I derive great satisfaction and pleasure from my garden. I love the physical activity of gardening, crouching down on all fours, close to the soil; using small hand tools in preference to electric or battery powered machinery; smelling the earth as I move on the floor of the garden, finding abundant rewards in attending to my garden. Formed over several decades, a garden I have created and cared for over thirty years, my status is not that of a mere visitor but rather as the committed custodian of the site. I assume that most potters accept or even enjoy the splatter of clay that form films of crusted mud all over themselves and their clothes when engaged in their ceramic activities. Similarly, I really like to get dirty when I garden. I not only like the smell of dirt, but the various scents of plants, each with their distinctive smell, accented when a branch or twig is accidentally broken or deliberately pruned. You cannot celebrate the unique perfumes of the garden unless you are willing to achieve a close proximity with all its wondrous aspects. This requires a humble posture on my part that invites contact and connection with all the elements that make up a garden.
On one hand I manipulate my tools to alter the garden to suit my preferences, on the other hand I defer to the great ability of the plants, once situated, to flourish in multiple colors and shapes. This spectrum of intensity and value ranges from the deep green of ferns that prefer a shadowed safety to the golden leaves of ginkgo trees, burnished in the sun and about to be shed as winter approaches. Various plants, shrubbery and trees behave very differently. Some plants flourish in their intense growth, staying close to the ground and spreading out tender tendrils that soon occupy the empty spaces around them; while other plants reach upward in their vertical aspirations to touch the sky, providing shade for those plants beneath them. In addition, many of these plants periodically provide me with repeated and generous outbursts of brilliant radiance from the abundance of their blooms. All these things are the constant gifts of a garden to those of us who tend them. I not only plan and plant the plants in my garden, I plant myself within its territorial confines as I daily perform the measured and loving motions that never become simply repetitious, but rather represent my commitment and devotion to that space and its many promises.
For those of us who garden in Southern California, we know that fall is a special time in our gardens. Unlike the harsher climates of other places, where plants are pruned to protect them from winter snow and many do not survive that season, fall is a great time here to plant many kinds of new, young plants that will not only survive the winter but will reap your faith and investment in them by displaying their exuberant flowers in the spring. I recently attended a plant sale at Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, CA. As a member I got to arrive early before it was open to the general public and walked through the areas that held containers of exotic and indigenous plants, marveling at the diverse forms and shapes and colors, picking out plants which give me the most pleasure and taking them home with me. Picking out plants for my garden is much like picking out pots for my pottery gallery. The aesthetics of the sensual attraction of the ceramic artifact is much like my immediate response to a particular plant. I live daily with both plants and pots. I try to always remember to properly express appreciation for the quality of their company.
Increasingly ceramic artists/potters are placing their work in gardens or natural settings where such works are now being called ‘environmental art’. I do not intend to debate the relative merits of ceramic art housed in interior settings verses their placement outside the built structure in a garden or natural setting. I find both settings perfect placements for certain varieties and kinds of ceramics. The interior setting can house a more modest piece that would be overwhelmed in a vast natural setting. Here a more monumental size is perhaps more appropriate. I think a garden is a good compromise for some ceramic art and pottery. My garden, particularly my courtyard, is basically an exterior room, designed with boundaries and edges of flagstone paths, sidewalks, and driveway, along with the walls of the house and garage. I have a front courtyard in which I have dozens of plants in ceramic pots of various sizes. Some are basic terracotta planters; others glazed with vivid patterns and colors, many from such diverse places as China, Vietnam, and Mexico. I also have ceramic animals that play in static formations among the pots, in addition a wonderful ceramic totem pole, ceramic tiles and a ceramic mural in my courtyard around the French doors that lead to my pottery gallery.
The ceramic pots, some quite large, are the natural friends of the plants they contain. They become a single work of art, combined partners, each offering something that the other does not have, further combined with a multitude of other potted plants in a dense and overlapping composition.
One of my favorite activities in my garden happens every year in January. This is the month where I prune the dozens of rose bushes in my front garden. It is an annual ritual that I describe in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter.”
“Pruning roses is an act of faith, a slow deliberate process that allows me to demonstrate my veteran skill. It is an investment in eventual spring that the small red swelling evident on the stem will someday burst into green growth. There are no witnesses to my brilliant display, no accolades or applause, still I please myself with my deft cuts of extraneous growth, exercising severe judgment about what will survive my intense gaze and pruning shears. I follow up with the pruning seal, then the squeeze of the plastic container that contains the dormant spray that seeks to protect the plant from dangerous insects. This precise ritual, spread over several weeks because of the profusion of rose bushes that fence my corner house, constitutes one of my major duties and joys as homeowner and gardener. Pruning is a perfect way to start each year. I just hope you derive as much satisfaction from throwing pots as I do from pruning rose bushes. So expert at pruning that I can afford reveries, I meditate on foreign affairs and personal issues. I do not hurry, not wanting efficiency but preferring the feel of the faint warmth of the winter sun on my back. I am content to simply exist there. I have achieved mastery in at least one area in my lifetime. I worry about the fate of other rose bushes in my neighborhood, convinced that no other nearby occupant has my refined knowledge and subtle skills. The immediate rewards of mastery can inspire the arrogance of superiority. I must remind myself that there are many other areas of doubtful performance in my life. The acknowledgment salvages my humility.”
The cultural metaphor of tending to one’s own garden is not limited in meaning to just minding your own business and refraining from interfering in the business of others. It also suggests a level of caring. I assume that the words tender and tending might share some common root. To tend to something is to nurture and protect it. It requires commitment and daily maintenance. We know as parents that children require tending as an essential duty with its attending joys and responsibilities. For most people the tending of their garden is not an obligation but rather a way of finding those pleasures that one receives when one creates and then exists within a special space. Gardens in some cultures are spiritual sites for meditation and the getting of wisdom. The aesthetic elements of a garden, for instance in Japanese culture, can contain a complex symbolism in which tree, rock, stream and raked gravel provide an elegant and profound wisdom, sacred messages emanating from their careful placement and particular form.
I not only like to garden as an activity, I like to just be in a garden. I have benches and chairs in both my back and front garden. Gardens are places to sit, listen to the rustle of leaves in the trees as the wind sweeps through them; spot the family of black crows that have claimed one tree as home and provide loud squawks in defiance and defense in their proprietary occupation of its leafy limbs; observe the humming birds that seem to stay stuck in mid-air, pointing their long beaks short distances from blooms of vivid color. The fountain adds a quiet murmur to the chorus of sounds as the water cascades from the small top bowl in thin streams down into the greater basin below.
I wonder if the same people that are too busy to experience a garden – to exist within the space, truly alive with all senses alert and active – I wonder if those same people have the time to really experience pottery and ceramic art? It takes time, far more valuable than money in this regard, to truly experience those things that are worth experiencing in life. This effort is difficult to achieve in short rations of time limited by a full and busy schedule. Few of us seem to be able to afford the generous allocation of committed time that can bring the greatest concentration and focus of self, and thus harvest the greatest meaning and pleasure from aesthetic experiences. I realize I am retired and thus have the luxury of ample time. But no one should have to wait a lifetime for those things that are so important for those very qualities that make life worth living.
In Western cultures experiences of this nature often represent an active process of taking in experiences and making meaning of them. In some eastern cultures it becomes more a form of meditation that requires a personal letting go of the distracting accumulation of stuff in your head and emptying oneself of extraneous matter. I am confident that we can all develop the capacity to employ a full range of behaviors in our engagement of aesthetic pleasures that include both of these possibilities. We must not become so specialist in our aesthetic pleasures that we restrict our experiences to just one medium of creativity – even if that comprises something as wonderful as ceramic art and pottery. There are multiple resources and sites for us to enjoy beauty and find harmony and peace. The garden is one of those treasured places where human culture becomes reconciled with nature, where the arrogance of the human ego can be modified by respect for those living things that emerge out of the soil in many splendid varieties of green growth. It is a site that can only enhance and compliment our own better natures. The garden is that kind of magic site that can sponsor an enduring ecology of the soul.