One Hundred Conversations

It seems like one hundred conversations, or more, since we last visited. I have had many things I wanted to share, and have missed our conversations, however one sided they may have seemed at times. You know how I love to blather on about flowers…trains…books…particularly books.

But there has been a ‘bizzyness’ of late…

There has been a kitchen remodel (with celebratory chocolate cake)…

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Chocolate cake is always worth another look, don’t you think?

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Speaking of looks…there have been rides in the country and long loving looks…(this is Fitz)

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There have been squirrels that we have annoyed, Fitz and I….

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There have been strangely awesome flower sightings in the middle of winter…

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There have been miles of thread, yarn, and snarled impossibilities turned into enchanting possibilities….IMG_9708

There have been flowers…(always flowers)…IMG_9720 IMG_9734

There has been a sorting, cleaning and revitalizing of my desk. This one is particularly sweet, because now I can find my space.

My words.

My one hundred conversations. I hope you’re still there, listening.IMG_9987

Shadow and Substance

From Louise Beebe Wilder's rock garden, 1928

From Louise Beebe Wilder’s rock garden, 1928

 ‘…that each of us should feel free to express himself–his most extravagant, whimsical, ardent, honest self; to work out his own theories and bring his bit of earth to what seems to him its finest and fittest expression.’ Louise Beebe Wilder

It’s still June in the year 2014, but a freakish hailstorm has just flattened everything beautiful and blooming within a few miles of here.

Orbs of ice that fell by the billions from the skies...

Cute little orbs of ice that soon became epic when they fell by the billions from the skies yesterday

I think that’s what they mean by ephemeral.

So let’s ditch the current spring of shattered bloom, (although I have some lovely delphiniums to tell you about later) and travel back in time with me to 1909. It’s the month of April, and we are in a place called Bronxville. Bring along your Thoreauvian ‘sharp eyes’.

“I like to borrow Thoreau’s sharp eyes when looking at many things.” Louise Beebe Wilder

We’re going to visit one of the gardens created by Louise Beebe Wilder; a garden that no longer exists, like today only more so.

IMG_0911There is a shadow of a woman just barely visible in this garden, and the fragile poppies she tended have left their vibrant stain on the grasses now left to grow wild.

Her beloved magenta blooms have softened their harsh stridence, their after-image lingers now in the faintest wash of pink. Roses long faded still perfume the air.

via Wisconsin Historical Society

via Wisconsin Historical Society

Think of any popular gardener since the beginnings of our picture taking age, and you almost always can find their image captured somewhere. Be-hatted and be-smocked, wielding trug and trowel, dappled in shadows or squinting in bright sunlight….gardeners most like to be photographed in their gardens.

Elizabeth Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence

Not so Louise.

Either her physiognomy was a carefully guarded secret, or she was as shy of publicity as she was eloquent about her poppies.

My library contains many an old gardening book that I have squirreled away, and I dearly love the vintage magazines with their catchy covers and newsy articles on gardens of olden days. Though most of my garden reading is of the actual paper kind (laced with toxic mildew effluvium ensuring that they can only be read in a well-ventilated room) the digital type has definitely come into its own in my house, as well.

Thus I was delighted to realize that the cover of the April, 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens, pictures the home of Louise Beebe Wilder.

Featured home in this 1909 issue--The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Featured home in this 1909 issue–The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Better than that, the magazine takes you on an inside tour of the home, and better than that? They take you outside to tour the gardens…and that is where we find Louise.

The Wilder home

A bit of pre-history to our time travel…(“no worries…a slight disorientation is common for readers of these posts”)…When Louise Beebe Wilder married in 1902, it was to Walter Robb Wilder, Esq., an up-and-coming young architect.

Initially, the growing family had two homes—one at Balderbrae in the country, and the other, a ‘suburban’ home in Bronxville, near New York city.

When the magazine American Homes and Gardens did a feature article in 1909 on the Wilder’s second home in Bronxville, NY, the feature was to be, not just the house, but the talented architect who designed it—Walter Robb Wilder.

But this is 1909, and Walter is married to a very special woman who isn’t famous…yet. Louise’s first book is being lived, but not written. She is still gardening, raising children, and jotting down copious notes. The article ‘The Artistic Expression of the Small Country House’ makes no mention of the wife of the architect. Instead, he lauds the designer of the home, and states:

‘[The house is] ‘a unique expression of the architect’s character and taste. It shows…marked individuality, and is essentially the creation of a cultured and artistic mind requiring congenial surroundings.’

Louise certainly knew a thing or two about ‘congenial surroundings’, and one gets the feeling that it is Louise who is giving the interview and tour. She certainly didn’t write the article…

‘The ceiling is stuccoed…in a very effective manner.

The fireplace is the feature of the room.

The furniture is very black-brown.

The color scheme is most delightful.’

The pictures of the interior show very charming, cottage style rooms, but the lackluster description hardly seems worthy of the house of a woman who would later inspire gardeners nationwide with her vivid and articulate Colour In My Garden; the woman who wrote:

“We are haunted by visions of exquisite colors in perfect harmony…the prettiest blue border I ever saw was one wherein a few Nasturtium seeds had been accidentally dropped, and between the elegantly aspiring stalks of Larkspur and Anchusa one got little sparkles of flame and saffron and buff that endowed the blue flowers with a shimmering spirit that would certainly not have been theirs without those unbidden companions.” (Louise)

Although her name is never mentioned, Louise’s charismatic presence–as it would later be described–is everywhere felt. As the magazine writer labors on to extol the design of the concrete balustrade, our attention is irresistibly drawn to…

‘…a pergola with stucco piers. Over this was trained a large grape vine, forming a dark green background for the beds of bright colored annuals and perennials, the sides being [en]closed with lattice and covered with vines for the same purpose.’

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There is our first glimpse of Louise… sitting on the concrete balustrade.

The caption reads:

‘Rough stone steps covered with masses of growing vines lead from the middle garden to the entrance to the house.’

All this about ‘masses of growing vines’ on the rough stone steps, and a pergola ‘covered with vines’ reminds us that Louise would later devote an entire chapter in a future book to ‘Green Draperies’. She would write about the need for luxuriance when it came to the softening aspect of vines:

‘Many a crude and unsightly object is brought into harmony with its surroundings through the kindly tact of some gracious climbing plant. No need to emphasize the charm of vine clad arbors and porches, of green-draped walls and gateways, which do so much toward giving to our gardens the appearance of permanence and livableness so much desired. But perhaps it is a little needful to speak of the fact that the chief factor in this charm is luxuriance.…’ (Louise Beebe Wilder, from My Garden, 1916)

Continuing with the ‘house’ tour, we are now led along to the workshop (noting the elegant use of space) and have it pointed out to us that ‘rugosa roses frame the entrance, a mass of shrubs at the further corner of the house, and a border of peonies, nasturtiums and perennials along the top of the drive wall.’

Again, we are reminded from our reading of Louise that she particularly loved the rugosa rose:

“Honeysuckle and loose white rugosa rose make a delicious combination and possess a delicate poetic beauty.” (Fragrance in the Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder)

Leave it to Louise—Even something as utilitarian as the workshop will be draped in poetic beauty.

The writer of the article makes a further, focused attempt to direct our attention back to the house, and how the drive complements the approach, but soon enough we are back at ‘the rose garden, a line of lilacs…dwarf crabs and other flowering trees. At each corner are large triangular beds filled with perennials.’

Oh, and remember the vine-draped pergola? There we see her; gazing out upon the woods beyond, where the hand of man has not been visible. We are reminded of Louise’s words, where she decries the unnatural, tortured use of evergreens in the suburban landscape:

“There seems little evergreen wisdom abroad in the land.” (Adventures in my Garden and Rock Garden)

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

So there you are, Louise. We heard you, now we see you. At least a glimpse.

And we are assured that gardens will outlive the ravages of time (or even of ice projectiles) by fixing their sweetness upon our memories.

 

The hollyhocks from Louise Beebe Wilder's garden at Balderbrae

In June She Reads Louise

“What a chaos of beauty there is upon a June morning! Standing in the midst of the garden one experiences a sort of breathlessness of soul.” (Louise Beebe Wilder, 1918)

This week I combined another botanical garden tour with a favorite gardening book. On this trip, I’ve brought along Adventures in My Garden and Rock Garden, by Louise Beebe Wilder.

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

The garden, Leach Botanical Gardens, introduces us to another grand old lady of gardens—Lilla Leach.

I just discovered ‘Lilla’ a couple of years ago, and have visited her garden now several times since, but ‘Louise’ has been my garden companion and mentor for over thirty years.

There are many pictures of Lilla to be had, but as for the authoress of my book–Louise Beebe Wilder–? I cannot tell you. Her likeness remains elusive. Not even Google has the power to conjure up her image. [update: I have unearthed some glimpses of her]

She was described by contemporaries as ‘contagiously charismatic’, with deep-set eyes in a round face.

Yet her words are with us. The image of her garden is with us. Her passion, vision and enthusiasm is still with us. Continue reading

Soft Music of Shining Water

‘When wet it is like a nest of exquisite brocade,

Fragments of clouds on rich coifs of fairy hair.’

Sung Ch’i, Sung Dynasty

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There is beautiful gem in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon. In a city that is known for being green, clean, and stylishly caffeinated, it should come as no surprise that there is a jewel of a green space enclosure right in the center of downtown. Tea is also served, exquisitely. (This may be the only city block in Portland where you cannot get a cup of coffee.)

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There are many portals for viewing provided; some you walk through, some you waft through.

The garden is Lan Su. Called ‘the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China’, it is worth every penny of the admission. An entire city block has been made into a walled enclosure, a secret retreat from normal space and time.

Famous plant collector, E.H. Wilson once referred to China as the “Mother of All Gardens.” (Note: In my post ‘Heart of a Gardener’, I wrote about famed British gardener Ellen Willmott, who sponsored E.H. Wilson on several expeditions China for plant exploration. Many of his discoveries he named for Ellen Willmott.)

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a Camellia from the curated collection

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The teahouse is in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, the two story building in the background

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Portland is also home to the justly famous Japanese Gardens, up in the west hills. Comparisons are inevitable, but certainly not necessary. Both gardens are tranquil and nourishing to the harassed heart. My one comment on style difference is only because I am such an enthusiast for any type of filigree, particularly that which is used in architecture. I noticed that the Chinese Garden has an abundance of gorgeous wood-carved filigrees and screens, as well as plaster filigrees.

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Many of the wood filigrees are carved from gingko

Really, really lovely. I found myself taking more pictures of the architecture in Lan Su garden than the plantings. Which I intend to go back and remedy, because, as the Lan Su website brings out…

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“Lan Su is home to more than fifty specimen trees, many rare and unusual shrubs and perennials, and curated collections of Magnolia, Peony, Camellia, Rhododendron, Osmanthus and bamboo.”

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There is poetry here at every step. Even the garden’s name—Lan Su— can also be interpreted poetically as ‘Garden of Awakening Orchids’.

‘In the deep forest it stands silent, guarding its chastity,
Trusting the light breezes to scatter its fragrance far and wide.
It does not refuse to bloom beside my mossy steps;
When plucked, it does not hanker for a vase of gold.
Singly superior, it may serve as company to a book of odes…’
(Liu K’ o-chuang, Sung Dynasty, Fragrance from a Chinese Garden)

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An unusual evergreen shrub (a type of juniper?) where the soft spring growing tips look like blossoms

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Walkways are of pebble mosaics, painstakingly placed, and made of softly rounded stones, so as to feel kindly therapeutic to bare feet

Besides tranquillity, fragrance, and the soft music of shining water, there is history. Where else can you stand in the figurative shadows of master curators who tend 1,000 year old camellias to guard their loveliness for future generations? Or master poets with their ‘books of odes’ in praise of peonies—‘the King of Flowers’—

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‘Embroidered curtains embrace the king of flowers,
Its gorgeous hues challenge the beauty of sunshine.
All its branches take color from the sun.
Every petal is filled with heavenly fragrance…’
Sui Shih, Ming Dynasty

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Occasionally, instead of reading the gardening and nature notes of others from two hundred years ago, I create a few notes of my own. Perhaps I was inspired by the fact that I was in a garden that took me back through centuries of gracious time. A place where beauty, eternity, and peace are not at all a far-fetched concept.