Long, long ago (1988 to be exact) I wrote a piece I called “Giftedness–Nature or Nurture?” It was not an academic piece attempting to answer this old question. It was a gardening metaphor that I hoped would assure parents that the task they faced raising highly gifted kids was as tricky as it felt, but possible. It was written in first person plural because I, too, was a parent facing uncertainties.
As written originally, I don’t recommend it! But when I was talking recently to a parent fairly new to dealing with her more than usually unusual PG child, I thought this pre-cheetah, pre-mermaid metaphor might at least help her not only recognize but accept the challenges and begin to trust herself to meet them. So here’s an update for just that purpose:
When we have a baby it’s like being given a flower seed that it’s our job to grow. Determined to be responsible gardeners, we start by doing the normal and absolutely necessary things. We plant it. We water it. As it first sticks its white-and-soon-green self up through the ground, it looks pretty much like any other brand new seedling. Maybe this gardening thing won’t be too hard, we think–after all the world is full of other people doing it.
But when the young plant begins to put out real leaves, they look nothing at all like the leaves of the plants people around us are growing. Our seed didn’t come pre-labeled in a package that included an explanation of its needs. Full sun? Partial shade? Acid or alkaline soil? Lots of water or hardly any? Sand or loam? The gardening books and the gardening sites online don’t seem to show the specific sort of plant we’re dealing with. Our seed, we eventually learn, is an “exotic.”
We can’t tell at this early stage whether it’s going to be 4-6 inches high (good for a garden border) or 24 inches high with an absolute need for a fence or stake to lean against. Is its blossom going to appear early or will it bloom only after several growing seasons? Will the flowers be so large and spectacular that the stem will bend over from their weight, or will it have tens or hundreds of tiny flowerets clustered around the stem so that no single one stands out? We begin to realize we’re going to have to be ready for anything.
What pests are likely to damage it? Is that wasp buzzing around it going to lay eggs that will sap its strength or disfigure it, or is the wasp only going to pollinate the flowers? And how do we tell before it’s too late?
Mostly, as the plant grows we do what we can and hope that we’re doing it right, or at least not too badly wrong, second-guessing ourselves at every turn. What we want is expert help, so we visit garden clubs devoted to raising exotics; we read blogs written by experienced exotic garden specialists. None of our efforts turn out to be quite as comforting as we’d hoped. Exotics must absolutely have shade one expert says. But our plant seems to be constantly leaning out for sun. Browning leaves, a leading blog tells us, mean we’re giving it too much water–either that or we’re giving it too little. Which is it? we ask in frustration. And how do we tell?
“Everybody knows” of course, that exotics are sensitive and particular and must be treated with extreme care and given precisely what they need, or they will be irreparably damaged, their blooms stunted or perhaps destroyed in the bud. There was, of course, that exotic seed that got dumped in a parking lot and ignored and somehow managed to find a crack in the pavement and bloom anyway. That one gets coverage on the nightly news, but many passionately committed gardeners rush in to remind us that it was a one in a million miracle and we should not be lured into letting down our guard.
But here’s something all gardeners can be sure of. Each individual seed comes with the whole blueprint, the whole plan, and all the “design capacity” necessary to become what it is meant to be. As important as nurture is, nature is considerably more resilient than we may believe.
Yes, it’s a particular challenge to raise an exotic. But close observation, common sense, and some basic gardening instincts are amazingly useful. It’s fine to check out the exotic gardening clubs and the expert blogs and listen carefully. Much of what can be learned that way will be helpful. But if your plant leans toward the sun, no matter how many others (even the experts) claim shade is essential, go with sun. If, after a time in full sun, the plant begins to wilt–don’t be too frightened to transplant to a slightly shadier location. Watch and listen, and trust yourself. And don’t forget that plant blooming in the crack. Miracle, maybe. But in some ways every seed is a miracle.