Tag Archives: gardening

Garden of Thorns

The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.

Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.

The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.

Honey Locust Tree

I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.

I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.

I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.

Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.

Just like my beloved locust tree.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.

It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.

Honey Locust Thorn

I need to protect myself.

That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.

I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.

The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.

This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.

Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.

I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.

Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.

I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.

I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.

My daily crime.

The Mistaken Gardener

Middle age is great fun. I’m constantly amused at how much time I spent during the first half of my life being ineffective. I’ve always had heartfelt intentions, goals and plans and I’ve always worked hard, but I’ve never understood a thing about simply letting life be. I know all about discipline and almost nothing about surrendering to the natural flow of anything, including myself.

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

A few months ago I read an article about what makes plants happy . It was a revelation.

I call myself a gardener. During some periods I grew most of my own vegetables and herbs. It was a lot of work. In Colorado, water was always a problem, and in my rural gardens deer were a constant threat. Keeping a garden weeded, mulched and watered, along with raising two little boys, working and running a household on a shoestring, was quite a challenge. I thought I knew a lot about gardening.

Here in Maine I don’t garden. We don’t have dedicated garden space protected from the deer, for one thing. For another, my diet has changed and I mostly eat meat now. I’m also older, my knees complain bitterly if I spend a lot of time kneeling, and my body does not want to bend over in a garden every day.

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

On the other hand, we probably have thirty or more apple trees, wild raspberries (red and black), wild strawberries, highbush cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, roses, an ancient and persistent grapevine of unknown variety, sugar maples, pear trees and nut trees spread out across our land. The whole place is a garden.

We also have a short hedge of beach roses, thickly thorned and tough, that runs right along the road on the east side of the house. It gets the snowplow drifts of snow, ice and sand in the winter and the heat, exhaust and sometimes trash of every passing vehicle in the summer. I couldn’t kill them with an axe. It’s not a tall hedge, but it blooms pink in the spring and provides a small barrier between the house and the traffic. In this season it’s loaded with fat red round rose hips.

In the spring, we saw a lot of dead wood in the rose hedge and we began to give it a heavy pruning. It had been neglected for years, and I was certain it would come back, thicker and healthier than ever. It was miserable to work on because the thorns, though short, are numerous and tough, and defy the heaviest work gloves. We got about halfway through the task and then Spring caught us up, along with many other projects, and we never finished pruning the hedge. I raked up what we did take out, pitched the debris over a bank so the thorns were out of the way, and did nothing else for it. The denuded hedge looked spiky and ugly until it leafed out.

In the ensuing months I’ve watched that hedge bloom as usual with its bright pink flowers. One day I saw wild buttercup was also blooming in the places we’d pruned. Wild violets crept around the edges. Yellow hawkweed moved in. After the buttercups came white and yellow daisies. Then a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace draped around it, and tall purple clover beckoned the wild bees. As those faded, I recognized goldenrod and wild asters beginning to grow. Every couple of weeks my partner mowed between the hedge and the house. That’s the only care and attention it ever got.

Wildflowers have bloomed, each in their season, mingling with the roses, all summer and fall. Now there’s a foam of purple and white wild aster and the roses are blooming for a second time, mingling with hips. The hedge is a riot of color.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

This takes me back to the article I mentioned about what makes plants happy.

The article points out that plants grow in the wild according to their evolution, needs and contribution in a system. Some plants are tall and grow in isolation. Others are immensely social and form clumps or swathes. Some plants like to creep along the ground and grow low. Others are quite high and grow with tall grasses because they need the support of the surrounding stems. Look at a natural meadow or field in summer that hasn’t been grazed or recently mown, and you’ll see a system of plants and grasses growing together with no input from humans. There are no bare places that need to be mulched. Nobody comes along and dead heads and tidies things up. As flowers fade and plants die, or are fed on, vegetable matter and seeds fall to the ground and become food or sprout into the next generation of plants. The meadow or field, if healthy, will have a full complement of insects, birds and small rodents present, and so on, up the food chain.

Okay, you get the picture. Biology 101, right? But that’s not a garden.

A garden is where we prepare the ground by banishing “weeds;” amend, dig and turn the soil by exposing it and sterilizing it and wearing out our backs; spend money protecting the area with fences, animal repellents, insecticides and herbicides; buy bags and bags of expensive manure, peat, top soil and mulching materials; spend more money buying plants, often without particular regard to whether they’re native to our area and with no idea or interest in how they grow in the wild; and plant them in solitary confinement, carefully spacing them out in sad little oases amid the mulch. We do not give them appropriate companions or communities, allow them to build a family around themselves or allow them to make the contributions they were evolved to make to other plants and wildlife.

We hold gardens to our own standards of neatness, cleanliness, obedience and beauty. We cut and tidy away brown leaves and spent blossoms lest they offend the eye, never imagining we’re depriving our plants of the free food they were evolved to need. We plant to please our color and variety preferences, never asking ourselves or bothering to find out what those particular plants need in order to be happy. We never imagine ourselves a shrew, or a chipmunk, or a grasshopper, and it doesn’t occur to us to lie on the ground with our chins in the dirt and appreciate the complex layers of plant life that cover it. The only view we consider is looking down, and the only layer we see from that vantage point is the top one.

That’s what we call a garden. Isn’t it beautiful?

We humans have an incorrigible, idiotic kind of blind arrogance, myself included. I confess I never once thought about observing how Nature gardens and modeling my gardens on hers. Not once. Yet Earth has survived for millions of years, creating rich, self-sustaining forests, swamps, grasslands and other habitats without the interference of human beings. We don’t think about the plants’ point of view, though. We come along, wear out our bodies, spend money, try to reinvent elegant and sustainable life systems and wonder why gardens don’t thrive.

Duh.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

I’ve been thinking about this article about what makes plants happy for months, and watching our little rose hedge. As we move into fall, I spend a certain amount of time pruning away dead wood and crowded saplings in many different places. We’ve cut a couple of old and dangerous trees. As I work, I carefully lay all the debris at the base of the plants I’m working on. I don’t uproot things. I don’t disturb the soil or the layer of wet rotting leaves on the forest floor. I cherish the sight of mushrooms growing everywhere, because I know they signal a healthy mycelium net underground, serving every plant and tree on the place and beyond. Apples and berries fall and rot where they lay, sinking back into the ever-richer earth. I notice how the wildflowers grow and spread and who they grow and bloom with. I’m making friends with the low ground-covering plants: Wild chamomile, wild strawberry, white clover, wild basil with its purple flowers, the sweet little violets and rabbit’s foot clover.

Unless in our way, we let trees lie as they fall and rot over time. We run the mower over autumn leaves and let them lie. We carefully stake volunteer or rodent-planted saplings to avoid mowing them, so the next generation of black walnut, maple, oak and beech can grow. We leave the tent caterpillars alone, because they provide food for birds, bears and other creatures.

I realize now all my neat gardening was driven by perfectionism, by a desire to feel in control, and by a need to please the eye of myself and others. I invested a lot of sweat equity in trying to garden “right” without ever questioning what that really meant. I made it much, much harder and more expensive than it ever needed to be.

It’s worth noting this is exactly the way I treat myself.

The rose hedge reanimated itself. It grows in the most inhospitable area of the whole place, but it knew just what to do. I stood back, let it alone and marveled.

You know what? I take it back. I’m not a gardener. But I do humbly enjoy a 26-acre garden.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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