Saturday, October 30, 2010


White Oak (Quercus Alba) in the Friendship Garden USNA
It's fascinating the way a plant thrives in the perfect conditions, in comparison to the way it manages to just survive in less than ideal conditions.  The way it will bloom and take advantage of all that it has been given or hunker down and just try to not to die.  This summer was a perfect example of the latter because of the drought.  Some plants made it and some didn't.  For example: There was a Ginkgo that turned brown and dropped it's leaves.We thought was dead, but we watered it anyway.  Once it had the water it needed, it produced more leaves (albeit smaller versions of themselves) and got back on with the business of producing and storing energy. If you look around DC you'll see that many young Sycamores lost their leaves early this year, many Beeches, Maples, Plums and Pears had leaves with brown edges in the middle of August.  This is an example of the way plants sacrifice their ephemeral parts when necessary. Survival first, production later. When the environment makes it safe to spend energy producing leaves again, the trees do not hold back.

And so I'm reminded of the things humans have in common with plants ...We too are endowed with the natural instinct to survive in the face of adversity.  We too, instinctively turn-off the parts of ourselves that seem un-neccessary, heavy or painful during times of stress or tragedy in order to 'keep on keeping on."  Like plants we have survival modes, times when we go dormant or hibernate.

But there is a price to prolonged exposure to stress-- on plants or on people--be it drought, flood, fear or famine --even when we survive, we have scars to show for it. The Ginkgo survived but its second set of leaves are smaller, and next year they will be small again.  Over time this can weaken the tree because the less green surface area on the leaves, the less energy it can produce. If the next few summers are more hospitable the Ginkgo should catch up, but if the stress is prolonged year after year, the Ginkgo will decline. It will forget how to fully embrace it's environment and eventually it will die. Humans are this way.  We have memory of pain and then fear of more pain.  As a survival technique, we teach ourselves the best ways to avoid pain.  This weakens us in the long run too because the more stress we sustain, the less likely we are to throw our hearts out there and really be able to thrive. 

Survival is key, and we should applaud ourselves for getting through rough times....but there is more for us.   We need to thrive as opposed to just maintain the status quo.  Thriving is crucial for personal achievement, for breaking the mold, for having a life and relationships that are exceptional.  Plants "turn-on again" as soon as the conditions allow it.  They re-grow their leaves, produce flowers and seed because they know that thriving is essential to increase their species.  Nature is harsh and the fittest survive.  When we turn parts of ourselves OFF in order to survive in difficult times, it's important we find a way to turn-them-back-on once it's safe to start thriving again.  If we can't-- if we don't--we will not get to experience growth --we will not be fulfilled.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Today it is starting to look like winter.  The sky has a white color and the leaves are on the ground.  The air is still warm and so it feels like back to school time.

I have two weeks left at the National Arboretum and so I've been thinking about how lucky I feel to have landed the internship and how appreciative I am to my boss, who hired me, and has been teaching me everything I am willing to learn in six months. 

While raking in the Friendship Garden last week, --the Friendship Garden is full of White Oaks that are at least 50 years old, Sweet Gum trees, Hickories and Hawthorns--Lots of leaves to rake equals lots of time to think.... I got to thinking about how fortunate I've always been in the teacher department.

It began with my Dad, who taught me about hard work and giggling...oh, and how to look for things.  Then there is my mom who taught me about discipline and being creative.  My oldest and dearest friend Nicole taught me to tie my shoes when we were both four years old. 

Then my 1st and 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Arms along with my 3rd grade teaching Mrs. Fisher, taught me to write and re-write stories until they were award winning.

My 5th grade teacher, Mr. H taught me to appreciate exponents and became a family friend. Same with my Jr. Highschool Glee Club teacher, Ms. Mack and my math teacher Mr. Smith.

Mr. Walker taught me to love proofs and good stories in Geometry and Mrs. Doughty, the visual art teacher, taught me problem solving- with art as the tool.  Mr. Farrell, taught us good taste in composers and how to perform at Harrisburg Arts Magnet School.  Jenna, my best highschool friend taught me how to make a holiday out of a normal day.

There are my ballet teachers Mrs. Purvis, Richard, Forry and Violette who taught me to be exceptional.  Now there is Kee who is teaching me how to be a teacher. 

I could go on and on.  Teacher's contributions are voluminous, they are exponential.  They are actually shaping what happens next in the world. I don't know how I got the best of the bunch in one lifetime...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letting someone else be the star (the plants)

End of the season Zinnias
The more I work with plants the more they shine.  They do what they naturally do and I stand back and enjoy the miracle.  People don't come to the Arboretum to see me, they come to see the plants.  That changes my perspective on the word 'show.'

The whole thing is kind of miraculous.  We don't invent plants, we don't sew or glue them together.  We plant the seed and it sprouts with a whole life plan laid out in its genes. Once it sprouts I become more an audience member than a performer, (well maybe a stage hand...)  Becoming a gardener really means becoming a guardian, observer and a care-taker...  I think this must be a little like motherhood....It's as easy to figure out the probable growth habit of a plant as it is to know the probable development of a human being, but the beautiful part is that we can't predict each detail, each reaction, we don't know exactly how things will turn out. That is what makes living things individual and significant.

The gardening season is winding down and we are onto tasks of cleaning, cutting, raking, & mulching. I have nearly worn out my gardening shoes and more than one pair of gloves.  All summer I kept the insect repellent industry in business, finally mastered the start -up of the leaf blower (in case you haven't been keeping up with my progress, read the Blog from July 10th -- this is BIG!) I love my Felco pruners and pretty much recovered from the ailment I like to refer to as 'gardener's shoulder.' I can spot poison ivy a mile away and so far am still avoiding the itchy rash. I can identify nearly every plant in the Friendship Garden and know how to repair irrigation. It's been fascinating see how the grasses shine in Fall, bulbs and trees are stars of the Spring, the sun-lovers take the leading roles in Summertime and the berries provide color on shrubs you never notice until it snows. Near the top of my "best things about my job at the Arboretum list" are the things I'm seeing about life reflected from the plants themselves...

leaves from a Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
For example: Contrary to my former belief, it turns out that Autumn is not only about death or endings.  Autumn is just a costume change. The leaves don't fall off the tree because they've lost their will to live.The falling leaves actually represent the tree's intense tenacity for staying alive. The tree knows that soon the only available water will be frozen, so it lightens its load and sends its 'kids' (acorns, seeds etc.) into the world to propagate, close to the ground where they can root.  Then it stops performing photo synthesis, which is the reason the bright reds and yellows on the leaves are revealed.  The tree sends its decorators (leaves) out for the season and sets its buds before it gets cold.  Then it uses the stored energy (glucose) as insulation for winter....Just when we think the leaves are 'dying' -- the tree is actually doing what it needs to do to keep living.

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom."
Marcel Proust