Saturday, January 30, 2010

Garden Diary: Full Moon

This is moonrise on an early winter evening in late January. Rockets of cedar (Juniperus virginiana), an ancient Japanese weeping cherry, red maples, a fringe of still, icy cold vegetation edge the aperture of sky. As I walked out to look, it was a magical moment, just at the transition from light to dark.

The sky is mediator between the garden and the black, empty darkness of space in which the Earth, and we, exist - an ad hoc creation, an illusion simulated by our human perception of the small spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we call light. The beacon of the rising full moon brings me closer to an awareness of this connection. The garden becomes an almost spiritual place of transition from the quotidian affairs of a work day at home to a moment of mystery on the border of infinity. In all seasons, at all times of day or night, the sky projects a feeling, a mood - somber quietness on cloudy winter days, translucent inner glow of wetness in spring, optimism on those halcyon early summer days, blinding, insufferable heat and dryness of high summer, abundance turning to ripeness, and eventually ferment and rot, of autumn.

Thoughts of seasons to come, again and again, but eventually to end, for me, for us all. I think I'll always associate gardens with death. Not in a morbid way, but with a sense of peace and rest, something of the idea of paradise - not, god forbid, the idea of heaven up there beyond that cold, dark sky - but some earthly paradise of nonbeing.

What does all this have to do with the garden? Everything, don't you think?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vista Lecture Series: Eelco Hooftman of GROSS.MAX

As part of the continuing Vista lecture series in London, Gardens Illustrated has released the podcast of Eelco Hooftman's discussion of the recent work of GROSS.MAX, a cutting edge landscape design practice located in Edinburgh. Not only does Eelco talk fast, he has a heavy Dutch accent, so I recommend you give this podcast at least two hearings. It's full of creative insights and approaches to the urban landscape, yet grounded in a centuries old landscape tradition. One of the practice's newest projects, and a high profile one at that, is their work at The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Tim Richardson's exchange with Eelco at the end is particularly lively.

Am I the only person crazy enough, or interested enough, to listen to a podcast multiple times? Give it a try. You may like it. To play the podcast, click here. To download it, right click instead and Save Link As.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dan Pearson at The Grolier Club

A rare event in New York, Dan Pearson spoke Thursday night (21st January) at the Grolier Club on 60th street. I'd listened to his Vista lecture podcast from London several months before, and didn't want to miss this opportunity to hear him in my city. I wasn't disappointed.

It was much like reading the book, except Dan Pearson's charm quickly pervaded the smallish, book-lined room on the fifth floor of the Grolier Club, as he began to speak in a quiet, expressive voice. Quite an intimate setting; the room was crowded with only 25 or 30 in attendance, a room of perhaps 1940s vintage, a little worn around the edges, but comfortable, a reminder of simpler times past. Sounds were softened, muffled by the books lining the walls. Not at all the setting you'd expect for a talk in Manhattan.

He told us about his book, Spirit: Garden Inspiration. I had read it and commented on it here when it came out last fall, and this talk, it seemed, was a real life recapitulation of the book. Spirit is a very personal book. It begins with Dan's childhood, when he, his mother, and brother moved into an old ramshackle house literally being subsumed by an overgrown garden out of control for decades. Dan spoke about this as the early formative experience in his love of gardening - more than that, his love of landscape and of the transitory process, the inexorable moving edge, at times the balance, between the process of creation and decay. For it seems the lifespring of his work is an attempt to capture something of that moment where the past meets the future in the present, at the "still point of the turning world" to use Eliot's memorable phrase (my interpolation, not his).

The talk was not about gardening, or about Dan's work, but about the idea of inspiration engendered by sense of place. His visual presentation was a collection of photos used in the book. From the coast of Wales, to one of the most remote parts of New Zealand, from Yellowstone National Park to a derelict medieval village in Italy, the stories of visits, discoveries, favorite places, friends, and relationships flowed. Dan didn't specifically tell stories or talk about story telling, but his emphasis on sense of place implies the importance of narrative, even if unspoken and concentrated in silent, contemplative experience, as in a Japanese moss garden or the famed rock garden Ryoan-ji, for sense of place encompasses much - geography, climate, geology, biology, ecology, hydrology, history, culture, whatever is in a place - and Dan's lecture, like his book, was full of stories about his experience and his interest in understanding sense of place. Interestingly, he told us, when he visits a new country or a new place, he doesn't go immediately to see gardens there, rather he looks at landscape first.

Dan Pearson is one of the most notable garden designers working today. Strangely, he has had commissions around the world but none in the U.S. I greatly admire his work and hope that situation will soon change. You can view some of his work here at his website.

You will find a report on his lecture at the New York Botanical Garden, given earlier the same day, here.

(I should mention that the talk was arranged by Potterton Books, a fine bookshop devoted to books on art and design in the D&D building in Manhattan.)

(photo courtesy the Guardian)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Garden Diary: Vanished

Glimpses of what I want the garden to be, of transitory phenomena, hints of mystery occur at unexpected moments.

Yesterday I spied a pheasant just outside the house. It was quietly pecking at the ground, on the first relatively warm day following a long spell of extremely cold weather. I tried to catch some images through the window, with limited success. When I went outside, the pheasant quickly ran to the stone row at the edge of the land, then vanished into the woods.

These unexpected and tentative encounters with wildlife evoke an ineffable sense of the hidden, the barely visible goings on, habits of life, things that are to me mysteries, hidden in the woods. They even recall those little known, almost lost lives and cultures that once existed in this place.

I want to capture this sense of mystery in my garden, and that's hard to do. Lack of knowledge of the past is one challenge. Another is topological. The problem is this. My house is on an elevated mound that overlooks the garden, which is flat and spread out in a way that makes it easily surveyed in a single wide view. I've added small trees and planted bulky and extremely large perennials, but the high main viewpoint and lay of the land still present a problem yet to be solved. In the summer, when I look back toward the house from down in the garden, I can capture that  feeling of  the half-seen, partially obscured - the sense of immanence I know is the nature of this place.

I may take a hint from these photos, which are not of the garden, but of the untouched woods in front of the house, where partial views, fallen trees, and the detritus of the seasons overlays the land.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Great Gardens of America by Tim Richardson

Garden criticism hardly exists in America, and Tim Richardson is a British garden critic. What does Richardson have to say to us? If you read his new book Great Gardens of America, which I highly recommend you do, expect something new. This is one of those rare garden books of ideas. You will learn new things about gardens and the process of making and keeping gardens.

Great Gardens of America is a critical analysis of 25 gardens in North America. With many beautiful color photos by Andrea Jones and a large format, Great Gardens offers visual interest most of us seek in such books. But this is much more than a photo book of gardens. The text is more important than the pictures, which really serve to illustrate Richardson's points and pique the readers' interest. Tim has selected a disparate array of gardens, though he does find a unifying concept in all of them. He writes about how the gardens came to be, the interactions between owners and designers, cultural and historical influences of other gardens from other cultures and times, how successfully the garden designers achieved their goals, critical issues of garden maintenance and preservation. This is a book of ideas and - I mean this in the most complimentary sense - an educational book that will deepen understanding of gardens.

American Gardeners are no longer 'Poor Relations'
The place of American gardens within the cultural landscape of the rest of the world, especially Europe,was an issue of great concern and some embarrassment in the early days of our republic, and even well into the 20th century among such cultural icons as Edith Wharton and Henry James, who believed American culture lacked the maturity and depth of a great civilization, and who found it necessary to virtually "become European" to find the acceptance they required of themselves. Culturally, Americans had seen themselves as the poor relations of their western European forebears. This has not been the case for many decades now, and Tim Richardson's Great Gardens of America has put that question to rest yet again.

The Difference
Most Americans with gardening savvy know this already, so Richardson's survey of American gardens does not even bother making this point. The new thing Richardson brings to the table is an understanding of how American gardens differ from the gardens of Europe. That difference is both a cultural and a historical one. The European garden began with an enclosed space that offered protection from the dangers of wilderness and marauding strangers, the hortus conclusus, essentially a protected courtyard or small walled garden, and it has traditionally kept that sense of inward-lookingness, with a focus on garden structures rather than views into surrounding landscape, and with garden rooms, hedges and walls, borders, ha has that keep wilderness at bay. Even with the 18th century landscape garden, the sense of openness was achieved only by ownership of the entire visible landscape, undertaking vastly expensive manipulations -- moving entire villages, changing the courses of rivers, to achieve the illusion of natural vistas and scenes that were, in fact, highly contrived.

As Mr. Richardson points out, American gardens generally are outward looking, with an openness to the wilderness, in many cases even finding their origins in imitation of wilderness. Among wealthy classes with the resources to spend lavishly on their American gardens, and even when designing gardens highly derivative of European gardens, their Beaux Arts or Arts and Crafts gardens took on a character that was newly American, and in the end very different from their European models.

I'll quote directly from Richardson's "Introduction - What is it that makes American gardens 'American'?"

"So what is it that makes American gardens 'American'? The key difference between America's gardens and those of Europe can be traced back to this idea of a society's relationship with nature. Put simply, the American mode of gardening appears to be framed by the nation's historic embrace of the wilderness ideal. Using a necessarily broad-brush approach, it can be observed that American garden-makers have taken a much more open and embracing attitude to the concept and reality of wilderness. This is a theme that struck me time and again in American gardens, which are quite often clearly beholden to European design styles - styles which can then be seen to be have been decisively tweaked or tonally altered. In America, even in cases where the detail of the design was initially inspired by European examples, it seems that the beckoning natural landscape will often be harnessed to set the tone of the garden as a whole. Vistas in America, for example, can just as often be wide and general, as opposed to object- or building-focused, as they are in Europe. This lends many of these gardens an expansive, unbounded feel, quite at odds with the European tradition where an attempt is often made to fence out wilderness by means of enclosures. Even the English landscape park, an ostensibly 'naturalistic' approach to garden making, had as its object a highly particular version of the pastoral which often involved redevelopment of the existing topography. The view may have been expansive, but it was always clearly under control:  managed. The European mindset of enclosure was given its richest artistic expression in the cellular Arts and Crafts gardens of the early twentieth century. There are several examples in this book of the ways in which the enclosure instinct was usurped or altered by American garden makers.

These differing attitudes emerged from specific historical contexts. In Britain, for example, from the medieval period, another word for wilderness or unfenced land was 'waste'; it was considered the domain of bandits and dangerous wild animals. In America such places early on became synonymous instead with the idea of plentitude and potential, at least in the mind of the populace at large, as opposed to those who actually lived out their lives on the frontier."

The Critic
Richardson calls it as he sees it. While he finds a great deal to admire at Stan Hywett, a renowned Arts and Crafts garden in Akron, Ohio, he is very critical of the garden's management, which has let parts of the original garden fall into disrepair while using scarce funds unwisely to introduce an "unattractive new conservatory with gift shop and 'butterfly world', various poorly finished paths and roadways ... and a massive Great Garden, which was clearly over-ambitious in that the levels of maintenance needed to keep such a large area of intensive horticulture ... in pristine condition are, it would appear, simply not available at the property. It seems an odd decision, too, for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to sponsor a new garden in front of the conservatory while those areas of Stan Hywett's landscape that were developed by the firm's founder suffer serious maintenance problems. One cannot blame the gardeners; this is a management issue. It is to be hoped that Stan Hywett's trustees - and a new chief executive who should be in post by the time this book is published - will in due course redirect such resources that they have away from ambitious new projects and towards core elements of the historic garden..."

This is an exciting book. It is a joy on a purely visual level, and it offers much more to those who want to learn something new about some of America's great gardens, who want to better understand why they are great, how they relate to their historic precedents in other parts of the world, and why they are unique to this continent and the places in which they exist.


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