Recently I’ve been interested in discussions of beauty. I’ve never studied aesthetics in any formal way, and the only philosopher I’ve ever known on a personal level complained that it was the only grad school course in which he received a B, admitting he should have failed outright. No help there.
Like almost anyone, I know what I like; I’m prone to strong opinions. Books, music, faces, poetry, works of art, landscapes, bodies, lampshades – show me anything and I can tell pretty quickly whether it has any appeal. As a senior citizen who’s changed my mind now and then, I strive for the patience to push past an initial negative opinion, but that first impression may just hang on. I am definitely not of the “everything is beautiful in its own way” school that seems to be so politically correct. Some things are just plain ugly, IMO. I can’t explain that, either.
But what does beauty matter? Maria Callas wasn’t a classic beauty, and neither was Eleanor Roosevelt. Probably not everyone on earth is a fan of the Chrysler Building. I can’t tell you why alleys and doorways are often beautiful to me, or why I will never believe that “beige” is a real color. I have certainly been around long enough to realize that the fashionable clothes we are so proud of today will be cringe-worthy when we look back at photos a dozen years from now. Fortunately, I have no fashionable clothes. My wardrobe is timeless.
Take certain plants, for example. Every rose aficionado knows you can have spectacular blooms or magnificent foliage but not always both; it’s one of the choices you make when you are planning a landscape that encompasses the heartbreakers that are roses. This is one reason why when I choose roses, I employ “grows in abandoned cemeteries” as my sole criterion.
But I’m not talking about roses right now, I’m talking about night-blooming jasmine. The foliage illustrated above looks like eight feet of burned-up basil with weird spikes all over. Just close your eyes and wait for sunset, when oh, those tiny blossoms open.
The greatest advantage to taking my San Pedro vacation during a cloudy, cool summer was this: the nights were so heavy with night-blooming jasmine I almost couldn’t stand it. I haven’t experienced such a flood of fragrance since grad school days, when we would spend the entire summer – rather than just the end of August – at Mary’s house. Heat does the poor thing in. Its foliage is nothing much – downright unattractive, even – but when the sun goes down on a cool evening, these flowers make you believe that the world must be a wonderful place.
Paradoxically, some of the flowers I might buy for their fragrance can turn out to be duds in that department. The two plumeria Mary planted in the back yard last year are perfect examples: no matter how deeply I inhaled, I couldn’t smell a thing. Really, kids? Frangipani is a fragrance, to my mind. But how can you be disappointed in a flower that looks like this?
I’ve seen Mary’s back yard go through several metamorphoses. An enormous pepper tree used to create enough shade to render a lawn impossible; but we’re not really lawn lovers anyway. She went through a phase of trying to get dichondra to thrive, but it wouldn’t. Interesting: a pretty little ground cover many people designate as a weed, refusing to grow. Gardening in a nutshell.
Now that there’s full sun, an array of flowers attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, honeybees, and an interesting population of yellow jackets who set up nests in Mary’s bird feeders and the pipes that used to anchor a clothesline. I can’t figure out for the life of me what the yellow jackets do all day. They go from plant to plant like the bees but never seem to collect nectar or pollen. They don’t appear to be chewing stalks to create pulp for their nests. They never sting, although they will land on you now and then to investigate your skin – but for what properties, I cannot imagine. Watching them I thought they were just going through the motions of being bee-like creatures, with no real occupation at all.
However, Mary’s garden is a pretty place to live, even without a recognizable life skill.
There are succulents all over the place. I
always wish we could have ours outside all
Mary says she had such a mass of bachelor
buttons this year, they provided much-needed
shade for the succulents.
I missed the purple profusion but took my
usual pleasure in the waxy flowers succulents
like to produce.
I have no earthly idea what this plant on the left
may be, but its sturdy red and green mottled
leaves are lovely. Nature seems to get away
with putting all sorts of colors together.
Mary has lots of geraniums around the yard: the deep orange-reds, a few pink ones, a few white. This fluffy red and white number caught my eye for sure. When I first came to visit many years ago there was a plot of rose geraniums along one fence. I had never encountered such a thing, and thought the scent of the crushed leaves was as soothing as lavender. Maybe next year I’ll talk Mary into some new scented geraniums.
This orange guy brought hummingbirds from far and wide. I remember once years ago when Mary and I were lounging in the back yard, chatting idly, watering plants with a slow spray from the hose. A hummingbird came to bathe in the spray, six inches from our hands, making the thhht-thhht-thhht noise with those atomic wings. We sat stunned into silence for many minutes at such a wonder. Such a thing must be “beautiful” if only for the rarity of it, setting aside the phenomenon of the hummingbird as a creature.
For a number of years there was a big fork of driftwood suspended atop the aforementioned clothesline anchor. Birds perched on it between their dives into the seed dish. Driftwood seems intrinsically beautiful, and if you don’t believe me you must check out David Wagoner’s poem “Driftwood” – which I find intrinsically beautiful, although some might disagree. In which case we shall merely deem them wrong.
Two years ago Mary convinced me to attach the gnarled beauty to the side yard fence over a gate. A ladder and many strands of lashing material were involved in the effort to create a strong, enduring arch. Mary knows many highly qualified oenophiles, and she had a grapevine in mind.
Last year, predictably enough, the grapevine made its way
through the screen and up the dining-room window.
You have to be very careful about planting things in SoCal.
I doubt we’ll be launching our own label any time soon, but the grapes were very sweet and flavorful. Which was a good thing, especially since the cold weather prevented the fig tree from giving me its usual generous gift of early figs. I can only be grateful for the three or four I received, and envy Mary all the September mornings she’ll be standing in that fragrant shade, slurping the rich red flesh straight from the skin. (Mary does not slurp, though I certainly would; but I couldn’t think of a better word for how you consume a juicy fig from the warm skin you have just split open with your thumbs.)
I’m sure philosophers have written about aesthetic value as an amalgam of elements that are pleasing to the senses. Some have undoubtedly ranked aesthetic value according to how many of our senses are pleasingly engaged. (I feel safe in making these assertions because I know first-hand that philosophers have written – and argued – about everything.) In any case, a garden must rank high among this world’s aesthetic offerings. A garden has it all. In a way, all gardens have it all.
An unruly garden may lack symmetry, it may host a riot of colors you would never want to see all together in one indoor room. But a garden like Mary’s, abounding with color, fragrance, textures, and unforgettable flavors, must be a treasure to anyone who has even a few senses to work with. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I have such a loving history here – where would that fit, philosophers of the world? Supermarket figs will never be beautiful to me; I can never look at supermarket figs without judging them sad imitations of these essential figs.
Where does beauty reside? Why does it take root there? What should it cost? I’ve tried to convince myself that a dearth of ripe, luscious figs was a reasonable price to pay for the cool days and positively chilly nights we enjoyed this not-much-of-a-summer.
But I’m not quite there.