the perfect rose by Greg Bills

Three Thoughts (or Perhaps One Thought Three Times) on Gardens and Gardening:


1 – From D. H. Lawrence: “Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisations.  The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished.  Herein lies its transcendent loveliness.  The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation.  We look at the very white quick of nascent creation.  A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks round, gleams, and is gone.”


2 – Granted, the quotation above does not intend to say very much about gardening.  Lawrence’s rose is so eager to transcend into a symbol that it has little time to be simply a flower in a bank or a bed.  But when I read a review of Lawrence’s poetry in the London Review of Books, where the bit about the “perfect rose” was quoted, I was struck by the recognition that I am sometimes impatient for developments in the garden surrounding our house.  I find myself wondering if the native mallows that we planted last summer, which have grown robustly tall, will flower this summer.  And one them, in fact, has opened its first pink cups on a stem peppered with buds.  I remind myself that plants, like people, like any living thing, are never done with the process of being.  The turn of the seasons, the circle of life, and all that, but the motion of a single day as well.  A flower will swell, open, close, and wither.  Some plants will continue to flower, some will cycle off—then on—then flower again, and some will die and trust their seeds to find the proper environment to continue the story.

I bought a bunch of peonies from Trader Joe’s.  Peonies seem so exactly the harbinger of this time of year: late-May and early-June.  I remember my father used to cut stocks of them from our backyard in Utah, arrange them in coffee cans wrapped decoratively in aluminum foil, and take them to the cemeteries we visited on Memorial Day.  The ones I bought were pink, in heavy bud, with the petals still curled tight in a mound.  I arranged them in a vase (actually, a glass spaghetti container), eager to see what they would look like when they spread open, concerned that I hadn’t blown 6.99 on a box of dud fireworks.  Then in the morning, I felt melancholy seeing that they had begun to unfurl, casting their scent around the kitchen.  They will be full-blown and gone before the next trip to Trader Joe’s.  Of course, artificial peonies would be happy to remain at their full explosion forever, but fakes are suspect and unsatisfying for that very reason.  As Lawrence notes, the transcendence within the transience.


3 – I like to sweep our patios.  There is something fulfilling in the act of restoring order from chaos.  It is pleasingly methodical.  Someone in the long history of our 1921 house obliged my interest in this task by planting two of the messiest plants one could hope for: bougainvillea and bamboo.  Sweeping up around the bougainvilleas is like being on the clean-up crew after Mardi Gras.  Hundreds and hundreds of bracts (the colored bits) faded to papery pastels that the barest breeze is able to toss around.  Our bamboo grove (I didn’t see that coming!) runs down along the stairs at one side of our house.  The mature culms tower over all, making us ants among this grass, and their leaves stir in air currents we often can’t feel down below.  Leaves rain down all day and night: crispy-dry, yellow-tan, and shaped like little canoes.  By the time I have swept all the bracts and leaves from one end of a patio, the other end is dappled with more examples of each.  This is not a job that will ever be finished.  Staring balefully at tiny magenta lanterns fluttering down onto swept brick, I always think to myself: The goal here is not perfection just improvement.  A homily useful for sweeping and possibly other activities.