Tag Archives: winter

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?

winter sycamores

It’s time for my annual tribute to the winter sycamore trees. The week of rain leading up to Christmas has left most of the trees bare, their leaves on the ground.

So, when life mainly gives you fallen leaves, that’s mainly what I’ve taken photos of this year. I won’t call this great art but I do like the square shot of the bare branches…maybe a little Jackson Pollack or Harry Callahan

The question I’ve been asking myself a lot this season: Is it just my imagination, or do the leaves more often than not land butter-side-down, with their top sides usually against the dirt? Maybe the way they’re weighted? Or are they unstable if they land on their stems so that the wind blows them over?

early winter sycamores

I first photographed these two trees over a decade ago, when I was working on a little photo project on local sycamores. I liked the way the two branches seemed to form a continuous arc when viewed from the right angle. Today, one of the trees is ailing and has lost some branches. Still, this little branch detail remains. The vegetation around the trees has changed over the years, as you might expect, and now you’ll have to stand in the middle of a big coyote bush brush to view the effect. At least it wasn’t a cactus.

When I started my photo series a lot of things attracted me to the Western sycamore, Platanus racemosa: their interesting branch structure, their over-scaled and dramatic leaves, their amazing exfoliating bark. And of the handful of native tree species within a few miles of my house, the sycamore may be the most spectacular this time of year. On my last trip to to San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park, I paid closest attention to what these trees were doing at the beginning of winter.

These are deciduous trees, along with the cottonwoods and willows, and they’ll attempt autumn or early winter color. Often the leaves are as much brown as they are yellow.

With a backdrop of gray sagebrush and black sage you’d never mistake this for a New England autumn postcard.

Things were nearing the end of leaf-fall. Most of the leaves lay underfoot.

Some of the leaves that weren’t underfoot were underwater.

With most of the leaves now off the trees, the light-colored bark stands out. Here a tree shows off its silhouette against a dark green evergreen live oak.

Looking closely at the bare trees lets you concentrate on their peeling bark. Who needs inkblots when you can do your own Rorschach test on patterns of sycamore bark? It’s great now, but will get more interesting as the year progresses.

Yellow, brown, gray and green are the main colors this time of year in the canyon bottoms where sycamores concentrate. Here’s a final shot of the last yellow-brown sycamore leaves of the season.

Nearby, cottonwoods contribute to the color scheme…

…as do the arroyo willows.

It won’t be long before the raucously colored flowers start up. But it’s a quietly beautiful time of year before they do.

view into the january garden

front-window-aloe-viewThis is one of the reasons why people live in a Mediterranean climate like San Diego, suffering the frequent 70-plus degree daytime temperatures. Here’s the view out the front room window onto this huge, mounding pile of blooming aloe. I think it’s A. arborescens, one of the more common species that you see all over town. (There’s a little epidendrum orchid blooming just outside the window, but who’s going to pay it any attention with the aloe going off in the background?)

aloe-bloomsA closer look at the flowers…

aloe-and-agave-leaves…and a closer look at the leaves of the aloe (serrated edges, much softer than they appear) and the agave (straight edges).

For some people, it’s not winter without seeing snow. For me, it’s not winter until I’ve seen the aloe. Okay. I’m ready for spring now.

how many seasons?

I’m still visiting Newport R.I. where it seems like things are on hold. The lawns are mostly brown, the trees largely bare. Some evergreens seem like they’re waiting, like they’ve been waiting. A few rhododendrons or azaleas probably could be spectacular, but they’re not going to fulfill that promise anytime soon. It’s winter.

Newport Manse in Winter

On the plane here I was reading the introduction to a scholarly edition of the Sukateiki, the Japanese eleventh-century gardening treatise that’s possibly the oldest book on gardening in existence in any language. In a chapter on geomancy, the authors discuss how the five geomantic elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, water–correspond to the seasons. Metal is autumn, water is winter, wood is spring, fire is summer, and earth the season that follows, doyo (pretend that there’s a macron–a long line–over the concluding “o”). So…five elements, five seasons? That got me thinking.

I spent some of my childhood in Burma, a tropical country with weather and seasons governed by the monsoons off the Indian Ocean. (An aside: To see what you can do to stay informed on the awful political mess there, as well as what you can do to help, click here.) There we had a cold dry season, then a hot dry season, followed by the rainy season. Three seasons. When my mother would talk about life in Ohio, with its four seasons, with its seasons of cold and snow, it all seemed awfully exotic and incomprehensible.

Now, living in Southern California, it’s impossible not to run into someone nostalgic for what they call four real seasons. Except for the occasional deciduous tree things stay pretty green. Things bloom in January. So some complain that it’s really just one very long season. Of course, anyone who’s lived there a while can feel the changes: You really shouldn’t plant lettuce in July, just as you’d probably not want to leave your doors and windows open most days in January. Every place has its cycles, only some are more subtle than others. Or do some people never go out of their houses?

And here in Newport, with the bare trees, the brown lawns, and–just overnight–a covering of fresh snow, there’s no doubt. It’s winter.

Day for a Guinness