The Unknown Unknown
The past few months I have fallen victim to a serious case of writer's block. I haven't posted on this corner of the internet in so long, and it is not for having a lack of time. I have to admit it is from having a lack of words. I began this blog post in January and have visited it again and again each month. With each visit I cannot quite finish the post. Something seems to be lacking, not fully communicating whatever it is I feel like it should be communicating. If you were to take an x-ray of my brain I am confident it would just show up on the screen as a giant plate of spaghetti. With meat balls.
(But also does anyone have a magic fork that can elegantly twist all these brain noodles into a neatly wrapped mouthful? Please advise.)
To battle the spaghetti brain and writer's block I have spent a lot of time walking and thinking and wandering... escaping down footpaths, getting lost in new cities, staring out the windows of trains, popping into random shops, drinking too much coffee, and typing out draft paragraphs but never hitting that publish button. Since my last post I have lived in Sussex, Edinburgh, London, and now a little island off the western tip of Cornwall. HOOOOOW could I possibly be at a loss for words, you may ask, when each day is like a British gardening dream? Well... my mom does ask, and each FaceTime home normally includes subtle (and sometimes not subtle) parental pleas that maybe I could just post a picture or two, nothing fancy, just let keep the ball rolling?
So instead of waiting for the magical fork that will elegantly organize my brain noddles, I have decided just to go with more of a chopstick approach, where you just grab two wooden sticks and wedge some noddles in-between them and shove it in your mouth, because it really doesn't matter how elegant the delivery is, the point is that you eat the noodles, am I right? Or have I taken the noodle analogy too far? Moving on...
During one of my chronic writer's block aimless wanderings in Edinburgh, I stumbled into a charming bookshop called The Golden Hare. I can't buy many books these days because of the whole living out of a suitcase deal that I am championing for 10 months. But I did find a tiny booklet with a short essay inside entitled, "The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted." It wouldn't take up too much room in my suitcase, so for 2 pounds I bought this little nugget of wisdom, and it seems to have given me words to explain that which has eluded me for 5 (or is it 6? geez) months now. This witty and insightful essay by Mark Forsyth is centered around a quote by Donald Rumsfeld...
"There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
Now I believe that dear ole Donald was talking about weapons of mass destruction. Forsyth takes this quote and applies it to the joys of discovering hidden gems in a good bookshop. And just for good measure I am going to apply it to gardening. There is so much the gardening world can learn from philosophical musings on nuclear warfare! The Unknown Unknown. Just chew on that for a sec. Imagine all the things that are out there floating around in the world that you don't even know that you don't know about, you know?
As I have dwelt upon the idea of the unknown unknown, I have realized something important.. **not all unknown unknowns are equal**
When an unknown unknown is discovered, you have a choice. Sometimes unknown unknowns could be like a nice little window that you peak through and keep moving along. Like the other day I learned while listening to BBC Radio 2 in the potting shed that there is this band touring in the UK that carves their instruments out of vegetables, like a carrot flute and an eggplant trumpet! Can you imagine... a whole world of musical vessels that I had no idea could even exist! They performed live, and it made me grin, then I continued on with the potting up of the Agastache plants into 1 liter pots. And I also told everyone about this amusing discovery at tea break. Not a super life changing unknown unknown discovery, but I bet I won't look at a carrot the same way, eh? (if you would like to dive deeper into your knowledge of The Vegetable Orchestra, watch THIS to learn about their veggie instrument making process, it's equal parts fascinating and hilarious. They take veg market visits very seriously)
But then there are unknown unknowns that open your eyes to something that is so intriguing and thrilling that you want to dive head first into this new world. You peak through that little window of the unknown and see something new and inviting and intoxicating that you simply cannot continue on with life as it was. You might walk past the window, but you start searching for the door to that world right away.
So along comes January. I arrived extremely jet lagged on a really cold and wet morning to the wooden gate at the front of Great Dixter. Sometimes the most profound things come in small packages, like this 7 acre garden surrounding an old medieval half-timbered farmhouse amidst the High Weald of East Sussex. There are towering hedges that bulge out randomly with arches that frame different garden rooms, each one seemingly taking you by the hand and inviting you into a sea of plants, that layer by layer reveal themselves with each passing season. Each room has its own personality, its own history and atmosphere. Beyond the garden there are fields with friendly sheep and meadows filled with bees and ancient woodlands that were shining with the white faces of anemones by spring time.
But standing at that ole wooden gate that cold January morning, I frankly had no idea what I was entering into as I shut the iron latch behind me. Over the course of 3 months I entered that wooden gate day in and day out. I learned how to wedge it open and shove the wheelbarrow through before it could slam shut on my leg. Each morning I woke up and put on overalls with lots of sweaters underneath and dolloped hand cream on my cracking sore hands and grabbed my pruners and my pocket notebook and my work gloves and headed up the hill to stick my hands in the soil all day. I made so many mistakes. I learned little by little which digging fork to go for, where the secret stash of plant labels were, and to always leave my work gloves on the radiator during tea break. I also learned about the craft of propagation, how to divide plants and take cuttings and make more from what you already have. I had dreams about pulling bind weed out of the soil, because if you have ever experienced the satisfaction that comes from getting the whole root out without it snapping, you know that is what dreams are made of. I learned about sowing seeds, potting up, moving plants through various cold frames, and timing when to plant them out. I learned what questions to ask about plants and how to experiment with ideas, that sometimes work and sometimes don't, but it doesn't really matter because the fact is you tried something that hasn't been done before. I learned how to build a wooden support for an espalier pear, how to split bamboo into hundreds of new plants, and how to prune almost any type of plant you can imagine. I could go on an on, because each little corner of the garden is intertwined with so many memories, mistakes, and a few triumphs. Dixter is a garden that doesn't just maintain what is already there, but actively develops the garden and perpetuates the spirit of the place that was set in motion generations before. And simultaneously it is developing people, those of us who are lucky to pass through that wooden gate each morning.
By the first of April it was time for me to leave. As I reluctantly walked through the wooden gate, I thought back to that January morning I had first arrived. Dixter introduced me to a world that I didn't know existed, and that I didn't know that I wanted, the greatest unknown unknown I have ever had the pleasure of discovering. Leaving Dixter was a bit overwhelming, because I knew then that my life was going to change, it had to change. I came to Dixter thinking that I wanted to be a designer who knew a lot about plants and that Dixter would help me get there. But after 3 months I was walking out that gate as a gardener, someone who couldn't imagine a day spent without my hands in the soil. When you have dreams about pulling bind weed, I think you are too far gone, are't you?
Dixter did introduce me to a whole world of gardening that I didn't know was possible, but it also introduced me to a community of people that made leaving so hard. I have never worked so hard, laughed so much, and been more humbled by the graciousness of friends than I was at Dixter. But that story will have to be continued...
So, as I read "The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted" it dawned on me. My own unknown unknown discovery at Dixter had unlocked the delight of a world I didn't know I wanted. What will that look like back in Alabama, I have no bloomin' idea. But I think the point is that you do something, be it with an elegant magic fork or with chopsticks, the point is that you create, that you say the words or make the garden or pursue the career no matter how messy or unclear it may be. So, I am done with writer's block, because I think it is actually just a fear of something not being perfect, and I would rather just eat with chopsticks anyways.
So cheers to the unknown, and may we not be scared to search for that door after having that intoxicating peek through the window.