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Well Arranged Succulents



Mid-morning I arrive at a greenhouse, and though I arrive on time, I’m the last to get here. I stand out, distinctly as someone who isn’t an old lady. Everyone is dressed for a Sunday picnic along the Seine and I look like I came galavanting out of a rodeo.

I don’t garden, but sometimes I think I do. I read books about gardening. I once built a series of vegetable gardens with my dad. Of what I have done, vegetable gardening has been my main interest, primarily for its function. Recently I decided to take a workshop on succulent growing and arranging. Carrots, garlic, and chard are great, but my expectations for each is to produce. Beauty isn’t a purpose, it’s a way of being. That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

We gather at the studio workspace, a hanging basket and a dozen succulents for each. There’s a box of pink nitrile gloves and I notice I’m the only one barehanded. Looking at my plants I start to bond, to become possessive, considering their details and softening to their flaws. We begin with an introduction to succulent care, study an example of fine arrangement, then start excavating. One by one we’re taught about the nuances of the plant, then given suggestions on placement.

Quickly I realize that though I can put plants in dirt, there’s more to think about.

“The centre of your arrangement should be highest,” my new friend beside me recommends. She’s jovial, but that doesn’t make her unique here. “Highest in the centre and smaller plants to surround it.”

I take her advice humbly. Her short pink hair and adroit movements make me think she’s a frequenter of classes like these.

“Make sure your two centre plants point straight up,” the instructor notes. I comply. “This is for sunlight, but also to draw the eye in.”

It didn’t exactly occur to me that the same rules of aesthetics for all art apply to gardening. Funny how you notice things from their context.

“For the other plants you use to build around the centre, you can make them point outwards. People will look right into them,” my friend tells me. She strikes me as someone with either no grandchildren, or many.

The instructor adds, “Especially the echevarria. You want it to open up to whoever will admire it.”

Focused on plants, I’m soon overcome by meditation. There are books that teach you to meditate. They’re no good. Neither are the people who point you down the right path if you’ll humble yourself and part with worldly possessions for their sake.

Working with my hands and focusing with my thoughts, like one does sketching, welding, or lawn mowing, I enter a plane that is good for reflection.

Meanwhile, our meditation tour guide is several plants ahead. I fuss over plant height and spread, trying to catch up, and immediately I slip out of contemplation. Now I’m in elementary school, panicking, trying not to worry about being, once again, equations, pages, books behind. I make myself a cactus, wax skin and prickly.

I haven’t felt like this for a long time. Out of control. Then I’m reminded of Thomas Merton: “Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.” Good soil. I wish I knew and comprehended that then. But good soil doesn’t always make a difference. Some succulents, especially cacti, thrive in conditions known for constant 40 degree Celcius sun and an inch of water per year. We call cacti hardy. By design they pull moisture in quickly and store it well. Most types of plants open their pores during the day, absorbing carbon dioxide for their magic named photosynthesis. To protect themselves against the heat, many succulents do this in the cool of the night. For all their hardiness, they won’t survive half a year outdoors here in the Pacific Northwest. And who would call them inept?

The hanging basket I’ve decorated has eight kinds of succulents. Burro’s Tail, with soft green leaves, grows long stems, 50 cm in length. It’s the most laid-back succulent, I think, and prefers lots of sun with little water. Jade Plant has plump, rounded, deep green leaves. I’m told it may one day bloom star-shaped white flowers. These also adore full sun but prefer a little more water than the Burro’s Tail. Echeveria is a genus of many, of which I have three. Their leaf growth pattern is circular, from the centre. It’s called a rosette. Not too much water for them, either. This hanging basket will join several pots of different cacti at home.

A succulent growers guide could be summed up, “Usually lots of sun; some water when soil is parched.” Of course, there’s more to it than that. Some might say succulent care is a lifestyle. One of my early growers guide drafts read simply, “You haven’t moved to California yet?”

Before my interest in cacti, then more broadly, succulents, I could get indignant against growing foreign flowers, though I have nothing against them themselves.

Once, driving from Quesnel to Richmond I picked up a pair of hitchhikers. Jesse from Ontario and Sam, a fire sign. I said I don’t believe in such things but apparently that outed myself as an earth.

Jesse, taking the first shift in the passenger seat, and still partially dressed as Dolly Parton for a Dolly Parton lookalike contest the day before (he came third; some awarded him bonus points for clearly being at the biggest disadvantage) was the kind of ideal company you hope for at parties where you know only the host. We talked about geography, travels, books, and other broad subjects, happily limited by knowledge and not time.

Sam, though with long blonde hair and eyes you could swim in, was too organic, too sincere, to play Parton. We talked about her working to start a native landscape and gardening business. In native gardening, one only grows plants indigenous to the region.

“Part of it is getting people to see that local plants are actually beautiful. You don’t need a Japanese garden,” she said. “When you consider the environmental impact of most foreign species, you lose interest in plants from everywhere else.”

I could easily agree.

“So you’ve got a stand-out, imported front yard. I can design a yard that’ll look just as amazing.”

At that moment, I was convinced. There she sat, innocent as a flower, fired about invasive species, and I no longer cared for exotic plants. It was like my DNA rearranged and I darn well near became disgusted with anything imported.

I still agree with Sam but I’m not afraid of succulent roots overcoming their decorative earthenware, ornamental on a plinth, and taking claim of my living room, then Sardis, then Canada. I’m more worried about infatuation, heart in rib prison, overcoming my chest. Lessons learned.

But if any one of my succulents breaks out in a soulful aria, demanding human flesh (à la Little Shop of Horrors), I’ll resist it. And ostrich ferns are since my favourite outdoor decorative plant.

I imagined that, years later, I’d run into either Jesse or Sam. I was supposed to email Jesse poems but I lost the Chevron receipt with their emails. I may have thrown it out. Ephemeral friendships are easier to take care of.

I have arranged and occasionally rearranged, sometimes for aesthetics but usually I can’t explain why. Recorded watering cycles, tested soil dampness, moistened soil, fertilized.

Towards the end, realized some baldness, and added small echeverias and string-of-pearls to hide gaps. You arrange with an end in mind, still, sometimes you’re only in the present. Distracted.

Have hung, potted, dug, excavated too much, backfilled a little. Loosened root system, gently. Fussed over unremarkable detail, poking and shifting with a chopstick, sometimes with conviction that an out-of-place leaf will make the difference.

Fought with and willed leaves to turn up or turn out. Lifting, turning, turning back, tilting, surveying, and not sure if beautiful or I’m good at explaining why it’s supposed to look this way.

All to draw in the eye and hold it long enough to inspect and explore this hanging woven basket of succulents.

Still haven’t seen either of them but I did once recognize a familiar dog at a busy gas station outside White River, Ontario, near the end of August. Sniffs, the dog, sat like a good boy until I came near. I think we recognized each other about the same moment. He stirred, waddling up and down, sniffing the air for confirmation of this extremely unlikely reuniting.

I had picked Sniffs and his owner, Patches, up along that same stretch between Quesnel and Williams Lake several months prior. Would have driven them again had it been the other end of the season. I was Montreal bound. Being good travellers, they were looking West.

“No worries buddy. We’ll be getting back on the train in no time. Had to get into town for some chow.”

Hitchhiking is recreational. Train hopping is serious travel.

“We’re going to Alaska for a visit before heading south.”

I didn’t stick around long enough to chat with Patches. Either I figured we’d meet up again or wasn’t worried if we didn’t.

About that time I was working as a welder. My notebook, like me, was spotted with burns. Voltage and amperage settings, types of metal, and reminders made better poems than most of my poems. There’s a reference to the occurrence in a notebook I kept at the time. Simply: “You are thinking about the next rod. The next rod is imminent, but never experienced.”

When arc welding, one touches an electrically charged metal rod to the metal to be welded. The rod is consumed as it melts. Once spent, the nub is tossed and a new rod is twisted in place. Many days are measured in rods.

When you garden as art, you create in faith. The art of arrangement is in design. The art of vegetable gardening is in the soul. Vegetable gardening is less of an art than it is a union anyway. Both are in time. Sometimes growing plants isn’t about what you’re doing but what you’re not doing instead. So many things I don’t need to think about. I think time is a sanctuary, making us a temple. Like what Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in, “The Sabbath”:

“Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, within particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit.”

The American rabbi explains that technical civilization is humanity’s conquest in space. The triumph is achieved by sacrificing the essential ingredient of existence: time.

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

The mysteries of the divine. Found in the architecture of time spent searching.

What a succulent needs is minimal, but is crucial for survival. I’m not sure, but I think the healthiest plants I have are potted with others. I know some people talk to their plants. I don’t know what they say. Some people play music for their plants. I’ve been unable to determine which genres my succulents like. I do know that cacti don’t like being on top of speakers from which any genre plays at a high volume due to moments of vibration-induced levitation and a five-foot-four drop to the floor.

By now I’ve twice and thrice over learned that what I knew as indisputable law was either partial truth or outright misinformation. I’m less radical in my gardener preaching. Many fertilizers lead to a fulfilling crop.

Leaning back to take in my basket of succulents, holding it out at arm’s length, I see how it all fits together. I see where the eschevarias are too crowded. I see where I didn’t dig deep enough for the Jade. I see that my plan for the string-of-pearls to wrap around the others makes them look tangled. But I remember how each motion is tied to a memory. The succulents themselves are pretty but the arrangement holds the story. This is what I know about the art and purpose of plant arranging: several, maybe more, seperate images of beauty, attached and arranged so that together they become something else. Each is a gift of beauty on its own. Together they create dialogue. By directing your attention one way or another, the pot of plants takes on new meaning. But no matter how they’re planted, the pot is only a still shot of their creation. They are meditation vignettes.

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