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The Good Place: A society to match the scenery (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and neighboring)


Wild gardens reveal the only world
   Waking up in an alpine place


In the Montana where I grew up, I never visited elaborate gardens. The gardens I knew were not grand creations, but humble efforts made with little more than shovels and hoes, aimed more at food than design. A neighbor, Mrs. Dunn, was a marvel because she actually built raised beds out of recycled planks and filled them with black soil dug by hand at Mission Dam in late fall when the reservoir was nearly empty and the rich deposits of top soil could be easily loaded into a truck. She talked beets and rutabagas more than peonies and thyme.

Lots of people grew potatoes, cabbage and corn in long rows, along with beds of cucumbers and tomatoes, but gardening for beauty was quite limited. An occasional line of marigolds beside the beets and radishes, a few petunias along the sidewalk, a small bed of snapdragons, an heirloom yellow rose bush by the front gate. There was one house in town that, for a couple of years, had a lush display of flowers I had no names for then but now know included lupines and irises and and lilies. I stopped in wonder that such things could actually grow in Montana. It was like something from a movie or magazine.

But I hardly thought about gardens. The strongest influence on my gardening aesthetic has probably been the wildflower displays I saw in rocky meadows around alpine lakes in the Mission Mountains. Waking in wilderness mountains beside meadows brimming with morning light, I felt a sense of pure grace. For a gardener, awakening comes before planting. Sometimes I inarticulately felt I could see more deeply into the heart of creation and sense there not the unintended accidents of a world of chance so much as gardens within gardens. Awakening there was being young in a way that does not wane with mere passage of years.

What moved me about those wild alpine gardens probably had as much to do with my attention as with what was “out there"--because I since have had the same sense in many other places, including urban parks. Much, maybe most, of what I like about camping is the absence of noise and distractions which makes it easier to pay attention to the moment, to the light which both reveals and feeds the world, to the endlessly varying mosaic beautiful in each of its details and sublime in its depth and breadth. A dew-sparkled world of flowers and shrubs and rocks and water seen in the slant light of morning is a world that, once seen, is always there, everywhere.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey

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