Sunday Opinion: Atmospheric Conditions

Very late yesterday afternoon a good client came in with a request; could I replant her terrace pots for an event scheduled for ten am this morning? I’ve known her long enough to know she is a young and talented professional who had successfully held down a number of high-powered and demanding jobs.  I know she is formidably intelligent and hard-working.  Suffice it to say I have met many people capable of great compassion; she is remarkable in how compassionately she lives her life.  A new job she was crazy about had been eliminated in a round of budget cuts, leaving her unexpectedly unemployed.  As for replanting her terrace garden in less than 24 hours over a weekend-I also know her well enough to know she wasn’t kidding.  As I hate to say no to any request for a garden no matter the parameters, I waited for more details.  Regularly people ask me for gardens, when that is not what they really want.  I find often as not that what they really want is some part of what a garden represents to them, that can be better gotten elsewhere.  A woman new to my area with three small children wanted a sports court.  I gave her the locations of three parks with sports courts close to her new neighborhood to check out.  I asked to to let me know what features she liked.  I never heard from her again; I am sure she realized that taking her children to her neighborhood park, and reaching out to her neighbors was a better solution for her isolation.  As for my client, I doubted she was preparing for a job interview on the terrace of her condo on a Sunday morning, but I was only partially right.

She would be interviewed, for a television documentary being filmed on the baby boomer generation.  I missed some of the details, but she had had occasion to talk to Tom Brokaw at an event at the University of Michigan on Saturday. He explained he was in the process of filming a story in which he intended to detail and investigate the issues facing her generation via a series of interviews. He asked if he could interview her in greater depth, at her home, the next morning, as he was impressed with how articulate she was. I asked what  she had said that had piqued his interest.  “I told him that I was at a point where I need a husband or a job”, she said.  As I know her to be confidently plain spoken, his interest in her did not surprise me in the least.

If I thought I was going to be interviewed at home by Tom Brokaw, my first thought would be how to get the place suitably dolled up-so I knew I had to get those terrace pots replanted.  It took a little while to convince her that she could do it herself.  As there was no way I was hauling seven gallon pots overflowing with ornamental cabbages up the three flights of stairs, and through her house out to her terrace, I had to convince her.  As I have always done her pots for her, I also had to loan her garden tools, and explain how to keep the debris from the old plantings from falling through the floor onto the terrace below her. As I subscribe to that notion that you never know when you are going to meet your intended, I strongly encouraged her to ask him for his ideas about how she could find that husband, or that job. Why not?  I stuffed her Prius with plants, and shooed her out of here.  As she is a very independent sort, I had only one phone call, with one question taking no more than 30 seconds.  I am sure the terrace looked beautiful this morning.

This morning I am not thinking about why Diane’s pots were full of dead, or almost dead plants.  She told me why; she had just quit watering them.  Why she quit-I have my ideas, but I don’t see that they matter.  What I did wonder was how much more effectively she would have communicated how she felt about her life, a job, a home, her culture, her situation-  had she left those dead plants for him to see. An abandoned garden, a fading bloom, a killing frost, the failing light-my emotional connection to what I do, and what I do that ends or fails, is strong.   Though I have long known that she was single, I have never had her ask me to plant the terrace with a little romance in mind. I plan to address that, the next opportunity I get. In my opinion, the most beautiful landscapes strike a powerful emotional chord with a viewer. They have atmosphere.  They may have fountains, or grass paths or shasta daisies or not,  but their most compelling feature is an unmistakeably emotionally charged atmosphere.  The gardenmaker has transformed some part of themselves into a sculpture, which is a place for others to be.  There is a question being asked, a story being told, a sanctuary being built, a celebration in progress. Gardens in which people are personally involved are the most satisfying to see.

The most emotionally charged landscape I have ever had the privilege to visit is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin.  No one there while I was there spoke above a whisper; it is clearly sacred ground. I am sure many thousands of American hands have traced the letters of the names of those who gave their lives,  inscribed in the stone of the wall.  The voices of the dead and the voices of the families of the dead can be heard, if you listen.  The bouquets of flowers, the boxes containing medals, the faded letters left at the foot of the wall are collected every day, only to be replaced the next day with more; people feel free to respond to what they experience there with their most powerful feelings. Feeling free to express is a privilege to which my country has a long history of committment. Standing there, I felt what it means to be an American.  The experience of reading the names of college friends who died in this war precipitated a flood of memories I did not remember I had.  I felt a strong empathy with everyone else I saw there, though I knew I would never see them again.  The wall is set into the side of a grassy slope.  Someone once wrote that they could imagine after generations, that the grass would grow over the face of the wall altogether, and the granite gash in the land that symbolizes a war our country fought at great human cost,  would be healed.  Well said. 

The only person that my little garden heals is me, but that is enough.  Some days the peace of it and the home of it washes over me like a warm wave.  Watching over the growing makes me feel like I have contributed a little something. If you are making a garden, the voice that is all your own will charge the atmosphere.  In store for this client next year, a garden plan of a different sort.  Why not?


  1. This is one of your best Sunday Opinions ever and you have had a lot of remarkable ones. It left me both happy and at the same time sad and certainly reflective.
    I think if Diane had left her pots dead or worse yet empty it might have possibly make her feel the same way. You can never give up hope or beauty in your life.
    I think your garden heals a lot more than you. Just a trip to your beautiful home and garden is healing for a lot of people and a trip to your DGW is therapy for many if not all of your clients. As I was leaving yesterday in the drizzle a client was coming in “just to find some cheer”…her words but a feeling that is felt by many.
    Guess you didn’t realize you were the county therapist.

  2. I just came over to visit from blogtanical. I saw there were 5 Michigan garden blogs and I wanted to check them out.

    Sure glad I came to visit. This story was touching and timely. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be back.

  3. I nearly wept with emotion when I read this wonderful Opinion, which I felt certainly must be about the poetry in my own garden, and how very well its’ voice speaks to visitors.

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