Friday, April 17, 2009

The Currant Bush

Will our currant bush be red, black or white? [Image from Wikipedia]

The garden can be a strange and unusual place for symbolism and self-discovery. Today I realized I have a currant bush in my side garden
behind some emergent asparagus that we also just discovered. Last year, before heading back to New Hampshire for our last summer in our old house, we identified a gooseberry bush in our dooryard. While away that summer, my friend Anna picked two roasting pans full of gooseberries and made pies and jam. The currant bush, with its emergent green and now tight-fisted clumps of future fruits, has a similar leaf as the gooseberry but no thorns (they are actually in the same family). Ironically, both fruits were outlawed long ago in New Hampshire because they can harbor the blister rust that can destroy the white pine, prolific in that state and throughout New England. (Also, I have to chuckle because these two long-coveted fruits were never available to me in my former homeland and they also have the power to kill a tree whose pollen renders me miserable while it is out for a week or so each year -- Kentucky is relatively white pine-free.)

This is the second time I've had the experience of uncovering delights in someone else's garden. When I moved to our Hancock home, I inherited many of the plantings from my husband's grandmother's era. I also brought with me some heirloom pass-alongs from the farm where I grew up: rhubarb and apple mint. (On a recent trip to New Hampshire, my husband brought me some apple mint by way of our friends the Sawyers, who had started their mint patch with an original clump from the Gray Goose Farm. The clump of mint I brought down last summer did not get planted in time; however the rhubarb survived. Today I planted that mint, surrounded by New Hampshire soil, in our revived Kentucky garden.)

Miss Lillian was a fine gardener in her day and many of her plantings approach their tenth year. We have two blueberry bushes, the gooseberry and currant bushes, and I was delighted to see that the chicken house construction did not destroy many clusters of peonies that have emerged on the south side of it. Many flowers and bushes around the place can not be grown with any great success in colder climates. We also have a peach tree that a neighbor picked and canned last summer while we were away (we will enjoy its bounty this summer). I expect I never noticed the currant bush before because it bore fruit while we were away but I'm happy that the birds enjoyed it. But not this summer! I now eagerly await currant jelly, sauce and a special cake I've long wanted to make from an English cookbook.

While looking on the Internet for photographs of the currant leaf, to confirm my suspicions, I discovered this beautiful modern parable written by a Mormon elder, Hugh B. Brown in 1973, called The Currant Bush. I read it right after a morning email volley with the Cupcakes about Grey Gardens and how those gardens have been tended for the past 30 years--after decades of neglect--by new owners in the Hamptons. [Grey Gardens, a film about the Mayles brothers' documentary chronicling the fading lives from wealth to squalor of mother and daughter, Edie Beale (both even had the same name), will premier on HBO this weekend.] Ben Bradlee, his wife Sally Quinn and their gardener, Victoria Fensterer, have been keeping these gardens on the verge of wildness for three decades. They wanted to honor the original and fading glory of the house and grounds by retaining that struggle between the verge of wild and cultivated. This is a romantic notion, popular in early nineteenth century English gardens and, as any gardener knows, it is a battle all too easily won by Nature.

But back to that currant bush. Sometimes we can vigorously over prune, as this man did with his currant bush and that later, symbolically, was done to him when he was "cut down to size" and overlooked for an important job position. We want to nurture and encourage but we also don't want to over clip something like a forsythia, for example, that just wants to arch its limbs up and over itself. If a forsythia is shaped and forced too much, like an evergreen that doesn't seem to mind, the shrub doesn't bloom as well. Can I just say that now, three children later, I've learned that parenting is much the same way? Each child, each plant in the garden, has their own collective--and also quite individual--needs to flourish and grow.

So this currant bush parable also got me thinking about my role as a gardener and land steward. Last year we put some beloved New Hampshire family farmland under protective conservation easement with the town so there will be no future development--it can continue to be farmed or left to its own wildness, "forever wild," with only one house on sixty acres. This was to honor my grandparents' original vision and hard work which, sadly, and through circumstance, could not be our own. Even though our time there was not meant to be--and I truly believe it was not, despite all best intentions (I know now we were meant to be in Kentucky all along)--the land can continue to remain undisturbed and guided by its own beautiful and natural chaos and wild cacophony. It will not be tamed and reshaped.

My Mennonite friends often say, when praised about their gardens, "Oh, I just planted it. God did the rest." At first that gave me pause but then I realized they are right: we plant, we tend, we nurture, we clip, we cultivate, we provide some nourishment and water, but the rest is out of our hands and in God's or whatever constitutes a natural order to things both in the larger universal realm as well as the minute scale of a plant cell's DNA. Sometimes wildness is good, sometimes order is, also. It is the discord between the two realms that fascinates and compels us to garden, or not.

I'm always learning new things about plants and people. This past year I've had a hard time letting go of my daughter who is now on her own in the world. She knows she can come back to visit us in our new land, which is not a place she would choose to be (at this time in her life, at least), but I also know I need to take pause, be still and leave her to her own plantings, prunings and ramblings. Her own growth. A good gardener knows when to step back. They also know when to give credit where it is due. Thankfully, I am more confident than ever that I am part of something greater than myself and that sometimes it is OK to let things be, to let go--that we just need to have faith it will be alright.


Ladyfromthewoods said...

(Nodding my head to your forsythia/children analogy.) Nice.

I've been struggling of recent, with the urge to tame our little piece of wilderness and strive for a small-scale organic farm with manicured fence rows and rambling gardens. However, I was reminded on a recent wildflower hike, just how beautiful these KY knobs, ridges, and valleys can be when left practically untouched or encouraged to return to their native grasses, flowers, and trees.

Now to find the balance that we can nurture and will nurture us in return.

How fun to find the berry bushes! It's like discovering an extra gift in your Christmas stocking! I can't say I've ever tried a currant or gooseberry or anything made with them as ingredients. I bet you'll work your magic on them both.

Catherine said...

Hey Teresa,

Nice to see you've been blogging again! (I just caught up on the past five should have told me!) I do agree--there is so much natural beauty here in the woods and they are best left to themselves. Temple asked, I wonder if we could move some wildflowers? And I said, why would we need to? They are lovely, and prolific, right where they are...

Red currant jelly is the best: very tart and sweet. Good with meats or on toast. Gooseberries are more rhubarb-y and delicious with vanilla custard! Both very English.


willow said...

Can't wait to see what you do with your currants!

tipper said...

How wonderful to find a treasure in your garden!! I remember-one of my friends moved to a new house-and I ran around the house looking at all the hidden treasures the previous owner had left. I loved your thoughts about garden growing-how it realtes to living.