Suspended is Belief

The scene is set for dreaming.

Like dewdrops caught in a silken net, thousands of crystal droplets shimmer in the slightest breeze above a secluded parterre in Dumbarton Oaks.

For the last year, this unexpected confection of light and space has enchanted visitors to the historic garden at the north end of Georgetown. The work of the Cao-Perrot Studio of Los Angeles and Paris, the “Cloud Terrace” was supposed to have been dismantled last November, but it has proven to be so popular that the garden directors decided to leave it up all winter. It’s now expected to be gone at the end of March. We’ll see.

In the meantime, the quiet shimmering beauty of the work continues to draw crowds who attempt to capture its mysterious allure with cameras great and small.

Cameras click like castanets, trying to catch pixie dust.

I was lucky the first time I went to see it. Perhaps because it was a weekday, and a rare sunny day between windy storms, there were few people there. I could sit and savor the way the hand-tied Swarovski crystals catch and throw the light.

Such a distinctive temporary art installation seems all the more striking in Beatrix Farrand’s classical garden setting, where little has changed in decades.

Even the most meticulously designed garden is subject to the relentless tide of time. Blooms come and go. Trees age and die. The entire composition of a garden is in a continual state of flux. You could say that every garden is a temporary work of art. Many gardens vanish when the gardeners who created them pass on. Luckily, when the great gardens of the past are championed and sustained by successive generations of garden lovers, our lives continue to be enriched by these dynamic works of living art.

I don’t know what Beatrix Farrand would have thought of the “Cloud Terrace,” but it’s clear as crystal that modern crowds can’t get enough of it.

The Pinch of Time

Leave your worries behind, all ye who enter here.

One of my early favorite books was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Like many a soft-hearted young girl, I was moved by the story of a hidden garden in which a lonely girl and a crippled boy find inspiration and joy.

I wanted a garden like that.

All through my life I’ve been drawn to such places. While many public gardens put on lavish displays of horticultural artistry, those which retain that “Secret Garden” sense of magical reprieve from the harshness of modern life are rare.

The All Hallows Guild of the National Cathedral has nurtured and sustained one such garden in Washington, D.C., for nearly eighty years. The AHG, an all volunteer group which raises funds and helps maintain the Bishop’s Garden, also puts on the wildly popular annual Flower Mart on the Cathedral grounds each May, and offers many education programs including tours of the extensive grounds.

Since 1934, one of the Guild’s most beloved projects has been The Herb Cottage, a little slice of old English charm nestled in the shadow of the Cathedral. The cottage actually predates the Cathedral and has a fascinating history of its own. However, the march of time trod rather heavily on the charming old building during the aftermath of the earthquake which shook Washington in the summer of 2011.

While the earthquake itself left the cottage untouched, not long after repair work began on the Cathedral’s towers, a giant crane fell on the cottage, damaging the roof and some of the surrounding plantings. Since that time the AHG has been soldiering on, offering The Herb Cottage’s wares in the Cathedral’s underground garage while repairs began on the cottage.

But the shake up at the Cathedral seems to have affected more than the architecture. Apparently some in the church leadership viewed the crane accident as an opportunity to “repurpose” (yes, I loathe such words—can you tell?) The Herb Cottage and turn it into a café.

Ah. Where do I start?

I like cafés. Who doesn’t? Coffee, tea, muffins and whatnot. But is this the best place to locate a social hub? The Herb Cottage is only a few feet from the entrance to the Bishop’s Garden. It’s a landmark and a treasure. And what is more fitting than for it to be used as it always has been, as a place for gardeners and those who love them to buy souvenirs and gifts that celebrate the sublime serenity and grace of gardens in general and the Bishop’s Garden in particular?

A café somewhere on the Cathedral grounds is a fine idea. But it needn’t be housed where the clatter of cups and the chatter of customers would inevitably overflow into the sanctuary of the garden air.

I first stepped into the Bishop’s Garden more than forty years ago. It was a thrilling discovery, happened upon by accident. I’ve returned many times in the years since, though I lived far from the city for much of that time. Now I’m back, and they’re going to replace the Herb Cottage with a coffee shop?

I’ve been told that you can’t fight progress. And I’m all for progress.

But I’m not convinced that all change is progress. Some things are fine just the way they are, or, in the case of The Herb Cottage, the way it was.

Lay Down Your Weary Trowel

Peach Chairs

Aaah. Summer’s end. Time for that final dip in the pool, walk on the beach, drink on the deck. Bittersweet, perhaps, but there’s something pleasurable about reaching the end of the row, the turn in the road, the fresh new page.

Labor Day is a freestyle holiday, relatively new as holidays go. Its traditions were never set in stone. It’s more of a do-your-own-thing kind of affair, which seems quintessentially American to me.

While the original concept back in the 1880s seems to have been grounded in some sort of political maneuvering to keep restless workers and labor movements from getting out of control, the modern holiday has succumbed to the default state of so many of our so-called holidays. It’s another marketing opportunity.

However, for those of us who garden, Labor Day marks the beginning of the end and the end of some beginnings. Autumn labors are of a different stripe than the joyful, optimism of spring planting or the fretful battles of summer against bugs, blights and drought. The harvest season looms.

This year I said goodbye to my garden in Seattle. As yet I don’t know where my next garden will be. But in the interim I have found peace and pleasure admiring the gardens in D.C. It’s an international community here, and that’s reflected in the gardens.

Whether they grow vegetables or flowers or herbs or fruits, all gardeners speak the same language. They get it.

Earth comes first. Always has, always will. If we take care of it, it will take care of us.

Garden Talisman

Hawthorn Morn

Mauve Madness

’Tis the season to be mauve at Seattle’s Green Lake.

Tree nuts flock  to Green Lake all year round to marvel at the towering Sequoias, noble Elms and whispering Cottonwoods. In spring the cherry trees gnarled with age billow with blooms of palest pink and white. In autumn golden Plane trees shower the paths with luminous leaves.

Books and poems laud the arboreal splendor of the plantings, which are fastidiously maintained by the city’s parks department.  Cherished by locals and visitors alike, many of the trees were planted to honor significant events or citizens, although not all were planted out of love. For instance,  the city’s publication “Outstanding Trees of Green Lake” notes: “The six Cedars of Lebanon by the tennis courts are the largest in Seattle and have a fascinating history. They were planted in 1934 to placate an irate lawyer.”

Yet while the mighty Redwoods and and soothing Cedars get top billing on the star tree program, even the lesser trees have their moments.

Pinked to perfection.

Right now, it’s showtime for the Red Hawthorns. Normally, they don’t excite much interest, being either too small to catch the eye, or too shapeless to ignite passion. And they’re not even red, really. More a kind of pinky mauve.

Pretty in Pink

But in their own quiet way the masses of tiny mauve blooms sweeten the mix.

Yes, she said, yes, only pinker.

The artist James Whistler once said “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple.”

Maybe so, but I give it points for trying.

A walk on the pink side.

Thinking Outside the Mall

You don't need to be royalty to enjoy this lawn.

What does your front lawn say about you?

Stay out, or come on in?

In the Big Picture, the National Mall serves as our national red carpet, our welcome mat to the world.

It’s where we gather as a nation to air our grievances and grieve for our errors; where we celebrate our victories and honor our heroes. It’s where we mingle with our countrymen and reweave the fabric of our society. No matter how frayed or stained it may get in the heated battles that come with free speech and the rule of law, at the end of the day, we all value the concepts which launched this bold young nation.

Sometimes we lose sight of those original lofty dreams – the speeches fade from memory. Sometimes we need to be reminded of how we came together and why we’re stronger together than we could hope to be apart. Most of us came here to get away from something – religious persecution, harsh political regimes, unfair social systems, stagnant economies. Some of us were here before the newbies arrived in the 1600s. Others were brought here against their will, but fought to gain the freedoms we all hold dear.

Sometimes we forget that this was, and still is, the land of opportunity.

And that’s where the National Mall comes in.

The Washington Monument points upward for a reason.

Each year more than 25  million  visitors pass through  the National Mall to gaze at the exhibits  and treasures inside the museums which flank the majestic sweep of space surrounding  the Capitol and the adjacent  memorials. The National Parks Service,  which oversees the maintenance and development of the roughly 1,000 acre public  site, is currently working toward another revision of the National Mall’s design.

Although some may resist change,  the dynamic nature of the National Mall reflects the dynamic nature of our country. We’ve changed a bit since 1776. And the National Mall is a great place to get a sense of how far we’ve come, and how much we’re still learning.

Unlike shopping malls, which  leave me with a feeling of being buried alive – like being trapped in an elevator  with a food court – I love the National  Mall. Even when it’s mobbed with tourists. I like to see enthusiasm for education, and that’s really what the National Mall is all about.  No matter what you’re interested in – history, science,  art,  human  nature, music,  or simply fun – the Mall has something for you.

A classic moon gate leads to a tranquil oasis on the Mall.

For me,  the difficulty is in choosing which place to visit. But in the spring time, when the clouds skitter above the Washington Monument and the merry-go-round is filled with laughing children,  I like to stroll through the 180 acres of gardens which  soften the edges of all the impressive architecture.

This  year the American Horticultural Society will honor the Smithsonian’s garden staff  in June with the 2012 Urban Beautification Award. Everywhere you look on the Mall you can see reasons why they deserve  it.

The new National Garden is just beginning to fill in.

Next time you visit D.C., take a break from the wonders inside, and enjoy the gardens that belong to all of us. Sure, our tax dollars pay for all of it, but when you spread it all out it’s pennies a day from each of us. And we don’t have to do the weeding.

A dazzling display of orchids casts enchantment steps from the Capitol.

And that’s a better deal than you can find in any other mall.

Seeing Green

The original woodblock by Deborah Harris of Fergus the Green Man.

For those of us who enjoy spending a large portion of our lives reading fiction, the borderline between the world of the imagination and the so-called real world is sketched in erasable ink. We whose literary passports bear the stamps of dozens of favorite authors have no trouble packing our willingness to suspend disbelief. We welcome the chance to plunge into whole new worlds, to escape from our own daily anxieties while we visit inside the heads of other characters.

But when I first began to publish my writings I learned that all readers see things through the lens of their own imaginations, and what seems clear in my own head leads some readers only as far as a state of confusion. The first time this happened I was working at a newspaper in the small Virginia town where I lived, and I had written a column about my difficulty accepting the fact that one of the first things my oldest daughter did after she went off to college was to shave half her head.

I was upset by this. She has beautiful, thick, chestnut hair, and I felt the new look didn’t accentuate her best qualities. I wanted to be a supportive, easy-going, liberal mom, and I tried to go along with it. But I couldn’t mask the dismay in my eyes, and my daughter noticed. Words were said. For a time, there was a new awkwardness in our relationship.

The column I wrote about it made light of my maternal distress, the wacky things kids do, all those typical reference points that bind together those of us who raise children. A lot of regular readers responded to the column and seemed amused by it. But after reading that my daughter had shaved half her head, one woman who worked in my office took me aside and offered her sympathies and asked in a quiet undertone, “Which side?”

I had to stop and think. I had no idea. Did it matter? Apparently, this woman had been attempting to visualize my daughter’s new look and had been stymied right out of the gate by this all-important detail.

I’ll be honest. I still couldn’t tell you which side had hair and which didn’t. It wasn’t the hair that bothered me. It was the bare skull.

That was the first time I came face to face with the reality that no matter how well a writer sees his characters and their world in his own mind, unless readers can enter into it, they aren’t going to be able to care much about what happens there.

When I was first trying to get an agent or editor to take a chance on Alice and the Green Man, the rejections I got tended to be all the same. They all liked the idea, they thought it was original, they enjoyed my writing, but they balked at the basic concept of a woman fighting for a garden. That notion didn’t grab them. Not enough blockbuster potential. I was told by several agents that the market was hot for hotter stories – more sex, more violence, more dark creepiness. Well, for a thousand reasons I won’t go into, I am so not going to write that kind of stuff. It’s not what I want to read.

Eventually, on the advice of a successful published author I met by chance while waiting for a train, I entered Alice and The Green Man in a bunch of Romance Writers’ contests. Generally they request the first three chapters, and the preliminary judging is done by other aspiring romance writers, some of whom have been published. I got a lot of interesting feedback from those contests, and scored well in several, though none led to a contract. But one curious aspect of the comments made me question whether I should continue trying to pass myself off as a romance writer.

I am, of course, a romantic. I long for a world in which happy endings are the norm. That’s why I write fiction. But many of the women who judged these contests seemed troubled by their inability to see the world of my imagination. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Some of them seemed to enjoy their visit to my garden. Others thought there was entirely too much floral description and not nearly enough bodily contact.

And there we come to the green heart of the matter. From the first moment he came into my mind, Fergus, the Green Man, was a vivid, sexy, intelligent, fascinating man who cared about plants. Wow! My dream man. But not, it seems, quite so enthralling to a lot of the women who read my contest entries. On one point in particular they were united. They wanted to know the exact shade of green he was. And was it just his thumb? Or, umm, all parts of him?

Well, of course, I thought I had spelled this out in the text – that his skin was a delicious olive tone, that it seemed to get greener after he sat in the sun for a while, that the leaves and vines were drawn to him by his aura of fertility. As is Alice. ‘Nuff said.

But not, apparently, for the judges. In the margins of my entries they wrote their concerns. They seemed to see my Green Man as some sort of amalgam of the Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant and Shrek.

Not even close to my vision.

The idea to take the ancient archetype of the Green Man, a figure so shrouded in mystery that no one knows who first produced an image of a man with leaves sprouting out of his head, and make him a hero in a modern setting appealed to me on many levels. While many of the early depictions of the Green Man carved in stone on medieval cathedrals in Europe show a monstrous untameable creature, these illustrations grew out of the earliest struggles of humankind, when nature itself was a thing to be feared, conquered and placated. Now, as modern civilization has reached the brink of nearly destroying the tree of nature on which our very existence depends, society has a different view of nature as something to be cherished, and a new passion for connecting with the natural world. In my interpretation of the mythic Green Man, I simply took this new passion to its logical extreme.

So, when in the course of time I finally decided to self-publish the book because I was, and still am, hopelessly in love with my Green Man and want to share him with anyone who might appreciate his charms, one of the most important parts of the process for me was making sure that the cover image gave readers an evocative suggestion of how to ‘see’ my Green Man.

Luckily, my artist friend Deborah Harris has been a longtime supporter of my work, and when I asked her if she would be willing to create a portrait of Fergus, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Deborah is a marvelous painter, but I wanted a woodcut, because for years I have admired her floral woodcut designs, and I felt sure that she could create an image that would straddle the border between the imaginary and the ordinary.

At first we had some discussions about what Fergus looked like. She sent me a few trial sketches that had elements I wanted – the twining leaves, the sensual eyes. But the cheeks were too cherubic, too innocent. I wrote her back and told her to take a look at some photos of the character of Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, I was at the height of my obsession with that show, when it was in its witty, genre-breaking prime. A few weeks later Deborah sent me an image and asked, “Will this do?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, it will, yes.”

Since then, of course, the book has not exactly blazed a trail through the publishing world. But it has been read and enjoyed by a few people, and this brings me great satisfaction. I know I don’t personally have the strength or courage or vision to save the natural world from the forces of destruction bearing down upon it. But if enough men and women unite in not only seeing, but being green, maybe there’s hope for us all.

Hellstrip Redemption

A little touch of heaven borders the sidewalk in Ravenna.

What’s brown, fried, and crackles when you step on it?

If you answered the grass next to the sidewalk, then you might be the not-so-proud possessor of a hellstrip. That arid strip of exposed soil between the sidewalk and the street can be a living hell for tender plants. The parched patch in front of my house is never a thing a beauty, but right about now, after baking through another August drought, the so-called grass looks about as inviting as a cactus bed.

Sedum, ornamental grasses and sun-loving perennials give a full look to this sidewalk border.

From time to time I have considered taking on the challenge. I’ve sketched plans, gotten books from the library, seen some thrilling ideas on the blogosphere, but my energy flags whenever I try to do battle with the entrenched hordes of dandelions. I haven’t totally abandoned the idea, though. Here, in a city known for its vibrant gardening community, it comes as no surprise that many thrive on the challenge of tough terrain.

Lavender basks in the heat of the hellstrip.

The City of Seattle encourages people to get creative  on their strips (although they prefer that you get permission and advice about what sort of trees to plant, and access to city utilities, power lines, trash pickup, etc. all factor into the equation). You can even pave over your hellstrip if that’s your idea of a good time.

A sidewalk sunflower display adds perspective to a mini.

If I ever get up the energy and vision to follow through with my ideas, I’d be inclined to follow the example of some of my neighbors. Or the fine gardeners in Buffalo.

That’s right. Buffalo. New York. The place we usually associate with three feet of snow or more, kind of the way people associate Seattle with endless rain. Yet, although the rain here is more or less constant for nine months, there’s never a whole lot of it. Washington, D.C., gets more rain annually than Seattle. And judging by the photos of the “hellstrips” in Buffalo as posted by Art of Gardening, in spite of their brutal winters, the lucky gardeners in that northern city enjoy a lush and verdant summer, the likes of which Seattle rarely sees.

Just goes to show, I guess. One man’s hellstrip is another man’s horticultural bonanza. I’m rethinking Buffalo, that’s for sure.

Dividing Lines

The splashing water of thirteen cascading pools helps relieve D.C.'s summer heat.

Many visitors to Washington, D.C., never get beyond the nexus of grandeur and gee whiz spectacle concentrated around the Capitol and the National Mall, but for those who venture past the gentrified corridors of power, the city has its share of fascinating sights, though not always an abundance of wealth to maintain them.

Because of its unique status as the last continental colony (taxation without representation remains a fact of life in D.C.) the District of Columbia has long suffered under the benign mismanagement of Congress, which controls the city like a benevolent but harried great uncle who doesn’t really care what happens in the city as long as his chauffeur can always get through the traffic easily and deliver him safely from one seat of power to the next.

Those lacking access to such power can be grateful for the magnificent museums which we are all welcome to visit and support with our tax dollars. The District is forced to operate under the oversight of Congress for funding of its schools, emergency staff, police and parks, to say nothing of roads, water, and the thousand and one little things that go into making a city livable. To its credit, D.C. has managed to survive centuries of neglect, in part because of the energy and resources of some of its residents.

Before a giant apartment building blocked the view, you could see straight to the Washington Monument from the top of Meridian Hill Park.

On a recent visit to the “other” Washington I got a chance to spend a little time appreciating the lasting contributions of a pair of remarkable women whose names are less well known than that of Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect whose 1791 plan for the city helped ensure its destiny as a world-class metropolis. A city needs more than grand boulevards and stately monuments if it is to nourish the people who actually live there. Public parks, large and small, are essential. D.C. is blessed by the vision of the Olmsted Brothers, who mapped out the lasting beauty that is Rock Creek Park, a sinuous corridor of greenery and tumbling water flowing from north to south through the center of the city.

But other visionaries have left their marks on the District, with varying degrees of legibility. High up on 16th Street, in an area where few tourists venture, Meridian Hill Park remains a remarkable testament to one woman’s dream of putting Washington, D.C., at the center of the world. Mary Henderson, wife of Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, who introduced the amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery, settled in Washington in 1887 and began buying up property outside the then-northern boundary of the city. Mrs. Henderson had grand plans for the Meridian Hill area. The place was named for the so-called “Washington Meridian,” the longitudinal line along which nine geographically significant landmarks are located including the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument (give or take a degree), the Meridian Stone on the Ellipse, the center of the White House and the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park.

Vandals left the handle.

Mrs. Henderson lobbied Congress for years to support various projects to improve the Meridian Hill area, including one plan to build a bigger presidential mansion on Meridian Hill to replace the White House. Obviously, that bird never flew. But thanks to her tireless efforts the Commission of Fine Arts eventually agreed to develop Meridian Hill as a public park. The result is a remarkable 12-acre European-style strolling garden replete with fountains and sculpture. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. But even Historic Landmarks need funds for upkeep. On the day I visited, crews were planting new trees on the upper tier. But the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, a gift to the women of America from the women of France, was still missing her sword, broken off and stolen by vandals some years ago.

On a hillside across town, on a quiet street north of bustling Georgetown, an entirely different sort of garden opens to the public for a few hours each day. Here, beginning in 1921 and continuing for  nearly 30 years, the brilliant landscape designer Beatrix Farrand created a work of living art on land owned by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. The gardens here are sequestered, carefully maintained and designed with a view to intimacy and introspection.A small admission fee charged during the blooming seasons helps pay for the small army of groundskeepers and staff who keep the gardens immaculate.

The difference between a privately endowed garden and a public park overseen by Congress can  be summed up by a tranquil bench in Dumbarton Oaks  inscribed with the Bliss family motto: Quod Severis Metes: As you sow, so shall you reap.

Congress might consider adopting that one.

Cherubs cavort in the pebble mosaic garden.
Stillness and serenity abide in the rose garden.

Garden High

Bougainvillaea trained to tree-shape exemplifies the garden's living art.

A garden is performance art of the most ephemeral and transcendent kind.

Blooms come and go. The aspect of the landscape alters with every passing cloud, every sudden shower. So for the travelers like me who go out of their way to visit gardens, it’s always hit or miss. You never know if the garden will be at its best on the one day you have an hour to spare to see it.

But in the stunning Central Garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles I suspect you could never be disappointed, no matter when you visit. I got the chance to see it last week, and it took my breath away. The museum itself is a glorious structure, designed by noted architect Richard Meier, and sited on a spectacular bluff high above the city, with changing exhibitions of world class art inside. Van Gogh’s celebrated iris painting was among the treasures on display when we were there. But for me, Van Gogh’s irises, lovely as they are, couldn’t compete with the sun-drenched spectacle of the Central Garden.

Designed by artist Robert Irwin in a flowing spiral of stonework which allows visitors to savor the garden’s tapestry of color and texture from constantly changing perspectives, the garden is an oasis of serenity and beauty high above the clamorous city.

The maze at the center of the garden is set in water, framed by sedum.

Irwin is quoted in the Getty’s brochure saying that his aim was to produce “a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art.” That he succeeded is obvious.

What is not so obvious is the wondrous fact that the Center is open to the public free of charge. School children by the dozens scamper past the fountains, pose for photos on the parapets. Sure, you have to pay to park at the bottom of the hill before riding the tram up to the Center. And yes, bottled water from any of the kiosks will set you back three bucks. But it would be churlish to complain. To be allowed to walk in flower-scented beauty, warmed by walls of sun-baked stone, to hear the music of fountains and feel the soft breeze on your face, surely this is what paradise should be.

Hope is the thing with petals.

The cactus garden frames a view Los Angeles, veiled by smog.