vendredi 21 mars 2008

Upside-down flowers


If it was possible to know less than I did then, I'd truly be surprised. Going back through my archives of the first photographs of the garden, taken with an Aiptek digital camera my mother had given me one Christmas -- the only camera of a small collection of Nikons, Canons and a Minolta of Audouin's that actually worked -- to document the state in which I found this garden, looking for one to illustrate this page, I came across the filename "June 21 - the upside-down flower, second terrace". Wondering what I could have called an "upside-down flower", I looked more closely at the photo. The fuchsia plants. Palm smacks forehead with a laugh. Fuchsia magellanica, or hardy fuchsia. Not exactly a rare specimen among garden variety plants.

There are references in other file names to "the white-flowering bush"(Spiraea x vanhouttei), "the gorgeous, huge pink flower" (a peony flower about the size of your average dinner plate from a Paeonia suffruticosa, or the tree peony, that grows under the shelter of the spiraea), "white-flowering ground cover in the entry court" (Okay, I still don't know its name), or calling the Yews (Taxus baccata, the longest living plants in Europe, if you wish to know) at either side of the steps to the second terrace "cedars", and that I was still mistakingly calling the ones I tore out last June by the same name. It was Louis Benech, kind enough to agree to meet with me last November and offer me encouragement on my budding career as a garden designer (pun intended) who said, as though they were a very special plant, when he saw them in the books I had made documenting my work in the garden, "Ah, des Ifs."

Ifs, ifs, ifs.. c'est quoi ça en anglais un if...? Back home, I ran to the Internet to find out. Yews.

There are also "mystery" flowers and plants of all colors and types throughout the filenames.

All the previous gardens I had admired were painstakingly and expertly tended by the National Trust in England, Monuments Historiques in France, something similar in the States or those people who knew how to do this at home for themselves and join garden clubs. The plants sometimes had lovely little nameplates informing me of their names, as quickly forgotten as read. What bothered me was that some people knew what to write on those little metal plates and could purposefully hike across carefully chosen landscapes seeking plants they knew should be there and even find. Still more troubling to me were those who could head out for a walk in the woods, point to this and that, providing plant name, family, and more. Now, I had a garden in desperate need of care, and every day I drove past the local nursery and garden center, too intimidated to even drive through its gates. How could I possibly expose my ignorance to the staff? I must have imagined that only the initiated were permitted access to its aisles. That lasted a long time, until the day I simply had to buy grass seed somewhere.

Its strange, too, because all that time visiting gardens, or back in the class or two on garden design and color composition in the garden that I had taken as an architecture student, another desire had been forming, and sometimes it managed to work its way to my conscious and tell me that I wanted to know the plants. I wanted to be able to walk in the woods or the mountains, across a field or through a garden and call them by their names. Now I was going to need to.

I have lost the very first pictures I took, or perhaps they are on the rolls of film that sit in a little jewelry store bag in my room, waiting to be developed. I almost certainly took them that first day in April 2001. Standing there looking out over the fields, all I could see were the tops of the trees on the lower terraces, the tips of two cypress trees, the fluttering leaves of the top of a birch, a raggedy row of overgrown yews, a shaggy box hedge that looked like it hadn't had a haircut in years, dropping out of site under the phenomenally weighty wisteria. It was like discovering a secret garden, down each set of steps, there were hidden delights: weeping roses, a bench nestled in a bank of St. John's Wort, the gazebo looking out over the pool below.

Someone had given a lot of thought to making this garden. Who that person was is another secret the house and the garden will keep. To look at the neighboring properties, it had once merely tumbled haphazardly down from the house and the street, leveled from the chalk bluffs that border the Seine here, to the fields below. This person had laid out a series of terraces, linked by steps, offering several paths through the garden, some cut short, others leading farther on, points of departure and arrival marked by coupled evergreens, the cypresses, Cupressus sempervirens, and yews, organized in a slightly uneven symmetry around the central staircase, the fastest way down to the lower gates.

Each terrace made a separate place, an exterior room, in which to gather or to repose, from which to look out over another part of the garden. Someone with skill had known how to play with space and make what is really a small garden feel, through its various vantage points and views, its spatial organization, its possession and dominance of the view beyond, far more vast, but vaster still was the work. Happily, I didn't realize what it would mean. This is when ignorance is bliss, otherwise I might have brought in a garden care company and never have begun the work myself once it became mine -- because it very well had to become someone's -- with which to deal in my first spring here, 2003.
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