TOADS IN IMAGINARY GARDENS
I've designed four or five hundred gardens in the Mecklenburg county area, ranging from
small courtyards to major estates. I took a sabbatical from it last year--I was falling into
habit, and nature is too various and botany too distinct to do that. The gardening world had
also undergone a shift in the last decade--a sad one, in my opinion-- from clients
who were interested in getting their hands dirty to those who wanted low maintenance plants.
There are always such pendulumnar motions in any craft, of course, and I am no different
from my clients in this respect. The year that I grew daft on roses was followed by the year
of realizing what roses entail--it was like having a harem of mistresses all whining," o
master, if you do not spray (trim, deadhead, fertilize, etc.)me, I am going to kill
myself." The upshot is that I now have but a few stalwart beauties, who survive on their
There was also an imaginary garden or garden somewhere on the outskirts of what I am
quite able to envision, which I felt would rise to the surface if I just let the subject
alone for a while. No doubt this will only really surface when the ideal client with the
ideal combination of the true vision with the sufficient funds appears--not that most of
my clients (with the occassional exception of the one missing a grommet or two) weren't
What would the ingredients of this imaginary garden be? There are some plants to which I
feel what amounts to a loyalty, so great a pleasure have they given me. Quinces, the bay laurel,
viburnum plicatum tomentosum, the Grayswood hydrangea--whose blooms are a rather
undistinguished blue-gray by day, like stationery, but which have an almost lunar, recessively
lit quality by night-- the Ramona clematis, which is Alice blue. The Alberic
Barbier climbing rose. Prunus Mume, the flowering apricot, which blooms in late January,
even before the forsythia. Witch hazels, monkey puzzles, yews, podocarpi or podocarpuses.
This is a semi-exotic list, but there are many things held to be common now which would
have thrilled an earlier generation--camellias and azaleas--or would us, too, were the
scales to fall from our eyes.
The deciduous azaleas, native to the eastern sea-board, and in colors not usually associated
with their imported counterparts--yellows, golds, ivories tinted with a faint suffusion of
pink--are one such group.And several years ago I did a painting of a Yucca Filamentosa, and
the harder I looked at it, the more beautiful it got, and the more beautiful it got,
the more demanding it became to paint--all those filaments! all those infinitely subtle
graduations of celadon into ivory into pure white! I kept at it--I had a yucca as my
conscience for a month--and then finished it in a state of delight.
"...satisfaction is a lowly thing/how pure a thing is joy!"
I gravely doubt if the inattentive can enter the kingdom of heaven, however anointed they
think they may be.
"All complete attention is prayer." (Simone Weill)
I have therefore promised myself that whatever I design next will be done with an attention
honed on the Yucca Filamentosa, not the frantic call of a client who wants to buy with
money what only patience can supply. There is no such thing as an instant garden.
A FAVORITE GARDEN
My estimable colleague, Nancy Brachey of The Observer, asked if I had any before and
after shots of my work. I thought of all the photographs of bare lots or newly constructed
dwellings on raw clay which I could give her, but nary a finished product, for the simple
reason that I was always en route to the next project. Also, if the truth be known, never
once was a garden executed according to plan. Something was always unavailable in June,
though it was coming out of our ears in March, or to be had only in the wrong size--
I could go on. This garden, however, was one I especially liked. My clients had their
own streak of originality and a certain dauntlessness reflected in the house itself,
which reminded me of the house in Alain-Fournier's Le Grande Meaulnes or the chateau
in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.
LABYRINTHS AND SPIRAL WATER-FEATURES
Here are several Islamic water features which have haunted me since I saw them in
Eleanor Moynihan's excellent PARADISE AS A GARDEN (Braziller 1979, now out of print)
(I have an excellent craftsman with impeccable references who is willing to fabricate
such water features if anyone wishes to do so; contact me at my email address, if
KENNST DU DAS LAND?(a prose poem from an earlier journal)
I no longer felt alone when I realized I was facing a garden, and feeling the prescence
nearby of an interlocutor, someone dear, followed the sound of a fountain--or so it seemed
--into the court. There the sense of memory long subsumed and now re-emerging quickened.
The tiles of the pool, the light the waters cast, the fishes darting in schools
seemed magnified not by a lense, but by some event from long ago about to recur.
Those columns were silent friends during a discourse in which I was instructed on some mission
of the soul, now done, and I was about to undergo a debriefing or receive my
brief. Familiar, too, were the lengthy porticos built in a time where annunciations occurred
to the devout as seasonally as spring returns, so clear and firm they stood. This time do not
speak in signs or let the moment pass:the insufficiency of the ordinary life I hold
as proof that should the time long gone and the time on which I seem to verge at last
take hands, it would be the Truth.
GARDENING BLOG TWO
No one tells you that gardening will involve fishing your old dad out of the pond,
but that is what happened to me. Things had gotten too quiet, so I started to look
for him. There he was, waist deep in the water at the far edge of it which drains
into a wooded depression beyond the dam. He was trying to move a felled tree which
was blocking the drain by propping it up on a folded chair--barely visible in the
sediment--and sawing the tree limb by limb until it was movable. I shook my head,
inwardly swearing, and got my old work boots on, and plunged into the water to help
him, thinking of many graphic episodes from nature programs.
Logically, I ought to have scolded him for entirely lacking sense but the situation
started to tickle me, soaked as I was, wrestling with the tree-trunk as if it were
a crocodile; to finally lift the whole log out, dripping with bog, was an odd triumph.
Neither of my parents has a compliant bone in their body, and one is deaf and the
other dotty, so gardening with them can be hairy. Dad wishes to spare every weed,
which he misidentifies in all its glory. Mama wants roses in the shade. There is
also controversy about what vegetables and melons to plant--I have erred into some
Yankee culinary heresies as far as they're concerned--whereas I consider the row
of okra with dread, because I can foresee it fried in corn meal as a treat--fried
and burned, for mama's cooking skills have worsened with her memory. I thought about
growing arugula, but it seemed old-fashioned, like kiwis or balsamic vinegar. Instead
I planted a fig bush.
My sister, who lives in my grandma's old house, tore down the fig-bush which grew
next to the garage, which had more or less fallen down. This fig bush was meant
to be compensatory. As a child,I used to sit amongst the old fig-bush---it was that
large and I that small--and it was only one of the trees I sat amongst, the others being a magnolia grandiflora next to the church, and only a bit smaller than the church, the grape
arbor at my grandmas, our treehouse--which had a retracting ladder--and various
nests and odd warrens in the nearby woods. Looking back on it, and it seems that
we children did a lot of tree-sitting, and climbing, and hanging on branches in the
rain. It makes sense. My father will jump in a pond at the age of 84.
What I find so sadly lacking in suburban gardens, now that I think of it, is that
tree-sittingness. Get that back, as a human feature, and a great many of our
ecological problems will be solved. Growing a few vegetables won't hurt, either.