The Aleatory Garden

I first learned the word “aleatory” in reference to music.  The first FM radio station of my life, WFMT in Chicago, would occasionally introduce a piece as “aleatory music,” sounds arranged randomly or by some pattern other than the usual rules of harmonics.  My college dorm social circle included a composer of aleatory music, although I never heard her claim the term “aleatory,” nor the title “composer.”  Carol Gutstein, who played piano by ear and instinct, asked people to call out their phone numbers or student ID numbers, then played them on the corresponding piano keys and turned them into a composition in whatever style you chose.  She had already worked out pieces based on Avogadro’s number and pi.  Yes, this was at the University of Chicago, nerd heaven. I loved it.

Since those days, the 1960s, I’ve applied the word “aleatory” to much of my life, especially the aspects subject to chronic illness, which upsets rules and expectations and sets its own seemingly random course.  This summer, largely because of illness—and the oppressive heat and humidity of July, a hint of global warming—I’ve found “aleatory” a redemptive word to describe my untended flower garden, my scraggly bushes, and my wild and overgrown back yard.  It helps me set aside frustration and see their unkempt beauty.

My daughter snapped this photo on her way out of the house and sent it to me as a thank you for dinner. (No, she doesn’t own the Prius; that’s the neighbors’.) I’m glad to be growing something of service to butterflies–and to honeybees.  I planted a bed of purple coneflowers (echinacea) in the northeast corner of my garden many years ago, alongside equal-sized beds of white coneflowers and yellow coneflowers (aka rudbeckia or black-eyed susans).  By the next year the purple coneflowers were marching across the garden, and I was assiduously pulling them up, while the white ones cowered back and, after a year or two or three, disappeared altogether.  The rudbeckia kept to its allotted space and just grew thicker there, until it, too, ran out of energy and chose stasis.  This year’s neglect, along with July’s unusual heat, has done wonders for these lovely prairie flowers.  The echinacea has arranged itself, star-like, at all four corners of the garden, with a patch in the center.  The rudbeckia is flourishing as never before, stretched across the front of the garden.  All over my neighborhood I see thick, healthy plots of rudbeckia where I don’t remember it before. Both are more vibrantly colored than in the last few years, when the purples were closer to pink.  According to one global warming observation, the prairie is moving both eastward and north, turning Minnesota eventually into Kansas.  My beautiful, butterfly-pleasing coneflowers may be the advance guard.

My larger intention was to make this a daylily garden, so I bought bulbs of many varieties during the thinning season at Noerenberg Gardens.  I arranged them with close attention to color, expected height, and predicted blooming date, and wrote their common and scientific names on a map I had drawn.  Their first year in bloom, the colors were disappointing.  Whether red or violet or peach, they all seemed to be shades of the same hue.  Other years, including this one, the colors are distinct and brilliant.  I have long since misplaced the map.  As much as I appreciate the Swedish sense of order, which found its apotheosis in Carl Linnaeus, I have to admit I really don’t bother much about botanical names–or even the standard common ones.  I call my lilies the big buttery ones and the peach ones and the scarlet ones and the tall orange invaders  and those sneaky white dotted ones that Gerri Perreault gave me bulbs for.  Each year they battle each other for space, and usually the tall orange guys claim the larger turf.  In fact, the single lily in bloom today–the last of the summer–is one of those. They did not come from Noerenberg Gardens, but strode in from their intended home on my boulevard, where they are crowding even the blazing star and the little bluestem.

A new flower turned up in my garden last year and has returned this year.  I have no idea what it might be, but it has small magenta blossoms that give way to crinkly paper pods like the covering on ground cherries or gooseberries.  It’s pretty when it blooms, so I don’t trouble it until it really looks like a weed.  I don’t mind most volunteers, and some I welcome. Every spring I note down the first appearance of dandelions in my daybook.  And every spring, following a different instinct, my daughter, eager for exercise, digs them out by the roots.  This year my lawn is overgrown with plantain, which is generally considered a weed.  It grows wildly and natively around here, and it has a long history of medicinal use.  Why should it yield to turf grass?  And who wants a monoseeded yard with no surprises?

When I walk my dog around the neighborhood, we pass a house that gives me the creeps.  It is immaculately maintained, and its front yard plantings are perfectly symmetrical.  The bushes alongside the entry sidewalk are like globes, cut to a uniform diameter, with no stray branches poking out of bounds.  I look at that yard and think, How would a girl like me with a double cowlick have survived here?  It could be the setting for a horror movie.

Order and control in the garden are generally meant to achieve an aesthetic end.  I must admit I admire my neighbors’ well-tended gardens, as long as I can find some little aleatory gesture.  But horticulture is not merely an aesthetic pursuit.  Jamaica Kincaid has written an essay called “Alien Soil,” in which she discusses the effect of English colonialism on the flora of her birthplace, the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. She reveals that the breadfruit, “the most Antiguan (to me) and starchy food, the bane of every Antiguan child’s palate,” was brought to the Caribbean from the East Indies as “a cheap food for feeding slaves.  It was the Cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the ship Bounty when his crew so rightly mutinied.”  This past Sunday I heard historian Carrie Zeman talk about her research into the role of hunger as a cause often cited by the Dakota for the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a tragic turning point in Minnesota history.  She found that the U.S. government’s efforts to turn the Dakota into farmers (to keep them from leaving their reservations to hunt in European-settled territory) stressed the efficiency of deep furrow farming, of planting crops, particularly corn and potatoes, in uniform rows.  The Dakota practice had been to mix seeds in hills, to plant corn, beans, and squash together.  Their traditional ways gave them a full meal:  corn for carbohydrate energy, beans for protein, squash for Vitamin A.  (Abundant berries furnished their Vitamin C.)  The new row planting brought them malnutrition and the diseases associated with vitamin A deficiency, especially scrofula.

My writing tends to be more orderly and controlled than my gardening, but today, I’ve followed the aleatory impulse, and I’ve come to an end that I didn’t foresee.  My blogging may resemble my gardening from here on out.  And I’ve barely mentioned my impenetrable back yard.  That would be the setting for someone else’s horror movie.


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