Looking into the future


one of our new plants is a red firespike — native to South America, it’s moderately drought tolerant and we’re going to give on a chance.

How good is your foresight?  Can you read the future?

I know that sounds daft, but some folks are better at it than others.  The best gardeners are quite good at it, it turns out.  Being able to see — before you plant the first seed or transplant the first pot — how the finished garden is going to look.  That’s a skill I’m not so good at.  I can visualize what I think a plant is going to look like but my recollection of what any given species of plants is going to turn into when grown is still a mystery to me. I’m getting better at this as I get older, but gardening is something that has only come on as an interest over the last 15 or 20 years and that, gradually.

I have mentioned, periodically, the rule of unintended consequences. Sometimes things happen because in our poor our ability to look into the future we fail to see the logical consequences of our actions, or someone’s behavior, or an individual’s character.  Other times we find ourselves with unintended consequences because we weren’t paying attention with important things are said or done, or because we choose to believe something improbable because we want it to be so.  Or because our expectations are out of line with reality.

I lived through the days of Watergate and Richard M. Nixon.  That was the period of 1972 till 1974.  Given a median age of the U.S. citizen of 38 years that means that over 1/2 of the population now alive were born after Nixon was out of office and they never experienced the drawn out real-life-soap-opera that was the United States in those days.

There are so many similarities between life then and life now.  But I think one of them relates to how we live our lives in these “interesting times.” (to reference that old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”)

We are accustomed to instant gratification nowadays, what with smart phones and InterWebs and all. What we forget, sometimes is that things take time.  Sometimes it’s time to develop, as with plant.  You know, perhaps, the old adage about gardening that in the first year plants sleep, in the second year they creep, and in their third year they leap.  That pretty much applies to most of the plants I’ve ever put into the ground.  The first year, it appears not much of anything is happening.  The second year you get a little encouragement for your labors.  And it’s not until the third year that you see the plant doing what that particular plant is supposed to do!  Government, politics, relationships, jobs — they are all alike — not in length of time, but in the reality of process.  Things take time to develop no matter how impatient we may be about our garden, or our government, or our relationship, or our job!

Just like gardening, when we know there is a process going on we ought to realize that much of that process is going on unseen.  That’s certainly true of plants.  Like other gardeners, when we plant nursery plants we always disturb or even remove a part of the root ball — to cause the plant not to be pot bound, and to facilitate the formation of new roots.  Doing so means the plant has to rebuild it’s root structure and all that happens unseen by human eyes.  Which helps explain why the Watergate investigation took 2 years.  And it helps explain why marriages collapse over time — a wayward spouse doesn’t just go out and fall into a fully formed affair overnight. Similarly, we don’t instantly fall into or out of favor with a boss, we aren’t overlooked for promotion overnight, etc.. Much of what happens in our lives to us is the results of processes that are going on beyond our sight, beyond our knowledge — and often those processes have nothing to do with US.  It’s just our ego and our pride that makes us think that everything is about us.

Lately I‘ve been leaving the house (our door is on the side of the house) and coming around to the street side and inspecting my new babies — those plants.  I know nothing much will have happened overnight, or in the last couple hours — I’m just curious to know that they’re OK.  I never think of myself as a person who hovers — but I guess I am — at least when it comes to plants, and the news, and…. well…. I’m not sure in how many other aspects of my life I’m a hover-er.

Some things are completely unpredictable when looking into the future.  Politics is frustrating enough in that regard.   Plants will throw you for a loop too.  Various plants have “typical” growth patterns but that does not mean that every plant will demonstrate the “typical” pattern.  We have an orchid tree adjacent to us on Joe and Jeannie’s lot. They have only lived there a year or two.  The tree has probably been there more than 30 years.   The tree sometimes follows an upright form, with a single trunk and branches coming off that trunk at some elevation — 3 feet to 6 feet off the ground.  Well, the one near us is more like this:

It’s growing multiple trunks and wants to branch off at less than 2 feet off the ground.  That’s not a great growth pattern for a tree that lives in a 5 foot wide patch of dirt with a covered porch 2 feet away on one side and a steel carport only 6 feet away on the other side.  Someone did not see very far into the future when they planted that tree and now Joe is going to have to have it removed as it’s causing problems.  Of course no one wants to see that beautiful/troublesome tree cut.  The ones who don’t want it cut don’t have to live with it threatening their porch or obstructing their view.  And, it wasn’t properly cared for in the early days — I have yet to see an actual arborist working in this area — a lot of people seem to do whatever they want to their plants without consultation with people who actually know about plants.

I’m never a big fan of cutting established plants but I sympathize with our neighbor.  I think he’s right to consider the action he’s planning.  I myself have cut down a few well established plants!  Our last house had evergreen bushes as foundation plants.  they were at least 40 years old — they too had not been pruned as they should have been — but the biggest problem was that they were planted too close to the foundation and they presented a problem about roots and the basement walls — so out they came.  As much as I liked the look of them I wasn’t in favor of incurring major foundation repairs. (which would have required their removal anyway!)

I think the ability to see into the future is a good thing to have.  Gardeners need it, for sure.  I have a friend who can’t see that far into the future and always joked that their plants had “wheels” because they repeatedly had to move them as they grew from one size to another.  They knew the shape and color of the plant, from youth to maturity, but they could not visualize the size in their head.  And of course they could not anticipate how the plant might choose to become atypical in it’s own individual way.  So, plantings were always made with the knowledge that that plant might not live there for very long.

I think in some ways I’ve lived my life like that.  Peggy has always been the plodder.  I’m the guy who goes in fits and spurts.  I tend to outgrow my container once I’ve put out roots.  So,  maybe for me the idea of being able to see into the future is something I admire because I might not possess the skill in the areas in my life where I think it would help.  Then again, I have taken great joy in not having to spend my life in the same container — so that might all be a bunch of hogwash!  I haven’t been able to anticipate where the next step might take me, but I always knew and embraced the fact that there would be a next step.  Which is why through life the both of us have never been big “lookers-back”.  We have always embraced the future, and what lie ahead more than the past and what you could not change.

We are living in curious times.  There is tumult and commotion all around us — and I think for me — just for me, I make now suggestions for others — that gardening even in the small scale that we are doing is a good way of helping me maintain my perspective on life in the macro scale.  There’s a lot going on.  Most of it I have no influence or control over.  It all takes time to develop.  And it’s not all about me.  I can go out every morning and look at my plants.  From time to time I’ll find a shoot that isn’t doing well that needs pruning, or a shoot that’s going off in the wrong direction.  Those things I can deal with, just as I can advocate and resist and prod others about life, or relationships, or politics, or government.  But my garden, small as it is, lets me let go of a few things that otherwise I might harp on – out of frustration, out of anger, out of lack of control.

Yeah… gardening is good therapy.

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