Wednesday, October 05, 2011

As the rains ...

Balder's Traume by Anselm Kiefer
As the rains continue, and I look out on the garden, I have mixed feelings. It looked so much better in July and August. Though autumn is normally its peak season, the recent tropical storms and waves of heavy rain continuing day after day, with almost no breaks for plants to dry and spring back, have changed it into a wet, soggy mass pierced by the leaning towers of tall perennials. But, as I said, my feelings are mixed, some negative, some positive. This is the process of living and dying, to be repeated again in another year.

So much depends on the weather, the light, the wind. The garden has yet to show what it will be this autumn in its visual aspect, tossed about as it has been these last weeks, but the meaning of what I see now is clear:  while the visual experience of the garden may be diminished, garden as symbol remains a potent source of meaning.

In a blog comment Anne Wareham recently questioned how we can develop the skills "to know exactly when naturalistic tips into too messy." As I watch the effects of the weather, Anne's follow-on remark--"This boundary may change as our 'eye' changes as well as when the light and weather change..."--is certainly accurate, as far as it goes. The line between ripe and rotten is a changeable one, depending on what you might want from your garden.

Of course a garden first should be appealing to the senses, should give pleasure. But it can offer other things, perhaps something more than prettiness? When messiness comes, that doesn't mean the end of the garden year I think. The images of disarray contain useful information, lessons to be learned.

So where is the dividing line between naturalistic garden--"wild" garden--and too much disorder? That line is wiggly and it moves all over the place. The constancy of change is just about all one can be certain of.

I'd like to adopt a term William Martin used to describe my garden to get to the point I want to make. When he referred to the "flowing 'emergentness' of the whole," he opened my eyes to something I hadn't been able to put into words. Awkward as the phrase is, that flowing emergentness is what this garden is about, and it can only be perceived over time, through the seasons. It can't be seen in one photograph, or in one visit. So I guess I'm one of the few who can experience it. And my blog readers, of course, if they look at my incessant reports on my own garden!

I drive a lot, and I always pay close attention to the vegetation along the roadside. I'm excited when I see pattern emerging naturally, pattern that I'm sure reflects some underlying organizing principle--seed distribution, wind, aspect, soil type, moisture level ... and though I do decide where most plants go in the garden, I'm looking for that kind of "found" order, an order in precarious balance with disorder.

So the garden now, after a long time of bad weather, tends toward disorder, and, with the constant moisture, toward disintegration and decay. The level of disorder is certainly greater now than at this time last year. Yes, it's messy ... entropy in action.

Messiness is like noise. Or perhaps a better comparison is with my tinnitus. I have a ringing in the ears. At times, it's in the forefront of my consciousness and can be maddening, but most of the time I'm unaware of it. Likewise the experience of the garden depends on focus and awareness. I can walk out of the house and, looking across the garden, even in rain, experience visual pleasure or a kind of depression. After the rain, I can walk thorough it and see "vignettes" of order and disorder. If I keep the long-term perspective of the year in mind, I can see this as just a stage in an annual cycle of growth, decline, decay and dissolution, the "messiness" of death, then regrowth. All is order in the large scale. All of this is appropriate to this place in the woods of western New Jersey.

I yearn for extremes. In fall, I want to see the late winter garden, flat and empty after I've burned and cut what's left. I suppose that's my final answer to the decline from romantic decay into messiness. Take what lessons, what messages, are offered, then wipe it away and let it start again.

Knowledge of the plants and their ecology also plays an important role in appreciation of a naturalistic garden, and in differentiating between the effulgence of growth and messiness of disintegration. While growing plants in appropriate conditions (right plant, right place) does not necessarily make an attractive garden (some "native plant" gardens are indeed unattractive exercises in ecological correctness), seeing plants growing in appropriate conditions is educational and provides useful information. Moreover, awareness of the processes and patterns of plant growth in communities, and the changes in communities caused by competition, distribution of resources (soil, moisture, light vs. shade, exposure), and weather contribute to an understanding of the process of the garden over many years. You can see the past and the future when looking at the garden. Photographs can be a bad thing if they capture only some passing fantasy of a garden, a phantom that doesn't really exist. (Too many pretty flower pictures, scenes shot from just the right angle.)

How to appreciate such a garden? To someone not familiar with the plants I know it's simply a mass of undifferentiated, undulating green, but to anyone with knowledge of prairie perennials and grasses there is plenty of interest. So detailed plant knowledge is certainly one skill needed to appreciate such a garden.

Knowledge of plants also helps one see the garden in four dimensions, so to speak, because it forces you to be aware of time, and changes over time. Messiness and decay, punctuated by strongly structural plants, can maintain visual interest and "extend the season" of the garden, even on occasion carrying it from the merely visual to the intellectual, even the emotional, as with the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi.

Which brings us finally to the matter of personal disposition and perception. What do you, or I, choose to see at the moment? What filters are we viewing the garden (or the world) through? This brings us close to the difficult concepts of psychology and aesthetics. In this case, it's probably wise to limit the inquiry to what is "appealing to the senses" in some way. Take this painting by Anselm Kiefer as a starting point.

This is certainly appealing to the senses, though in a rather horrific way. It powerfully draws you in, makes you ask questions. Can a garden work in this range of emotions? I think it can, and most likely when it's in a state of disintegration. And a "conceptual" garden with a message certainly can.

Here are two garden photographs from a couple of years back, full of decay and signs of dissolution, even with some of the same colors and something of the mood of the Kiefer painting, but with autumnal coloring and spot lighting that create an entirely different emotional response. Unlike the Kiefer painting, they do not evoke a barren, destroyed landscape, though they do seem to be moving in that direction.

The garden photos have that "beatific" sunlight slanting through the trees, as if something godly might be lurking off to the side. Is some kind of physical beauty ... haze, slanting rays of sunlight ... necessary to meaningful engagement with the garden (not speaking of the "acts" of gardening here)? It's certainly good for a start, to draw you in, but I don't think always necessary.

Depending on what you bring to it, the garden can set off ruminations on many things, including reminders of banishment from the Garden of Eden, apocalyptic images of destruction, or simply the natural cycle of life (perhaps they're the same?). What do I want to see today? What can I see today?

It may be no surprise if I tell you my first "garden" was a cemetery, a beautiful ground blessed by huge Southern Magnolias, full of mysteries from the past, hints of unknown stories, ancient (to me as a young boy) monuments of lichened stone, some thrilling and beautiful, some with mysterious messages in Latin and Hebrew, row upon row of markers for the Confederate dead. It was my safe place, my refuge from a frightening world. Strangely, I always associated that cemetery with life, never with death.


  1. I really appreciates your blog and the post you write! Even its difficult for me to understand everthing, the intention is clear for me and it was what I was thinking of this late summer, while taking out a lot of plants out of my garden to redisign a part of it. I would like to link your post om my blog, if you don`t mind and try give a to take out some phrases, freely translated. Hope this is o.k. for you Sibylle

  2. A thought-provoking piece, James. Your garden seems to sustain such forceful weather, questions of viability are bound to confront you. You couldn't help but be affected by what's so viscerally happening. To what extent do you intervene? Regarding messiness/disarray, to me it's sometimes inevitable; I only don't like it when it's come about through carelessness/negligence.

  3. Thanks for the visit, Sibylle. I have your blog in my google reader (though I have great difficulty reading German). Please feel free to link and use what you want.

  4. Faisal, after an initial internal struggle over whether to stake and try to repair the damage, I decided to let it be and just observe. I do remove large plants that have fallen and get in the way. With good weather and some sunny days, there still may be a colorful fall in the garden. It's hard to predict what will be. I do long for the spring cleanup, when all the plants are gone and the garden is just a bare field with paths. I find that very appealing, and then I get to watch the plants emerge and grow again. It's almost a magical transformation.

  5. 'get in the way' That is what I am doing, working my way along the Closed Until Further Notice paths. Today has been the first reminder of how summer's heat will bite! (I'm guilty of the pretty flowers photos, sorry) But a friend today said - when I win the lottery I can have a garden like this ;~)

  6. Are the paths closed until summer awakens them? I like pictures of flowers too, but especially your adventures into the natural areas of your wonderful country.

  7. Hi James

    Your last para struck a chord with me. I found solace in a cemetery as a boy.
    It felt safe not only spiritually, but acoustically. I could here the 'still'.

    I appreciate the 'still' at this time of year. I wonder how much we hear the seasons? I know you're sick of the patter of rain right now, but the mist and fog will follow. Those woods that surround breathe you know. Beautiful.

    I hope your weather picks up and you get some perfect Autumn weather in which to enjoy the landscape. I think it's your season.

  8. Rob, I was just walking in the garden with my sister, who is visiting from Mississippi, and I was "hearing" it in an especially acute way--a result of your comment ... a briefly stirring autumn breeze, the frogs plopping into the water, bees buzzing as they plunder the rare late pollen of the Sanguisorba. Peaceful and still. And you were there too--sort of miraculous isn't it, how a comment from thousands of miles away can affect one's consciousness.

  9. James - this topic fascinates and tantalises me - and personally I would vote for that brilliant ray of sunshine: light is all! Love light!! We garden with light!

    But I don't think you've quite nailed it yet - I think you are struggling towards articulating something about our relationship to our gardens and experience of them that is so hard to put a finger on. And you're not quite there yet. There are almost two halves, as if you've drawn breath and then tried again...

    Or am I totally off the wall and being too hard on this piece?

  10. Anne,

    You are right, though I may have stopped and started three times rather than two! Everyone needs an editor. Thank you for taking a serious look and giving a diagnosis. I knew this didn't do it, but I finally gave up and clicked the Publish button.



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