I got your picture hangin' on the wall
It can't see or come to me when I call your name
I realize it's just a picture in a frame
- Ashford/Simpson (via Gaye/Terrell)
But all I've got is a photograph
And I realize you're not coming back anymore
The camera can never go as far as the eye can see. How many times have I been thwarted from capturing a vision? The jeweled green glint of a hummingbird in blurred darting flight. Plumed ornamental grasses standing sentry in a hundred-foot formation. The sun of high noon so bright that everything is seen in an illuminated haze through a squinty gaze. The big sky in summer so cloudless and clear that you feel like you're standing at the bottom of a deep blue sea. The serendipitous glimpse of three clumps of three different agastaches in three different beds yards apart, echoing hullo-ullo-ullo in an unplanned but perfectly spaced diagonal. But even shots that adhere to the limits of light and dimension and yield pleasing results are, ultimately, no more than pretty pictures. Their beauty can be enjoyed, they may even evoke a memory or two, but they cannot send you into a time machine where you get to relive the experience you were trying to record. I certainly should know better; every parent learns this lesson a couple of hundred rolls of film or so into their first baby's first year; but the urge to catch and to keep that which cannot be possessed is one that I can overcome only with intense conscious effort, accompanied by much ersatz zen-talk.
I was sitting in the "sunroom" the other day, the name given to a room built onto the back of our garage, with its south-facing front and ceiling all in glass. It's a wreck, really, isolated from the house's heating and ventilation, prone to roof leaks, and subject to temperature extremes that make it unsuitable for growing any plant known to me. Except: the door, when open, frames one of the most beautiful views there is of the garden as a festive and orderly jungle, with magenta petunias and chartreuse and black sweet potato vines billowing out of the window boxes, flowering and done-flowering spikes of agastache and penstemons in their most attractive profile view, and mounds of multicolored snapdragons and petunias, sown from seasons past, filling in the blanks. Sitting in the sunroom, I was rereading Henry Mitchell's The Essential Earthman, and he (as is his wont) set me right straight:
Gardening is not some sort of game by which one proves his superiority over others, nor is it a marketplace for the display of elegant things that others cannot afford. It is, on the contrary, a growing work of creation, endless in its changing elements. It is not a monument or an achievement, but a sort of traveling, a kind of pilgrimage you might say, often a bit grubby and sweaty though true pilgrims do not mind that. A garden is not a picture, but a language, which is of course the major art of life.