Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The garden of memory

We spent today at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, which is out in the northwestern part of Philadelphia. Julie loves horticulture, and has been wanting to get out there for some time. There was a performance of Japanese taiko drummers from Swarthmore College that we wanted to see, which is what got me and the kids interested in going. The performance was pretty great, as it turned out, but what surprised me greatly was how much I loved the arboretum itself. We bought a family membership on the spot.
I marveled over how restful the grounds were. It’s still early spring here in Pennsylvania, so the gardens aren’t lush yet, but I was overcome by a sense of serenity as we walked around. It was such a powerful experience that I took out my prayer rope and silently prayed as I walked. I told Julie that the arboretum felt like a sanctuary to me — and believe me, I’m not the sort of man who reacts so viscerally to natural beauty. It could well be that these past two months have been so anxious for me, given the transition to a new place, and more than anything else, my sister’s cancer diagnosis, that I was especially susceptible to tranquillity imparted by trees, flowers, bushes, ferns and vines, and the Wissahickon Creek flowing through the grounds. We made our way around the fernery, and down to the sculpture garden in a pocket-sized meadow along the Wissahickon, I saw a small grove of trees in the clearing near the water, with a patch of jonquils, I think , growing at the base of the trees. Suddenly tears came to my eyes, and it took me a moment to realize why.
Earlier this week, in a post titled “The Impermanence of Things,” I wrote about the tiny cabin in the country where my great-great-aunts Lois Simmons and Hilda Simmons Moss lived out the final years of their lives, and how their home, now long gone, was a haven for me as a small boy. Lois was an accomplished amateur horticulturist, and tended a remarkable garden. Here is a photograph of their cabin:
Those are fragrant sweet olive trees framing the porch. What you can’t see from this view is the giant magnolia tree in the front yard, the magnolia fuscata tree with blossoms that smelled of banana, the dogwoods, the four o’clocks. On the right side of the cabin, behind the garage, were camellia bushes. A narrow path led around the left side of the house, to a bamboo stand, and beds of purple-blue phlox. If you took another path, you’d pass Loisie’s compost pile, next to the place where her favorite cats were buried, and emerge into a small field, much of which was covered with daffodils, King Alfreds, spidery red lycorises, and above all, jonquils. That field was enclosed by cedars, gum trees, pin oaks and even a chestnut, among other trees. I seem to recall a venerable pear tree in the field, one we had to be careful walking near when fruit was on the ground, because the sweet rotting pears were a favorite of bees.
When I was a small boy — 3, 4, 5 and 6 years old — I spent a lot of time with Loisie in these gardens (here’s a photo of her in her kitchen during those years). loiskitchen2.jpg I would walk alongside my elderly aunt, who wore a thin cotton dress and an ever-present green visor, and steadied herself with a dried bamboo staff. And we would talk. She would tell me about her plants, her cats, and the birds who came into her garden. Lois had lived a life that seemed dramatic to a country child like me. When she and Hilda were young, they were Red Cross nurses serving in the canteen in Dijon during the Great War. Lois later lived in Honduras (I used to say the word “Tegucigalpa,” her town, over and over, because it tasted so exotic in my mouth), and would tell me about iguanas that used to sun themselves on her lawn there. She spent her years before moving to the country in New Orleans. I want to say she lived on Esplanade Avenue, but I’m not sure. I do know that I heard her speak of Esplanade Avenue, and it sounded so magical to me: Esplanade Avenue. Lois introduced me to so many words that delighted and entranced me.
And so many worlds too. I have written in this space before about how Lois and Hilda would sit with little me on their red-leather couch, a 1951 Rand McNally atlas splayed across my lap, drawing routes on the map with my index finger, and telling me what we were seeing as we passed through those places. I still have that atlas, with my childish writing in pencil on some pages. Here is the actual pages of France and the Low Countries, where we did most of our imaginative traveling.
randmcnally euromap.jpg
They took me with them to the Red Cross canteen the night Gen. Pershing showed up unannounced, and Lois, unable to find the key to the pantry, had to strain the general’s tea through her petticoat. I was there with Hilda on the Champs-Elysees when the Armistice was announced, and a Frenchman grabbed her and gave her such a kiss. I was also with them on the nearby plantation they grew up on after the turn of the century, the daughters of one of the plantation managers. They introduced me to the black sharecropper who wouldn’t wear shoes, and who struck matches on the callused soles of his feet. I met their late brother Clint, a whiskey fiend whose faithful old horse knew the way home to the country, six miles south of the saloon in town, when Clint was passed out in the saddle. These were the worlds they gave me, in a time in my life when these stories entered my mind with the power of myth to shape the course of my life.
lois simmons signature.jpg
Lois’s signature is inscribed indelibly on the margins of my life’s passages. Many of these mythic stories came to me by the fireplace in their cabin. Others they passed on to me in the rocking chairs on their front porch. But some came to me from Lois as we walked together in her hidden gardens, under the Chinese rain tree, amid the japonicas, the magnolias, the bamboo, the wisteria vines, the spidery red lycoris, the daffodils and, above all, the sweet, sweet jonquils.
Jonquils like those I saw in the grove today.
That grove was not like anything in Loisie’s garden, but it did have a quality of … enclosure that brought to mind how it felt to be in Loisie’s world when I was a boy. There was nowhere else like it. She cast a spell on me, and taught me about wonderful things. She showed me the old speckled king snake who lived in the bushes under her magnolia grandiflora, and told me he was our friend. When I walked to Loisie’s with a neighbor boy one summer afternoon, and saw the old king snake stretched out sunning himself in the pea gravel lane in front of the cabin, my buddy froze in fear, but I stepped gingerly over the snake, unafraid. Loisie said he was a friend, and inasmuch as she was the happy genius of this garden, who was I to doubt her?
Lois and Hilda are long gone, as is their cabin, their gardens, the orchard, all of it. I have memories, and a few relics of that world: a pale green Depression glass bowl that Loisie mixed cupcakes and pecan cookies in, that Rand McNally atlas, and a 1768 color print of Taylor birds and fruit that hung on the cabin wall. If we were fortunate enough to have a grove of wonderment in which to hide during our childhoods, I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back there. Sometimes, we stumble upon fragments of them, serendipitously, in unlikely places. And that is a grace.
It’s no surprise that this is on my mind these days. My sister Ruthie, who’s fighting cancer, lives in a house she and her husband built in what was the far edge of Loisie’s orchard. In her yard is one of Loisie’s camellia bushes, still blooming after all these years.
this is the world.jpg
UPDATE: On further reflection, prompted by good comments from MargaretE and Rombald, the perfectly obvious whapped me in the face: I was exiled from the “sacred grove” of my early youth by the passage of time, and by the death and decay that comes with it (Aunt Lois passed away, and Aunt Hilda moved to a nursing facility, and later died). I long deeply to return to that state of paradise and enchantment and security. Just like Adam and Eve with Eden. Genesis is the story of all sorrowful humanity.

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posted April 17, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Perfectly lovely, thank you for sharing such beautiful memories with us strangers. God bless you and yours.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 12:18 am

Great post, Rod. Serenity matters, a lot. Treasure it where you can find it. Ruthie will be, too. You’re all in my prayers and all that. Seriously. I mean that.
Your writing is great during this Time of Troubles, as they said about Russian history or something like that. It’s been a while since I was in college.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 7:08 am

Rod, your beautiful memoir immediately sent me chasing down a passage from C.S. Lewis. (And yes, I know he’s not one of your favorites, but he IS one of mine, and this seems SO apropos…)
“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.
“Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. …
“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.
“The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.”

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posted April 18, 2010 at 7:22 am

What a lovely memory – thanks for sharing it. The Morris Aboretum is really nice – don’t know if you’ve been to Longwood Gardens yet, but it too is a wonderful place. In Kennett Square just off Route 1. Today would be a great day to go!

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Rod Dreher

posted April 18, 2010 at 7:30 am

Margaret, that is fantastic — I wish I had the intelligence, insight and artistic gift to have seen it and said it as Lewis did. BTW, I think Lewis is magnificent — I just don’t care for his fiction, and I regret that, because it’s brought so much pleasure to so many.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 7:53 am

Lovely post, Rod.
I have a lot of memories of this type, about special, natural places, mainly gardens.
However, despite Margaret, I`m not sure this fits all that well with Christianity, which cut down the sacred groves. I think it fits better with neopaganism, or Shinto, or some eccentric theology of Wordsworth`s type.
I`m not saying this just to be argumentative, though – I`d like to know what you think.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 8:03 am

Rod, I prefer Lewis’s essays to his fiction, too. (Except for The Screwtape Letters, which is “fiction,” I guess, and absolutely brilliant, I think.) The passage above is from The Weight of Glory. I think it’s fabulous, too. The first time I read it, I burst into tears; somebody had actually put THAT into words. I couldn’t believe it. It’s weird about Lewis – he either sings to you, or he doesn’t. He’s had a tremendous influence on my life.

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Rod Dreher

posted April 18, 2010 at 8:17 am

Rombald, Christianity too has its sacred places, charged with spiritual energy (at least Catholic and Orthodox Christianity does, inasmuch as they are sacramental versions of the Christian faith; Protestantism, not so much). It is true, as you say, that the Christians of yore chopped down the groves sacred to pagans (I think of St. Boniface, for example, with the pagan Germans), but I think you’ll find in many, many cases, they simply absorbed those places, and reified them as Christian holy places. This, by the way, is a standard charge against Catholicism by some of the more fundamentalist Protestants: that it’s just a Christified paganism. I think the Protestants have a point, but that they’re ultimately wrong, insofar as the pagans grasped an imperfect truth about metaphysics and human nature, one perfected (from my point of view) by Christianity.
Anyway, to be sure, I wasn’t claiming that this grove I saw in the arboretum had any particular sacred qualities, only that it sparked an intense memory in me that brought tears to my eyes before I had the memory brought clearly to my consciousness. It was first about the sense of a “sacred grove” that my early years in Aunt Lois’s company, in her house and garden, imparted to me, but also a sense of mourning that the passage of time and of death cast me out of the sacred grove.
This is the meaning of the Genesis story: death cast us all out of the paradaisical (sp?) sacred grove, and we spend our lives trying to get back.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 8:20 am

Rombald, you may be right that Christianity “cut down the sacred groves” (I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on that…) But C.S. Lewis, if he did anything, attempted to restore them. He celebrated paganism, hinduism, and all sorts of other “isms” in his writings… He believed the great principle of morality was present in all religions (before and after Christianity) and he called it the Tao. I’d argue that Lewis was first and foremost a classicist, though that’s not how people think of him today.
Anyway, here’s an interesting article I just found at Christianity Today called “C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan.”

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posted April 18, 2010 at 9:28 am

Beautiful post and great comments.
Check out Longwood, Rod. It’s beautiful.

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Franklin Evans

posted April 18, 2010 at 10:31 am

Metaphor, symbolism (not the same thing), syncretism, classicism… this modern Pagan prefers Lewis’ approach for one reason: He keeps it simple. I know where I stand when I read his fiction, perhaps more clearly than when I read his non-fiction because he makes no bones about the symbols he uses.
Anyway, there are lots of positions on the Christianity-erased/stole/borrowed-paganisms side, and some balancing thoughts are important, at least to me. It was a common practice to desecrate the holy grounds and possessions of the enemies. It was not invented by Christians, nor did they use it any more egregiously than their predecessors. Further, there is something visceral about place, something that needs no explanation let alone some lengthy doctrinal statement about it. We find our God or gods everywhere, if we but choose to look for Him or them.
As a long time (all but 7 of my 54 years) resident of southeastern PA, I suggest that Longwood Gardens is quite a different atmosphere than Morris or most of the other arboretums in this area (and there are quite a few). LG’s value — to me, anyway, and I’ve spent many hours there over the years — is in the energy and passion of the people who keep it and innovate in it. Asking permission to walk the “off limits” aisles in the conservatory offers a rare glimpse into their world. It’s dirty, it’s lived-in, it doesn’t have the decor or lighting of the exhibit areas, and for me that is its charm… but then, I was a gardener from the age of 10.
Rod, walking explorations of the city neighborhoods will reward you with hidden paradises. They are as mundane as quiet, shaded spots away from the city heat and noise to as astonishing as spectacular murals half a block wide and 6+ stories tall. It takes much time, I’ve lived in the city for most of the last 35 years, and I’m still discovering things.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

That Katsura at the Morris is one of the best specimens in the country. Very nice arboretum. If you are going to Longwood, wait a bit. The idea garden will be up and Julie will get more out of it. The conservatory has Longwood professionals available to answer questions a good deal of the time, but I would check their times first if you are interested.

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posted April 18, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Beautiful, Rod. The memories, the beauty of “Eden,” all of it. Some of my lovely memories involve gardens and family and canning and cooking. They’re living memories, though, that I hope to continue in the memories of others, as well.
I love to garden, albeit in a limited way. And I love when the neighborhood children see me outside and ask, “Can I help?” I love giving them seedlings in paper cups to take home and watching the pleasure and care with which they lovingly carry their bits of green life. Sometimes I cut roses for them to take to their mamas, too. There’s something about a garden that naturally evokes sharing.
It’s not “paganism” to feel worshipful around nature’s beauty and bounty. I still wonder when I see the shoots from my bulbs emerge in the spring, “how do they know when to arise?” I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone who gardens to be an atheist. It’s all too intricate and, yes, magical. But I do know that in the garden of God, theological training isn’t required but wonder, I believe, is.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 11:00 am

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