Tag Archives: films

other people’s winter

I drafted this post on a plane back to San Diego after having spent most of week in Philadelphia for a conference. This particular conference has the perverse habit of holding almost all of its meetings in February, almost always in places where winters are less benign than California’s.

Philadelphia sunrise. This was about 3:30 a.m. San Diego time.

Last week I walked on snow, slipped on ice, and encountered sidewalks heaped with piles of dark, bleak urban snow. But I also saw still waterways encrusted with transparent ice, architecturally leafless winter trees, and stands of sturdy grasses asserting themselves through snow-covered embankments.

I didn’t die. I returned with all of my fingers and toes intact. But as beautiful as things were I felt out of place. Visiting other people’s winter was like visiting other people’s houses. You don’t know the rules. What can you touch? Where should you sit? When do you open the windows and doors on warm days?

Over time you can learn the rules and begin to feel comfortable in the strange house, but a week isn’t enough. It all still seemed exotic when I left.

These are a few shots from my exotic adventure, most of them taken the day after the conference concluded, most of them on a trip out to the Barnes Collection in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion.

The Barnes is best known for its important post-impressionist and early modern artworks, all of which are “permanently”* displayed in a gallery in the exact locations where its founder Albert C. Barnes placed them during his lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Cezannes and Renoirs stacked up on gallery walls in one location. It was thrilling and uncomfortably tight at the same time.

Outside the Barnes, in the arboretum

In addition to being one of the more important collections of post-impressionist and early modern art, The Barnes is also a small garden estate that calls the grounds an arboretum. This is a landscape of big trees and larger lawns. If you’ve read some of my other posts bashing lawns you’d probably never think you’d read me something nice about them, but here’s one thing: A lawn covered with snow gives you a sense of space similar to a lawn with no snow in the spring. It’s a flatness, whether the flatness is white or green, and the flatness serves as a uniform foil for the plants placed in it. You can still read the space and get a sense of how it would be during other times of year. Additionally I’d guess that it’d be easier to focus on the seasonal cycles when some things stay the same.

One of the plants with a label: Franklinia alatamaha. It originated in Georgia, but the little trees are now considered extinct in the wild there.
A little bonsai parked outside the greenhouse at the Barnes
The greenhouse was closed on Sunday, but you could peer inside and window-shop for a climate even warmer than California's.
An outdoor arrangement at the Barnes of evergreens and grasses

All you cold winter-dwellers will know these plants better than I do. The only IDs I have are from the plant labels placed generously around the grounds. But I was deterred by the blanketing snow to go exploring off the cleared paths. It’s back to that other people’s house thing. Was it okay to go traipsing all over the place, maybe stomping on some precious low plants I didn’t see under my boots? There wasn’t anyone to ask on my way out, so I tried to be the good houseguest and wandered off only a couple times–nothing equivalent to peeking in closets or checking for dust on the frames of the host’s Picassos.

One of the Barnes' neighbors who clearly feels the collection should remain in its current location.
The new home of the Barnes Collection under construction in downton Philadelphia

A note about my asterisked “permanently” above: Many of the paintings were removed for conservation in preparation for the entire collection about to be moved whole to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum row, a prime block of land with plenty of room for a small museum, but not enough for even a small arboretum. The major soap opera and powerplay behind the relocation are the subject of the recent documentary The Art of the Steal. Plants don’t have the same dramatic value as wars over eight-figure artworks, so not surprisingly there’s no discussion of the arboretum in the documentary. Also not surprisingly I didn’t see any copies of the film available for purchase in the official Barnes Foundation giftshop.

Along with lots of other gardeners I’ve gone all sad and nostalgic on how gardens seldom outlive the gardeners. The drama of this collection’s relocation tells you that a will with very specific instructions is no guarantee that things will be left as you envisioned. Art collections, lifetime gardens—nothing is forever is it?

soylent black


Here’s just part of the second load of dark gold this season.

I know composting is warm and fuzzy and poetic, all about returning the earth’s bounty back to the soil. But take a look at the mechanics of composting, will you?

You prune your garden and throw the scraps in the composter. Or you find plants that have died and chop up their remains into the dark bin. Next you wait a few months for the stuff to break down and then you feed it back to the plants in the garden. Some of the plants might be seedlings of deceased plants in the compost. It’s like you’re feeding a plant the reprocessed remains of its parents or–worse yet–itself.

In human terms you’d call this something close to cannibalism, not far from what happens in the 1973 science fiction thriller Soylent Green. It had been a few years since I’d seen the film so I had to refresh my memory of its plot: Charlton Heston plays a prickly detective named Thorn. (Thorn, as in “thorn in your side” or Thorn as in something botanical–my conspiracy theory is coming full circle…)

Female Cannibal
Leonhard Kern. Menschenfresserin (Female Cannibal), ca. 1650. Ivory, Schwäbisch Hall, Württembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart. Public domain photo by Andreas Praefcke, 2006, from the Wikimedia Commons.

In the course of investigating a murder, Thorn happens upon the realization that the rations many of the residents of 2022 New York City were eating–Soylent Green–were reprocessed from humans, hence the famous penultimate line from the film, “Soylent Green is people!”

We’re all civilized folk, however, so cannibalism isn’t something that we generally take part in. (And for me it’d be doubly difficult because I’d have to give up being a vegetarian…)

Still, all unseemliness aside, I’m getting hooked on vegetable cannibalism–composting–and I’m feeling good about it.

Kitchen scraps, most of the garden clippings, all these things end up in the big black bin. The first batch of Soylent Black took about six weeks in high summer. The next batch got close to ready but then I fed the composter lots of new scraps, pushing back the time it would be ready to use by a couple months.

And then in October, with what passes down here as heavy autumn rains, a large branch that constituted about a quarter of the grapefruit tree snapped. It seemed like a waste to toss the unripe fruit, so into the composter it went. Four or five weeks later it looked like this, with most of the whole fruits looking almost like the day they were admitted to the composter.

So to the list of foodstuffs like avocado pits and corn ears–things that don’t break down readily–I’ve added whole citrus. By contrast the fruits that were broken open were beginning to compost, so I fished out all the whole uncomposted grapefruits, split them open with a shoved, and then added them to the next pile of things to start composting.

One of my mother’s Ohio-isms was the phrase that someone’s eyes were bigger than their stomach. In our case it was that our pile of compostables from an intense weekend of clearing our overgrown plants was bigger that the space we had in the barrel.

But no problem, really. We chopped these up into two big yard trash cans that will sit around for a couple weeks, maybe a little more in this cold weather, until the volume of what’s in the composter now miraculously shrinks. (If you’ve composted you know exactly what I mean, with the compostables seeming to turn into water and vapor, leaving almost nothing behind.)

You may be looking at this and saying that it’s a lot of work, and it can be. But like so many other things in the garden, it’s amazingly gratifying work, both for the gardeners and the lucky plants that get a share of the soylent black.

amusing landscape

Our weekend Netflix viewing was The Savages, a 2007 film starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman who play a sister and brother who are called in to care for their ailing father. The siblings leave New York City and Buffalo in the fall to pick up their father in Sun City, Arizona.

I laughed at some of the establishing shots of the landscaping in Sun City. I had to share.

Long rows of these soccer ball trees are shown all over Sun City.

Houses with these ball shaped trees...
Big palm trees, but the planting budget didn't allow everyone to get one of their own...
This hedge really got me laughing. What emerges from behind the hedges two seconds after this shot is even funnier...

As far as the film, I liked it. As expected, the siblings have issues between them, including some sibling rivalry that’s simmered for four decades. But all in all they’re adults trying hard to do the right thing for their father: nothing too Hollywood and cloyingly uplifting, but nothing that’s a real downer, either.

Of course such mature behavior would never fly in many families I’m familiar with. Overall it left me with the feeling that’s best summed up by a bumpersticker John has that hasn’t made it onto a vehicle yet: My Family is More Dysfunctional than Yours.

the botany of ‘avatar’

One of the advantages/disadvantages to reading the Los Angeles Times is their focus on Hollywood and their idea of what constitutes a major news story. Page 24 of the front section of this morning’s paper features an interview with UC Riverside botanist Jodie Holt on the consulting work she did for the current James Cameron science fiction film, Avatar. In addition to helping shape the look of the plants in the film, her plant descriptions and taxonomies form a chapter of the fan book, Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora.

avatar hometree

Above: Hometrees on the moon Pandora, from the Pandorapedia [ source ]

Edit [January 10]: I finally made it to see Avatar. While it’s not the sort of film I usually take myself to I had a great 2 hours and 42 minutes of escapism.

Some of the most striking botanical things seem to be the filmmaker’s borrowings from what earth’s marine life forms do already: plants with spectacular nighttime bioluminescence, seeds that float (while glowing) like marine jellyfish, or plants that glow when stepped on like certain marine algae. Actually I was surprised by how many plants I recognized already: ferny things, banana-leaved-looking things, tree-like things, grassy things. (Maybe that was botanist Jodie Holt’s influence?)

It made it look like Earth and Pandora were seeded with many of the same primordial spawn, which might be the case since humans were able to travel to Pandora in just a few years. If any filmmaker wants to option this compelling other story of divergent evolution on Earth and a distant planet’s moon, just e-mail me.

defensive boots

It’s a dangerous time out there for California garden bloggers. One of them just had a run-in of a thumb and a chipper-shredder, though fortunately with an outcome way short of what you’d see towards the end of Fargo. Fargo Snowglobe(If you don’t know Fargo, here’s the snowglobe that came with the deluxe collector’s letterboxed edition VHS tape which mirrors the tone of the film perfectly. It memorializes the infamous chipper-shredder scene where Trooper Marge Gunderson comes upon the criminal trying to dispose of his latest victim. When shaken, the snow in the globe is tainted with little red flakes. Magical…)

Another blogger broke her arm, taking her away from posting for a while.

Not to be left out, a little over a month ago, while working on my house repair project, I ended up stepping into a pile of scrap wood that happened to have a big spikey nail that was pointing straight up out of one of the boards. My work shoes–some battered old Skecher tennies that were hip in the late 1990s–were no match for the nail and…you know the rest. I’m perfectly fine now, but two days of painkillers and the week of crutches were no fun.

New boots 2

I really should have better shoes for working outside, I thought after the little accident. And this weekend I finally got around to replacing my unsafe and ugly tennies.

So here they are: some industrial Timberland workboots with steel toes and puncture-resistant soles. They weigh as much as a small sack of potatoes but are surprisingly comfortable.

So was this overkill for working outside and around the garden? They should be great for forcing a shovel into the patches of the garden where the earth is seriously hardpan clay. But they’re definitely nothing to wear when trying to weave gingerly through a bed of new seedlings. I haven’t had a chance to plant anything over the last couple of days, and I haven’t had a need to finesse my way around tiny little plants. But I think I’ll like them and that I’ll actually wear them gardening.

Scooter in shoebox

Whatever the verdict, one member of the household is already happy. Here’s Scooter, who doesn’t give a hoot about my new boots. But every new pair of shoes that enters the house means that there’ll be a shoebox accompanying them. The cat approves.

a fun gardening movie

Last July I did a post on the documentary A Man Named Pearl, and at point asked a question about what films there were about gardening. Leslie made the recommendation of Greenfingers, a Y2K British production starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirrin. Based loosely on a true story, it told of incarcerated gardeners in England that had a rehabilitation program involving gardening. In real life the prisoners eventually went on to design award winning garden exhibits at the Hampton Court and Chelsea Flower Shows.

My Netflix queue is pretty long, but by last week I’d worked through a few dozen films and the red envelope containing Greenfingers arrived in the mail. I won’t give away the end any more than I have–It’s based only loosely on the facts I’ve mentioned above. But if you haven’t seen it already it’s definitely a worthy movie rental–Warm, funny and romantic, it’s a great film for these long winter nights.

Now if only the film didn’t use so many plastic plants, including a red hibiscus that features prominently in the plot. We’re gardeners, people! We can tell!

a man named pearl

Opening last Friday in theaters in Los Angeles (and just a few other places) was A Man Named Pearl. The Pearl of the film is South Carolina master topiarist Pearl Fryar. The documentary doesn’t open here in San Diego until August 22 but the film is on my list. How often is it that you have a film about a gardener? (Let’s see…there was Peter Sellers in Being There…and then…any others? Would The Constant Gardener or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil really qualify beyond having gardens and gardeners in their titles?)

The film’s site has show dates and a trailer that gives you the best overview of his work. That trailer forms the opening part of the first of the clips below, and afterwards it goes into a forum featuring Fryar talking about his work in front of an audience. The second clip is a more extended talk and includes a demonstration with him firing up his electric hedge clippers…