Sunday Opinion: The Authenticity Of Place

I met three new people yesterday.  A couple with a sizeable property working with an architect on designing a large open conservatory space and terrace that would allow them to spend more time and entertain out doors, were equally as interested in addressing their landscape.  I spent several hours with them, discussing the scope of their project. They were very interested that I understand why they had bought the house. He was very clear in comunicating that the house was relatively unimportant in their decision process; they bought on the strength of his keen interest in the property.  It is large, has many mature trees, and a very interesting and varied topography.  The house sits quite high; the view driving up almost suggests the house sits on a cliff.  He discussed at some length how much the placement of the house suited him.  Those of you familiar with Julie Messervy’s book, The Inward Garden, will recall her discussion of what she calls “archetypal gardens”.  Each child’s physical experience of “place” later in life culminates in a psychological concept of the world. ( This is an unfairly condensed version of her ideas; If you are a gardener, I could not too highly recommend reading this book.)  He feels a genuine connection to this particular place. 

He went on to discuss the importance of his family, and his relationships with them.  This in and of itself is not remarkable; many people value family above all else. What was interesting was his description of that life.  His interaction with friends and family was very much intertwined with his interaction with the natural world.  He wanted everyone in his immediate sphere to experience nature in some way. His children would be exposed to and learn about nature.  As to benefits, many people talk about a need for peace and serenity at home.  I can so well relate to that feeling.  He was especially articulate, describing how wearing the demands of  public life can be.  He emphasized how important the landscape and garden was in restoring and maintaining his sense of well being.  In conclusion, he told me that a house and home was no doubt a wonderful thing.  But no matter how nice a house might be, in the end, it would always be a cave. He would be happiest, outdoors.  His interest that the landscape be beautiful and well looked after is a personal and proprietary interest of his. He is interested that the landscape spaces flow such that he is able to entertain, teach his children, entertain and enjoy the beauty and excitement of every square inch of it.  Though I do not expect to see him turning soil, this person is a gardener. 

What interested me the most about meeting the two of them was how they had organized their first meeting with me.  They had thought a lot about what the landscape meant to them, and felt that this discussion was the first order of business. They made a distinction between the big scheme of things, and and all else that came under the heading of details.   I like when I see people thinking personally, abstractly, intelligently and passionately about the prospect of a garden.  They genuinely represented themselves.  I share with them an interest as a designer that the sculpture which is the landscape have an authenticity of place. 

Though I only know enough to be dangerous discussing the idea known as ”genius loci”, the words translate literally from the latin as the genius of place.  I interpret this to mean that a landscape, authentic to the environment and culture from whence it comes, has a genuine and special beauty. In classical times, the actual meaning of the phrase meant not so much the place, but the guardian divinity of that place. Clearly nature is the guardian divinity of the property under discussion; they both made reference to this with as much delight as conviction. An idea much discussed in England in the 18th century, this distilled bit from Alexander Pope;  ”Consult the genius of the place in all…”  The large landscape parks in England from this time period were designed with the idea that a truly successful landscape was a more civilized, less savage, and virtually indistinguishable version of what nature might herself create. Much later, Lawrence Durrell would say ” …you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place.”  As much as I (The aforementioned came largely from an article on genius loci from The Journal of Urban Design written by Jiven and Larkham) am interested in philosophical underpinnings, I am much more tuned in and trusting of the judgments made by the eye.  I think landscapes that don’t look or feel right, that are not seated in the environment in which they are made, that are disconnected, and lack a sense of authenticity, have that movie set aura about them to which I could never belong.

A sense of belonging is not so easy to come by, for anyone.  However, I clearly belong to my garden, and the gardens I make for others.   The third person I met at a dinner party last night.  I was introduced to him by both name and profession; he spent a few minutes talking to me about his landscape.  He said when he came home at night, and closed the car gates behind him, there was not a single visual clue anywhere on the property or in the landscape that would reveal that he lived in Michigan.  He had a classically formal French garden, perfect in every detail.  Every bit of this delighted him. I have not seen the garden, so I have no opinion about it.  But were I ever asked to do any design work for him, I would want to understand what would provoke such an intense longing for another time, and another place, that he would find such a dislocation beautiful.  I have designed plenty for people with a penchant for formal and edited French design.  Or perennial borders with an English flavor. But none the less, these are American gardens, set in Michigan. I happen to think Michigan is a very beautiful place, as do the clients I just met.  That we treasure our place is common ground.

Sunday Opinion: Gifted, Feted, and Otherwise Entertained

As much as I may be breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays have come to a close, I do so enjoy them.  They are such an opportunity to gift, fete and entertain those with whom one feels close. They make for a winter landscape that is warm. Though I am readily absorbed by the process of dressing my home and garden for the winter, sharing that outcome with others is the best part by far.  Buck and I did host a fete for friends in late December.  If “a fete for friends” sounds like a charity function to you-it was.  We were all in need of some good natured hubbub, lots of laughter and fun, in each other’s company. Some friends brought appetizers; others brought cookies or wine. Everyone brought some holiday cheer.  As I was the only person who knew everyone, there were people meeting for the first time-and sharing interests. I learned that the C’s knew the B’s long ago from a mutual vacation spot.  That Cantoros Italian grocery store has this or that you cannot find elsewhere. That this friend was sure to become a friend of that one.  At one point Buck was firing up the Harley in the basement for an equally enamoured friend; later he was showing super eight movies from the 20′s on one of his vintage projectors.  One friend’s favorite moment?  As Buck is showing his movies and talking about his projector collection, the 20-something daughter of another friend standing behind him is filming the entire scene-on her i-phone.  The generation gap documented start to finish-in some 30 seconds. Put friends together-what shakes out is sure to paste a smile on my heart for days.

A colleague and friend has a gift for giving.  He pays attention to who people are; were you ever to get a gift from him, you would understand how seriously he pays attention.  My Christmas gift from him is invariably a shopping bag chock full of what must have taken him the entire year to amass.  Every single thing speaks to what he has observed and remembered about me. There’s nothing big, or hugely expensive, with the exception of his lavish hand with great cheese-just clear evidence of respect and affection for me, the person. I do not get this from him only at Christmas.  Valentine’s Day last year came midway through my effort to paint 100 little watercolors of auricula primroses;  nine little auricula hybrid plants came by post on the 14th.  I treasure his ability to put another ahead of himself; I am not nearly this thoughtful.

We have had friends over a lot this holiday season. Some bring treats and toys for the dogs. They fill the house with unmistakeable signs of life.  They invite us back by return phone call; we have been to their studios for tour dinners.  We planned a spaghetti cookoff with new friends-of course both dinners were the best.  We had New Year’s brunch at a friend whose menu was as elegant as her salon style manner of entertaining.  New Year’s dinner with neighbor friends featured the pub food they served at their pub in England many years ago.  Their entire family treats us like we belong to them.  Still other friends set their table and entertained us as if we were visiting heads of state.  This treatment from friends feels good.    

Friends took us to Sunday brunch today at a favorite restaurant of theirs in Detroit. The uniformly green building has no sign in front, just the initials LdV on the gate. Around back, in the alley, they park your car for you.  This small Italian restaurant/bar has superlative food; my eggs benedict and prosecco was perfect. I could not keep my fork out of Buck’s pasta.  A small band filled the place with music-jazz, calypso-everyone was laughing, talking, dancing and having fun. Add to this the spirited conversation with friends-a perfect afternoon.  So many things got said that I was afraid I would forget-I took notes.  I hear tell the second Sunday of the month is their pajama brunch.  Yes, you are welcome in your pajamas.  Some come in outlandish constume-and if you are still there at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, a group picture gets taken.  I can’t wait.  Who knew a Sunday could be so much fun?

Our friends independently came to the decision that they were done griping, whining, and fearing.  As hard as it is to navigate in a gloomy fog, getting lost is a choice, not a given.  They talked a lot about how as Americans, they grew up knowing about imagination, ingenuity, hard work, and goodwill-this comes with our culture. It is still part of the culture. Of note, a recent program to recruit volunteers to teach kids in Detroit to read had 2000 people sign up-incredible, and incredibly good for our city, said our friends. Something good for our city-within our grasp.  Watching this very diverse group of Sunday brunchers fill a room with laughter, music and fun, I believed them.  Why shouldn’t I?  It occurred to me that but for these friends, none of this would be on my mind.

For 2010, I could take all the energy with which I have been gifted, feted, and otherwise entertained by my friends, and pass it along in some way. The simple science?  From Newtonian physics, we know that anything in motion tends to stay in motion-unless acted upon by an outside force. Outside forces I can keep outside, should I determine they might stop me in my tracks.  Inside forces keep the fire burning. Keeping the fire burning-a good goal for the new year.

Sunday Opinion: Little Miss Heartburn

I regularly read the garden blog Garden Rant (www.gardenrant.com); there is always something stewing, brewing, or cooking over there.  Their essays are very well-written,  passionately sincere, and more often than not, provocative. They even manage to make vegetable gardening sound fascinating-see what I mean? I am likely to read every word of their discussion of tomato varieties though hell would likely freeze over before I would grow any myself.  They shift from funny to genuinely outraged in a startling flash; have you noticed this?  One of my favorite posts?  Michele’s essay last July on invasive plants is really about something else altogether. Midway through she says, “If it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it.  If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.” How well said is this? Though I don’t always agree with what I read-what does that matter?  Garden Rant is a first rate read.

This morning’s post- “Martha Stewart gets fact checked by hort professor”-by Susan Harris.   Having read the current issue of Martha Stewart Living, I could not agree more with Susan that Martha’s  case for the superiority of organically grown food has no basis in any decent science whatsoever.  I never gave Martha’s half-baked hoticultural blather another thought after reading it, nor would I take her to task over it-why would I?  She writes pop tunes, not symphonies.  She publishes a lifestyle magazine; she has not had scholarly works published in Scientific American. She parlayed her interest in cooking, gardening and graceful living into an empire of her own making, not undeserved. Make no mistake, I have the highest respect for her, and what she has accomplished.  She has made good design, good cooking, good crafting, good housekeeping – the proverbial good life –  accessible to many, many people-me included. She persuaded me to try to make a gingerbread house (I did a decent job) and a croquembouche.  I moved away from that house years later-that glittering spun sugar syrup still stuck tight to the kitchen ceiling.  But I would not know the words profiterole and croquembouche, but for her.  I learned how to fold towels from her;  my linen closet is a paean to serenity, not a mess that agitates me first thing in the morning.  I am a professional mess maker-I do not want that when I go home.  I grew my first Parma violets, dried my first hydrangeas, and made my first rose cuttings with instruction from her. I made my own invitations, picture frames, painted garden pots-all with encouragement from her. That Martha still talks me into trying things. When you say the name Martha, who doesn’t know the person under discussion?  You might be interested to know that my scientist Mom taught me none of the afore-mentioned skills.  Though my understanding of the science of nutrient absorption by plants is pretty darn good, I still couldn’t make a Pavlova if my life depended on it-unless Martha had coached me.  If you think one kind of knowledge is superior to another-you got me there.  In my opinion, I like a balance.  Though the dirt under my nails is permanent, one never knows when a manicure might appeal to me.  Better yet, I would have no problem going ahead.  Martha is first rate at encouraging people to go ahead, and try. 

No doubt she is a lightening rod for all of us who take our passions seriously, and abhor a quick fix, a sloppy premise, a mispelled word, or an idea too glossy to believe.  I choose to believe this comes from our expectation that she be be perfect, and our disappointment when she is not-not from any failing on her part.  I could make a long list of all the things Martha Stewart is not-besides not being a horticulturalist.  Somehow this does not seem useful.  When she is talking from who she is, I listen in. When she is talking pop trash, I tune out.  This is my choice, and it probably is my responsibility.  I do not think Martha is guilty of faulty thinking, nor do I she should watch out for any impending scientific gaffe. The magazine is named Martha Stewart Living-not Martha Stewart Eminent Scientist. I need to be thoughtful about where I go for information.  Everything in print does not imply the truth-people know this.  If I want information backed up by scientific research on the merits and pitfalls of growing or eating organically, I would read Dr. Chalker Scott-as would any number of thousands of intelligent gardeners all over this country.  I give people credit for being able to sort out the kernel from the chaff. Gardeners are by and large a rough and ready lot; they rarely need protection.

The most compelling reason I have to let Martha’s voodoo horticulture slide is Lewis Thomas.  I have read his books of essays over and over again. I would encourage any gardener to read him-he is better than the best steak you ever ate. He makes the point that the sum total of all of our scientific knowledge has yet to enable us to define or fully explain the miracle that is life; he doubts there ever will be perfect knowledge. I see evidence of this every day.  Three weeks ago I bought four pointsettias. Tented in kraft paper sleeves, I rushed them out of the nursery to my car-everyone knows pointsettias despise cold temperatures. In anticipation of holiday company, I planted two of them in pots on my unheated front porch-a room 5 x 11 feet.  The entire front wall is glass; the pots are inches from that glass.  I felt so guilty sentencing them to an early death with my thoughtless treatment-but they looked so great through the windows. OK, I used two pointsettias as party props. As our temperatures are in the low twenties now, I expected to have to pitch them within 2 days.Three weeks later, I cannot tell the difference between these points, and the ones in my 70 degree house. They look perfectly happy.  I am perfectly surprised.

My take is that very little of the science is finished.  You may fact check someone-but what are you fact checking them against?  I give my clients advice all the time about how to garden; how I garden is based on my 25 years experience and knowledge I have otherwise acquired or choose to believe. If I am speaking to an experienced gardener, I tell them this is my way-which they may or may not wish to try.  If it is a new gardener, I tell them what to do; I think it is more important to help insure their early success, so they keep gardening, than to qualify what I say with disclaimers. I have had clients insist that I give them the botanical names of plants, even when I know they will not remember.  They are interested in believing in my expertise, not tripping me up. 

I have had many a moment when I have wanted to wallop someone up side their head with a blistering fact check.  Clients, suppliers, service people, friends, enemies-a recalcitrant plant.   I can rant with the best of them-the details of which are best left unknown.  When I get to going on too long, Buck knows how to turn the tide.  When he calls me Little Miss Heartburn, I cannot help but laugh. How lucky I am to have him.

As for you, Susan Harris, I hope I have not irritated you beyond all belief-this is just a little good natured back talk. I read everything you write-and better yet, I am provoked to think about it long and hard; the length of this essay, and the late publishing date on my Sunday opinion is data that should survive a fact check. Truly, many thanks for what you and yours contribute to my gardening life.

Sunday Opinion: Oxygen

I  go to work really early; I like uninterrupted time to wake up, have coffee, plan the day, and play ball with the dogs. I often use this time to write-especially the Sunday opinion essay.  Of late I have been taking photographs with the tripod-in the dark.  I am curious what I cannot see, that the unblinking eye of the camera will catch. This routinely unscheduled time alone is my oxygen; I need to breath it in, to live. Later Steve will be in; we will sort out the day.  Later yet, I will need to pull materials, sketch plans, talk on the phone, handle the unexpected. My rush hour starts around 7:30. Some days it persists longer than you would think.  I would bet most other people’s days are just about like mine-but for the oxygen.  What any given person needs to breathe in such that their blood circulates briskly-individual.

I have written and written again about how the gardening season goes on for me, long after the killing frost turns the landscape quiet.  How much of this is either self defense, or just talk-probably more than I think.  I do so miss the plants and the dirt. I miss cruising the garden, eating outdoors; I miss all of it, and I will go on missing it another three months anyway.  Yesterday morning I woke up needing a little of that kind of oxygen.  I waited around impatiently for the clock to read 8:45; I was walking in the door of Bordine’s Nursery at 9:05.  The quality of the oxygen is what hits you first.  The air is enriched with water, and smells like life. This sort of oxygen I need to live.  Even though they are at the end of their holiday season, there was plenty of living going on.

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Having been a gardener a long time, I know what a well-grown plant looks like.  Every place I looked, gorgeous plants grown by Rick Brinks. The greenhouse was filled with all manner of plants in warm colors; the chartreuse benching made all the color look even better.  I found myself not one, but two flatbed shopping carts-and shop I did. The red and white pointsettias were luscious. As were the cyclamen.  I like the mini-cyclamens better than the standard size.  They seem more like a garden plant, than a hothouse version of a plant.  Both will bloom a long time over the winter. The leaves are as beautiful as the flowers-although flowers were really what I needed yesterday.  I bought amaryllis bulbs to pot up.  These papery brown bulbs are programmed to speedily launch their stout stalks topped with three or four giant flowers practically while you watch.  I found some tropical ferns and yellow variegated dracaenas-their shades of green were a sight for my sore eyes. 

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Last night I was potting plants on the kitchen counter.  Buck was standing right next to me, armed with the roaring hose of the shop vac. The dirt crumbs and wet blobs and other detritus didn’t stand a chance.  I was in my own kitchen, watching a live time episode of  ”Cooking with Miss Dirtiness”.  It was pretty funny.  Yesterday-all I did all day was breathe.