This weekend I attended a wedding reception at the Penfield Mansion in Woodland Hills, once the home of Frank Sinatra, Clint Walker, and Roger Miller. Allegedly Roger Miller’s 1964 hit song “King of the Road” was written at the bar. An image of my grandfather singing, “I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road” gave me an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, and I couldn’t help but imagine the glamor of 1950’s Hollywood gracing the grounds of the home.
Had Marilyn Monroe hung out on the putting green with Frank? Did she love the flagstone grotto as much as I did? Sure maybe the pool wasn’t lit with a gradient of purple, red, and blue LED lights back then, but I’m sure they got by. The night was flooded with a kind of Americana mystique unique to Southern California.
Right around the moment when a toast to the newlyweds was made, the sunset warmed our 360-degree views from atop the hill, making the moment that much more alluring. I felt swept up in the moment of romance. Gazing out at the horizon dappled with palm trees and Italian cypress, my understanding of place and identity was foggy, but it was beautiful. I felt connections to the past and to distant lands, caught in a blur of style. What a strange place.
Commonly called the Italian cypress, historically the tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, making its place of origin both undetermined and without any reliable accuracy. Regardless, Cupressus sempervirens is a tree of many names and homes: Mediterranean cypress, Tuscan cypress, Spanish cypress, funeral cypress, and pencil pine are other nicknames, although the tree is not of the genus Pinus. Culture gets complicated. The Italian cypress is a species of tree native to the eastern Mediterranean region – in northeast Libya, southern Albania, southern coastal Croatia, southern Greece, southern Turkey, northern Egypt, western Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Malta, Italy, western Jordan, and Iran.
The familiar narrow-columnar – or fastigiate form – is unknown to the wild. But the tree originally described by Linneaus as Cupressus sempervirens is the cypress of classical literature, planted in Italian classic gardens since the Renaissance. The trees are long lived and the wood is aromatic. They have been used to construct coffins in ancient Egypt and were used to make the entrance doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, an Italian Renaissance church in the Vatican City. Ovid, a Roman poet, wrote of a handsome boy, Cyparissus, one of Apollo’s favorites, who killed a tame stag. His grief for the death of the stag was so great that he asked to weep forever, and thus was transformed into Cupressus sempervirens, his tears embodied in sap.
A taste of Tuscany, a symbol of mourning, a privacy screen for Californian suburbanites. This transient and adaptive tree of the underworld, with its articulated and architectural form, seemed fitting to the landscape in a way only something cultivated by a long history of human cultures could.