The Daily Muse
I have been very busy sketching and scheming about the design of the new garden. Several ideas have surfaced, evolved, been rejected, and then firmly taken root. Designing a garden is a lot like gardening itself- it is a never-ending process and I'm sure that I will never stop tinkering. The idea that I cannot shake right now is that of the garden as a journey. I want to shape the back yard so that visitors will feel compelled to explore each of the very distinct spaces along the garden path. There will be no one single destination, but rather, a series of them, all interconnected; one will lead to another, yet each will have its own identity. Even though this is a very loose guiding principle, it helps tremendously to have one.
Seasoned travellers understand the dilemma of trying to cram too much into the "journey". You need to "be with" a place long enough to savor its rythms and textures. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that one is looking for a place to "be", the other things to see. Likewise, a garden intended for pilgrims and travellers will be significantly different from one designed for "curb appeal". I hope that my garden will be filled with places where people will want to linger, where they can sink into the experience of the journey. So, I find myself prioritizing about experiences, not plants. Though I count myself as a "plant person", I am having to reign in my desire to have all of the different species that I love. Instead, I have to ask myself- will they lend themselves to the overall design and experience I am trying to create?
The design work has been tremendously rewarding, but there is something else going on the garden right now that I know will have its own rewards... composting! All of the trees that we had cut down were shredded into chips and are now composting in eight huge piles in our back yard. I promised myself when I moved into our new home that I would improve the soil before I ever planted a single thing in the ground. That process is now under way. In addition to the compost that I have on hand, I will probably add thirty square yards of compost and soil to the back yard alone. The existing soil here is a heavy gunky clay, so in addition to the compost, I will make sure that we include decomposed granite gravel and sand to improve the drainage. I failed to work the soil as well as I could have in my last garden, and I will not suffer the same fate here. Its the soil stupid!
(For more on this subject checkout the "Library" article on the "Soul of the Soil.")
The design of the new garden is advancing. It is ambitious, perhaps overly so. I am attempting to break down the expanse of the back yard into a series of intimate spaces that are all connected through the use of formal geometry. Just laying out the "bones", or hardscape of the garden, as I now envision it, will be a huge endeavor. I have been asking trusted friends, and professionals whose work I admire, to provide feedback about my scheme. I guess that I am hoping they will provide that flash of insight that will show me the way to pull all of this off without breaking the bank. However, I am beginning to suspect that I will end up breaking the bank and my back on this one!
In a short while, Marie Carmel, a landscape architect with a keen eye and a gardener's soul, will be stopping by. I will give her the grand tour and we'll look over the drawings that I've come up with so far. Do I want reaffirmation, or a new direction? I honestly don't know. Yet, I do know that gardening with ideas is just as important as sticking plants in the ground.
Last night I was out in the back yard setting a trap for some racoons who have decided to call our attic home, and as I turned to go back in the house, I saw the rising moon perfectly framed by the trees of our neighbor's yard. (Don't worry it was a capture and release trap!) The moon was full, or nearly so, and had a beautiful golden glow. The moon for me, and for many of us, exists in several different realities. It is a cold and brutally scarred rock orbiting our planet, yet it is so much more- it is a source of wonder and a projection of both our dreams and delusions. Instead of going directly back inside, I wandered over to our bird bath, wanting to see the light reflected in the only water feature available. As I stood by the little pool, I purposely stirred the water, sending waves across the surface that scattered the moon's reflection. For a moment I was transported back to the banks of a stream in the Texas Big Thicket, the place where I first encountered the natural beauty of this state.
Big Cow Creek, in Newton County, doesn't have the resonant name one might hope for, but it remains a very meaningful place for me. I learned a lot about myself, about friendship, and of course, about the environment there . My love for the native plants of Texas was born of canoe trips down the creek and rambles through the woods along its banks. River birch, bald cypress, catalpa, tupelo, sweet bay, red bay, magnolia, yaupon, dogwood, and great white oaks... these were my companions, along with the highschool buddies who introduced me to the place. And even though I have only been back to Cow Creek once in the past eighteen years, I still count it as a touchstone, an internal landscape that I reach for instinctively. Last night, for a brief moment, I stood on one of the white sand bars that line the creek- I breathed in the damp scent of decay that lingers along that riparian edge where the creek meets the forest floor, and glanced down to see a fish scatter the moon's reflection.
Water and the moon, two features all gardeners should take into account.
I read a quote recently that said something to the effect that all truly great garden paths lead to water. Then, while attending a lecture yesterday, I was reminded that water is often used as a symbol of our unconcious depths. Those few steps across the lawn last night, that brief moment, reminded me of those truths.
The following comes from an old journal, dated October, 28, 1978:
A fish surfaces in the creek
scattering the moon's reflection-
silver echoes embrace the shore
and then disappear.
I fall silent, and the laughter settles-
my friends wonder what it is
that I have just seen.
My experience in the back yard a few nights ago (see August 14 entry) has continued to tug at my heart. It is funny the way those things happen, a few ripples in a bird bath and your life changes for days on end.
I have been thinking about what our gardens mean to us in ways that are beyond our day-to-day understanding. Ask most anyone about why he or she gardens, and they may respond by talking about the connection to nature one experiences when working the soil, the joy of creation, or simply, the pleasure taken in the fruits of their labors. There is much to be said for all of those responses, they are all valid, even profound. However, in the past few years I have grown to realize that there is something else, some internal need that fuels my passion for gardening. It is the need to recreate the magical or sacred spaces that have shaped my experience of the divine. In a sense, I am trying to open portals or windows to those experiences by shaping the land in a purposeful way.
Two days ago I was writing about the stream in the Big Thicket that served as my introduction to the natural world of Texas. For me it was a formative place, a place where the bonds of friendship were forged and sometimes stretched nearly to the breaking point. It was a place where I first dared to walk in my own footsteps, to feel the freedom and terror of being exactly who I am. Still, there was something very tentative about those times, I was just a teenager and lived in both fear and anticipation of the future as well as the truth about myself, as so many young people do. The times that I shared with my friends along the banks of Cow Creek are now bound up in a kind of primal dream where landscape, friendship, discovery, love, and inevitably, pain and loss, are united.
I think that most of us carry landscapes of memory and emotion within. Often, we shape our gardens in an unconcious effort to recreate those landscapes. Julie Moir Messervy, a superb gardening author, has written a book that encourages us to intentionally create landscapes of meaning and memory. It is called "The Inward Garden", and it I count it as my favorite book about garden design. Messervy uses key symbolic elements as the organizing principles of garden design and suggests ways for us to weave them into our own landscapes.
In the garden that I am currently designing for myself, a critical focal point will be an allee of bald cypress trees. This feature will have tremendous symbolic importance for me. An allee is simply a double line of trees planted in such a way that they create a covered passage or walkway. The streams of the Texas Hill Country have many natural cypress allees where the trees line the water's edges. Echoing the banks of streams like the Frio, Guadalupe, or Sabinal would be reason enough for me to create my own cypress allee. However, the form of the allee has even deeper associations for me. When I was a kid visiting Cow Creek in the Big Thicket, I used to rise very early in the morning to watch the mist rising off the water. Often, I would make my way down to one of the sand bars along the bends in the creek. In those places, river birch trees would also form natural allees. I would crouch down under their glistening, dewy branches and experience the forest waking for the day. The cries of the barred owls would recede deeper into the sloughs and woods, and kingfishers would take up their positions in branches over-hanging the stream. Sheltered between the peeling trunks of the river birch I really felt as if I was on sacred ground.
Sacred gound. We know it when we stand, or crouch, upon it. It is waiting for us in our memories and waiting to be created in our gardens.
I have been sharing my ideas about the design of the new garden with a number of friends and professionals whose opinions I admire. On two separate occasions, I have been asked, "where will you sit"? Not, "where will you put the benches"? Those were clearly identified on the drawings. Or, "where will you entertain"? But rather, something much more specific... where will you sit to be with the garden? That was how I understood their question. And, it is a question that all gardeners should consider.
We do not create gardens as places to simply pass through, and God help us, I hope we don't consider them as drive-by ornaments. Instead, gardeners create spaces that they long to be with. We hunger for places that bring us closer to ourselves, and yet, empty us of self- where the boundaries, categories, and definitions of our lives blur and fall away. Our garden seats, our places of meditation, offer us the sanctuary and rest that our own conciousness denies us. Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree - Where will your bodhi tree be?
A garden seat might be tucked away in a quiet corner of the garden, or it may command a view, sheltered only by the sky. Gretel Ehrlich, author of "The Solace of Open Spaces" writes about the treeless high plains of Wyoming: "Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us."
Create a seat at the heart of your garden, and perhaps many years from now, and many miles away, you will find yourself sitting there, unburdened.
I spent the last hour or two repotting some of my agaves, trimming roses, and washing stones. I collect stones dug from a nearby cemetery, they are piled up off to one side and are frequently raided by gardeners from the surrounding neighborhoods. Most of what you find is uninteresting- a very chalky limestone, occasionally, however, they hit a strata of much harder stones that bear the marks of ancient floods. The waters bore worm-hole like passages through the limestone creating bizarre, convoluted shapes. When I find one that strikes my fancy, I bring it home and work a hose through the clay choked holes hoping to reveal something especially striking. Today's catch was a good one, it looks vaguely like a triceratops skull.
The cemetery is just a few blocks from my home and I always see a few of my older neighbors taking their "constitutionals" there. It is quiet and green, and as my charming next door neighbor says, "You don't have to worry about the traffic." She is a widow, eighty-five years old, but seems as fit as someone thirty years her junior. I have found myself wondering if her husband is buried under one of the twisting live oaks that line the cemetery drives.
Many of the gravesites are marked by benches, flowers, windchimes, and trees. It is a patchwork garden of granite markers and memorabilia. Friends of mine have been buried there, and people, both famous and infamous, who I worked with during my career. Despite that, I don't find it to be a depressing place, instead, it is comforting at a deep level.
A few years ago I was working on a documentary about the history and architecture of the Texas/Mexico border. During our production we saw many wonderful sights, including the haunting ruins of Guerrero Viejo, a ghost town flooded by Falcon Reservoir. The place I remember most fondly, however, was a rather typical cemetery on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. It was surrounded by a hurricane fence that had been completely braided with ribbons. Every diamond shaped space in the fence glowed with bright colors- hot Mexican pink, yellow, and blue. The individual grave sites were immaculate, many were ornamented with candles, plastic flowers, statues, rosaries, and an occasional sugar skull. It was a touching and distant echo of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, where the living celebrate the passions of those who have passed before.
The character of a people shows in the variety of gardens that they tend.
Continue to Daily Muse for September 2000
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