Tea Parties Will Pass Soon Enough, But Trees Remain
I must have a thing about trees. For nineteen years now I've lived at various Maine addresses whose common feature has been the presence of large, overhanging trees that cast varying degrees of shade over the whole property. When I moved to this brand-new cottage a few years ago, there were woods all around but a big open spot in the middle, cleared by the builder to make room for the house. Naturally the first thing I did was plant a bunch of trees.
I started with oaks: five new species to complement the native red oak, Quercus rubra, already plentiful on the property. I added dogwoods, of course, and comely natives like smoke bush, fringe tree, bald cypress, sourwood, yellowwood, sweet gum and black gum (which sickened and died). The next year I planted a dozen assorted Japanese maples, hollies, yews, and a Hinoki cypress. Birds brought willows, wild cherries, birches, and a few things that I haven't managed to identify but that look pretty enough so far.
Now of course in a woodland setting you can't have many of the things that are indispensable to the classic Maine garden: roses and phlox and lilies and lilacs and, above all, a nicely mown lawn. For seasonal interest you need to rely instead on shade-tolerant shrubs and understory staples like hostas, astilbes, foxgloves, and ferns. So I've got plenty of that kind of stuff, much of it dug up and transported from former gardens. And I've gone in big-time for my personal obsession (every gardener is allowed one) — Asian bamboos.
The singular feature if this kind of gardening is that, for most of the summer, there really isn't a lot to do. You sit and watch things grow. This in turn makes for a prevailing mood of indolence, a tendency to sit on the deck and type one-handedly on your iPad because you smashed an index finger with a rock the other day. (Which ought to serve as a warning to anyone rash enough to step off the deck before the first of September.)
Oddly enough, I feel that this attitude of indolence puts me very much in tune with the Maine body politic these days. For this summer will go down in the state's history as the time when our citizenry at large went to the polls and voted, in large numbers, to repeal a law that would have lowered their taxes. And they did so at the behest of the usual tax-cutting crowd for reasons that fairly beggar comprehension. It's as if we've gotten so accustomed to whining about Maine's excessive tax burden (seventh-highest in the nation, I've read) that we can't bear to do anything about it. What would we complain about then? The weather, I suppose. And politicians, and people from away.
It's all part of our summer of national anger, I suppose. We are mad as hell — so the pollsters tell us, anyway — and we're not going to take it anymore. Though what "it" is, which we're not going to take, seems a bit unclear. Tax reform, for starters. No doubt tomorrow it will be something new, like education or zoning or infrastructure repair or some other piece of political nonsense.
I don't understand what's going on, but it seems un-Maine-like, somehow, this can't-do attitude. I'm all for sitting on the deck and watching the world go by, but now and then you have stand up and empty the trash or something. Now and then you have to go to the polls and take some kind of constructive step, like voting for candidates who promise to do something and then allowing them to do it. Tax reform — like last year's hot-button issue, marriage equality — represented a long and hard-fought victory for the forces of change, of movement and progress. But it seems that in today's political climate, such things are anathema to much of the electorate. So out comes the people's veto and the forces of No. And so we must spend another few years sitting on the deck, grumbling about the way things are but unwilling to change them.
My garden seems to thrive under this sort of benign neglect. Plants, like people, seem to enjoy being left alone most of the time. But then, plants are designed to grow bigger and stronger over time, as long as their basic needs are met. I don't think societies work that way. I suspect that if we sit still for too long we tend to stagnate. I mean, look at the American South, the heartland of political lethargy. I grew up in still-segregated Virginia and when I moved to Maine I felt I was coming to a braver, more forward-looking place. I still believe that. I'm sure we'll never go the way of, say, Alabama, where elections turn on things like which candidate takes the Bible more literally. But I still feel troubled by the thought that so many Mainers are attracted to the Tea Party mentality, which seems to consist, from what I gather, in the idea that every single feature of contemporary society is really, really bad, and that the whole project of civil governance is unconstitutional.
There is solace in trees, I find. There is shelter and strength and living evidence that good things can endure. In a real sense, trees put us in our place: scurrying little creatures who come and stay for a little while and mess about in their shadow and then one day are gone. They remind us too that all human-scale things, including Tea Parties, will pass soon enough.