Plants Make Me Ill (Revisiting Chronic Illness in the Garden)

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With all of the recent changes it has been difficult for me to sit and think about being chronically ill. Mostly that’s because it’s what I thought about for so many years; the diagnosis robbed me of many things and it hurt deeply. Gardening kept me busy, but mostly I read about it. Actually being outside all of the time was another thing altogether and that became more and more difficult as I became more ill. But who out there amongst us isn’t an armchair gardener at one point or another?
Now I am feeling better, so I don’t have as much time to sit and think, but the avoidance is mostly due to my not wanting to accept or even acknowledge what I’ve seen as a roadblock and an obstacle for so long. So much of my current divorce has to do with the illness, but it is certainly not everything and I know that too.
Peony bloom I snapped from the sidewalk.

Currently, when I don’t have plans with friends on Friday nights, I take leisurely 6-mile walks to Powell’s Books on Hawthorne and then I walk back home through Mt Tabor Park. These are productive walks where I not only get the much needed exercise I’ve missed for the last decade or so, but I also get to feel the joy I used to feel at just looking at things—mostly plants.

Rockery overflowing with Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxatilis.
During these walks I am in awe of how thrilling it is to be able to breathe and to walk. And although plants do still make me a bit ill—at least their pollen that is—I am learning how to better manage my asthma and to feel the symptoms in my body. For so long I was unable to do so because I’d become so numb from all of the swelling but I can feel a lot now.

Walking past Portland Nursery still makes me giggle a little since it’s no longer an escapist refuge for me as it once was when I could barely get anything done all day.

Seeing the cherry blossom petals scattered on the sidewalk while standing amongst them has made me smile with pleasure this year. They won’t be here for long and this year I won’t have to see them solely from the car as I fly past them. I savored them the other night because they’ll be gone next week.

No one knows this yet but I have lived at the base of Mt Tabor Park for almost 8 years and it was only within the last few months that I’ve been able to visit all of its reservoirs.

False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum.

Finding native plants in the park has been a great boon too.

Vine Maple, Acer circinatum.
Lastly, while up at the park, walking and thinking about chronic illness, I thought a lot about the native Vine Maple. It is so tiny among giants, stretching for the sunshine, doing its best as an understory resident. Thinking about how much I’ve always liked this tree, and how calm I’ve felt beneath them spring, summer, or fall, seeing them during my walk home in the woods of Mt. Tabor felt like coming across another old friend.
Somehow this comforting end to my walk on Friday helped me to find the courage to do some research into what to call the current stage of my chronic illness experience. From inside, I have felt so much certainty about so many things but I haven’t understood at all why. I have felt very isolated, but I just knew that if I looked hard enough I would find something—and I did!
Just as my disease is new and unknown, so too are the studies of people living as I do. We become chronically ill as adults, suffering for many years with uncertainty and change, there comes a moment when we face death, we get through it, and then with extra medical attention, we improve suddenly after something is changed or adjusted. We are the lucky ones. Many living with chronic illness will never get this opportunity and I think knowing this is part of the catalyst for what happens internally to some of us. I, like many others, have been rewarded with just the outcome we’d spent so much time trying to let go of so as not to create false hope within ourselves. We had to learn to live in that moment between enduring and suffering, committing to ourselves not to dream about being able to live in the reality I have just reentered—one with so much more freedom.
One study said that there may only be 5-10% who experience what they called self-reformation, but I think that further study will show a higher number of people who enter into this process. Medical science seems to improve daily and there will be more people like me. There must be others out there already too who, like me, simply don’t know what to call what they’re going through.
Here are the phases that have so far been identified, but I am putting them in my own order, as they occurred within myself: need for reciprocity (to help others who are suffering), value suffering, appreciate one’s abilities, a disregard for material things, maximizing today, reordering priorities and exiting from unsatisfying relationships.
This last one is the tricky one. It shows my part in the divorce, and I agree with what I read about other people in my situation. When I read the experience of one woman, I was shocked to see myself in her words. This list also points forward for me, and what I read also made me think so much about plants and gardening—funny how that always seems to happen. I am sure that many of you out there already understand this too in your own lives.
Plants might still make me a teeny tiny bit ill with allergy or an immune response but there is no way I am ever leaving the garden again. All roads seem to lead right back to plants in my life and that’s just the way it’s going to be…

Garden Bloggers Fling, 2011 (Seattle): A Confessional Introduction to an Event Long Past

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So, as winter creeps into our lives, my posts from the fling are on their way. In anticipation of the great Northwest Flower & Garden Show—the fantastic winter event in Seattle that my husband and I attend annually for Valentine’s Day—I am posting these to not only get myself excited for next spring, but as a wintertime gift to anyone who happens upon them. 
 
(Additionally, the next Garden Bloggers Fling, 2012 will occur in Asheville NC from May 18th-May 20th and I encourage you to go if you are able to do so.)

This past summer I participated in the Garden Bloggers Fling in Seattle, WA. I’ll be the first to admit it. It was a first for me, and and although I truly enjoyed the gardens, the plants, the people and the great conversations immensely, I wasn’t completely sure what I was doing there. I’m still trying to figure that out now, and the length of time that this whole process has taken, is just, well, kinda ridiculous.

Hummingbird in an Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
Here are a few of my most basic thoughts on the matter:
I am not a published garden writer. 
I do not write a well-known garden blog. 
I am not a garden journalist.
My garden/(s) are neither glossy nor centerfold worthy, and last but not least—
I do not work in the garden industry and do not blog for a company—let along a cause. 
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
Add to this the fact that many of my favorite garden, landscape and/or plant books come from the philosophy, art history, and/or critical theory sections of the bookstore and you really might begin to wonder about me. When I think of gardens, my mind quickly tends to move to land art—you know, stuff like Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson—and if not there, I mentally begin analyses of social context, race, class, gender, and all that stuff. Once those areas have been buzzed over I move immediately to botany and botanical books in order to catalog as many plants as I can in my mind to know where a garden, and garden designer, are coming from both geographically and stylistically.
If you’re reading this, and you really know me, none of this will be revelatory.
Some folks may have already stopped reading this, and that’s kinda the point I want to get to with all of this right now.
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
I’ve been very slow though to provide any posts here about the Garden Bloggers Fling I attended, mainly because I simply did not understand the rush to do so at the time, and since I tend to think these things over far too long sometimes, I just didn’t say anything.
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?

For me, rushing into grocery lists of plants and trying to say the words “lush”, “green”, and “beautiful” in as many different ways as I could conceive of just seemed really taxing. I’ve never been able to write filler and I deeply appreciate those who are able to do so without its unceasing monotony getting to them. I am such a contextualizer that it seems to take me longer and longer to weave together the treads of my garden experiences.

An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
Sitting on this whole Garden Bloggers experience was a good thing, and now that it’s 2012, and I will be up in Seattle soon for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, I’m ready to say what I do here, and how I define my garden blogging.
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
I will say it here, and I’ll say it loud and proud…
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
I don’t write much about pretty, or perfect. I don’t really like pretty or perfect. What I see are the complex social, societal, and emotional relationships between plants, the people who plant them, and the people who select, grow, promote and sell them. I look for the connecting points between information, personal experience, and business transactions and watch these created environments (gardens) as they evolve and as society, and its many stratum, both continue to inform and disrupt the tastes and desires of everyone involved in this complicated little dance—including myself. 
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
So I hope my little Garden Blog Manifesto was as good for you as it was for me. Yup. I’m one of those. Who let the nerd out into the sunlight? The garden doesn’t need any of this pollywuppos, right?
Au contraire mon ami!  (I’m a nerd, remember?)
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?
One of the greatest works of literature in the Western cannon was a little French novella entitled Candide. Published in 1759, during the Age of Enlightenment, it was written by a man we now call by his pen name, Voltaire. This wildly satirical novel is full of a kind of wit that is rarely, if ever, seen today and at its end, the author of the text leave us with: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. (“We must cultivate our garden.”)
Yes, that famous line, one which even today is still wildly debated as to its semantic meaning, has only served to remind me recently that as awkward as I feel sometimes in the world of garden bloggers, I belong here. Maybe I don’t cultivate and perfect my own garden as often as many other garden bloggers, and I don’t rave about designs, nor do I regularly tout the products of one company over another, but I think I am in line with Voltaire when I say about society—years after he wrote it—we still must cultivate our garden. (My husband just reminded me that I should go into Hegel at this point but I promise not to at this time—maybe at a later date when I’m really feeling it. Right now I need to pack for a week in California.)
An Unidentified 2011 Garden Bloggers Fling Location. Any guesses anyone?

So that’s how I roll, and that’s how I blog. It might not be for everyone, but I felt like I had to define this publicly because ever since the Garden Bloggers Fling I have felt unsure about a lot of what I was thinking, seeing, hearing, and reading—especially from disheartened bloggers I’ve enjoyed reading who want to throw in their garden writing t(r)owels.

There has been an attrition in the world of personal garden blogs and this has been occurring as we’ve simultaneously watched the rise of business/marketing/corporate blogs. Many of those left still writing personal garden blogs are doing so with the hope that somehow, someday, it will lead to monetization or acknowledgement in the form of a mention in a nation gardening magazine, or better yet, a book contract.

We’ve even watched as “personal” gardening blogs have become paid content for companies to use as a way to broaden their online presence. This has been an eyeopening experience—to say the least. It may also have been the last straw for this camel as she looked out across the desert landscape, unable to distinguish one branded garden blogger from another—especially since many of them are professional writers seeking to broaden their audiences even more.

I understand the democratization of this technological process—this is the information age after all—but I sometimes feel as though I am standing around waiting for the next train wreck. As bloggers continue to be held liable in court, and as the publishing and news industries are watching their own cannibalization online, it’s kind of a mess around here.

Gardening should be about finding your voice, and so too should garden blogging. An inauthentic voice heard anywhere, even on a computer screen, should be pruned and composted. I think I went into all of this, and even the event in the Seattle, as a kind of litmus test, seeking my own authenticity and voice. Thanks to Seattle, I’ve found the voice I’m happy with, and I hope you too may find your own…

No matter what, I can assure you that there are so many garden bloggers out there you’ll be able to find those writers eventually who will suit your taste, even if they aren’t the preferred read of your neighbors.

Call me the Andy Rooney of garden blogging if you want, but personally, I’d much rather be the Anne Sexton of this genre—minus the suicide.
Il faut cultiver notre jardin. 
(We must cultivate our garden.)

In the Weeds

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This has never been a how-to garden blog, but maybe in this case, I’ll make a grand sweeping exception. If there is one thing I can teach all of you to do, it’s how to be in the weeds in your garden. With the grace of my rough and rebellious American hand we’ll brush off the argument that my garden is a mess, and I’ll show you how to do so from the zero gravity chair I pretty much live in for the majority of the gardening year. So yes, today, I am playing as the armchair garden philosopher.
Our passion vine (Passiflora caerula ‘Blue Crown’) is a bit wild. I blame all of those young adult mystery books I read as a child. I think this might be called Scooby Doo Chic.

If there’s one thing I’ve always been good at it’s been taking on far too much. As a kid, I’d often have to give up an activity or two, but up until the last decade, I’d usually toss everything up into the air and over time, it would all work out.

When I was in college this nasty little habit of mine helped me to get my work done. Integrating unrelated information worked for me, but in the art history department I pushed beyond its unstaid envelope everyday and not all of the other students enjoyed or understood my work, and a few of the professors tended to think of my presentations more as mental acrobatics than as real academic work. And to this day, I will never understand why not a single art history professor ever assigned a philosophy book. Since the entire field has its origin in aesthetics, this was always very sad to me, but the same thing goes for garden design. Yup, it too is based on aesthetic theory and philosophy too. (Don’t groan. I can hear you and the chorus of other groaners out there.)

I am in the weeds.
And here we go, I’m at it again. I’m about to wrap this egg roll right up though so hold on tight.
I realize now that stasis (in a Greek philosophical sense) has always been important to me, but I didn’t know what to call it until I was introduced to Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy and the study of ontology in high school. I could write a tome about this painting, but I will attempt to resist in this post, and save that for later.
I was able to go on a little pilgrimage to The Frick Collection to see this painting with an art history classmate while she was still living in New Jersey. She’d moved to the NYC area to pursue her graduate studies and I am so proud of how far she’s gone in her career. (I am also happy she’s now a gardener.)

I find that I now tire of the same thing in garden design that I used to find dull and problematic when I studied art history and that it’s not just illness and broken fingers which has led me to being in the weeds. Instead, what’s been holding me back is my inner battle with mimesis.

Internally, yes, I struggle, and with this post, as well as a few others, I’ve exposed myself as a bit of a navel gazer who prefers to build her castles in the sky rather than on dry land, but that’s because of my struggle with beauty, representation, design, art and reason.

Like that overwhelmed server in a busy restaurant, I am so far behind in my garden that our green customers have overwhelmed me and are attacking. Well, so what if I’m in the weeds in my garden? Maybe I want to be the oldest kind of garden designer of all, not a farmer, but the kind of person who let’s nature grow up against her. It just so happens I’m in a city though, but I’m not afraid of the chaos of nature and you shouldn’t be either. We’ve been mimicking her since to dawn of man and I’d rather mimic her than the newest garden design fads.

So that’s enough for now. We’ll flog this not yet dead horse again soon.