I read, years ago, that people tell stories about dogs that they want to reflect positively back upon themselves. Dogs that run into burning buildings to save children, dogs that teach themselves a comical trick: the story you tell about a dog is the subconscious mind telling a story about you (at the time, I worked with a woman who told stories about her many cats. ‘He slept here for an hour, then he went over there.’ ‘I was petting him and he liked it, then he scratched me.’ ‘I was reading and she walked on my book.’ What did cat stories say about her? And remember this simple rule, kids: one cat is a pet, two cats means you love cats. Three or more cats means you will die alone with your cat-hoard making a fancy feast of your corpse.) Your favorite dog story is about your own loyalty, or bravery, your keen intelligence, or how you bump into furniture when you have a funnel on your head.
I can’t help but wonder what stories my plants tell about me. As I look out upon my foresty glen just sitting there, mostly foresting, I note that a theme emerges from my plant selections–and not because they are all Native plants, green and common and a bit boring. It is the trees that tell the tale.
About half of the trees I have planted are Yellow Cedar. I imagine them as I have seen them in Alaska, tall and gently pendulous, framing a rotting, ocean-battered longhouse and a lonely totem pole amid swirling mist. These are the shamans of the forest: mysterious trees of great personality, giving every appearance of stealing out of the woods to quietly surround you…whether to threaten or to protect is unknowable.
The remaining majority is an even mix of Subalpine Fir and Mountain Hemlock. When nursery-grown, there isn’t anything terribly remarkable about these trees. But the ones I have selected are (legally) wild harvested, and bear the evidence of their natural struggle. Bent, twisted, multiple-trunked: they give the appearance of age and character though most are only four to eight feet tall. Like the small number of Shore Pine I have planted, I accentuate their gnarled aspect by planting them at angles, forcing their trunks to bend and twist further; the Shore Pine themselves, planted almost parallel to the earth, have doubled back in their curvature. Two of these are additionally staked to the soil to make their bends more severe, and I will eventually train them all to Niwaki, the growth candles pinched and needles removed to stress the trees still further. There is nobility and grace in the tortuous trunks of these trees, which the Germans call Krummholz, or ‘knee-wood.’
There are two faces to the soil I cultivate. The front, right on the street, is quite public; variety in color and texture, a cosmopolitan mix of plants that play well together and do well in my climate, cheerful but hewing towards a Japanesque appearance. It looks quite a lot like the gardens at my prior home. In back of the house is my clearing, the site of most of my gardening toil and one-sided fights against soil, animal pressures, and City regulations. The clearing is private to the point of almost being secret, the plants subdued, but still with small punctuations of the unexpected or the forbidden. It doesn’t take years of therapy to catch the heavy-handed symbolism–duality of man, unyielding struggle against superior forces, blah-de-blah–yet I am positive that Dr. Freud would still have a field day back there. I haven’t thought overmuch about what it would mean to be a meticulous rosarian, or to cultivate a blowsy English garden or to collect twelve thousand plants; who would I be if I cut cloches out of milk jugs or welded garden dinosaurs out of old car parts? There is no doubt that I am not the gardener I am not, but I definitely am what I garden.