Sunday Opinion: Fifth Business

In the 1970 novel of the same name, Canadian writer Robertson Davies makes allusions to a character in opera known as the fifth business.  I love opera, but know next to nothing about it.  But I do know that there is usally two principal characters whose relationship is marked by impossible love or overwhelming angst, (the soprano and the tenor) and two secondary characters who provide either comic relief or aid to the principals-and the fifth business.  This male baritone fifth business knows the whole of everyone’s story, and keeps the audience informed what terrible and wrenching event is coming up next. The fifth business has no counterpart; he is the odd man out, the commentator, a story teller.

I have loved all of Robertson Davies writings.  How he tells stories is electrifying.  When I read his books, I am completely convinced the world he creates is authentic, genuine. His view of the world completely absorbs, and informs me.  I am better for having read his books.   This may mean that for whatever reason, I am interested how other people see the world.  This means people in general, gardeners, artists, composers and writers, imaginary people. Though my memory is not what it used to be,  I still remember my earliest imaginary friend, Anthony Bowguidem. I am interested in what other people imagine. I would guess this is key,  as I continue to make a career generated from what I imagine.

How does this relate to garden design?  I fancy myself the fifth business in a design relationship.  I see the property where no one has time to keep it up, though I am hearing that they garden. I meet people whose obligations as parents eclipse what they might want as adults from an outdoor space.  I see a Mom with young children asking for play space, when she really means she needs a place for she and her husband to relax and talk, separate from a play space.   I meet clients who tell me they like wild gardens, when I see that wild garden they have overwhelms them.  I meet clients whose work obligations shock them-they are looking to reestablish some connection to their home and its environment.  I meet young people who are looking for a schedule of do it yourself projects.

I like hearing the stories.  New to me-I tell my story.  I invite clients to see my garden.  Its a small property, but I have given plenty of thought to it.  I have done it over the past fifteen years, not the past 15 weeks.  The plants, the forms-this is a common denominator.  Many people’s lives and circumstances are very different than mine, but in the end, the shapes, the plants, the problems-these things we share.   What I share with people comes to some good.

I cannot express how shocked I was a year ago to discover that the fifth business was not part of the language of the history of opera.  Robertson Davies invented that word, and invented what that word meant.  All these years I had supposed I was one of a group of baritones who knew all the stories, who could make better, given my reach, other lives. There is not one bit of history to support my efforts.  Given some time and thought, I realized that most everything I do is energized by my imagination.

The energy generated by an active imagination?  Good energy.