“It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Anyone who’s seen one of apartments - or helped me move - knows that I live that sentiment voiced by Lev Grossman in The Magician’s Land. But, while books are often celebrated for their ability to transport the reader to a different place, the experience of reading is often tied strongly to the specific circumstances - place and time - in which you encounter a book.
I’m an incredibly moody reader and will respond differently to the same book encountered in different circumstances. So, when the moment is right and the right book finds me at the right moment - it’s something to celebrate. Here are a few of the my favorite books from this year, in the context of the places where I read them.
2018 opened with a bitter cold week in Arkansas. The camellia buds were killed off by several flash freezes. Even the pansies were looking sorry for themselves. My sister came to visit, decided it was too cold to keep making the effort at being a good houseguest, and returned home. I had only a few bottles of wine and a very beautiful amaryllis in my tiny apartment in the Quapaw Quarter, the historic district next to downtown Little Rock. Fortunately, I had a hearty stack of books to keep me busy.
Top of the stack was a magnificently fun comedy of manners, The Windfall by Diksha Basu. The novel focuses on the Jha family, who have recently received an unexpected fortune and make the effort to transition to a wealthier strata of society. As someone who grew up in a small town where all aspects of neighbors’ lives were observed and discussed in infinite detail, I found this novel really resonant of the attentions of a small community. The book was very well written, wry and funny, while still treating its characters with dignity and respect. It warmed me during the long winter nights.
At the end of January, I had a work trip up to northwest Arkansas - Bentonville and Fayetteville. I stole a few minutes on the way up to wander through the grounds at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. Typical of the lower Ozark woodlands in late winter, things were mostly brown and grey. But I did get to watch the colors change at James Turrell’s Skyspace - both inside its dome and in the sky overhead.
After a chilling walk, I was able to toast my feet in bed and enjoy the strange and wonderful The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This book hits all of the points I love - it’s weird, deals with sibling relationships, has children of gods, and is lushly written and pasted over with literary references. I loved it.
Spring was late in coming, but when it finally erupted, the Quapaw Quarter was covered in a rush of bloom. The few camellia buds that were left opened their flowers, fat and flashy. Hyacinths, irises, daffodils, erupted from every crack to pile over the edges of the sidewalks. And the magnolias hoisted their open chalices to the sky. With all this abundance filling the neighborhood, I was able to go back to sitting on my stoop, drinking adult beverages and chatting with my glorious neighbor (shout out to Heather!).
And, just in time for the start of stoop season, we had the release of Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up. You probably know Ruby from her amazing performance in the Great British Bake Off. I fell in love with Ruby’s writing during the Eating Dirty series that she wrote for Vice in 2016. Eat Up completely lives up to the promise of Ruby’s earlier writing - it’s a wonderful, joyful celebration of food in all its forms. I’ll definitely come back to it again and again.
After spring had fully settled in to Little Rock, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina for their Spring Symposium. This 120-acre nature preserve celebrates the wonderful high-elevation plant communities of the southern Appalachians. I was astonished at the waist-high Solomon’s seals, luxurious carpets of phlox, incredible populations of trilliums, and hillside-smothering duvets of Vaseyi rhododendrons.
On my wandering drive up into the mountains to visit the Reserve, I was fortunate to listen to the audiobook Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. If The Library at Mount Char wasn’t strange enough for you, take a crack at this. It’s a fantastically scary and weird story that investigates what happens when creativity goes wrong. The horror of this book is well offset by the tenderness of the relationships portrayed. I loved it.
It’s great enough when one book really resonates with me - that feeling is even more exciting when I get two great books in a row. On my way back down the mountains, I read another winner. Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods was a fun action-packed adventure. I zipped through it. If you like interesting technology & future worlds, this book delivers. If you want action and adventure, this gives it with characters you'll quickly grow to love. This became my default book recommendation for the summer.
While my trip east to the North Carolina mountains was mostly focused on the Southern Highlands Reserve trip, it had the secondary function of allowing me to continue preparing for my summer move to Chattanooga. At my new studio, while I no longer have the luxury of going back home to stoop-sit for my lunch, I do have the privilege of getting to use great public spaces like Miller Plaza and Miller Park. I can sit beneath the lindens, eat a vegetable quesadilla from the magnificent corner shop Taqueria Jalisco, and watch people wander by while I read.
In this idyllic setting, I had the opportunity to listen to the best YA book I read all year: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book showed, better than I’ve encountered anywhere else, the way that modern friendships often occur partly online, partly in person. I have many friendships that occur to some significant degree online, sometimes intertwining with in-person friendship - other times not. This book represented the vulnerability and honesty that occur in online interactions which might be more difficult or take more time to come to in a purely in-person friendship. There’s also great representation of an aesexual character.
For me, reading isn’t just for lunchbreaks. I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m driving around, running errands, or doing household chores. I’m a sucker for a good short story collection. Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado scratched that itch perfectly. It’s strange and wonderful and beautifully written. What more do you want?
One of the factors that attracted me to Chattanooga (forget the incredible landscape and interesting urban development was its proximity to two metro regions, Atlanta and Nashville - both only 2 hours out from my current abode. Whenever I get a craving for exotic restaurants, art boutiques, or fashion labels not available in our little scenic city, I can hop on the road for a quick day trip. Hello, Beltline!
On a recent trip to Atlanta, my audiobook adventure for the day was Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo. This book is a fictional memoir of an adult son coming to terms with the death of a trans parent who he’s reunited with late in life. Think of Transparent, but you don’t hate the characters. Also it’s set in Trinidad and Toronto.
I haven’t gone full #bookstagram. I don’t have photos of these books carefully staged in the places where I read them. I’ve only got the mental picture of those stories, those settings. Hopefully you have such glorious memories too. I’m looking forward to stories and settings that 2019 brings…
I also have two honorable mentions of short story anthologies that stood out in my reading this year. They don’t have the clear specific place-memory that the rest of the books in the post have, since they’re written by a multitude of authors. But definitely come running to add them to your reading list for 2019:
Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick
Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Kathryn Allen
For someone so involved with the world of gardening and plants, I’ve been on remarkably few garden open days, tours of multiple residential gardens in an area open to the public for one or a few days. I can count them on one hand: St. Genevieve Historic Society Garden Tour (2008), St. Louis Garden Conservancy Open Day (2012), NGS Shoreditch Garden Open Day (2017). For the most part, it’s been a location issue. I’ve mostly lived in smaller communities in the southeast without a strong tradition of local garden open days. Besides, as a professional designer and plant geek, I often get to visit residential gardens when they’re not open to the general public.
So, when I heard that the Chattanooga chapter of national naturalist group Wild Ones were putting on a tour of local gardens, I slapped on some sunscreen, pulled on my garden tour sneakers (the ones with limes, coconuts & dendrobium orchids printed on), and ventured out to see what was growing in local gardens.
First stop was the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, the only non-residential garden on the tour. I’m always interested most in gardens that respond to their greater context, whether through contrast (Lurie Garden) or through integration (Beth Chatto’s Garden). The institute sits in a wonderful low-lying site within the Tennessee River floodplain, with the river to the west, Signal Mountain to the north, and Stringers Ridge to the east. Local landscape architects W.M. Whitaker & Associates approached the site with sensitivity and care. You approach the Institute through a low-key gravel drive that winds through a wonderful meadow which, in early September, was billowing with Vernonia, Eupatorium & Solidago.
The butterflies were nearly as happy as I was to be drifting through this phenomenal damp meadow of head-high native wildflowers. The ratio of forbes to grasses seemed really high, but that enhanced the feeling of walking through a field of flowers. It'll be interesting to see how that balance changes over time.
Behind the building, an intense stormwater garden demonstrates the aesthetic and functional potential of green infrastructure. The central basin is filled with rushes, lobelia, shrubby dogwoods, and other damp-loving plants. Designer Matt Whitaker was on hand to answer specific questions. It would have been useful to have a few posted times for a garden walkthrough with designers or caretakers, so nerds like me interested guests could get a deeper knowledge of the design intent and management practices. Overall, this site was really beautiful and an exciting exploration of naturalistic design based in regional native plant palettes.
After this very generous, outward-facing garden that blended seamlessly into its landscape context, it was interesting to note that the residential gardens all seemed mostly inward-facing, despite some fantastic settings. My favorite of the residential gardens was an intimate set of clearings in the forest, surrounding a low wooden house with spreading wooden decks. The planting at this garden wasn’t particularly inspiring. There were some great large specimens of native trees and shrubs, but the perennials were pretty patchy.
But the space that I’d want to return to again and again was the gravel terrace right off the back of the house. With the narrow winding paths and fanciful structures, this terrace felt like a fantastic place to live in a little bit of sun and shade, sheltered by two chunky blocks of magnolia. Just add a pitcher of sangria and you’ll never get me to leave.
One of the widest plant palettes was to be found in a sunny garden atop Lookout Mountain, just across the way from the summit station of the once-famous Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad. You had to pay extra for parking there, $9.00 an hour - almost the cost of the garden tour ticket for the day. The owners of this garden are dedicated plantspeople. They own property in several states and have an eclectic collection of plants, primarily seed-grown individuals of regional native species. I had the opportunity to listen in on a walkthrough of this site with the owner, which offered some great insight on the mismatch between the hyperbolic claims of many native plant proponents and the realities of getting any planting figured out and established. The conversations with gardeners and guests at this property reinforced to me how easy it is for those of us who work in horticulture to make assumptions about our guests/clients - and how unhelpful those assumptions are. I don’t look like the typical garden tour guest. I can only imagine how many potential garden enthusiasts have stopped gardening after been treated condescendingly or weirdly in their encounters at garden tours and businesses.
After this open, sunny collectors’ garden, I was excited to visit another garden in the woods on Signal Mountain. This gardener had a wonderful way of using large masses of woodland plants to create elegant waves of green beneath an open forest canopy. I was particularly excited to see large drifts of Carex plantaginea. I’m looking forward to using this plant in local gardens for its phenomenal texture.
One of the most unusual features of this garden was its labyrinth, made of stones interplanted with wild ginger (Asarum canadense). I’d never seen this plant used in such a graphic way before, but it was highly effective. Unfortunately, the light by this time was splotchy and overhead, resulting in a poor image quality. I didn’t get to join in on an owner walkthrough at this garden, either - I’d have been interested to hear how the garden was developed. It definitely felt designed, rather than piecemeal. This garden was also heavily cluttered with metal plant labels. I can see how labels could be useful in a garden open situation, saving the owner from having to answer 500 plant ID questions. I hate them. To me, they detract from the aesthetic experience of a garden.
So, overall, I’m pretty proud of Chattanooga for this garden tour. It was an excellent idea to open the gardens in early autumn when so many of the charismatic megaflora are in full bloom. Thank you, Wild Ones, for opening your gardens. I’ve seen what’s been done here. Now it’s time to get my hands in the soil and start making some gardens of my own.
It's easy to view Florida through one of two modes. There’s postcard Florida:
Sandy beaches. Old people. Palm trees. Manatees. South Beach. Disney.
Then there’s wacky headline Florida. Man throws alligator through Wendy’s drive-thru window. Scammers sell golden tickets to heaven. Pythons invade the Everglades. These absurd stories are just part of daily life in America’s southernmost peninsula.
With these two modes of approaching Florida, it can be hard for those of us who live in the rest of the world to take the place seriously. Like the rest of the American southeast, it's neglected in contemporary dialogue about planting design - especially in the trendy naturalistic circles.
Five years ago, I visited Florida for the first time. My parents had booked a house on St. George Island, a barrier island off the coast near Apalachicola. They stuffed all twelve of us in a van and we rattled down to the island. During that week in Franklin County, I was captivated by the plants, the landscape, the aesthetics, and the cultural narratives of this place. I ended up choosing Apalachicola as one of the sites for exploration in my masters project and did deep research into the ecology, history, and literature of this place.
The Apalachicola River basin is one of the unique and threatened landscapes of the southeast. Steep bluffs and ravines have created microclimates which enabled plants which usually wouldn’t persist this far south to flourish. The Apalachicola River and its surrounds form one of six biological “hot spots” in the United States. The area has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians of any region in the US. Many of our most beloved southern landscape plants have primary populations in this region.
Rhododendron austrinum. Magnolia ashei. Stokesia laevis.
Beyond ecological richness, the Apalachicola Basin is thick with layers of narrative culture. Like the rest of the southeast, landscape is fraught with overlapping stories of appropriation and reclamation. The porous land is affected by conditions arising both upstream (consider the contemporary Supreme Court case of the ongoing battle between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over water) and out to sea (Hurricane of 1863). For decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the swamps surrounding the Apalachicola River were populated by First Nations people whose property in the north had been stolen by white settlers. Throughout the early 1800s, Maroons (African-Americans who had escaped from enslavement) established settlements throughout the area - particularly in the area currently commemorated as Fort Gadsden. For a more detailed history of the area, consult Kevin McCarthy’s excellent history of the area, Apalachicola Bay.
But, at the end of the day, the plants and the landscape are the aspects of this place that truly capture my imagination. So, when my parents announced that they’d decided to return to St. George, I was ready to head down the Georgia backroads and return to the coast.
Last time that I visited, I’d known nothing about the place and simply explored the most obvious destinations. This time, I was determined to experience more of the region’s unique flora. My first expedition was in search of a pitcher plant meadow. I’d seen a few Sarracenia on the way south, but nothing particularly dramatic. So I determined to drive the backroads until I found a significant population.
The first hour didn’t turn up much. I had my little brother, Izzy, in the car. We tried to get to the Kendrick Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk, but the road was flooded in too many locations to get access. Instead we witnessed wonderful patches of both white-flowered fragrant waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) and yellow-flowered waterlily look-alike Spatterdock (Nuphar luteum).
We were also amazed by the incredible pink daisies of Sabatia bartramii (above). Unfortunately its preferred growth location out into the water made it highly difficult to photograph.
After driving too many lumber roads with only a few glimpses of straggling colonies of pitcher plants, we came upon a location deep in the woods where open pine forest lightened out into a giant meadow. Even fifty feet away, we could see that the meadow beyond was chock full of chartreuse and burgundy trumpets. My words give out on me - this Sarracenia meadow was truly one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve seen.
After a day exploring Tate’s Hell and the Apalachicola National Forest, we decided to focus more time on the landscapes of St. George Island itself. We were staying in the western third of the island, on a private development designated as The Plantation. One of the trades that I’d read about on the island was the extraction of turpentine from pine trees on the island. The process for extracting turpentine seems similar to the process used for tapping maple trees for syrup in the northeast - bark would be stripped from the tree, then a metal channel installed to direct the running sap down into a bucket. Carolyn Finney writes about the history of turpentine harvesting in Black Faces, White Spaces (Finney 2014, pg 119-120). She notes that turpentine was often harvested by black Americans who’d been press-ganged into hard service in remote landscapes, a situation close to enslavement, long after slavery had been legally abolished. The racial history of turpentine harvesting on St. George itself is unclear. However, Jim Mott has prepared a tour of pine trees that show physical evidence of turpentine tapping on St. George Island. My mother and I walked this tour. It was incredible to see the physical evidence of human industry on the island more than 80 years after turpentine harvesting ceased.
The eastern third of St. George Island is designated as a the Dr. Julian G. Bruce State Park. The vegetation here is less dense than on the western part of the island. There are dramatic sand-dunes rising through the middle of the island - you could almost call them bluffs - covered with scrub pines. Taller pines rise on the bay side of the dunes, fading through scrubby underbrush to sawgrass marshes and the calm waters of the bay. On the southern, gulf-facing side, sea oats (Uniola paniculata) and railroad vine (Ipomea pes-caprae) anchor the sands, creating a landscape palette typical of the gulf coast all the way down to the Keys.
I sent a few photos of our Franklin County adventures to my auntie. “Those photos aren’t what most people think of when thinking of Florida”, she replied. Perhaps there’s more to Florida than the postcard image or the weird headline. I hope it doesn’t take me another five years to return.
Three years ago, I drove to Little Rock for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect. A year in Florida had turned me off the idea of working as a seaside tropical designer. Only a year out of design school, I was still adjusting to the idea of working outside of that cossetted and challenging environment. I had a potential job, working in the studio of my teen hero, P. Allen Smith. Despite growing up only a few hours north, I didn’t know what awaited me. The city, the gardens, the people, the plants - it was all unknown.
As soon as I pulled across the HWY 30 bridge into downtown Little Rock and saw the city spread out along the south bank of the Arkansas River, I realized that there was plenty for a landscape geek and planthunter to explore. You’ve seen the photos from my nightly walks through the Quapaw Quarter for the past three years. Historic homes, with intricate wooden detailing and beautifully proportioned windows, sit garnished with surrounding pillows of roses and hydrangeas all summer long. Spring brought wash on wash of flowering quince, deciduous magnolias and wisteria. There were plants I’d never been able to grow in any of the gardens where I’d lived - giant waterfalls of lady banks roses, gardenias whose fragrance perfumed entire blocks, camellias the size of a garden shed.
But, as much as I loved the gardens of LIttle Rock, it was the surrounding countryside that captured my imagination. Living in the area for several years, I was able to consistently visit several of the local nature preserves - observing these regional plant communities, not only in singular moments of beauty, but bearing witnessing to their change over the course of several years. Within these plant communities, I was able to encounter remarkable species - some common, some not - that are true Arkansas state treasures.
Starting at the beginning of the alphabet and the growing season, Aesculus pavia (also graced with the inelegant name of Red Buckeye) has some of the largest and showiest flower panicles of any Arkansas Native shrub. It’s not rare, but it looks like it should be. From a distance, the flower looks like the gulf coast and Caribbean native coral bean (Erythrina herbacea). I first saw Aesculus pavia in the wild growing and blooming in abundance on the rocky slopes northwest of Little Rock, heading towards Moss Mountain Farm. But the most generous population that I encountered was at Bell Slough - on the north-facing lower slopes surrounding the central wetland.
These plants were remarkably divergent in plant size and shape. Some had grown into small trees with a few bare trunks (what we’d call multitrunk standards in cultivated situations), while others were large arching shrubs 6-9 foot high, while others stayed put as small shrubs only 2-3 high and wide. Specimens of all three rough habits (and everything in between) would coexist, although it did seem that shelter and proximity to water resulted (generally) in larger plants.
There was also a good variation in flower color, with some having a clear separation of red and gold floral parts, while others were more of a faded coral. The most dramatic coloration seemed to be on the later-blooming plants, which often carried flowers that were an insanely saturated scarlet. Unsurprisingly, given its flower shape and color, Aesculus pavia is one of the plants that supports ruby-throated hummingbirds in their northward spring migration.
Sticking with plants that have significance for jewel-like flying creatures, let’s turn our attention to Asclepias. I’ve written on here before about some of the remarkably colored selections of Asclepias that I’ve encountered - a brick-red population of Asclepias tuberosa at Camp Robinson (north of Little Rock), and some super-saturated Asclepias purpurascens in western Perry County, Missouri (my parents’ county). Today, I want to introduce a species that was new to me: Asclepias hirtella, AKA tall green milkweed.
I’d gone up into the Ouachitas to chase down some Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar) when I came upon a clearing in the forest near the Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area in Saline County. You could tell that there was bedrock close to the surface in this spot, leaving a thin grass cover with wide patches of talinum and hypericum. The showiest plants in this unusual plant community on that late May evening were the fluffy ice-green flowers of Asclepias hirtella.
The plants had a splayed habit, each with 4-6 skinny stems raised through the surrounding loose grass matrix. My initial identification of this species as Asclepias verticillata was quickly corrected by my crew of expert plantspeople (thanks, Kelly! thanks, Eric!): Like Asclepias verticillata, Asclepias hirtella has narrow threadlike leaves - but they’re arranged alternately along the stem, rather than opposite like most milkweed species. The flowers are abundant and showy - reminding me of the translucent white-green effect of Chionanthus flowers. According to Prairie Moon, it ranges pretty freely through the central United States - apparently preferring upland locations. As I said, it’s new to me, but I’d like to see how it performs in a cultivated landscape.
While up in the Middle Fork Barrens, I saw Amsonia hubrichtii growing in its natural habitat, along a rocky streambed. This is one of those amazing plants that - despite its current relative popularity in the nursery trade - has been known in cultivation for less than 80 years. The skinny green threads of leaves in dense mounds were easy to pick out, seeming to grow directly out of the shale.
Showing up in late May as I did, the flowers were long since passed. You can have a look at them in flower on Eric Hunt’s Flickr. While I appreciate their blooms, they’re one of the less showy Amsonia species for flower - I’d cultivate them more for the fantastic foliage texture and glowing autumn coloration. The plants at Middle Fork Barrens held a few seedpods, long and skinny like French haricot vert. They were still green and milky with sap - no seeds had yet developed.
I’d been lucky to have neighbors in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter that had wonderful clumps of Amsonia hubrichtii in their front garden, so I’d had been privy to its incredible November foliage. I’d be interested to see what variation there might be in the flower size and coloration of wild populations, given the showier flowers of some other Amsonia species, such as Amsonia tabernaemontana (Shining bluestar) and Amsonia ludoviciana (Louisiana bluestar) which I’ve seen growing happily on my travels this spring. There are also several species native to the western US that could be interesting to grow.
Within a few days of my expedition to find some Amsonia hubrichtii growing in situ, I was completely taken aback by the flowering of a plant with which I was completely unfamiliar. I was doing one of my usual slow-drives and walks through the Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area when I realized that one of the ridges was completely studded with flowers of yellow and pink. That’s what I expect from a Victorian wallpaper, not an Arkansas hillside.
Quick internet research revealed that this was Tephrosia virginiana (Goat’s Rue). The watercolor hues - pastel yellow banner with chalky pink wings - and lacy grey-green foliage were unlike anything else I’d seen on an Arkansas native plant. Bonap says it’s widespread throughout the eastern United States, so I guess I’ve been ignoring jewels right under my nose. Apparently, it's tricky to cultivate - so you won't see it at plant sales or in even garden centers with remarkable native plant offerings.
Considering botanical treasures, my thoughts turn inevitably to endemic plants - species that are only found in Arkansas. I don’t have any dramatic stories of finding or seeing endemic plants. One that I wish I’d encountered is the wonderful Sabatia arkansana (Pelton’s Rose Gentian). Sabatia is a really cool genus in the Gentianaceae, consisting of about 20 species - many of which are annual plants native to temperate regions of the United States. Bonap lists 6 species occurring in Arkansas. My first experience with Sabatia was 10+ years ago when it sprung up randomly after a wet spring, transforming a grassy swale at my parents’ farm into a fluttering of pink stars.
The commonest Sabatia, Sabatia angularis came in a startling flush last year. After driving back from my parents on July 4, I’d gone to Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area (my regular wildflower scouting area) to spend a few evening hours and remind myself of what America is all about. There, the ditches were flush with this unusual annual plant. There’s something wonderful to me about annual plants as a part of native plant communities. They’re so transient. No rootedness from year to year for these beauties. They’ll spring up wherever they please. In a few weeks, they’ll be gone without a trace.
Anybody who’s heard me talk about myself - especially in the context of my family history - knows that I have a good bit of that Sabatia nomad in me. Little Rock was good for me. I got to explore so many wonderful landscapes, be involved with making some incredible gardens, and spend time with glorious people. It’s a pretty great view that I have out my rearview mirror.
If you’ve heard anything about my work over the past three years, designing with P. Allen Smith & Associates, you’ll know that our design practice - while spread across the southeast - is heavily focused in Arkansas and Louisiana. As I’ve read about and experienced more of the region, I’ve been struck by the central role that place (sometimes rural landscape, sometimes city, sometimes garden) holds in the stories that people tell about their histories, their families, and themselves.
Multigenerational sagas about families in relationship to place seem to be particularly popular in this region. Lalita Tademy’s Cane River explores one family’s upward struggle from slavery to property ownership, particularly the messy hierarchies of life in Creole communities. In Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the manager of a plantation in Ascension Parish teases out her own family’s complicated relationship to the property as she investigates the mysterious death of a local farm laborer which unfolds alongside the political maneuvers of the plantation’s owner. Throughout these books, the plantations on which the stories occur stand as physical embodiments of the power dynamics between families.
As you move out of the wide flat washes of the Mississippi River Delta, up into the rockier terrain of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains, landscape often enters stories as an isolating agent - the topography and smaller scale of the mountains making large-scale agriculture or commerce unfeasible. Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, set in the fictional Ozark town of Drear’s Bluff, uses the isolation of scattered rural dwellers as a way of exploring the individual isolation of a queer woman who’s been compelled through financial difficulty to return to her rural childhood home. The 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri utilizes the landscape in a similar way to embody the isolation of a mother’s grief after her daughter’s murder. These mountain stories tend to focus more on individual relationships to place, rather than the multigenerational family sagas found in the Delta. In either case, landscape is portrayed as an active protagonist in shaping human life, experience, and identity.
Such a relationship with landscape - as an active force in the life of a family or individual - made sense to me, given the stories I heard growing up. For my father’s family, it was always the Mississippi River. The River brought them to Missouri to work. It flooded its banks and trapped my great-great-great-grandmother in her hotel, killing her in her own home. It sucked my great-great-uncle down off the showboat where he worked, drowning him in its murky embrace. It called to my great-grandfather, who answered, gambling away his wages and weekends. Even my father’s teenage summers were tribute to its call, as he worked the coal barges suspended between its muddy banks.
The way that landscape is talked about in these narratives of Arkansas and Louisiana resonates with me, but I think it’s time to take the narratives a bit further. As a gardener and landscape designer, I don’t just want to have a relationship to a place. Instead, I want a relationship with a place. I see gardening as a practice for cultivating that richer relationship. What might such a relationship look like? As usual, Mark Twain described it best, in his classic Life on the Mississippi:
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
The outskirts of Rome will destroy anybody’s romantic dreams of Italy. Frances Mayes would run shrieking back to California if forced to live in between the cell phone outlets, cheap pizza restaurants, and dubious massage parlors shoved between concrete-balconied 1970s apartment blocks. It’s not necessarily an easy context in which to integrate a new building. On the other hand, it could be said that - in such a context - it’s hard to make things worse.
Richard Meier did it.
The full title is Parrocchia Dio Padre Misericordioso, but they call it the Jubilee Church.
Unfortunately there’s not much to celebrate here.
You drive up the street, cars lining each side, with narrow sidewalks between the road and the surrounding apartment blocks. Out front, there’s a weird trapezoidal plaza with a lone low slab of bench. The church itself rises above a four-foot high white stone perimeter wall, stained with dust streaks and mold. The entry is a gap in the stone wall. Pass through, and you enter a glaring marble. No trees. No furnishings. Just the unfolding shell-like white stone planes, with a few slivers of window in between.
The interior of the building is beautifully crafted. Light shifts through the interior as the clouds drift overhead. Warm wood, exquisite joinery, whisper-delicate sails of stone. Outside, it’s a completely lost opportunity. The building stands adrift.
There are several different approaches to integrating a building - particularly a public building - into its context. One approach is to anchor a building into its context by using a common architectural language: building masses, shapes, proportions and materials. Historically, the urban fabric has often grown up around central public buildings - the buildings set the precedent. Now, they appear as though they were designed to fit into their surroundings.
An alternate approach is to design a public building that contrasts with its setting, stands out dramatically against it. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit stands in rough contrast to the verdant London skyline, the funky twisted tower of red metal stark against washes of green foliage.
In designing anything - a garden, a building, a subdivision - understanding and relating to context is always the most challenging aspect. But it’s also the aspect of design that I love most.
The extents of a landscape intervention are often bounded by survey lines. But, regardless of property boundaries, experience of any given place is part of the constant stream of human experience.. As long as you’re on a planet, you’re enveloped and immersed in landscape. So, if you’re designing something in intergalactic space, you can get away without understanding the context. Otherwise, you have no excuse.