Last week mid-March, at my condominium committee meeting, I became aware that more than half the committee members had no way to discuss landscape planting decisions because they had no nouns to identify even the common names of any trees, bushes, or plants. What they readily admitted was that as they walk though Gateway Park and on our condo’s property what they see is concrete and green stuff. In the summer some of the green stuff they see that’s not green may be flowers that cost more money. At the other extreme were two condo committee members who are Master Gardeners (certified by the US Agricultural Extension Service), and they know the common and the botanical names, the hardiness numbers, the light/water needs, and the difference between annuals and perennials of all that green stuff. And, there I was a vicarious gardener (book shelves filled with gardening books, including Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1976 edition of Herbal) and a poet analyzing the committee’s language crisis while attempting to explain the time line of planting to the seers of green stuff for the Master Gardeners.
During that committee meeting I did what I could by way of translation and interpretation, but what really was needed was Joseph Wood Krutch’s approach as he explains in his Introduction:
Closely regarded, everyone of the individual plants will be found useful, beautiful, or wonderful—and not infrequently all three. Perhaps the chief charm of the Herbalists (and certainly the one this book would like especially to suggest) is just that they are more likely than the modern scientist to impart a sense of beauty and wonder—both of which the scientist may feel, but considers it no part of his function to communicate.
What I really love about Krutch’s Herbal is that in that wondrous spirit he includes drawings of both weeds and flowers along with tales of trees that are either food sources or poisonous. It seems as if he thinks of plants as unheard melodies for which there may be many lyrics for each song.
What I think as I walk under the dappled shadows of Gateway Park’s pin oaks is how good it is that pin oaks have no tap roots, otherwise they wouldn’t have been planted here in soil that’s barely three or four feet deep, hauled in to cover the underground parking garages and the four office buildings’ connecting service tunnels that are the pragmatic reason Gateway Park exists. Otherwise, fifty years later most trees’ deep tap roots would have long ago broken through a host of BMWs and crawled down into Pittsburgh’s rumored fourth river. Instead what we in downtown Pittsburgh have is an oak grove that’s pruned twice a year so the pin oaks won’t exceed the garage roofs’ weight-bearing limits. We also have a squirrel habitat, a pigeon hang-out, a sculpture garden, a pedestrian short cut from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard a backdrop for selfies and wedding party photographs.
And, an oak grove for a local poet to amble through to remember the Welsh folk tune, “The Ash Grove” that she used to sing during Music Assemblies when she attended the Mill Village Grade School, and the same long-lined tune that’s repurposed for several hymns. Yes, I know that tune is for ash trees rather than oak trees, but in England and Wales ash groves and oak groves are equally magical and/or scared, therefore, suffice for me. My knowing the names of the trees and of the under story plants and bushes—azaleas, mountain laurel, roses—enlarges and charges the universe of my condo home.
One of my favorite poems, “Names of Horses,” by Donald Hall recounts life as it was lived on his grandparents’ farm when horses were not only the most common mode of transportation, but also the live machines that made the hard work of New England farming possible. His poem ends
For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
Hall’s list of those proper nouns—the horses’ names—empowers each reader’s imagination, enlarges each reader’s mind, each reader’s soul.