The concept of the garden has loomed heavily on my mind lately. This is in no small part because my wife and I have been working diligently in reshaping and remediating our minute slice of Los Angeles land from the serpentine invasion of ivy, grasses, and the unabating appearance of Ailanthus altissima (anything but a tree of heaven in my book). Dreams of reconstructing an interpretation of something closer to the original landscape that once blanketed Mt. Washington guides every swing of the mattock, advises each planting, directs every placement of rock. We’ve collected a small library dedicated to gardening respectful of the existing environment and ecosystem, attempting to learn how to work with the land instead of against it. It’s a humbling process of perpetual attempt and failure…heavy on the failure.
Musings about the garden also weave in and out of my daily thoughts in due part to a healthy dose of online series like the Nowness Great Gardens videos, NHK’s At Home with Venetia in Kyoto, and books like Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher’s Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. Even my playlist has been seeded to provoke botanical action. If all those fail to tempt, the views from my home office glimpsing out toward our side and backyard hillside are always enough to remind me there’s work to be done.
With sandstone and rock and embedded like nuts in nougat, our steep clay soil hillside provides a difficult challenge, the stingy canyon sunlight even more so. Erosion is perpetually a concern, the invasive species relentless, and the sunlight passes with a speed that results in tall plants with supermodel stalks. Even so, work in the backyard is always satisfying, constantly educating. Where navigating a mouse and pecking at a keyboard barely registers as activity, swinging a pick axe, shoveling dirt, shouldering rocks, and arranging plants with hand in soil feels like a sort of homecoming, an earthly pleasure satiating the innate desires to shape, nurture, and move.
Our greatest successes reveal themselves when our efforts result in the appearance of more life local to Los Angeles. Native and migrating insects, birds, the occasional foraging mammals, and even rarer amphibian all play a part as friends or foes to our plans. Connections between flora and fauna unfold at every corner, more exciting than any Game of Thrones episode (with equal likelihood of sex and violence to witness).
“We have increasingly less and less control of what is going on out there, and in our gardens we can make the sort of world we that we wished lived in.” – Anna Pavord, author of The Tulip.
In Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust: A History of Walking“, architects Charles W. Moore (who worked on my favorite residential stretch of California coast, Sea Ranch (1963) with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin), William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull’s express a poetic affinity for the garden path: “a thread of a plot, connecting moments and incidents into a narrative. The narrative structure might be a simple chain of events with a beginning, middle, and end. It might be embellished with diversions, digressions, and picaresque twists, be accompanied by parallel ways (subplots), or deceptively fork into blind alleys like the althernative scenerios explored in a detective novel.”
It’s a comforting thought, one I try to remember as I wipe away the sweat while extracting yet another large sandstone from the clay soil – a barbaric dentist armed with gardening tools. Slowly a garden path is forming, this personal novel of our backyard being written. But where writing an article, poem, or novel eventually concludes with the final page punctuated with a period, the pages of a garden disappear quickly to be rewritten again with every passing season…a lifetime of writing chapters, with unimaginable pages and stories to spring forth, most we’ll never be around to ever read.