Sunday, April 25, 2010

A life in commercial landscapes
   What a gardener sees

In places that are prosperous, gardens abound. In modern America, that means commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. I quite like many of these spaces, but they are quite different from most private gardens maintained by individual gardeners. Many who move past them every day cannot really see them in the way that gardens are seen. They remain partly abstractions, more the idea of a garden than an actual garden.

They are like paintings--abstract compositions with an unchanging quality, maintained at a moment of perfection.

I don’t dislike these plant designs--actually I enjoy them quite a lot, finding them a huge improvement over the asphalt and concrete expanses that characterize poorer places. But they have much in common with silk and plastic flower bouquets that present an image of flowers without quite capturing the essence of flowers. The dimension of time--the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying--that inform the gardener’s vision is, as far as possible, absent, leaving an aesthetic dimension somewhat emptied of meaning. Though such plantings are alive they are somewhat not living.

Typically, they rely heavily on annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This normally limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common, but rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, usually measured in dollars and understood as a cost. They are ironic constructs, in the sense that a carefree garden is, to some degree, an invisible garden. What is visible is not a garden so much as the image of a garden, in somewhat the way that what is present in a Pizza Hut is not Italy but a sense of Italy.

And so we create a world that has its beauty, but the beauty more of a modern mall than that of a centuries-old village. Such places do not evoke a sense of the people who made them and keep them. In such spaces, we are oddly alone, no presiding presence of a gardener or of life beyond our own breaking the spell.

Of course, the modern mall is the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice and compel the primary function of urban humans: wanting. We move through an aura of wealth and well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We pass by a constructed now, going on with our dreamy business, undistracted by care. We are left, sometimes, with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 04/25 at 05:28 PM
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