One gardener's observations, discoveries and random thoughts whilst simultaneously worshipping and dallying in a Cape Cod garden. "A garden," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is like those pernicious machineries which catch a man's coatskirt or his hand, and draw in his arm, his leg and his whole body to irresistable destruction."


Yes, gardening gives one back a sense of proportion about everything except itself.  What a relief it was to me when I read that Vita Sackville-West kept a pile of metal labels in a shed at Sissinghurst as proof of all the experiments that failed!  I had, until then, been ashamed of how much waste there was even in my unpretentious garden here.  I blamed inexperience, impatience and extravagance.  But now I have come to accept that one must not count the losses, they would be too alarming.  One must count only the joys, and feel continually blessed in them.  There is no unlucky gardener, for each small success so heavily outweighs each defeat in his passionate heart.”

–May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep, 1968.

*     *     *


So I’ve been reading some May Sarton, on the wise counsel of my pal, Patrick, who recommended her writing to me on two or three different occasions, here in Comments and also elsewhere.  I finally made a visit to the local library and have been absolutely enchanted.  Generally, I read sort of quickly, but with Sarton’s observations, I find I am reading only a little each time before I close the book again.   I love her stories, her observations and I am hungry for more, but I find myself hesitant to drink too much all at once, to rush the pleasure.  I like to stop and think about what she’s saying, how it resonates in my own life.

I know Patrick suggested May by way of comparing some of our observations about life in the garden and I felt an instant kinship with her as I read of her experiences with some newly-planted phlox, a hungry family of woodchucks and her necessary introduction to firearms(Ah, if only she’d had Liquid Fence back then!) .

She’s also had a lot to say to me about the work I did – and still do – making the Nest into a home for me and my Catbuddy, as she wrote about her own experiences finding the perfect old farmhouse in New Hampshire and making it into a proper home.  Once the building renovation itself was complete and she took up residence, I was touched to “watch” as she described pondering and discovering the perfect places for each of her personal artifacts.   Paintings or sketches, lamps, desks; all puzzle pieces that helped form a picture of who she was at the time, what her history had been.  I have plenty of stuff, pack-rat that I am, I can relate to that.  Although to her credit, she had only a few precious items.


You’d think it would be easy to speak of success during a magical week when the world in and outside my apartment is scented so richly with lilacs.  Java asked me the other day what they smell like, and trying to answer her question was an exercise in frustration.  How to explain them to someone who hasn’t known them?

My experience with things which are “lilac-scented” have been, it seems, always disappointments.  No artificially created item, be it soap or candles or perfume, seems able to capture just right – for me, anyway – the essence of lilac.  No one of those scents gets into my nose and onto my tongue the way the actual lilacs do, so I can’t even direct you “lilac virgins” to an artificial source that might clue you in.

And really, I suspect the thing about lilacs is that they coincide with this infinitely hopeful time of year, and so if one grows up with lilacs, one builds up a sort of portfolio of fond, half-forgotten memories – reunions, graduations, birthdays, barbecues, parades, new gardens and who knows what all – the distilled essence of which you then evoke with each year’s blooming.  So that really, you’re not just smelling some pretty flowers, but getting a taste of positive feelings past, perhaps.   The stink of Good Times.

I don’t know, Java.  Buy a candle.  ; )   (Who wants to chime in?  Anyone think they can describe the scent of lilacs…?)


Here, finally, is a long distance shot of the heliotrope, to show you how it continues to reach for the sun, it’s tight bud clusters still forming as it climbs higher than the fence.   Here, soon, we’ll have another perfumed blossom to be frustrated about describing for you.  Although I’ve always thought this plant smelled a bit like vanilla.   There’ll be time enough to revisit that in a week or so, of course.


Meanwhile, as some of the tulips continue to hang on, other things are getting ready to happen.  There’s some columbine flowers forming (and inside, the first seedling of the columbine from Butch has shown tiny leaves today), and not far from there, one of the irises my dear Rethoryke sent last summer is showing some nice buds.  Be sure to surf over and see what her irises in Baltimore are up to, when you’ve finished here.  The next attraction coming on along the fence here in Orleans are the purple globe alliums, just beginning to open up this week.

Here’s one over two days’ time, the second shot in the rain on Monday morning.   At a distance, they look like these big balls of color, but closer examination reveals dozens of tiny little flowers that comprise the overall structure.   I’m keeping an eye on these for you all.


Spring took Monday off, it seemed, as our temperatures dropped down into the mid-forties and a blank void hung overhead where we might normally have an interesting sky.  A subsequent chapter of Sarton had her remembering her good friend and handyman Quig, and how his death seemed to so quickly follow – and echo – the death of a stately old maple tree on her property, how each of their passings left big empty patches in the sky.


This, coupled with my own thoughts and experiences of late, left me pondering anew this business of Life, and wondering just what it is each of us hopes to accomplish in the time we have here.   So much of our time is spent worrying about paying bills and working, or second-guessing our decisions, wondering if we’ve done enough, said the right things.  Is that the legacy we want to leave from our lifetime?  All that?!?  I think not.

Not really intent on finding any proper answers from the line of questioning, or even entirely sure what line I was questioning, I found myself content just to ponder the questions, to wonder a bit about what it is I hope for in whatever the time is that I have left.   And since the thoughts were inescapable, it seemed wrong to be considering them while huddling inside against what felt like an unseasonably chilly morning, so I bundled up and got myself outside, where I got my hand reel lawn mower out of the barn and started to cut the lawn.


I love my mower.   Not only does it not pollute, or cost me money for fossil fuels, but it doesn’t make much noise.   May wrote of the screaming saws that brought down her old tree, describing the noise of them as “an anti-sound.  It does not fit in with any landscape or with any state of mind, except possibly hatred in its most dehumanized form.”  I like that my mower makes its quiet whirring and slicing sounds, but otherwise leaves me relaxed to hear the birds’ songs around me and to listen to my own thoughts.   And in that way, the grass gets cut and my brain gets out for a walk, too.

It wasn’t a complete job, as A) I made sure to cut broad swathes around the masses of buttercups currently dressing up our front yard and 2) what had started as only the thought of a drizzle turned into a heavier rain before I was able to finish.  It’s a big yard.   But on the whole,  I ended up feeling like my morning of mowing left me feeling pretty good.   Oh, and I got some sunflower seeds planted, too – no need to water if you do it in the rain.

Near the lily of the valley that began blooming last week, I’ve spotted a patch of a pink variety of the stuff.   The flowers are a little smaller than the white variety, but these little bells are every bit as sweetly-scented as its cousins.

Every now and then, you get the feeling something’s watching you.  Often, this is just ordinary paranoia, plain and simple.  However, this time of year, if you feel you’re under surveillance, you probably are.   Here’s that silly robin, the one who’s been wildly making nests under my deck?  Always watching me now.


There are three finished nests under there now.   One of them, anyway, appears to be hosting eggs, based on the behavior of the birds we’ve been seeing.   I’m trying not to use the deck so much, since simply walking out there causes her to fly out of the nest most of the time.  Fortunately, she hasn’t seen fit to attack me…although I saw a grackle who stopped at the birdbath on the railing the other day who didn’t fare so well.

I suspect there may be another nest of robins inside the trunk of that apple  tree by the front door.  Here it is in a post-mowing portrait of my little fence garden, looking pretty sweet in the rain.  To the left you can see one of our large lilac bushes.  All the way to the right you can see the climbing stalks of those antique irises.

And of course front and center is that chorus line of pansies I imagined a few weeks back when I planted them all along the front of the garden bed.

May’s right, of course:  there is no unlucky gardener.


Is there a joy except gardening that asks so much, and gives so much?  I know of no other, except, perhaps, the writing of a poem.  They are much alike, even in the amount of waste that has to be accepted for the sake of the rare, chancy joy when all goes well.  And they are alike in that both are passions that bring renewal with them.”

“But there is a difference:  poetry is for all ages; gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden.  Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.

–May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep, 1968.



Comments on: "All Failures Are Forgotten" (6)

  1. someday, when i have my own place (preferably a few acres) i want to have a lawn that i don’t mow and have tulips, crocuses, irises and other bulb flowers planted throughout the lawn. i’ve seen the effect before and it’s gorgeous.

    That sounds pretty delightful to me, too. I’m not much of a lawn person, per se, but I do think there’s something in me – some vestigial Irishman, perhaps – who enjoys the sight of a wide patch of green

  2. Oh I love the lily of the valley photo. And yum, lilacs are marvelous… I am, however, incredibly allergic to them. I’d love to have big bouquets in the house, but just can’t. I settle for a good sniff when I’m outside (then I come inside and sneeze like crazy!)

    The garden, even transported, is looking fab. You do have the green thumb.a. and fingers… and…

    Oh, how sad about the lilac allergies. And yet still you appreciate them. Indeed, the Force is strong in these little purple ones.

  3. Maybe I’ll get a candle. It sounds like a nice thing to do for myself. :)

    I love your pictures. Lily of the valley is a stranger to me, too. I’ve seen pictures, but that’s as close as I’ve come to those little bells. I like the drizzly rainy pictures, too. Of course I can stay dry while looking at them, which is not at all like being in the rain.

    Now lily of the valley is scent I have “seen” reproduced quite nicely, although I still prefer it coming from a plant than from a bottle. And those itty bitty little bells exude some POWERFUL fragrance, too. The pink ones are pretty rare, it seems. Possibly because they are more expensive in catalogs, but maybe the reasoning there is the other way ’round, with rarity driving the price-point. Who can say?

  4. nice post, beautiful photos

  5. Glad you’re enjoying Sarton’s thoughts; I knew you would. I just reread Plant Dreaming Deep and The House By the Sea and was pleased to find that my appreciation of her journals grows and changes as I do. That’s when books become friends, triggering insights at age 42 that I just wasn’t ready for at 22.

    Lilies of the valley are another flower I associate with childhood, but I never noticed they had a scent. I had the same epiphany with irises last spring at Jess and Marc’s place. I guess as with books, so with flowers: I’m noticing new things about them as I age.

    I love being able to re-read cherished books and finding new messages in them. Friends, indeed. I believe I will have to track down my own copies of May’s journals, so I’ll have them handy for that pleasure. A heartfelt thanks to you, pal, for the introduction to Ms. Sarton.

    I excited about the onset of this year’s iris season, as your discovery about scented irises was news to me last year, as well. I look forward to cautiously slipping my nose into whatever variety of them the world presents, with fingers crossed. They aren’t ALL so delightfully scented, sadly.

  6. Gorgeous as always. I could get drunk off those lilacs. Pretty robin. Hope she’s not as bad as the mocking birds that dive at me constantly.

    There’s been no diving as yet. Perhaps she realizes I was there first and mean her no real harm. This is not at all the same thing as Trust, though. She’s always watching me.

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