Saturday, October 23, 2004

Smell the roses at Dumbarton Oaks

"The city . . . does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."
--Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities”

“Beatrix Farrand’s Plant Book was written in 1941, in a period of critical importance to the preservation of western culture, so many elements of which are represented at Dumbarton Oaks. During those dark days, humanist ideals … were threatened with extinction. [Those] who had experienced the Great War, the dynamic optimism of the twenties, and the economic upheavals and consequent political struggles of the thirties, realized the magnitude of the threat. The bright lights of European culture and art were soon to be dimmed, and the basis of our civilization was challenged. Almost forty years later these ideals are still threatened, but we now have come to value our own cultural assets and through the preservation movement are taking an active part in assuring their continuance ... The Plant Book [recognizes] that the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks form a significant part of our cultural heritage…they represent a uniquely American adaptation of the classical Mediterranean garden form … so eloquently described by Edith Wharton in Italian Villas and Their Gardens.”
--From the Introduction to Beatrix Farrand’s “Dumbarton Oaks Plant Book

LOCATION: Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown on 32nd and R St TIME: Tuesday- Sunday, 2-6pm EQUIPMENT: Yourself, $6 for admission (or $45 for a season pass) OPTIONAL: Sketchbook/Poetry/Camera/Cellphone for calling your friends to tell them how much you love them when you start overflowing with joy DISCOURAGED: Shoes

The art of living in a city is both about venturing far from home but also making new homes in places that appeal to you. So today, I want to talk about the art of becoming a regular.
Places are like people; with some, no matter how exciting the encounter, it’s only meant to happen once. Other places grow familiar from necessity (the office, the metro station). With some you fall in love slowly (the corner store, the neighborhood park) as they unfold their benefits to you. And then the places you know right away that you’ll come back to again and again. Well, I couldn’t have fallen faster for Dumbarton Oaks if it had been a pouty-lipped Italian painter beckoning to me from his Vespa.

When you’ve got the habit of a place, the energy-draining logistics of getting back and forth evaporate, so the mental initiative required to pick yourself up and go there is much less than if you were heading into the unknown. Individual memories of each trip wear a groove in your brain like a river carving itself into a rock; and in fact the familiar ritual of getting there can be auto-hypnotic, shifting your brain into a good mood. With the gardens, all the times I've whizzed over there on my bike (over the bridge, down P St., turning right up the hill on 30th St, past the cemetery, past the yuppie family park) - blend together, the particularities just threads in a warm fuzzy narrative.

So here you are: ten ways of looking at Dumbarton Oaks.

1. Falling

The first time I came to the gardens, with the beauty, and the peace, I had a strange deja-vu tickling at my stomach. I dismissed it; don’t you sometimes get that too, in completely foreign places? (When I was walking barefoot on grass at the National Arboretum with Matthew we discussed “knowing every square inch of the forest with your feet” –the texture of the soil, its wetness, depth, temperature, little plants, and a million other tiny subtle sensual clues. Matthew said, “Yes, that’s true, and you start to feel that even a new piece of ground is familiar; it’s all part of the same thing.”)

And doesn’t it happen when you fall in love, too, dear reader? The disturbing, even slightly queasy, familiarity – the urge to learn everything, faster, even though you know somehow that it won’t be a surprise. As I walked around Dumbarton Oaks I had a strange tension between lingering and looking ahead to the next place, possibly better still; now deciding that I’d slow down, because I’d have time to come back; then thinking better to walk it all quickly, build a mental map, and return to my favorite parts.

It was a full week later that I remembered, while washing dishes, that I’d been there before with my family. My dad used to deliver sweeping lectures on the beautiful symmetry of the landscape architecture, which reminded him of those preeminent stylists, the Italians, and I used to climb the puzzle tree and sit there for hours. “Déjà vu”: already seen. Who is to know how much of love’s déjà vu comes from recognizing what you’ve already loved before, differently?

2. “You look like some kind of water nymph.”

Once there was a rainstorm. I took off my shoes and sprinted across the Main House Garden. Then the thunder spoke (datta: what have we given?) and the lightning and the air actually crackled, almost coming to life. Everyone else had run inside for cover so I laughed and whooped as loud as I wanted to and jumped in and out of the fountains, waving my arms. When the rain died down a little bit I noticed a man standing in the Arbor Terrace, under a gigantic old-fashioned umbrella, watching me.

He called out, “You look like some kind of charming water nymph from a Keats poem.” He said he’d been a garden regular for ten years. Right now all the regulars were up in arms about the plans to re-landscape Cherry Hill. “We’ll never let them. It would destroy the integrity of the design.” He told me the story of the original landscape gardener, the visionary Beatrix Farrand. She had training in classical philosophy but a concrete love for the soil; she gave up a promising career as a singer and “never looked back over her musical shoulder, but, transferring her sense of rhythm to the world of nature, composed her visual symphonies.” When she was seventy Beatrix wrote a massive compendium on the Care of the Garden (still used as a textbook across the country for landscape design classes) to allow the place to be preserved after her death; there’s a chapter for each section of the garden talking about the philosophy of its design, its connection with the other parts of the garden, the types of plants, the soil chemistry, practical gardening considerations - I’ve read it and think it’s a real piece of literature, interesting regardless of how much you professionally care.

The man told me about Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, the original owners of the garden; it was a second marriage for both of them, and their children from the first marriage met in Dumbarton Oaks, fell in love as well – and the two couples lived together in the house for ten years.

All these fascinating stories were hard to follow; I’d just been jumping in the fountain, full to the ears with animal joy, and it’s an effort when you start thinking in abstractions again. Perhaps the man saw my foot tapping; he tipped his hat to me and walked off through the rain.

3. “When straightening up I saw the blue sea and sails”*

As you amble along Prunus Walk between the herb garden and the butterfly garden, a cozy nook opens on your left with a bench overlooking a patch of grass. I camped out there one afternoon with Czeslaw Milosz, doing yoga on the grass - and suddenly was aware of a presence in the air, or rather, not a presence, but the feeling of the life throbbing in every plant and animal around me. The air was heavy with meaning, and yet it wasn’t meaning, not an abstract idea, it was meaning intimately part of the fabric of reality. I don’t know how long the moment lasted; I do know that I cried, and thought how beautiful life was; how, after having been lucky enough to see, I’d never have any problems again - I’d just have to wrap the certainty of beauty around me like a warm cloak.

The next morning, driving to work, I was already grouchy, disjointed, full of resentment and laziness, and thoroughly human again. Yet that same certainty still does burn inside me somewhere – like the pilot light on a gas stove.

4. Splashing in the fountain is the point of life?

So of course I wanted to go back again the next day. (One of my terrible and habitual sins: one shouldn’t be greedy with one’s transcendent experiences.) I invited Adam, and of course it was a perfectly pleasant and thoroughly solid afternoon. He took some pictures and we splashed each other in the fountain in the Pebble Garden. We hadn’t known each other very long, so we were still at that stage where we weren’t sure when we were going to start kissing. He said, “This is fun, but I always feel guilty doing stuff like this…like I should be doing something productive, like I’m missing the point of life.” And I said “No Adam, this is the point!” “Ah…” he said. Then he kissed me.

Almost immediately I felt a twinge of guilt: maybe my philosophy was wrong; maybe I was just corrupting him with my hedonistic ways? It didn’t stop me, of course.

5. Rolling downhill with Marcella

One day I took some mushrooms at Dumbarton Oaks with Marcella. We crawled around the Rose Garden taking photos; my favorite was taken from a sharp perspective looking up, as Marcella reaches wonderingly to the towering stalk of a bright yellow rose against a blue sky. We tiptoed on the rim of the fountain, clasped each other by the waist, and arched our backs pretending to be a statue. We rolled down the hill near the apple trees. We crouched, giggling, in the herb garden, picked one of the tomatoes, and passed it back and forth for bites with our faces brushing up against the lush spicy basil foliage. We took it in turns doing handstands and spotting each other.

When I told people the story of the day I’d always conclude, “It was like the Garden of Eden, but there weren’t any apples!”
Most people let it go, but Mehr and Mansir both jumped on me, “Didn’t you mention that you rolled down the hill near the apple trees?”
“Oh…right. But they were just blooming. They didn’t have any fruit.”
“Not yet, you mean.”

6. Talking tea with the Tenth Radio Tuner

I met Kevin on the internet and we came to Dumbarton Oaks. He loved experimental music and as we walked down Melisande’s Allee he told me he’d once performed in a John Cage Symphony for Fifteen Radios as the Tenth Radio Tuner; he was in charge of twiddling his dial at a set rhythm to whatever stations happened to be playing at the moment. He’d lived for three years in a tiny wintry Japanese fishing village, and his favorite thing to do in the world was to talk long, long walks in the snowy mountains, all alone. We sat in Forsythia Hill and talked about tea ceremonies, and he said that the bench made him think of the Japanese aesthetic, which finds most beauty in the old and weather-beaten and the serendipitously-rearranged-by-nature. He was a very interesting person, and even more importantly, he was good; I wish that I’d been even slightly attracted to him. Unfortunately, I am a nincompoop.

7. Roberto breathing down my neck

My friend Roberto is unique; he’s a visionary artist and a philosopher who wants to apply his ideas in a very practical way to change the world. I have the utmost respect for him and I always tell people about him with pride. And yet he’s the kind of friend that sometimes it’s easier to love from a distance.

We went to Dumbarton Oaks together once and walked around in the sunshine, and I felt as though I had a second shadow. Every view I regarded, every flower I rapturously pressed my face against - he was there, behind me, doing exactly the same thing. It was a mark of respect; it was only because he thought I had interesting opinions about things and was curious about what I chose to examine - but even so I felt I had a vampire of my perceptions following me. Absent the ability to read my mind, Roberto wanted to duplicate all my sensory phenomena for himself.
It wasn’t easy to admit, at first, this lurking discomfort. I started walking faster, not making eye contact. It didn’t work. When I was crouched at the butterfly bush in the Herbaceous Border, Roberto sighed behind my neck, “Oh, that’s fascinating! Look at the tiny legs on that bee.”

“Unh,” I said, and kept on walking. It was maddening, especially because usually I’d give my right arm for friends willing to do things like examine insects up close for half an hour. Yet here I had it, and I didn’t like it. Hence my overwhelming memory of an immaculately sunny afternoon, in a splendid garden, with a dear friend - is uncontrollably mounting annoyance, frustration, and guilt. I’m pretty stupid, hey?

8. Talking to strangers with Michael

I went in March with another internet date, Michael, whom I wanted very much to impress. I’d been praising the garden to him, but it was only March, and when we arrived there wasn’t anything in bloom yet. “That’s ok; I can certainly see its potential,” he said, politely.

Conversation with him was extremely light and fast-paced; I felt as if I was running along the beach, skipping over waves that always threatened to devour my pant legs. In the Orangery there was a man reading a book at one of the tables. Michael nudged me. “Let’s go up and talk to him and ask him if he came a long way. It’s interesting to see how people react when strangers talk to them.” I felt like he was testing me somehow. We walked up to the man and I said, “Hi – where do you live?” The man looked up, startled. Michael said, “We wondered if you lived, like, a two-hour bike ride away, and made a pilgrimage here just to read, because you loved it.” The man shook his head. “No…uh…I live in Georgetown.”

In retrospect Michael’s social experiments seem cold-blooded; I certainly don’t object to talking to strangers for kindly reasons, but he seemed to relish the man’s discomfort. At the time, I was too busy thrilling to the brush of his wool sweater against my bare arm as we walked.

9. Cicada-hunting with Theodora and Victoria

I used to babysit my neighbors’ children when I lived at the Fondo Del Sol; the best afternoon was when I took them to Dumbarton Oaks at the height of cicada season. As we we played “Tag” in the North Vista, running up and down the terraced steps, Victoria kept dropping to her knees to examine the insects.

She found one cicada in the process of emerging from his papery, translucent chrysalis, took off a sock and used it as a bag: “I want to keep him forever and ever.” Doubting that her mother would appreciate this new pet, I argued: “Victoria, that cicada will never be happy in his sock home. Don’t you see, he needs freedom to be happy!” “No, no!” she cried passionately. “I love him and I’ll always take care of him. Those other cicadas might get eaten by birds, but I will protect him!” It was an interesting philosophical dilemma: the relative value of freedom vs. a long life to a cicada. I felt myself at a loss to convince her.

Theodora came to me and proudly held out her arm. “Look at this beautiful insect – he loves me!” It was a mosquito sitting there, of course, and I suddenly remembered when I had done the very same thing, myself, to my mother, in the backyard one summer evening. Her face had twisted with disgust and she’d instantly reached out with a slap, leaving a long splash of blood on my arm.

10. Alone ….

I am lying on Cherry Hill reading Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs.
I am talking to a grandmother about her children near the Lover’s Lane Pool.
I am climbing the tree on the Beech Terrace.
I am stealing a handful of mint leaves from the herb garden.
I am standing on my head.
I am finding four leaf clovers (there's a patch at the end of the North Vista, beyond the final staircase)
I make a man jump when he sees me emerge from behind a rosebush: “I thought you were a specter of the garden!” he said. “Maybe I am,” I said.


*The Gift (by Czeslaw Milosz)

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.


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