Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

That evening sun go down

August 10, 2016

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‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’

The line comes from W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, composed by the man called the father of the blues. I think the power of this lyric comes from the sheer poetry of words and image. Why did Handy say “hate to see”? The image of the lowering sun is an evocative one, but it contains a hint of the dark to come, one William Faulkner recognized when he named a short story about a husband lying in wait to kill his wife ‘That Evening Sun’.

These garden photos–so shot through with light and creeping darkness–are extraordinarily suggestive of endings, all kinds of endings, but their melancholy tone isn’t one of unpleasantness or fear, rather a kind of melancholy comfort.

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Aren’t gardens in some sense contemplations on life and death, light and darkness, beginnings and endings?

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Or am I reading my own psychology as a template for all gardens?

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I remind myself gardens have other functions …

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… ecological functions, supporting myriad kinds of life from frogs to birds to praying mantises, multitudes of bees, innumerable invertebrates. Making a place for plant life to thrive and reproduce, a place where plant communities can evolve, where intricate webs of energy transfer can occur, a place where the processes of life and death in the garden actually change the physical surface of the earth.

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And therapeutic functions. Horticultural therapy of a sort was a chief concern of Frederick Law Olmsted in creating Central Park, and the view of nature as a place for relaxation and recharge, or withdrawal and renewal, has permeated our culture at least since the Romantic period, but certainly much, much longer.

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So what exactly is our encounter with the garden, with the landscape? What does it mean, and what can it mean? It has to be more than prettiness, than mere decoration, than simple utility, or why bother?

I attended a landscape architecture conference at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this summer. In the lobby, where many books were on sale, my eyes were quickly drawn to a small volume titled ‘A Field Guide to Melancholy’ by Jacky Bowring. But getting that book only led me to Bowring’s much more ambitious, and complex, ‘Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape’.

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I quote her first on landscape, then on melancholy:

‘Across its vast compass, landscape in its expansive incorporation of gardens, environmental design, architecture, agriculture, infrastructure, and everything between and beyond, is the embodiment of identity. Points of reference are found as much in the representations of landscape – paintings, films, texts – as in the experiential, sensory, phenomenological realm. Whether landscape is a mirror, a theatre, a text or a seamless continuity with its inhabitants, it is the place from which we draw meaning, feeling; it is the armature for existence, the realm in which place and culture co-exist, and where the self dwells.’

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‘Within this expansive and meaning-imbued terrain the landscape holds within it the natural habitat for melancholy, as the locus of places of contemplation, memory, death, sadness. Yet, the place of melancholy within the landscape is one which is often resisted, marginalised and edited out. As part of the salvaging of the idea of melancholy as a dimension of existence, this book also offers a critique of the impoverishment of the emotional content of the contemporary designed environment.’*

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Haven’t we lost something in this ‘editing out’ and emphasis on ‘happiness’ above all? In a ‘happy’ garden designed for play, for cooking and for entertaining, for dining out, have we failed to make a place for those feelings evoked by Handy’s line, ‘I hate to see that evening sun go down’?

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I’m reminded of the roots of our present-day Romantic notions of nature and the role of melancholy contributed by such seminal and defining works as Goethe’s ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ …

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… or of Keats’ sensitivity to the physical manifestations of nature and the feelings it evokes, as in his Ode to Melancholy …

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‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine …’

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Cynical as we may have become in the twenty-first century, our emotions are still stirred in an almost stereotypical way by an image of a fallen flower, or a garden bower wrapped within a wall of woodland trees (even the word ‘bower’ has stereotypically romantic connotations).

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Wordsworth’s transcendental thoughts suggest another aspect of romantic melancholy that has been ‘edited out’ in our cultural landscapes, as in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

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‘For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity …
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’

These lines reveal far more than a simple feeling of melancholy. Here melancholic feelings spur Wordsworth on to a profound vision of meaning, albeit still romantically vague and ineffable. My concern here isn’t so much with Wordsworth’s meaning or its validity, but with a landscape that makes a place for such feelings and thoughts, that doesn’t ‘edit them out’.

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We see the tradition of melancholic contemplation continued in the ‘Americanized’ Romanticism of William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

And the garden makers among us, I think, will also see it in the design movement we call ‘New Perennials’, ‘New Wave’, ‘Dutch Wave’, or more generally, simply meadow and prairie design. From an article on Piet Oudolf in the New York Times:  ‘Allowing the garden to decompose, he added, meets an emotional need in people. “You accept death. You don’t take the plants out, because they still look good. And brown is also a color.”’ (January 31, 2008, by Sally McGrane)

 

How far apart are Wordsworth’s words from those of Handy’s line–‘I hate to see that evening sun go down’?

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Even ecological approaches to gardening have at their heart a seeking after a lost world that was better, more pure–a most romantic notion. Are we always reaching back to a better time?

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My garden is at its peak now, now at the moment of its first decline, sidelit by the sun dropping toward the horizon …

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… revealing detail and ways of seeing not possible earlier in the year …

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… creating a chiaroscuro of light and dark …

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… highlighting fine detail, and piercing into the depths of layered plantings …

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… and differentiating form and shape, while evoking feelings not possible in the bright light of mid-day …

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… waking emotions no one would call happiness, but emotions nonetheless that are a kind of comfort and refuge.

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I like to think the sideways light of the setting sun must have become a part of the human genetic heritage …

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… that this melancholy, pleasant light has become a part of us.

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So we can take sensual delight in the warm light limning the leaves of this tall Vernonia …

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… or feel safety in walking this shadowed path back to the house …

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… climbing the gentle slope with a sense of return …

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… almost bathing in the plants …

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… glimpsing the darkening woods …

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… on the final approach to the house.

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‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’

 

___________

*Bowring, Jacky (2016-07-07). Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape (Routledge Research in Landscape and Environmental Design) (Kindle Locations 150-153). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Zem August 10, 2016 at 2:11 pm

You wrote a very interesting, reflective and philosophical post.
Really, a garden is a mirror of the owner, and reflects his / her soul.
“A kind of melancholy comfort”: I can feel it too in my garden, especially in the evening…
I love the photo’s.
Thanks for this blog, greetings, Zem.

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James Golden August 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm

Good to hear from you, Zem. I’m coming to Nederland on Monday. I wish I could meet you, but I’ll be on a garden tour and will have almost no free time alone. I saw your recent post on your visit to Jacobstuin, which we will also visit. Thanks for leaving a message.

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Zem August 11, 2016 at 6:51 am

I wish you a good journey and a great garden tour!
I look forward to coming posts after the trip.

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Paul Steer August 10, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Yes, a garden can be like a reflection of our emotional journey in life, with its sudden bright moments , and its gentle fading into the dark. A beautiful post on a beautiful garden at its peak.

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James Golden August 10, 2016 at 8:17 pm

Thank you, Paul. I think you know very well what i mean.

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Julia August 11, 2016 at 1:40 am

Beautiful writing. Thank you

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James Golden August 11, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Thank you, Julia.

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John Schucker August 11, 2016 at 9:35 am

P r e s e n t i m e n t is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

This poem by Emily Dickinson has always been a favorite of mine, and not just because it is brief enough for me to enjoy the pleasure of remembering it in its entirety (it is just those 4 spare lines) but also because of its impact-ful (not yet considered an English word?) imagery and the emotion conveyed with such incredible economy. In addition to spacing out the word, P r e s e n t i m e n t I would like to slant the word with italic type to add another visual element to the text like the slanting light of evening, but typing in this box does not afford that option. Gardens and the natural landscape are always at their most beautiful in the slanting light of the earliest or latest part of the day, but the evening glow also has that added element of warmth that is usually suffused by mists in the morning. I spoke with a friend recently about his discontentment with aging. I pointed out that our world would be a HORRIBLE place if no one aged or died. Aside from crowding ourselves out of existence, imagine how unsettling it would be to have no visual clue as to someone’s age. Humanity has struggled with the intrinsic reality of our mortality since the dawn of what we call “civilization” and yet, our attempts to “civilize” our natural environment have, especially in recent times with our increasing capabilities, often led to even more death and destruction. Our gardens and imposed landscapes are very often a reflection of our desire to subtract ourselves from this perfectly beautiful rhythm, editing out the dead and dying as you point out. And, yet, as much as I can appreciate and, at times, wallow in the melancholy of the approaching evening, I have developed a habit of being extremely busy with both essential and non-essential work during this special hour, perhaps my own way of avoiding a reminder that darkness is about to pass.

James, I first saw your garden in October, as you may recall. The first visit was on a dull, leaden day with absolutely no air moving. Yet, I was very content to slowly stroll through the ecology you have guided into existence on your land, observing so many giant herbaceous plants, almost human-sized, in their various states of decay. Returning days later on a breezy, brilliantly lit autumn day, the experience could not have been more different; the ripening grasses positively danced and it was amazing to watch the life in your garden as the wind gusts stirred them into movement first in one corner, then moving through the entire garden from one side to the other. It was for me a unique and memorable, emotionally charged, uplifting experience, impossible to enjoy in the “nascency” (spell-check seems to think I am inventing words again, but I don’t think so) of Spring – a celebration of the fullness of life and the delight to be found in maturity.

“A day is as a thousand years” and a day is as a single year in the garden as well. When I was younger, I always began to grieve the passing summer by this time of year. I would try to see the weeks to come as extended and ample and yet, the underlying feeling was always one of sadness. Now, in my so-called “middle age”, a term which, as we apply it, should indicate I can expect to see at least 50-some more summers, I thankfully find that I relish the late summer and approaching autumn and the welcome quiet of winter when I can do as Thomas Merton’s poem suggests:

Love winter when the plant says nothing.

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James Golden August 11, 2016 at 4:14 pm

Thank you so much, John, for that eloquent comment. I should really call it a deeply felt essay. And thank you too for making me aware of that wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s such a study in precisely compacted irony. “That darkness is about to pass.” There’s so much power in that little, short poem. The dry, didactic tone of “indicative” followed by a sentence that is superficially a statement of fact, but once you’ve read it, the bottom of the universe seems to have dropped away.

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John Schucker August 12, 2016 at 7:47 am

James, your comments about the Dickinson poem quite literally gave me chills. I tend to react in a purely emotional way to poetry, painting, and very often, even to music, though music has been my life’s work. I admire those who can analyze art forms with their intellect and convey their observations in succinct, insightful language. Your formal study of poetry may not have directly led to a practical way to make a living, but it certainly has enriched your life and, with this post and many others, the lives of your readers. Those of us who know your deeply resonant and somewhat sombre voice (though dryly capable of irony and much humor as well), we have the added benefit of hearing your distinctive tone while we read your thoughts, which often ads an especially appropriate musical cadence to the experience. Thank you for your dedication to writing this blog and your many compelling photos as well.

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James Golden August 12, 2016 at 10:12 am

Grazie, John.

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Paul W August 11, 2016 at 10:48 am

I appreciate that you make me look up words – some new and some just to make sure they mean what I thought. Turns out I’m not familiar with melancholy in the garden. Even in the dead of winter, the last slanting light of day has a happiness with the sadness as I appreciate the beauty. Bittersweet rather than melancholy. Even in decline. I’m not sure if I’m better or worse off for it or if I’m subconsciously editing it out, but right this minute, it feels like a blessing.

I hope you have a fabulous trip 🙂

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James Golden August 11, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Paul, you’re probably one of the happiest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met, so I don’t doubt you’re not familiar with melancholy. But I think you probably are. That bittersweet feeling you describe is, to me, what melancholy is, at least as I feel it, and for me it can include happiness, pleasure and contentment along with sadness. My point was just that gardens allow room for emotion and feeling (rather than the superficial garden-by-the-yard prevalent in landscapes, public and private, in much of our country), and I’m sure your garden does/will do (what is the status of your garden, anyway?) that.

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Paul W August 12, 2016 at 8:06 am

Ahh…I misunderstood. When I looked up melancholy, there was no mention of a sweet side – only sadness – and I couldn’t think of a time I felt exclusively gloomy sadness in the garden. I am indeed familiar with the contented sadness that comes with the end of a sunny day. Earlier this week as I stood at our kitchen sink, I was momentarily entranced by the slanting evening sun – its warmth, the lovely view, the sound of Maggie and Sonya doing something in the background – and I was grateful for the life I live. I’m convinced that many people never see these things so it makes me exceedingly happy when someone with your gift for language and photography captures it. Thank you for that.

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James Golden August 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

Paul, I think the long history of melancholy, and its many shades of meaning throughout history, in culture, and particularly literature, gives us a rich source of meanings that has been co-opted by the rise of medical science trying to categorize various mental conditions (which they almost invariably call illness), and thus it’s become a sort of one-dimensional equivalent to ‘depression’ among many. You’re right that most dictionaries will give only one meaning, but a few do use words like ‘pensive’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘nostalgia’, which to me come closer to my use of the word. I think I know well that state you describe standing at the kitchen sink, looking out at the setting sun, hearing Maggie and Sonya in the background, and feeling grateful for life. I’ve often called such states ‘epiphany’, a religious word, but also a word with its own related and long history in culture and literature. Thank you for describing that moment at the kitchen sink. It was a pleasure to imagine participating in it.

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Paul martoccia August 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” Albert Einstein

What a perfectly distilled synopsis of your original post. It was strange and satisfying for me to read your articulation of what it is I cherish about the late summer and early autumn landscape, but never identified so clearly on my own. I get the same feeling when studying a properly constructed dry stone wall. The feeling is well conveyed in a poem by Richard Skelton:

“The wall is a lure
a line cast into my waters
it worms up the fell side and
over into the beyond
and I am hooked

to put down words
about this landscape
as if they were stones

to make a wall
cairn or small enclosure

the act cannot accomplish
much beyond mere ornament

cannot make clear
the occult language
of hill and meadow

but if I work patiently
laying with tact and sympathy
that which comes to hand

then at least there is nothing added
nothing stolen

and in so doing
by a subtle rearrangement of parts

a balance is maintained

a line is drawn
a marker made
to summon the attention

somewhere to rest the eyes”

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James Golden August 21, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Thank you for the poem, Paul.

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Andrea August 12, 2016 at 8:53 am

Rage, rage against the dying of the light….. or perhaps not…..

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James Golden August 12, 2016 at 10:23 am

That too! I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s lines, ‘I am large. I contain multitudes.’

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Chris Woods August 12, 2016 at 1:38 pm

Or am I reading my own psychology as a template for all gardens?
You answer your own question.

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James Golden August 13, 2016 at 6:59 am

Chris, thanks for paying attention!

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Diana Studer August 14, 2016 at 2:49 pm

what has become of those fallen trees beyond your garden?
The ones that disturbed your view out?
Has your garden managed to screen that revealed view you didn’t want?

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James Golden August 21, 2016 at 3:24 pm

They are still there, just hidden by all the new growth. Ecology at work.

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kjeld August 15, 2016 at 5:18 am

Hi James
Thank you again for another great post with gardens- and plantpictures from your hands.

Your posts always make me think of how we – as individuals, enter the garden as a concept : Farmers do their job in the field, and when they return to their homes, many of them approach to their garden in the same way. Similar, – you can say, – when it comes to the architect, the flowerarranger, the poet, the materialist, the collector, the racist, the grocery-owner, the housewife, the artist, the teacher, the craftsman, the scientist, the stockholder, the contractor, etc.
I´m aware, that many people are trapped in a wrong profession, and schould have made another career! Maybe we can use the garden for that purpose, and let off steam?

In your garden, and the fine things and good Pictures one can enjoy in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West´ book, `Planting in a Post-Wild World, I notice a big difference:
Yours have been taken in the late summer, and makes me think of my work in my garden: I feel like I´m in the deep end of a swimmingpoolI and it´s time to use the scythe, as a placemaker, get the wind back and the sun into the garden, so I can breathe again!?

To me, it seems to be one of the many melancolic moments in my garden: how much shall I cut down? … or schould I let it all bee?

I´d like to experience the melancolic in your garden.

Have a nice late summer in your garden

Kjeld

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James Golden August 21, 2016 at 3:26 pm

It’s good to hear from you, Kjeld. I often have that feeling of the garden being overstuffed at this time of year, but I remember it will begin to thin out in September, and the cool nights of October will work magic. I’d write more, but I’m on a garden tour in The Netherlands.

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