weeds weeds weeds

Lots of times I’m glad to be living in Southern California where winters are mild and things hardly ever freeze. Today’s one of those amazing winter days: brilliantly sunny, warm–and it’s the middle of February. But there are down-sides. Thousands of them.

What I’m talking about of course are the weeds popping up everywhere in the yard. After a wet January, as the days begin to warm, nothing has a stronger life-wish than the seeds that have been lying dormant in the soil. So now there are wild patches of grasses, oxalis, spurge, dandelions and all sorts of other green matter making a break from the cool security of the earth. Not that I blame them. I’m starting to feel motivated myself to break out of the heated house and spend some time in the sunshine outside. But at the same time I’m starting to think a lot about one of the quotes I listed last time, a couple lines by David Cooper:

The life of a serious gardener is not one that, as it happens involves some gardening. Instead, it is one partly define by the structured, regular activities which are imposed once the decision to grow and to garden is made.

In cooler climates, even serious gardeners get unbroken weeks indoors to pore over plant and seed catalogs full of more blooming things than you’ll see in any botanical garden. That’s an activity I love doing as well. Today lots of these catalogs are online, giving the smaller grower an opportunity to showcase their plants, and the offerings are as spectacular as ever. A couple of interesting ones I’ve been looking at lately:

Sarracenia Northwest (cool carniverous plants)

Las Pilitas (California native plants)

But the weeds wait for no one. Jeez, sometimes I wonder if I have the strength to take on a patch like this one, a severely underloved corner of the garden guarded by a spiny pachypodium and overrun with the neighbor’s ivy:Weed disaster
And then there’s this little patch of dirt that until recently held some berries that had been overrun with all sorts of invasives. I took it down to bare earth a month ago, and the weeds are starting up in it already:Weeds in berry patch
But what can you do? Let it go back to nature? Pave it over? For a garden with not enough planting space for those amazing plants in those plant catalogs, niether of those seem like reasonable options. So…what will I do with my weekend? I’m sure it’ll have something to do with weeding….

Weed bucket

some random quotes

All gardening is landscape painting.–Alexander Pope

Planting ground is painting a landscape with living thing.–Gertrude Jekyll

Once properly examined, Jekyll’s comparison looks to be both superficial and exaggerated.–David E. Cooper

The Japanese garden designer creates a theater for the wind to speak.–Ezra Pound

Any one can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt that the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world in his bamboo garden.–Hermann Hesse

The life of a serious gardener is not one that, as it happens involves some gardening. Instead, it is one partly define by the structured, regular activities which are imposed once the decision to grow and to garden is made.–David E. Cooper

All the above from David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens

a philosphy of gardens

I’ve just finished David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens, a short, dense book–though readable as far as philosophy goes. In it he tries to figure out what it is about gardens that make them matter to us. After propping up some points for discussion, he proceeds to demolish them, one by one, as being misguided or simplistic. Some of these ideas he jettisons: gardens are important because they are art, gardens are important because they represent nature, and gardens are important because they represent a fusion of both art and nature. Mr. Negative. See if I invite him to a party.

But he takes those and other ideas to come up a synthesis at the end, that gardens represent some sort of epiphany. He begins his conclusion with a “Modest Proposal:”

…The Garden exemplifies the co-dependence of human creative activity and nature… (P. 142)

Then he expands it further:

If The Garden exemplifies or embodies co-dependence, then, this cannot simply be that between human endeavor and nature, but a further, “more mysterious” relation. (P. 143)

…and finally concludes:

[G]ardening or cultivation…[is] a practice which, engaged in with an appropriate sensibility–engaged in “thinkingly,” as Heidegger would say–embodies more saliently than any other practice the truth of the relation between human beings, their world, and the “ground” from which the “gift” of this world comes. (P. 160)

On his way to the final conclusion he brings in Zen notions of the world, so that this “gift” that he speaks of isn’t necessarily some Western, “God-given” theological construction, but a more universal sense of our place in the cosmos.

Take a look at the book if you’re was in the mood to step into some metaphysical goo…


Here’s an image I ran across in the LA Times this morning that I wanted to share:

It’s a painting entitled “The Bridge” by Swedish painter Tommy Hilding in his current Urban View show at the Angles Gallery in Santa Monica. I haven’t seen it live in person, but the reviewer talks about how the image is constructed from “screen-printed dots, puddles of photo emulsion” with “smeared squeegee marks over the images.” In that way, the work references photographs, and more specifically photographs in reproduction.

In the way the rural landscape hangs over the banal homes, streets and gardens, however, it also strongly references the camera obscura and photography using camera obscura-like inverted images. The photographer most known for doing this currently is Abelardo Morell. He basically takes a room somewhere, draws all the shades, pokes an aperture into the shade, and lets the inverted image of what’s outside shine inside, turning the room into a camera obscura. He then photographs the dim image cast on the wall with a view camera using a long exposure, sometimes several hours. Here’s one of his camera obscura images that he made, this one here in San Diego County at the Hotel del Coronado:


Abelardo Morell: Camera Obscura Image of Hotel Coronado in Room, San Diego, CA, 1998

For me, Morrell’s camera obscura images are visually striking but ultimately unresolved. Yes, they play with the ideas of indoor/outdoor, public/private, but ultimately I don’t find the images to be particularly nourishing. (There are other examples of his work, though, that I really do like quite a bit.) Other photographers are now copying Morell’s technique, but what I’ve seen hasn’t gone into any territory not already explored by Morell.

Another photographer who’s mined somewhat related territory where a right-side-up image is fused with an upside-down one is Harry Callahan in some of his multiple-image experiments. These are shots where the featureless sky prints out white from the relatively intense amount of exposure the sky areas get in relation to the rest of the image. Since the sky prints white, and since he’s inverting the camera between exposures, the tops and bottoms of these images are white. The only thing that isn’t white is a band of information in the middle of the picture that consists of a small piece of a building with another superimposed on top of it, upside-down. I don’t think Callahan had anything in mind other than doing some formal studies, and these images succeed brilliantly in doing just that. He sets a goal, then creates some stunning images that exemplify his intentions. Morell’s images are graphically interesting, but it’s the intention part that I’m not sure I get. So his camera obscura series doesn’t gel for me in the same way Callahan’s works do.

Anyway, Back to Tommy Hilding. In using this camera obscura-like trick of right-side-up and upside-down, he’s made an interesting image graphically. But there’s a richness to his image beyond the formal qualities. Is the green inverted landscape the more pristine land that was bulldozed and chopped up to create the blight below? It’s probably not as literal as that, but the question hangs in the air as much as the landscape hangs over the little suburban homes and barren patches of garden space. In Beauty in Photography : Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, the photographer Robert Adams quotes Albert Camus, who wrote that the the builders of the City of Oran had managed to “exorcise the landscape.” Is this what’s happened here? Is the original landscape hanging over all of our heads in our squalid little cities like some indictment? Is it the ghost of something that’s lost to us forever? Or is it hanging over us like some dark premonition, ready to drop and crush us?

gardens, phonebooths, poetics and old maids

I’ve been rereading The Poetics of Gardens, a wonderful, witty, thoughtful book by architect Charles Moore, landscape architect William Turnbull and theorist William J. Mitchell. In two places it references Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, in which Stravinsky argues that sounds can’t be considered to be music until a human mind has organized them. (John Cage, of course, would argue you blue if you said that to him…) Extending Stravinsky’s argument, Moore and friends argue that a space can’t be considered to be a proper garden until it’s been shaped by human actions.

The situation at the Mojave Phonebooth brings their argument to mind. The Mojave National Preserve purports to set aside a piece of nature for the enjoyment of the general population in a way that mirrors the mission of the Yosemites and Yellowstones of the world. One of the main reasons that we go to these places is to commune with the wonders and pleasures of the world beyond our garden walls and city gates. We go to commune with nature.

But the very names many of these places gives away the real situation, with many of them called “national parks” or “state parks” or “regional parks.” And parks–think of New York’s Central Park–raise expectations of spaces under human control. The removal of the phonebooth was just an obvious symptom of this control, a control that goes througout the natural system, from the construction of roads and visitor facilities to restricting what kinds of activities a person can do in a certain place. Humans are now positioned so that they could exert obvious control anywhere on earth. The Amazon’s getting slashed and burned and there’s comfy year-round housing on the South Pole. And what’ not under control now could be with varying amounts of effort. I’m in some ways a gullible Romantic and I work hard to guard that precious naiveté, but–as much as I hate to admit it–this “nature” thing is now an artificial distinction.

I won’t try to answer the “when did nature end” question, but something’s that interested me is looking at the controls that ended it. It’s been said in various places that one of the methods of controlling something is to name it–Just think of how many mountains bear the names of people that have had political power and abilities to control people and landscapes. A distinct form of naming features is where features in the landscape are given bear names based on their supposed human characteristics.

Over the years I’ve been noticing places that have names like “Indian Head” or “Kissing Rocks.” The place that made me really stand up and take notice (and stimulate my gag reflex) was Chiricahua National Monument, in extreme southeastern Arizona, when I first visited it in the early 90s. Here, a 1930s trail goes through an area known as the “Heart of Rocks,” where there’s a concentration of features 10-30 feet tall bearing plaques labeling them in all sorts of distinctly human terms, using names drawn from a hodgepodge of cultural referents. This is where I saw Kissing Rocks, two just-touching formations with lip-like protrusions. Then there’s “Punch and Judy Rock,” and “Totem Pole,” and “Thor’s Hammer.” Mixed in with these, “Big Balanced Rock,” “Camel,” and “Mushroom Rock” seemed much more benign.

I returned to Chiricahua last Spring and decided that it would be and interesting project to document some of these formations. On the way up the mountain I was explaining what I was doing to a Park Service ranger. Of all the formations, one of the ones that she’d had the most negative reactions to was “Old Maid.” And, down the mountain a ways, be sure to check out “China Boy,” she suggested. Then there’s a whole mountaintop easily viewable from the parking lot at the top of the mountain that’s labeled “Cochise Head,” a questionable homage to Cochise, who held up for several years in these mountains before he was captured.

If you look at the Park Service literature for the park you’ll see “Big Balanced Rock” mentioned, but they’ve downplayed the other names. The plaques remain, however, maybe as a reliquaries to the1930s mindset that came up with most of the names. (The ranger I spoke to thought that Cochise Head might date further back, to the late 1800s.)

So why all these names? Sure, someone was having some fun with it all, but I’m interested in the questions bubbling below the surface. Are humans so scared of or alienated by “nature” that they have to project human traits on it to be able to begin to deal with it? Are we so blind to natural processes and geology that we can only understand it on our terms? Is naming something the beginning of a long chain of controlling actions that ultimately leads to its destruction?

James SOE NYUN: “China Boy,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Cochise Head,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Kissing Rocks,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007
James SOE NYUN: “Old Maid,” Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona, 2007

"nature" and natives

Here’s a bit of discussion from David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens that talks a bit about gardens and nature and those who would have a garden be made of only native plants, a topic I touched on lightly in a previous post:

“Nature” and is cognates are, of course, elastic and ambiguous terms, and not a few debates that have raged among gardeners betray equivocation over these terms. When, for example, William Robinson, the nineteenth-century champion of “the wild garden,” argued that it was natural to stock one’s garden with plants introduced from abroad, his points were that one was thereby “naturalizing” these foreign natives and entering into a less parochial “communion with nature.” In objecting to such introductions, however, his many critics have usually meant that it is unnatural to grow plants that are not ecological natives of one’s country or parish. Again, some debates reflect the different uses of “nature” to refer now the the natural environment that is visible to us, and now the “the essential reality underlying all things” which, according to Monet’s friend, Georges Clemenceau, the great painter was trying to “expose” in his garden at Giverny.

(Cooper 2006: 34-5)

in bloom: this big aloe

Sorry. I don’t know the species, but it’s for sure an aloe, possibly Aloe arborescens. It’s pretty common in Southern California but spectacular nevertheless, especially in bloom:

Aloe in bloom

This is the plant in the front yard. It’s now mounding something like 6 feet tall and maybe 8 wide, and covered with these tall spires of coral-orange-red flowers. You can easily forget that there are other things blooming.

Aloe plant

Like other aloes, it originates in Southern Africa, if not South Africa proper. It left a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s, and thrives on the warm, dry summers and cool, moister winters. Some summers it endures more than a month with no supplemental water, and it’d survive just fine if it didn’t get half of how much it gets. But like many things it responds to a little coaxing, and with a little water looks a little less feral.

There’s a definite hierarchy among some ecologically-concerned though a little purist gardeners. Fake English country gardens that in the desert that is California require lots of water and are filled with overfed disposable plants blooming themselves to death are near the dregs of the dregs at the bottom of the list. Drought-tolerant landscaping rises lots higher. And in the highest regard are the drought-tolerant gardens that rely solely on native plants. So this aloe is a middle-of-the-road choice in social consciousness. If it were human it’d probably drive a Subaru and vote for fairly progressive causes, though it might be caught throwing recyclables out with the landfill trash or listening to Howard Stern.

It’s interesting that a plant can have been in cultivation here for a century or more and still be considered an exotic species. Human ancestors that might have brought the plant with them would now be long-gone, though their progeny could be considered native to wherever they were born. Biology, though, has a much longer memory, and with good reason.

Some of these species brought over from other places could take over the biota, just like the human exotics have pretty much displaced the native populations that were here before them. Those of us who aren’t Native Americans are the human kudzus, the human tamarisks, the human tumbleweeds–opportunistic colonizers of a benign new prospect. Some of these other garden plants could well go on to be the scourge of the continent. But in the end the plants and the immigrants all share the basic will to survive–survive first and ask moral questions later if at all.

Fortunately, this aloes seems content in its place as it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, shading its competitors and smothering smaller plants around it.

Uh oh.

Sure is pretty though, eh?

the mojave phonebooth: part 2, i told you it was weird

[ continued from part 1 ]

My second trip to the Mojave Phonebooth was a few years later when I was leading a photography trip for some fellow photography geeks with the local Sierra Club chapter. My trips are often a little offbeat, particularly for people wanting to pad their portfolios with more photos of rocks and sunsets. (Don’t get me wrong–I still have a weakness for “nature photography” or whatever you call this West Coast, Weston- and Adams- and Porter-influenced way of seeing the world.) The people on this trip were a tad puzzled by my insisting that we visit this phonebooth in the middle of Cima Dome, but I promised them it’d be an interesting detour.

By this point the phonebooth had acquired an international following. I won’t repeat all the details, but through the efforts of a certain Godfrey Daniels, who called and called the phone until he got through to a human being, who logged all his attempts, and who detailed his craziness on the web, the phonebooth began to get a certain reputation for weirdness. People from all over started to make calls to this lost phonebooth, and people would go there to answer them. And then Europe found out. What better thing to represent a romantic European notion of the American West than a lone phonebooth, miles from anything, set in the middle of the desert with j-trees all around it?

My group finally made it there, but we weren’t the only ones that day. A DJ from a Florida radio station was there in a low, battered sedan with “Mojave Phonebooth or bust” signs all over it. He’d been camping out there, taking calls from listeners, and he was looking a little battered himself. In a more deluxe rented SUV was another group of people which consisted of a German film crew and an opera singer. Apparently the opera singer had made a certain reputation for himself by singing arias while standing in the phone booth. Maybe while waiting for La Scala to call him.

We weren’t there long before the phone rang and continued to ring. People from Texas, Florida, Italy, Germany, all over. We didn’t hear the opera singer sing, though the crew got some shots of him standing at the phone, answering a call. Then the film crew turned their attention to my group. Richard got some questions, then someone else, then me. What was I doing here? How did I hear about the phonebooth? Who was in my group? I had no idea if these people were the equivalent of the major American networks, some little cable outfit, or some precursor to Youtube. But what the hell, I’ve been on European television!

The phone booth that day:


Nicole, one of my group, taking a call–in French–from someone in Europe:


Postscript: All this was in the late 1990s, after the Mojave National Preserve came into being officially. The thought of having something so antithetical the mission of a natural preserve rubbed the National Park Service the wrong way, and with the collusion of SBC Pacific Bell (now AT&T) the phone was removed and the phone number ((619) 733-9969) retired forever. While the Mojave Phonebooth was definitely an unnatural feature in the landscape, it was no worse than golf courses in Yosemite or mega-lodges in Yellowstone. But through their greater wisdom the NPS saw it fit to kill off this piece of wacked Americana. So that’s one less thing out in the wilds to makes roaming the deserts such an interesting thing to do.

The Park Service’s action hasn’t ended the weird romance of the phonebooth, however. A film produced in 2006, Mojave Phone Booth, played the festival circuit in 2006 and 2007 and gathered a number of awards.

the mojave phonebooth: part 1, weird at first sight

I first ran across what later came to be known as the Mojave Phone Booth in January of 1993 or 4. I’d been camping that weekend in what was soon to become Mojave National Preserve, and one day was exploring some of the features on the north end of the park-to-be. There the park butts up against I-15 and the thriving tourist waystation of Baker, California, touted on signs throughout town as “Gateway to Death Valley.” Baker is home to what’s claimed as the “world’s largest thermometer,” 134 feet tall–a foot for every degree that made up the hottest temperature ever recorded at Badwater in Death Valley. Baker is also known for the Mad Greek Restaurant, a busy and basically okay eatery that serves up Greek -Mexican-American cuisine in portions that you might expect in a town that owes its success if not existence to travelers heading for that shining shrine of excess, Las Vegas, which at one point in my life was my all-time least favorite swath of soulless human desolation on earth. But enough Vegas-bashing and back to the Preserve…

The most dramatic features on the land are a chain of multicolored volcanic cinder cones. I think of them as single-use volcanoes: Unlike their big brothers that build to some size over long eras, cinder cones mark a short period of eruptions that builds them to a few hundred feet high. And then the eruptions stop, the route to the magma below closes up, and when the ground’s finally ready to erupt again, a new crack opens up, away from the first cinder cone, creating another, separate cone.

Here at the Mojave Preserve there are piles of them–some of them pristine in their perfect pyramidal geometry, others reshaped by mining operations–and they guard the western edge of Cima Dome. Just a few miles south of the world’s largest thermometer, Cima Dome hosts the world’s densest population of joshua trees, and that’s what you notice first. But the feature is called a dome and not a forest, and as remarkable as the j-trees are, growing denser and green as you get farther out on the dome, it’s the geology and not biology that makes this place so amazing.

On a topo map you can easily make out the uniform concentric rings of the dome as it rises over 1500 feet from the lower points around it. In real life it’s a lot more subtle. You look at the ground as it rises, gradually, perfectly, and you get a torqued sensation that something is happening, but you’re not quite sure what. You stare and it looks like you see the curvature of the earth, though instead of flying high over it, you’re standing right on it. Space seems to distort as what you expect to be flat bulges up. Queasiness sets in. Welcome to Cima Dome.

Cima Dome topo

The place has this amazing power and force that the touted 1960s and 1970s earthworks can’t begin to approach. In terms of spatial power, as interesting as they are, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer’s various constructions, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater can’t hold a candle to it. Sorry guys!

So there I was, jeeping through the j-trees and the spatial queasiness, when I encounter a fence, a cattle guard, a power line and a powerline road crossing the jeep track. And next to the road, next to one of the power poles is a phone booth. A phone booth? A dozen miles from anything? A freaking phone booth? But out in the desert you see a lot of…unusual…things. And I stuck the phone booth as another entry in my brain’s cataloging of desert sights and sightings. Little did I know what I’d just seen.

[ go to part 2, i told you it was weird ]

a few fewer xmas trees

This one didn’t make it to the papers, but there were a lot of them over the holidays:


We were up at John’s aunt’s place in Northridge for the holidays. That area of Los Angeles is in one of the wind tunnel zones of the San Fernando Valley. When the Santa Ana winds are on the way, you know it.

We arrived on the 23rd, when it was somewhere between breezy and blustery. By the next morning things had died down, but the forecast was for more extreme winds. Around 3 they kicked up in earnest, and for two hours they proceeded to shake the house and lay low the landscaping outside. And then they stopped.

The sound of chainsaws started up before long, and John went to investigate. One of the tress that had been a fixture in the neighborhood had taken a hit, probably a victim of shallow watering for a lawn that doesn’t encourage deep rooting.



All the trees I read about in the papers–including one that just missed taking out the oldest building in Hollywood–were pines, many of them probably pet christmas trees that got too large or too asymmetrical for the house. When we got home I took this picture off the roof deck. My neighborhood, along with many others in town, has a number of pines, including the very Christmas-tree looking Norfolk Island pines.

Norfolk Island Pines

These pines don’t seem to have the same problem as the Monterey pines that get bark beetles and keel over, but then again San Diego doesn’t usually get the same kinds of windstorms as the Valley does. So what’s the future for these pines? Stately, symmetrical ancestral pines? Killer tree monsters? Fortunately there aren’t any of these next door…

an artist loosed in a garden