There’s deadheading, and there’s dead-heading.
The coreopsis in the Cupola House front garden is of the latter variety.
The coreopsis flowers are those bunches of sun-loving bright yellow daisy-shaped aster blooms that cluster in the center round of the garden, and also blossom in several of the border plots along the brick walkways.
They’ll keep on blooming throughout the summer. Provided that someone comes by every now and then and removes the spent blossoms.
The other word for such removal is “deadheading.”
I love the term “deadheading.” It’s like low-hanging fruit for low-level comics like me. All kinds of face-palming puns and jibes can leverage “deadhead” on the way to a punchline. And a certain classic rock group can be referenced as well.
Last Wednesday morning, we Cupola House Weeders were out, you know, weeding. Yes, we go by that name, and we really ought to come up with an appropriate T-shirt: my early seventies self has already offered a number of graphic ideas (again, referencing that same classic rock group).
On this particular Wednesday, the sun decided to swoop low in its trajectory across the sky, and the temperature rocketed upward to 90-odd degrees in the morning. Plus, the humidity was probably 200 percent – well, I exaggerate, maybe only 150 percent.
There we were, Weeders deadheading coreopsis smack dab in the center round of the garden where it’s nearest the sun. I knew if I would look up I could count the sunspots. I forswore that notion, remembering that cautionary tale of Icarus whose test drive demonstrated once and for all that wax was not all that reliable of aeronautical material.
I like to complain when it’s hot and humid. I’m so good at murmuring in the torrid desert that I would’ve been kicked out for sure by Moses from the wandering Israelites, keeping company with the scapegoat and the Amalekites.
“Coreopsis Inferno,” I muttered to anyone who was within earshot. My fellow Weeders were all made of finer moral stuff as they didn’t utter so much as a single murmur.
“It’s summer, it’s the South,” they chided gently, tossing in that reality thing as evidence, which is a hard argument to break. And in sotto voce (I’m sure): “Get back to work.”
The thing about deadheading coreopsis is that if you deadhead ten and hee off to a well-deserved break (and I was so deserving), when you got back, a hundred deadheads have magically taken the place of ten. It was like Hercules offing the heads of the Lernaean Hydra.
I know this is true. On the Wednesday morning before the Easels in the Gardens tour, I worked especially hard (I thought) on making those clusters of lemon-gold radiances pristine and worthy of a cloudless sun. I went back that same evening on my way to Malcolm’s courtyard and peaked in, just to revel in our Weeding endeavors.
Lo and behold. Lo and behold nothing. Deadheads galore and I was not at all grateful. The Hydra had struck again.
I narrated this sad tale to my Weeding friends this past Wednesday. Ken, who must have won the award for Scripture knowledge in Sunday School, said, “You know that thing the Lord said about the poor?”
“Yes,” I said, having an inkling of the bon mot that was to come.
“Well, the coreopsis you’ll always have with you.”
Weeding is not for the faint of heart. One never gets done. Like home-ownership, there’s always something that needs doing in a garden.
One of my counselees, some thirty years ago, bemoaned the fact that when they finished up dishwashing, sweeping the floors and making the beds, the next day it looked as though nothing had ever been done.
Let me tell you, it was quite a philosophical and theological long and winding road to overcome the myth that anything in life was just a “one and done” enterprise.
When I work outside in God’s little acre (well, actually .48 of one) somewhere off of Soundside Road, I cut grass, trim, weed, combust detritus and compost smaller stuff. Meantime, I listen to Audible books.
My favorite, right now, is Andrea Wulf’s wonderful “Founding Gardeners.” It is a poignant truth that almost all of the Founding Fathers of this great democratic republic were deeply attached to tree and flower, fruit and vegetable, landscape and kitchen garden.
Even in the worst moments of the wintry depredations of Valley Forge, General George Washington corresponded with his estate manager at Mount Vernon, coveting news of his gardens, and giving copious instructions for propagation and cultivation. He longed for the pink blossoms of his crabapples in the Spring.
Thomas Jefferson, two years after his retirement, wrote to a correspondent, in what had become the happiest period of his life, “Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” He loved sowing his Spring garden with his granddaughters – and I can certainly relate to that very thing.
After the victory at Yorktown, some young whippersnappers in Washington’s Revolutionary Army had wanted to bow before their general and put a crown on his head. They wanted to appoint him “sole Dictator of America.” One officer wrote that America needed to be ruled by Washington with the title of “King.”
Washington, however, envisioned a “whole world in peace.” He wrote “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon.”
Andrea Wulf writes this lapidary line: “The general was to become known as much for the surrender of power as for its execution. Unlike Caesar and Alexander the Great, who had been ‘wading to the conquest of the world through seas of blood,’ one of his admirers commented, Washington was ‘pure and virtuous.'”
Washington was committed to the republic. He was dedicated to the peaceful transfer of power. He was like the great Roman general Cincinnatus, who was at heart a farmer. He served his country in war, then went back home to the farm, where he was truest to himself, to virtue and to the land.
Democracy, as you’ve undoubtedly figured, is a garden. It’s never a done deal. There’s always planting, there’s always weeding. There are political versions of red henbit, vetch, goldenrod, mugwort, speedwell, prostrate splurge, creeping charlie (!!!!), virginia creeper, etc., etc., etc. (as the King of Siam might say).
There’s always good work to be done.
You really have to find the beauty and joy – and peace – in the process, instead of languishing for a final outcome. Even if you have to deadhead every morning, for “the coreopsis you’ll always have with you.”
Jonathan Tobias is a resident of Edenton.