First Hurricane Sandy plowed through, stripping most foliage from the garden and wiping away the south border of trees. Then unexpected snow fell last week, heavy and wet, only about four inches, flattening most of the grasses. I thought the garden was over for the year. But the snow melted quickly, and the moisture saturating the plant tissues deepened the colors of the the rebounding grass, even on a foggy Sunday morning, giving them an inner glow.
So I quickly took some photos, coordinated the work of my garden helpers, and left for the gym. As I drove down Federal Twist Road toward the Delaware, I felt elated. It's difficult to separate things in my life from things in the garden, but I had a sense of all the pieces fitting together. Like an epiphany.
A foggy morning (admittedly a pretty sight), a quick walk through the garden, a new paving, pool and planting started, and some mysterious state of mind or confluence of events had set me off on a journey of ... what? Grace and gratitude? Not really, I was not to put into words what I was thinking or feeling ... just say, my state of being. Two weekends back we visited Phil's mother, who is 92, in a Boston nursing home. We took her to the Museum of Fine Arts, which she enjoyed immensely. Next weekend, we're off to Mississippi to visit my sister, who isn't well ... Many things to be sad about. But sadness wasn't the tenor of this day.
Only in retrospect was I fortunate enough to recall the discussion of garden as epiphany in David E. Cooper's small book A Philosophy of Gardens:
"Pope's famous lines, in his Epistle to the Earl of Burlington, on 'the genius of the place', for example, surely evoke a conception of The Garden as an epiphany. For Pope, 'the genius of the place' does not refer, as it does for many later writers, to the ambiance or natural setting of a garden: rather, it is that which 'Now breaks, or now directs, the intending lines' and 'Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs' (Pope 1994: 81 f.). Palpable, here is a sense of The Garden as both a response to and an exemplification of something beyond the control and invention of human beings."
"Something beyond the control and invention of human beings." I'm not a religious man, rather agnostic in the extreme, opposed to most organized religion. But I do make room for that.
Certainly the thought of destruction, of the end of things, is suggested by these images.
But equally so, the beauty of the disintegrating garden: color, form, the narrative of living and dying, knowing that without this nothing returns in spring.
"Something beyond the control and invention of human beings." Chance storms, accidents, leave room for moments of fleeting beauty, unanticipated emotion, surprise, mystery.
Emotional response to these scenes isn't something that I will. Is it nostalgia, a desire to recreate or return to a memory, to a lost or half-forgotten landscape, as Thomas Rainer has proposed? To some early memory in this life, to a culturally defined preference for open spaces with areas for hiding? Like children, do we delight in the sparkle of a colored rock among the gray, imagining gems, rubies, sapphires, then recreate that delight as adults, even with colored sticks and grass suffused with light?
So to Wikipedia for word origin: "The term nostalgia describes a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning 'homecoming', a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning 'pain, ache'."
So "homecoming." I feel that in the garden; have felt it for many years ... a place to contemplate, to remember. To ache for something past. And to seek what may never have been known.
"Something beyond the control and invention of human beings." A place to create, to participate in a kind of mystery, perhaps an unforeseen gift.
"Now breaks, or now directs, the intending lines."
"Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs."
... a new area, the gravel base now being laid, for a reflecting pool, shallow, just to catch the light and sky, and a paved surface - more open space, more void - all with curving borders and narrow, winding paths. Here's a primative sketch (I can't draw).
The planting will be thick, with glimpses in to the straight stone wall and to the water. The void, like silence in music, may make the plantings sing.
Surrounding this may be a field of Miscanthus. Of course there will be more, but at this time of year Miscanthus en masse is amazing in our climate. Ethereal. A field of Miscanthus alone could make you cry out.
Though Panicum, in this case 'Dallas Blues' (below), may win for color.
You get the drift? Layers of Miscanthus, up the hill, across the field.
And possibly for accent, a rare native shrub, Zenobia pulverulenta, a dusty, glaucous green through spring and summer, and in magnificent plumage in early December.
And more of these Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer', of course. They seed like crazy, and I still don't have enough.
So as we prepare to leave for Mississippi, I make farewell gestures to the garden, now fading fast as the toughest part of winter approaches. I'll be visiting the place of my childhood, remembering, searching out the empty spaces ... and thinking about more changes in the garden.
The garden teaches us to embrace change. It definitely is an "unforeseen gift". Therein lies the beauty. I love Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer'. In the rural countryside where I live, it grows in abundance. When plants grow "en mass" like this most people seem not to appreciate the beauty and treat it like a weed. You "New American" garden is still looking beautiful with all the textural tapestries of gold and bronze with splashes of red, orange and yellow.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Lorraine. I'm interested that the Inula grows in the wild where you live. It must be an escapee from some garden, or is it? I'd be interested to hear what you know about its presence in the wild.Delete
I must also say that I am taken away by the photo of your sculpture "Pay Dirt" in amongst the textural grasses. Very poetic...ReplyDelete
Yes, I love Marc Rosenquist's sculpture. Wish I had a couple more. There's one that would be perfect in the new area I'm working on, but I doubt I can afford it. In semi-retirement, resources are limited and I'm spending far too much on the garden--though I continue to do it.Delete
As ever, James, your post offers much to consider. It's easy to see how 'the genius of the place' here is a force to be reckoned with, operatic.ReplyDelete
That you allow this force to have its way - rather than concealing/banishing it - says to me that you are in partnership with it.
Whatever new planting you decide, I'm sure the result will continue to be dramatic and have an ongoing sense of movement and aliveness.
Thanks, Faisal. I'm quite intrigued with Cooper's interpretation of Pope's phrase "the genius of the place." It's usually used in a rather literal sense to refer to the setting of the garden. Cooper reads it in a way that is far more meaningful, at least to me.Delete
Yes, the traditional interpretation suggests something unchanging, beyond our reach. Cooper's interpretation suggests something more active, and something we can ally with.Delete
A moving post, James. I’ve already read it twice to absorb it all—and to savor it. I will come back again, too.ReplyDelete
Epiphany is a wonderful metaphor. Whether you are religious (as I am) or not, the idea of the garden (or “nature” or Spirit or the nothingness that beckons us) manifesting or revealing itself to us is an intensely emotional experience. It is, as you so poetically describe in this narrative, the force that twists our lives together with our gardens.
I appreciate the dialogue you establish with my recent post. Thank you for that. Of course, your beautiful language and photographs make the point much more elegantly than my more discursive style.
I am also eager to hear more about the changes for the garden you are pondering. I love that you are not afraid to be brutal. To make drastic changes to the garden. This brutality is a wonderful balance to the fact that your garden is a celebration of the ephemeral. The garden is not just that which is received, but that which is given as well.
I hope your travels South will enrich your journey. Best to you and your family.
Thomas, I believe we think in very like ways about "The Garden." I always resonate to your posts in this vein. I'm grateful for the role of chance and accident, the possibility of grace, in the garden. I believe these things leave room (in a metaphorical sense) for the idea of mystery, of something beyond what humans can do. There are cracks in the rational fabric of the world that allow something "other" to make its way in (some may call it God). When I read you, I often wish I could write in such a clear and straightforward way, just state a thought clearly and let it go.Delete
I found it a little shocking when you referred to my being "brutal" in changing the garden. Then, after the initial feeling of shock, it felt right. You showed me something new about myself. So I thank you for that, and for your well wishes.
I did mean it as a compliment. Your garden has this incredible emotional core, but you have the ability to be unsentimental, to make big changes. Ripping out paths, creating voids . . . it's all rather brutal really. I admire that greatly. It is one way we give back and contribute our part of the dialogue.Delete
I took it as a compliment, just an unexpected one--the best kind.Delete
Some days I see something that sets the stage for a whole day of epiphanies. My triggers can be some quality of light, an encounter with birds or a simple conversation. Other days I feel veiled. Please enjoy the time with your sister.ReplyDelete
You're a blessed man. Some of YOUR kayak trips on the rivers have given ME epiphanies. I can imagine being where you are. I fear kayaks, always fantasize turning upside down and drowning, but your posts have even made me consider trying one out.Delete
A beautiful post both in images and words.ReplyDelete
For me the garden is my refuge, my safe place for want of a better expression. It reassures me. Yes there are times when things go terrbly wrong but we get through them and I think the photographs of your garden after the storm and snow show this. It demonstrates natures irrefutable ability to regenerate to continue and when faced with sadness and the prospect of grief I think that is reassuring.
Thank you for sharing such personal thoughts
The state of the garden is certainly testament to the powers of the earth to take control. After living through the storm in NYC, with flooded tunnels, a paralyzed transportation system, and a large part of Manhattan dark, thoughts of apocalypse come easily to mind. But the garden as refuge and a place for regeneration helps one adapt to reality, and remains a source of hope.Delete
There's definitely a spirit in the garden on a morning such as this. No wind, acoustics different in the fog.ReplyDelete
Your grasses look fine in all their tawniness. I've a few panicum 'squaw' and clump of stipa calamagrostis which has buffed up a treat.
Hope your journey south goes ok.
Thanks for reminding me that fog changes sound. An significant phenomenon that probably has powerful subconscious effects.Delete
I had always interpreted the 'genius of the place' as reconciliation ecology. My pagan inclinations seeking out the plants that would once have grown here, to support the creatures that would once have lived here. We are pencilling out ideas for the next garden, but Jurg and I know from the first two that our unprofessional gardening travels a very different journey to the paper map.ReplyDelete
Regarding reconciliation ecology, I recommend Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. Particularly the chapters on Novel Ecosystems and Designer Ecosystems!Delete
Such a full and fascinating post. I need to reread it. This strikes many chords with me: the epiphany that strikes even the agnostic; the beauty of the dying. I am even very struck by your words on miscanthus. I used to have a strong prejudice against grasses in gardens and I credit you and another with making me face up to my prejudice and reassess it. Great post, thank you.ReplyDelete
I'm rather stuck with miscanthus. It has many virtues in my garden. It loves the difficult soil and wet, it's a profoundly successful ground cover, and it provides visual interest in every season. The photos in this post reveal many of the "holes" in the garden, holes where other plants were earlier in the year but plants without the staying power of miscanthus. I've seen Rick Darke's photos of fields of miscanthus in Japan, and I think I'll aim for that effect around the new area I'm putting in.ReplyDelete
I think perhaps you haven't liked grasses because they don't look well in a traditional border with other perennials, but if you use them in a mass, with other perennials as accents, they work much better. The same holds true for many other grasses, I think. The important thing is to get away from the traditional border concept.
So much for the practical side of things. Then there's the aspect of mystery and emotion.
I was struck by how storms with snow and other damage revealed more in your garden, especially those grasses. Very saturated colors there speak of everything else you wrote...impressive!ReplyDelete
The storm and snow haven't left a lot, but it's possible to find meaning and pleasure in what is left. This is actually the first time I realized the wet can literally make colors more saturated.ReplyDelete
The garden of the future? The garden for the apocalyptic imagination?