Sunday Opinion: If You Can

The attribution has been written down in many slightly varying forms, but the gist of  Henry Ford’s famed quote goes something like this:  If you think you can, or if you think you can’t,  either way you’ll  be right.  My most serious reason for having this on my mind this minute is a client, of whom I am very fond, who is facing a lengthy and complicated surgery which will be followed by a trying rehab/recovery time-coming up first thing tomorrow morning.  According to his wife Jeannie, he is remarkably unfazed by the whole affair.  She says he has not devoted much time or effort to worrying, or talking about worrying,  as he basically thinks he  can do this.  By no means do I mean to suggest he is a fatalist, passively awaiting his fate.  Plain and simple, he not only thinks he can, he knows he can.  I don’t believe this confidence to be a genetically derived personality trait.  I think there is an art to living a life, and he is treating his life as such.  The science of his situation is not his life.

I have another client who has for several years grown vegetables in the lot next door, under the shade of mature oak trees.  His tomato plants are twelve feet tall, his bean vines bear beans, there are vegetables of all kinds-enough to go around the entire neighborhood.  Anything and everything I have ever learned about growing vegetables successfully would suggest his garden would fail; it is anything but a failure.

I grew up in a household in which all of science was held in considerable regard.  My Mom, the consummate scientist, virologist, microbiologist, who put her mathematics to use studying genetics, did however stop short of  worship.  When she thought I was old enough to understand (I think I was about 38), she did explain that what she actually held in such great regard was the beauty of science, not the certainty of science. She believed that whether the sum total of all scientific knowledge was one millimeter or 100 miles from a perfect knowledge and understanding of life-no matter.  In her opinion, it comes to nothing –  how little or how great the distance is between the end of science and the beginning of life;  that gap can never be closed.  Hope if you are ever gravely ill, she said,  that your scientist physician is also a skilled artist, as he or she may wish to diagnose and treat you with as much as what he imagines will work, as what science might dictate will work.  Working the science is an art, she said.

Good horticulture makes certain demands, and they cannot be ignored.  But inexplicably, some science-driven choices I was certain would work, do not work.  At 59 I observe that the sum total of all the science of horticulture I have absorbed in 25 years does not enable me to grow a decent columbine, not anywhere, not under any circumstance.  My scientific knowledge is a big pile of conflicting information always on the verge of decomposition.  The more years I study the science, and work, the further I seem to be from a definition of life beyond its miracle.

Does this mean that I can grow geraniums in deep shade, and ferns in the desert-of course not. However I do believe that there are many ways in which things can work.  There is not one way to grow roses.  There are many ways to grow roses that work.  If I so choose to believe I can,  then I will figure out a way to make roses work.

The day I met Fred and Jeannie, their landscape was wild, robustly overgrown, unuseable-I wondered how I could possibly make sense of it.  They did not wonder that at all; they knew I could.  They are as optimistic, generous, and enthusiastic as any two people could possibly be. Some two years later, how they have chosen to live, shows. The garden is light and airy, spacious, and graceful.  The waterfalls are working, there is a third pond, there are vegetables and flowers growing , there are spaces to read, nap and entertain.  The choices they have made have proven to be right for them.  They have no doubt that the best is yet to come; they are so right.


  1. Your Sunday’s opinions just keep getting better and better……so many of life’s lessons. You are the “little engine that could”…. Watty Piper would be proud of you and so would Henry Ford!

  2. It is such a relief to read you write you cannot grow a decent columbine. I often despair that all my plant knowledge still seems to amount to nothing but an unruly garden. There are many threads in the skein that we know nothing of… The main thing to remember is “can is often will” and “can’t is usually won’t.”

    • Deborah Silver says

      Helen, There are so many things I try that don’t work! I try to remind myself that this is no excuse to quit trying. In my writing, I try to talk about what has worked-even though plenty of times what worked has not that much to do with me-its just the alignment of the stars! I try to keep my grousing about what doesn’t work between me and my God!! I spent a lot of time on your blog today-I think we live in the same community. What you think is “the main thing to remember” – -so succinctly and well put. An unruly garden can teach plenty. Thanks for your writing, Deborah

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