Improve your character - grow a flower

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AFTER reviewing the cruel follies human beings inflict upon one another - not forgetting war - Voltaire advised his readers to drop out of history and cultivate a garden. This is the second most Draconian remedy for boorish behavior known to philosophy, exceeded only by Pascal's advice to remain in one's room, because all the misery of the world stems from a single fact - that people cannot stay put.

In May nobody can be expected to live indoors, least of all in one room. But cultivating your garden - now that's an activity of true scope, one that enlarges rather than shrinks a person's experience.

In the spring, not only is gardening irresistible but it does, in fact, appear to be a character-building sport, as Voltaire implies.

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Who can stay mad and warlike when hunched over the first buds of an azalea bush?

Who can remain a near-sighted money-grubber when crocuses and tulips and, yes, dandelions are luxuriating all over the yard, reminding a gardener that the best things in life are free? - or at least modestly priced in your favorite seed and bulb catalog.

On the assumption that Voltaire is right, here are a few imaginary gardens that individuals might design to express their personalities more benignly than they do in life:

1.The presidential candidate's garden. How straight and narrow the paths are - paved with white marble chips as pure as the driven snow!

Neat rows of blooms represent the official flowers of the 50 states, each propped up by a stake bearing a 3-by-5 card with pertinent information on the demographics of voters in that state, the nickname of the governor, and so on.

The most popular flower in the presidential candidate's garden is the forget-me-not.

Think of the honest calluses earned by weeding rather than by squeezing voters' hands, if only presidential candidates would cultivate their gardens.

Think of the Holiday Inn beds not tossed in. Think of the chicken `a la king not consumed.

2.The Oliver North-John Poindexter garden. Also known as the other White House garden, this model is divided into three parts - with no bed of roses anywhere, believe us.

At one end, the soil is sandy - almost a desert. The only vegetation in this wasteland consists of cactus plants, decorated by tiny posters of the Ayatollah and other Iranian moderates.

At the opposite end, things are quite different. The vegetation is lush, as in a jungle of Central America. Attached to a small banana tree, a placard reads: ``Mary, Mary, quite contra-ry, how does your garden grow?''

Connecting these two contrasting sections is an equally curious area, devoted to Swiss alpine flowers, arranged in banks. The flowers are identified only by code numbers.

Many of the paths lead nowhere. But think of what grief the country would have been spared if, on Voltaire's advice, the National Security Council had been issued rakes and spades and sprinklers and turned loose in this garden instead of real life.

3.The Ivan Boesky garden. The most overdone case of random botany since Babylon, this extravaganza is designed to take the grossest fantasies of an '87 business school graduate and sublimate them. The feeding that goes on in a Boesky garden you wouldn't believe. Bachelor's buttons as big as sunflowers - straight out of science fiction. Talk about your growth stalks!

Size and quantity are everything here. Let a thousand flowers bloom - make that two thousand.

Gold is the preferred color. Masses of marigold and goldenrod threaten to overwhelm the entire garden - a friendly takeover, to be sure. What else is gardening?

But never mind the whimsy.

In May when the earth is simply bursting, is there anybody who shouldn't put gardening first? How we escape the cycles of the ego in the cycles of the season! How the process of civilizing a garden civilizes us!

In the end, everybody returns to gardening. Reformed mobsters cultivate orchids. Concentration camp guards wind up babying African violets.

Voltaire's only question, and ours is: Why couldn't all these people come to gardening sooner rather than later?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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