground like so many small neglected graves. Pretty rough ground.

How we see our gardens – and our lives - depends very much on our sense of time and the passage of time. When we consider it at all, we generally tend think of time as rectilinear – a nice straight line from the past behind us to the future ahead. Our present seems only a brief point on the timeline. Time is a flowing river. Because I recently did more than flip a page on a calendar - I began a whole new calendar - I can’t help but think of January as marking some kind of new beginning. The new calendar shouts “January!” like an announcement that I can have a fresh start; a second chance to do things right; the perpetual gardener’s seasonal do-over.

Wittgenstein was saying our language shapes our thoughts, and how we manipulate language puts us on rough ground where we can at least get some friction to turn our wheels. To describe what we see in our gardens we must use language that shapes and colors our perceptions. Like the Greeks who saw time as cyclical, gardeners often tend to think in terms of seasons that turn, and re-turn, like a wheel.

However we see the passage of time – including our own stories bounded by our own beginnings, middles and endings - gardeners tend to think of our stories in terms of seasons. January is the month I begin to observe signs of life and renewal. I see Iris, amaryllis and snowdrops, poking their sharp green swords tentatively above ground. I see unpruned wisteria branches fattening their buds and waiting for their moment. I look forward to getting back outside to the rough ground.


chaiselongue said...

I think it's gardening that helps me see time as cyclical rather than linear. The gardening year never really ends - in autumn we clear the summer plants, but we're also sowing spring beans and peas, so the years overlap. Now, it's good to see the first signs of spring, the mimosa buds colouring yellow from green, ready to burst into unnatural-looking but welcome colour around the end of this month. Happy new year!

Lucy said...

Although I am affected by the enthusiasm of neighbours for the New Year proper, February is my moment of beginning for that is when we can think of seeds sown.


Rose said...

It will be a few months before I see any signs of life in my garden, but I'm learning to appreciate the grasses covered with frost or the dried hydrangea blooms sticking out from a snowdrift. I've come to believe that you need some "rough ground" to appreciate those smoother paths, and winter is a time when I can relax and dream about that "perfect garden" I'm going to create in the spring (which, of course, will not be perfect at all).

Les said...

My inability to grasp Wittgenstein led me to change majors in college from political science to sociology. Thanks for the memories.