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Friday, September 28, 2012

God or Gardening - Part 2

An interview with Graham Cousins

This is the second half of an interview with Graham Cousins that took place in the summer of 2011 in a wild garden in Provence during a family vacation.

Platycodon Grandiflorum the balloon flower in late August

Q: What are some of the recent changes in the garden?

A: Around the house I’ve had all the paving relaid to a higher standard. In the front, the garden was changed from a box parterre to a grid of five standard trees and a shape of cobbles and gravel inspired by an art deco shawl from the 1920s. Behind the house, I’ve replaced shrubs and pruned some of the plants to improve their shape and to cast shadows onto the walls. I am fascinated by how the Chinese make use of shadows by casting them on walls from shrubs, as a sort of art form in itself.

Behind the house, there’s an area we call the Green Wood, which incorporated a greenhouse and a chicken run. They are both gone, and the whole area is now integrated into one picture. And the ground now undulates and is covered with woodchip. Green, well-shaped shrubs come out from the background. We took out the shale path. All of this will make it a bit easier to maintain. I’ve worked hard to prune the most beautiful old tree we have, which somebody told me was probably about 200 years old, until I feel it’s like a living piece of sculpture.

Two hundred year old apple tree
The front courtyard in early autumn

At the end of the avenue, or the main axis from the house to Gilmorton Church, we’ve cleared the bottoms of the two sentinel fastigiate poplar trees. We’ve cleared the lower parts of the trunks of side branches. So now the picture of the landscape is framed by two verticals and then hedges coming down asymmetrically: the picture is of a curvy edge and then these two great verticals in the middle.

Next to that is a hedge which sweeps down to a very low level, from about eight or nine feet high at one end to two or three feet at the other. It forms a semicircle about 10 yards long. On the other side, the hedge forms a great sort of organic shape.

And behind this semicircle of hornbeam hedge is a small cornfield meadow, filled at the moment with summer flowers, cornflowers, poppies, and such things. Very ephemeral, but because it’s all enclosed by green, it looks like a jewel box in the middle of all the green.

Around the corner, there is a tiny perennial meadow there with grasses in it. I’ve reshaped a series of box balls into various organic shapes. Behind that, I’ve trimmed the bottom of the laurels to show their interesting trunks. The shape of the box in front of them is concave; the shape of those above is convex. So those are two layers. And then the third layer is trees in their natural shape.

The rose garden has been replaced with large, interesting shrubs and herbaceous plants. The overriding effect by this time of year is of green foliage: interesting, beautiful green foliage and a few dots of red, some single roses. A lot of greenery and then a few brilliant dots. This is very much inspired by Geoffrey Bawa’s description of his own garden in Sri Lanka.

Q: Over the years, there have been a few sculptures in the garden.

A: The most important elements are my brother’s carvings, of which there are a number in the garden, but there are other odds and ends, as well. They were more formal focal points earlier, but now they tend to be things you discover.

Q: So if people like Lutyens and Jekyll were initial inspirations or influences, who were the later ones as you moved to a less formal garden design?

A: The classic gardens of Japan. I have also been very fascinated by the Belgian designer, Jacques Wirtz. I think those would be two of the most important influences.

Q: Have there been very many people that you’ve carried on a dialogue with about the garden or the garden design? Or has it mostly been a kind of internal dialogue?

A: Mostly internal. I have a number of friends that I talk to, of course. Grant Pitches, Ruth Chivers, and you. I talk to my son James about the garden. He is the only one of our four children to have spent a significant part of this childhood in this house. I find he has some really perceptive things to say about the garden. He never liked the garden when he lived in it, but I think he’s come to see how interesting it is.

Q: So on the nuts and bolts side of things, is the garden irrigated?

A: No. We do occasionally water some things, but on the whole, I try to have plants that won’t need to be irrigated. When plants are newly planted, they often need to be watered. But I don’t normally plant plants that need to be watered once they’re established. Most of what you might call structural plantings, like hedges and barriers, are native plants. Hornbeam, yew, this sort of thing. And box. I don’t restrict myself to English native plants, but the most important plants in the ground are native.

Q: Do you have very much machinery? You must have a mower.

A: A mower, yes. Not much machinery. I’ve taken to clipping the hedges by hand. ’If they’re a nice shape, then it’s more interesting to clip a bit. So I do five minutes a day here and there, rather than having one big clip as I used to with a power tool.

Q: Is anyone else helping you?

A: Jenny helps me. We have a friend who comes and washes all the white birch trunks once a year. Very occasionally if there’s something heavy to be done, I might ring James and say, “Could you give me a hand, because I can’t move this by myself?” But mostly Jenny and me.

Q: How did the garden change your personality as you grew older?

A: I don’t know about that. What I do think is that as you grow older, you get more perceptive. You perceive your surroundings better. If I say to people my age, “Look at the beautiful light coming through these oak leaves and the laurel leaves,” they tend to respond to that more than young people. Young people are too busy having sex and all that to be bothered with what color leaves are.

Sunlight shining through Katsura leaves

’Although’ I remember as a child being absolutely besotted by the fields and the flowers and the hedgerows and things like that. ’I don’t think gardening has changed my personality. But of course, it teaches you optimism and patience, doesn’t it? Two cardinal virtues. And it does make you more intensely aware of the beauty of natural things.

We haven’t touched on this at all, but one of the fundamental things in gardening is the contrast between the natural and the manmade. There’s no such thing as a straight line in nature, is there? Whereas manmade things are based on geometry, usually. And there’s something very satisfying with the contrast between, for example, the shape of a tree trunk and the straight line of a wall, or a building, or a window frame.

A garden is a kind of three-dimensional sculpture really, isn’t it? Any wishes I have to sculpt are channeled into my tree and shrub pruning, which to me is the most satisfying part of the process of gardening.

I often think when sculptors have a block of marble and they have to start chopping into it, that must be terrifying stuff, mustn’t it? Well, it’s really in a way the same with sculpting trees, particularly, because you have to make decisions about taking branches off. And if you get it wrong, it might be 10 years before that branch ever comes back.

I’ve started doing it to other people’s gardens, as well, now. I’ve become a sort of sculptor for others. But I don’t get paid.

Q: Can you talk about the satisfaction you get from doing this work?

A: If one comes out in the garden in the morning and there it is, all right or nearly all right, that is supremely satisfying. I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m always happier out of doors. I love it that we’re sitting here under this oak tree in this lovely Proven├žal garden. I love this garden. It’s really good. It’s ragged and needs a bit of care, but it’s a lovely place. And I’ve discovered that even in the worst winter days in Britain—and they can be pretty grim, gray, wet sort of days— if I put a lot of clothes on and go outside, I immediately feel better. I’m a person who needs to be outdoors.

Spring meadow flowers, horned violets and welsh poppies

Graham's garden is described in a previous post A Garden in Leicestershire. All photographs in this interview were taken in that garden, and are reprinted courtesy of Graham Cousins.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

God or Gardening - Part 1

An interview with Graham Cousins

During a family vacation to Provence in the Summer of 2011, Graham Cousins and I sat down in the shade to talk about gardens and life.

Q: Where was your first garden?

A: My mother gave us little bits of garden at home in Rugby and we grew things like radishes. But apart from those, my first garden was in Brighton Avenue in Leicester. Some of my earliest memories are of natural landscapes. We lived on the edge of Rugby in an area that had been newly built in the 1930s. When the Second World War began, the government stopped all building. So there were partially built houses near us, and these became an adventure playground for us boys. Between the concrete and the bricks and things that had been left, nature began to take over. To this day I can remember my mother loving to grow pansies, violas, and other flowers. I was fascinated to discover wild ones growing between bricks on those abandoned building sites.

I remember my mother taking us on walks through the Wye Valley, a particularly beautiful part of Britain, and saying, “Do you know there are flowers that have squares on them like a checkerboard on a chessboard?” And I thought, “She’s making this up. This can’t be true.” It is true, in fact. My mother got me interested in flowers and natural landscapes.

Q: When did you realize it was more than a hobby?

A: I think it was in the late 1970s, when I was in my 40s. Yes. Very often people get gardening at that sort of age. They say people either get God or gardening in their later years.

Q: Is there an early built influence you can recall?

A: Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire. It’s a National Trust property now. It was made by an American, actually; an American who was born in France and who became a naturalized British citizen. Hidcote Manor opened my eyes up to possibilities. I remember being particularly fascinated by two things. One was the fact that the garden was divided into rooms; rooms where the walls were hedges. This was important in two ways. First of all, because it gave shelter from the turbulent English climate, so there was a sense of peacefulness in these little compartments. And also because it enabled different, distinct color and flower schemes in each of these compartments. But the whole thing was welded together by long vistas between the compartments, out onto the wider landscape. This was the first time I had the sense of greatness in gardens.

Another thing which, very early on, affected the way I garden was Beth Chatto’s The Dry Garden. She made me aware of the connection between natural plants, communities, and gardens.

I think the first good garden we had was in what was called Woodville Gardens. We had a new house with an empty garden, not a large garden and in the suburbs. But I remember making a square pond with a natural stone edge and putting up two hedges and having, perhaps, a slight glimpse of Hidcote in this suburban garden. I remember thinking, “This is quite good, but I need more. I must be in the countryside, and I must have more space.” And that’s why we moved to Walton eventually, in December 1981.

Q: It has been completely reinvented. It wasn’t really much of a garden when you got there, was it?

A: Not at all. I would say it was like a rural shantytown; there were eight corrugated iron buildings dotted around. It had been a sort of smallholding, but the man who owned it was also a self-employed builder. It took us about two years to clear away all these sheds. And at one stage I think we became the major dealers in secondhand corrugated iron sheeting in South Leicestershire; we had incredible quantities of tin sheets. There was a little orchard on one side with all apple and pear trees. And there were a couple of other good old trees, but that was about it.

Q: What was your first concept for the garden?

A: I was very much enthralled to Lutyens and Jekyll and the Arts and Crafts tradition of gardening. I drew out a rough plan on a piece of graph paper, which showed a straight line between what was then our living room window and a church about two miles distant across the fields, and made that the main vista. This led to difficulties later on, because the vista was not quite parallel to the line of the house as it began to edge out towards the fields.

Micro meadow in early summer
Gingko leaves in autumn
Asarum Europaeum thrives in woodland 

Q: Did you feel like there was a first phase to the garden?

A: It was a geometric layout with a vista and garden rooms. I wanted garden rooms like those at Hidcote. I was in a huge hurry and tremendously ignorant. I planted lots of Leyland cypresses in lines to make rooms. But, of course, Leyland cypresses are hugely vigorous trees. I planted well over 100 of these things, and they would have been quite impossible to control long term. So the first phase looked good, but I couldn’t control them. I had to dig them all out again and replace them with hornbeams, a native English tree which makes a good hedge. The pond was originally a rectangle. It’s now a circle, but I’d like to change it again.

Q: When it was rectangular, was there a hedge around the pond?

A: Yes, and also raised beds. The soil from the excavation, which I dug by hand, was used to make the beds. But since the soil was light, sandy loam, to have raised beds was an absurd thing, because everything drained away so quickly already. I made so many mistakes. In a way, that made it all harder for me, but in another way, it meant I learned a lot of practical lessons over the years, because I had only myself to answer to. Once I realized I had made a mistake, I was willing to put it right.

Q: And so then what came next?

A: I wanted less geometry. And I became much more interested in the shape of trees and shrubs, which has become one of my overriding interests. I wanted there to be more interesting subtle vistas. Glimpses, that’s it. I wanted there to be glimpses. As you progressed around the garden, you could look up in different directions and see interesting shapes and light effects.

Q: When did you get rid of the idea of flowerbeds?

A: As I mentioned, in the early days I was very much enthralled with the Lutyens-Jekyll pattern, which was maximum formality of layout and minimum formality of planting. I thought what you needed was hedges and then informal layouts of plants with lots of flower color. In those days, I used to have variegated plants, purple-leafed plants, and gold-leafed plants, none of which I have now. I realized that I was spending more and more time in the one area of the garden where all the leaves were green. And I also noticed that when people came into this section, they would breathe in deeply and say, “Ah, this is wonderful.” And I don’t think they really knew why it seemed so wonderful to them, but there’s a magic to green leaves, which all these colored-leafed plants take away. They break the enchantment. If you put in colored-leafed plants, the garden may be very smart, like a florist’s shop, perhaps, very eye-catching, but it won’t have the magic. Green leaves are, for our part of the world anyway, the natural leaf color. Also, it gives a unity to the garden if the base color is green.

And I remember I was right down to a couple of trees in the field hedge, poplars with variegated leaves, and a garden writer said, “Graham would never plant colored-leafed plants next to the countryside.” The day after reading that article, I got the tree surgeon in to cut them down quickly. So that was the end of it. Now it’s all green.

Q: But there are still some moments of color with wildflowers?

A: There are flowers in the garden. Flowers are important, actually, as markers of time. If a garden doesn’t mark the seasons, then it will lack a fundamental dimension. So many gardeners deny the passage of the seasons. It’s a sort of greed. They want to have flowers all the year around and flowers that last for months on end. They celebrate certain kinds of hybrid roses. This is received wisdom in the horticultural community. But I think flowers should mark the seasons and be ephemeral and fleeting.

I suppose this idea came from my visit to Japan, when we saw the cherry blossoms in bloom. The more I studied the Japanese garden, the more I recognized how Japanese gardening is based on the seasons. After the spring flowers, we have the greenery of summer and then the reds, yellows, and golds of autumn. And then the bare branches in winters, snow on the branches, and then the buds again, and so the year’s cycle is completed.

Q: It seems like what you’ve been advocating is a garden that also feels very much a part of its place. In other words, your garden isn’t something you’d see here in Provence.

A: No. It’s a garden that belongs to the British Midlands.

Q: How do you see gardening in relationship to other artistic endeavors? You share it by opening it during those mostly summer months. Do you perceive it as an artistic endeavor?

A: Gardening is an art and a lot of gardening is bad art. What’s unique about gardening as an art form is that it’s some sort of cooperation between man and nature, where man is never entirely in charge. And this is part of its fascination, I suppose.

I feel that gardens should be based on natural cycles and on ecological principles. In other words, you shouldn’t try to grow plants that would be suited to the top of a mountain if you live in Midland England. You should understand principles of ecology. A woodland has a canopy, a shrub layer, and a ground cover, a floor. And each one has typical species which occupy those sections of the ecosystem.

The ecosystem and the natural rhythms are fascinating, because you have everything from trees that might last 1,000 years to flowers that might last only a few weeks. There are complicated series of cycles going on in gardens, and this is part of the art of gardening: to incorporate these things into your artistic effort.

Q: Is this related to why it doesn’t really concern you that gardens are, in some way, fundamentally temporary?

A: I don’t worry about that. Gardening is a process, and you can try to record it with photographs or paintings, but there are some things that are almost impossible to record. I’ve learned recently, for example, that the shine on lustrous leaves is impossible to photograph, or so a professional photographer told me.

As we sit here under this tree, the wind is moving the branches. And then there is scent. There are so many different elements to gardens that are transitory and impossible to capture. With gardening, you’re always looking forward. It’s always going to be better next year. It will never be perfect, of course, but it’s always going to be better.

Perennial meadow flowers in July

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Vote McGovern

A few days ago, I watched the 2005 documentary One Bright Shining Moment about George McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972. I was 13 turning 14 at the time and was excited about the possibility of a liberal antiwar candidate being elected president. I later heard a story that when New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael woke up the morning after the landslide victory for Nixon, she couldn’t believe it. She didn’t know a single person who voted for Nixon. That’s how I felt.

I pasted a bumper sticker for McGovern/Shriver on my mother’s pristine Rambler. (She made me clean it off after the election, of course.) My father took us to a rally at Richmond High School, where we got to see the vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver in person. And I handed out literature at the local market where we lived. I still believe now what I believed then. George McGovern wanted to turn this country towards compassion and away from greed and violence. His dramatic loss will be understood as a turning point in history. Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself, and the line of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes will be seen as having let it choke itself to death. McGovern might have stopped this juggernaut.

George McGovern visits Cesar Chavez
in the hospital

The documentary itself is too long. As much as I love Gore Vidal, he becomes pedantic. But the film tells an important moment in American history that is worth understanding.

Barack Obama is not like George McGovern. For one thing, he got elected! He is master of a much better organized and well-fueled machine. His vice president is an old hand, who talks too much, but doesn’t suffer the stigma of mental illness that Tom Eagleton—McGovern’s first choice for vice president—did. In the age of Citizens United, Obama has to play to the corporate kingpins, as much as he may not like them. He advocates for an endless expansion of an economy that seems based on waste and pointless consumerism. He has not closed Guantanamo Bay, and apparently innocent people are still dying there. And then there are the drones. But he has tried to institute some kind of healthcare system that will help the middle class and the poor. He has come out for equal rights for gay people. When Ruth Ginsburg and other older Supreme Court justices retire, he will nominate justices who are not hateful or stupid. Whatever objections those on the left may have, we must reelect him. Romney and the Republicans have moved so far right that they will try to repeal civil rights and focus on what the last several Republicans have focused on—redistribution of the wealth to the one percent, using war as an excuse and oil as the catalyst. While this might speed what I see as an inevitable revolution, it will be bloody, and many innocent people will die. Make no mistake, Republicans are (light) brown shirts in white shirts and rep ties.

Even as we support Obama, we must continue to protest capitalism’s excesses. The Occupy movement showed that discontent is real and rising. I think that the violence that a few of the Occupy protestors exhibited was not so much revolutionary fervor as it was mental illness. The democratic nature of the movement and its willingness to feed anyone attracted a number of homeless and mentally ill people who had nowhere else to go. Another surprise gift to the left from the antigovernment, antitax, pro-rich Republicans. Eliminate services for the mentally ill, and be sure they go help the pro-democratic demonstrators!

Richard Serra's print is part of a group of prints
 by Gemini GEL artists to raise money for Obama.

The truth is, Republicans actually love socialism. They see government as a source of funding for the private sector. As long as the spigot flows money upward, they have what they want. What we learned from Reagan was that “trickle down” really means “flow up.” Nobody loves government subsidy, aka corporate welfare, as much as the Republicans.

At this juncture, there are at least two related questions facing the country. First, can we tax the rich enough to provide a balance to their excesses, and will they retaliate? The type of police action we saw less than a mile from our home here in Oakland, Romney’s off-shore tax havens, and Apple’s hideous manufacturing practices in China (as I type this on a Mac) are all ways the one percent can react to challenges to their hegemony. Second, can this country begin to see that endless pursuit of profit is killing us? Profit in and of itself is just an updated version of trading beads. This intense focus on profit over service is an environmental and political disaster.

I wonder if there is a relationship between the growth of excess profit and the expansion of extremist brands of several faiths? Is this because so many people lack basic necessities, or because people are angry that what little they have will be taken from them? Talk about false prophets (see the late Christopher Hitchens on that!).

We may not see the end of capitalism in my lifetime. But we could see people begin to turn towards compassion and service as more important than profit. That was what George McGovern promised. And deep down, I think that is what Obama also wants.