Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Payoff for Effort

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home
in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical
education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.
--Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry"      

I often refer to Robert Frost's comments on metaphor at the beginning of each semester. I feel it only fair to warn my students that I regularly speak in metaphors. I use them to help me convey significant, sometimes difficult ideas. But really, my motivation in deploying them is rather more selfish. I simply like playing with metaphors and seeing how far they will take me. They almost always break down, just as Frost said they would, but the ride is always fun for as long as it lasts.

As I crouched in the garden with my camera today, photographing the first blooms of the Japanese anemones, I felt a metaphor asserting itself in my mind. It is one that I will have to sit with for a while in order to fully understand its import.

I have wanted Japanese anemones from the moment I first saw a white variety growing in the garden of the Historic Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia a few years ago. Their seemingly fragile flowering heads, held aloft by  arching stems, swayed on the September breeze. I was hooked. When I found anemones for sale at Mill Pond Gardens this summer, it only seemed appropriate that they should come home with me. They were not in flower, but with a name like 'Lucky Charm,' their color was insignificant. Standing in front of a table full of them, I looked up their general growing requirements. When I saw that they performed best in shade, their future was confirmed. They were destined for the garden I've named for my beloved Wolfie.

As is my habit, I gently placed them in the holes I had dug when I arrived home, enveloped them in lovely cow manure, and gave them a good drink. The plan was to keep them well-watered for the first two weeks and then let them get on with their new lives. After that initial period, however, they showed persistent signs of stress, a condition that only seemed to be alleviated by frequent watering, sometimes as much as two times a day. 

After a month of coping with their demands, I became a little ambivalent about these plants that I had dreamed of incorporating into my garden. They were fussy. They required too much work. I was, as Alan Titchmarsh would say, "running around like a scalded cat" to keep them happy. The emotions associated with this period ran the gamut. First there was concern, then worry, then frustration, the beginning of righteous indignation, and ultimately resignation. But I continued watering them. The question nagging at me for those few months was "Are they really worth all of this effort?"

Then the first bud appeared last week, and suddenly, despair gave way to hope.  

The first, slightly damaged, 'Lucky Charm' flower

One little flower changed everything. To the right of it was another flower-in-waiting. 

The plants still require a lot more attention than I am usually willing to give, so we are at a significant moment in their story here. Their form is the most magnificent I've ever seen in a flower. I can't explain why. But there they are, those perfect flowers, the result of incredible dedication on my part. Only two flowers have appeared on one plant, though I've planted three. Their production is incredibly insignificant, it would seem, but I still marvel at them and find myself confounded by that overwhelming question: What value is there in giving so much input for such a minimal (though breathtakingly beautiful) output?

And that is where I leave the question to you, dear readers. Take the metaphor as you wish.