Sunday, December 31, 2006

Garden Whimsy vs. Kitsch

The lanterns are hanging from a bamboo pole, mounted in front of a wooden screen leaning against a south-facing wall. When scattered about my back yard, these cheap, faux Asian lanterns failed to convey the Zen-like quality I was going for. Instead, isolated from each other, individual lanterns imparted a forlorn failed ambience and showcased instead my yard’s intrinsic lack of design coherence.

But, taken together they transcend trash. By grouping the lanterns together, I have raised the individual elements above their humble stations to the level of garden whimsy.

And garden whimsy is something people are writing expensive coffee-table books about. Apparently, you can spend a lot of money at garage sales and flea markets to find old garden implements, buckets, birdhouses. You can plant flowers in your old wheelbarrow. You can paint old chairs in bright colors and plant trailing ivy on their seats. If you don’t have the creative talent to recognize the whimsical potential of such hidden treasures at junk stores, you can go to shops in gentrified parts of old urban downtowns and spend even more money for the same used resale items, displayed with a quirky eye, a bit of old lace and some silk flowers. Why didn’t you think of that?

I have to wonder however, if these attempts to achieve the wa of garden whimsy today, risk sinking to the level of clutter and trash tomorrow. Will today’s attempts to create cottage garden informality and country charm, despite being costly, clever and oh-so-current, end up becoming trite? The lesson to consider here is the way our grandparents would take old tires, cut them in half, paint them white, and stand them end-to-end like upside-down Us to border their driveways. Or stack them and plant strawberries in their centers.

Once upon a time, painting old tires white was the height of garden whimsy, although we hadn’t even invented the concept in those days. Today, it is pre-packaged for the modern whimsical gardener-on-the-go, who is looking for instant harmony, peace and balance befitting their busy contemporary lifestyle. Besides, I too have a wheelbarrow planted with flowers, and I like it just fine.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

In Winter Enjoy

The rains have come, and the gardener has not. Yesterday, strong winds coaxed piles of pine needles and dead leaves to venture from their dark corners and onto open paths and benches - lending an untidy beauty to familiar sights. Today, there is sun, but winter has finally arrived. The disheveled back yard is best enjoyed through the window from the cozy warmth of the house. And this got me to thinking of a picture I took last summer of a small serpentine line in my garden.

William Hogarth was an 18th century painter and printmaker, partial to landscapes and pictures chock-full of allegories. He also considered himself an arbiter of good taste. His 1753 treatise on aesthetics “The Analysis of Beauty” was his definitive contribution on finding beauty not only in classical art and English landscapes, but in everyday objects. Although he did not invent the English landscape garden style which incorporated the free-flowing “line of grace” also known as the serpentine line, he is generally credited with giving it a name. Here’s what he had to say about the curving lines reminiscent of a serpent:

“…The serpentine line, by its waving and winding at the same time different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety, if I may be allowed the expression; and which by its twisting so many different ways, may be said to inclose (tho' but a single line) varied contents…”

My garden’s serpentine line is not a grand winding path, guiding visitors toward visionary realms of sublimely cultivated gardens. Instead, as shown in this picture, it is part of a small, heart-shaped stone with a shallow bowl for water in the center.

During wintertime, there is still much to enjoy in the serpentine lines of my garden. And although he was no fan of the “sneaking serpent” and all the symbolism serpents evoke, William Blake had some advice for gardeners to ponder during winter: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Past

In 2005, Christmas Eve was on a Saturday. Because today is the Saturday before Christmas, I am thinking of where I was last year at this time. This is from my journal:

Madaba, Jordan
Saturday, 24 Dec 2005

“We’re all back in our hotel. I bought a small rug and before we finished the complementary cup of tea, I was persuaded to buy another. As I’m writing this, I hear out the window of our room in the Black Iris Hotel, the unmistakable sounds of what we’ll call the Madaba Bagpipe Santa Band and Percussion Group. This has to be the same group of men dressed in variations of Santa Clause that was marching down the street outside the Maaia brothers’ rug shop when we were there earlier.

“No sooner had the Santa Band piled back into their Santa Tour Bus, our gracious Innkeeper, Asna, called to inquire about A, who is starting to come down with a cold. Earlier we had walked down to the lobby to ask for a cup of tea. Of course, I was given a tray with 3 china cups and saucers and a small bowl of sugar.

“When I mentioned we planned to get some take-out soup to bring A, when we went out to get our own dinner, our Innkeeper insisted over my objections that she would make soup, “When you are here, you are my family." J and K insist I was right, after profusely refusing twice, to finally concede and say A would be grateful to have some hot soup.”

This is from M's Journal:

"We stopped in a shop where young head-scarved women were making mosaics. Some are unmounted so that tourists can roll them up and take them home. We might have bought one, but we could not ask the price - they spoke no English. Most people do, to my surprise.

"The rug dealers fed us mint tea in lovely glasses, by the ubiquitous propane heater. It was about 50 degrees (F) and sunny today, a lovely spring day to me, and our hotel hostess assured us we would freeze."

Later that evening, on Christmas Eve, leaving A resting comfortably after her hot soup, J, K, M and I went out to dinner at the restaurant across the street from the Christian church with the ancient Roman mosaic map of the middle east. We had too much delicious food, three or four bottles of absolutely terrible local wine, and a hubbly bubbly filled with good cheer. I will never forget the music looping endlessly in the background during dinner: Jose Feliciano’s incongruous Felice Navidad.

A truly memorable Christmas eve.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Someday My Prince Will Come

Once upon a time, I bought a solar light shaped like a very large frog. He lived among the rocks in full sunlight, collecting and storing energy by day. By night, he emitted a pale green, un-froglike glow.

For over a year, he has watched silently over a family of feral cats and some skunks who live there - under and among the boulders and the dry brush I pile around them.

As he aged, and the plastic clouded over, and his green color was bleached out by the sun, his light grew softer, paler, yet somehow even stranger. By the end of summer, he had taken on a sinister patina and his evening light seemed to hint at some mysterious secret. As autumn faded, he looked like an exiled Russian dying in a British hospital, silently and malevolently radioactive.

Then, one recent night, the cats, or the skunks, knocked the frog off his rock perch and smashed the plastic base housing his solar collector. Separated from the source of his power, I thought he would never glow again. He seemed, finally, to be at peace.

But then, I noticed him recently, and he’d been transformed. As the western sun slanted low over the rocks late one winter afternoon, the enchanted frog was backlit in a glorious reincarnation of his former self. That’s him between the rocks, as seen from the twilight down below in the back yard. There he sits patiently, and with every sunset he regains his former glory for a few moments, waiting only for or a maiden’s kiss to transform into a handsome prince. And then, they will live happily ever after.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Before the world was made

Second cup of morning coffee, spiced with cardamom seeds and coriander. Unseasonably warm, mild and sunny out the window in the back yard. Cat purring on the desk by my side. Called doctor to request home health care services, and called Medicare to request a replacement Medicare card. The Medicare card has gone missing, along with her grocery store discount membership card - the later causing more anguish since she’s long since disengaged from insurance and health care matters.

When we age, it is not only our minds that get smoother and more simple. Our entire field of metaphysical vision narrows into a lovely tunnel vision. Then, like babies, our ego expands to fill the limited field of vision. Like my cat who craves nothing more than attention, the world narrows to revolve around old people. In the mirror, they see the face they had before the world was made.

Called my health insurance group plan, and then carrier to confirm who gets what forms for spouse. Because everyone is “experience high demand,” I put the phone on speaker and rinsed the dishes waiting for an operator. Awake enough to shake off the dreary grey mood that I sometimes find sitting on my chest when I awake. That itchy sense that everybody’s life is nothing more than a small splash made by a single drop of rain in a muddy puddle: drop plop and gone. The entire parade of man’s history is nothing more than a spring shower into a puddle.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I'd have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.
William Butler Yeats, Before The World Was Made

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Meditation at Kew

Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men,
Go into the suburbs and never come out again,
Who lose their pretty faces, and dim their pretty eyes,
Because no one has skill or courage to organize.

What do these pretty women suffer when they marry?
They bear a boy who is like Uncle Harry,
A girl who is like Aunt Eliza, and not new,
These old, dull races must breed true.

I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run;
I would steal their dull clothes and go away,
And leave the pretty naked things to play.

Then I would make a contract with hard Fate
That they see all the men in the world and choose a mate,
And I would summon all the pipers in the town
That they dance with Love at a feast, and dance him down.

From the gay unions of choice
We'd have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice.
The World whips frank, gay love with rods,
But frankly, gaily shall we get the gods.

Anna Wickham, 1921