Sunday, June 29, 2014

X is for Xeriscapes and Xerophytes

I. Xeriscapes: a working description

It has been exceptionally wet in the northeastern part of North America for about the last eighteen months, as I noted in my previous post on ruts. However, climatologists have warned us that this surfeit of water is, indeed, exceptional. We should be designing gardens and public spaces that require less water. The gardening catchword of the decade —if not the century— is xeriscape. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a xeriscape is “a style of landscape design suitable for arid regions, which aims to minimize the need for irrigation and other maintenance by the appropriate choice of plants and other features; a garden or landscape designed in this way.” A xeriscape differs from natural landscaping in that plants are chosen for water conservation and not necessarily because they are indigenous to the area. It also differs from zero landscaping, such as the use of gravel interspersed with few to no plants. A xeriscape is not necessarily a Zen garden. Although less water is used in a xeriscape, it can still be full of plants. Some of those plants will be xerophytes, which are plants requiring little water. (For those who are curious about why words are spelled as they are, “xerophyte” is a word of completely Greek origin, with “o” as the traditional “cement” between two Greek roots; “xeri-” is used in “xeriscape” because the word is a hybrid with one Greek (xeri-) and one Germanic root [“scape,” backformed from “landscape”], with the “i” in between the two roots typical of words with two roots of Latin derivation.)

Native bluebonnets growing wild near Waco, Texas, April 2014
The bluebonnet (any variety of lupinus subcarnosus, lupinus Texensis)
is the state flower of Texas and is suitable for xeriscapes in that part of the continent
because it requires little water.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

Although I first started considering xeriscapes when I visited my husband’s native Australia and attended conferences in Waco, Texas and Tucson, Arizona,  we need to be thinking of xeriscapes even if we are sitting within an hour’s drive of the Great Lakes or hail from places like the Green Mountains of Vermont, which have had record flooding various parts of the jurisdiction. This is tough to believe for those of us who spend four months per annum digging ourselves out of snowbanks, or one month dealing with mud season and worrying about leaky basements (or worse), but increasingly the flip side of having too much water will be having too little.

Xeriscape with native plants and statue of wildcats,
University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2008
II. The xeriscape as a political metaphor

On the centenary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, we might consider the possibility of designing xeriscapes for all sorts of political relations. One of the many problems that afflicted Europe in the summer of 1914 was that no political or military leader dared slacken the pace toward mobilization of his nation’s armed forces, lest he be perceived to be blindsided by an opponent. There was also no margin for error in communications. Human beings and their institutions are imperfect; inevitably, there needs to be a margin for error and misunderstanding.

There was, of course, a grotesque mockery of the xeriscape in the middle of World War I in the form of the no man’s land. Some of this land is wired off even a century later because of the risks of unexploded ordnance. However, here I am primarily thinking of a landscape of the mind as well as of the soil. How many conflicts have been resolved or prevented in human history because at least one of the leaders sought time for cooler heads to prevail? How many conflicts might be prevented in the future if we assume at the outset that resolution will take time and patience? Can we strengthen multilateral  organizations by mandating a cooling off period in cases where one does not already exist?

In a world in which communications move 24/7 it is sometimes difficult to remember that humans cannot work forever at fever pitch. It is important to assume that problems will not be resolved right away, that grounds rules and good will (both of which require patience) need to be established at the outset, and that there may be failures before there is success. On the smaller scale of contract negotiations involving labor unions, jurisdictions typically require cooling-off periods with different types of outside facilitators before a labor stoppage (strike) can occur. Likewise, various types of larger-scale negotiations have typically been set up in a way that assumes that progress is incremental and that setbacks may occur on the way to longer-term gains. An example of the latter is former US Senator George Mitchell’s leadership in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. This is not to say that negotiation always succeeds; the Middle East peace process bedeviled even Mitchell with his skills. On the other hand, breakthroughs may occur with different people and under somewhat different circumstances. An example of the latter is the agreement with the Syrian government to surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons and to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. The round of negotiations that led to this agreement was based on a proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin after previous attempts had failed.

On the whole, multilateral organizations and the global capacity for negotiation are better developed than they were one hundred years ago. What can we do as Friends to further strengthen this capacity and to encourage patience?

III. A xeriscape for the spirit

Spiritual leaders often speak of landscapes, desolate or otherwise, as a metaphor for the human condition. According to the New Testament, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness while he was wrestling with temptation. The word from the Greek New Testament, ἐρημόν, is the same word as “desolate,” “empty,” “isolated.” Thus it is sometimes translated (to my mind mistranslated) as “desert;” we may compare desertum in the  Latin Vulgate, although in this situation the Vulgate should also be understood as “wilderness,” just as it is in the King James rendition of the Old Testament line, “the voice of him that crieth in the wildness” Isaiah 40:3). In the same manner, the spiritual journey of John Bunyan encompasses virtually every type of land form imaginable, as does John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Whether a landform is completely wild or is partially tamed, it speaks to the human spirit and its travails in its particular ways.

Since physical xeriscapes are designed as a hedge (so to speak) against desertification, erosion, and a whole host of other ecological evils, then we as Friends also need to think about how we might create spiritual xeriscapes. We should begin by noting that a xeriscape differs from what we naturally see in an arid region (or in the “dryness” that Howard Brinton speaks about for our religious lives), although if a xeriscape is designed in one of those regions, it might mimic it in certain respects. A xeriscape is made, not born. In this sense it differs from one of those phases of aridity that we all go through. 

A xeriscape is made, not born:
Hoodoos in the Alberta badlands south of Drumheller
are examples of natural features and not a xeriscape.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013

Friends have a mixed record in preparing their members against periods of dryness and doubt. Great religious music and art have the advantage of sustaining people during times of reduced input. Those are not the strong suits of unprogrammed Meetings, nor were they intended to be, although the best Meeting House architecture has been known to center a frustrated spirit. Instead, Friends have tended to emphasize the renewable feast of the community, whether the Quaker community or the broader community of humanity, when God seems distant. Community, when understood in this sense, can bring people back to God.

Unfortunately, the Quaker ideal of the perfectibility of humanity may not be as enticing during periods of spiritual frustration; people may be more drawn to the sentiments of the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin, who were for their own reasons at pains to remind us, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” (Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784), Proposition 6) (Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden). A “forest” of committee work can be the last responsibility a Friend needs, even if it is what the Meeting needs from that Friend (and sometimes what the Friend grasps at from desperation). Short courses and study may or may not achieve beneficial results. It is not simply Calvinists who speak of good works as being insufficient for the spiritual life.

Many have noted that accessibility to the physical landscape, be it a natural park or a garden, is a necessary condition for spiritual well-being. And yes, that landscape, if it is designed by human hands, undoubtedly needs to withstand the lashings of thunderstorms and drought. While such ideas are a commonplace of poetry and art, especially in the genre of the pastoral, they need to be restated in an era in which new neighborhoods are sometimes constructed without parks, and school days often lack recess or gym classes. It is not accidental that Fox had his great spiritual awakening while climbing Pendle Hill in 1652.

IV. The xeriscape and the poppy: a particular example

Considering the disruptions of nature during World War I begs the question of symbolism of the red field or corn poppy (papaver rhoeas), which grows wild along the edges of agricultural fields in Flanders. It was prolific between the trench lines and the no man's lands on the western front during World War I due to the disturbance of the soil. It is now used as an ornamental in places where it is not indigenous, particularly in temperate climates in North America. A generation or two ago stands of red poppies were planted as far north as the gardens of the Chateau Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Alberta. Lake Louise is one of the most quintessentially Canadian locations, and the red poppy, with its black center, is reminiscent not only of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian poet John McCrae but also of the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“the Mounties”), which is occasionally seen in the national parks.  One can still find postcards and puzzles showing the vermilion spread of poppies blossoming in spring, and a restaurant at the hotel is named The Poppy. There was only one problem with the red poppies:  they were non-native plants suited to a climate that received more rainfall than the area around Lake Louise. Although Lake Louise is fed by glaciers, the area is drier than in some other parts of Canada. Lake Louise averages 569.3 mm in annual precipitation (snow and rain together), whereas Kitchener, Ontario, not far from Toronto, receives an average of 916.5 mm and Vancouver in the west gets 1,189 mm. For this reason the horticultural experts at the park required the area to be replanted with drought-resistant native poppies.

drought-resistant native poppies in garden at Chateau Lake Louise
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013

The author would like to thank the limo driver who stopped on the way to the airport at Waco so that she could photograph the bluebonnets. She would also like to thank Susan Brown for reminding her of the red poppies traditionally planted at Chateau Lake Louise.

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