Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New snow: sense of place

Unity of house and garden was uppermost in my mind when we moved to Federal Twist Road at the start of 2005. The mid-1960s house, raised on a man-made hillock above the surrounding wet, is low and long, with a low roof line and wide eaves that give it a hooded look from the distance. The house was painted a taupe color that blends well with the surrounding woods. It was clear from the start that this house could only overlook a naturalistic garden, a garden appropriate to this place.

In a photo taken last fall (below), the looming presence of the house dominates the garden yet blends easily into the wooded setting. In the growing season, a screen of grasses and mature trees surrounding it make it  recede into the background, almost disappear.

But that's all about how the house looks from the outside. Although the style of the garden responds most directly to its external appearance, most garden viewing takes place inside the house, particularly in winter months and inclement weather.

Throughout December, when holiday activities kept me in our Brooklyn house -- really just a series of painted boxes with limited views out -- for the better part of a month, I found myself literally craving these woodland views. I guess I have to admit that old cliche about the healing quality of nature is true, much as I want to dismiss it as trite and sentimental.

Now I'm spending a week in the country. On this winter weekend, with accumulating snow keeping me inside, I've been made acutely aware that outside is inside too, so I set about making a photographic record of the visual unity of house and garden -- but this time from the inside looking out.

Though the living room and study give all-encompassing views of the garden and surrounding landscape through a window wall ...

 ... in fact, each room in the house, including kitchen and bathrooms, offers substantial views out.

The dining room view out the opposite side toward the driveway and Federal Twist Road ...

... the guest bedroom, with a view onto the gravel terrace, across the garden, into the woods ...

... the master bedroom window, looking out the far end of the house to an old stone row ...

... the view out the side window of the study, onto the woodland garden, and a simple, rustic bench made of two 60s-era concrete blocks and planks ...

... and another view out the back of the study to one of three Sycamores planted as saplings when the house was built in 1965 (note the colors and textures of the bark, repeated in the background landscape!).

Sense of place is what this garden is about. I was intrigued when Peter Holt quoted Claire E. Sawyers (The Authentic Garden: Five Principles for Cultivating a Sense of Place) because it introduced me to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. As I wrote to Peter, "I've been trying to put this into words, and thanks to you, I've discovered my garden fits into this centuries-long tradition--another little miracle... like reading my own autobiography written by dead people from another culture and another time."

Sawyers suggests that westerners' longing to create Japanese gardens comes from a confusion of those gardens' specifically Japanese cultural  influences with their more universal wabi-sabi character, which is admiration for things or places that can be characterized as humble, transient, beautifully worn, with the patina of use and age, the natural, the unpretentious, the familiar seen in a new way.

As one authority, she quotes Lenord Koren (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers): "Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral..." I might even add, the informal.

Thus, Sawyers suggests that one way to cultivate sense of place is to use humble materials, materials that through nature or culture are appropriate to the site. Our house is very much at one with this landscape and this garden. It's a simple house, really a profusely fenestrated shed-like structure; built of wood and stone, and colored much like the bark of a tree in winter, it takes on the character of the woodlands and garden surrounding it. It welcomes the outside in, in almost any direction you look. Very much a wabi-sabi relationship of house and garden, I think.

The wide, over-hanging eves and part of the window frame in the next photo give that fact a hard  reality, contrasting the ordered, rigid, yet simple man-made structure with the looseness and complexity of the grasses and trees.

So what does this Japanese artistic concept of wabi-sabi have to do with my house, grasses and woods? I'd say it gives me a theoretical and historical context, it gives me a place to belong, makes me part of a group, though not necessarily a Japanese only group.

Not at all, certainly, for we in North America have a long tradition of naturalistic planting through imports such as Jens Jensen, a German who came to America and became an early advocate of prairies and managed natural landscapes, and our own native Frank Lloyd Wright, who gave us the concept of the "prairie house," of which my own is a descendant, and who also brought much of the Japanese aesthetic to his work. And, of course, more recently, the work of Oehme, van Sweden Associates, who pioneered American naturalistic planting over the last decades of the 20th century, and continue to do so.

In most ways, I'm doing nothing that hasn't been done by others for decades. With one possible exception, because I do carry one aspect of my "naturalistic" approach to the extreme, doing virtually nothing to improve a difficult, heavy clay soil or very poor drainage. The plants must be capable of adapting to these conditions or they languish and die. Ironically, two grasses from different continents are among the most successful:  panicums, from North American, and miscanthus, from Japan.

We really don't even need the term wabi-sabi since these ideas have become a part of our garden culture by osmosis, percolating into our history and culture through innumerable routes.

But the Japanese source of the term is a useful reminder and prod to appreciation of classically Japanese detail such as the irregular line and asymmetry of the bare dogwood in the foreground of the photo below, and to the detail of our house, which owes much to Japanese influence.

The point of all this? That the garden is indeed part of the house, and the house a part of the garden. This relationship dictates the naturalistic look and style of the garden. Japanese influences are pervasive, but they have been thoroughly assimilated into the the local context of a wild wood in western New Jersey.


  1. Fabulous house, fabulous garden. I can see why you find it difficult to tear yourself away. That limited winter palette of grey and white and gold is just gorgeous.

  2. Is wabi sabi, then, also about absence in some way? And how your windows frame that absence, which isn't absence really, but everything? Like how a color is not really that color, but every other color? I've always wanted to see the inside of your house (I love prairie style homes), now I want to see more. Maybe a library or book shelf space at least?

  3. Victoria,
    Thanks. We're headed into the depths of winter. Gold will be gray.

  4. Benjamin,
    I'm no expert on this subject, but the transience and impermanence of physical things, and physical beings, is certainly part of the concept. Absence and the presence it implies? I don't know. That's a concept I know, I think, from western thought, and one I'm fond of in my more mystical moods. But as I said, my knowledge here is limited. Library? Book shelves? There are low built-in shelves in the study, but most of the books are stored on shelves in the basement. This house is small, probably about 1200 square feet, and the windows don't leave much room for bookcases. Actually, I store most of the books I'm reading in piles on the floor.

  5. Bloody fantastic.

  6. Beautiful James, and so full of serenity. Thanks for some further illumination on the term "wabi-sabi." I've seen it used a lot, but have never been able to figure it out from the context.

  7. Lovely post, James. It's so fascinating to discover different tenets of garden theory and philosophy, especially if you've subscribed to them without knowing they actually existed! I think many of us (myself included) battle our natures with these ideals. I keep thinking I'll let things go wild and let it be a Darwinian survival of the fittest, buy my worrisome nature always intervenes and can't help babying plants in distress. I think your house and gardens are one of the best examples I've seen of a house and garden in harmony with their surroundings, almost as if they sprung, perfectly-formed, from the ground. They have a logic and authenticity to them, each part compliments the other and just "makes sense". I admire your ruthlessness about the site and plants, I always admire those who have the strength of their convictions. Also, I've always dreamed of having a house in the woods :-)

  8. James,
    Another excellent post. The garden and house are in amazing harmony. Did I read in your blog that your garden at your previous house had a 'New American' prairie garden planting? How did the earlier house and garden inform this house and garden?

  9. Susan,
    I'm still reading about it myself. I get the general idea, but the concept seems rather amorphous, and subject to varied interpretation.

  10. Scott, I was really joyfully surprised when Peter quoted those passages about wabi-sabi in his comments on a previous post. I think it was Plato who said that sense of recognition we experience when we learn something new is proof that the knowledge already existed in some ideal form in the mind, and has just been reawakened. Then, perhaps I've got that wrong; I certainly don't believe it's true, though I admit to having felt that sense of surprised recognition many times in my life. In my case, I think I had been exposed to the concepts, without that terminology, in earlier times. I do consider myself fortunate to live in this house, even though the land surrounding it makes for challenging garden-making, to say the least.

  11. Hi, Michael - My previous garden in Rosemont was an attempt to blatantly imitate Piet Oudolf (imitate in an impressionistic way). The soil was much better there; I even added organic matter, including mushroom compost, which is easy to find here. The perennials grew with amazing speed. That was a much more traditional garden in terms of horticultural practice. Here at Federal Twist, the conditions are so difficult, I didn't even try to improve the soil or drain the land. At the time, I had been reading Noel Kingsbury's The New Perennial Garden, in which he writes about planting directly into the existing matrix of plants. I'd also been reading Perennials and their Garden Habitats by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl (translated from the original German). (It was very difficult to find on Amazon back then, but I see it's now available, and for much less money. To my knowledge, it hasn't been reprinted in English since 1991.) The Federal Twist garden was certainly informed by the Rosemont garden, but mainly in plant choice. (The Oudolf repertory is the basis of this garden too, with additions and subtractions as necessary.) Here I've moved to a much looser approach to planting in drifts and communities suited to variations in soil and light conditions. I also have to work with a much more limited plant palette because of the difficult growing conditions here. And I think about prairie a lot, in my case wet prairie.

  12. The harmony I seek is between the 'cultivated' and the 'wild' parts of the land here. Or is it the contrast that is interesting. mmmmh.

  13. What a fabulous post. I love the way that each window in your house seems to frame a view that is a living picture, subtle, calm and balanced. Embracing the ephemeral appeals to me greatly. I also rather love your "thrive or die" approach to gardening, one step on from "right plant right place", working with what you have rather than show-horning in something that doesn't really belong and then having to pamper it continually. Mind you, that could be my never-far-from-the-surface laziness talking. I will have to explore Panicums, I have heavy clay and Miscanthus thrive. Though I am supposed to be growing fewer different grasses not discovering and then adding new ones! Thank you for an inspirational read.

  14. Kerry, wish you said more. I know little about New Zealand. I'll try to learn through your blog.

  15. Plantaliscious, I too once thought my right plant, right place (with a vengeance) technique might just be laziness, but I've learned even this technique requires substantial work (timely intervention, we call it?). So much of my garden, any garden, depends on the ephemeral, on transient phenomena of light, weather, seasons. Thanks for commenting.

  16. It is nice to see your garden with the great unifier of snow. I admire that you developed a design concept and continue to bring it to fruition. I initially had a design concept, but it quickly disappeared the first time I fell in love with a plant that did not fit the plan. I console myself (not that I need consoling) with the fact that the nature of gardening is one of change.

    (BTW, I like the moving windchime in the first picture. Did you not want to add a quiet soundtrack of the chimes ringing to further the mood?)

  17. It is interesting that there is actually a recognised concept for many of the ideas we as garden designers are or should actually be trying to include or more likely persuade clients that we ought to include. Subtle detail, place, asymetry etc etc.
    Interesting too that in these photos for the first time the Miscanthus don't do it for me.
    Interesting (3)the strength of the unsnowy verticals in the snow.
    Thankyou for as always a very thought provoking read!

  18. Nice idea for the sound of the wind chimes. Unfortunately, I haven't progressed to Audio Technology 101 yet. Speaking of love of plants, I'm flooded with plant catalogs now. Can I resist? Can I be strong?

  19. Robert,
    Thanks for the helpful comment about the strength of the unsnowy verticals in the snow. Your designer's eye gives me a helpful suggestion for strong vertical structural use in the garden. I wish you'd said more about why the Miscanthus don't do it. They certainly are rather beaten about now (nearing time to be burned, really), but I'm curious about what you didn't say.

  20. I love this.

    Frank Lloyd Wright created a sense of place everytime. The beautiful Robie and Dana-Thomas Prairie houses, great use of materials and so very clever, right down to the use of abstract design of the native Prairie Sumac used to decorate.

    I like your house. It must be wonderful to have those views from almost every corner, it brings an enormous connection to the garden.

  21. To my unfamiliar/So. Californian eye, scenes from winter gardens always remind me of Japanese woodcuts, so your post especially resonates.

  22. Rob, can't believe I missed your comment. I, of course, want to come live in the Dordogne and have a Mediterranean garden. I've visited many FLW houses in the Chicago area, especially in Oak Park, and the first Taliesen, and of course Falling Water, but never had the pleasure of visiting the Robie or Dana-Thomas houses.

  23. Denise, I'm glad to hear that. Though the culture is vastly different, I too see many visual resonances with Japanese aesthetics.



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