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)


  1. Thanks for this James, it was nearly as good as being there. I love the description of the room, too. I am reading the book now, and it has inspired me already to put it down and begin looking around me, wherever I go with different eyes. Especially the wild parts, not the man made parts are attracting my attention and sprouting thoughts about every imaginable thing. Quite fun.

  2. Frances,
    You struck on one important thing I didn't mention in the post. As I left the talk and was walking amid the traffic of the upper East Side, I was thinking about how Dan's book had indeed given me a new awareness of landscape in all its manifestations, in a sense, had given me new eyes. I read the book almost four months ago, and this thought had been with me since that time. Hearing Dan talk about it in his highly engaging way reawakened my awareness of this.

  3. Looks like you had a similar talk to the one I went to in May. At that point the book wasn't published, but it was still a wonderful experience to hear him talk and to take a virtual walk with him through one of my favourite childhood places - the Gower Peninsula in Wales :D

  4. VP,
    Yes. Sounds like the same talk. He did speak about his many visits to the Gower Peninsula and, I believe, mentioned it as one of his favorite places to return to. He's a superb talker. I could have listened for hours.

  5. I enjoyed your post James. At one point Dan Pearson used to feature on a number of television 'gardening' programmes over here but sadly not currently.

  6. Clearly this is a book I need to get....thanks for a great post!

  7. Phillip,
    It's definitely not a book about gardens, but about a cast of mind, a way of seeing.

  8. Anna,
    Too bad we can't see him regularly on television. On the other hand, it keeps what he has to say very special. Thanks for the comment; it led me to your post on Wildside.

  9. Tim,
    Definitely read the book before you go to England. And read Tim Richardson's book on English gardens.

  10. I think Dan Pearson represents my own inadequate take on gardening in its best and purest form. You know the leap of the heart which marks meeting a kindred spirit? True of both reading his books and your blogs.

  11. elizabethm,
    That's an ultimate compliment I don't think I deserve. But thank you very much nonetheless. I do wish to be a kindred spirit of such as Dan Pearson and you.

  12. James, thanks so much for your kind words about both my talk and the book. I am glad that you enjoyed them both. I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to talk to you after the Grolier event and hope to meet you the next time I am on the East coast. Best wishes Dan

  13. Dan,
    Great to hear from you. Sorry not to have met you, but I tend to flee from social occasions. I did greatly enjoy your talk and only wish I could have attended the one earlier in the day at the New York Botanical Garden, which I hear was completely different. You carry an important message, one I hope will reach many people. (Interestingly, I met someone from my Brooklyn neighborhood at your talk! What a surprise that was.)



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