Saturday, October 23, 2010

High Line: More than the sum of its parts

"The bronze quartermoon had just set when he ran into the remains of a Sioux warrior... 
The white man might sometimes bury his dead kin six feet under, as deep as he made his privies, 
but the red devil placed his dead six feet above ground for all men to see ... 
reared up out in the open so that his gross dark ignorant body could be given back to the 
powers of heaven and to the four quarters of the universe and to all the rains and to the wingeds 
of the air and to the little people of the earth."
 - Lord Grizzly, by Frederick Manfred

The act of lifting up a revered object in display for all to see, or a physical going up into a high place, is a powerful gesture, perhaps even a natural inclination hard wired by evolution into the human brain.  My recent visit to the High Line brought some rather powerful emotions to the fore and, as I tried to understand my response to the visit, I found myself entertaining thoughts along this line. This wasn't a random impulse, but a direct response to feelings of being in that particular place, late on a sunny, very windy October afternoon, near sunset.

Southern end of the High Line, where it passes beneath the Standard Hotel.
The High Line, a linear park built on an abandoned elevated rail structure in Manhattan (in case you don't know it), is a success far beyond anything most people expected. I was a fan from the start, because I used to hang out in this area in my early days in New York and remember seeing occasional freight trains on the line, but mainly because I knew Piet Oudolf was to design the plantings.

On my recent visit, I was rather enchanted by the experience of the place, and by the idea of the elevated space as a kind of refuge, a high place set aside for special things, like an alter. And, as I had recently read the quoted passage about an isolated Souix burial in Lord Grizzly, it occurred to me how universal is this symbol of the raised gesture, the high place, the garden in the sky. Moses going up to Mount Sinai...

But, as I said, this wasn't a random confluence of thoughts. I came directly from my experience, the feelings evoked by the High Line space. I visited with my partner, Phil (in the backpack), and my high school friend Will (leaning over).

In the Gansvoort Woodland section of the High Line, raised beds of Corten steel
make it easy to enjoy the colors and textures of ground covering sedges.

Birches, Carex pensylvanica, Stachys 'Hummelo'
If I try to describe the quality of that recent visit, the words exhilarating, quiet (though it wasn't quiet), and alone (though I wasn't alone) come to mind. As we walked up the 1.45-mile-long park, the plants tossing in the wind, the light of the lowering sun gradually moving to horizontal, changing from bright white to the reds and oranges of twilight, I felt stimulated and calmed at the same time. Stimulated by the beauty of the plantings and the views and the wind--and at peace. The place transforms New Yorkers, stops them in their tracks so to speak, as they stroll or lounge in relative isolation well above street level; looking up, out, down, around, with views from this "safe" perch into the other world of quotidian events: picturesque West Village side streets, bustling 10th Avenue, the Empire State Building thrusting up in the mid-distance. This place is special; in other times, in other cultures, it very well might have been called a holy or a spiritual place.

That may sound strange as a description of an elevated park in Manhattan, but it was my feeling about the place on that day. No. I don't fool myself that most visitors consciously think about a walk on the High Line as a spiritual experience, but I do believe most feel something out of the ordinary. I haven't yet heard anyone who's visited the High Line say they didn't like it, or that it was a disappointment. I hear only positive, and usually enthusiastic, comments. Why so?

First a map of the route, taken from the High Line web site, just to show its layout, and to emphasize its physical narrowness, how close it forces people to be with each other and with the plantings, then some photos taken on that windy, sunny October 9, with commentary of course.

Apart from being above street level, which alone makes for a special kind of space--a setting apart and a setting above--the secure, secluded space the High Line occupies is given a sensuous beauty and a sense of physical protection by an extraordinarily well designed array of perennials, trees and shrubs, many of prairie origin, many native to the area, some from far distant places--but all with a naturalistic look reminiscent of the wild, self-seeded growth that characterized the abandoned rail line before it was transformed into an urban horticultural and theatrical venue (it is quite theatrical, especially lighted at night). The sense of peaceful isolation and solitude in the midst of urban busy-ness was part of the experience of the overgrown rail structure long before the High Line park was conceived. It was unique even then, and it was that specialness that led to the desire to prevent destruction of the structure, and eventually to the formal conceptualization, design and construction of the High Line.

And it's usually crowded with people. How can a place with crowds of strangers have a spiritual feeling about it? Why not? Mecca? The banks of the Ganges? Santiago de Campostela? Canterbury? I find some of the most compelling photos of the High Line to be those showing people strolling along the park or sitting, talking, reading, just enjoying the light and air. There is a hidden drama being enacted here, even if most people don't have the intent of engaging in a spiritual act or even think of their actions in that context.

As the map shows, the long, narrow design forces visitors into a relatively small space, and focuses the eye on other visitors and passersby. This combination of physical nearness, anonymity, and the freedom to observe given by the spatial design creates a feeling of otherworldliness that has a profound effect on one's experience of this place: a little like a stage set, a little like a consecrated space for ritual engagement.

This psychological "preparation" of the mind's eye awakens the senses, much as foreign travel stimulates a kind of hyperawareness of one's surroundings, and makes the plantings resonant with significance. But before I push this metaphor too far, let's take a look at some of the plantings in mid-October.

My route was from the Gansevoort Woodland heading north through the Washington Grasslands.

Sections of the old rail line have been reconstructed as reminders of what was once there. These are among my favorite parts of the High Line, perhaps because they elicit powerful recollections of railroad tracks from my childhood, when I watched the City of New Orleans and the Panama City Limited resting for a new minutes on the rails in my home town in the deep South. In this tableaux the rails are abandoned, and the overplanting evokes a powerful nostalgia for something that has been lost.

These are real railroad track, but also nonfunctional reconstructions, artificial and highly theatrical, I think, in the way they manipulate images and memories. This is not to lessen their "truthfulness" in creating mood and evoking sense of place and the particular history of the High Line. These tableaux stir the heart (certainly mine).

The rails also work as abstract patterns, almost like pattern in fabric, sculpture or painting, as geometric background contrasting with the soft, loose, rounded (and transient) plant forms.

In this next photo, I believe the spiky dead plants are Stachys monieri 'Hummelo', a signature Oudolf selection named for his garden in Hummelo in The Netherlands. The late afternoon shafts of sunlight create a stirring scene of considerable complexity and depth, in what appears, to me, to be one of the most successful integrations of hardscape design with planting design in the entire park.

If I may borrow a photo from my friend Judy Mann, you can see how the Stachys 'Hummelo' looked earlier in the season:

Less emotionally stirring, but beautiful in a practical and utilitarian way, is the seating on the High Line. Below is an example of a repeated design, in which the floor of the park soars up to become a bench, in this case with a back for added comfort.

This beauty below appears to be an exotic put in just for seasonal show. And not just one plant, but one of several the size of small trees. I believe this is Chlerodendrom trichotomum (Harlequin Glorybower), which just can't be hardy this far north, unless we are seeing an example of aggressive "zonal denial" at work.

And Clerodendron intermixed with Catalpa, for foliage contrast and added visual interest...

Further up the line, an area of groundcover with masses of Heuchera in the foreground, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai' on the right, and (I think) a cultivar of Deschampsia cespetosa on the left. The High Line plantings are, in a sense, a new palette for Piet Oudolf. Because of the nature of the place (it's meant to evoke the original wild plantings that grew spontaneously on the abandoned rail line) and the physical constraints of planting in a relatively shallow "ground" (this is after all really an elaborate green roof), Piet's High Line plantings are subtler, and considerable more restrained, they we usually expect from him.

Moving left, the planting becomes mostly Deschampsia, with islands of Aster tartaricus and Persicaria. And note the line of track and the original High Line railing retained in the background.

And further to the left, Sesleria autumnalis, a beautiful almost chartreuse grass that blooms in the fall, takes over for the Deschampsia, with the scattered asters maintaining continuity. Of course, none of these plants is native, but they have a native "look."

And more Sesleria autumnalis with Aster tartaricus ...

Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Fire Tail', I think, with a Trycirtis (Toad lily) to provide autumn color ...

Astilbe makes a highly effective geometric groundcover long after all color has faded. The plants are bedded in the same gravel that would be used on a real rail line (though smaller), another self-conscious reminder that this park is a "transformed" rail line.

A native Vernonia (Iron weed), positioned in the center of the traffic flow so as to force visitors to see it as they must move around it to either left or right,  must have attracted a lot of attention when it was covered in bright purple flowers. Even now, in seed, it's quite a sight.

Looking toward the Chelsea Market underpass, where public artworks are periodically installed, people are constantly coming and going, or stopping to rest in lounge chairs, reading, visiting, taking the sun. I doubt that many pay as close attention to the plants as I do, but it's obvious the plants do get a lot of attention. The design of the High Line makes this happen by virtue of simple geometry and limited space.

After passing beneath the Standard Hotel, visitors are immersed in the plantings as the park passage divides into much narrower paths.

An installation of colored glass panes, suggestive of stained glass windows strictly urbanized ...

The rather preciously named Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve is probably as close as any part of the High Line gets to the original wild vegetation, and it is a beautiful thing. My camera, or perhaps my photographic skills, are not adequate to showing you the amazing range and subtlety of colors in the plantings, even this late in the season. 

And again you can see the recreated rail line serving as a nostalgic reminder of the park's origin ...

And off the other side, to the east, the Empire State Building ...

Moving further up the park into the Chelsea Grasslands, off to the left we see the IAC building by Frank Gehry with its irregular shape, and an extraordinarily beautiful building (the tallest of the three, with color-tinted windows) by Jean Nouvel, named Nouvel Chelsea and, no, you probably can't afford to live there. (I haven't mentioned, yet, that the High Line has spurred amazingly rapid development of the former meat market district and western Chelsea). Yes, vigorous capitalism is at work.

Nearing the end of the park, you're likely to smell the distinctive odor of the native Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which is planted in masses. In the future, the park will continue north from here.

Call it ironic, if you will. I didn't plan it this way. But it is true that Prairie Dropseed is a native of the short grass prairies of the North American midwest. If I'm not mistaken, this is the area in which much of the novel, Lord Grizzly (see opening quotation), is set, and thus we've come round to the place where we started, and to a reminder of the quality of the experience of the High Line, a special place, a high place set apart.

Here is a brief video that, though not of the best quality, does provide a glimpse of the feeling of that day. That roar is the wind.

For two very different takes on the High Line, see A Tidewater Gardener and Victoria's Backyard.

Monday, October 11, 2010

ThinkinGardens: a Makeover

When I received an email notice this morning, I was reminded of the value of the redesigned ThinkinGardens website--a collection of essays, reviews, letters, and other writings about the significance of gardens in our world. The site has had a makeover that provides a much clearer overview of its content and far easier access to information of interest to readers. It's much easier to navigate. I recommend you try it out if you have an interest in the potential of gardens to be more than mere ornamental decorations or lifestyle amenities. Perhaps you're among those who want to see gardens returned to the kind of central position in cultural discourse that has prevailed in other times.

When I received email notice of the following essay by Mary Keen, I was reminded of how well the redesigned ThinkinGardens site works. It can even notify you of new content. Try it out. You will definitely find a UK orientation in most of the content, but ThinkinGardens is actively reaching out to other countries and cultures. Become a part of it.

I quote the Mary Keen article in full below (though I don't necessarily agree with it in all details), just to give a glimpse of the kind of thought-provoking thinking about gardens you will find at ThinkinGardens.

Otherworldly Gardens by Mary Keen

October 11, 2010

An occasional series discussing what makes a good garden. This piece is one of two by Mary Keen. The second part, ‘The practicalities of making a garden’  will be published shortly.

Photographs by Charles Hawes

Part One of ‘My favourite gardens and why they work.’

Writing about the emotions induced by gardens can be difficult. What I mean by ‘Otherwordly’ is not in the garden is a lovesome thing God wot category. For me, good gardens are places where human time stands still and you start to feel that there is something going on under the surface. If that doesn’t happen – if the garden doesn’t communicate some deep emotional message – then all the flowers and trickery are pointless. I want to find a way of getting people to see that what we see – the real tree or flower in real time or space – has a parallel and more important existence behind it. This isn’t an intellectual exercise – it’s about instinct.
I think children are aware of this and that we lose it with age. As a child, I was sent away to tiny school at a house where the resident children had outgrown their governess. It was an old fashioned place under the Berkshire Downs. I was eight, and as a dare one summer morning I let myself out of the house to run round the garden before we were supposed to get up. In the kitchen garden the paths were lined with pinks (‘Mrs Sinkins’ probably); the smell and sense of being alone in this ordered place, where everything seemed to be waiting for the sun, made me stop. I picked a pink to prove the dare was done and then I hung about, thinking about how the garden had a life of its own. How it went on breathing the scent of flowers, even when there was no one there to enjoy them. The lingering, the stopping is important – after all, don’t we want to be in the place where the daily worries and preoccupations stop? I am interested in what opens the inner eye that children have, that makes you aware of what matters. Gardens are good at that.

I have been wondering if there is some universal factor in any art form which never fails to stir the soul, to open the inner eye. Is it truthfulness? I didn’t say truth because I wanted to avoid the cliché of beauty is truth. But I actually do mean truth. It can also be called unity of purpose, being true to the whole concept, the idea of what you are doing or making. Of getting the feel of what a place is about. The question to ask is, ‘what is here that is true, that is underneath the superficial things? What is here that matters?’

Once, I was driving through Windsor and the traffic was jammed so I made a detour and found myself at a place I hadn’t been to before. It looked intriguing, so I stopped the car and climbed the steps and only when I reached the top did I realise I had chanced on Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Runnymede memorial to President John F Kennedy, in Berkshire. The theory of association, much loved by 18th century garden makers demanded that you knew about Virgil or the paintings of Claude in order to trigger a reaction. Places that can communicate their story without anyone having to learn a language first, seem to me more powerful. If Runnymede can speak of death and memory to the uninitiated passer-by – if it could summon me from the car to experience something out of the ordinary – then that for me is a sign of ‘otherwordliness’.

The garden at Portrack House, (also known as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation) in Scotland, has been much discussed  and pictured, but the serpentine curves and mounds that Maggie Keswick Jencks made as she was dying (long before the fractal geometry add-ons) offer a similar flash of the transcendent. This is not memory so much as a reminder of what is true. (Memory can lead to the nostalgia trap, which is dire.) A reminder is real. It tells you what matters. And if you think about it, birth and death are perhaps the only otherwordly things that touch, that awake most people.

I went this summer to Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus at Boughton, Northamptonshire, in the rain and not in the best mood. When I asked Dan Pearson why some places held no magic (like the Alhambra for me) he suggested that it was important to be in the right frame of mind. At Boughton I wasn’t, but there are effects that transcend moods, weather and traffic jams – and Kim’s Orpheus, like Jellicoe’s Runnymede, was one of these. It is a place where you are hauled across the dividing line between the mundane and the spirit world, and you are confronted by your image and what lies below that, inside yourself. It is that power, that ability to possess your imagination, like Wordsworth’s sounding cataract, that seems to be the essence of any great work.

Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives, Cornwall, is another place where I feel connected to something otherworldly. In what is a really small garden, she made mass, space and light matter and in it her sculptures are an overwhelming presence. But one also feels a sense of the woman who thought about man’ s position in the landscape and with the way humans relate to nature. In her garden, the sculptures are humbling. Before I went, I didn’t even think I liked Barbara Hepworth, but like Runnymede and the Orpheus pool, her garden opened my inner eyes.

The Paul Nash painting of the Vernal Equinox is not about death, but life. It shows how spring transforms winter twigs. We never see it, but it is there. Nash makes it the miracle that it is and reminds us that we have forgotten. Nash, like Maggie Keswick Jencks, was dying. He was living on borrowed time and bottled air when he painted it. How often are we aware of the seasons changing and time passing in a garden? Renewal is one of the things that is implicit in nature.

I tried to stop thinking about Wordsworth when I was preparing this paper, but I kept colliding with him. He is the arch priest of otherwordliness, of seeing nature as a separate and intensely powerful entity. ‘The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion‘, he wrote. Like Wordsworth, I want places to possess me. I don’t want to look at a place; I want to be in it. Being possessed to the point of being out of your ordinary mind is where the best places take us. I get it by – or preferably in – the sea, and at dawn/dusk in my garden.
Wordsworth believed that ordinary people were transformed into poets when they reacted to landscape – he called them ‘silent poets’. There are some things which cannot be put into words. I believe that the best gardens, like many landscapes, can deliver the emotional charge which makes silent poets of us all.

Mary Keen - garden designer and writer

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Tree frog on window

We hear these by the thousands, starting up their peeping like little birds, at sunset. Whole choruses of peepers, especially in the spring, but continuing sporadically throughout the summer. I found this one on our stainless steel grill and moved it to a house window. I wonder if it had taken on the color of the grill.

Notice the yellow colors on the underside. Do tree frogs change colors like chameleons? I don't know.

Postscript: - now that I've done a little research, I see this is the Eastern Gray Tree Frog or Common Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor), and they can change color.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Man at work: pond cleanup

I let it get a little out of hand. The pond, that is. This year the Arrowleaf (Sagittaria latifolia) almost took over. From a couple of small plants I added two years ago, half the pond was filled. Cattail (Typha latifolia) also self seeded, and though I like it, I pull it out each fall knowing enough root remains to bring it back in the spring. I can live with this because the pond is small and annual maintenance isn't much work in the grand scheme of things.

This is the pond in early spring of 2008, just after I burned and cut all the grasses and herbaceous perennials that made it through winter. This is just a reference point:  I want to retain something of the sharpness and clean lines of the naked pond visible in this photo.

Here is the pond as it looked a couple of weeks back. Even with this partial view, it's clear the plant growth is too profuse. You can't really see the pond. When I chose to go "natural" and not use a liner or filter, I knew I'd have to learn to deal with the effects of self-seeding and high nutrient levels caused by the rich clay and decaying leaves that inevitably fall into the water.

So last weekend I put on my waiders, bought expressly for this task, and pulled out about 90% of the growth. I estimate the biomass removed at about a cubic yard, quite a lot if you think of its wet weight (several hundred pounds). Here it is in a rough compost pile.

The day after, the water is still a little cloudy, but it will clear quickly. I left two large Pickerel Weed (Pontadera cordata) because I love the blue flowers. I'd like to chop them way back, but I may just wait for the first frost to do that for me. Then next spring, when they start into growth, I'll give them each a healthy Chelsea chop.

I'd like to add some large rocks to create a clean edge that brings the pond more sharply into focus. That's still my plan, though I prefer to get someone else to transport and place the rocks (hope I can work that out). That far edge with the messy grasses (Deschampsia) is a prime candidate area for rock paving. You can see how a clean edge would create an effective and controlling contrast with the mass of naturalistic growth in the distance.


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