Last week I posted a photograph of my Lonicera sempervirens 'John Clayton' yellow trumpet honeysuckle on Instagram. It was a beautiful day, hinting of springtime. The air was warm. The birds were singing. As my thirteen-year-old son lovingly tended to his 'Always & Forever' rose, I blissfully photographed Sambucus canadensis, Galium odoratum and Achillea millefolium and the Lonicera. And so, when I finally sat down that evening, I chose to share an image of my honeysuckle.
Instagram is frustrating to a realist. So many profiles are subtly branded, curated and the images, staged in a way that makes them at first glance appear: real. Yet, I too often find myself pondering...
Why did she photograph that flatlay of strategically ordered conch shells, a mermaid's purse, a vintage copy of Moby Dick and a dried bundle of sea grass? Is she reading Moby Dick or just showing it to me? Who invented #flatlay?
Why is she boiling water, adding a tea bag/conifer needles/dried herbs and stepping outside to photograph her own hand clutching a vintage/enamel/hand-made/quirky mug? Is her tea getting cold? Should she be folding her laundry or balancing her checkbook instead?
You see? I am far too logical to use Instagram. I consider the logistics: If I am suspended over a rustic table photographing my vintage botany book, what if I fall and break my hip? Will it be worth it? Why don't I just quietly enjoy my vintage books...why must a stranger in Bali know I own a beautiful copy of British Fungi?
Well...on the day I posted the photograph of my honeysuckle vine I decided to throw caution to the wind and act impulsively. I shed my usual nerd veil and posted a hopeful tidbit from Cunningham's Encylclopedia of Magical Herbs. "Did you know if a honeysuckle plant grows near your home it will bring good luck? I DO hope!" I captioned my photo, adding the quintessential four-leaf clover emoji. Within a second of posting the image I received this comment: "That's true only if it's the native Coral Honeysuckle," the user warned, "and not the invasive Asian one." He added his own emoji: a wide-eyed, horror-stricken face with its hands raised in anguish (think Edvard Munch's The Scream).
Um. What just happened?
I re-read my post. I re-read his comment. I replied. Passive-aggressively. I ranted to my husband. I ranted to my son. I ranted to my mother. What is it about me that people always have to ruin my rare attempts to use social media in that carefree, ironic way that others do? My eighth grade science teacher once scolded me on Facebook because I chided people who love seasonal pumpkin spice-flavored everything. "[I'm] better than that," he commented, adding, "why disparage others' tastes?" Really? Isn't pumpkin spice sort of up for grabs in the comedy department...it is made in a lab and people collectively joke about it?
So here's the thing. I've been thinking A LOT about this whole honeysuckle incident. And after discussing it with friends and family (willing to waste precious time discussing social media), I believe I have unearthed the real reason a complete stranger's comment managed to affect me so deeply.
My garden is my autobiography. I illustrate certain chapters using images I choose to share on Instagram.
My husband and I bought our home - a traditional foursquare - in 2003, the year my beloved Gram died. Within a year we were expecting our son. By his first birthday, my beloved Uncle George died. When our son was four-years-old, I would be diagnosed with breast cancer, requiring four months of chemotherapy, bi-lateral mastectomies, a full hysterectomy and reconstruction. By the time I was beginning to get used to life post-cancer, my dad went into the hospital to have much-needed dual knee-replacement surgery. He was not catheterized; his bladder stopped working. Eventually, the bladder retention reversed on its own. The following March (St. Patrick's Day) he was hospitalized again; he had a perforated bowel. The surgery to repair it resulted in him being given a temporary ileostomy. Months later another surgery followed, this time to reverse the ileostomy. It was during that summer my family attempted to help my parents as best we could; we cared for their lawn.
In my spare time I began studying the benefits of planting native plants, trees and shrubs around one's property. I spent hours poring over books, organizing plant lists, and seeking out native plant sales. The following spring we applied for a grant from the Jane Goodall Institute and added native forbs and shrubs to our diminutive property. The next year we pulled up more sod and added dozens of natives I'd come to value. We had now planted over eighty percent of our property with U.S. native species. The long process of redesigning and replanting our front, back and side yards has been especially cathartic.
Last spring I was over-the-moon to have an opportunity to meet Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, authors of The Living Landscape. I was fortunate to speak at length with Mr. Darke about not only native landscape planting but also Arts & Crafts homes. Unfortunately, by the end of the night I would learn my dear cousin (and eldest daughter of my late uncle) had been hospitalized. Within a month, and after a long battle with diabetes, she died unexpectedly. In the autumn, my dad had two more surgeries (a hip replacement and an incisional hernia with a suture retention).
The Monday following Thanksgiving, he was diagnosed with cancer.
When we bought our home two old blue spruce grew out front, cherry trees and a Japanese maple, in the back. Lace-top and mophead hydrangeas rose above periwinkle-dotted flowerbeds. We had dug a garden pond the year before I was diagnosed with cancer - three Comet fantail goldfish, three frogs and countless aquatic snails called it home. When my husband cut my hair - preparing for my chemotherapy - I posed in front of the pond and the Rose of Sharon next to the purple butterfly bush with a Culver's root growing beside it. It was there he took the Before and After photos. We planted the daffodil bulbs given to me by my aunt there; she wanted me to enjoy seeing them come up in the spring (after I was well). I did. In the summer following my treatment we planted an organic vegetable garden - salad greens, green beans, cucumbers, carrots, radishes and delicious sugar snap peas that my five-year-old son and I would pluck from the vine each day, in our bare feet. Dandelion, lambsquarter, yellow dock, plantain and chickweed grow in both my parents' yard and in our own; I learned this when we cared for their property five years later. The bleeding heart, deep purple lilac, and phlox that grow in my garden came from my parents' yard - dug out by my mother while my dad stood nearby, unable to lift. We moved our pond that summer, digging a new one closer to our back door. We planted herbs, coneflowers, tickseed, astilbe, bee balm, yarrow; I was occupying my thoughts with my cottage garden. The swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, aromatic asters, white turtlehead, joe-pye, mountain mint, goldenrod, viola, ferns, yellow trumpet honeysuckle, red chokeberry, arrow-wood, elderberry, witch-hazel, oak leaf hydrangea, holly and arborvitae were added the following year; the year my twelve-year-old son pinched his finger installing a hook on which to hang our suet feeder. He cried. And got a blood blister. It was the week after meeting Rick Darke we added anise hyssop, larkspur, boneset, anise root, allegheny pachysandra, lyre-leaved sage, cream violets, Christmas ferns, fothergilla, inkberry, mountain laurel, spicebush, mapleleaf viburnum, dutchman's breeches, precious goldenseal, jacks-in-the-pulpit, black-haw, virginia creeper, more coneflowers, more butterfly weed and more asters. We also planted redbud trees, saplings given to us by my parents - their redbud (the parent stock) was given to them by my uncle. It was his daughter who died in May; she was fifty-seven-years-old. At the end of this last summer, when my soon-to-be thirteen-year-old son and I lay in the grass watching a Monarch caterpillar prepare to shed its skin and form its chrysalis, our sixty-nine-year-old neighbor was having a stroke; it abruptly ended his lifelong career. Ten minutes from our house, my sixty-seven-year-old dad was still recovering from hip surgery, preparing for his hernia surgery and eighty-three days away from a cancer diagnosis. The black eyed Susans - my mom loves them - were in their full glory.
My garden, after much reflection, has always been an important part of my autobiography. And I share the picturesque snapshots of it on Instagram. Whether ambling through fields, forests or my garden, I am not devoid of emotion. I carry afield whatever I carry in my heart.