Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Utility vs. Beauty

“The landscape gardener attempts to establish a sort of hierarchy of nature, based on much the same principle as that which distinguishes a gentleman by his incapacity to do any useful work. Directly it is proved that a plant or a tree is good for food, it is expelled from the flower garden without any regard to its intrinsic beauty.”
Reginald Blomfield, The Formal Garden in England, 1892, as quoted in The Royal Horticultural Society treasury of garden writing, Charles Elliott, Ed.

As a genteel retired person of leisure, I prefer to refer to it not as my incapacity to do any useful work; but as my failure to find any use for work. I am not exactly the 99%, having a pension and health insurance; both vanishing privileges of the working class I no longer belong to. I belong in the sane class of gentlemen as the bird in my distant birdbath. These days, I spend more time splashing around and having fun, than I do trying to clean up.

If this were a blog that strives to contribute to the discourse of ideas, I’d be saying WTF, or words to that effect. If this was such a blog however, I’d have to forgo reading Chinese poetry and resume reading The Nation, something I can only read after the caffeine has diluted my blood system sufficiently enough to give me the energy to get mad without stroking out. These days, my coffee lasts barely long enough for me to get some news (by which I mean news) and some politics (by which I mean what passes for news). There are enough people out there, most of them more literate than I (well, in all modesty, maybe not most) who can better express my discouragement with what passes for governing and leadership.

Instead, I think I’ll take issue with Reginald who, back in 1892, was whining about people planting flowers instead of fruit. Let’s assume he was speaking with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek when he proclaimed there is a landscaping “hierarchy of nature” wherein a plant is chosen for it’s beauty which is inversely proportional to its utility. In case he was serious: apple trees flower, Reginald. They are useful and beautiful and would never be expelled from my garden – if I could grow apples, that is. So go suck a fruit I can grow in my yard – a lemon.

Unless of course, you are like me and waiting for your delicate Meyer lemons to ripen. The fruit on Eureka lemon trees are now ripe. Problem is, tough Eureka lemons have a rind as thick and gnarly as a gardener’s elbow, and only marginally more appealing. The hybrids like Meyer lemons will not ripen until early in the new year. Meyers have a dainty rind suitable for marmalades or other candied fates. The fruit on my dwarf Meyer is the size of a golf ball and solid green. They’re so adorable; they look like baby limes.

I would sooner expel my few flowering chrysanthemums from my yard than my lemon tree. My lemon tree is useful as well as beautiful. So thanks, Meyer, for maintaining these two traits that I - as a gentle old person of leisure - no longer bring to my garden in measurable quantities.

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