Garden Correspondences

There are times when it behooves us to take stock of where we are in our book and paper collecting, and I may even say in life in general. In writing another article for the Delaware Bibliophiles, I’m moved to simply relax here and just let a gentle tumbling of thoughts roll out onto the paper, especially in the light of the passing of our colleague–Tom Beckman. I did not know Tom well, in fact, other than being a fellow DE Bibliophile, we had little connection over the years, but those times where we did “connect” were fruitful, and I loved to watch the man lose himself in the revelry and passion of the moment pondering over whatever bibliophilic or historic matter he was currently investigating. Additionally, it didn’t take one long to know that besides being a scholar, he was also a supporter of the interests of others–the consummate Delaware Bibliophile like Gordon Pfeiffer, Tom Doherty, Steve Baire, Herbert Pratt, Preston Davis, Bob Fleck, Mark Samuels Lasner, and I’m sure many others with whom I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting.

I’m sitting here in the library amongst the Mosher collection, and reveling in the delightfully cooler weather of the moment and the overnight rain that has made everything more vivid and alive. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned much about gardening, but though still in the elementary phases, our gardens here at home are exhibiting a welcomed variety of colors, smells and textures, and are beginning to “fill in” or have already done so. Two years ago we planted thirty-two evergreens around the perimeter of the property. In subsequent years we killed off the grass on the banks around the trees, mulched, and planted a variety of plants and schrubs. This year we’ve added many new perennials–some in patches or clusters, repeating patterns of color in certain sequences, providing appropriate height positioning, accounting for blooms for early spring, late spring, summer, and then fall. The bank where I built a fifty foot long wall with lowest level at 2 ½ feet up to the highest of 4 feet, has been truly becoming an explosion of color from early spring up to the end of the growing season. We added Provence lavender; several breath-taking raspberry wine monarda (beebalm); several different iris including bearded, Japanese, and Siberian; a couple plantings of ligularia–which I’m not have too much success with presently, but their move to shadier quarters might do the trick–; a half dozen or more astilbe which I really do enjoy; some rose wine sage; numerous “blue pyramid” speedwells (just adore them), four different varieties of tall heliopsis (including two new hybrids) which take hard sun like nobody’s business. We added a couple varieties of artemisia for the contrast of color with their silver grey; a lovely planting of dead nettle punctuates a spot; and a planting of Missouri primrose and three low creeping evening primroses which, like the artemisia, have a silver grey foliage. A couple large areas of both white and deep pink echinacea now brighten our beds, and a compact tanyosha pine was added on the deepest part of the bank with stands adjacent to a Turkish urn. Another such pine is in a container on our back deck, and there are delicate plantings around a large 19th century French olive jar. Our lilies are literally from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis where we hand picked which ones we’d like when they divided them at the end of the season. We brought them with us from our old home in the borough of Millersville to our newer dwelling here in Manor Township just outside of Millersville (but with Millersville address)–a move I’m still not sure was an altogether correct one. Plants we put in one and two years ago are now really coming into their own, including many like the hostas which I haven’t mentioned in the above only because they’re older and established staples of the garden.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see the parallels between the cultivation of a garden and the nurturing of a book collection. Looking over the garden we recognize plants we added now and then; likewise, looking over the shelves of the library there are those books we know exactly when and where they were acquisitioned and, when positioned, helped “certain groupings” to grow. To be sure, the initial “plantings” were not too spectacular, rather looking a bit lonely there all by their lonesome. But steadily others grew around them, and swatches of color and different texture began to evolve as that section matured. Our gardens outside not only signal success when regenerating each spring, but also are aesthetic pleasures to behold. Inside the same sort of cultivation and reward was developing. As some areas developed faster than others, I’ve been forced to transplant them on other areas of the shelves. New varieties were introduced, and old ones took on different meaning and value as other books and materials further supported their existence. There even seems to be a correspondence between the French 19th-century olive jar in our garden and the Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” printed al la Mosher style. Our green and multi-colored gardens of the grounds are reflected in the multi-shaped and varied gardens of the library. Together they seem to form a similar set of stimulants to our mind and senses. You may recall that I’ve often spoken of the “smell of books” in addition to their visual and tactile elements–not to mention their value to us as readers. And good lord, even some of my books spines as “sunned” and though our books huddle in the dark, like plants, they only thrive for us in the light when we “pick” them, like flowers, to be read or otherwise beheld. And do I need to say more about the flower, vine, and architectural tooling on those morocco bindings?

My wife’s herb garden is a treat, and we (OK, actually it was Susann) just completed a stone walkway which lets you get up-front and cozy with the herbs, plus it takes away more of that d— grass I now don’t have to mow. Just across from the herbs we’ve grown a domestic cultivar of milkweed (swamp milkweed) which we’re just thrilled with, and it now reaches over my head for a grand total of six feet. It has even grown higher than the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’) which is in all its glory right now. One loosestrife plant is near each end of the wall, and in between are our favorite anise hyssops which have grown tall and sturdy this year. I purposely built one end of the wall to look like it was old and had crumbled or fallen down. The stones there are covered with lichens which add a certain design otherwise not captured by ordinary plants. This year we added a smattering of Erysimum cheiri, what are commonly called wallflowers, which fluoresce with an orange glow–a bit like the color of bright marigolds, but with dainty flower pedals which keep blooming and blooming and blooming–very pleasant, even in the twilight. Along with bloom color and its pleasing arrangement throughout the beds, we’re particularly mindful of presenting a variety of textures and of the foliage color as well. Likewise, there are plenty of stones in my library. Well, OK, some of them aren’t stones, but then again some of them truly are. Of course, we call them bookends of marble, metal or wood, and they accent the “beds” of the collection, holding up loose ends as it were. And those cultivars in the outside gardens can be matched by the cultivars in my collection, only I call them books in fine, highly decorated leather bindings. Same imprint, but totally different look on the outside. Or even the more exotic variants of imprints causing second or third states, canceled title pages, or other more peculiar oddities.

Out back there is an expansive area of grass, and right in an optical center there is a very large white classical urn in which is planted one large New Zealand flax. It is not located in THE geometrical center of the yard, but rather an optical center which somehow looks like it’s the center, but if measured it certainly would be way off. I’ve learned this little trick from my early homesteading years and found it really works well here to great effect. Around the banks I imported some large mountain rocks which now appear in a few clusters, and at the heal of one curve to the garden I had a 400 pound mountain rock covered with lichens placed next to a newly introduced variety of purple lilac which blooms much later in the season and grows in a larger bush-like fashion. Such placements and shaping of the garden reveal the more creative side of the landscape gardener. As for the book collection, can anyone doubt the enlistment of creative formation. A collection isn’t about just the accumulation of a whole host of material. If that were all there was to it, we all could be just “buyers” out there filling up our spaces with tons of material without much meaning–except for collectors like Michael Zinman who believe in creating a critical mass. No, for the collector, it’s not even an assemblage of like artifacts. Even that falls short. The collector posses something far more important in that he works about a design, fits pieces into a whole, a whole of which is often of his own creation and development. The inter-relationships between items require a good bit of research, but the ability to fit them all into a coherent whole, even a story, well… that’s a matter of creation. In our garden, the New Zealand flax holds the garden together. It provides the prospective with which one takes in the whole of the garden at first glance. Among my Mosher collection, the whole is not only brought together by the visual arrangement of the various series of Mosher’s books, but more importantly, is brought together by the focus of a scholarly bibliography which gathers the collection’s elements and gives a coherency to the hundreds of books assembled there. This doesn’t just happen! It involves a creative, interpretive process in addition to the activity of selective accumulation.

So when I sit in our sun room and peer out into the gardens, or when I peer into my library from the gardens outside, I’m really looking at the same phenomenon in action. Gardens of the soil, and gardens of the collector… and not far down the road, gardens of the mind. They’re strangely two expressions of the same activity. Even those are just but two examples of scores of others. Remember my article on Charles Ditmas, keeper of clocks at Harvard. The parallels were there too. Each activity has its correspondences in the other. They’re all part of the same self, and I’m sure Tom Beckman instinctively knew that. We all know that if we just pause a moment to reflect about our collecting activities and life in general. All this makes perfect sense, and I’m sure the analogies could be widened and filled with ample details by a more competent mind, but I think I’ve said enough to make my point, but I’m not quite sure how our four cats–Toby, Tess, Sasha, and Sabrina–enter into it. Drats, there’s always a cat fiddling around with what otherwise would be purrfect order–the little “nixnootzes.” Cheers!

© Philip R. Bishop
13 July 2003