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Beacon blog: St. Louis in bloom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2011 - In a moment of weakness, I told my old Little Rock buddy, Jim Rule, "Of course" when he asked if he could put me up for auction to benefit the Arkansas Art Center. In return for whatever princely sum I fetched when the hammer fell, I would give whoever bought me a tour of St. Louis. Quite promptly I forgot I'd ever agreed to such a thing. Indeed, many moons waxed and waned between the time I said, "of course" to the day of reckoning.

And so it came to pass in the deep midwinter, Renie Rule, the high bidder, called me, wanting to collect. She proposed a garden tour, because she was bringing a group of women associated with the Garden Club of Little Rock to St. Louis, and what she wanted was a look at some gardens in the area, one of which had been described to her by her sometimes kinsman, Jim.

In the process of making arrangements she and I became fast friends, and the planning process was amusing. However, when I told my gardener pals here the mid-April date Rule had chosen, they warned me, mid-April was pretty early for anything to be in bloom, plus muddy. For a while there it looked as if they were absolutely on the money, given the typical cold-one-day, hot-the-next climate we experience here in the Mound City, plus rain and some unusual snow that would bring to pass the mud prediction.

As it happened, April 13 was our lucky day. A golden dawn announced it and its beauties revealed themselves hour after hour, all day long, under friendly white clouds and a fine blue sky.

I'm going to sketch loosely our day for you, because its magic was in the processes of discovery, rather than in details, plus there were unexpected and entirely gratifying reconnections with some old friends that were of interest only to those who whooped with the pleasures of the remembrances of times passed away.

So in this sketch, you'll see that we visited a couple of beautiful private gardens and made a stop at Bowood Farms and Cafe Osage for lunch. We saw the absorbing "Dreamscapes" show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and finished our adventure in the ever-evolving splendor of Bellefontaine Cemetery where, in evident irony, much of our regional past is anything but moribund, coming to life vividly in names carved into stone and in architecture that speaks of the spirits of the ages.

Nature did her work for us on the 13th. The dogwoods, daffodils and redbuds were resplendent; viburnum perfumed the air. Everywhere we went, in the city and in the countryside, spring's promises were either in bloom or budding out. (And speaking of regeneration, Bowood Farms presents evidence of a different sort of rebirth -- that of a neighborhood, where the blaze-of-glory garden center cultivated by the McPheeters family is the wellspring of genuine and sustainable urban revitalization.)

A few weeks ago, I blogged about wishing we residents of the St. Louis region were more able to see ourselves as others see us, and a visit of 30 bright, intelligent and lively women from Little Rock brought Robert Burns's poetic wisdom into sharp focus for me once again.

We southern folks are an effusive bunch, but we also can spot the difference between obligatory politeness and the real McCoy. The April 13th visitors were delighted by their visit here, no doubt about it, Some had been to St. Louis before, and while enjoying the worthy but quotidian attractions we offer, they were absorbed and delighted by less traveled pathways the region rolls out so generously: the broad avenues and boulevards; residential architecture on grand and modest scales, great parks; museums and galleries; gardens, private ones and magnificently public ones, such as Citygarden downtown, and Henry Shaw's Missouri Botanical Garden; and so on and on.

"Do you appreciate what you have here?" a friend from a half a century ago asked me.

"Do you see yourselves as others see you?" she might as well have asked.

"Not always," I thought. "Too often," I said to myself, "we see ourselves as a ruin."

We need to recognize what divides us. We must disrupt those things that keep us in a state of fragmentation. We must identify and obliterate those things that hold us back from greatness. We need strong leaders, brave and true women and men, to step up to the plate, and not just the plate at the ballpark.

But in the midst of all that, when someone from somewhere else asks in all innocence, "Do you appreciate what you have here?" we need to say with confidence and pride, "Why yes indeed, we certainly do."

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