Tilting At Windmills: My Peculiar Garden
Published: March 22nd, 2024
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: My Peculiar Garden

If you said the words “herb garden” to most people (dare I say – to a normal person?), he or she would probably think of cultivated soil filled with edible plants: basil, rosemary, mint, parsley, spearmint, coriander, or thyme.

I don’t.

Maybe because I’m a writer. Maybe because I’m … odd.

If you say “rainbows” to me, I am less likely to think of a colorful arc spanning the horizon than I am to think of fanciful ribbons tied in bows and falling (like rain) from the sky.

Say “elbow room” and I conjure up a room filled with dismembered arms bent at the elbow. Say “hedgehog,” and I imagine a muscular shrub in a greenhouse, bullying every philodendron, geranium, and begonia in the place.

Which brings me back to the herb garden. Shoot me. I can’t help it. I see it completely populated with Herbs: Herbert Spencer. Herbert Hoover. Herbert Bayer. Herbert …

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It’s a rather pretty garden, really. On top of a hill behind a big, Federal-style brick house. There are meadows rolling off in the distance, with a winding river – maybe the Susquehanna – gently lapping at its banks.

The garden itself is rectangular. Bigger than most herb gardens because, of course, the Herbs inside are oversized. Compared to most kitchen garden plants – gigantic.

All of the Herbs are, of course, waist deep in the dirt. Some are wearing jackets. One has on a frock coat. Another a jersey top. A third an open collar shirt. Some are clean-shaven. Some bearded. One is wearing a bow tie. All are gesturing with their hands.

The nearest to the walkway is Elizabethan poet George Herbert, hardly the most vigorous Herb in the garden. I see dust feathering his flowing hair, and I wonder if rain pools under his big, bib-like collar. A soft murmur comes from his unsmiling lips, and words from his collected works … “Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit” … follow me as I walk by.

The vigor of the next Herb stuns me in contrast, even before I realize that it is former President Herbert Hoover. He is wearing a business suit. At least to the waist. Below that, I am certain that he has strong, virile roots. As industrious in the garden as he was in his long career, he alternately digs into the earth with his bare hands, pulls out weeds, brushes away Japanese Beetles, or fixes his tie.

Humming alongside the former president is the composer, Victor Herbert. A small brown rabbit gently nibbles at the hem of his tweed jacket. He is my favorite Herb. He has a full head of hair, a bushy mustache (a bee hovering nearby is trying to pollinate his ear), and fine, deep-set eyes. As I wander past, his humming changes to words, and he joyfully begins to sing, “Toyland. Toyland. Wonderful girl and boy land.”

The next Herb in the row obviously does not appreciate his neighbor’s vocalizations. With a cigarette dangling from insolent lips and fingers in his ears, he glares at the composer with contempt. The area around his torso is cluttered with cigarette butts and hypodermic syringes, and I don’t recognize him, so I bend down to read a small identifying label half buried in weeds. “Herbert Huncke,” it says. “Small-time thief and friend of beat poet Allen Ginsberg.” I move quickly past him, and on to the last Herb in the row.

By his dress and style, he is clearly British, clearly a gentleman, and clearly Herbert Spencer. He is wearing a fancy black bowtie and a stiff shirt collar. His bald head is surrounded by a fringe of grey. Unlike the other Herbs, he has a fountain pen and a pad of paper in his hands, and is writing intently on the top sheet. As I lean over to see what he has written, I make out the words, “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

There are other Herbs in the garden, too. Herb the pickle-seller, in a white apron with a fork in his hand. Herb the mailman, flipping through envelopes and peering nearsightedly at a foreign stamp. Herb the CPA, with a pen guard in his pocket, and yes, one of the pens is leaking ink. And Herb the Delicatessen man, who always puts extra pastrami in your sandwich if you slip him a one-dollar bill.

My mind accommodates other repositories of greenery as well. I’ll briefly touch on two.

First is the lily garden wherein one encounters Lilli Palmer (actress), Lily Pons (opera singer), Lillian Gish (actress); Lillian Russell (actress and singer), and Lillian Roth (singer). The elegant rectangle in which they abide is, I guarantee, a cornucopia of libretto, lyrics, histrionics, and vanity.

And last – in no way could we omit this – we have the rose garden. This is home to Pete Rose (baseball manager), Charlie Rose (TV Journalist), Rose Wilder Lane (writer), and Rose Friedman (economist), a boisterous and a formidable bunch that produce a constant buzz resembling what you would hear if you strolled past a gargantuan wasp nest.

And that’s it.

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You have been introduced to my rainbows, my elbows, my hedgehogs, and my gardens. You have made acquaintance with how writers … or at least this writer … thinks.

Which surely, Kind Reader, is enough for any tolerant soul to have to endure in a single day.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2024. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com