Continuum

I think about my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents

and those who went before –

all of them gone to the cool earth – yet

I feel their support. The subtle threads of connection reach

the other way too, shimmering in the blood of my son, his infant twins,

maybe beyond.

When I was a little girl I watched my mother and her mother intently,

as children do. They discussed ordinary tasks: the making of gravy,

the way to set the dinner table. I sensed a deep bond

between us: three generations of women connected by

genes and blood, place and time. They taught me what beauty is –

a perfect white camelia, a tender biscuit,

a sparkling emerald, a warm smile.

The lessons buoyed me in dark times

long after their deaths

sweet tokens

of the past.

1.

I visited my son and his new family: twin boys,

my grandchildren. I watched as they were

held and fed,

bounced and tickled. I gazed as intensely as

I did those long years ago when I watched my mother and grandmother.

I am still learning

where beauty is

in this hard world.

2.

The boys fell asleep and we talked about the value of art,

about being a new therapist and being new to therapy. We talked about Ukraine,

where the twins’ mother was born. She had offered to help old friends from her

school days but they spurned the idea, wanting only

money for the troops.

Revenge over comfort.

The talk turned lighter then, to family resemblances. I said I could see

my grandfather in the twins’ faces, their high foreheads, their curious, solemn eyes.

My son carries his name, a tribute to his forge-ahead energy,

endearing quirks, his confident way of moving

through life. A stubborn, self-made man, he framed out

a secure place in life for himself and his family. Now my son,

easily a foot taller than his great-grandfather and inhabiting

a different world,

dreams the same dreams,

makes them real again.

3.

The day after the visit I waded through a box of old photos

and papers looking for pictures of “The Colonel”

(as my grandfather was called) to send to J. She was curious

about my grandfather, wanted to know more about the

mythical man whose blood runs in her children’s veins. Head bent,

I rummaged through the box and pulled out a sixty-year-old letter

typed on onionskin and dictated by my grandfather

in reply to a researcher inquiring about his background.

He said he didn’t know

what his own grandfather did for a living. Maybe

they were too preoccupied with survival in the coal mine hollows

of West Virginia to remember their forebears’ lives. But

the Colonel got out.

He did well.

4.

In the box, a scrawled list of Paris restaurants proves it.

Penciled on hotel stationery by my grandmother

in her energetic, round script, the list tells

who you can call if you can’t find good Scotch

(their favorite drink) and which restaurant has a good view

of l’Arc de Triumph. Halfway into the box I pulled out

a glossy, black-and-white, 8×10 of the two of them

enjoying drinks with friends at a crowded Manhattan restaurant.

Smiles all around.

Leafing through the fragile papers and photographs

I sensed a subtle vapor-like energy,

an ethereal column of mist wafting through my core

ribbon-like, down to the past generations and on

to my child and grandchildren. Warm feelings

washed over me –

like the oxytocin rush I get when I hold the babies, a

visceral connection to my

peopled past

and future.

5.

And in the box there was a cherished missive from the past, a poem

my mother transcribed before she died. I’d wondered

where I put it,

worried that I’d lost it but there it was, folded in thirds just like

the first time I found it, weeks after she died.

Fifteen months of fitful struggles with pancreatic cancer

finally over.

I had taken time off from work and flown down to her house

to wade through the contents, exhausting work

in the best of circumstances made harder

by the sheer number of objects. Room to room, I sorted, never expecting

to find a carefully penned poem on yellow legal paper,

folded and tucked into a dresser drawer with

my mother’s socks and stockings.

I stopped to read (she knew that would happen).

I was glad to be alone as I listened to her voice

reciting the words, threading through time,

pulling the bond tight.

A heartstab of love

from the cool, rich earth

of the grave.

6.

To Those I Love

If I should ever leave you whom I love
To go along the silent way,
Grieve not,
Nor speak of me with tears,
But laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you there.

(I’d come – I’d come, could I but find a way!
But would not tears and grief be barriers?)
And when you hear a song
Or see a bird I loved,
Please do not let the thought of me be sad
For I am loving you just as I always have
You were so good to me!

There are so many things I wanted still to do

So many things to say to you
Remember that I did not fear
It was just leaving you that was so hard to face
We cannot see beyond

But this I know;
I love you so
‘twas heaven here with you!

Isla Paschal Richardson

7.

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About the photographs:

All except the rock (#3) and the photo below were made using intentional camera movement (ICM). Most are one-second exposures at f22. Sometimes I moved my whole body, not just the camera, mimicking the waves coming ashore or the arcing outline of a rock. It was the day after I went through the box of papers, a day of rain and strong tides. I didn’t intend to do anything other than get outdoors between rain showers but I always have a camera with me and I wanted to do something different with it. Camera movement sprang to mind. The images seem to reflect the mood I was in – why wouldn’t they?

8.

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A Universe of Gardens

A few weeks ago I bought a book by photographer Sam Abell from the used book store in town. I probably spend too much time there, browsing and drinking espresso, but I like an afternoon pick-me-up and the book selection is excellent. In Seeing Gardens, Sam Abell reflects on gardens all over the world, expanding the definition of a garden to include photographs of Arctic landscapes and scenes as mundane as a woman wearing a flowered scarf.

Abell’s inclusive vision got me thinking. Having worked in many gardens over the years and cultivated a few as well, there’s no question that gardens have played a major role in my life. So have wild places, from the woods behind the house where I grew up to the preserves and parks that I frequent now. Cultivated gardens are a cornerstone of civilization – the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and ancient Daoist parks in China are just a few examples. But the idea of a garden can encompass more than intentionally cultivated spaces. Seeing gardens in places where the human hand hasn’t been at work is a just matter of opening up one’s perspective. For me, gardens are just about everywhere.

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1.

Cultivated gardens took center stage in my life during certain periods; wild gardens were important at other times. As a chubby toddler, I went barefoot in the grass in a yard that bloomed with tulips and roses. Flowers were always a part of life at home. I remember black ants on white peonies, the scent of lilacs in spring, and the excitement of digging up wildflowers in the woods and bringing them home to plant by the back door. If it sounds idyllic, yes, it was.

College and work in New York City changed that. For more than ten years, gardens were something I experienced incidentally against a backdrop of stimulating, busy city life. I searched out nature when I could and that was enough. Then when I was in my 30s, I got a job at a historic New York City public garden called Wave Hill. Set on rolling hills above the Hudson River, it’s a peaceful, verdant refuge from urban life. I didn’t work in the gardens but they were never out of sight and over time, the elegant landscape informed and enlarged my relationship with nature. I still paid attention to wild places – even the smallest patch of stubborn green plants in the crack of a sidewalk won my appreciation.

A few years later I landed a temporary position at an imposing Victorian-era conservatory, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. It was basically grunt work like pushing wheelbarrows piled with cuttings through the glass houses. But being in the presence of exotic plants from all over the world was exciting and a random cactus spine in my rear end was a small price to pay for it.

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2.

My Fine Arts degree didn’t open doors to high-paying jobs but money wasn’t my primary focus. Work wasn’t a calling, it was a way to help pay the bills. In my forties, I didn’t want to be away from home all day because I had a son at home so when the conservatory job ended, I began gardening for a respected children’s book author and editor who’d sustained an injury that prevented her from working in her garden. The quiet, restorative work in small-scale flower beds around her suburban home kept me sane during troubled times. When Charlotte got better I took another gardening job, one that gave me a far more thorough education in gardening than I could have imagined. I was tasked with managing the grounds and maintaining the gardens at the country home of two top-of-the-line New York interior designers. A Cy Twombly painting graced their living room, finicky delphiniums bloomed in the gardens, and the boxwood hedges had to be wrapped in burlap every winter to prevent freezing and burnt foliage. The topiary trees required precision cuts while standing on a ladder and the greenhouse had to be checked after snowstorms to be sure the power was on and precious specimens were intact. Perfection was the expectation. I was in way over my head.

Once I was asked to find out how a striking fountain the owners saw at a neighboring estate was installed because they wanted one like it. That neighbor was the controversial philanthropist George Soros so discretion was critical. Armed with a little New York chutzpah, I drove straight onto the estate and located the property manager. Carefully approaching him with genuine humility, I found he was surprisingly generous with information and advice. Before too long, I found myself running a major dredging operation in one corner of the estate. The pond where the fountain was to be located had to be excavated to keep the motor underwater. The project put my love of nature in conflict with my job because dredging the pond meant changing its wild nature forever. Once I saw a Great blue heron beside that pond but after the fountain was installed I doubt the heron ever came back.

Whether weeding a bed on my hands and knees or ordering thousands of dollars of full-grown trees from a nursery, I learned as I went. The inspirational year-round beauty of the gardens at High-Low gave back.

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3. Old snapshots of the houses and gardens.
4. The fountain in the distance, an assortment of Artemesia plants, your faithful gardener, and a perennial bed.

I enjoyed the challenges of the job until the owners began to behave erratically. The pressure of maintaining their social position, working for clients like Tina Turner, and having their own home featured on the cover of a major interior design magazine did not make them easy to work with. Seeing them treat loyal suppliers and employees with contempt was the final straw. It was a relief to quit but I was grateful for the education I received there.

A job at a local Starbucks offered good benefits for part-time work (and as many espresso drinks as I wanted!) so I took it. One year, the district manager asked me to design and install three small garden areas at different Starbucks stores. Serving espresso in the morning and digging in the dirt in the afternoon suited me better than the unpredictable demands and stress of my previous job. Expanding on the garden side jobs, I created The Garden Steward, my own garden maintenance business. It didn’t bring in much money but it kept me outdoors, surrounded by beauty (after I finished weeding!).

A different kind of immersion into gardens came with a two-year course in botanical illustration I enrolled in at the New York Botanical Garden. Botanical illustration requires careful observation, which I enjoyed. The slow, engrossing work deepened my understanding and appreciation for plant life.

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5.
6. Ink drawing of a Common blue violet.

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a home. The previous owner of the modest house in upstate New York gardened intensively and I picked up where she left off. Around that time a friend hired me to join the gardening crew he directed for a billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist who kept a sprawling estate in bucolic Dutchess County. It seemed to me that the owner was hardly ever there. That didn’t stop him from hiring the influential British garden designer and author John Brookes to fly over and make his mark on the landscape. As we snipped dead blossoms from enormous potted plants and planted hundreds of flower bulbs for drifts of spring color, we were a friendly little cadre of workers. Between microgreens sprouting in the greenhouse, a horse stable, and the perfectly manicured garden rooms behind the house, it was an elaborate setup made to please someone who was rarely present. I appreciated the beauty but not the waste.

In any case, it was time for a change in direction: I decided to go back to school for a Master’s degree in social work. The busy schedule of classes and internships pushed gardens to the periphery of my life. After graduating, I worked at an organization that supports people with severe mental illness, then found a better position with the state health department. I was back in the urban setting of my late teens and twenties, soaking in what nature I could after work and on weekends. But gardens were never forgotten. I continued to cultivate them in my mind.

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7. Autumn garden in the city.
8. Flowers behind a curtain at home.

A confluence of unexpected events caused my partner and me to change course. We’d lost our jobs at about the same time and we thought it might be the perfect time to leave city life behind. So we took a leap of faith and moved across the country, to the west coast. Suddenly I was immersed in a world of mountains, forests, and water. It didn’t matter that we lived in a small apartment because nature loomed large everywhere, even out the windows. When finding a job took longer than expected I volunteered at a public garden. We pinpointed plant locations in the garden using a GIS (geographic information system) data system. Ultimately, detailed plant information would be accessible to visitors and employees. The work put me right back in the garden. It felt good to be there.

Soon I was working full-time in Seattle and had little time to think about gardens. Driving from one appointment to the next I took note of my surroundings: the softly drooping tips of hemlock trees and the majesty of Mount Rainier in the distance made me glad to be living in the Pacific Northwest. If I felt the need to spend time in a garden, there was one close enough for a brief stroll on slow days.

On vacations, we explored the desert southwest, now just a few hours away by plane. It was all new to my eastern-bred eyes: the whole west was an immense garden. The weathered granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, the extraordinary Chiricahua Mountains, and the spare beauty of Death Valley astounded and delighted me. I had a better camera and became serious about photography, focusing on the wild gardens of the West and the cultivated gardens near home. And I began this blog.

Then we retired and left the city and suburbs behind to move to an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. I have all the time I want to appreciate gardens of any kind now. That’s what I do.

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9. Death Valley.
10. Bamboo in the garden where I volunteered.
11. An inadvertent garden. Los Angeles County.
12. Bringing the desert home.
13. The wild gardens of Mount Rainier.
14. Japanese architecture at Bellevue Botanical Garden; Bellevue, Washington.
15. A Trillium in a public garden south of Seattle.
16. Down the garden path with a Lensbaby.

17. A wetland wildgarden after flooding; Fidalgo Island, Washington.
18. The calcified remains of Coralline algae entangled in a tiny seaweed garden; Fidalgo Island.
19. A roadside memorial near Ajo, Arizona.
20. An urban park on Long Island, New York.

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REFLECTIONS on Water and Life

We’re in a bookshop perusing the stacks – always a pleasant way to pass the time. Here’s the Eastern Religion section, which is mostly books about Buddhism. Casting my eyes right and left across the shelves, I feel at home here. A row of books by the Dalai Lama is as long as my outstretched arm and many books bear the familiar logo of Shambhala Publications. The Boulder, Colorado publisher goes back to 1969 with authors like the controversial Chögyam Trungpa, whose 1973 book, ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ was a bible for legions of spiritual seekers in the 70s and 80s.

Today I zero in on titles by certain authors, titles that trigger a cascade of reflections…

1.

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Here’s a book by the woman whose dog ate my pet cockatiel. She wrote eloquently about Zen in America, among other things. Years ago we shared an apartment near the Zen center where we studied and practiced. One day I came home to find the headless body of the pet cockatiel that I hadn’t even named yet lying on the living room floor. My roommate was duly mortified; I was secretly relieved. The bird had been given to me by a misguided friend who thought the distraction would help me pull through my grief. A few months before, on a warm summer Saturday, I had watched a close friend’s body drift deep into the dark river water. I’d tried to rescue him. I didn’t know he would panic halfway across the river, didn’t know his flailing arms would be too much for my slight frame to control. In the shock and grief that followed, Zen practice helped me more than the burden of caring for another being could. I didn’t feel that I was very good at caring for other beings just then.

Of course, the drowning reverberated through my life. Thousands of ripples emanated from it, some as clearly outlined as the daily struggles with tears, others more obscure. And strangely, my friend’s dog made life a little easier.

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Over there is a book by a man who, with his wife, embodied a gentle path. They came to live in our New York City Zen community for one year. The reasons for their temporary transition from a flourishing California Zen center to a smaller, more urban Zen community were complicated but their practice was not. Friendly, straightforward in their practice, and intelligent, they grappled with getting their sons into new schools, adapting to the east coast lifestyle, and working with a new teacher. Ever graceful, they helped when help was needed but never appeared overwhelmed by our somewhat frantic pace. Our teacher had ambitious plans that his students either embraced or refuted. Perhaps because they knew their time in the community was limited, the west coast Zen family usually remained above the fray. There were times when they functioned as islands of sanity for me, especially during my pregnancy.

I imagine they returned to their community as stronger people after their year in New York. Looking at what they’re doing now – writing, teaching, leading a Zen foundation, sitting on the board of an interreligious organization, keeping up with kids and grandkids, there’s no doubt in my mind that they have remained true to themselves and to the dharma.

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3.

Here’s a book by the man who warned me not to marry L. It was a subtle warning, a question posed almost in jest as we passed each other on a back stairway the day of the wedding. He performed the ceremony a half-hour later with the appropriate solemnity. What other course should he have taken when his old friend had asked him to officiate at his wedding, even if he knew how unstable the man was? Their friendship went back to the 70s and was fostered over hard work on ice-cold mornings at a new Zen monastery in the Catskills. The traditional Japanese temple buildings still sit elegantly above the lake that punctuates the end of a dirt road like the dot on a question mark. The two monks shared a long history so one did a favor for the other and we had a proper Buddhist ceremony. We crossed our T’s, dotted our i’s, and lurched down a path with more bumps than a freshly plowed field on a damp spring day.

That brief encounter on the stairs echoed for ten long years, buzzing in my head from time to time like a premonition. For a long time, I wished he would have refrained from sharing his reservations with me, even if it was in the form of a lighthearted jest. But the remark was like the touch of a branch tip to the water underneath it: a passing ping that rippled far out to unseen corners of the lake.

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4.

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There’s a popular, well-reviewed book by a man who was a great raconteur but maybe not such a great husband. My then best friend had a chapter-sized affair with him one year when he lived for a month at the sprawling old Huson River mansion where we practiced Zen. During the practice intensive, my friend was tasked with helping him edit his next book. Their seduction was clearly mutual. The more sotto-voce stories my friend told me, the more I lost respect for both of them. We were supposed to be practicing Buddhists, making an effort to uphold the three pure precepts: ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others.

We were (and are) so imperfect!

I still admire the man’s writing.

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5.

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Here’s a slender volume by a man who had an incalculable influence on the shape of Western zen, according to at least one reviewer. A distant, formidable figure to me, he convinced my teacher that it would be best to place me in the role of cook for the community. For several years I was actively involved in developing the business that supported our community. Then I got pregnant. Families did not fit into the picture at this particular Zen community. There were no allowances or plans for childcare and since I needed to care for my baby, it only made sense (to them) that I should stay back and cook each day while everyone else went to work. We worked because work practice played a central role in our Zen practice. I had no problem with that – integrating study and practice into daily life is crucially important. But I would be running the kitchen, ordering and receiving the community’s food, and making lunch and dinner for 15 to 20 people each day while caring for my baby, a challenging position that isolated me from the exciting work the rest of the community was doing. If I felt removed from my teacher’s teacher before, now I was angry. Although lip service was played to the importance of the cook, or tenzo, in reality, the jobs that supported the business that maintained our community mattered more than what the tenzo did.

In spite of my disappointment, I knew my reaction was excellent grist for the mill, another piece of life’s turmoil that I could reflect on and work with, deepening my practice. What could be more valuable?

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6.

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Above that book is one by someone whose path took the form of a benefactor, touching thousands of people’s lives. For about twenty years he hosted a free-wheeling radio show on New York’s favorite leftist independent station. He brought a cornucopia of spiritual teachers and other notable or obscure individuals to the airwaves – you never knew who would be on that show. Mother Teresa? Yes. The Dalai Lama? Check. Alan Watts answered his questions, too. His presence was like a bright, bouncing sun – passionate, intense, incisive. A month before I moved to the Zen community he appeared at my workplace near Columbia University on a rainy afternoon. He pulled me outside to the curb to meet the man who would soon become the most important teacher in my life. It was a gift. His boundless zeal was evident again one night when he initiated a few of us in a tantric rite that involved chanting and swallowing a pinch of a mysterious dried herb. Another time, also during his Tibetan phase, he and his wife asked me to drop by their house. They gave me a beautifully crafted bell and dorje and a set of beads in a simple act of shared enthusiasm. There was no hidden agenda.

He wasn’t afraid to shout out his opinions during community meetings but never held a grudge. One felt energized when he was in the room. He died too young but his books live on, right in front of me on the shelf, poised to ripple the shores of the next reader’s mind – and heart.

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7.

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Over here are two books by the man behind it all, my teacher. We had our ups and downs. He disappointed me deeply once but he also inspired me and taught me well. I am indebted to him for five years of life-transforming practice. Whether deep or on the surface, the ripples from what I learned during those five years always flow through my life. And if I find myself forgetting the teachings I can always pick up one of these books and let the words wash over me.

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AT HOME

Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.

1. On the kitchen table.
2. Autumn bouquet.

Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.

But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.

Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.

3. In a corner above the sink at a Bnb in Leiden…
4. …I made a small arrangement of objects.

Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.

As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.

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5. A wacky little still life arranged on an old corner bookcase during my last year of college. Those are my shoes – gotta have red shoes. Don’t ask about the math, I have no idea what it means. I may still have the little ostrich and cow toys somewhere but Marilyn, the cowboy, the crayons, and the bottle of German soap bubbles are long gone.
6. A photo from the early 70s, just after I graduated from School of Visual Arts. The vintage utensils came from second hand stores. If this image looks a little familiar it may be because photographer Jan Groover exhibited a series of Kitchen Still Lifes in New York in 1979, some of which feature utensils. The photographs, which brought her well-deserved acclaim, were more complex and carefully thought-out than this casual composition. When I saw her work I felt an encouraging “Aha!” moment – my instincts were good even if my execution was lacking.
7. Around 1973 I moved into an old walk-up railroad flat in Hoboken, NJ, a small city across the river from Manhattan. The big city was too expensive for a recent art school graduate and Hoboken had not yet been discovered. Rents were affordable, especially in buildings like this one, which lacked central heat. On the left side of the gas stove the top folded back to reveal a single large burner. That was supposed to heat the entire apartment. It wasn’t enough for the frigid, northeastern winters so for three months a year, we curtained off the far two rooms and lived in the warm kitchen and the room next to it.
8. The Hoboken apartment was on the third floor of this building. Rent was $60 a month but Mr. Eng, the landlord, didn’t mind if we were late paying – he was grateful to have tenants who took care of their apartment. When I took this photo in 2008 the corner had hardly changed but Hoboken was completely different. It had become gentrified and was packed with new apartment buildings, hip restaurants and young professionals. My old building now has central heat and air conditioning. Rent is about $2,000/month, which may be a good deal for an apartment that’s a just quick ride away from Manhattan, even if it’s a one-bedroom walk-up.
9. Eleven years and two moves after the Hoboken apartment, putting things in places took on a whole new meaning. Here’s my newborn son surrounded by gifts from generous friends and relatives. What joy!
10. Skipping ahead another 17 years, this layered image was made at my comfortable Cape Cod home in rural New York, about 50 miles north of New York City. It was a cozy home with lovely gardens that I tended with enthusiasm. We parked in the driveway because the garage was crammed with pots and gardening tools. I bought my first digital camera, a 1.3 megapixel Sony Mavica that stored photos on floppy disks! Along with basic photo processing software, it was a clumsy setup compared to today’s options but it allowed me to explore and experiment.

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12. It was the last house I would own. In this photo there’s an antique drop-leaf table from my parent’s house and a chair with a seat cover my father upholstered. On the table is a bouquet of wildflowers and garden blooms from the sunny backyard, frequented by deer and wild turkeys. The scene appears idyllic but it was a turbulent, difficult time and the sturdy, mid-century house with its rural setting provided a welcome measure of stability.

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14. This is a collage of two black and white photos, one of a Great blue heron and one of an indigenous girl in traditional dress. I merged them together to express the freedom of taking flight united with the feeling of being secure in one’s own being. This was home: being rooted in place yet free to take wing.
15. A new job in Manhattan required four hours of commuting: I drove, parked, boarded a train, got off, threaded through tunnels to the subway, transferred to a different subway, emerged onto the street, walked to the office, passed through security, and took the elevator. This routine was not tenable! I found a rambling, high-ceiling, apartment in a prewar building on Staten Island, where rent was more affordable than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Now I could take the ferry to work! The cozy cottage by the river was exchanged for an airy apartment with lively urban views in three directions. To the west, a bell tower and late-nineteenth century homes, to the north, the vibrant New York harbor, and to the south, a handsome old gothic school. In this photo of a begonia cutting the bell tower is framed between the neck of the bottle and the edge of the leaf.
16. The new job required frequent overnight travel. Every time Pablo heard the sound of the suitcase wheels he ran and crouched in my shoes. (They look like men’s shoes but I like that style). He was one very unhappy cat – but soon he had another companion.

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18. An old Mahjong tile and a tiny ceramic rabbit that belonged to my mother when she was a child made a small still life on a bookshelf.
19. More changes loomed: unexpectedly, we lost our jobs within months of each other, through no fault of ours. As we began to collect unemployment, we dreaded the idea of finding new jobs in New York. We treasured our vacations and day trips away from a city that was wearing us down. Dreaming about leaving urban intensity behind, we thought about moving to the Pacific Northwest – but first, we needed some questions answered. Was there enough culture? Would we like the laid-back lifestyle? Was it really as beautiful as people said it was? So we flew across the country on a mission, visiting Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Rainforest, Rialto Beach, Whidbey Island, and Seattle’s Pike Place market. Yes, this was the place; it was wildly beautiful and more comfortable than we imagined. We said our goodbyes to family and friends as we engineered the big move. On a winter afternoon six weeks before we left, I photographed this view from our apartment.

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21. We don’t remember where we found the doll’s hand and the frog but they were a happy pair, sitting on a desk in the Kirkland apartment.
22. We moved once more, this time because we no longer had to be near Seattle for work and wanted to live in a more rural environment. We found a quiet, affordable cottage for rent on an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. After moving in we got to know Doe-a-deer, who clearly knew the place well.

*

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24. It’s not antique and surely isn’t authentic but we love Bobo and Evelyn, the broken African mask I bought in Kirkland (there should be two birds on top). We like the way the strand of leathery leaves (actually a necklace) suits these two characters. Someday we could to move again but there are no plans for that now! We’re happy where we are. Paying attention. Putting things in places. Appreciating our lives.

*

Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.

From an essay by Georgina Reid in The Planthunter.

*

Thank you for your attention. Life is full of uprootings and new horizons. And fresh opportunities to arrange things.

***

(UN)STILL LIFE WITH FLOWERS

PART ONE

1. Species hybrid iris ‘Kinshikou’ at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.

It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.

So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.

2. Wildflowers and grasses at a park outside of Seattle.

Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.

3. Your narrator.

I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.

4. My grandfather, with his mouth open, second from left. Note the many drinks on the table and the cigarette in his hand. My grandmother sits next to him in the middle.

My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.

5. Bouquet at a farmer’s market in Washington State.

I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*

6. Shovel in hand…

As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.

My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.

7. A wasp or bee on Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.

8. Happy in the snow in Michigan.

One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.

9. A tulip.

Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!

A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.

10. Pink fawn lilies (Erythronium revolutum) at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline, Washington.

There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.

11. Left to right: my older brother, an unknown lion, my cousin, me, an unknown rabbit.

The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.

More about that later.

12. Naturalized lupines somewhere in the Adirondacks, New York State.

***

*From an unpublished manuscript.

**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.

ALL THE SOUNDS

On a cool October morning in 1972, I woke up with a plan: I would write down every single sound I heard on that day.  As soon as I was aware of a sound, I began to record what I heard in a small notebook.  At the end of the day, exhausted, I fell back into bed and noted the last sounds I heard; the final sound was “breathing.”   In the following days I went through the notebook, deciphering my scribbles and working out the grammatical kinks, resulting in a 60 page typed manuscript.

Since that day I’ve contemplated repeating the exercise, but the world is infinitely noisier now than it was back then.  In any case, the piece stands on its own: a lopsided record of an ordinary day, made extraordinary by a single-minded focus on sound.

Here are a few excerpts from the Sounds piece, interspersed with images to complement, rather than explicitly adhere to, the narrative.  I noted the time sporadically throughout the day, whenever I thought to look at a clock.  In this excerpted version a line:  ___________  means I’m skipping ahead to a later time in the day.  I begin here at 9:30 am, a few hours after I woke up.

9:30am

light switch turning on

light switch turning off

stomach grumbling

sparrows chirping

blue jay calling

door opening

clothes sliding against each other

door closing

clothes falling on chair

paper falling on the floor

door opening

paper bag rustling

jars hitting each other

door closing

door opening

glass hitting the counter

door closing liquid pouring door opening

door closing

blue jay calling

___________________________

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1:13pm

page turning

lid screwing on

swallowing

glass hitting other glass

paper rustling

biting

chewing

bell chiming

my voice

voice

match striking matchbook

paper sliding across table

paper rustling

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my voice

voice

footsteps

siren whining

horn honking

bell chiming

liquid pouring

voice

my voice

footsteps

humming

chairs scraping the floor

voices

footsteps

banging

match striking matchbook

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footsteps

crash

sirens whining

papers rustling

crash

piece of wood hitting table

voice

my voice

whistling

paper tearing

sandpaper sanding wood

swallowing

fingers scratching head

voice

my voice

burp

laughing

___________________________

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6:40

truck passing on the street

feet stamping

hands clapping

fingers snapping

elevator door closing

laughing

cooing

voice

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

footsteps

door opening

door closing

my voice

___________________

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voice

slide projector motor running

laughing

voices

chairs creaking

whispering

paper rustling

cigarette pack dropping into bag

voices

coughing

pad rubbing leg

blowing

laughing

slide projector clicking

voices

laughing

voices

laughing

slide projector clicking

____________________________

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8:40

my footsteps

ladder hitting the floor

my voice

voice

whistling

traffic passing on street

chewing

bus passing on street

hand rubbing my hair and face

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator running

fingers tapping

elevator door opening

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voice

radio

voices

laughing

whistling

plastic rustling

horn honking

voice

my voice

kiss

voices

kiss

laughing

my footsteps

my voice

kiss

my voice

nibbling

subway passing by

burp

motor in clock running

 

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*

 

A few words of explanation: Early that morning I made a decision to record sounds by naming what made the sound, rather than spelling out what the noise sounded like. I quickly realized that trying to write down the actual sound I heard was impossible, in most cases. Using a tape recorder to make an actual recording was not a consideration, because my primary interest was in exploring the relationship – or the space, in a way – between the sensory traces an object makes (our perception) and a record of those traces, a concern that interests me to this day. *

What is different about a sound you hear and the mute, written words that describe that sound? What is lost and what is gained when you step back from direct experience, and put something – in this case, the written word – between you and the experience? What does a day look like when the traces that are left of it are only a written description of the sounds that were heard and some bits of memory? How is the shape of the day itself altered when one sensory component of it moves into the foreground?

I was in my final year at School of Visual Arts in New York when I made the Sounds piece. I had moved back to my parents’ house temporarily, after losing a shared Brooklyn loft and all my belongings in an unfortunate incident. Each morning that semester I awakened to the quiet of suburbia, then I commuted by bus to the city and took the subway to school or to my part time job as an artist’s assistant at a studio on Irving Place. On this October day I went to work first, then walked to an evening art history class, probably with Carter Ratcliff.  Thankfully, those classes were usually a lecture with slides, and were relatively quiet.  But as soon as my friends figured out what I was doing, they made their best efforts to interrupt any quiet that would give me a rest from mad scribbling in my notebook by producing an assortment of difficult-to-describe sounds. A few are seen above, along with my foot-stamping frustration. Unsurprisingly, it was for me, a day of few words.

I used a small notebook to write down what I heard that day. When I was in a quiet place I would hear the page turning. Later, when I typed up the piece, I chose to follow the same page spacing as in the original notebook, so that “page turning” appears at the top of some pages. The piece was submitted as part of my final work for a fine arts degree, and was well received. Now the paper edges have softened, the cover is tattered, and rust is slowly eating into the binder’s metal insert.  I hope to transcribe and digitize it one of these days.

An earlier post on this subject with photos of the original manuscript is here.

The photos:

  1. A light fixture for sale at ABC Carpet and Home on Broadway, in New York City. I took the photo in New York on October 17, 2017, exactly 45 years after I made the Sounds piece.  What goes around comes around; the artfully distressed wall behind the light is reminiscent of the way walls actually looked in downtown lofts in the early 70’s. It wasn’t chic then, it was just what existed.
  2. A rope-tied rock serves as a polite barrier in a path at Seattle’s Japanese Garden.
  3. A view of trees outside a window. A small piece of blue glass in a wood frame rests against the window.
  4. A collection of insects at an eccentric museum inside a Roman Catholic seminary in Mount Angel, Oregon.
  5. At the Seattle Japanese Garden, workers erected a tarp to protect plants while they worked on a new addition to a structure in the garden.
  6. Hoses on the old wood floor of an auto repair shop in Ferndale, California.
  7. The view across the street from the ABC store window where the lighting fixture photo above was taken. This view hasn’t changed since I was in school.
  8. A single rubber glove dropped on a sidewalk in Seattle.

 

 

* A concern with investigating the difference between objects as they are and as we perceive them was prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s art world. It was a time when conceptual art questioned art itself, and minimalism was beginning to battle it out with post-minimalism, a term coined by art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, who taught at SVA.  Dorothea Rockburne, one of a number of working artists who taught at SVA then, would often bring up Kant in connection with ideas like this one, from Wikipedia:

Kant argued the sum of all objects, the empirical world, is a complex of appearances whose existence and connection occur only in our representations.[2] Kant introduces the thing-in-itself as follows:

And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.

— Prolegomena, § 32