“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Part II: Day 55: Beauty and the Beasts

The gardener has summoned me: it's peony time.  We have talked about my taking a tour of her sumptuous gardens for weeks, but this visit cannot be postponed.  Nature waits for no one.  And these peonies . . . You will see yourselves, gentle readers, but my camera (well, the human being behind this camera) cannot do them justice.

I bring Zoe to save time--the woods near campus where I'm taking her on today's walk are halfway to the gardener's house--but I realize it's a mistake as soon as I pull up to the wrong house and call my friend to get her house number.  Zoe is whining.  She's whining as she does when I've altered her routines and she's afraid she'll be left in a ditch on the road, or in a lab where people in white coats will perform experiments on her--she's whining in the way she does when any of us leaves the house without her permission.

I can see this patch of enchantment before I see my friend standing outside waiting for us.  We pull up and I'm so blown away that I can barely speak.  How many words are there in the English language to say, "wow, beautiful, wow, that's gorgeous, wow, these plants are happy here, wow, look at that color!"  I'm always humbled by the limitations within the medium I've chosen for making my own kind of beauty.  Words can paint pictures but the things themselves--these radiant flowers--point to nothing beyond themselves and need no signifiers: they are just busy being themselves, because that's their job.

My friend thinks the gardening bug came to her through a great-grandmother, but she and her sister only developed it in their middle years.  What is perhaps just as beautiful as the hot pink peonies, red peonies, pale pink peonies, and while we're at it, the irises and bleeding hearts still in fine form (my friend thinks that the house she shares with her musician man-friend is just higher enough in altitude to delay the demise of our favorite May flowers)--is the smile on my friend's face.  These lovely gardens surround the house, one after the other, and lazy me can't help but think with horror of all the hard physical work and time that goes into them, hours and hours of it every day, but the contentment and satisfaction this labor gives my friend that she carries in her arms and shoulders is very moving to behold.  Being beauty's architect is soulful work.  It takes a lot from the body, and from the earth (although speaking of earth, her mulch from the top-secret location is one of the secrets of her success) but it gives back with gusto.

a neighbor's cows trim their fields beyond the gardens
Zoe runs around the house as I meet each patch of flowers and learn the story behind each one.  This one was moved here because the sun was better.  That one didn't like that spot but thrived here.  This one is new.  This one volunteered and arrived unexpectedly like a stray cat.

There are many cats that have "volunteered" in these parts as well.  I count four in the stories my friend tells me, but I may have missed one.  Zoe whines to go inside and meet one, and we oblige her.  I have to say that in all my travels, I have never seen a more pronounced display of Cat with Hackles Rising than in the moment Zoe runs into the living room.  There is a beauty to this tableau as well: Curious black dog barking at Gray Cat.  Gray Cat Saying Back Off, Beast.

Zoe cries to be inside near the cat but when we go outside, she cries to come back out.  She cries to go in again when she spies the gray cat through the window and thinks that meaningful contact will now occur.  We can tune it out, sort of, until we arrive at a moment that my friend knows will appeal to me in a Secret Garden kind of way.  She tells me how her prize peonies have come to her courtesy of the hidden peony patch her 90-year-old neighbor told her she could transplant on one of the days when he remembered her name.  When we cross the road so she can show me the mother load--it's just a few yards across the way--Zoe's cries through the window are so piercing that if an animal-lover heard her they would think Zoe was being abused.

"Next time, this dog is not coming with me," I tell my friend.

But my friend is very patient.  She says that she understands that Zoe is a member of our family, just as the cats are for hers.  And one of the most deep and satisfying relationships she has in her life is with her horse.  "There's so much to see when you look into a horse's eyes," she says.

She's still upset by something terrible she witnessed earlier today.  She was at Agway and a boy ran in, distressed because his beagle had jumped from the car when his stepdad parked in the lot, and now the dog was running around out there.  When the stepfather found the beagle, he beat her.  He beat her again when she was inside the car.  We are sitting on the front porch of the house as she tells me this, admiring the beauty of the gardens, the bouquet of peonies she has picked for me, and this story has us both on the verge of tears.

"Some people shouldn't be allowed to have pets.  Or kids.  Or any living being under their command," we both say in our own way.

We talk about the intelligence of animals and how people still have a long way to go to understand the range of talents and ways of knowing and sensitivity the creatures we both love possess.  My friend volunteers at the local stables as part of a group that leads children with cerebral palsy around on the horses.  The more gentle, patient horses are picked to do the honors.  They are the ones who understand what this encounter is all about.  Her horse is one of them.  Her horse understands that this is not going to be a vigorous ride, and that the rider is not going to be alpha and predictably dominant, but is not necessarily afraid either.  Her horse understands that what happens in these "mixers" is just a sweet inter-species exchange that helps the riders find joy in their physicality, in the moment, in encounters with other sentient beings.  "My horse just kind of gets it," she says.  "And really likes it."

this stuff is like gold
But not all of our animal lovefest is about their high emotional IQs and spirituality.  Zoe needs grooming.  I need to wash her butt and now and then I get a whiff.  I mention this to my friend, but she has seen it all.  Our tales about animals move on to the grotesque.  A white cat runs off after word gets out that a dog is on the premises.  When my friend rescued her, this kitten had severe frostbite.  My friend took the kitty to the vet when she thought its ears and tail smelled bad.  The vet just tugged on the ears and they  . . . fell right off!  He told her that the dead part of her tail would fall off too, in its own time.  One morning my friend saw her cat in the kitchen playing with something: her own amputated tail.  The cat was fine with this new development.  She hears and navigates perfectly--enough so to fly out of town when a dog comes knocking.

Meanwhile, my dog eats all the cats' food before I can stop her, then stares provocatively inside the screen door to Gray Hat with Hackles.  In an earlier post I gave the various animal characters lines from action films.  Now I imagine that white cat saying to Zoe, before it headed to a distant pasture, "Want a piece of me?"

It's time to go home for dinner.  I carry those gorgeous hot pink peonies in my lap all the way back in the car, careful not to squash an iota of petal.  And then I find a place of honor for the vase in our kitchen.

How can I begin to describe the magic of this peony?


Feline hackles, as art form.  Feline hackles as performance piece.  Feline hackles as architecture.

The cat is looking at her from the other side, saying "Ha!"

I carried them home on my lap and now they are in the kitchen
To see more photos of these peonies, taken by the gardener herself, go here.

Namaste, gentle readers.  Even if you don't have a green thumb like my friend does, I hope that you have at least one person close to you who is an architect of beauty, and you can schedule a visit soon.


  1. I wish now I could have had my own camera out, so I could also post about your visit! Remember that daylily that Zoe stepped on, and it bent over and sprang right back up? Well, it is blooming today! I'm amazed how delicate Zoe was with the gardens, and the cat, too, seemingly effortlessly. She's very coordinated. I've seen that with horses, too--they can be very careful where they put their big heavy feet when little kids are walking near them. If we would only, as a species, be as careful where we put our footprints! Thank you for coming--we should do this again.

  2. I would love to see a picture of that day lily! Thank you again for a sublime visit. Would definitely like to come back to behold July flower power.

  3. Those flowers and blooms just left me speechless, Natalia! They are so lovely! And despite its sensitivity, peonies can live longer than a year if they're well-taken care of. Just be aware of the small details that will help keep it alive, so that they will produce healthy blooms later on. There are some hybrid that can stand warm weather, but I prefer the traditional ones, because their flowers look healthier than the former.

    Bethel Woodard