November 2021 Vol. 1, No.3
Where the Hand of Man Has Not Set Foot
Bucephalus was pleased to roll into my friend's place, a commodious enlarged cabin overlooking the Cumberland River, dammed up years ago by the Corps of Engineers. This is a fine stretch of water snaking around well wooded hills and bluffs, nestled into a quiet cove that invites indolence. By late afternoon, we had exchanged pleasantries and were floating in his pirogue reminiscing about autumn days seeking cutthroats on the Cache la Poudre. MOF (my old friend) had perfected an artificial worm with hook weighted at the bottom end. The upper part seemed alive as we jigged four or five feet down. Whatever MOF did, it was unfair, bass, bluegills and crappie could not resist. They were as rapt to attention as winter tourists watching Esther Williams at Ft. Lauderdale. In half an hour, we could have fed the county. Most were returned to their haunts save three given to the good of the order. An hour later, they were consumed. We put our feet up to watch the moonrise over the cove and sipped elderberry cordial. For decades, we had roamed the globe in search of those things that made for good conversation. Whether we dissected the intricacies of plate tectonics or mused over the psychological impact of sonatas in minor keys, there seemed fodder enough to challenge each other's sanity. We raced canoes in western Massachusetts. A local newspaper published an embarrassing photograph with the caption, "Two hot shots came all the way from Cripple Creek to wipe out on the Westfield River." Those April waters were a bit icy. We climbed the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend. We listened to Martha Argerich at Alice Tully Hall and concluded she won the race to finish Rach 2 at least three quarters of a second ahead of the orchestra. She got off to a fast start and they never had a chance to catch her. As Boy Scouts, we were keen marksmen, our talents only exceeded by our hubris. Sometimes we sought the rarefied air of the Rockies, other times we pursued more focused activities like listening to spirituals sung by Gee's Bend quilters.
This evening's conversation dealt with my obsession to define the concept of "garden" and whether a garden is the work of man or nature.
MOF thought long. "Dust." (There is a litany of monikers attached to me including Snurt, a North Dakotan term for equal parts snow and dirt that creeps through windowsills in January storms. Other names violate standards of common decency.) "Dust, you remember that time in Tasmania? We stopped at a bakery on the way to the Walls of Jerusalem. You went for a few pastries while I chatted with a fellow fly tier, master of his craft who knew the area well. You chaffed at the idea of hanging around to jaw bone. I thought I would have to sedate you."
DO: I ruminated, "Maybe a bit testy, but I was in go mode and ready for adventures chasing Tasmanian tigers, devils and wallabies."
MOF: "Yeh, and three hours later we knew more about fly fishing on the Derwent than anyone thought existed and had a valuable list of hidden places to explore. As for Tasmanian tiger, they went extinct in 1930."
DO: "That just proves we shouldn't waste time. It's like being red flagged at the Indy 500. Acknowledgment is extended that I bought that beautiful dip net and today it hangs at home along with a walnut gigging rod. Time is filled with opportunity."
MOF: "Patience is art of deceleration and immersive attention."
DO: "That sounds like one of your Harvard quips. Remember, the journey alone is longer."
MOF: "And less interesting. Go too fast and you’ll miss it. Didn't your dad quote Alexander Pope, “a little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.” And later, “the increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes. Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise."
DO: "Ah, the Pierian Spring of Macedonia, wasn’t that sacred to the Muses?"
MOF: "The inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts. Are not they the ones we are tracking? Are not they the ones who gave us the name museum?"
DO: "Perhaps so. I have no trouble drinking deeply, but that spring was named for the Pierides, daughters of Pierus. When they stayed too long, weren't they turned into magpies?"
MOF got in the last word, "Well, let's say you should stay just long enough to learn from the Muses, but not so long as to wear out your welcome."
Thoughts soon withered. Conversation was traded for somnolence. Next morning, good peaberry coffee and sough dough toast with Cooper's marmalade readied us for conversation.
MOF started: "In North Dakota, my grandmother had a vegetable plot near the kitchen door. Throughout the summer carrots, cabbages and beets fed us. And raspberries were plentiful for the picking. That garden provided us sustenance. Surely, that's the role of a garden."
DO: "If you add a few flowers to the raspberries, then you have nourishment for the soul."
MOF: "Exactly. A garden provides nourishment."
DO: "Does that make a wheat field or pasture a garden? Once I saw 400 acres of sunflowers in western Kansas all turned to the last rays of a setting sun. Does that count as a garden?"
MOF: "There needs to be a sense of scale. Gardens need to be on a human scale."
DO: "How about London's Kew Garden or the Huntington in California?"
MOF: "They are large plots containing many gardens. Besides the Ellesmere Chaucer and a couple of Gutenbergs, the Huntington has a rose garden, desert garden, Chinese garden, Japanese garden and, if I recall, a Shakespeare garden. Each is on a manageable scale. Alone, each can be absorbed, but the combination is beyond a single gaze. The same applies to Kew but on a bigger scale. And it had the tallest flagpole in Britain, a single Douglas fir from British Columbia."
DO: "Done in by a woodpecker 15 years ago."
MOF: "That proves that animals like gardens, too."
DO: "We have agreed that gardens provide nourishment in an environment of manageable dimension, but what else? It seems we haven't adequately defined our terms. What is its etymological origin?"
MOF: "The root word for garden from the Proto-Indo-European (P.I.E.) gher-, to grasp, is lost in history but connotes to enclose, to protect. The meaning carries with it the feeling of safe space, a place that provides comfort, something separated from the outside world."
DO: "That presumes a defined boundary. Gardens don't diffuse into a nebulous uncertain limit."
MOF: "The Persian garden has existed in literature from the time of Cyrus the Great in the 6th B.C.E. They provide refuge from a harsh environment. The garden wall is critical to shelter from wind, provide shade from an unrelenting sun and to offer a sense of ease with water, plants and quiet. It is no wonder that this environment nurtures friendship, providing a place for literature, poetry, calligraphy, and music. Sa'di said that if you have friends and a garden, you have everything."
DO: "Certainly, one may be at peace in the hush of a garden where senses are heightened, and thoughts become focused. Such an experience is often retained in memory. Once, we canoed up Big Cypress Bayou, just east of Uncertain, Texas. We veered into a maze that opened onto a beautiful cypress prairie, a quiet, beautiful, enclosed space, the still waters reflecting Spanish moss draped like curtains enclosing what seemed a water cloister, separated from the hubbub of the outside world, a safe space offering nourishment to the soul."
MOF: "If I recall, this safe space is home to alligators and water moccasins."
DO: "We have established that animals like gardens, too. We plant flowers to attract butterflies and bees. It is just a matter of scale. I'll bet more people die from bee stings than are eaten by gators."
MOF: "Somehow, the work of alligators seems more thorough."
DO: "We all choose our foes. If I recall, not a single reptile assaulted us that beautiful morning."
MOF: "Right. They were digesting yesterday's victims."
DO: "If you don't mind, Let’s get back to the issues at hand. Let me remind you that should you spy a praying mantis in your grandmother’s vegetable patch, such a fascinating creature would absorb you for an hour. Were it a thousand times bigger, it would seem more daunting than Godzilla. It's all a sense of scale."
MOF: "Are you trying to equate a flea with a pterodactyl?"
DO: "I'll take a dinosaur any day. And remember, if we are ever chased by a tiger, I don't have to run faster than him, just faster than you."
MOF: "Coward." MOF often diverts my train of thought, but at least the diversion stokes imagination, if not reality. Finally, we returned to our exploration of definitions.
DO: "I posit that the Caddo Cypress Swamp meets our definition of enclosed space on a human scale and nurturing."
MOF: "You forgot an important and essential element. A garden is an intentional construct, a work of man. The swamp was created by the New Madras earthquake in 1811. There was a 100-mile log raft that jammed the Red River and the back flow created the swamp. The cypress trees have a two hundred year start on us."
DO: "You may have something there. We create an environment that recapitulates something in our past experience. I give you credit for such insight. Back in 1962, the day Marilyn Monroe died, I climbed Mt. Fuji. It was a long ascent. I made it to the top in less than 15 hours and vaulted back down in two. The view from the top was expansive, but I couldn't see the mountain. When I reached Gotemba, at the mountain's base, I still could not appreciate Fuji's majesty. Covered in the mountain's black basaltic ash, I retreat to a bath house where I was told to scrub myself clean before soaking in the bath. I parboiled aching muscles and thought of how invigorating the day had been. But it wasn't until I visited a Zen garden in Kyoto that I saw what I had climbed. That garden of stone and pebbles provided me a vision that I had been part of but could not see. Whenever I enter a Zen stone garden, whether in Japan, Portland or San Marino, those moments allow me to relive that wonderful experience from so long ago. By the way, my old Fuji stick, covered with brandings gotten during the ascent, often accompanies me on short hikes."
MOF: "You are a bit too nostalgic, but I forgive you now that you realize one more of our definitions that place the term 'garden' in context. To recapitulate, a garden is a human construct, intentional, created with the purpose of providing a safe space, separated by a defined boundary from the exterior world, providing us with nourishment. It is not natural, though it may contain natural elements. And gardens are created on a human scale."
DO: "If you will notice that gnat crawling over the hairs on the back of my hand, he might consider that his personal garden. It is a human construct providing him nourishment in a defined space and safety, as long as I don't swat him."
MOF: "This conversation has destroyed your intellect. Let's go fishing."
Dustan Osborn, member of the Board of Trustees of the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden, is a practicing medical oncologist in Washington state. After earning a PhD in Biophysics, he attended medical school, then completed an oncology fellowship at Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Center. His avocational interests include photography, old books, and the history of scholarship. He is on the prowl for hole-in-the-wall eateries and interesting places where the crowds don’t go.