Sunday, April 21, 2013

57. Gardens

      This is about gardens, both mythic and real.  But I am not a gardener and never have been, so don't expect tips on gardening.

     At the tender age of four or five I and Patty Taft, a neighbor, took a walk together and, seeing Mrs. Pierce's garden ablaze with tulips of every shade and hue -- a garden that was the talk and envy of the neighborhood -- we entered it and picked a few tulips to take home and give to our mothers.  Shocked, my mother sent me at once to apologize to Mrs. Pierce, and on the way I heard Patty's screams as her mother spanked her vigorously.  Fortunately, Mrs. Pierce was amiable and forgiving, but there, right from the start, was the pattern: forbidden garden, temptation, violation, punishment.

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A 15th-century manuscript illustrating the Roman 
de la Rose.  Here, the blue-clad lover gains entry to 
the walled garden and encounters allegorical figures 
as he tries to find the rose.

     Many years later I would find a similar pattern in the opening section of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a famous medieval French allegory of courtly love.  In the poem a lover gains access to a walled garden where he encounters a rosebud, is smitten with love for it, and finally kisses it, but then is driven away by hostile forces that erect even greater barriers around the rose bush.  Patience will be necessary, and a long preparation, before he can hope to pluck the rose.

     Gardens -- especially secret or forbidden ones -- have always fascinated me.  The first poem I ever wrote was about a secret garden, a bit of juvenilia that I soon had the good sense to obliterate.  Some years later I started writing sonnets, one of which also described a garden and  ended with the line "The lupine bloomed, voluptuous and obscene."  Which, for my taste today, is a bit too direct, too obvious.  But I was still a virgin then, so what can you expect?  This poem too has happily been consigned to oblivion.

     In that second poem the garden was certainly sensual, which brings to mind the Bower of Bliss in the second book of Spenser's rich but interminable romance, The Faerie Queene.  In that book Sir Guyon, a knight representing Temperance, sets out on a quest to put an end to the witch Acrasia's sensual garden, where, like the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey, she seduces men and turns them -- literally -- into beasts.  After many adventures and misadventures Guyon arrives at the Bower, a "daintie Paradise" with trembling groves and "crystall running by," shady dales, "painted flowres," joyous birds, soft music, a plashing fountain, and gentle winds -- in short, everything in nature conducive to seduction and love.  He surprises her lying with a lover on a bed of roses (no thorns, I assume), makes her a prisoner, and tears the Bower to pieces.  When I read this in college -- yes, I read the whole darn Faerie Queene, all six books, one of the longest poems ever written -- I confess that I found Acrasia far more interesting than Sir Guyon, and much regretted the destruction of her Bower.

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 John Melhuish Strudwick, Acrasia, ca. 1888. 

     Strudwick was a Pre-Raphaelite painter and like many Victorian artists found inspiration in The Faerie Queene.  Here he shows Acrasia and her handmaidens with a captive knight.  But to my eye this Victorian work looks innocent, with not a hint of bare flesh.  But in Spenser's poem things are different:

   Upon a bed of Roses she was layd,
   As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin;
   And was arayd, or rather disarayd,
   All in a vele of silke and silver thin,
   That hid no whit her alabaster skin,
   But rather shewd more white, if more might bee...
   Her snowy brest was bare to ready spoyle
   Of hungry eies, which n'ote therewith be fild...
                                   (FQ II. xii. lxxvii-lxxviii)

The Victorian age is not known today for great painting, but I'm always curious to see how the artists back then coped with sensuality.  In Strudwick's painting, by keeping all concerned well clothed.

Madonna in Rose Garden
Martin Schongauer, Madonna in a Rose
Garden (ca. 1473).  Virginity and purity,
contrasting with Acrasia's bed of roses.

    Acrasia's opposite is, of course, the Virgin Mary, whom medieval and Renaissance painters often showed in a locked garden, symbolic of her virginity.  The image comes, ironically, from the exuberantly sensuous, if not sensual, Song of Solomon 4:12:  "A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed."  To deal with this passionate love song, which some have even found erotic, Christian commentators have traditionally interpreted it as expressing the love of Christ and his bride, the Church.  My only comment: boy, that is some love!

     Getting into Greek mythology, I was fascinated by another forbidden garden, the Garden of the Hesperides, situated vaguely in the far west of the known ancient world, where the goddess Hera set three nymphs, the Hesperides, to guard the golden apples that she had received as a wedding gift from Gaia, the earth goddess, when she accepted Zeus -- apples that, if eaten, conferred immortality.  Not altogether trusting the Hesperides, Hera posted an additional guardian, the never-sleeping hundred-headed dragon Ladon.  Guardians enough, one would think, but the apples were stolen twice.  Eris, the goddess of discord, made away with one, inscribed it "For the fairest," and rolled it into a wedding party to which she had not been invited, causing Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to claim it -- a dispute that provoked the Trojan War.  And Heracles, for his eleventh labor, managed to steal some of the apples by trickery.

File:Frederic Leighton - The Garden of the Hesperides.jpg
Frederick Leighton, The Garden of the Hesperides, ca. 1892.

     In this late Victorian work the Hesperides are seen dozing on the job.  No wonder Hera added a dragon (here, a one-headed snake) as an extra guard.  But the nymphs seem quite cozy with it.  For me,  in contrast with Strudwick's Acrasia mentioned earliereverything about this painting -- the dozing damsels, the phallic snake, the clustered golden apples -- seems subtly erotic.  Ah, those sly Victorians!  Leighton, an English sculptor and painter, was the first artist to be made a peer.  He died one day later
-- the shortest peerage in history.
     Of course the supreme forbidden garden of Western lore is Eden, which itself was not forbidden, but whose Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life were not to be touched by Adam and Eve.  The former gave knowledge of good and evil, while the Tree of Life conferred immortality, and Yahweh didn't want them to mess with either.  The plants in the garden are not specified by the Book of Genesis, which mentions only "every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food" (2:9).  The most famous description of Eden in English literature is surely Milton's, in Book IV of Paradise Lost, where "Cedar, and Pine, and Firr, and branching Palm" are mentioned, along with "goodliest Trees loaden with fairest Fruit," and trees weeping odorous gums and balm, and golden fruit "Hesperian fables true," and "Flours of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose," and the vine that "layes forth her purple Grape."
Granted, this lacks the sensuous immediacy of Keats and Tennyson.  (Yes, Tennyson!  I said "sensuous," not "sensual.")  But Milton was far more scholar than nature lover, and blind as well.

     Eden captured the Western imagination as an earthly paradise, a place of peace and innocence where the lion could lie down with the lamb, an exotic setting where unicorns stalked groves of fruit-bearing trees.  For me, Eden lies in the realm of myth, but scholars have tried to fix its location -- usually somewhere in the Middle East -- and the Mormons, following the revelations of Joseph Smith, are convinced that it was situated in present-day Jackson County, Missouri.  But then, why not in upstate New York, which produces an abundance of apples?  Maybe near Rochester, or in the vicinity of Schenectady.  Upstate could use the tourist business that would certainly accrue.

File:Jacob de Backer - Garden of Eden - WGA1125.jpg

God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a painting by the sixteenth-century artist Jacob de Backer.  To the left we see God creating Eve out of Adam's rib while he sleeps.

File:Raffael 052.jpg
In this Raffael mural in the Vatican the tempter
is Lilith, a serpent-like female demon --
presumably a stand-in for Satan.

     You know the story: tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent, Eve gives the apple of the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, who then eats it.  This leads to their expulsion from the garden and all our woes, a subject that artists have loved to render over the centuries.

      Note on the serpent:  I have always felt that snakes quite undeservedly have a bad press, and the serpent's role in Eden certainly doesn't help. Most snakes encountered in this area (New York, not Eden) are harmless, and the one exception I know of -- copperheads on the Palisades (see post #49) -- take care to avoid humans.  To my eye snakes are beautiful, mysterious, and sensual, and we could well see them as phallic in both Eden and the Garden of the Hesperides.  But our globe-trotting doctor, who has a house in Capetown, South Africa, assures me that snakes -- certain snakes -- deserve their reputation.  His garden there is frequently invaded by cobras and vipers; only the presence of two mongooses keeps these intruders at bay.

The expulsion from Eden, as shown in a bas-relief
on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto.

      What common theme runs through the accounts of all these gardens?  The garden shields an object of great value that the hero or intruder covets, an object whose possession confers something of immense significance -- love, knowledge, immortality -- but that can be obtained only with tremendous effort or at great risk.  It's all about our longing for something difficult of access that, once possessed, may bring unimaginable happiness or deep misfortune.  Which is plenty to chew on.

      Let's turn now from the gardens of myth and legend to the very real gardens that I have visited here in this city.  A bit of a comedown, you may think.  But what if I told you that right here in the West Village, only a few short blocks from where I live, there is a walled garden sometimes open to the public and sometimes not, with pomegranate and fig and Cedar of Lebanon close by, as well as other rare exotics, and smack in the middle, a noble tree bearing a rich harvest of apples.  You would be a little bit surprised, would you not?  But it exists.  Yes, a rich harvest of apples.  Alas, crab apples.  In the autumn those runty little yellow things litter the ground, quite inedible for humans and therefore of interest only to insects and worms.  No one would confront a dragon or risk the wrath of Yahweh for crab apples.

     The garden with the crab apple tree is the Barrow Street Garden of Saint Luke in the Fields, a landmark church on Hudson Street that dates from 1821.  I wouldn't demean its garden for anything, since I have spent restful moments in the shade of that very tree, while others around me rested or read quietly or reflected.  Magnolias bloom there, as well as witch hazel, irises, roses, rhododendrons, and several plants from Japan and other parts of Asia.  Near it is the church's Biblical Garden, comprising plants mentioned in the Bible, Cedar of Lebanon among them, and a Rectory Garden rarely open to the public, with a rare Chestnut rose from China, and a papaw tree that bears exotic banana-flavored fruit.  Because of the gardens' southwest orientation and their heat-retaining brick walls, Saint Luke has managed to grow several species rarely seen this far north, like pomegranate, rosemary, and fig.  No apples conferring immortality here, and no unicorns, but marvels enough.

     Note on the above:  I just revisited Saint Luke's gardens and have noticed changes.  Entering the Barrow Street Garden, I immediately encountered an ornamental iron basin crammed with pansies in riotous bloom.  There were other spring flowers too, but in the center of the garden was a slender tree, as yet without leaf or flower, that looks too small, too svelte to be the crab apple tree of yore.  But I could be mistaken; time will tell.  Their current info mentions several gardens, but no Biblical Garden; has that too been superseded?  I hope not. The thought of a Cedar of Lebanon were in the West Village was enticing.

     New Yorkers, living in a desert of concrete and asphalt and cement, are starved for gardens and greenery.  And, God bless them, they do try.  Out on errands just now, I walked along West 11th Street from Bleecker to Seventh Avenue, and in the course of my walk saw daffodils and tulips in window boxes, in pots on the steps of front stoops, in the skimpy areas fronting row houses, and in little rectangular plots near the curb that often have signs posted, pleading with dogs and their owners to forbear.  What the back yards and rooftops harbor, I couldn't see.

                                                                                              Art Nerd New York

     But those bits of greenery are hardly gardens, properly speaking.  But gardens -- real gardens -- do exist.  One that I love to visit is the Millennium Garden in the Hudson River Park at the end of Charles Street, near the river.  Dominating it is sculptor Stephan Weiss's work "Big Apple," a modernist bronze rendering of an apple ten feet high.  A sign forbids visitors to crawl on it, but, having a kind of tunnel right through it, the sculpture begs to be crawled through, and telling New Yorkers not to do something guarantees that they will do it.  Sometimes I have this little garden to myself, but often there are other visitors crawling through the sculpture and having their transgression recorded by camera.  I have adopted the garden and make a point of picking up the rare bits of litter that find their way into it.  When the summer flowers are thick and exuberant, I love to view them with the nearby river as a backdrop, a view that reminds me of the American Impressionist Childe Hassam's paintings of gardens on the Isles of Shoals, in the Atlantic just off the coast of New Hampshire.  For me, masses of thick flowers at the peak of their blooming, seen against a vast expanse of ocean, present a rich excess of life.

File:Celia Thaxter's Garden.jpg
Childe Hassam, Celia Thaxter's Garden, 1890.

      What, by the way, is the difference between a garden and a park?  Parks are bigger, gardens are smaller and more intimate.  Not always: I've visited some very big gardens, and some very small parks like the pocket parks of Midtown Manhattan.  Gardens are private, parks are public.  Usually, but some gardens are public, too.  Gardens are tended more; they are planted and pruned, watered and cleaned, given more tender loving care.  Really?  Tell that to the Central Park Conservancy, whose volunteers work in Central Park daily.  One probably wouldn't go to a garden to jog or cycle, but beyond that I give it up.  A garden is a garden because it has been labeled such, and the same is true for a park.

     Speaking of Central Park, the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, New York's only formal garden, is a garden within a park.  It comprises three sections: the North, Central, and South Garden.  I have already described it in post #21, but will now visit it again.  The North Garden  often comes alive in the fall with masses of Korean daisies of every color that overwhelm you, suck you in.  In the center of the garden is the Three Dancing Maidens fountain, sculpted by Walter Schott in 1910 or thereabouts and formerly installed in the Samuel Untermyr estate in Yonkers, before being given to the city in 1947.  The maidens' clothing clings to their bodies, giving an impression that is frankly and deliciously sensual.  Appropriate for a private estate in 1910, perhaps, but probably not for a city park.  Today, of course, we are more enlightened about such matters, much more evolved.

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Even in winter, they dance.
Banyan Tree

File:Conservatory Garden central lawn jeh.jpg

      The Central Garden has a broad expanse of lawn often used for wedding parties, and near it, as if to guarantee procreation, the skyward spume of an orgasmic geyser-like fountain.  Flanking the lawn on either side are crab apple allées providing welcome shade in the intense heat of summer.

    Ah, some of you are thinking by now, that Browder turns every garden into something sensual.  Well, gardens are usually full of flowers, and flowers are by their very nature sensual, flaunting their organs wantonly.  I've often wondered how Victorian ladies would have reacted, had they known that the scented geraniums they adorned their parlors with were, like all flowers, brazenly sexual.

     The South Garden is my favorite.  Rather than masses of flowers, it offers a great diversity of annuals and perennials, most of which I can't identify: coneflowers, hydrangeas, zebra grass, loosestrife, catmint, lady's mantle, and many others, as well as barberry and magnolia.  And smack in the center is the Burnett Fountain and Pool, named for Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of the children's classic, The Secret Garden.  (To judge by the title, a book I should have known as a child, but didn't.  She was also the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, but we'll let that one pass.)  The statuary fountain by Bessie Potter Vonnoh features a young boy reclining and playing a flute, and a standing girl holding a bowl with sculpted birds that functions as a birdbath where real birds mix with the sculpted ones.  They evidently represent the main characters of The Secret Garden, but they could just as easily be Peter Pan and Wendy.  If the North Garden statuary is deliciously sensual, the South Garden's is inherently innocent; I love them both.  Adjacent to the sculptures is a pond with water lilies and, on the bottom, a small fortune in tossed coins.  The spot is wonderfully quiet and restful.  So you see, I do acknowledge that gardens can be innocent.

                                                                                                           Ephemeral New York

     What other gardens should I mention?  The Jefferson Market Garden on the site of the demolished Bastille known as the Women's Prison, where the screams and oaths of inmates shouting down to friends on the street have been replaced by magnolia and cherry trees now in bloom, and a rose garden that will achieve magnificence in June?  The four-acre Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, offering flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's poetry and plays?  Paley Park, a pocket park squeezed in between tall buildings on East 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, with trees and flowers and a twenty-foot-high waterfall spanning its entire back wall?  The community gardens that self-styled "green guerrillas" have created on neglected vacant lots, reclaiming urban land to raise vegetables and bring people together to deal with the problems plaguing their neighborhoods?  I could go on and on, but there's no way I could cover all these gardens.  So I'll settle for one very big garden that I have visited many times, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a wedge-shaped 52-acre garden next to Prospect Park.

     The Brooklyn Botanical Garden is really a conglomeration of many smaller parks, each with its own attractions.  Visiting the Native Flora Garden in spring, I have seen wildflowers that I rarely, if ever, see elsewhere: golden club, thrusting a spike of tiny yellow flowers; red trillium, a lovely but ill-scented, liver-red flower; Dutchman's breeches, whose drooping yellow-tipped white flowers look like upside-down pantaloons; wild bleeding-heart, whose two reddish spurs form a heart from which a drop of blood seems to drip between two flaring wings; and shooting star, with swept-back petals and a pointed beak that suggests a star (or missile?) shooting earthward.  I've always been a sucker for wildflowers, their colorful names, their intricate shapes.

File:Dodecatheon meadia Beaman Park.jpg
shooting star
File:Red Trillium-27527.jpg
red trillium

     Another spot of interest is the Cranford Rose Garden, with over five thousand bushes bearing nearly fourteen hundred species of roses.  I'll admit that, given such a wealth of roses, they may all begin to look alike, and besides, I'm a wildflower guy, but when I visited the garden, the names of the various species grabbed me.  Who could resist Wild at Heart, Moondrops, Casanova, Duchess, Glory Days, Dainty Bess, Flash Fire, Apricot Twist, Don Juan, Hoot Owl, Uncle Joe, and Bo-Peep?  Someone's imagination must have been cooking, for there is magic in these names.

File:Stavenn Brooklyn Botanic Garden 01.jpg
The Cranford Rose Garden.  A sundial statue in the foreground.

     For a massive impression of spring, nothing surpasses the Cherry Esplanade, a broad green rectangle bordered by two allées of double-flowering cherry trees that erupt into bloom in April, transforming the whole area into dazzling pink.  No need to go to Washington to stand six- or ten-deep with other tourists to see cherry trees in bloom, when you can do it here with a lot fewer fellow visitors to contend with.

File:Brooklyn Botanic Garden.JPG

     Of course there's a lot more to mention: the Osborne Garden, an Italian-style formal garden; the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, with a miniaturized landscape featuring trees and shrubs shaped by special pruning techniques; the Fragrance Garden; the Magnolia Plaza; the Herb Garden; Bluebell Wood, best seen in May; and many more.  I urge anyone who lives in the New York City area to visit the Botanical Garden soon.  The cherry trees in the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden are at their peak now, and those in the Cherry Esplanade are late this year but will blossom soon; see the website for up-to-date info on what is in bloom and how to get there.  Go early, to avoid crowds.  What you'll see is unforgettable.

     Quote of the day:  "The illegal we do immediately.  The unconstitutional takes a little longer." -- Henry Kissinger, in the recent public release of documents by WikiLeaks

File:Margaret Thatcher 1981.jpg       Good-bye to the Iron Lady:  No sooner had the word spread of Margaret Thatcher's death, but there arose on both sides of the Atlantic a hullabaloo of denunciation and vituperation.  The British media were graced with repeated renditions of "Ding dong, the witch is dead" from The Wizard of Oz, and Parliament was convulsed with praise by her admirers and vehement censure by her foes.  Here in New York City, station WBAI devoted a full hour to rebuking and decrying her policies as Prime Minister in the 1980s, including a satirical skit whose words I could barely make out and that I found uninspired.  (Progressives usually have less bite in comedy and satire than conservatives.)  All of which I find unseemly.  As for those who gloat over her wretched last days, when she was afflicted with a series of strokes, memory loss, and dementia, I find that contemptible.  Admittedly, she was combative and divisive, and her policies highly controversial.  I am no admirer of the Iron Lady, but feel that she and her mourners are entitled to minimal respect until she has been decently buried.  After that, let criticisms fly.  And if the old girl could come back and witness it, she would probably say, as she did once in a stormy session of Parliament, "I'm enjoying this!"  A fighter, she loved a good fight.  I don't admire her, but I admire three things about her: her energy, her strength, and her commitment.  She makes many a politician -- no, I won't name names -- look opportunistic, wishy-washy, tame.  So good-bye to the Iron Lady.  She won't be forgotten soon.

     Banknote:  My ongoing love affair with my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, continues unabated.  When I visited my branch yesterday I found the Easter Bunny gone but, in its place, Munchkins.  No, I don't mean those little guys from The Wizard of Oz.  I mean those concoctions -- "Little Pops of Pleasure" -- that Dunkin' Donuts puts out.  Greater love for its customers hath no bank, even one that lost six billion -- dollars, not Munchkins -- in a trade.

     Next week: Steamboat Wars on the Hudson.  Forthcoming: Earth Goddesses, Farewells.  In preparation: The Saga of Jim Fisk, the most colorful of the nineteenth-century robber barons.  Meanwhile I wish all a joyous spring.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder