Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nothing Gold Can Stay

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."

I often think of this poem by Robert Frost when walking around the Gardens. Everywhere there is life and beauty because the Gardens are very well kept by our staff. It is interesting to note that for a garden to be "well kept" it is almost a requirement that what is decaying or dead be removed or at least hidden. And yet, even in the best-kept gardens, there is no lack of death and decay, and cracks can be found in the facade of beauty if only one looks for them, which not many care to do. Why is it that our culture's sense of aesthetics largely excludes death and decay from what is considered "beautiful"? Perhaps it's because these sights serve as uncomfortable reminders that "nothing gold can stay."

Although I do love landscapes and gardens filled with only blooms and life, it seems like something of a lie: death doesn't really exist - the world is perpetually in a state of youthful beauty and vigor. When we look at a flower in full bloom, we are enraptured by it and our spirits soar, and may even be filled with a deep longing. Perhaps there is an unconscious reason why we love to surround ourselves with flowers in bloom - that we might convince ourselves that our life will also be only bloom, with no decay or death; that these things don't really exist.

Yet these very flowers serve as one of the most poignant examples of the transitoriness of every living thing on earth precisely because their extreme beauty gives way to almost unthinkable ugliness in such a short span of time. We would, of course, love to believe that flowers only go from bud to bloom and then bloom in perpetuity. Notice how flower bouquets are usually discarded as soon as the decay begins; we don't want to see that. I doubt most people have ever even intently looked upon a flower that has fully died!

For those who are willing to look these phenomena of decay and death straight in the eye, the hibiscus provides great opportunities for reflection. One can watch the buds develop as their beautiful colors flush into the exposed petals, which then open into full bloom for only a single glorious day. Afterwards, the flowers quickly and quietly fade and do not remain long on the plant, falling off to make way for tomorrow's beauties, which easily make you forget about the ones that came before - you will not bother looking for them underneath the leaves, where they are decaying upon the ground; a forgotten, contorted shadow of yesterday's magnificent beauty. Here is a sequence of photographs chronicling the typical life of a hibiscus flower over the course of about a week:

But if we do decide to push back the leaves of the hibiscus bushes to find the unsightly figures of yesterday's beauty, undoubtedly we will feel a corresponding tinge of revulsion perceptible within ourselves, as if our mind can't stand to face the truth of what such beauty has become, and what we ourselves will one day soon become. Indeed, each of our physical bodies is a flower. Look in the media today - youth is glorified in the same way flowers are glorified in display gardens. But what happens to those youthful "flowers" once they've passed their prime? Our culture seems to do the same as a display gardener would - keep them away from sight so as not to upset our pleasant fantasy of being forever young and beautiful. We can, however, find these flowers of yesterday if we but seek them out, beyond the movie screens and magazines. Here are only a couple examples among countless others:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, 4-time Mr. Universe and 7-time Mr. Olympia.


Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl in the first James Bond Movie - Dr. No.

Flowers teach us the way of natural physical life on earth - youth, beauty, and vigor give way to decay, ugliness, and death. Try as we might, we will all reach the same end; we will all "subside" like the flowers of spring or the leaves of autumn, as Frost observes. And yet, we find a strange principle within the human species that seems to suggest an exception to Frost's "golden" rule. While our bodies follow the same path as nature's flowers, the spirit that animates our bodies can actually become more beautiful with age until the day we die. What then is this that has the potential to proceed ever forward mockingly in the face of inevitable physical decay and death? Simply, it is love, and all the noble qualities contained therein. If we are fortunate enough, we may arrive to the point of death enlivened by this triumph of love, when our spirit can say with Paul of Tarsus "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

After our bodies die, what happens to the spirits that animate them cannot be proven for certain one way or another, but perhaps well-kept gardens full of life, vigor, and beautiful flowers are not, as postulated above, intuitively created and appreciated so much out of an unconscious attempt to remove anything hinting of our inevitable decay and death. Perhaps they come from the sprouting of a deeply-seeded knowledge and hope inside that decay and death are not meant to be our end, but rather a passage into a perpetual springtime, of which our well-kept gardens and our capacity for ever-growing love within ourselves in spite of physical decay are only signs.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, March 8, 2014

So Much To Do, So Little Time

I'm pretty sure everyone has made or heard this lament several times in their life, if not every day. Most of us have more things we want to do than we have the time and/or resources for, both in our personal lives and at work, and this is certainly the case at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

Think of all the things we currently do and could yet do with this botanic garden. We want to answer all the e-mails we receive the same day we get them. I need to inventory our collections regularly and take notes on flowering and fruiting events, entering all this into our botanic garden database. Plant labels need to be made and maintained. I research new plants to add to our collections then need to make time to head up to Homestead to bring back the new specimens. We take photographs for our own records and also for social media - and then we need to manage all those social media accounts. We would love to acquire more plots of land to expand our collections. I would love to be able to offer ten different tours instead of two. I already have a 90-minute tour slot each day, but demand could certainly increase to requiring two per day. It would be great to put out a blog every week instead of once every two or three. We're working on a botanic art gallery and it would be very neat to feature interactive exhibits along with those works of art. It would be of great benefit to the community if we could bring our educational environmental programs for students to all the schools here in the Keys, not just elementary and middle school students in the Upper Keys. We would love it if our Grounds Director could spend all her time focused only on caring for the collections, but as it is, about half her time is needed for other work on the property. KKBG.ORG has come into its own as a virtual ethnobotanic garden, but I would love to to make it an even more comprehensive ethnobotanical resource. It would be valuable for us to attend more community events, devote more time to fundraising, and write at least a few grant proposals each month. It sure would be neat to host seminars and workshops on ethnobotany here with experts from around the U.S. and the world, as well as a range of other special events. It would be nice to eat lunch each day as well. And on and on and on...

Just a few of the things we do.

Now think of how much an organization with one full time staff member and three part time staff members could handle well without becoming overwhelmed. At least one part-time person is needed for daily horticultural maintenance and another part-time person is required for a basic level of administration, and all of a sudden we're already down to one full time and one part time person! Needless to say, we can't do all we would like to do. In reality, though, no organization does, even if they have 100 times the staff and resources. There will always be something more that could be done, and more is never enough.

Deciding what to focus our time on given our limitations and figuring out how to go about accomplishing those things has been a challenge for me in my role as Associate Director here at the Gardens, but one I quite enjoy because I feel it's a skill that is extremely important to develop for use in all aspects of life. So how exactly does one go about making these choices about what to do given constraints on time and resources? When it comes to the Gardens, Joe and I get together a couple times a year to comprehensively evaluate what we are doing and what we might want to do. Our mission and vision statements are crucial to this process because they allow us an objective framework from which to evaluate whether or not programs are relevant to what we want to achieve as a Garden and which relevant programs are most important. Choices on my own then need to be made regarding how to go about accomplishing these goals. With practice and an internalization of the priorities of the organization as well as consideration for deadlines, I begin to make these choices almost unconsciously. Beyond that, personal preference is important, as some people prefer to start the day with the most challenging tasks so they can coast downhill after that, whereas others prefer to start off with easier-to-accomplish tasks to get into a groove before going after the more time-consuming and challenging tasks.

To make things a little more complicated, each week is usually full of unanticipated interruptions and tasks. I've found that one of the most valuable skills to develop is a flexibility from hour-to-hour and day-to-day that allows me to maintain a sort of disjointed continuity: taking on unanticipated tasks as they arise while at the same time staying focused on the several projects of central importance that need to get done, so that when I'm able to get back to the last major project I was working on, I can pick up easily where I left off. I imagine the ideal of this skill metaphorically as a constant juggling act of tennis balls (representing major mission-oriented goals to accomplish) that incorporates other tennis balls (representing smaller unanticipated tasks) into the juggling routine whenever they come up. The tennis balls are then dropped out as they are "accomplished," all while maintaining flawless juggling of the others. When you get it right, this is basically what it feels like:

Certainly, people have juggled several more balls at one time than that, but not in such an incredibly artistic and powerful way. So, even if we can afford to have only a few tennis balls in the air at a time as a botanic garden given the staff and resources we have, we can still create an unforgettable experience for our visitors and local community. It's not how much you have, but what you do with what you've got.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director