“I have this area …”

When I was a kid, a very long time ago now, there was this little spot on the smooth dark gray concrete front porch at my grandparents’ house in Los Angeles, a spot that utterly mystified me. It was like this little archipelago of tiny white crystals suspended in some liquid that had solidified back in the time when the members of my family I constantly heard about, aunts and uncles and so on, were still alive, back in the gray area before I was born. I picked at the little archipelago, maybe with a chisel, but nothing happened. Eventually I decided that it was spilled when the porch was built, and was liquified sand, or something.

With me so far? I bet not. When I read the description of the “wrinkly tar corner” in Kerouac’s Doctor Sax (possibly the most magical evocation of childhood ever put on paper) I got it right away, the wrinkly tar corner, the little islands of sand on my grandparents’ front porch.

And yet, if I were shown a photograph of the wrinkly tar corner, it would not be the one from my imagination, but a different one, the real one. I remember how shocked I was at seeing Tolkien’s drawings for The Lord of the Rings. None of the drawings even remotely approximated the way I had imagined things when I read the books. How could he have gotten this so totally wrong? Even recalling that most stories and novels that were published in magazines in the nineteenth century were accompanied by illustrations (all wrong, of course), Tolkien’s drawings were a huge letdown for me, and spoiled the whole experience.

Why is it that people can imagine something, and then describe it, generating a visualization in other peoples’ minds that is nothing like the original imagination? The answer lies partly in the limitations of language, and partly in the uniqueness of the individual imagination. No one imagines anything the same way. Which is why hearing someone else describe their dreams is so boring.

This brings me to my point. (Finally.) I’m working at the Mother’s Day plant sale at Denver Botanic Gardens, weekend after next. I’ve prepared some visual aids for myself, to help me through the day.

“I have this area, it’s sort of in the shade ….”

“I have this area, it never gets any water ….”

I honestly don’t know how people working in nurseries do this all day long. When I’m away from it, I can’t even imagine my own garden, let alone those I’ve never seen.

There are perfectly good reasons why plants are labeled “full sun”, “partial shade”, “full shade”, and so on.

In fact, the only bit of visualization I have ever been able to do is something I gleaned from Graham Stuart Thomas’s Cuttings From My Garden Notebooks, in the chapter on Lady Moore, and her description of the cultivation requirements of the rose ‘Lady Hillingdon”: “she is no good in a bed; best against a wall.”

Now that, somehow, I can see.

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