My late father, Ian McHarg, was ensconced in Who’s Who before I made it into high school; by the time I went to college he’d been featured in LIFE Magazine. Later on, President H.W. Bush presented him with The National Medal of Arts and the government of Japan gave him a lifetime achievement award that came with a million dollar check. Not bad for a poor kid from Glasgow.
Breath, fame, and fortune have all vanished like mist on a lake, leaving me to sort it out. Though dismissive on the subject of celebrity, he craved it like an addict in an alley; and like that addict, no amount of more was ever enough. As they say, “nothing recedes like success” – and my father chased a steady stream of students, fans, and sycophants.
After the latest Wall Street Journal cover story or TV chat show guest appearance he’d regale me with insider celebrity tidbits in such a way as to demonstrate how little it all meant to him. Even then I knew the smell of horseshit, but I pretended to take him seriously all the same.
“One day, Alistair” he would say, “I will come to be known not as Ian McHarg but as the father of Alistair McHarg.”
In these rare moments of camaraderie we laughed heartily, enjoying this preposterous fiction as if there was a scrap of authenticity to it. The fact was, no one rose above my father and lived to tell of it.
I traveled under a double curse; as his son I was expected to reflect his glory but always defer to it. Had I attempted to surpass him I would have been crushed. And so, I turned my anger inwards and set out upon a life of self-destruction, depression, alcoholism, and failure. (You might be surprised to learn that real failure requires dedication.)
“Disingenuous self-deprecation is an especially distasteful manifestation of vanity.” Taz Mopula
Fear defined my entire relationship with him. Fear of failure, fear of success. Since the lesson one refuses to learn constantly re-presents itself, I was stuck in a revolving door. One day the door had had enough and spat me out as contemptuously as a fish rejecting a lure. I was left only with fate – and fate had plans for me that did not include ruin. There was service in my future.
This poem, Winter Birds, is recent, and tracks this father and son act back to the days when he would impress me into service in the garden, moving rocks, transplanting trees, stealing ferns from the woods. No man ever worked harder to make nature more perfect than it already is.
When it was done I reread it and understood at last how, finally able to see him life-sized, and honor him accordingly, I really am free to let fate have its way with me. I don’t know if there is anyone left who remembers his contributions but I do know this – I will never again think of him as Ian McHarg. He is the father of Alistair McHarg, which, from my vantage point, is a far greater accomplishment.
My father was a foreigner no matter where he went
I stumbled in the shadow of his odyssey, shifting lands
And languages like agents on a mission, hiding in
Plain sight for all to see and none to know
He had to add a garden onto every new address
Pencil scratching paper scrap, knees upon the earth
Ferns and bricks and gravel paths, ponds and rhododendrons
Sprawled upon the ground like a flamboyant signature
He taught me the gentle ceremony, sapling uprooted
Burlap, fingers, spade, bearing it away to meet
Unfamiliar soil, transplanted, reaching to embrace the sun
And rain so it could drive its roots into the earth, like anchors
Water blessed, nested, tree we would admire how the sweat
Of our labors had borne fruit, then, flash of lightning like
Bird appeared to grasp a branch and claim possession of it
As if he had been watching us, aching for the chance
My father never told me that, without the weight, hollow bones
And feathers, nervous eyes alert, one small bird swaying
On a slender branch, earth itself, unbalanced, would wander
From its axis and vanish in the cold expanse of space
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