The Human Condition:

Blooms in Season – August 6, 2017


Our condominium has lower-level elevator lobbies adjoining a garage structure that has an open-air plaza with swimming pool and tennis courts built on top of it. This structure connects the three groups of buildings in the complex. Ramps between the actual garage floor and each of the lobby floors—about a four-foot height difference—wind around large planter areas. The architectural plan calls these planters “atriums.” Each one is a lined concrete box, about twenty by thirty feet in area, with its own irrigation and drainage systems and glass walls, but is open to the sky at the plaza level. Think of the atriums as life-size terrariums.

As a starting point for landscaping, the atriums are a blank slate. They are not visually or organically connected to the rest of the property, where the grounds are a mix of planned flowerbeds and potted trees on the garage-top plaza level; stretches of ivy and cultivated rockscapes along the driveway and around the outer perimeter of the garage base and buildings; and at the back of the property, large unplanned areas of rock cliff, eucalyptus trees, grasses, thistles, and weeds. All of the landscaping, or lack of it, has been turned over to a commercial contractor for monthly maintenance. The grounds contractor will do whatever the Architecture or Landscaping committees or—failing any clear directive from these resident committees—the complex’s general manager and the city fire marshal tell them to do.

Given these conditions, we could choose to grow wheat or a Christmas tree farm in the atriums—and indeed, several of them support sizable and long-standing trees chosen from among the decorative varieties. But since these adjuncts to the lobbies are the only part of the complex that every resident sees every day, people pay them special attention. Almost everyone believes that, because these planter boxes are essentially on our front doorstep, they should reflect the community’s artistic standards, our property values, our status as a “luxury condominium,” and our collective taste in horticulture.

In the past, we’ve had various professional and semi-professional landscape architects step in to create artistic designs for the atriums. The last was a noted professional, active in the local area, who created a “river” theme for these enclosed spaces. The main feature is an abstract French curve filled with jagged pieces of electric-blue glass, intended to suggest a jungle or forest stream. This pattern is bordered on one side or the other with reciprocal curves holding rounded, gray pebbles, meant to look like banks or shoals. Along these visual streams, the design originally called for green, vaguely tropical shrubs1 and, in one atrium, a stand of bamboo.

Of course, like everything else open to discussion in a condominium association, a large and vocal group immediately hated the design, especially the bright-blue strips. A focal point of discussion, also, was that the green plants weren’t pretty enough. And when one of the shrubs suddenly broke out in slender stalks with clusters of tiny yellow blooms for about a week, the criticism increased. Even the flowers weren’t very pretty!

As I said, the grounds contractor will do whatever they’re told. The landscape architect who designed, sketched, and painstakingly specified the plantings around each of these faux Amazons was long gone from the site, and the condo association had made no contractual arrangements to maintain the plantings with the design for which they were intended. So the tropical shrubs were soon tossed out and a collection of colorful azaleas, hydrangeas, and other flowering plants was installed.

And for the first month or two in spring when they bloomed, everyone said how nice the atriums looked. But spring fades, and now we have stone rivers with not-so-tropical, not-so-pretty—in fact, kind of lonely and spindly—plants growing beside them. In another couple of months, when the rains come back and people are spending more time indoors, the agitation will begin for more “color” in the atriums. And then soon enough it will be Christmas, and the Great Poinsettia Debate will begin again.

As a lapsed libertarian, I generally consider myself a “little-D democrat.” I’m not an active party person, but I believe that the mass of people are pretty sensible and, if allowed to converse and find consensus among themselves, will usually come up with a workable solution. That is, I generally trust the wisdom of crowds2—at least when they are not in an agitated state.

As evidence, I present the paths that generations of walkers have scoured through the woods. If a hundred or a thousand people walking across a hillside are left to find their own way, flattening the grass, the new green shoots, and the dirt as they go, they will most likely tread out a line that combines the shortest possible distance with the gentlest possible slopes and the fewest necessary switchbacks. Compare this to an artfully designed park, where some architect has laid out concrete paths across the grass. Architects like geometry, so they create right angles and pleasing diagonals. But come back in a year or two, and you will find bare paths in the dirt where the people actually doing the walking have taken shortcuts and found their own least resistance.

As further evidence, consider the free-market system, where the wisdom—or at least the fickle tastes—of the public decides what gets produced and put onto store shelves. Yes, there are glitches: sometimes public tastes change immediately after a product has been conceived, researched, designed, produced, and distributed. This sometimes results in waste going into a landfill somewhere. More often, though, the changing tastes that have orphaned a product line will result in lower prices that eventually attract somebody, anybody, who doesn’t care about taste and can still use the underlying product. And yes, popular products often cost more than we would like, or go out of stock sooner than we would expect, because people flock to these products rather than to the less desirable brands and designs. And finally, yes, a lot of products get made for which no one has a rational excuse—for example, see Bernie Sanders’s famous “twenty-three brands of deodorant.” But somebody must be buying each one of those brands, or else they wouldn’t get shelf space for long.

On the surface, it might seem that the capitalist system pushes all these brands and taste choices because the rich white men behind it are either evil or stupid. These men must be evil because they create unworthy desires that foment in the public mind a consumerist lust and run the average American buyer around in blind circles following the latest fads. These men must also be stupid because they lack the foresight to design that single, most serviceable product which everyone will want at a price everyone can afford and then supply it to the satisfaction of all. This current confusion and profusion of product choices must be a bad thing, right? Especially, as Sanders said, “when children are going hungry.” A command-and-control economy run by wise and benevolent men in the employ of the state always seems like the antidote to this waste and confusion—until you examine the store shelves in the old Soviet Russia or in today’s Cuba and Venezuela.

Socialists will say that the lapses and shortages resulting from their system are attributable to the stubbornness of non-government producers. Socialists believe that recalcitrant farmers, lazy factory workers, and negligent store clerks simply refuse to follow government dictates about how much food and other necessities to produce, at what cost, where to sell them, and at what price. But Margaret Thatcher was wrong: Socialism doesn’t fail because “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” Socialism fails because resources are concrete and finite, while desires are illusory and infinite. Sooner or later you run out of people willing to provide goods and services in the quantities and at the prices that some government middleman—who has no actual responsibility for matching production to consumption, and who pays no penalty for being wrong—decides constitute a “reasonable” amount of stock to put on the shelves (that is, enough to satisfy everybody) at a “fair” price (that is, low enough for everyone to buy as much as they like). Sooner or later, the producers get tired of being the goat and go out of business. In all the societies that try socialism, the producers and distributors who survive are doing business at the point of a gun.

But in the matter of flowering plants, I’m not so sure little-D democracy works. We end up with the stub-ends of floral designs and with flowers that go dormant for most of the year. But this might be the failure, not of democracy itself, but of a landscaping system that listens to a few loud voices who want “color” in their gardens year-round and don’t understand growing seasons and blooming cycles. They don’t realize that most plants have flowers, not just to be pretty, but in order to sustain reproduction as part of a complete life cycle that includes gestation and dormancy for the plant’s own benefit. And these wiser heads screaming for more “color” take no responsibility and pay no penalty when the atriums look like a mess.

But the situation is really not such a tragedy. In the off-season, the rest of the residents suffer only from a lack of exciting and vibrant color—which is a situation most of us seem able to endure. After all, it’s not as if we had to eat the flowers.

1. Although I am the son of a landscape architect, I confess that I can’t recognize one decorative plant from another, no matter how many trips my mother took me on to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, or the photography shoots I have taken with my brother to the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.

2. See People Ain’t Stupid from September 2, 2012.