At Chanticleer, a reminder of where things begin

The Chanticleer garden in Wayne offers respite and contemplation to the knowing visitor. Beth Kephart
The Chanticleer garden in Wayne offers respite and contemplation to the knowing visitor. Beth Kephart
Posted: July 15, 2012

One hundred million years ago, according to Loren Eiseley, the great anthropologist and Penn professor, the world was monochrome green. No dahlia, no foxglove, no halo-headed hydrangea, no speckled lily. Continent by continent, flowerless-ness reigned. Dinosaurs dreamed in forest hues.

And then, Eiseley writes in How Flowers Changed the World, "just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion." The explosion was of color and fruit, pistils and stamen. It was the stuff of what would become and now remains our very lives — energy, oxygen, seeds.

We tend to forget, all these millennia later, that flowers aren't merely holiday bromides and that gardens aren't just imperfectly containered art. Flowers and therefore gardens are the place where things begin and then, inevitably, cycle through: seedlings, sprouts, stalks, blooms, and finally, quietly, stardust.

We need gardens to remind ourselves of who and what we are, of what evanescent means, of myth and metaphor. We need them especially in these lamentably hot summer days, when asphalt burns and the sun is a weight against the skin and our thoughts grow gauzy, suffused. We need the rejuvenating kick of a breeze over a running stream, the shadowy reprieve beneath a tree, the bright light of monarch wings, the cautionary float of lotus pink on ponds. We need gardeners who don't give up beneath stingy clouds. We need to place our faith in wells.

Walk a garden and the temperature cools. Walk a garden, and a bird will sing to you. Walk a garden, and much of what you suspect is true will be returned to you. That you are of this world, but it does not belong to you. That you are temporary here. That if you want to use your earth time well, you'd best make room for beauty.

Philadelphia, that green country town, is garden-rich — big and small, urban and rural, more or less tame. It's home to the nation's oldest still-thriving botanical garden (Bartram's Garden), a menagerie of college gardens, a garden called Wyck, a garden called Grumblethrope, and 650 acres worth of shade (Tyler Arboretum). My garden of proximity and choice is Chanticleer, nearly 40 acres of botanical theater and pleasure located in Wayne.

I discovered Chanticleer a dozen years ago when I was a knotty woman, prematurely gnarled, my jaw tight, my muscles rigid, my hours overburdened with responsibilities. I had written too many books, or thought I had, and I wanted to live, for a spell, without the measure of words. I wanted to stand straight and walk far, or sit still and see. I wanted to spend my time doing absurdly useless things like wonder where the dragonfly goes or how the bird builds her nest or what the turtle in the swamp thinks all day.

Chanticleer was literature of a new kind, history found not in books but in the minor accelerations of hills and the unpretentious wending of water. It showcased the lessons of the gardeners who took time to answer questions and who taught me something about seeding, staking, dividing, and letting go.

I ultimately wrote two books — one a memoir, one a novel for young adults — based on my love for this garden. Against Chanticleer's backdrop I taught inner-city and suburban kids about writing. And when my mother passed away, I placed a memorial to her at Chanticleer in the form of an engraved stone that now sits beneath the two great katsura trees. A gardener placed my mother's stone there for me. He judged the sun and how it fell to give that stone its proper eternal home.

In the high heat of this summer I find myself again returning to Chanticleer — walking the garden alone or with friends. The sunflowers, gladiola, and hollyhocks are tall in the cutting garden. The water cascades (a clean sheet of cool) over the stone faces of the ruins and sits in a black hush in the sarcophagus. Bursts of color illuminate the dark shade of the Asian Woods. The creek runs thin but determined.

I don't know why I am forever surprised by all this. I don't know how it is that a garden I know so well — its hills, its people, its tendencies, its blocks of shade — continues to startle me, to teach me, to remind me about the sweet, cheap thrill of unbusyness, say, or the impossibility of perfect control. We do not commandeer nature — gardeners know this best of all. We are born of it, live with it, are destined for return.

Dust to dust, yes. But why not shade and blooms in between? Why not gardens in this summer of infernal, angry heat?

Beth Kephart is the author of “Small Damages,” her 14th book, which will be released by Philomel on Thursday. She blogs daily about life and literature at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com.

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