I’ve always thought of gardens as a great metaphor for learning about human development. The entire process reflects an enormous variety of needs, styles, product. There’s also something straightforward about gardens and their gardeners that comforts me. From design to ground, from tender emerging to hazards confronted before harvest — each plant tells its own story, intertwined with the hopes and dreams of the person who nurtures it.
Plant a seed. Watch it grow. A row of spinach here, a stalk of tomatoes there, a fence climbing with peas on the outside edge. They each have their own timeline. The spinach is so eager to sprout and unfurl into sturdy little leaves of nutrition, it practically flings itself onto your dinner plate just weeks after it’s planted. Peas announce themselves with pretty blossoms, tenderly wrap themselves around their trellis or stakes with string, or whatever is close at hand for climbing onto. Tomatoes take their time, creating a solid frame of greenery to support and showcase their ultimate work of edible art.
People understand this kind of growth. It reassures us that we too can build our lives one goal, event, task at a time — pausing briefly to admire our accomplishments or ponder our failures. Hesitating to step out on any path similar to ones before it that didn’t lead to pure satisfaction. Overworking fertile patches that seem predictably safe.
When I get scared or bogged down by my inability to please others, my inability to please myself, I get even more focused on singular pursuits. Get this done here, that done there, this now, then that. Make a list, call a meeting, map a course of action. Get organized.
But that’s not how it works on the wild mountainsides of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. At 8500 feet above sea level and higher, the season without a killing frost lasts little more than a month. This creates unique growth demands.
I was recently reminded of this fact while hiking to check the llama herd on summer mountain pasture. I was lost in contemplation about how to arrange the coming week of meetings, interviews, planning. I was tallying the needs of the people I’d be working with, imagining their separate desires and ideas, the shape of their individual pursuits, when I ran headlong into a six-foot tall Monument Plant.
The ranchers out here call them skunk cabbage, but they look nothing like the skunk cabbage I knew in the New England of my youth (squat, smelly things growing on brook banks). Pale green Monument Plants soar into the air in the middle of aspen and pine groves, with tiny white blossoms nestled close to their thick stocks. The cowboys say they grow as tall as the snow will be in the coming winter. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a six-foot tall Monument Plant. But before I could fully rejoice in the lore-based prediction that we have a snowy season ahead, I realized I was standing on a bushy spray of Lupine. I apologetically stepped off the fat bundles of purple blossoms, only to crush the wild tulip beside them. Which began a Rocky Mountain dance of please don’t smash the daisies.
There is no gardener’s design or spread of time up here. The flowers come all at once. Dozens of types, colors, sizes. They show off in clusters and single blossoms, but share the same space so when you step back you see a wash of shade and natural dye, shape and height.
I’m stunned by this. Moved to joy by this. I take photos of them and write about them; struck by a lesson I don’t grasp easily or quickly.
In the social equity work I’m involved with, we dedicate ourselves to honoring and supporting the individual struggle for visibility and voice so often plowed under by rules intended to benefit only a few. We set out like gardeners to plan a design that assists growth in neat rows, at carefully thinned distances, in sections according to customized fertile conditions. We nurture in distinct timelines, guiding the process forward to our vision of a collective harvest.
But here, the blooms just come. In a jumble of locations, soils, sun and shade, they burst open all at once and in a riot of disorganization. There’s no mistaking their individual identity, yet they march across the slopes in a coincident assault of color. There’s no time to do it any other way. There’s no other way it could be this lovely.
This is a particularly generous year, which makes the delicate petal of the Sticky Geranium shine; the velvet of the rose extra soft; the thin stem of the Sky Pilot sturdier, the translucence of the Columbine breathtaking. In last year’s drought, the flowers worked harder for shorter stocks and less brilliant tints, but still they came. Always they surge with beauty that only the most hard core cynics could claim is without grand purpose, blossoming in groups that spill down the mountainside and through the meadow. Calling attention to each gorgeous, unique, individual bloom. Creating a trumpeting bouquet across the landscape.