Isn’t beauty as essential to human happiness as nutrition? – Twin towns
A guest of mine from Atlanta spent summers at his family’s cabin in the Brainerd area. She told me that for the first time in her memory (she is about my age) it was warmer here in Minnesota this summer than in Georgia.
It’s pretty hot.
A good thing is that with the scorching summer of 2021, the old winter doesn’t look so bad. This is partly because our new winters are as unusually hot as summer, but mostly because we are fed up with the heat.
From this perspective, autumn these days is no longer a harbinger but a welcome relief. Gardening is fun again. The combination of cooler weather and a little rain means there’s no longer a need to lug around the garden hose when we prefer to bouquets and pick tomatoes.
Yesterday, I mowed my lawn for the first time in weeks. The grass was actually green.
Hummingbirds are also more active and they fully appreciate “Black and Bloom” salvia which finally blooms profusely instead of dropping due to thirst.
Granted, during a drought my flowering plants have the small end of the garden hose (so to speak) and the veg along it.
Most gardeners I know make the same decision. Some of us call it Sophie’s Choice. In William Styron’s movie-set novel with Meryl Streep, a mother sacrifices her daughter to save her son during the Holocaust, knowing that he is valued more by society, not because she loves her daughter less.
Sophie’s grief over her “choice” drove her mad. I am not so tortured by my gardening choices, not that they are less draconian from the point of view of my victims, in this case beautiful plants but not, alas, edible.
But don’t we also need beauty?
It’s a fascinating question. I think it was peer pressure that made me throw the ornaments under the bus. I live alone and don’t really like cooking for one or eating alone either. This is why I donate most of my products.
Plus I can buy fresh organic vegetables from my local co-op, which tastes better than what I grow myself. I cannot buy plants as pretty as the beauties of my garden, at least not in my eyes and certainly not for the same low price as a fresh cucumber.
I just asked this ornamental versus edible question after a lifetime of not thinking about it.
And that says a lot about the question as well as the answer. Most gardeners I know speak with great pride of their vegetable gardens, but are loath to brag about their beauty queens. When the latter come for a compliment, it is the service they render to the pollinators that is evoked.
Some gardeners (including myself) describe their roses as “my guilty pleasure”.
Another trick is to pretend that we are growing flowers for the pleasure of passers-by. May God keep us from enjoying the beauty of our plants! It would be selfish.
This instinct to minimize the spiritual nourishment we get from beautiful plants is one of the reasons I was willing to admit that I had won a Saint-Paul in bloom reward a few years ago. This prize is awarded to a front garden, planted to beautify the city. It is a public service, in other words.
And if it were genuine, would such a selfless attitude be even rational? Isn’t beauty as essential to human happiness as nutrition? Isn’t that food for the soul, like music, literature, and all those other artistic trifles that we need to get through the sadness of life?
What would we be without our souls?
There was a time when I could have answered, simple animals.
Today, I know that there is no hierarchy in nature. If there is a Supreme Being, he (or she) considers the smaller microbe as valuable to the harmony of the whole as the larger sequoia, and plants and animals are equally valuable. And humans, being animals, are also critically important to a healthy planet.
The truth of this is on display in my garden as I write. Salvias are finally in bloom and able to attract the bumper crop of hummingbirds.
Just how they do this is not yet clear.
Is it the color, the smell or the shape of the flower? Nobody knows. Maybe all three.
I recently read that hummingbirds have a strong sense of smell and can detect a threat from a considerable distance – yes, literally through their long proboscis.
A study designed to test the response of this magical species to various scents successfully identified scents that trigger fear in hummingbirds.
I know hummers are nervous – just walking out the back door I can scare them off – but I guess I always assumed it was seeing me, not feeling me, that set off the alarm.
Speaking of natural wonders, a friend showed me around the garden of a friend of hers, Leslie Pilgrim, who lives in Mendota Heights and has long been an active member of Wild Ones. Leslie is also the founder of Neighborhood greening, one of whose projects was to plant natives along the roads in his own suburban neighborhood.
As we approached Leslie’s cul de sac, my friend asked me to guess which of the vintage hikers from the 60s belonged to Leslie.
It was like asking myself if I could spell my own name.
I showed the house directly in front of us. Its wooden siding was unpainted. Instead, it had been tinted to bring out the natural grain of the wood and its golden brown color. In addition, there were solar panels on the roof.
But these weren’t the dead gifts. What told me who lived here were the plants. They were all indigenous.
Leslie’s yard is shaded. I would call it “wooded meadow”. This is due to the presence of several white pines.
She didn’t start with a plan as long as a wish list. On that list were natives of all species… from ground covers to trees.
It is particularly attracted to white pines. None of his family is over 20 years old. It’s because she planted them.
They create just enough shade to provide the kind of dappled light that is the most beautiful garden light in my opinion and just enough for sun-loving natives like rudbeckia, monarda, liatris, dove’s rod. ‘Gold, Echinacea and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum).
These plants need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Since the sun is usually shining at an angle, not straight down, and pine trees are not as strong as houses but made up of moving branches, plants do well.
The garden level is a thick bed of pine needles leading from the street through the large side courtyard to a private garden at the rear. A large terrace runs alongside the house. There is a tinkling fountain. This is the perfect place to enjoy the many bees and butterflies that Leslie’s native plants attract.
(She doesn’t encourage honey bees, as they have recently been discovered to compete with some native bees, she tells me.)
The abundant shade in Leslie’s garden masks “flaws” that characterize prairie gardens. Some call them “rude”. I call them an acquired taste.
The natives were spared such aesthetic judgments that Echinacea are prettier if they have daisy-shaped petals instead of the slanted ones the species was born with, making them look like badminton birds.
It’s a delicious feature, in my eyes. I also think Echinacea is the prettiest in pink, the deep purplish pink of the slanting petals surrounds the large reddish-colored center.
Of course, all good fashionistas know that variety is the spice of life. We humans love to make a difference.
I just prefer my Echinacea as nature designed them, just like pollinators.