"We garden with light!" - Anne Wareham
I thought the heavy, wet snow storm of October 28 (an extraordinary storm so early in the season) would have destroyed the garden, at least for the rest of this season, and for the most part it did.
But the clear air and low sun yesterday morning showed the power of light to transform even a scene of ruin into a kind of beauty--light, and the frame of a camera, can create appealing pictures, even of colorful destruction, but a walk through the garden in the morning light was something much more special than I had expected, more than a series of pretty pictures; it was more about atmosphere, context, and illusion.
Certainly no one would call this a "flower garden."
A garden of light, perhaps?
Even this scene of apparent devastation has quite a bit of interest, for me anyway. A kind of botanical archaeology of the garden year. If you click on the image to expand it, you may see what I mean: evocative contrasts of color, shape, and tone, like impasto on a canvas.
This morning encounter set me thinking about the limits many of us put on our use of the word "garden" because what I was experiencing, while certainly appealing to my senses and thought-provoking, wasn't typical of what most people seek in a garden visit. That is changing, I think, as more gardens imitate, or seek to replicate, the processes and "look" of wildness--gardens like the High Line in New York City or any of many gardens in the "New Perennials" style. As these new gardens become more popular, they may be leading to a gradual change in expectations.
The scene before me was of destruction in large measure--flattened plants, mangled grasses lying in heaps and broken spires, circles of green iris foliage looking for all the world like they had been exploded from their centers and laid out flat on the ground, leaning towers of rich leaden brown Joe Pye Weed, limber willows sprung back from their ice-covered flatness with feathery foliage still intact, the giant miscanthus badly battered but still mostly upright. It was a scene of colors and shapes clearly akin to a kind of abstract painting, some elements a result of intentional choice during planting of the garden, others completely random.
Grasses, even torn into such asymmetrical shapes, are one key to gardening with light. But not just any light; backlighting the tangled foliage makes such a damaged garden come to life. Grasses become like myriad and intricately shaped lanterns, catching the light, amplifying and transforming it through some process of inner refraction and building up of color effects into a bit of the ethereal, a hopeful glimpse into potential, the possibility of beauty in ruined things.
The opening of the woods as the leaves fall lets the light stream through in picturesque shafts of brilliance. Ironic though it may seem looking at these images, the pleasure of my garden is an old, and obvious, one, going back to the Picturesque tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Consider the effects of light, atmosphere, color, scene in the paintings of the Hudson River School, a vision of landscape, with a powerful dose of nostalgia for the past, that formed one of the most enduring myths of America. Much of my appreciation of the ruined garden is a similar romantic, even sentimental, feeling for "nature," an old and very traditional sense of landscape characteristic of the American experience with the natural world--also my penchant for seeing the garden as a theatrical stage set, though one that takes years to make and that constantly changes. Smoke and mirrors, a human kind of seeming magic.
The spaces in the woods created by the fall of the leaves and the newly penetrating light bring a sense of release after a summer of profuse growth. This seems appropriate to the time of year. In summer, the focus is on the garden; the woods are simply a wall, an enclosure. Now, with the shortening days, the light of the sun streaming through the woods makes me raise my eyes from the low plain of the garden to the bright depths of the surrounding trees, to the wooded world beyond the garden, reawakening awareness of the interconnections of garden and natural world, of human culture with nature, present with past.
The smells were sweet that morning. The fragrances of autumn will soon become the odors of fermentation, rich, earthy, savory, but this day the early processes of slowing growth and decomposition were sweetly reminiscent of freshly mown grass or fresh cut hay.
So this is my goodbye to the garden for another year.