Those involved with the creation of the High Line gardens in New York City were always aware of their predecessor, the Bridge of Flowers in ShelburneFalls. Both gardens make use of disused railroad/trolley tracks to create a beautiful garden that will welcome strollers from the neighborhood and visitors from far away. But there is a difference between these two public gardens that goes beyond physical scale.
In Gardens of the High Line by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke (Timber Press $40) the authors explain that the difference lies in their aesthetic and philosophy. The Bridge of Flowers was always intended to be a bright and colorful flower garden. The High Line gardens were inspired by the wildflowers that took over the space after the railroad was discontinued. A survey of the High Line before work began counted 161 plant species, with a pretty even split between indigenous and introduced varieties. The designers of the High Line focused, but not exclusively, on native plants, trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses and the way biological process change the scene over time.
I was fortunate enough to visit the High Line in 2010 with a friend when only the first section of the now 1.45 mile long park was completed. Strolling along through a small woodland of gray birches and alongside casual plantings of ferns, grasses and flowering spring bulbs that gave way to native flowers like Amsonia was magical – a walk through a wild garden but floating past the old brick buildings and newer towers of lower Manhattan while catching glints of sunlight on the Hudson River to the west.
The different perspective of the city was astounding. It seemed almost impossible to be walking in mid-air. Piet Oudolf, one of the great modern designers of our age, seemed to make a point of this disassociation between city and garden in the 10th Street Square area. Here the walkway swerves to the side to make way for amphitheater seating going down to large windows that gave a view of the traffic below, a visceral reminder of the fact that this garden was in a great bustling metropolis. Those down on the street can look up and see garden visitors. I see you and you see me!
I like the title of Gardens of the High Line with its subtitle Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes. The Elevating pun seems like a hint of the pleasures of this elevated site, elevating the spirit, and touching the reality of nature’s beauties.
The book begins with an introduction by Robert Hammond, one of the founders of the Friends of the High Line. He talks about this hybrid space, “It’s an art museum on an industrial structure. It’s a community space . . . . a botanical garden . . . it’s an immersion in the city, not an escape from it. . . . It’s always free. It is a living, changing space that anyone can experience.”
Every one of these four season gardens, from the entry into the Gansevoort Woodland, the Washington Grasslands, Chelsea Thicket, Meadow Walk and all the others, gets its own description with big, beautiful photos over the seasons and from different angles. Plants are named and the rationale behind designs are explained.
The High Line is a public garden but the book reveals it as a work of art, as is the book itself. Rick Darke’s photographs carry us along through the woodlands, meadows, grasslands, and even a lawn, a walk almost as good as one on your own two feet and feasting with your own two eyes. Darke’s photographs do not show the High Line as a perfect uninhabited garden; he include images of the social life created by the garden. If you have the chance I recommend that you make the High Line a part of your New York visit. If a physical visit is not in the cards, this stunning book is the next best thing.
For me the book is a reminder of my own visit, and a spur to making another trip to see the completed garden. I suspect many people will visit and walk the High Line with no greater purpose than enjoying nameless beauties they had never seen before, or certainly never in a public garden. A visiting gardener will have her eyes opened to new plants, and new ways of using unusual plants, as well as a new recognition of the richness of pollinator and bird life attracted to this garden.
As said before, the Bridge of Flowers is nothing like the High Line. However, right in Greenfield the Energy Park at the end of Miles Street has been based on the High Line principles before the High Line was imagined. Right now the Energy Park is in the process of a renovation, with new walkways and new pollinator friendly plantings. Replanting and editing is an ongoing process, just like on the High Line. I hope you will visit the Energy Park. It is not as far away as New York City