Lucky for me, I landed next to Scott Smiley at a recent potluck supper. When I told him I love to garden, his eyes lit up.
Turns out he'd written his doctorate on gardens. The title, 'Musing the Garden: A Poetics of Place and Emplacement,' was so intriguing that I asked if we could meet some time and talk more about it.
Over soy latte and chai, I learned that Smiley is a freelance book indexer, but his true nature is that of a 'geopoet,' a term he's coined to describe his passion for geography and poetry. He also has a strong interest in phenomenology.
'It's a way of looking at things and how they present themselves, while setting aside theoretical concepts,' he explains.
For example, from a poetic point of view, the sun sets, even though scientifically it doesn't.
'If you're stuck on the scientific explanation, you miss a lot of the experience,' Smiley says.
While science explains a lot, poetry opens you to new experiences. You can approach the garden intellectually, learning botanical names and native habitats of plants.
'That's a mental comprehending, experiencing the garden by grasping it with the mind,' Smiley says. 'Or you can go into it hands first, and prune and weed.'
Absorbing the garden with your senses is a more intimate experience. Smiley calls this apprehending, rather than comprehending.
He compares this way of approaching the garden to reading poetry.
'A poem can't be paraphrased. It's an experience that arises between you and the poem - it's a relationship,' he says. 'A poem is not about learning information but about having an evocative experience.'
I sigh with relief - this is how I feel about spending time in my garden. It's a love affair, not a science project!
Smiley explains that poems use ordinary language in extraordinary ways to make us notice something, to take us beyond our normal way of experiencing life into a heightened awareness. Walking through a garden can be similarly transcendent.
'We get out of our cars - usually we experience the world mediated through machines - and slow down, walk, and have a chance to notice. We have those 'Ooh!' moments when you stop and go, 'Wow!' ' he says.
In a Japanese garden, stepping stones laid out across a pond force you to slow down and pick your way along. You're more likely to notice ripples in the water, or catch a flash of golden koi undulating through a pond. A path that zigzags or curves encourages you to stroll and relish tiny purple crocuses blooming along the way.
Smiley visited many public gardens to immerse himself in the richness of sensory experience. He became aware of the different shades of green. There were many textures to see, feel and even hear.
'The crunch of gravel is one of the most memorable sounds from the gardens,' he says.
So much of your experience depends on how you approach a garden.
'A big part of this is receptivity - go in and set aside your agenda,' Smiley says. 'It's crucial not to hurry.'
It's easier to relax in someone else's garden. One of Smiley's favorite places is the Dallas Botanical Garden.
'It's very whimsical, with a fountain called Toad Corners - a big square with four gigantic toads in each corner spitting water into the center,' he remembers.
Another area he loves is the Fern Dell along a creek. To keep it cool, hidden misters emit sudden clouds of moisture. Children especially love the surprise.
Scent is another element that draws you into the garden.
'At the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, wisteria bloomed right where the tigers were. Everyone who came in stopped to smell the wisteria,' Smiley says. 'The sudden arising of a sensory experience stops you.'
The Portland Classical Chinese Garden is one of Smiley's favorite local destinations.
'It's about the relationship between humans and nature,' he says.
The plantings, water features and architecture flow together seamlessly, and allow visitors to enjoy beautiful views of water and plants from the safety of sheltering structures.
'Our need for prospect and refuge comes from our early human roots in the African savanna. As primates, for safety, we need a view out, and a safe place to retreat to,' Smiley says.
In a home garden, a bench can give that same feeling of refuge, especially placed against a wall so your back is protected and no one can sneak up on you. And for a more poetic experience, plant some honeysuckle nearby, and let the fragrance take you by surprise.