My Friend Peter, Traveler

  • Post published:12/18/2007
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My friend Peter is not a devoted gardener, but he is discerning and witty with a strong visual sense and a lot to say about the world around him. The following is his dispatch from San Francisco.

Being an architect can be difficult if one lives in a rural and relatively remote part of the country. Architecture is largely an urban exercise. For an architect the city is his garden. Sometimes it can be highly instructive or illuminating to shed the biases and perspectives of architecture and instead try to look at things from the point of, say, a gardener. At least this was the pretext adopted when I asked the author of The Common Weeder if I might report on my mid-December visit to San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Things need time to grow and things need time to digest. My sense of what I saw on this trip remains still inchoate but some notions are emerging. One of the things that struck me, clobbered me really, was that one aspect of what makes a landscape work (urban or rural) beyond the plant material itself, is the perception or appreciation of fundamental visual qualities such as silhouette, texture and light. To tell the truth I’m not certain if I was more attuned to these qualities because of the different coast I was on or because they were more abundant in San Francisco. My guess would be that I had simply made an effort to look – and that in looking, I was seeing.

Because we had arrived rather late at night one of the first things noticed after checking into our hotel was garden lighting. Okay, I still smoke cigarettes. And I have to go outside to do this. Walking around the hotel’s grounds I noticed that every tree was illuminated from below. To some extent this was useful – I quickly realized that much of the ground cover was in bloom and actually recognized a plant: agapanthus! I had been given agapanthus (three enormous pots of them) several years ago and with them came the most elaborate set of instructions for their care throughout the year. I seem to recall that the point of these fastidious (tedious really) instructions was to get the plants to bloom. After all these years ours have yet to bloom, and we have comforted ourselves with the response that we really do not like the pompom-like blossoms anyway, and much prefer the foliage. So there I was in the not-so-dark, thinking about agapanthus and jet lag. And I though if these agapanthus can survive hotel neglect (and they were) and the cold (it was nearly freezing) then perhaps I can forego some of the rules and simply bring in my agapanthus before the first frost each year, water them as I feel they need it, and forget all the other ICU standards previously followed with diligence. This was a burden lifted, tantamount to checking off an onerous chore from one’s to-do list.

Adopting more casual agapanthus-rearing techniques would make life simpler. And in that hotel garden that night I noticed another opportunity to eliminate both work and expense. As I said, the trees and shrubs (you gardeners do use that term-of-art, right?) were illuminated from below. Since it was mid-December some more formal plantings were also festooned with Christmas lighting – the elaborate, labor-intensive tiny lights that follow ever branch and twig. But it was the year round lighting that bothered me. There was already enough ambient light (this was downtown Paolo Alto) and the way-finding path lighting was more than sufficient. Lighting plants from below seemed as unnecessary as planting trees upside down – Mass MoCA has just such an installation.

I don’t think the garden need be a 24/7 operation. Everything doesn’t have to be seen all the time. And the lighting from the sun, from the side at sunrise and sunset, and from above at noon, seems to be more than adequate. Unlike electric illumination, the sun and the atmosphere provide constantly changing color and shadow that electrical lighting cannot duplicate. And when, as had been done in this particular garden, some of the up-lights had colored filters, the tinting of the foliage was ghastly.

Later on the trip I had my notion reinforced when I saw the sunrise illuminate the cypress in the manner nature intended. After all, we all photograph best in Natural light. Not only could I forego offering my agapanthus manicures and pedicures, I could dispense with the expense and labor of outdoor lighting. What progress! I extinguished my cigarette and hoped my nocturnal plant photography had not alarmed fellow guests.

The calla lilies are in bloom . . . After the thrill of actually recognizing a plant, “That’s an agapanthus!” I could not believe my luck when, the next morning, I spied a calla lily in bloom. As I walked around I discovered more. I knew and recognized two plants. Fortunately I do not and don’t plan to grow calla lilies. But it was pleasant to see them; heretofore I had only seen them in florists’ arrangements or in the arms of Katherine Hepburn. Who knew they actually grew in the ground?

I also enjoyed the December thrill, for a New Englander, of seeing a palm tree. I’m not even going to think about whether or not these palms actually belong in San Francisco. All I knew was that they were there, they were doing well, and that they represented just how far I’d traveled from the snow and ice. Whether on the Sunday before Easter or during a visit to balmier climates the frond of a palm tree is an exotic and thrilling icon. And if one happens to be driving down a boulevard lined with palm trees the feeling is positively triumphant. I had to drive through the Stanford University campus to retrieve someone from the Alumni Center. The drive required cruising down Palm Avenue for nearly a mile – it was so glamorous it could have been Hollywood. Had the rental car been of a 1950s vintage I assure you, I would have been ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.

I will never be able to have palm trees lining my drive in Hawley, Massachusetts and I do not want to even imagine global warming accelerating to the point where that might not be so absurd. I will travel for my palms or I shall wait until the Sunday before Easter.

You can follow Peter’s country doings in his new blog,

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