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Perennial Philosophy


I was walking through Montrose, looking at the gardens people keep, when I made an observation. Most of the plants that people grow are perennials. They do best in spring, but survive at half-mast through the fall and limp through the winter.

On the one hand, that means they’re always alive, on lawns that look full and densely populated throughout the year. They’re there in the summer; they’re there in the fall. The seasons don’t change them much; they retain their basic form. Death is far away, locked outside.

I prefer annuals. They grow in the spring and die in the fall, only to repeat the process the next year, from seed. There is no pretension to eternal life here, no sense that things will not change; their essence is change. Even a month can make a vast difference in their appearance. For annuals, life is short; every week counts.

Because of their shorter lives, annuals reflect the seasons; you can mark the passage of time, just by looking at them. In spring, they start to poke out of the ground and climb towards the sun. In summer, they bloom. In fall, they start to wither, and in the winter, they die. You see the complete cycle of life in their lifespan, within a year.

That cycle has a metaphysical aspect, too. It acts as a reminder that, for new things to bloom, old ones have to die. It also means that death is a presence in the garden, not shunted out into the infinite future; you have a clearer sense of the interplay of life and death, and its broader implications.

Of course, anyone who knows a garden and weeds it knows this is true, but it’s different when death and life trade places in the plants you want there. Death is inevitable, but in this context, it’s not always negative. The charred, destroyed stalks of December will pave the way for virginal green ones in March.


Take the thistle, pictured in senescence above. It springs to life and then curls back into death at a shocking speed, within what feels like weeks. I remember the first time I first time I returned to the spot where I’d seen before; it took me a while to connect the dry, burnt-out husks on the land with the bright and shoots I’d seen earlier.

Seen from the outside, the thistle goes from vibrant to dead in an instant. Yet this is part of its plan; this is its reproductive strategy. Long life is not important to it, or anything like an anthropomorphic sense of experience. It lives, it goes to seed in a flash, and it dies; then the next generation carries on.

Everything that lives must die; we all know this, even if we act like we don’t believe it. Seeing it in the garden, however, gives it a weight and a depth that allow for us to connect to it.

We can take the lessons of the garden and apply them to our own lives. We tend to be biased towards life, towards the manifestation of things in our lives – material goods, new people, more opportunities. Death in the garden, and the endless round between that and new life, suggests another way.

Instead of throwing in more seeds into an overcrowded plot, it can push us to ask what needs to be weeded first – what needs to die so that better opportunity can grow. What should we do less of, who should we stop seeing, what should we stop doing. We may need to do this to make room for something like the thistle in our lives, something that comes and goes in a flash but enriches us in the process.


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