Monday, December 13, 2010

A Death at Boone's Dock

The view from my living room this morning was picture perfect.  I was inside in 70 degrees of warmth and the crisp dock down at Turtle Haven looked much better than usual.

Usually the look of it makes a person hesitate to step on it.  An inch of snow, however, doesn't weigh much.

Hidden Lake looks to be only about three or four acres in area.  There are eleven houses on it, some less lucky, goosewise, than others.  The Visiting Goose Association came for a visit last week and augmented the local flock by hundreds of additional birds.

I much prefer ducks to geese.  Ducks are friendlier fowl, I think, and by all appearances, the keep their poop off people's lawns.

The unlucky neighbors have vast, sloping lawns that offer great sun exposure, and so those lawns are black with visiting geese this week.  The honking of the geese is audible up here at the house.  At night when I take Lola out for her bedtime constitutional, the geese are apparently guffawing about something only geese know about.

Sad to say, one of them appeared dead this morning, laid out apart from the community of warmth and fellowship on the right side of the picture, one lone, solitary, private expiration.  Was it from disease, poison, or a fatal lack of insulation from single-degree cold last night?  Much as I don't want the water fowl to foul my lawn, I don't wish them death apart from the succor of companions.  Alas for this one.  One less member of the chorus down at Boone's Dock on the Duckworthy Estate at Turtle Haven.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lake Margarita

Hidden Lake has been frozen the last few days.  This morning when I got up I saw ducks keeping the circle of unfrozen water open, while the visiting geese watched from the ice's edge.

The ice on the right was curiously white and crystaline, looking like salt on a Margarita glass.  So today, Hidden Lake is Lake Margarita.

Today was the warmest day of the week, with 50 degrees predicted for the afternoon.  I wished the ground were dried out enough to fire up the rototiller again, but it's still too moist from the big rains we had more than a week ago.  After I painted the master bedroom, I went Christmas shopping.  Meanwhile, Steve and Tim worked on the second of two new windows for our big living room.

There's Steve Brandt finishing up the frame for the 4-foot-wide window that will replace a redundant, 6-foot-wide sliding door.  The frame was perfectly square, but the opening wasn't.  That's no surprise. This house is a case study in careless construction.  Steve has corrected innumerable faults as he has rebuilt the bathrooms and shaved floor joists to give us level subfloors.

Now the frame's in place.  It's not ready for the window, though.  Steve has a pair of laser levels to check the frame before he screws it in place.  Part of his framing is compensation for poor construction of the house.  His new frame adds strength and stability to an unsatisfactory area of the original frame.

Voila!  After many small adjustments to the window's aluminum frame, it achieved a "perfect" fit to the wooden frame.  Steve was satisfied and happy with it six hours after he removed the sliding glass door.

The reason to hire a meticulous builder is so you don't lose sleep worrying about the project.  Steve is phenomenally good.  It's an education to watch him work.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stunning Monteverdi Heard Here

Yesterday morning I saw a piece in the newspaper about a rare opportunity to hear Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 performed by Apollo's Fire (The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra), conducted by founder Jeannette Sorrell.  I got online right away, reserved two tickets up close, and looked forward to the evening all day.

I bought my first of two recordings of Monteverdi's Vespers back in grad school, 1968 or so.  I'd read a rave review in the defunct magazine, High Fidelity and Stereo Review, and then saw the records on sale in my favorite cubbyhole at Penn State, Nittany News.  The Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording captured the  flashy, intricate lines in a "perfect" acoustic that sounded like a church but not like a train station.

Monteverdi didn't title his work "Vespers of 1610."  These were "Vespers to the Blessed Virgin."  The program liner notes last night informed us that solid scholarship has established that Monteverdi wrote these Vespers most likely for the wedding of the son of his patron, the Duke of Mantua, in 1608.  They were later published in Venice, though they were certainly not written with the acoustics of St. Mark's Cathedral in mind.  Monteverdi didn't work there until 1613.

Enough of scholarship, on to the making of music.  Jeannette Sorrell is a most impressive conductor.  She gave us a vibrant, sensual, fresh, vigorous, dramatic, languid, even playful experience of this piece.  I was moved toward a gush of tears twice in the first couple of minutes.

I only wish this rare opportunity had been paired with a suitable acoustic.  The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is a space more like a gigantic train station than a place to hear musical details.  The space is so vast, the famed cathedral of St. Marks in Venice could be tucked inside it!  The reverberation in this space suffuses intricate musical detail in a glowing Venetian mist.  Hearing Monteverdi in there is like seeing great paintings through waxed paper.  We got all the benefits of supremely graceful pacing and phrasing, but few of the benefits of Monteverdi's bravura writing.

It's too bad that the Cathedral Concerts have to take place in that cathedral.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Getting There

The humming birds haven't been around for a few weeks.  They've moved on.  I feel one with them.

In every sense of the phrase, I'm getting there.  The phrase came to mind as I thought of all the household drama that's going to erupt next week when the fixtures arrive for our double bathroom remodel project.  We've been living amid demolition and reconstruction for three weeks, and it's been fun to adapt while skilled workmen go about the business of correcting the flaws in a thirty-year-old house.  We've been reminded on several occasions of the need to expect the unplanned detour.

Two days after our new furnace was installed, the plumbers came in to prepare the main floor for new locations of toilets, sinks, and showers.  They drilled a circular hole in the floor for a toilet and said, "were those PVC pipes down there when we bid the job?"  It seems I had not thought to tell the furnace guys that their choice of a route for the PVC vent pipes should take into consideration the expected new bathroom drains above.  Fortunately, the problem was easily solved with some angle joints, and work flowed ahead with only a hiccup.

A few days ago, Steve Brandt, our general contractor, said, "did you know there's a roof vent up there that runs the length of the house, but that there's a big section of the roof that's not opened up to use that vent?"  I said I thought I'd heard something to that effect from the house inspector.  Could he open it up?  It turns out that he could, and so we're getting the top of the house in correct order and trim before Steve closes up the options with drywall.

If I lived anywhere near Steve, I'd want to be his friend.  He's one of those people with a gift for thinking well, for doing things completely right, and for dealing with people well.

So we're getting there, and the journey is as much of the joy as the arrival.  So much of life strikes me that way.  Last week I gave a daylily talk to a club near Evanston, Indiana, and I began and ended my slide show with a photographic "setting" of some lyrics of Bob Dylan's song, "Mississippi," which is one of my favorites.

Every step of the way
We walk the line.
Your days are numbered,
So are mine.
Time is piling up,
We struggle and we scrape;
We're all boxed in,
Nowhere to escape.

I used mainly some scenic photos I'd taken in Vermont almost thirty years ago and had sold to Vermont Life Magazine over the course of a decade.  I used a backlit shot of laundry flapping in an October morning breeze to go with "we walk the line."  I used a "still life" of an interior of a Victorian historic house -- a small writing table in a bay window looking out to a red maple tree -- for "your days are numbered."  I used an old photo of myself holding a small pumpkin on the ground as if for a place-kicker in football - for "so are mine."  A late afternoon shot of a clock belfry in the distance in a small town illustrated "time is piling up."  A shot of the back of a Ford pickup hauling a load of firewood down the Granville Gulch (taken while driving behind him!) illustrated "we struggle and we scrape."  And a green-gold scene of tall trees on either side of a vacant downward path in the Hyde Park cemetery illustrated "we're all boxed in, nowhere to escape."

My days are numbered, but I don't know the magic number.  Here I am watching earnest young men the age of my children ply their trades to create "the perfect house" for Kathy and me, and I pray I'll be vigorous and able to make this place hum with gardening for another twenty years.

This is our Master Bedroom on a Saturday morning.  Steve and Tim are using it as a "shop" for the work they're doing on the master bath and guest bath.  As soon as they finish, they'll replace that window with a longer one.  Then Rick and a helper from Beseda Flooring will come in and lay down golden oak hardwood flooring.  Then Steve will put in baseboards, and I'll follow up fixing the nail pops and dings in the paint job on the walls.  And then Kathy and I will move in from the guest bedroom to the Master Bedroom.  Steve and Tim, and the plumbers and the electrician, will then remodel the dining area and the stairs to the basement.  We won't be done with this in October, I'll bet. There's landscaping to prepare for, too.

There's the shower in the Master Bathroom.  Carl Andersen brought in the cultured marble shower pan yesterday.  We're getting there, and in other ways we're not.

These fibreglass entry doors do not belong on this style ranch house.  They remind me of typical entry doors of steakhouses in The West forty years ago.  I expect to see a sign that says, "Please check your firearms at the door."  Putting a proper set of doors on this house would set us back about $5,000, so the entrance became "low priority" yesterday when we priced what's needed.  We'll live with these doors and play saloon music on our music system.

I don't drink whiskey from shot glasses, though, and I don't wear cowboy attire with any grace.  I sip single malt Scotch from crystal glasses I bought in Colle val D'Elsa ten years ago, and I sip it rarely, and slowly.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tattooing the Back Yard

Two weeks ago we moved onto a lot with an immense amount of planting space.  Our acre and a half is shaped like a wide slice of pie that is tipped downwards toward the tip, which is submerged in Hidden Lake.  When I considered how to map out a large daylily hybridizing operation on this sloped triangle, I thought of making a big, horticultural tattoo like the doodles I used to draw during meetings.

I enlarged the survey of the property and used a French curve to lay out a series of sweeping curves around the right side of the house.  We'll develop the left and right back yard first.

Yesterday I got down to business with a Bosch rangefinder laser, a tape measure, and my map.  The survey is pretty much drawn to scale, but "pretty much" was the cause of much figuring when it came to establishing marks on the grass.  For one thing, the concrete and rock swale that takes stormwater down the left side to the lake is not a straight line, as drawn.  Nor is the line of the fence on the left positioned accurately with respect to the brick wall.  The fence is gone now, but a line of straw shows where it once was.

My plan called for the garden beds on the left side to have edges 8 feet to the right of the swale.  Since the position of the swale was inaccurate on the map, my first challenge was to establish a straight line roughly eight feet from the rough edge, taking into account the evidence of secondary water flows on the grass.  The swale, you see, is a jumble of concrete rubble that does more to divert the water away than to channel it.

Then I tried to mark the location of Kathy's six vegetable plots, each 4 x 10, with 6-foot paths between.  With some fudging, I got them plotted and then discovered that the slope away from the driveway had forced my plot much farther down toward the lake than I'd imagined.

So I worked back from the shoreline, 15 feet, and laid out my big area for growing selected seedlings, measured what was possible, and marked the dimensions on the map.  Then I used up my two cans of bright orange "upside down paint" to mark deeply enough that something would remain after today's lawn mowing.

When Kathy and I looked at that design from the deck, we both agreed that we needed to change the design and try another idea there.  This morning I took a picture of the layout we saw.  I used the "pen tool" in an editing program to reinforce the lines I painted on the grass.

My big bed is about 50 x 50 feet in this view.  Each small bed is 4 x 10.  The new plan is to pull the right boundary of my big bed back from the lake another four to six feet.  Then we'll move the left set of three small beds onto the left side of my big bed, making the big bed a rectangle.  What's sacrificed from the big bed will be restored to the left of the veggie beds on the slope up.  I may terrace that area.  The new plan will keep the veggie gardening entirely on flat ground.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Mystery Tree at Hidden Lake

I have a mystery tree in a walled-in corner just outside my garage door at Hidden Lake.  My local nursery couldn't tell what it is from just a leaf sample.  Here is a full frontal picture of my tree.

It is about six feet tall and can grow taller, I think.  I looks to be more than six feet across.  The leaves haven't begun to turn color and I can't say whether they will do that.

The trunk appears to peel, reminding me of birch.  Color is copper brown.  At a height of three feet, I appears to have been purposely "topped" to force all its branches to emerge from its head.  Growth is dense.

Leaves are dark green, mounted in pairs, with buds at the leaf notches.  Veins radiate from the base of the leaf.  Edges are smooth, not hacksaw.  Form is rounded, generally coming to a point.

Note the buds at the leaf notches.

Growth habit appears to provide for substantial expansion each year.  If so, this tree has no business in its current location.  If you know what this is, please drop a comment.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Aquatic Invaders - Water Hyacinth

There's some kind of annual aquatic plant in a pond in one of the city parks.  I don't know what it is, but it has bulbous formations at the water surface at the base of the leaves.  It spreads by stolons just below the water surface.  They look like tubes and are about a foot long.  The plant spreads rapidly to form a thick carpet on the surface of the pond.  The leaves are glossy, with a shape that reminds me of clover.

In some places the plant ascends almost a foot above the water.

Here's the sort of carpet it makes.

Since posting this eight hours ago I've heard from a dozen people who've identified the plant as Water Hyacinth.  It floats on top of the water and is either a pest or a desirable water plant in the south.  In the north it dies over the winter and is often sought after in pond gardens.  I've heard that at least one southern gardener grows it on purpose and pulls out the surplus to use as daylily mulch!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I Want To Learn

As I ponder pictures of my seedlings with patterned blue or violet eyezones, there are things I wonder that I can only determine by making test crosses.  I suppose this is true of any trait, like plant habit, hardiness, ruffling, flat opening, or brilliant color.  

All the pictures in this post are my seedlings.  I keep wondering what it's useful to try to do or find out, as I can't do everything that comes to mind and I can't grow all the test crosses I have time to make.  So...I am keeping fewer yellow bridge plants but am still going to try to develop the ones that seem to me to have something distinctive to contribute in form or size.  I still want to see if I can get into the same ballpark as the yellows I buy to improve my seedling line.

I look at my patterned blue eyezones and the forms of the flowers those patterns are on, and I consider how to narrow my range of choices, which seem nearly infinite right now.  There are a couple of important avenues I think I should try.  Structurally, I should take my consistently arresting patterns on bridge seedlings to plants with excellent vigor and scape structure -- like Vertical Horizon, Point of Divergence, Articulate Matrix, Bridgeton Finesse, etc., working for clear background colors and flat, early openers.

In terms of design, I think I should cross complex-from-one-line X complex-on-a-different-line.

In March I must inspect all the keepers from Mysterious Eyes to see which look hardy and which look tender.  I'd love to grow Mysterious Eyes again, having lost it to this past winter, but if I come up with a hardier kid with complex pattern, you know I'll want to see how it breeds with several test crosses.

I might also want to increase the level of complexity by crossing to Water Drops.  Since I now have good seedlings from Thibodaux Tantalizer that resemble TT but contain additional recessive genes for blue eyes, I will want to cross those seedlings with patterned blue eyes to find out if I get complex results such as I got from taking TT to CAST YOUR NET, and I'll surely use TT all over the place one more time.

Quickly, this line of thinking can crowd out my interest in yellow, white, lavender, purple, and pink.  I have some nice, clear lavenders now, with nice branching and vigorous plants.  I'll want to keep working for larger lavender flowers with big white edges and a shimmering quality of color to make me have to dry my tears.

I'm not going to work on red flowers with lighter borders.  Unless someone comes up with such a flower with a true cherry ice cream background rather than rosy brown bag lunch color, I don't want to see them in my garden.  Even then, what would I do with them?  I would marvel.  That would be enough, just as I marvel at a wondrous double from David's hard work or the silvery lavenders of Steve or Curt.

Today I picked blossoms from five eyed varieties still blooming here.  KING JAMES and KING OF THE AGES on rebloom, ELISA DALLAS on rebloom, SAM ABELL on rebloom, and THIEVING MAGPIE, which is not eyed but is clear dark blue purple with a blue center.  I brought them home to show house guests, who ooohed and ahed, and explained why I was interested in trying a cross of the two biblical names with "king" in them.  But then I said that my favorite blossom is actually ELISA DALLAS.  The shape and color of the eye, relative to the shape and color of the flower, and the lively green in the throat all combine to thrill, rather then please, me.  Being a guy, I suppose I'm addicted to thrill.  You should see me drive!

When I imagine colors, I'm in a zone of thrill.  I want to be swept away with feminine mystery, allure, and willingness to dance. I want to express male boldness, the haughty insecurity of the Flamenco dancer, the man who plays a mariachi trumpet and the man who sells ice cream or balloons.  I want to express the eye for balance and rightness of my general contractor and the sense of oratory of my favorite Episcopal priest.

I want to make music with color.  I want to make love with form.  This art, for me, is not about grabbing your attention for five seconds of fame.  It is about winning your heart long-term, bordering on forever.  It is a form of courtship and flirtation.  

It's also an extension of friendship.  When I'm working with David and Mort's flowers, I think of David and Mort, and their arts.  When I'm with Melanie Mason's flowers, I recall the lightness and joy of her talks and her prose.  When I'm with Steve Moldovan's flowers, I think of the eye he developed.  My garden is a reminder of a circle of friends whose respect I want to earn and whose friendship I want to keep.  It is a zone of the highly personal and social aspect of horticulture and the nurture of living things.  Those who would steal from a garden have fallen from God's grace, cut themselves off from it, and are at risk.  Pray for the thief.  His act brings failure to the love force that drives life toward the good.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Morning Light

I take daylily pictures in the morning.  The time before breakfast is when I like to discover if a new daylily opens fully before I go out to enjoy the garden.

This one is named ARAGON.  It's by Patrick Stamile, who is one of the foremost breeders in our time.  I took the picture with out new compact digital camera, the Canon S90 set on Program mode with ISO at 200 and a minus 1/3 f-stop adjustment.  I've set the camera colors to neutral rather than vibrant.  The greens in the background look realistic to me, but the red seems less saturated than I observed.

The plant itself arrived in the mail about six weeks ago and is growing in a pot.  I don't know, therefore, whether its fading during the day is due to an iadequate root system.  I would have to grow and evaluate it for two or three seasons in the ground and undisturbed to have a clear idea of its garden value.  In the morning, growing in a pot, I'd rate its value high.

This is Ryan Gossard's HEAVENLY DARK MATTER.  It has been in the ground since last June and is blooming for the first time here this year.  Its first blossom opened today, so it's an early season daylily.

The flower is big and its maroon purple eyezone is big, too.  The base color is a pale greenish yellow.  I bought this for its hardiness in zone 5.  I'm trying to set seeds on it with pollen from Patrick Stamile's GIANT PANDA, a new plant here this spring of unknown hardiness.

The end of May is when those sentimental orange "ditch daylilies" begin to bloom in St. Louis.  I have always loved seeing masses of them along the roadside or around a tree stump.  They don't belong in a context of these bold, modern hybrids, and they really don't belong anywhere near a lawn because they are invasive.  But let them invade a wooded roadside, and I'll love that road!

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Time for Reflections

Today's to-do list:

  1. Practice being fully retired
  2. Play with my compact Canon S90 digital camera
  3. Bring home Venti Coffee and Venti Mocha from Starbucks
  4. Dig 9 daylilies at the Green Center and plant them at home
  5. Do this in the mud if necessary, but avoid the cloudbursts and lightning bolts
  6. Call 5 mulch guys from Perryville and buy 8 yards from the first one to call back
  7. Read Dennis Johnson's Alread Dead while awaiting the mulch, after making tuna sandwiches
  8. Pay my auction bills and update my daylily database
  9. Feel additional degrees of separation from my 33-year humanities career
I have been heavily into reflection since I turned the corner in December, but with a camera in hand, reflection becomes a theme.  Take, for instance, our dear companion, Lola The Poodle.

Lola is getting a lot more rides, now that I'm home more than not.  With a poodle's intelligence, rides are essential to a sense of well-being.  She especially loves a ride to Starbucks.

She nudged me when she read "Admit it.  You want one."  I couldn't translate what she said to me about that, but I don't think she wanted to admit anything at that point.  She had her eye on the car ahead of me, and on the mirror.

Reflection, reflection...oh, there is no boundary to it.  Italo Calvino could have started a novel with a picture like this, but I can only start a sub-reflection:

She had a far-away look made formidable by the oversize dark glasses.  The narrow mouth closed without energy.  A thought formed...what was it?  "Did I turn off the stove?"  No, nothing that mundane, not in a story by Calvino.  Not, too, a thought about what to order this morning.  This is a thought about something that might have been, if not for...

Or was that my own thought, imagined in the car ahead, or was it not a thought at all but just a brief reflection on the way good and evil contest in the world and on the ways that evil often seems ascendant, even triumphant?

Even the lens of the dark glasses contains a reflection.  The car's surface is another mirror, a symbol of arrest without warrant, to play with words.  It's all about Stop and go at Starbucks, nothing about the play of good and evil, just spreading cheer with a bit o' banter.

Lola waits to make her remarks.  At the window, she barks, "That's hot!  Watch out!  Don't spill that!" and the girl smiles.  They know Lola and all her warnings.

In my jesting about retirement careers I have posited a life as a pirate on Missouri waterways, or as a counselor for out-of-work government torturers who have an immense weight of reflection on them as they push their grandchildren's strollers down the sidewalk, always attentive to the possibility that an assassin from "the enemy" is in the neighborhood, waiting.  I wonder this, I truly do: do parents and grandparents who torture people feel the disquieting and self-killing feeling that the person they torment is someone's child or beloved?  Does the torturer's capacity for empathy boomerang back and inflict a terrible wound to the soul?

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole,
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

The suicide bomber and the torturer are expressions of the One Evil.  They walk the same side of a dirty street no one travels but the broken, those lost to the world and estranged from the One Good.

Oh, lost people!  Are you tugged and dismembered spiritually when you hear a line like this, from Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush?"

I was thinking about what a friend had said,
I was hoping it was a lie.

She turns the corner; her face is gone.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Emergency

"Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury.

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;

In An ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound instructed us all in the fine art of syllabic music that Geoffrey Chaucer had absorbed from the French poets of his era.  Chaucer brought into the English language the perfect elision of sound wedded to a perfect choice of words to define true lyrical poetry in our language.

I usually recite this passage aloud at this time of year, in my garden, as I rake the leaves off the emerging green shoots of my beloved daylilies.  There is a guilt I have felt in late March each year during my employed life.  It is the guilt of being pulled away from my desk work by the "other master" I serve, the master that is the mystery of my garden.  I am a steward of an environment of 'thworms, as every good gardener must be.  I care for the health of soil.  This husbandry of soil, creatures, and plant life is a calling.  It is in my deepest memories of tending a huge vegetable garden with my retired grandfather in New Jersey.

The emergence of malevolent weeds among my plants is like a state of emergency to me.  I prioritize what I must do with the limited time after my work day.  I look for ways to quit early, take work home for later.

And so, by stealth, and to avoid the embarrassment of a big retirement party, I announced my retirement Saturday, seven weeks ahead of schedule, after my succession was assured, and changed my status to volunteer.  For me this is the perfect solution.  I can face the diminishing workload without any guilt now.  I need show up at the office only when one of my few final projects needs attention, and then when I have them safely in harbor or approaching there, I can fade from the scene entirely to make space for my successor, who will be formally introduced in the next edition of the MHC Passages newsletter.  I can still enjoy the fellowship of my colleagues and assist Patricia Zahn, the finest colleage I have ever had, who is now the Interim Director, until my chosen successor moves to St. Louis next month.

Most of my attention right now is on my daylilies, which are just now declaring their survival or injury from the severe stress of this particular winter.  Many new plants I gambled on in the Lily Auction last summer were not hardy enough to take what St. Louis reality dished up this time.  The living center of their crowns is gone.  If there is any life at all in those tissues, it will emerge from the side and bottom of the crown several weeks from now.  But I won't let them have that chance.  I only consort with the fit.  The unfit are relegated to the yard waste bag to make room for another gamble.

If you hybridize, you are a gambler.  The only question is how much of an ante you dare to put up each year.  You can see how serious I am about this by checking my garden web site at Here is a special new one that I bred in 2001 and flagged for keeping in 2003:

I'm going to name this one LIZ PAINE, for one of my longtime professional friends at the Federation of State Humanities Councils in Washington, D.C.

Today, Palm Sunday, it's a bit rainy, but not much more than a drizzle.  I must go dig several plants of my GOODNIGHT KISSES and DAVID AND ALAN to send to buyers who begged me for plants as early as possible.  Both of these are frostproof and hardy, as I hope I will be for a lot more years.  I like telling garden club audiences that "you'll love my Goodnight Kisses."  It's important to have something to laugh about when you're sitting on a chair you would never actually want to own and use.  Do you know that type of chair?  It's standard issue in community centers.  They are designed to encourage brief meetings.

I am designed for life, and I'm going out now to affirm that in my garden.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reading in a Chinese Garden

Last month Kathy and I visited the Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.  It's the type of garden that one of the high officials of the Ming Dynasty might have built for himself in some remote city to remind him of the splendor of Peking.  We arrived just in time to join the one o'clock guided tour for a small group of people numbering no more than ten.

Our guide began with an imaginary orientation of where this garden might have been sited in a crowded Chinese city.  She pointed out the high walls, for privacy, and let us know that the decorative openings in the walls were not authentic.  They were necessary because of the Portland building codes.

She began to talk about ancient China, and the stages of examinations that a scholar had to pass in order to become a high court official.  Immediately she reached into a blue tote bag and withdrew a map of China.  This would be a reference point as she spoke of the geography, the distances, and the differences in population.

As we moved from one stopping point to another, the guide discussed the variety of plant forms in the garden and the symbolic importance of fish in the water.  "You may wonder why you might see a whole fish on a platter at a Chinese festivity," she said.  "Why don't they remove the head and tail before serving it?"  We all waited a few seconds before she said, "It's because the fish represents abundance, or the wish for abundance, and the head and tail symbolize the entirety of life."

We entered a variety of rooms around the garden and heard about what they symbolized to the owner and to his visitors.  One room had a small library and a writing desk with inks and brushes, the trappings of beautiful thoughts, beautiful writing, and beautiful images.

At last we came to a set of carved wooden panels.  Our guide pointed out the theme of the carvings and the presence of poems there.

And then, to end the tour, we all had a special treat.  She reached into her tote bag and withdrew a book of Chinese poems and their English translations and she asked for two volunteers to read to the group.  I thought immediately of so many museums back in Missouri, places where I had seen a Civil War loyalty oath, a telegram from General Alexander Doniphan to the Governor of Missouri in 1838 in which he refuses to carry out an order to execute Joseph Smith and a party of Mormons.  I thought of the journals and stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the stories of Mark Twain, the letters of Harry Truman, Eugene Field.  I thought of the recollections of former slaves, the diaries of German immigrants, the letters of soldiers to their parents in time of war.

There are so many opportunities to use a map or to engage visitors in reading the primary sources of history.  I saw the magic of props like that in Portland.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Design Intelligence" and Its Enemy

A couple of years ago I visited the Sikeston Depot Cultural Center and admired the tastefulness of the exhibits in the small space that was available. I think it is true that most of us sense the features of any space we enter. Some of us sense in more detail than others, and some of us can verbalize what we sense more readily.

Probably the first thing we sense is cleanliness and the qualities of color and light, unless an ordor grabs our attention! (I won't go near scented candle shops. A museum friend is especially sensitive to mold that I can't detect. On the other hand, I like the aroma of fresh-baked bread or a good beef stew.)

In the picture above we see "design intelligence" at work in a small area that tells the story of cotton production. The lighting is beautiful. Three-dimensional objects shape the space we enter and draw us toward the two-dimensional pictures and text panels. The objects defeat what would otherwise be a "tyranny" of right angles. If the room is a box, and the pictures and text panels are flattened boxes, you have to introduce curves as well as "empty space" like the space in the branches of the cotton plant and between the legs of the table. Think of curves and empty space as the "freedom fighters" in your displays.

I see design intelligence almost everywhere I go. You don't need formal training to do a good job in a local museum. You just need a sense of cleanliness, light, space, variety, and narrative.

Here's an exceptional example by a volunteer at the Katy Depot in Sedalia.

Everything in that small case is placed to perfection. Everything contributes interest.

The Enemy of design intelligence is not a person but a feeling that impels you to add something to an excellent display because you happened to acquire it after the display was perfect. A voice inside you says something like "What's wrong with displaying another treasure?" It may also say, "If someone donates something, I have an obligation to display it immediately!" As you listen to that voice, see if you can hear the camel's backbone break. It only takes one additional thing to destroy the perfection of a sentence, a meal, or a display.

I write this in a mild sense of mourning for the museums that once had fine examples of design intelligence and ruined what they had by filling up the space with more and more "stuff." There are times, when writing a sentence or a paragraph, that the new word that comes to mind is a destroyer of what's already there. It's best to dismantle the whole thing and start over.

That's true of museum displays, too. Nothing good happens when you keep adding and adding. You don't make "bad" any better, and you quickly degrade "good." The mission is not to display things, anyway, no matter what the mission statement says. The mission is to stimulate (not numb) the intelligence of a visitor. The unique power of design intelligence is that it invites discovery and learning. The enemy of design intelligence creates only a desire to flee.

This cold season is an opportunity to look around the museum and find an area where you can take everything out and start over again. Go ahead. You have eight weeks, maybe ten. Give yourself an empty space, clean it up first, and then create a learning opportunity in that space. Create something different that suggests an idea. Juxtapose items that have never had a chance to inhabit the same space and see what happens. Play around with combinations for four or five of your eight weeks and then polish up what works best in the final three. And then invite me over!