Sunday, December 2, 2012

Memory Keepers

I don't know where the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" originated, but sometimes even a picture is inadequate to plumb the depths of thought and emotion induced by the simplest of stimuli.  Take, for example, the still life in brown pictured at the right.  An unknowing, unaware observer might recognize the presence of a little loose soil, a number of brown vegetable-origin structures, and the background of brown prairie grass, trimmed short in the late days of Fall.  A very astute observer might recognize the brown tubular structures as roots, and perhaps the most knowledgeable and experienced gardeners, looking closely, might discern some bud eyes peeking from the crowns of those roots.

I can confirm, for the curious, that these are peony roots, ready to be transplanted.   These roots are divisions that I purloined at Thanksgiving from my boyhood home, healthy survivors who were growing in good Indiana soil long before I drew first breath.   There are 5 different peony starts here from a row of peonies that always separated orchard from vegetable garden, large clumps that sagged with each rainfall and became obstacles to be mowed around during the verdant summer and then to be mowed off short at the start of Fall.  You can see, in the closeup at the left, plump buds biding frigid Winter, waiting to clone and grow again in my Kansas garden.

They are, at once, both unique peonies and common peonies, unremarkable to the average gardener, but precious everafter to me.  They are common because I suspect that the varieties are just the same tired pink and white and red peonies that our grandparents grew and that probably sell for $3.95 per 3 clumps now each Spring at Walmart.   Odds are that one is 'Festiva Maxima', and another 'Sarah Bernhardt',  and it is likely that I already grow all or most of these, purchased at local nurseries.  They are exceptional, however, these 5 peonies, because they are now weighted down with childhood memories and ghostly fields stretching as far as a boy could roam.  They bear this heavy load because this year, after 50 years of living in one place, my parents are selling the home farm.  I have only the opportunity to start them here, these keepers of memory, so they can whisper to me of family picnics in the Spring, and sweet corn grown tall in Summer, and of the peaches and apples that fell from the nearby orchard trees, destined only to rot and fertilize these roots.

 In my garden, these will be the heirlooms of my boyhood, these few ancient peonies planted by those who lived before me, to live on long after me.  They will rub shoulders with sedums and columbines from my grandmother and with trees planted by my children.  They will carry for me my memories of another place and another time, simple and carefree, when the world was new and every tree a mountain to be climbed.  I planted them here now, sprinkled them with the remnants of the good soil that nurtured them, and watered them in so they'll grow and outlast me here, transplanted with me to foreign soil.  Memory keepers of a far away place and time.

And you thought it was just a picture of a few brown roots and dirt.


  1. Wow, you wrote a prayer of consecration on planting an ageless peony root.

    To see the world in a grain of sand,
    and to see heaven in a wild flower,
    hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
    and eternity in an hour.
    --William Blake

    I half-remembered this peony row from a picture in your post Plant Immortality.

    1. Double've got a great memory because I didn't remember that post or even think to search for it. I'll attempt to blame that on my mental state during writing it. You are hereby designated as my "blog memory keeper."

      I had to look up "consecrated"...being raised United Methodist instead of Catholic, I'd heard the word, but needed to confirm the definition.

  2. I love how plants can evoke memories. And I'm glad you got something from your parent's farm. I hope your peonies live for generations, and that you pass down not only peony blooms, but memories from your childhood home. Beautiful post.

  3. When I lived in Ponca City, Oklahoma recently I planted many memory or dedication trees (I suppose I could call them memorial trees but not all the people are deceased), a white oak for my dad, and a weeping cherry for my mother. My youngest son and I planted a Caddo Sugar Maple as he was my prodigal son which returned that day. I planted a white dogwood for the Misses and a Sugar Maple for the grandaughter. We often go by the former house and check on them. Last week my son reported on the growth of the Caddo and took phone photos. Nice! Thanks for the memories, James.

    1. Nice tradition, Greggo. Now if we only lived in the same castles for generations, like British Royalty....

  4. As an update, I have 6 small starts of peonies that began to grow this spring. Can't wait to see how many types I saved, but it may be next year before I see blooms from these little babies.


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