I’m sitting here late-morning on a July Saturday in Pittsburgh, and the air is cool on sycamore-shrouded East End Avenue. It’s just 70 degrees, very little humidity, and the black squirrels creep effortlessly along the phone lines above the street.
Gardeners around here are thankful for the recent soaking rains. Last night the raindrops cooled and quieted my Park Place neighborhood, making traffic along Braddock Avenue a rarity and lulling everyone with the sounds of train whistles and the rhythm of heavy wheels running down the nearby railroad tracks. I’m thankful for the life-giving rain, and happy to know my little garden plots aren’t thirsty. But in thinking of these things, it occurred to me again that gardening offers many life lessons, you just need to pay attention. I’ve picked up these lessons on my own, and also from several garden gurus of mine over the years. The first of these greenthumbers was my paternal great uncle, Frederick Hawes Barnes, a lifelong US Steel company man, who played the role of my grandfather in the absence of my dad’s dad, who died when my father was a teen.
On Saturdays from when I was about eight, my siblings and I would head with Dad from our home in Bellevue to Grampa Fred’s house along Ingomar Road in North Hills, to help him with his garden. Grampa Fred sternly instructed us, like a manager clearly dictating the task to dull-witted workers, before setting us loose weeding in his backyard garden. He taught me Gardening Lesson One:
1. Be discriminating.
“I’ve got ya now,” Grampa would say as he grabbed a hold of my forearm, playfully restraining me with a trembling grip. This was when he was older than in my earliest gardening days, but when I was young, Fred grabbed us by the elbows and led us around his prized garden, which was framed at the back by a stretch of tall oak and pine woods.
“This is a flower, don’t touch that... This is a weed,” he said. Fred would go through the entire sizable garden like that, pointing out where the weeds were and picking some along the way, showing us the flowers not to be touched, before letting us go to work weeding the place. He probably didn’t think about it, but he taught much larger lessons, like the need to be discriminating, and knowing the difference between excellence and junk.
Being discriminating, having good taste, requires more than just knowing on the surface what is said to be good. You also have to know what makes the thing good. Everything in nature has its proper name, and calling a thing by the wrong name is tantamount to not really truly perceiving the thing. Which brings me to the Second Lesson:
2. Call it by its true name.
My current gardening guru, garden designer Liz Reed, will correct you if you misidentify anything in a garden. Usually she refers to a plant by its Latin name but not in a snobby way; she is simply a stickler for calling any garden thing precisely what it is. So if you mistakenly use the word “dirt,” Liz will be quick to correct you: “It likes to be called ‘soil,’” she says. And I get the point. I worked part-time for a while for a stonemason named Ray Stroyne, and I learned a lot from that hard-drinking sensei. Through that work I realized that those things which some call rocks, actually like to be called stones.
Call everything by its correct name. While Ray wasn’t a big-time gardener, he had a wonderful veggie garden at home, and his livelihood was made working in other people’s gardens. Ray could do any kind of masonry and concrete work, but he mainly did stone wall repair and construction. Often when I worked with him, we’d be rebuilding someone’s ashlar wall. Now that cut stone may have looked gorgeous ten, twenty or forty years before when the wall was first built, by the time we were hired to rebuild it, the stone often would be pretty beat up. Sometimes an amateur had done a half-ass job of trying to repair the wall, or crappy ruble was used in the wall, so Ray had to make chicken salad, as they say. But he always made something streamlined, sturdy and often beautiful, even with subpar materials. Like some Zen master he sized up each stone to find its true identity, while teaching me Lesson Three:
3. See the true face of the thing.
Ray picked up a piece of stone and gave it a quick look, then perched an edge of the 40 pound slab onto his right shoulder, taking a deep drag from a Marlboro, all while sitting in a crouching position on his haunches, gazing with a faraway look at the half-rebuilt stone wall a few feet in front of him. With the fluidity of a javelin thrower, he pinched the stone with four thick fingers and laid it into its place in the wall.
“You see every stone has its face, Jon,” Ray said, showing me how he knew what side of the stone to place up, based upon the appearance of the face of it. Sometimes he would take a brick hammer and a chisel and shave off a chunk of the stone’s face, so it looked right and appeared organic to the wall. In doing so he reminded me that things are often a question of perspective. You can be looking at a thing and believing you know what it is, but if you’re looking at it from the wrong angle, you’ll never see what it truly is and how it might perform best.