Art and Life


Last evening I heard the first nighthawk of summer, a buzzy “eee-irnk” call floating above the roofs and treetops. They’re back to eat mosquitoes and raise young. I was in the garden, where the honeysuckle slowly opens and the inky blue delphinium sways over my head. Dusk lasts so long this time of year that I don’t want to come inside. I could stay out with the flowers and insects and birds all night.

Earlier in the day I had brought in a bouquet of white peonies, dark pink roses, and purple campanulas. I had also been to the library and found a treasure upstairs on the used bookshelf–The House By The Sea, by May Sarton. This is the book that follows her Journal of A Solitude which I have read several times. What I appreciate about Sarton’s journals is the back and forth between the inner world and the outer. As a poet, she was ferocious about the time and space needed for thinking and writing. But she was also a devoted gardener and having flowers in the house was a necessity for her. Flowers marked the changing seasons, as did the appearances and disappearances of birds. These things were celebrated with attention, which is what poets do. They notice things and distill experiences into a few potent words.

In 1976, when she wrote about the house by the sea in Maine, May Sarton was 63 years old. The United States was 200 years old that year, and I was 16. She was making the transition to old age and I was approaching adulthood. I wish I had known of her as I came of age–a solo woman artist who was a passionate gardener. Her journals reveal a perceived conflict between art and life. She felt that it was not possible for women to pursue a deep inner life and make art while being married and raising children. She often resented the demands made upon her because she was a noted author, but the travel and speaking also stimulated her. Home was a solitary refuge as well as a place to share with her most beloved friends. A balance between inner and outer seemed to elude her. Perhaps she came to terms with this later in life–two more journals were published after the ones that I have read.

I am no stranger to the perception of conflict between art and life, inner and outer. My own journal is filled with the tracks of moving from one state to another and fussing about time. Is there really a conflict? When I am in the garden, art is life and life is art. When I am out on the trail, I stop thinking about it at all. John Muir wrote about going out for a walk only to discover that in going out he was really going in.

And that is what the voices of the nighthawks reminded me–celebrate life with attention to every moment of it.

A Busy Month

"If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment."
Georgia O'Keeffe

Wandering in the garden with the sun’s last slanting light…it’s National Garden Month, and I thought to write about the lettuce seedlings that are thriving in the tunnel and reflect on growing plants that I am going to eat. They are really handsome in all their green and red speckled and curly forms. But my eye drifted to a clump of sweet violets that have insinuated themselves next to the rocks that line the raspberry bed and before I knew it was was on my hands and knees looking closely. I have known this flower forever and ever–it has probably grown at nearly every place I’ve lived. Brought west with pioneers, it is a sturdy reminder of home and domesticity. And it smells good. It creeps around the yard, turning up here and there. I pull it out by the handfuls to make room for other flowers, knowing I could never totally eradicate it. Between the seeds and the runners, it’s too persistent. Violets quietly put me on notice that my “control” around the garden is an illusion. I may think I’m in charge with my schemes and plans, but like everything else in life the garden is a journey, not the destination.

Besides National Poetry Month and National Lawn and Garden Month, April is also National Humor Month, International Guitar Month, National Safe Digging Month and National Welding Month. Not only that, April is chock-full of obscure holidays such as Zucchini Bread Day on the 23rd. And darn it, I missed Ex Spouse Day on the 14th. Thank goodness for the Internet or I would never know these things. See for yourself here.

But seriously, I might just declare this my own Private Violet Appreciation Day. Every kitchen windowsill needs a tiny bouquet to send out that powdery spring scent while the hands swim around in the dishwater to find the forks and spoons. A spot of purple to bathe the eyes while the ears are tuned to catch the notes of a white-crowned sparrow’s song. The whole world in a blossom…


Other gardeners are doing what I do–bringing flowers into the house. In July, we have a couple months of flowers yet to enjoy, and we take the abundance for granted. But in September, any day could be the last for the garden. Morning comes later, evening darkness sooner. To wake up and find sunflowers out my window–still! in spite of rain–feels like a celebration of yellow. I brought in white phlox, deep pink rubrum lilies spotted with freckles and pollen, purple native asters. A faint fragrance wafts through the house. I cut big puffs of gold-toned dahlias to pile in a glass vase.

Artists from many cultures and centuries have turned their eyes and hands to flowers. I feel that pull too. How to draw and paint them without giving in to the merely pretty? How to show how incredible and transient they are? I have books on botanical illustration. The value in this approach is the close observation and wonderment in detail. I have books showing Japanese prints of flowers. These are closely observed, yet have poetical meaning. A chrysanthemum is a beautiful thing and it signifies autumn. Autumn signifies change and yearning. My art history books show European Baroque paintings of flowers. To me, these demonstrate the pleasures of paint and the mastery of craft, a sort of showing off. Yet flowers in a vase can also be a memento mori, a reminder of mortality. When we cut flowers and bring them inside, they die before going to seed. This could happen to anyone, so be mindful and humble.

Why grow flowers? I don’t eat them. I grow flowers for my own gratification, I guess. The neighbors say they enjoy them too. It’s not a practical act to put seeds in the ground to just watch plants grow then go dormant or die. I like the colors and shapes. I like the bees and butterflies. I like giving them away. I like when the snow melts and the first green shoots appear, a banner of flowers unfurling until the snow flies again.

So while I still have them, I will pick glowing jewel-toned nasturtiums for my kitchen windowsill.