Idyl, by Lorenzo Taft, in the fern room of the conservatory
Thinking back on all the wonderful adventures my husband and I have shared this year, my mind turns to one particular autumn day, when we ventured to the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time. We were both overwhelmed by the beauty of this enormous old hothouse, filled with ancient and awe-inspiring plants, which, though battered by time and a recent devastating hailstorm, seemed to distill all the wonder of the natural world, and the essence of our beloved city itself.
An Eden of sorts
We wandered the place in the company of many other pilgrims, our necks craning this way and that, faces upraised, our reverence as thick as the air itself. After we had ambled for several hours, we wandered outside, where the splendor of an autumn afternoon greeted us, and, with a scattered assembly, we gloried in the radiance of being alive.
During our visit to Seattle last week, my friend Wendy offered to take us to Dunn Gardens, a little-known place in the Broadview neighborhood northeast of downtown. The gardens, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were designed for the Dunn family in the 1910s. The landscape architecture firm Olmsted Brothers designed the grounds and selected all the original plants. Click on pictures to enlarge.
The gardens occupy a residential compound of some 10 acres, surrounding a main house and two other dwellings. The land offers a view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, which the growth of vegetation is gradually obscuring. The gardens were designed around many second-growth firs standing on the property at the time of its purchase. The massive trees lend the garden an atmosphere of seclusion and repose.
While still faithful to their original design, the gardens have evolved under the stewardship of three generations. Some plants and plantings have been added, while others have been gradually allowed to fade away, as the owners have observed plants’ changing characteristics and needs.
Several thousand plant species, many in a state of perfect maturity, contributed to a varied woodland tapestry, whose patterns and textures were too complex to apprehend on a single visit. On this afternoon, we marveled at magnificent stands of Himalayan lilies foregrounded by wisteria and boughs of pink dogwood. Starbursts of alium punctuated beds layered with grasses, sedum, and small ruby-colored lilies. The woods teemed with ferns, oxalis, hellebore, and solomon seal.
Rare and one-of-a-kind rhododendrons bred by Edward Dunn studded the forest. There were many amazing plants, but they were harmoniously incorporated into a naturalistic design.
Even the most formal parts of the grounds, like this one formed around a rectangular lawn, had an appealingly off-hand quality. The stone stairs leading out of it were one of my favorite things.
The established structure of the place supported a riot of plant life that was visually intoxicating. A Chicagoan could only envy the lushness and vitality of it all,
the plants growing upon plants,
the petals and leaves.
A superabundance of plants dripping from every ledge,
Spring is coming to my corner of the city, but I’ve hardly noticed it. Normally I would go out walking a lot at this time of year, to enjoy all the beautiful plants, the freshness of life, its fragility. This year I’ve been too preoccupied with my writing, with politics, to savor the season. I look out the window of the car while my husband is driving me to work, and this is spring: the picture that I take out the window at 50 miles an hour. At least this I can savor: this picture, showing the exact stages of the new leaf, the exact position of the gulls in the grass, the quality of the light, the fog just lifting off the craggy trees. Grant looking over it all. This is my spring. I’ve taken many photographs from the car this spring. I cheat sometimes and use the “posterize” setting on my camera to key up the city. Maybe it’s not such a cheat in a way, because the resulting images correspond to my state of mind, and to my subjective sense of the city, the moment.
I love writing this blog, not least because it forces you to consider why you’re bothering. If you’re going to write a blog, you can’t burn out, you can only burn. You have to lay your ideas on the fire, even the digressive ones, and after you’ve done that you can see what’s missing. You can see all kinds of gaps and divisions. For instance: what’s the connection between the beauty of my life and the political mega-crisis we are living? What’s the connection between my knowledge of political history and what I as a citizen should be doing? What’s the connection between all the smart moderates out there and the dismal do-nothingness of many of our “leaders” and the lowest-common-denominator politics they keep offering? The connections are weak, and they need to be stronger. Somehow, we need to marshal what is great and precious in ourselves and use it as a lever to create a better politics for our times.
I am conservative in the sense of honoring the great things that have been created in this country. On my drive to work, I see a great massing of buildings and capital. I see amazing parks and beautiful architecture, order and great vitality. The commercial streets are choked with the latest thing, with old mom & pop stores, the thundering arterial El, and every sort of pedestrian and vehicle. Generations of effort have made this amazingly complex and abundant society that’s ours. It could be better, but then look at the world news. We have basics, and a framework for becoming, that other peoples have never had and still dare not dream of. Who wants to think of it slipping away because we’ve been careless, arrogant, stupid, or lazy?
The Revolutionary generation wanted to establish a republic, but it was, at the same time, a form of government that made them anxious. They regarded it as a strenuous form of government, one highly dependent on the virtue and judgments of citizens, and they believed that, if the citizens weren’t up to it, the republic would fail. This was their worry.
Some among us are fond of touting individual enterprise, but everything that I value in our culture is the fruit of civic collaboration. Almost everything I see on my way to work owes something to an intelligent framework of laws, principles, and customs that we can’t even see. The many social goods we enjoy—whether it’s freedom of religion, the security of property, or the opportunity to gain an education or borrow money—exist only because generations of citizens willed them into being. The truth of our system is: we labor politically as a group so that the individual may thrive. To keep it going, each of us has to find something to give and lay it on the fire.