On the summer solstice, a meditation on gardens and life.

My wife, Kathy and I regularly enjoy sitting in our garden at the end of the day as the long light of summer gradually fades and the shadows of twilight spread. We sit together on a bench, our Black Lab, HomeTown, seated between us, nose up, reading the breeze for the faint summer smells we cannot sense.

We sip our drink and talk, as often as not about the kinds of small things that knit together a marriage and a family: The swallows, now chattering in their mud nests, getting their fledglings ready for their first flight. The deer, now dressed in their red-brown summer coats, beginning to think that windfall apples cannot be far off. Our granddaughters, now growing into beautiful and sparkling young women. And how lucky we are … to have one another.

And we inhale our June garden, nearly mid-point in its annual evolution. With all the spring rain, the delphiniums are tall: sky blue with white centers; lavender, looking as though an interior decorator had placed it ever so carefully. The daisies are just opening, bright white in green, green leaves. And the coral bells, brilliant on their long stalks, spike color in the deepening shade.

Our sons were like this as they grew into young manhood. Brilliantly colored, original, variable and with so much promise ‒ each in their own way. I’ve always wondered why the flowers of the early spring are so tilted toward the blues, the purples, the darker colors, while August is the time for reds, yellows and bright oranges.

Is there a reason of evolutionary survival for this tendency? Or is it the unconscious revealed preference and emotional needs of gardeners who select early-blooming plants for blues and later ones for reds and yellows?

Earlier this spring we had the peonies, so showy and so fragrant, just as the lilacs spread their perfume over the entire garden. I have a white lilac taken from a cutting at my father’s house, which in turn came from a cutting from my grandfather’s in Traverse City. Whenever I walk by, I am reminded of my family and how all of us are but dwarfs standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.

This last hard winter (-27 one frigid morning!) killed some of our dogwood trees and the wisteria. We still walk sadly past the gray trunks and look closely, hoping to see a few shoots of green. Hope does spring eternal, and there’s nothing like a hard, hard winter to force the lesson down our unwilling throats.

Winter kill, like the end of life, comes to all of us at one time or another. Kathy and I are now both in our 70’s, and some friends of our generation are now on their last legs. They smile and laugh and keep one foot moving in front of the other. But we all can see all too plainly the end is coming nearer and nearer. So the idea is to defiantly put out one last blaze of blossom before the time of frost.

Later this year we will have in July the Oriental lilies, tall, improbably colored, a surprise that a plant that is so beautiful in bloom should also have a wonderful fragrance. We planted a lot of phlox over the past few years, and now we have much too much, crowding out the digitalis, or foxglove, and the Stokes Asters.

Too much is too much, regardless of the subject. Sports stars and celebrities make millions and millions, while too many people subsist in slums, often angry and without hope. The vast and widening income gap between rich and poor in our country is now higher than France’s. Like an overplanted garden, too much of it will lead inevitably to social disruption and require cutting back.

We just planted the dahlia corms which we kept in the basement over the winter. They are just now showing a few little spikes of green. Come fall, they will be in full bloom and enliven the garden with blazes of color: bright red, flaming orange, seashell pink, white with candy tips. And in turn, so often people accumulate wisdom and insight shortly before the killing frost. We need to find ways to provoke the expression, to develop areas of common concern, powerful subjects for persistent hope.

And when we cut down the garden at the end of the summer, we are sad the time of beauty and wonder has come to an end. But we look forward to the next year and to the welcome of the (usually!) insulating cover of snow protecting the garden for the next season.

We sit, Kathy and I, as the twilight (what a beautiful word) darkens a bit. We call HomeTown to join us as we walk home toward the bright lights of our kitchen: Refreshed, seasoned, better-balanced and filled with wonder at Michigan, Our Michigan.

We hope you are sharing it, too.

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Dick Hooker
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:34am
Thank you mostly for the beautiful mental images our great state, Phil. Age does have a way of evoking the contemplative, doesn't it?
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 11:29am
thank you for a beautiful reflection. As we get older, the world seems more and more beautiful and astonishing. And we seem to become wiser, too.
Lynn Czap
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 1:32pm
Oh, how I agree with this comment!
John Q. Public
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 5:28pm
“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.” ― H.L. Mencken
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 12:16pm
whew! what a fine expression of beauty and color and life's progress - thank you
Lynn Czap
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 1:35pm
So refreshing to take a big drink from the truthful beauty you are expressing in this article, Phil. So different from the big drink we are often forced to take from the fire hydrant of the media...
John Nash
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 7:24am
John Nash
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 7:24am
John Nash
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 7:28am
Thanks Phil, I totally agree with you about the gap between the rich and the poor and the possible consequences. I also loved Lynn's comment regarding the fire hydrant of the media. Keep up the good work, and keep appreciating and looking for all that is beautiful.
Betty Lee Ongley
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 1:55pm
This reflection makes me look at my own yard and blooms with a more discerning eye! Thanks for the insightful essay!
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 2:53pm
A gentle yet powerful reflection .....Its so amazing what is reflected back to us if we just take the time to look and see!
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 9:23am
Thank you for your beautiful piece, Phil. Aren't we fortunate to live in Michigan and to have The Center for Michigan and Bridge to make it a better place.
alan haber
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 2:57am
Hello Phil. It was a pleasure to read your reflection on the seasons, of our lives, and the nature around us. Thank you. I'm in a small village in the French, Burgundy countryside. the wheat fields are just about all harvested, the corn is not yet as high as an elephants eye. strawberries as sweet as can be, and raspberries too, as their seasons pass. tomatoes still green, chard and lettuce delicious. Our garden grows. Odile's family has had this old house for 7 generations, I thought of that as you thought back 1 generation to your parent's house in the Barton Hills of our youth, and I to mine, with a dry cell powered phone line connecting our bed rooms. Age has a different dimension here, where so much has been lived in for so long, and cared for. Every town and village has its center and settled character. I search for ours in Ann Arbor. all good wishes alan haber