Category Archives: quotes

a visit to the l.a. county museum

Another quick stop over the holidays took the form of a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installed at the new main entrance is this battalion of 202 antique streetlights, Urban Light, by artist Chris Burden. Streetlights like these of course were positioned at curbs in straight lines, spaced regularly. Clustering them together like this accentuates that fact, and to me makes the whole installation seem maybe just a little bit militaristic.

Arranged behind the Burden piece are some palm trees, the first plantings of what will be a large installation of palms by Robert Irwin. Irwin is the design force behind the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum, but here the trees will read less like a separate garden than plantings integrated into the art and architecture.

Their trunks echo the posts of the streetlights, as does the fact that they’re planted in a regular pattern. Also, as with the streetlights, they’re a collection of different kinds. A press release states: “Along with the palms, Irwin’s other medium is Southern California’s light, and the species of palms have been specially chosen to gather and reflect the interplay of light and shadow native to L.A.” [ source ] I love Robert Irwin’s work [ here’s a sample ], and I’ll be checking back on this installation as time goes on.

The whole vertical shaft thing becomes a theme around the Museum’s latest building, the newish Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which has red exterior accents, including plenty of red columns.

The landscaping in this part of the museum is interesting in that it uses palms or flat plantings. Virtually no shrubs. It’s a pretty urban planting that in part seems designed to give the homeless no place to camp.

Most horizontal surfaces, using decomposed granite or this Turfstone product, are designed as walkable extensions of the concrete paving. Where does the landscape end and the urban fabric begin?

Here’s an interesting gardening aside: The Museums are located on the same big city block as the famed La Brea Tar Pits, where the ground oozes black, gummy tar, a substance that has preserved bones of sabertooth tigers and woolly mammoths from the last ice age that got too close to the stuff. Just imagine trying to garden where digging a hole to plant a shrub might put you in contact with the deadly sludge! I have yet to pick up a garden book that even begins to discuss what to do with this kind of soil problem. While the park containing the tar pits has a few gooey shoe-grabbing spots, these plantings seemed free of the muck.

My main reason for visiting LACMA was to take in a photo exhibit that reassembles many of the works that were seen in the seminal 1975 “New Topographics” exhibition of landscape photography. These works in the show signaled a break from the more romantic takes on what landscape photos ought to look like and engaged a land where the human presence reigned supreme.

One of my favorite photographers in the show, Robert Adams, often combines the romantic sublime with a cooler take on what the world really looks like. To the left is “Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado” from 1973 [ source ], a great example of what his eye sees. You get the sense in his work that the human landscape often fails to live up to the stunning geography where it’s sited.

Seeing his work again prompted me to reread some of his Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. (From this photo you can see that he takes “traditional values” pretty broadly.) Here’s a quick snippet gardeners and landscape designers might like to think about.

Not surprisingly, many photographers have loved gardens, those places that Leonard Woolf once described as “the last refuge of disillusion.” Gardens are in fact strikingly like landscape pictures, sanctuaries not from but of truth.

–from the essay, “Truth and Landscape” in Beauty in Photography

In parting, let me move from beauty in photography to beauty in art. Here’s a closeup of Urban Light, backlit by the afternoon sun:

(For another example of Burden’s work, check out the installation of 50,000 nickel coins and 50,000 matchsticks that the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited: The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.)

some missing words

The current issue of Orion, one of my favorite magazines, features “World Without Violets,” a scary little essay by Robert Michael Pyle.

A mother in Britain discovered that the editors of the current Oxford Junior Dictionary, in their zeal to bring this little dictionary for children up to date, had removed a long list of words dealing with nature in order to make room for words like “broadband,” “bungee jumping” and “chat room.”

Pyle writes about the universe the editors of the Dictionary have created for the current generation of children who would use it:

It is a world without violets. Spring comes unannounced by catkins and proceeds without benefit of crocuses, cowslips, or tulips. Summer brings no lavender, melons, or nectarines, and autumn is absent of acorns, almonds, and hazelnuts. Winter must be endured without the holly and the ivy, the wren or the mistletoe.

So, suddenly bungee jumping–how retro-80s is that concept?–is more important than tulips, broadband more necessary for children to know about than melons, and chat rooms more of our real world than holly.

If someone decides that we don’t need a word for something, does that something cease to exist? Not really. But what kind of mindset decides that children don’t need to know about their natural world anymore? I was disturbed.

hot lips

I’ve heard salvia connoisseurs talk down about this plant, Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ mostly because it’s getting to be so commonly available in areas where it grows easily. But of all the sages in my garden this one has been the best performer.

Living in a sunny spot with dry-to-average garden water, the plants are covered with these flowers year-round, hitting a peak in the fall.


Common or not, the flowers make the plant really interesting. Most are two colors, a combination of scarlet and white, with no two flowers exactly alike. But often you’ll get flowers that are almost all white or all red. I’ve heard that cold weather seems to bring out the white, and that syncs up with what I’ve seen. But at the same time you’ll often still have multi-colored flowers–all on the same plant.

The growth habit is like a lot of sages, meaning the plant has the lines of a chocolate truffle left on a warm dashboard. For me, so far it grows about 30 inches tall by 60 wide. It’s supposedly hardy down around 20 degrees, but don’t expect many flowers when the frost starts up.

If you can grow it, this could be a good candidate for your list!

teach wonder

Imagine if [kids] knew plants and animals the way they knew brand names and logos, if they knew mountains the way the know malls. They would feel like full participants in the landscapes they inhabit, happily roaming the ridges and creeks in a world that needs their attentiveness… I share with Rachel Carson the hope that children be given a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”
Rick Van Noy, in A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons, quoted in a book review by Brian Doyle in the current issue of Orion.

visualize your blog content

A lot of blogs these days–including this one–have tag clouds in their sidebars. These highly visual displays of tags the blogger has supplied give you a good sense of the kinds of topics the blog covers. And they give you a sense of how often the topics get discussed.

These do a nice job of displaying the words the blogger thought would be important, but they sometimes miss the big picture that you could get by turning an entire post into a cloud, something using all the words in the post, not just the ones supplied by the blogger.

One of the interesting things I saw in the coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration was an Associated Press visualization of his inaugural address using an online tool to analyze the frequency of the words he used. (Perhaps the AP’s analysis was based on one at Free Government Information.) Then the story went on to compare it with a visualized version of George Bush’s 2005 inaugural address.

I used the same tool, TagCrowd, to re-visualize the same Obama speech. TagCrowd picks the most frequently used words and assigns different sizes to them. As in a regular tag cloud, the bigger the visualized word, the more times it was used.


But instead of comparing it to Bush’s address, I visualized Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, since people seem to compare Obama and Lincoln. You can see how language has shifted over one and a half centuries, as well as how differently the men use words.


Interesting, huh?

Then I thought, why not try visualizing some blog posts by turning all the words in blog posts into clouds? Would the results between posts be that different? And would they differ much from the tag cloud in my left sidebar?

The first posting I analyzed is a recent one, “greener gardening practices,” from January 7:


How would that gardening post compare with one of my older hoity-toity art posts? This is the cloud derived from “gardens, phonebooths, poetics and old maids,” a post from January 21, 2008:


Pretty different clouds, I thought. (And sorry for the typos on “Cochise!”) The different subjects resulted in dramatically different vocabularies and different word emphases. Also, over the last year, I’ve been trying to simplify my writing for the web–not at all dumbing it down, but adapting to how people read text on a screen versus text in a book. That probably contributed to a difference between the two posts.

Try TagCrowd. Compare old posts with new posts, or posts about your garden with those about your friends or travels. Or pick just one text you like to see what the repeated words tell you.

I think you’ll discover some interesting things!

matters of taste

Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for Extreme Horticulture,* a book by photographer John Pfahl who was the subject of one of this blog’s first posts. I bumped into the essay again as I was skimming through an anthology I’d read last year, Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Here’s a fragment that I found really interesting, part of her essay, “The Botanical Circus.”

There is a whole language of class in the garden–when they returned to the garden, flowers were redeemed with the tasteful monochromatic schemes of the likes of Gertrude Jekyll; and, as gardening essayist Michael Pollan points out, there is a whole class war of the roses, in which old roses–more fragrant, more softly shaped, less abundant in their bloom, more limited in the palette–are the exiled aristocracy. Good taste is about renunciation: you must have enough to restrain in order to value restraint, enough abundance to prize austerity. After all, it was only after aniline dyes made bright clothing universally available that the privileged stopped dressing like peacocks; spareness is often the public face of excess…Moderation, the Greek philosopher said, is pleasant to the wise, but it’s not necessarily fun. Eleanor Perényi writes in her book Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,

Looking at my dahlias one summer day, a friend whose taste runs to the small and impeccable said sadly, “You do like big conspicuous flowers, don’t you?” She meant vulgar, and I am used to that. It hasn’t escaped me that mine is the only WASP garden in town to contain dahlias, and not the discreet little singles either. Some are as blowsy as half-dressed Renoir girls; others are like spiky sea-creatures, water lilies, or the spirals in a crystal paperweight; and they do shoot up to prodigious heights. But to me they are sumptuous, not vulgar.

I’ve gone on in some posts about the necessity to rein in color choices to achieve some sort of harmony. But then I’ve written about wonderfully vulgar, er…sumptuous, plants like toloache and Echium wildprettii. I really do like a certain amount of order, but at the same I do appreciate these flaming agents of chaos. I may achieve pockets of “good taste” in the yard, but these are tempered by the bawdy and outrageous.

So what’s your garden like? Carefully coordinated and muted like a wardrobe from J. Crew or Land’s End? Or sassy and outrageous like Martha Stewart in hot pants and five-inch cha-cha heels?

A note on my links to books: The book links in all of my posts (with only one exception that I can think of) take you to, a site made up of hundreds of booksellers around the world, a good many of them the little brick and mortar operations that are dying out too quickly as giants like Amazon take over publishing.

garden color

Color of course needs to be an important consideration in planning the garden. You may be familiar with Gertrude Jekyll’s important book devoted just to the subject, Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden. If you don’t know it—or if you your copy is falling apart—you can read it for free online via Google Books. Her selections of plants won’t apply to many locations since she lived in England, but her thought processes about choosing colors and staging processions of colors throughout the year colors are instructive and worth the read.

You can find plenty of other garden books online through Google books. If they’re out of copyright you can see the entire text. Even if they’re still under copyright control, you can skim through many others–usually enough to let you decide if you want to buy the book, and often enough to answer a specific question that might be your only reason for wanting to look at the book.

When Google started their massive project to digitize items in many of the world’s major libraries they raised more than a few eyebrows. What were they up to? What were they doing scanning all these books and potentially releasing for free the hard work of the world’s authors?

I’ve just finished The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr. It’s definitely a work of journalism and not poetry, but a paragraph on page 223 made my jaw drop and just by itself made reading the book worthwhile:

George Dyson, a historian of technology…was invited to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in October 2005 to give a speech… After his talk, Dyson found himself chatting with a Google engineer about the company’s controversial plant to scan the contents of the world’s libraries into its database. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” the engineer told him. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI [Artificial Intelligence].”

Creepy. But at least in the end, when Google’s computers take over the world, they’ll at least be able to put together a color-coordinated English cottage garden.

more thoughts about gardens

I quoted recently from Robert Pogue Harrison’s recent Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Here are a couple more passages that I liked.

…[I]n the final analysis we must always remember that nature has its own order and that human gardens do not, as one hears so often, bring order to nature; rather, they give order to our relation to nature.

…[T]here is in the Versailles gardens an aesthetic drive to tame, and even humiliate, nature into submission…

While we long ago ceased to credit doctrines regarding the divine right of kings, and while few among us believe we are living in an age of enlightenment, we still have not sufficiently dismantled the doctrine of humanity’s divine right, which in many ways still reigns supreme in contemporary Western societies, in practice if not in theory. For all its perverse beauty and wondrous transfiguration of pride, Versailles will not be of much help to us when it comes to finding a less presumptuous relationship to nature than the one bestowed upon us by that era.

In the interest of full self-disclosure I’ve never visited the massive formal gardens of Louis XIV at Versailles, but I think I’d feel awestruck and spiritually injured at the same time. The author captures my squeamishness perfectly.

humility 101

Most of [Czech author Karel] Čapek’s commentators consider The Gardener’s Year a minor work, but as Verlyn Klinkenborg remarks in the introduction to the Modern Library English edition of 2002, “most students of Čapek believe gardening is a subset of life, whereas gardeners, including Čapek, understand that life is a subset of gardening.”
–Robert Pogue Harrison

My first meaningful exposure to the work of Čapek came through Leoš Janáček’s amazing 1925 opera, The Makropulos Affair, which is based on Čapek’s play of the same name. I suppose you could call it a science fiction opera: a young woman becomes the laboratory rat of her alchemist father, who is tasked by Emporer Rudolf II to devise a formula that will extend his life by three centuries. When given the potion, the daughter at first drops into a coma. However, when she wakes up, she truly has been transformed into being able to live another 300 years. In living through those extra years she becomes increasingly detached from her original humanity as she is forced to leave one mortal husband after another and loved ones fade around her. At the end of the opera, even though she is in possession of her father’s formula for the elixir that would allow her to keep extending her life, she refuses to concoct the drink and chooses humanity–and death.

It’s a powerful tale with echoes all the way back to the Odyssey, where Odysseus declines eternal life in favor of his known, mortal one, back in Ithaca with the family and friends he knows and loves. Also, Čapek, ever rooted in the earth and distrustful of the quick, shallow pleasures of “progress,” uses the play to express his dis-ease with where unthinking application of the technologies that were exploding around him would lead the human race.

I bring all this up because I’ve been reading Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. One of the chapters is devoted to Čapek and his work, The Gardener’s Year. The quote at the beginning of this post comes from that chapter, as does this second by Čapek himself, in an extended quote:

I tell you, to tame a couple of rods of soil is a great victory… And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple of rods of clay–clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes; which yields under the spade like chewing-gum, which bakes in the sun and gets sour in the shade; ill-tempered, unmalleable, greasy, and sticky like plasters of Paris, slippery like a snake, and dry like a brick, impermeable like tin, and heavy like lead. And now smash it with a pick-axe, cut it with a spade, break it with a hammer, turn it over and labour, cursing aloud and lamenting.

Then you will understand the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter which ever did defend itself, and still does, against becoming a soil of life; and you will realize what a terrible fight life must have undergone, inch by inch, to root in the soil of the earth, whether that life be called vegetation or man.

All this may sound a little dense and difficult going, but others of Harrison’s quotes from Čapek’s work show it to be incredibly funny at the same time. I have plenty of books lined up that I need to read, but this one is moving to the front of the queue.