Austen, Fiona, and The Power of Greening Urban America: A Letter To The Midwest


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September 4, 2021

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

It is as if Virginia Woolf & Jane Austen came together over a few drinks and birthed your last letter. What a read.

I must admit that despite my best efforts to criticize it, your lyrical stream-of-consciousness paragraphs are growing increasingly endearing.  Still, what a nightmare you must have been for a hapless by-the-book middle school English teacher. I can’t imagine what our Google Overlords think.

Michele’s email was absolutely delightful, and I say that without a trace of sarcasm, but rather with an uncomfortable and increasing concern that I habitually use phrases such as ‘absolutely delightful’ and give you plenty of rope with which to hang me.  Pride and Prejudice was my favorite read at the ripe (possibly embarrassing) age of 12.  No amount of Tom Robbins & David Mamet in my early twenties can erase that kind of conditioning.

It’s that top button that tells you all you need to know.

In any case, I have printed out Michele’s letter and it is awaiting a frame – just to remind me at a glance of what a hilarious evening Louisa and I had with you in Cincinnati.  Willamette Valley Pinots and Marlborough Sauv Blancs – are there better companions to good conversation? In vino veritas way too much est.

Far be it from me to mention it, but there is a significant distance between you both here…should we be concerned?

I am quite sure however that you gave me the second-best bed tucked into the sloping recesses of your office.  Were you perhaps trying to prove that you do, actually, have an office?  In which there are books?  With bookmarks and random Post-Its sticking out of the pages, thus proving some level of familiarity with their contents?

In your natural habitat.

I have to tell you that I was enchanted with Cincinnati.  I didn’t expect to be, and had Louisa and I driven that highway, spied the “Hell is Real” billboard, and stayed at the nearest Best Western on our way pretty much anywhere else, I would rest easy in my prejudice…and pride. 

cincinnati

What a wonderful surprise, and a perfect day to be a tourist. Clouds without the rain.

It was your expert – and obviously loving – tour of the city and its eccentricities that made me feel as if I could move there. I may need to when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors eventually decides to surround my property with three HOA developments, a HomeGoods, and giant billboards proclaiming:  “Eat. Shop. Sleep. Live. Your story begins at [insert fatuous subdivision name here].”  

Oh hell is real alright.

What I particularly loved (besides the hills – I’m a sucker for topography), was the commitment to city floral displays.  Luckily Louisa was in charge of following the random twists and turns and feats of uphill daring going on behind the wheel of your 2007 Mercury Mariner, and I could get a good eyeful of the pots and hanging baskets decorating the most unusual of places.  How much this simple gesture adds to one’s initial impression of an urban environment! And how few American cities and towns make it a priority.

cincinnati

Unnecessary, and not particularly creative, but nonetheless wonderful.

Of course, the execution of such a thing is not simple, nor is it cheap. But the dividends are so numerous, that one wonders at the true return on investment – and how possibly to quantify such a thing for spreadsheet-addled bureaucrats and businesses pinching pennies. 

At core, it shows pride in one’s city.  It says “This place is special.  We care about it.  It’s a way of life we love.” No inane billboards required. 

cafe

Bravo, Zip.

That subtle message affects the occupants of the city and it affects its visitors. Even if you have no idea what a sweet potato vine is and which end of a canna to put in the soil, you are made better by walking past overflowing, life-affirming containers of green in what might otherwise be a very grey space.

I could be neighbors with this person.

When done badly, or as political theatre, the opposite impression is just as strong. A green-flavored grant is written, funds are received from someone else’s bottomless till, and Alberta spruces are thrust in pots with little hope of care or water only to die, painfully and ignominiously, covered in spider mite.

Implementation without the trivial concerns of long-term maintenance — and businesses are poorer for it. But the tick boxes can be ticked and we can move on to matters of sewage infrastructure and code enforcement and who the hell cares anyway cause ‘maintenance’ was never part of the grant and therefore does not exist and the whole thing is SEP – Someone Else’s Problem.  Namely the business owners’, who’ve got to figure out where to dump a browned and blighted five-foot tree with attached root-ball.

Perhaps on the mayor’s lawn at 2am – just a thought.

Anyway, enough of my former small-city’s problems and my hidden resentments made suddenly manifest…. Let’s talk about the zoo.

Yes the zoo.  I have so many thoughts – none of which, surprisingly, focus on Fiona the hippo.

I will NEVER think of tilapia the same way after they devoured Fiona’s poop like a summer popsicle, and quite frankly I am a bit miffed you had to ID them as tilapia – thus sabotaging my cheap-fish option at the grocery store.  You couldn’t have just made up a plausible fish name? Really?!?

First off – amazing job.  Truly – a beautiful job.  Yes, there’s all the expected Victorian bedding fodder to satisfy the swarms of summer crowds jostling to see Fiona and accompanying tilapia, but it’s the skillful creation of naturalistic planting schemes with not-so-common plants that had Louisa and I gawking.

On the way to Kangaroo Valley

I can’t imagine how difficult it is to pull designs like this together. The cosmic coordination of staff and contractors and materials after the plans are made and the green light is given gives me heart palpitations.  And, to do it all for an audience that is more interested in the nearest churro vendor or shite-eating tilapia than they are in the subtleties wrought by weeping taxodium branches softly kissing mounding carex….it makes the heart break. 

I’m sure I saw that combo somewhere.  Maybe I just dreamed it.

How many punters per thousand stare out at that mini-savanna you’ve concocted (in ten days!), hold their breaths at the sheer accomplishment of it, and then say to their significant other “With all those grazers, they must be using zoysia to stop that enclosure turning into the La Brea Tar Pits.  What a perfect use of mimosa! No I don’t want a churro. Let’s go look at the mixed shrub display leading to Kangaroo Valley.” ?

0.003, that’s how many. And Louisa and I made up 0.0025 of that.

 

So to you, and to your staff, and to the horticultural staff of all large and small parks, zoos, venues, themeparks and museums, I offer gratitude.  Gratitude for good design that daily suffers the injustice of averted and distracted eyes, yet would be missed if ‘twere absent.

There I go using ‘twere. God there is no hope.

Thoughts about August.  Well, it was life-draining, obviously. Moments of amazing punctuated by long stretches of ‘why don’t I scrapbook instead?’ You were right on the money in your recent interview with Leslie Harris. Two months of rain over the course of five hours does not a wet-summer make. We have mirrored your dry weather patterns for the most part, so please do not think yourself heroic. 

As I finish this letter, Hurricane Ida has just dumped five inches of rain with attitude in twenty-four hours, presumably to make a liar of me. The feast/famine rain cycle is tough to get one’s head around.  However, a couple weeks ago in the midst of drought, I was gifted a bit of perspective by a reader (I have them too you know) who wrote to tell me that she had just come across my letter to you from last August, and that she enjoyed it as much now as she did then (There is a non-self-aggrandizing point in telling you this I promise).

turmeric

How’s this for self-aggrandizing? Look at that turmeric!  That’s ‘Pink Wonder’ from Plant Delights, along with a smaller ‘Snowdrift’ at its feet. I’ve had to water here and there – mostly where pots are plunged – but overall, most of my plants in this hugelkultur-esque bed are planted into such moisture retentive soil they can handle these major dry spells. And the heat…well that’s why I grow a lot of tropical accents.

I could not remember the letter, so went back to read it myself.  And what I read made my day. It turns out that I was hating August just as much then as I did this year.  It was just as dry.  I was just as hot and irritable.  There were no doubt demonic hoses involved.

In fact the only positive difference I can see between this year and that is that I was a year younger and I still had greater bone density.

So rejoice. We’ve been there, done that, and by the grace of God, we will do it again.

Yours, (well, Michele’s)

Marianne

P.S.  Your garden is beautifully composed, but I could yet see a banana – or at least a stand of variegated mioga ginger poking out of all that Midwestern sensibility.  August solved. How about you thumb through that fascinating, beautifully photographed and expertly written book on tropical plants for the temperate garden I left for you?  I hear the author knows her shite. Just a thought.

P.P.S. Glad you didn’t die in that drunken boating accident 25 years ago.  You’d no doubt only use it as a cheap ploy for sympathy.

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