The ephemeral nature of beauty

melissa_thefarm(NItaly)April 12, 2014

Here in Italy I live in the land of the "bella presenza", of the sleek and the well-groomed. Looking good is important for success, and there's a corresponding interest in being as beautiful as possible, from clothes to makeup to hairdressing to plastic surgery. It's a big business. All this emphasis on beauty has got me thinking on the subject. We gardeners want beauty, of course, and we put a lot of time, money, effort, and thought into our pursuit. But we don't have complete control in our quest. Nobody ever does, and we're less likely than others to be able to ignore drought and cold, diseases and pests, and neighbors quarreling on the other side of the fence. But I think that the whole idea that one can guarantee beauty, where living organisms are concerned, is flawed. Notice I'm not talking about literature, architecture, music, and so on (though consider live performances, where the fleshly element comes in). Definitely a gardener can, must, set up the prerequisites for a beautiful garden: I spend my life choosing plants, digging good holes, mulching, pruning, watering, and practicing a great deal of patience. And not rarely deer, cane girdler, mildew, drought--not mowing the grass--come along and spoil the effect. We have our remedies of irrigation and various deterrences.
How can I continue? All right: it doesn't work. In brief, you can create the conditions for beauty, but the more you try to guarantee it will be, the less likely it is to appear. Rightly or wrongly, this is what I believe.
Beauty is ephemeral, and it hinges on chance: you can't make it happen, and you can't make it stay. Its independence of our will and skill is part of its essential nature. A long stretch of mild weather, with rain and sun, and the Tea roses are superb. An early flowering, and the flowers emerge before the beetles do, and aren't ruined by them. And beauty depends on the state of mind of the person who's seeing, hearing, and sniffing the garden. A minute, a morning, two weeks, and that beauty has passed.
Realizing this is another way of yielding yourself to the world. Insofar as I can do this, I think my garden and I are the more graceful for it.
Melissa

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ingrid_vc(Z10 SoCal)

Well said, Melissa; no one can guarantee that we'll have or can maintain beauty in our gardens. We have zero control over the elements, and that seems to be more true than ever nowadays with record-breaking climate changes and disasters affecting us and everything around us.

It does occur to me, though, that some of us are more blessed or more cursed depending on where we live. Ice, snow, Japanese beetles, massive disease, drought, floods, and on and on - these things are often localized. Of these I have only one, but I know you have several to contend with, as do many others on the forum. Location does make a difference, but I know that I can feel happy and content with my garden one day, and pretty grumpy the next after the temperature has soared from 65 degrees to 90 and my garden goes from pretty to frizzled, and I go from smug to humbled. In nature we control nothing. We can aid and abet, make sensible choices in what we grow, water and fertilize - and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Part of the garden may look rather nice while another is a mini disaster. A rose that's gorgeous one day may be dead as a doornail the next because gophers ate the roots. I suppose that's one reason I take so many pictures. They're vignettes of an ephemeral beauty that may not ever occur in quite the same way again.

Ingrid

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 2:27AM
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Campanula UK Z8

Beauty - highly overrated, to my mind. Far, far more satisfying are aspects of change, growth, complexity, harmony and contrast. Beauty, as a definition within itself is hopeless, not least because it is so utterly subjective. Not that I am immune to a perfect symmetry of form, a pure colour, an array of casual, yet totally appropriate simplicity.......it is just that beauty is only one aspect of gardening which fascinates and holds us there. Personally, I find myself drawn to the opposite - death, decay, rebirth.....a process, in other words while beauty, as has been pointed out, is merely a moment of stillness and imagined perfection which, inevitably, must change. This, I think, is the direction of your post, Melissa, no?
Um, I do wish that I could simply yield to the world and live in the moment.....but as a meddler, faffer, easily bored and endlessly curious gardener, this is a very good reason why beauty is a fugitive notion in all of my gardens, rarely present and never captured. Even the woods, untouched and serene, are now showing signs of mucking about, adding, subtracting, for good or ill.
Even worse, my concept of beauty does not match the ideals of my family members.....so, for better or worse, there will always be bikes, empty pots, ziplines and nets, abandonned tools, bit of woodwork equipment, toys, various clothes, cups and plates, ancient barbecue drums and unruly pets to litter the landscape.....and gardening on a public plot is even worse.
So no, beauty is a fleeting moment but only the sugar icing on a much richer cake of spices, sharp flavours, dissonant crunches and surprising depths.
However, there is an emotive response to gardens which depends, not exactly on beauty (and, as an atheist, I have no concept of divine grace or such).....but there is a difficult to define quality which shines through and is independent on surface aspects such as beauty. I call it 'the numinous' - a kind of inherent rightness and a feeling of transcendence, when every aspect of the garden - the weather, the plants, the smells, sounds, feel exists in a moment of perfect balance. These moments occur often, easily invoked by merely examining a couple of bees, a small bird perched on an umbel, a single quince, a flawless blossom, a pile of richly friable compost or the feel of warm loam trickling between fingers. Forgive the waffle - this normally bluff and resolutely practical gardener gets carried away by far too many notions.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 7:18AM
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jacqueline9CA

You are all right, of course. I will not attempt to describe my reaction to the garden when it is happy as it is now except to say that it fills me with joy. The last few days, everything has seemed to be perfect. Not just the tons of bloom and perfect weather - what I think I react to the most is the unexpected.

Coming around a corner to discover a lovely color combination of plants, one of which I had forgotten was there, one of which was a surprise volunteer, and all three of which had magically bloomed simultaneously for the first time ever. Of course it doesn't last. Every time I have gone out into the garden for the past 3 days I have had to run back and get my camera to try and catch one vignette or another.

In a neighbor's neglected back yard, there is an enormous once blooming rose which I can see from my kitchen window - huge, white blossoms which are blooming over an area easily 20 feet wide and 15-20 feet high. Every year I keep meaning to call them and ask if I can come over and take a photo of it - it is also ephemeral. Blooming right now.

The birds are all actively nesting and raising young already, the butterflies are out, the latest crop of juvenile squirrels are playing about (they come down the trees to stare at our cats when they are out - unlike the adults).

Can't wait to get back out there-

Jackie

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 8:33AM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

I wish I had similar skill with words. You have touched at least part of the incredible power that gardening funnels into our lives. So ephemeral, yet resilient and dependable. And balanced. Thank-you for sharing your thoughts. I wish we could sit together truly, but I will enjoy this level of connection.

Martha

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 8:58AM
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ingrid_vc(Z10 SoCal)

Camp, I do believe that beauty exists; it had better since that is what I strive for in the garden. We may all have different visions of it, and there can be days or weeks when everything conspires against it, but for me it's the concept that everything is arranged in such a way that, for the most part, the whole is pleasing even though the component parts undergo constant change and therefore have to be constantly fiddled with, to use one of your expressions. No matter whose garden I look at, almost subconsciously I look for a basic sense of harmony and rightness, of color combinations that inspire and yet soothe, of lines and angles and curves that all work together to create a vision that engenders pleasure. I hasten to say that this is my vision; someone else's may be very different. Also, the ravages of nature take a decided toll, and after months of heat I have to avert my eyes or concentrate on a few saving graces that have weathered the brutal onslought of the sun. During those times dusk is the kindest moment and blurs what is imperfect and still retains what I find beautiful; the outlines of the surrounding hills, rocks, trees and the large tea roses along the path, and the white and lavender pink of the flowers still visible but hiding the imperfection of the blooms. Those moments are fleeting but the garden gods are usually kind enough to recreate them, in whatever form, in further fleeting moments of ....beauty.

Ingrid

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 1:04PM
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Campanula UK Z8

Oh Ingrid, I would never deny the existence of beauty but just emphasise the subjective nature of it. As you know, philosophers have entertained themselves for unknown hours debating the nature of 'truth' and 'beauty' before deciding against the imposition of absolute definitions. Beauty, more than many existential conditions, is predicated on a long cultural history.....although there are certain tropes such as proportion (golden mean) which have stood the test of time - symmetry for example, and may be hard-wired into our genetic base since there are evolutionary advantages to seeking out the strong, the perfect, the healthy, the vital.

I just think that seeking beauty is one of the lesser joys of gardening (rather than sparking the green fuse of life into being which is the epitome of garden joy for me) although, like most of us, my heart instinctively lifts at a perfect 5 petalled blossom or (insert ideal of choice). Nature, as we know, is red in tooth and claw, but beauty, as opposed to the more anodyne prettiness, can be quite frighteningly dark and savage.....the flip side of ugliness....but still the same coin, so to speak.
I also believe that the ephemeral nature of beauty is the most essential part of its charm since familiarity leads to boredom, complacency, even contempt........the very fleeting aspect is what makes it so infinitely precious. And Ingrid, the sheer majesty of your surroundings, working together with an artists eye (yours) elevates your garden into something really rather special, unique and moving..........beautiful, if I dare say. The effort of wrestling with a recalcitrant landscape has lent your garden a certain dangerous epic quality, far removed from 'pretty' or 'charming' or 'nice'. Beauty with an edge.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 1:56PM
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boncrow66

I don't have your gift of words melissa but I think that for me that despite all the adversity that Mother Nature can wield on our gardens there is always a moment when I walk outside and everything has come together and is blooming and looking beautiful. I love planting anything and watching it grow and become what nature intended. I see beauty every day whether it be new blooms on my flowers/roses or my daughters smile, beauty is different things to everyone. I hope everyone has a wonderful spring and has the opportunity to enjoy the beauty that everyday brings.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 2:01PM
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seil zone 6b MI

I think a big part of the problem is that people equate beauty to perfection. Beauty isn't perfect, EVER. If you've ever seen those photos where they take one half of the face of someone who is drop dead gorgeous and flip it and put it together...they end up looking awful because of the exact symmetry. I think true beauty needs some imperfections to make it beautiful. On that note, my garden IS beautiful!

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 7:24PM
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boncrow66

Well said seil! That's why gardening is never boring, nothing is ever perfect! You have to do a lot of trouble shooting and tending to plants but the why I love it. Its the imperfections that make us appreciate the beauty.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 11:20PM
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melissa_thefarm(NItaly)

I'm enjoying all these comments; it's always fun when a post starts a conversational ball rolling. Seil, your comment is acute, though I would substitute "regularity/irregularity" for "perfection/imperfection". A garden composition can be irregular but perfect (here I'm thinking of my grouping of R. moschata with rosemary behind it against a wall, with wild violets, creeping thyme, anthemis, nepeta, and some wild pea-thing at their feet: it just happened, but is lovely). Henry Mitchell (whom I cite ad nauseam, but it's because he said so much of what's worth saying) noted that there's a difference between a garden's being perfect and its being wonderful, with the implication that it's the wonder that's worth seeking. By the way, I don't by any means despise symmetry, and, correctly dosed, believe it has its place in the garden. In fact I've always wanted a formal garden. But I can never convince my husband that geometrical regularity is inappropriate in a steep, irregularly shaped piece of ground belonging to people who can't afford massive earth-moving operations.
Courage, Ingrid. I hope, and believe, that you will always find it's worth it.
Martha/docmom, that's the wonder of the Internet, isn't it? that we can engage in these conversations. Thanks for joining in.
One point I wanted to emphasize: nature as collaborator. We all know about weather and bugs and wildlife and so on. I allow mother nature a relatively free hand in the garden: I don't water after the first year, don't make war on pests, and welcome little plants that arrive on their own into the beds and grass. So how the garden looks doesn't depend entirely on my own design sense, pocketbook, etc. This increases the element of chance that I spoke of earlier, but it also greatly increases the beauty of the garden, according to my ideas of beauty. A loss of control is necessary for beauty, the real thing. It doesn't come when you call.
Jackie, "...And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty years is little room,/About the woodland I will go/to see the cherry hung with snow." I too have been emerging now and then from my absorption in the tasks at hand to marvel at the beauty around me. It's clear from your posts that Nature is a valued collaborator in your garden.
Suzy, I think we understand that beauty is subjective (hence the tolerance on this forum): beauty is what moves our heart, and that differs from person to person. Your arguments in your second post make sense, about aesthetic rules that have stood the test of time and genetic built in prepossessions in favor of health and strength. About what we garden for. My goals and desires in my gardening are all tied together in one package and it's difficult to separate them out: I think they're intimately linked, and beauty is only one aim, but tied to all the others. I garden for beauty, and I garden for the health and fertility of my land. My garden can't be a whited sepulcre, glossy without and rotten within. So I'm wary of poisons and synthetic fertilizers because I think they'll be bad for the soil, for beneficial insects, bad for the environment as a whole and for us humans who are part of it. I grow plants that are adapted to my garden's environment so that I'll have to make as few interventions as possible, for example watering, since water isn't overabundant here. I garden to produce oxygen and sequester carbon and anchor the earth and increase its water retention. This has nothing to do with the striving for beauty. Earthworms aren't beautiful. Crumbly black earth and steaming piles of compost aren't beautiful (are they?). Gray March weather with temperatures sitting steadily in the thirties certainly isn't beautiful, yet I remember exchanging congratulations with another gardener on precisely this kind of weather, because we knew it would set up our plants for a splendid spring.
If you think of gardening in terms of emotional rewards, then certainly we don't garden only for beauty. Sprouting peony or cyclamen seeds aren't beautiful, but they definitely are exciting. And I think very few of us want a garden; instead, we want to be gardening. So much for gardening solely for beauty. Thanks for bringing that up, Suzy.
I think generally people's aesthetic sense isn't totally unlinked to their moral sense; however it has developed, whether genetically programmed or a result of education, if we know a beautiful object has grown out of some form of abuse, it's less beautiful to us, or ceases to be beautiful at all. More than this, the moral element spills over into the aesthetic area. This may also have a genetic basis: our sharp ancestral eye sees the health that underlies, or doesn't, the organism before us. I'm inclined to think--I don't know this for sure--that an ecologically healthier garden (fertile soil, a flora that doesn't require constant heavy intervention) will generally look more beautiful to me that one that is less healthy. People are the same way: healthy people are more appealing to me than unhealthy ones, this referring also to mental and moral and not just physical good health.
Boncrow66, thanks so much for you good wishes, and the same to you! Yours sounds like a happy garden. My daughter's smile is beautiful too.
Melissa

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 4:34AM
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windeaux

Beauty IS maddenly transitory, a fact that's driven home with every sunset. And we're forced to acknowledge beauty's subjectivity as, daily, we confront the personal tastes of others. These are matters that have always confounded. They are matters that continue to demand our attention simply because of our awesome capacities for upheaval and destruction -- ie, our capacity to produce the UNbeautiful..

Discussions of beauty similar to ours have been taking place at least since the time of the Greek philosophers. Casting about for the thoughts of others, I found these observations:

John Lyly, a very early English playwight, wrote

"...as neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose, as the stalke to the rynde, as the earth to the roote."

Shakespeare later expressed a similar sentiment in Love's Labours Lost, 1588:

Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues . . .

Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard's Almanack, 1741, wrote:

Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion

David Hume's Essays, Moral and Political,1742, include these words:

"Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them."

All of which is to say (as some someone eventually did), “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

And speaking of beholding beauty . . .

Thru the window on this Palm Sunday morning, I see Marietta, my 96-yr-old MIL sitting on the deck, resplendent in an amethyst-hued caftan, a flamboyant get-up she wears only because it was a gift from a niece who will arrive any minute now. The color of her caftan is echoed perfectly by the pendant blooms of an unruly wisteria clambering high thru trees and over a shed in the far reaches of the neighbor's out-of-sight-out-of-mind side yard. Marietta's hair, snowy and still abundant, almost appears to be the source of light on this bright April morning. She's peeling a hard-boiled egg slowly, intently, meticulously. At her feet is the ever-attentive Bianca, her granddaughter's Samoyed -- another echo of color, another source of light. Given the calculation of dog vs. human years, these two regal ladies must be almost equal in age. They share the egg. I am overcome.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 9:42AM
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Kippy(SoCal zone 10. Sunset Zone 24)

Windeaux-wonderful image-over come too

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 12:13PM
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seil zone 6b MI

I think you need to reach for balance. Exact symmetry is really not quite feasible in a garden because each plant will grow to a different shape and size, no matter what, unless you clip them incessantly. But BALANCE is easily attainable and much more pleasing to the eye. I don't look for a rigid standard in any garden. It's the balance, flow and over all look that makes for a beautiful garden. A couple of weeds here or there matter nothing in that picture. Surprises of color mixes, textures, unusual plants all bring a joy to the total picture too. Gardens should be joyful to be beautiful!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 1:32PM
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catsrose(VA 6)

I don't have the money or the manpower to shoot for a beautiful garden. Instead, I see my garden as a place where beauty can happen, a comfortable adventure where beauty lurks, pops out, beckons, promises, shouts, and even sulks: the perfect rose, the gorgeous combination that lasts only 5 days, the willow's first whisper of spring green, the timid hope of the first snowbells, the grandstanding of a rambler in full bloom, the surprise of violets, the cardinal in the holly, and, of course, the perfectly poised cat...

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 7:11PM
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Campanula UK Z8

there you go, Cats, in a nutshell.......

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 7:21AM
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Campanula UK Z8

there you go, Cats, in a nutshell.......

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 8:02AM
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Mendocino_Rose(z8 N CA.)

I have dedicated my life to beauty. It is the air that I breath. I strive to create my own beautiful world within my garden. I know it is ephemeral but I feel that when one moment of beauty dies another takes it's place. If one doesn't equate beauty with perfection it can be found everywhere in any season.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 9:25AM
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odinthor

Beauty? Beauty isn't something definite. Its stages are ephemeral, but "a thing of beauty is a joy forever"--one could also say, with no less truth, "a moment of beauty is a joy forever." I find that, as time goes on, I am realizing that there is much more beauty in the world than I perceived before. I think of this from *The Mikado*:

Katisha:
There is beauty in the bellow of the blast,
There is grandeur in the growling of the gale,
There is eloquent outpouring
When the lion is a-roaring,
And the tiger is a-lashing of his tail!

Ko-Ko:
Yes, I like to see a tiger
From the Congo or the Niger,
And especially when lashing of his tail!

Katisha:
Volcanoes have a splendour that is grim,
And earthquakes only terrify the dolts,
But to him who's scientific
There's nothing that's terrific
In the falling of a flight of thunderbolts!

Ko-Ko:
Yes, in spite of all my meekness,
If I have a little weakness,
It's a passion for a flight of thunderbolts!

Both:
If that is so,
Sing derry down derry!
It's evident, very,
Our tastes are one.
Away we'll go,
And merrily marry,
Nor tardily tarry
Till day is done!

Ko-Ko:
There is beauty in extreme old age ��"
Do you fancy you are elderly enough?
Information I'm requesting
On a subject interesting:
Is a maiden all the better when she's tough?

Katisha:
Throughout this wide dominion
It's the general opinion
That she'll last a good deal longer when she's tough.

Ko-Ko:
Are you old enough to marry, do you think?
Won't you wait till you are eighty in the shade?
There's a fascination frantic
In a ruin that's romantic;
Do you think you are sufficiently decayed?

Katisha:
To the matter that you mention
I have given some attention,
And I think I am sufficiently decayed.

Both:
If that is so,
Sing derry down derry!
It's evident, very,
Our tastes are one.
Away we'll go,
And merrily marry,
Nor tardily tarry
Till day is done!

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 11:29AM
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cath41(6a)

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (on a very different subject): I can't define it but I know it when I see it.

Cath

    Bookmark   April 15, 2014 at 12:07AM
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