A Virtual Visit

Fifty years ago (Fifty! How did that happen?) a school friend and I discovered a marvellous place, quite literally in our back yards. Well, somewhat beyond our actual back yards. We started out at the house my family lived in then, an old, rambling and somewhat decrepit place we were renting while my parents built our new house nearby. With bottles of water and apples as provisions, we crossed a hayfield behind the house and entered a wood in which vanilla-leaf plants were in bloom (it was May).

We emerged from the wood onto a road leading uphill, following it to where it turned away in a switchback. Leading in the opposite direction was one of those magical little nameless roads — two wheel-tracks with plants growing down the middle. It led uphill too, taking its time.

After several kilometers and one or two steep climbs, we came to a place typical of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia — a hillside sparsely treed with Douglas firs and arbutus, and scattered clumps of juniper, hairy manzanita, and bearberry. Moss was abundant on the rocky outcrops and cliffs, with licorice ferns growing from it. The place was completely natural but looked landscaped. No, more than that — it looked magical, as though inhabited by nature spirits. And indeed, we heard an unfamiliar sound at times, a distant, rhythmic wheezing, like someone sawing wood with a hand saw. I now suspect it was made by male grouse flapping their wings as part of their spring courtship routines. Every now and then, we heard the strident double whistle of a pheasant, but we never saw anyone else there, either human nor animal.

I can’t remember how many expeditions we made to this delightful place. At least three, but probably no more than half a dozen. By June, my annual pollen allergy (which has since vanished, one of the benefits of growing older) made outdoor activities miserable. Then summertime holidays and activities took over, and for whatever other reason, we never went back.

I’ve made a couple of tourist-type trips to that island in the past few decades, showing the sights to visiting friends, but until now haven’t made a systematic search for this special place. Recently, I revisited the area by way of Google Maps and Street View, zooming in on the locale, navigating by names of roads I remembered, finally switching to satellite and Street View. I followed various roads, floating along like a ghost, turning this way and that, looking for the familiar.

It was a weird and dreamlike experience, and ultimately not satisfying.
Although invisible, I couldn’t trespass on private property or go beyond the point where the car with the cameras stopped. Any number of inviting little roads had to remain unexplored. Frustrating but compelling. Eventually I stumbled on a photo someone had taken that looked a lot like the terrain I remembered.

Now I’m planning a real life visit. It’s not that far from where I live, and would make a pleasant day trip. I’m telling myself to temper my expectations for such a sentimental journey. Because what I really wanted to do on my virtual visit was to zoom in, press a button, and be back there, half a century ago, a child of twelve or thirteen, enchanted by the beauty I had discovered. But the eyes and brain are different now, shaped by the experiences of fifty years, and that means any new experience will be different as well.

Image from Pixabay

Garden Nostalgia

A couple of days ago I finally deployed some really nice plant ID markers that I was given last Christmas. Since there were only 20, I decided to use them to mark plants I would hate to lose, but which are threatened by nearby tough, pushy plants. I walked around the various beds and made a list of possible subjects, then narrowed it down to 20 and made up the labels. Written on with pencil, they are reusable and correctable, which is a good thing.

Label for Gentiana acaulis

I couldn’t always remember the names of the plants, not well enough to write them out, anyway. It’s like names of people you know; they may be friends of many years’ standing, but you can’t spell their surnames correctly without looking them up. That is especially true of botanical Latin (and of course I had to use it to demonstrate to anyone that happens to see these labels that I know my stuff).

So I turned to a beat-up notebook in which I’ve written down garden notes for the past 20 years — mostly lists of things to do and helpful hints gleaned from various books, but also lists of plants purchased and seeds sown. And there’s that pile of old nursery catalogues, many of which contain long lists of Plants to Order, and packing slips showing which ones were actually ordered.

I found the information I needed, but the whole experience was a stroll through the garden’s history — list after list of plants, many of which are long gone to a better world. That Itea virginica purchased in June 1994, for example, perished after a few years of struggling along in my dry, sandy soil. Cosmos atrosanguineus, the chocolate cosmos (the flowers really do smell like chocolate), acquired with great excitement in 1998, is now long dead. At least it bloomed before it gave up, unlike a white fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium “Album”), which never settled in here. (The common purple variety comes up regularly all over one of my perennial beds). Another total failure was Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” which croaked while still in the pot it came in. I think I got a refund for that one, but I still regret it, because descriptions of it sound delightful. I see that I tried a couple of types of blue Corydalis — “Blue Panda” and something called “Dufu Temple Form,” which I vaguely recall as more purple than blue. They are now gone (but the ordinary yellow Corydalis lutea is firmly established and spreading). And finally, there are a few things I don’t even remember. Anemonella thalictroides? Something that has qualities of anemonies and of Thalictrum? It must have died neatly and quickly, leaving no trace in my memories. The saddest thing is that the nursery from which I bought most of these plants is gone too — either out of business or at least out of the retail trade. I still have copies of all their catalogues from 1994 to 2001. Looking at them, I remember my twice-yearly visits to the place, returning to my garden with new plants and new hopes.

On the plus side, many of the plants in my notes and listed in those old packing slips are still alive and thriving, or at least surviving. Euphorbia characias “Humpty Dumpty” is a big, fat thing in full bloom right now. The Dryopteris ferns I bought in 1994 are sending up fiddleheads yet again. Hosta tardiflora bloomed last October, and I hope will again in future Octobers, having survived being chomped by the deer that visited the garden a few weeks ago.

That’s the thing about gardening in the same place for many years. Plants come and go; some succeed, others fail, quickly or slowly, depending. Others do well and become part of the furniture of the garden, only to vanish suddenly in a hard freeze or a worse than normal drought, shocking the gardener who took them for granted. But if not for all those records — scribbled lists, packing slips, records of seeds planted — I would very likely have forgotten a lot of this stuff forever. Remembering those vanished plants (most of them, anyway) reminds me of how rich and complex the life of a garden is, even a small and modest one like mine.

Look! See! Now!

There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory.  All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.

Smoke bush in glowing autumn colour

I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.

Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.

But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.

This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.

Moss between stones