short reflection on an aged greenhouse in winter

Posted by on March 26, 2008


Monday some friends and I visited our local Botanical Garden for the second time, a multi-room greenhouse in disrepair. We parked in back. The gardener spotted us from a distance and hollered something about street-side parking in front having been available for eighty years, especially for moms with little kids. He seemed exasperated and a bit put out, as if by parking in back we had implied that the Botanical Garden was inhospitable to women and children. It is true that it was inconvenient; we had to push the strollers through a bumpy cluster of potholes in a blustery alley to get around to the front entrance.

The vines, flowers, trees, and herbs inside are all fully grown, deeply rooted, spreading, reaching, and budding with long-established trust in their precarious climate. But the glass and metal structure which gives them such consistency bears signs of wear, tear, and martyrdom. Its cavernous walls and ceilings nourish an impossible pocket of air radically distinct from the atmosphere at large, a job that must be arduous indeed. The greenhouse appears worn out by its long career as tropical ambassador to Indiana. Warmth and moisture make their demands upon the thin glass from one side while icy winds and winter precipitation shake their fist from the other. Environmental debris fly at the roof, while humidity and condensation push against the self-same glass ceiling. This explains the signs of corrosion– streaks of rust and opaque mineral formations.

Chalky and dingy as it is, this glass house–so far from the sparkling ideal of glass–still manages to convert a chill winter light into a summer-like blaze, something effectual enough to require the shedding of a coat, followed by the shedding of a sweater. Standing in short sleeves amidst sunshine and plant-life is far too great a treat to admit any criticisms, or dwell upon the urge to spray and wipe down every surface with a giant industrial-strength spray bottle of glass cleaner. And I also did not permit myself to dwell on any negative feelings about the stale quality of the trapped, unchanging air, reminiscent of a YMCA locker room.

It is an admittedly odd, neglected place, hanging by a thread in many respects. I hesitated to let Esme out of her stroller for fear of her becoming overly interested in a dubious puddle of standing water, a peeling chip of paint, a handful of fiberglass coming unstuffed in the “Arizona Room,” or a stack of old folding tables inexplicably propped up behind some thick foliage. For all of these reasons, it is not like a place normally open to the public, or even safe for the public. There is a certain naivety and low-fi, small-town informality to it, with all its booby traps and potential lawsuits. It is obviously not popular or well-funded enough to receive the restoration and care it needs, so perhaps it has been forgotten by the city, county, or whichever municipality it falls under. It seems more or less in the hands of Bob, the markedly casual man who oversees it. He sits in the main office, dressed in jeans, sweatshirt, and baseball cap. He chats amiably with visitors, talks about his family, and picks a hibiscus flower for every little girl that comes through. He walks around with a hose and replenishes the goldfish pond.

I did eventually let Esme out of her stroller, and was relieved to see that she was too absorbed in the plants and winding paths to get overly curious about fiberglass and paint chips. Once, a long time ago, I visited the Botanical Gardens in Montreal and the two do not bear comparison, and yet, plant for plant, they may not be very different in their offerings to patrons coming out from a cold day. I certainly would not assert one as more valuable than the other, in the sense that both are unquestionably worthy things, worthy of protection and continued existence, worthy of patronage.

I find myself comparing the old greenhouse with the ideal of old age, in which the body is more and more broken but adequately transparent, host to inner sunshine, warmth, and a riot of plant life despite the prevailing climate. I’ve known older people like this, holy people, although I believe they are rare. I wonder how anyone achieves this, and I suspect it has a lot to do with knowing oneself and persisting in a quiet willingness to be tropical in the face of winter, or something like that, without apology, but also with quietness and respect.

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  1. Molly Sabourin
    March 27, 2008

    This is extraordinary and exactly how I picture an arboretum in Indiana (I can say that because I live here). I hope that when I get older, I’ll remain inwardly “tropical” even as my exterior starts to chip a bit from age and disrepair.
    What a great read on this cold and overcast morning!

  2. anna j
    March 31, 2008

    What you just put so eloquently is exactly why I have always clung to stubbornly to a romantic ideal of getting older–why I cannot seem to feel the normal fear of aging: rather, I simply long to age with grace, as so many friends and family of mine have done so beautifully!