I chanced to wander through a delightful garden recently, a large and lovely thing in South Carolina’s Low Country. Because Brookgreen Gardens lives in the South, there is something blooming year-round. They have even placed a little table outside the welcome center with samples of what to look for on your ramblings.
The day I visited the table displayed several varieties of hydrangeas, their half-bloomed heads drooping in the heat, some salvia shoots looking brave, coleus and sweet potato vine. It was a nice touch and I halfway longed for some kids to be tagging along, because what child doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt?
I fiddled around with my phone, not because I had to check a text or make a call, but to let my friends get a head start on me. We are an amicable bunch, but you know how these things go. If you start off as a group, you have to stay as a group. It is almost an unconscious reflex, the turning around to locate the pack, the silent counting of heads, the mama duck/baby duck aspect of it.
I brought a camera and wanted to take some pictures and didn’t want them waiting on me. I didn’t want to feel rushed, either, so the phone trick worked just fine.
The figurative backbone of the gardens is The Live Oak Allée. Here is a grove of 250 year-old live oaks that were around in the 1700s when this spot was part of Brookgreen, one of the four rice plantations from which the gardens come.
The Live Oak Allée gives the impression of a cool and dark green park, the trees massive and gnarled, with branches scraping the ground and seeming to intertwine overhead. The eye is drawn instinctively upward and there, in a soft breeze, long beards of Spanish moss sway back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, hoary and dramatic, rolling in waves, an entire canopy of gauzy gray.
It is possible to wait a minute for the path to clear in order to take a photo unobstructed by the human form, to take a photo of the masses of Spanish moss, the likes of which I’ve never seen.
And so I did. I checked my camera eagerly, smugly, even, because it had to be a perfect shot, and when I looked…it just simply wasn’t.
I tried the photo again, this time with my iPhone, and again, I came up with an accurate depiction that wasn’t accurate at all. The trees stood in the same place, the general color of the grove was more or less accurate, and if I looked closely enough I could see the moss, but it was no more true of the place where I was standing than the interior of a Paris salon might have been. There was no breeze, no birdsong, no sense of a creeping humidity quietly slicking my skin. No undulating moss, just static gray, like a smudge.
There is a decision to make, standing there like that. I could keep trying, doggedly rendering one mediocre photo after another.
Or I could put my camera away.
I could take a deep and cleansing breath, happy to have sent my friends on ahead, not because they are irritating, but because without them I can be quiet, to be completely and singularly in the garden, mind emptied and mind expanded—odd how that works—as I saunter through the deep green grove, entranced by the swaying moss, eerie and comforting at once, sheltering me from high above.
I think all this manic urge to record every aspect of our lives is an insidious thing. It looks like memory keeping, but I don’t think that is what we are doing at all. We are wooing and wowing our social media fans. We are experiencing events once, twice, three times removed even when standing it the big middle of them.
I am reminded of an image of an elderly woman at some race or parade, surrounded by young people. She, alone, has no phone pointed at the action. All the others have their phones out, watching the action coming at time on their screens, all with faces beaming. She, too, is smiling, if not exactly beaming. Her smile seems to go deeper, taking in the event joyfully, first-hand and from the inside out.
It is a striking image, a cautionary tale and I am reminded of that, every time I see it. I thought of her again while standing with the trees.
Oh, I took photos of statuary from odd angles and sent pictures to friends with funny captions, I took images of flowers I want to find for my own yard. But mostly, I worked to just be there, alone, and to let that little bit of stillness be what I remember, what I will share with friends.