Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sense of Place: Headquarters Farm

This place where we live lies at an intersection of many threads of culture, landscape, geology, climate, history, and geography. Passing through the hamlet of Headquarters last weekend, just as the big snow of the season was arriving, I stopped by Headquarters Farm, a rather imposing edifice in this modest place.

To my knowledge, this was never a grand residence, rather a home built by a well-to-do local farmer and entrepeneur. Its construction followed the building of a grist mill, the large stone building on the left in the photo above. The mill was built about 1730, and the house in 1757 by John Opdycke, a well-to-do merchant and farmer. It may be that John never lived in the house. Instead, it may have been occupied by the person he hired to run the mill, and half the house on the left may have been used as a store.

The origin of the name 'Headquarters' for both the house and the hamlet in which it is located comes from an apocryphal story of George Washington using the house as a headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Washington, indeed was in this area during the Revolution, and used a house in nearby Lambertville as his headquarters for a brief time (he was on the run), but never this house.

Opdycke, like many Dutch families in this area, probably owned slaves, who helped run the mill and support the local economy. We don't usually think of slavery as part of the heritage of this part of the US, but it definitely was. Not on the scale later found in the South, but it certainly existed.

So what does this picturesque scene in the New Jersey winter of 2009 tell us about our landscape, and our sense of place? How does our knowledge of the existence of slavery here affect our perception of the landscape and its man-made features? Does it recall the earlier devastation of the culture and the lives of the native Americans, the Lenni Lenape, who formerly called these fields, these hills, forests, and streams their home? How does past shape our understanding of the present, alter our understanding of the the place in which we live? How does it affect our choices in the garden?

(I'm indebted to Marphy Goodspeed's article in the Delaware Township Post for some of the facts in this post.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Honest Scrap Award?

Susan Cohen at Miss Rumphius' Rules has tagged me with an Honest scrap award. I've procrastinated for over a week now.

These are the rules. You have to first list 10 honest things about yourself (and make them interesting). Second, present the award to seven other bloggers. I've been dreading this moment. In the interest of collegiality among garden bloggers and--just to see what I'll say since I don't know myself--I'll give it a try. Here goes ...

Ten Pieces of Honest Scrap about Me
  1. I grew up in Mississippi, descendant of generations of poor farmers who made their ways from Maine and Virginia over 300 years to the deep South, but I didn't become conscious of my own love of gardens and plants until I moved to ultra urban New York City at age 25.
  2. I want to live in Italy (who doesn't?).
  3. I'm unnaturally excited by good garden books by good writers--Noel Kingsbury (with and without Piet Oudolf), Rick Darke, Tim Richardson, Dan Pearson, John Brooks, etc.--and when I get them, read them three or four times, then refer to them forever.
  4. No, I'm NOT an anglophile, I just find the UK gardening culture richer, and more serious, than our own, which tends to be driven by a "how to" mentality. I know mine is an unpopular position in the US.
  5. I think the great American lawn is an environmental horror. 
  6. I always have a novel at hand, mainly for reading at bed time, something to take me away from the circling thoughts about work and the cares of the day. P.D. James right now. Before that, Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land.
  7. No one at my job--marketing in a large engineering/architecture firm--understands at all what a garden is. Well, few, if any.
  8. I'm firmly committed to gardening with a sense of place, using only plants that are suited to existing conditions. That's a hard game to play, especially where I garden, in a soggy, wet clay.
  9. I like just about any movie starring Anthony Hopkins.
  10. I'm gay and married to the same man for 36 years, and maddened that we don't have the civil rights the rest of US citizens do. We got married in Canada after 30 years together.
Now, I pass on the challenge (burden?) to seven other garden bloggers, with no obligation to do this. I think some of them have been tagged before and they may be over it. Forgive me, but you can pretend this didn't happen. The chosen ones:

Les at A Tidewater Gardener

Benjamin at The Deep Middle

Elizabethm at Welsh Hills Again

Susan at The Bike Garden


Phillip at Dirt Therapy

Craig at Ellis Hollow

If you want to play, just list ten things about yourself, then tag seven other bloggers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A drive by Felder Rushing's

Over the past couple of years I've become quite fond of listening to podcasts of Felder Rushing's gardening program, The Gestalt Gardener, on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Having lived in the Northeast for almost 40 years, I've lost my southern accent, so I really enjoy hearing the many variations of "southern" on Felder's weekly program. You can easily find The Gestalt Gardener on iTunes.

Felder's garden, in the trendy Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi, is something to behold. The week before Thanksgiving, my sister Linda, Phil and I managed to find Felder's house. As you can see above, it's easily recognizable.

The image below shows a little more of the surrounding context. Felder's house is not on an isolated site. It's in a middle class neighborhood of modest, traditional houses. It's a statement and, perhaps, an implicit indictment of bland middle class landscaping, though I don't speak for Felder here. That's my personal opinion.

References to vernacular architecture and gardens in the rural south abound, particularly in the corrugated metal panels and the bottle trees. The corrugated panels used to make the wall and as roofing have been used as a cheap siding on farm outbuildings and for roofing on country houses throughout the south. Interestingly, I've discovered this to be a ubiquitous construction material throughout the world. Many houses in Iceland, perhaps the majority of them, use the same metal siding (lack of wood, you know) and William Martin, in his fabulous garden in Australia, Wigandia, uses the same materials for his garden walls.

Note Felder's truck garden in the photo below - literally a traveling garden in the back of his pickup truck. I didn't want to get too close, lest I be accused of tresspassing (you can see how close the neighboring house is on the right). Most surrounding houses have traditional front lawns and the standard American foundation plantings. But I believe I've heard Felder say his garden's influence is slowly spreading.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

First Snow

First snow this year arrived yesterday, December 5. A heavy, wet snow flattened my perennial prairie. Some of the grasses will rise again, once the ice melts, but I think I like the openness of a flat garden. Time for a change.

The morning after ...





And now I can see the new stone wall at the end of the garden.

(photos 1, 2, 3, 9 by Phillip Saperia)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Mississippi Delta Landscape: a Reading

(These photos are very wide. Click to see the full panoramic view.)

The Mississippi Delta, so the saying goes, begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, a distance of some 200 miles. It is really an alluvial plain, not a delta, and was flooded every year for thousands of years - until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built levees to keep the river in its channel and stop the flooding. The flooding, of course, made Delta soil among the richest in the world. In the days of plantations - and slavery - it was a source of great wealth for the few who owned the land. Today pockets of great wealth remain. The legacy of slavery also remains, and the Delta is among the poorest regions in the United States.

The cotton field above, though small for the Delta, is a typical landscape. The masses of color and texture, the patterns caused by mechanized farming and harvesting, create images of considerable visual interest, evocative images rich with possibility.

Apart from its history, the Delta landscape is extraordinarily beautiful, a vast flatness continuing for mile after mile. Because the land is so flat, the sky and the quality of light is an essential part of the landscape.

Here, a monster irrigation system moves across an already harvested cotton field with a sky tinted by the gathering colors of sunset.

This is a levee, gravel road on top, with a distant view of the Mississippi through the trees. The levee is very high, far above the level of the river, at least at this time of the year.

A closer view using the camera's optical zoom.

Getting to the river's edge wasn't easy. Here we found a road over the levee to a cement loading plant, one emblem of the commerce the Mississippi supports.

Loaded barges awaiting transport.

Close-ups of the opposite side, above and below.

Later, having left the river, we stopped on the side of a road to watch the sunset before heading into Clarksdale for dinner and a blues club. As has been said before, the camera always lies. I can't account for the varied visual effects of the sunset shown below. Phil was using a new point and shoot Canon; I was using a Canon Rebel.

Looking in the opposite direction, to the east, a hedgerow silhouetted against a background of changing pastels.

The Delta is a landscape where sense of place is palpable and complex - horrendous environmental damage caused by the Corps of Engineer's attempts to control an uncontrollable river, the horrors of slavery and a culture that built its wealth on that horror, the fantasy of the "Gone with the Wind" South, birth of the Blues, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - in an ancient land that still yields some of its primaeval past. Reading the landscape here is like archaeology, uncovering layer upon layer of history, geology, topography, ethics, art, and culture.

(Phillip Saperia contributed about half the photos in this post.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

House and Garden in Delta

Making a garden "in tune with nature" means simply planting appropriate to place. But place can mean more than the physical environment. Consideration of metaphorical associations with history, geology, and culture add depth and richness to the experience of the garden. Place can be much broader than immediate physical surrounding; it can encompass a whole geographic region - even the entire earth - or the universe. Only consider the importance of astronomical observation among various cultures throughout history, or the many connections between gardens, theology, and spirituality.

This is my garden viewed from the narrow area at the side of the house where overland flow of storm water builds into a flood before opening into what I call the "delta." It's a metaphorical delta. The river of water flows down from above, gains speed and deepens as it rounds the house, then breaks out into the wide area of the garden, very much like a physical model of a river delta. Perhaps I push the metaphor a little too far, but there are physical similarities between the hydrology of my garden and a river delta.

Phil and I just returned from visiting my sister and her family in Mississippi for the Thanksgiving holidays. One day, we drove into the Mississippi Delta, a unique physiographic province of extraordinarily flat land that used to be annually flooded by Old Man River. The satellite photo below shows just how distinctive the Delta is from the surrounding land. Starting at the Mississippi River, the tangle of curves and curlicues on the left, the Mississippi Delta is clearly demarked by the light shade of green, which ends abruptly at the darker green mass on the right where the hills begin. In many areas, this change is quite abrupt and dramatic. As you move from the hills into the Delta, the roads drop quickly down sixty or seventy feet, into absolutely flat land for as far as the eye can see. This land was flooded annually for thousands of years, and that ancient sign is still easy to see from above.

Since the 1930s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided it can control nature and hold the river in with levees. Everyone now knows that this process is doing irreparable environmental damage, causing the southern coast of Louisiana to disappear under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and eliminating the wetlands that could help protect such cities as New Orleans from future weather-borne disasters. The river rises higher each year, the levees are built higher to contain it, and eventually the process will become unmanageable. The river will break through and all will be changed, at great cost - environmental, human, and financial.

Unlike the Mississippi Delta, my garden delta has no such grand implications for the future. Or does it? Water defines both, and its use or misuse is a subject of some interest, at least to me.

In my simulacrum of a delta, I garden in tune with nature. The plants that grow in the garden are well adapted to the saturated, heavy clay soil, frequent inundations during heavy rains, and standing water. Normally such conditions would create perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, but the huge frog population eliminates that nuisance. There simply are no mosquitoes. Going with the flow, accepting existing environmental conditions, keeps nature in balance.

On a less practical, more aesthetic level, the garden complements the natural woodland environment surrounding it as well as the understated design of the house - its low profile, gray-brown tones, wooden construction, transparent glass, and massive native stone chimney towering into the trees. The house has low visual impact because the architect, William Hunt, designed his houses to blend into their environments, using natural materials and minimal ornament, and lots of glass to bring nature inside.

Out here, the sky is an important part of nature, and of the garden. Designed to complement its surroundings, the house is situated high, on a small man-made hill, where it is protected from the water and damp below, all the better to catch the light from the sky. In mornings and early evenings, it's flooded with natural light, as well as warmth from the direct rays of the sun.

Above, a piece of sky, with a Red Maple, and giant miscanthus (Miscanthus giganteus) in plumy splendor. Who is to say my garden ends at its physical borders or in this time? In my mind, it encompasses the distant Mississippi Delta, the farmers and millers who lived and worked these hills in the 18th century, the native Americans who looked up into this sky over thousands of years, the inexorable geological processes that formed these hills, these rocks, this clay.

(Delta photo courtesy Google Earth)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Christmas Fern on Stompf Tavern Road

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is an especially prolific native plant in our woods. Last weekend, driving down Stompf Tavern Road, an unpaved 18th century path, now road, that drops swiftly down to the Delaware from our perch on a ridge above the river, I found Christmas Fern growing in large colonies. It seems to have a fondness for steep banks, where it is well drained, though growing in heavy clay.

This is a view of the habitat carved by an intermittent, very steep, stream.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Garden Diary: October 24, a Day of Misting Rain

The diminished color of this season is fading fast. All the trees will soon be bare.

The sitting area overlooking the garden, leaf-strewn now. Kiringeshoma palmata, on right, is still green.

Moving out into the garden, which is starting to fall apart ...

Rain drops on lens ... wider views of a sea of vegetative wildness ...

I've always liked the leaden brown of dying Joe Pye Weed (left).

Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai' (foreground above) is dwarfed by the wet clay environment, but it survives and even increases, adding late color, which isn't really visible in this photo.

A 'legacy' virburnum I cut down during the mass tree clearing almost five years ago, recovering now, and to be a small tree in years to come. Panicum 'Shenandoah', a favorite grass, beside it.

More Shenandoah, a Panicum 'Cloud Nine' behind.

More Shenandoah, blowzy Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerester' behind.

Eryngium yuccafolium - I planted several in a holding bed so they could grow to size before I place them out in their permanent locations. Now they've gotten so large, I'm afraid moving them will kill them.

View back toward the house.

Japanese fan tail willow (Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka') is holding its green very late, perhaps because it comes from extreme northern Japan.


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