Friday, April 29, 2011

See the garden?

I’ve always found reading a book to be a much richer, more multi-layered experience than seeing a movie of the same book. The inner vision of the mind’s eye is an altogether different thing. So the following text from Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison struck a familiar cord. At the least, it’s food for thought. Maybe you’ll agree there’s more to it than “meets the eye.” (Yes, this is my second post quoting from this book.)

My Rosemont garden on a foggy morning

… a garden is a place where appearances draw attention to themselves, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily get noticed, no matter how much they may radiate or beckon the eye. Where appearances recede into the depths of space and time even as they come forward to stake their claim in the phenomenal realm, they make special demands on our powers of observation. That is bad news for gardens, for nothing is less cultivated these days in Western societies than the art of seeing. It is fair to say that there exists in our era a tragic discrepancy between the staggering richness of the visible world and the extreme poverty of our capacity to perceive it. Thus even though there are plenty of gardens in the world, we live in an essentially gardenless era.

I don’t know how to phrase this without sounding curmudgeonly, so I will simply assert as a matter of fact that among the young people I encounter on a daily basis—and I encounter quite a few, given my profession—most are much more at home in their computers, or in the fictions and skits that reach them on a screen, than they are in the three-dimensional world. In fact I have the impression that a great many of them no longer see the visible world at all, except peripherally and crudely … 

[However] … it is not a question of generational deficiency but of epochal transformations in the framework in and through which the world reveals itself. The basic inability to see a garden in its full-bodied presence is the consequence of a historical metamorphosis of our mode of vision, which is bound up with our mode of being. For as our mode of being changes, so too does our way of seeing. The faculty of human vision is not neutral. It is as subject to the laws of historicity as are our life-worlds, our institutions, and our mentality…

In human beings the loss of eyesight does not necessarily entail a loss of vision. Vision sees cognitively and synthetically; it apprehends things in organized dispositions and meaningful totalities. This is another way of saying that human vision is above all a way of seeing ... 

… we live in an age, then, whose dominant perceptual framework makes it increasingly difficult to see what is right in front of us, leaving a great portion of the visible world out of the picture, as it were, even as it draws the eye to a plethora of pulsing images.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reprise - the weeping cherry tree

Again, the old weeping cherry - the tree I say doesn't belong in my garden - began another brief, and highly theatrical, annual show last week, just before we left on an unexpected trip to the deep south, to Mississippi where, as my Yankee friend Addie says, "the boats go push."

I think this tree was planted in 1965. It's showing signs of senescence, and a groundhog has taken up residence in a den directly under the trunk, which can't be helping it one bit. Who knows? It may outlive me.

Monday, April 25, 2011


This is the flood plain of the Delaware River. This small bluff is the first of several as the land rises abruptly to an elevation of about 200 feet above the river. This is where we live, in these heavily wooded hills, in a land of many intermittent streams where water rushes downhill to the river with every rain, every snow.

Turning onto Federal Twist Road from River Road at sunset, I took these shots with my phone camera, as a reminder, imprecise evidence of the landscape in which my garden exists, a part of the natural landscape and yet something entirely artificial and different.

But only artificial in the sense of using artifice to create something new.

And what does natural mean? This landscape isn't natural in any sense of the word. It's a cultural landscape subject to the actions of humankind for centuries. The native Americans may have had a gentler tread, but they used the land and left an imprint too, however light. Colonial agriculture and its successors cleared these woods many times, changing forest to farm and pasture and orchard, building grist mills and saw mills, then the woods returned again, and again. And the river itself was one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution. Today, the heavy deer population is destroying the forest, preventing growth of new forest trees.

So what is natural and what is artificial? We need enlightened management of the land, something we're far from achieving. My artificial garden isn't natural, any more than the wooded landscape is natural, but it's certainly more intentionally managed. So what is natural, and what artificial? The words need to be redefined, and used more mindfully.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gardens and Stories

I'm reading Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison. In the chapter on Boccaccio's Decameron, he has this to say:

"The stories ... like the garden settings in which they are told, have intervened in reality … if only by testifying to the transfiguring power of form. By recasting reality in narrative modes, they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief, just as a garden draws attention to the aesthetically determined relations of things in its midst. That is the magic of both gardens and stories."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April's progress

After appreciating my bare garden's structural bones--if one can speak of circles and curves as "bones"--for the past several weeks, a few minor entertainments are starting. Today, I spied this Epimedium x warleyense (cultivar name lost) as the sun progressed to the front side of the house. The close-up above shows its intense oranges and yellows, the tiny hairs on its stems.

 This colony is one of two along the front entrance walk where other plants are just beginning to stir. 

Of course, you have to view these flowers with your face two inches above the pathway. That's not a problem now that I've started yoga lessons!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Think of a flower opening. You walk through the narrow, restricted space of the woodland garden, looking ahead to the open prairie garden and the open sky.

Then you're there. A short journey to be sure, but once the plants push through and fill the surface with a fair chaos, the journey slows.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Community in clay

After a day and night of heavy rain, the hybrid Petasites (Petasites hybridus) is making its weird emergence from the mud, accompanied by bits of Lysicachia nummularia and Equisetum arvense. This, along with its cousin Petasites japonica, is repeated in various areas of the garden, and is a major theme plant in several communities of competitive plants. The fallen leaves remain in place because these plants are not daunted by a matted leaf cover. And eventually, the leaves will decay and add organic matter to the heavy clay soil.

This is not a particularly appealing time of year, especially after heavy rain, but in a few weeks the foliage cover will form contrasting bands of shape, texture, and color with the adjacent Darmera peltata, Sagittaria latifolia, and Carex muskengumensis. Actually, the word "shape" doesn't describe the visual effect well, which is more one of contrasting, three-dimensional, geometric forms, not exactly "sculptural" in a traditional sense, but metaphorically so.

I know Petasites is considered a radically invasive plant, but not in my garden. The clay appears to put the brakes on; it actually spreads quite slowly. In a conventional garden, I'd avoid it, but at Federal Twist, I need its aggressive, competitive character. Okay, you're hearing it again ... right plant, right place.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The spring it is icumen in

Saturday was our first sunny day in a long while. The Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) near the house burst into bloom. The thousands along Federal Twist Road haven't yet shown themselves, but two or three warm days should bring them out. They don't last long.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wild Palms

I have read that Jorge Luis Borges translated William Faulkner's The Wild Palms,
as Las palmeras salvajes, in 1939.

The relationship of landscape to garden is a rich one. Apart from the visual spectacle of this place--wide hilltop views across a landscape of millions of palms toward the sea, the multitudinous black verticals of distant palm trunks sweeping across the distance like pencil marks on the green earth--seeing the new, the unusual can provide visual food for thought, suggesting models for emulation or interpretation in the garden, revealing new kinds of habitats that enrich understanding of how plants reproduce, grow, and develop in community with other plants (and animals, some helpful, some not). In my case, I see no direct connection to my garden, but the mental file cards (old image; should I say data set?) remain in the head, perhaps to coalesce into some useful insight  some day, in another time, perhaps not.

But it's certainly a surprising and beautiful landscape.

The Palmar in western Uruguay is a unique habitat for native palms, mostly Butia capitata and Syagrus*, covering a huge area of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Located near the town of Castillos, it is  more properly known as Palmar de Castillos. In mid-February Amalia Robredo, the Uruguyan garden and landscape designer who we recently visited in Uruguay, took Phil and me to visit her uncle, Martin, who lives on a grand hilltop in the the Palmar. It was near the end of summer, so the air was clear, the sun bright.

Martin's house has a magnificent 360 degree vista of the ancient rocky landscape, of the nearby Laguna Negro, a huge lake just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and fields swept by a flood of millions of palms, grazing cattle, and an ostrich-like wild bird called the nandu (my keyboard can't make the tilde that should be over the first "n"). The landscape is a striking one, with a unique habitat I find hard to characterize, perhaps because it's so different from anything I know in my part of North America.
Here is a satellite view of part of the Palmar from Google Maps. Note the heavily vegetated rocky outcroppings.

This landscape feature is located to the left of the large lake, Laguna Negra, on the map below.

On the way to Martin's house, I asked Amalia to stop on the roadside so I could take some photos. While the palms were certainly beautiful, particularly en masse, the plant that had caught my interest was Eryngium pandanifolium which, like the palm, is native to Urugruay.

The tall Eryngium pandanifolium in the foreground echo the towering palms behind.

The flowers can be eight to ten feet up. I took this photo from a standing position.

At this time of year (late summer), most flowers have seeded and dried. Here is one inflorescence that was a "late bloomer."

The form of the Eryngium flower is obvious (to a lover of Eryngiums).

The basal leaves are large, approaching a meter in length.

After our roadside stop and a drive through the fields on a rutted dirt road, we arrived at Martin's hilltop house, where a large group of friends and neighbors had gathered for a magnificent lunch.

Following are a few images of the house and views from the surrounding lawn.

Another example of Martin's artistry. He used palm trunks to create this extraordinarily textured wall.

Martin is building this swimming pool using local stone. Quite a view!

Martin selects his rocks like an artist.

Returning to the house for lunch ...

Start of a walk into the woodland edge ...

Martin, Amalia Robredo, Gracie (a lunch guest), and Santino, Martin's grandson, probably discussing plans for the future.

The thorny Colletia paradoxa, which as a pioneer plant, typically grows in the woodland edge ...

Beautiful color, but no one could identify the flower ... we saw several ...

Another unidentified wildling ...

The bromeliad we call Spanish Moss ... I don't know whether it's native in Uruguay, but it certainly thrives in this location, indicating a moist, temperate atmosphere ...

The climate of the Palmar is unusual, at least to someone from the northeast US. It's obviously moist enough for many bromeliads and other moisture loving plants, yet some cacti thrive, though you might expect them to be subject to rot in a moist environment. But the soil is very sandy, and it's sunny and mild most of the year.

 The hillsides are covered with lush growth, in dramatic contrast to the hilltops and fields down below ...

A native geophyte, or bulb, called Habranthus, known in English as Rain Lily because they tend to bloom in response to rain ...

A native bromeliad (I didn't get the name) called "wild banana" because it has a fruit that tastes like banana.

Ferns at the edge of the wood ...

A parasitic tree that wraps itself around palms, eventually killing them ...

After lunch, Santino, took us for a short drive to get a better view of the area's rock formations and the Palmar.

A geologist recently told Martin these rock formations are two billion years old, about half the age of the Earth.

Phil, on a two-billion-year-old rock ...

A view toward the Laguna Negra, not too distant, and a short distance beyond the other side, the Atlantic Ocean.

Santino did a bit of rock climbing himself ... a big rock ...

Another view of Laguna Negra ...

After leaving, we encountered these nandu (with a tilde over the first "n") in the fields (also known in English as Rhea) ... Note the cow. Grazing cattle eat the seedling palms and will eventually destroy the Palmar. Amalia told us work is being done to find a way to save this irreplaceable natural resource. It seems horses do not eat the palms. If a way can be found to rotate use of the land, by grazing horses or some other agriculturally valuable animal for a few years, the palms could gain enough size to resist cattle grazing. (See Amalia's clarification in the comments to this post.) This situation is akin to the deer problem in the northeast US, where the heavy deer population is preventing the forests from regenerating.

This is the largest bird in the Americas, attaining a height of up to five feet.

* I am no expert on palms, so these identifications could be incorrect.


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