An ill-advised trip to a botanical garden in the heat of a hot day leads to a new Theory of Everything based on daylilies, folk songs, art, and the abilities and disabilities of the human mind.
It is weather for which ‘sweltering’ was coined: the day itself gasps for breath. Small mammals sit out the heat of the overheated day in underground dens; birds snooze within the shelter of the trees’ canopy. Even in the ponds—surely the coolest outdoors environment on offer—fish barely flutter their fins, maintaining their positions with the minimum expenditure of energy. All sensible creatures have gone to ground, either literally or figuratively as befits their nature.
But what’s this? Footsteps crunching slowly down the crushed-rock path indicate that a less sensible creature is on the move. Mad dog? Englishman?
No, just a proposal editor out on a day pass.
With the spring flowering extravaganza done and the humidex topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, this late August Sunday in 2011 is perhaps not the ideal time to visit a botanical garden near Washington DC. Yet ‘ideal’ plays little part in my professional or personal life at the moment. Work days are 10- or 12-hour head-down stretches under relentless time pressure. With no time and less mental energy for preparation, I spend the weekdays’ remaining hours in things I can do without thinking: an evening meal, an hour of mindless TV, a short walk with a point-and-shoot camera around the hotel and its light industrial environs.
But what works through the week cannot be scaled up for my one day of rest in the seven, the one designed to protect the productivity of the other six. A whole day off somehow demands more ambition. Google identifies this garden within driving distance; a nanosecond of reflection seals the deal, and here I am.
As a counter-balance to days spent sitting in an over-air-conditioned—indeed, downright cold—office, this sweltering stroll should be, well, ideal. If only there were some way to actually effect the balance—to moderate the temperature and activity level of the six days with this seventh one. Musing idly, I wander down the path, my brain working about as slowly as my feet.
Stopping at the intersection of a few footpaths, I check my mimeographed map, hoping for orientation if not for actual enlightenment. In this age of cheap laser printers the map cannot possibly be mimeographed, of course, but it is hard to imagine how else they produced this nostalgic, low-resolution fuzziness. But unlike much of the text I have been working with all week, and the map itself, the wooden sign is clear enough: I am standing in front of the daylily garden.
Yet, as so often is the case, clarity is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. This sign certainly raises troubling questions. Schooled as I am in the arcane art of government contracting, just what exactly should I infer from that dark phrase, ‘a complex award procedure’? And is it the hemerocallis or the society (or both) that is/are American?
But primarily, what is this reference to ‘the highest honor a daylily can receive’? Is there more than one, then? The mind boggles.
Back at the air-conditioned shack, Google reveals not just ‘more than one’ daylily honor, but a plethora of awards for outstanding specimens in numerous categories: spider variants, patterned, banded, lavender/purple, size of bloom (from under three inches to extra-large diameter), and ‘most unusual form’. Who knew?
Never having heard even a whisper of any of this, I would be astounded if it were not that I keep tripping over intimations of worlds unknown to me…
A friend gets into paper art and handmade books and opens a window on an artform as meticulous as it is creative. Who knew?
A casual enquiry into possible hidden meanings in an irritating Christmas carol unearths a reference to the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of more than 300,000 references to 21,600 folk songs in English. Who knew?
An email from a niece studying medicine mentions in passing what a science essay confirms: we have about one hundred trillion cells in our bodies, but only 10% of these are ‘ours’. The other 90% are various (mostly mutualistic) microbes, like bacteria and fungi. Who knew?
Noted neurologist Oliver Sacks reveals that he has ‘face-blindness’—an extreme inability to recognize faces. He cannot recognize people he’s worked with for years, if he meets them out of context. And it’s not just Oliver—in its most severe form, this condition affects about 2% of the population. Who knew?
It is as if the world were made up of innumerable slices of layer cake, stacked all higgledy-piggledy. Viewed pointy-end on, they give no hint of their breadth and depth. But take one bite off the end of the slice, as it were, and new vistas beckon, whether it be in daylilies, art, folk songs, the human body, or the abilities and disabilities of the human mind.
Tired of waiting for physicists (who are taking an unconscionably long time), I have developed my own Theory of Everything and it is this: Everything is more complex than I would ever have guessed, and richer than I could ever have imagined.