This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Apricot Glow of Roman Palaces

LAST WEEK AT THE ROBBINS LIBRARY IN ARLINGTON, one of my favorite libraries in the world (and is there a bad one????) I was giving Chris a tour of the place (with Fionn as chaperon, as it was too hot to leave him in the car) and we came upon a roomful of books for sale to benefit the Friends of the Robbins Library. I found an old friend-- Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi. Published in 1981, I got that book when it first came out, as I belonged to one of those book clubs where I needed to do nothing to receive that month's selection (and do they still have those? I hope so.) It was a delightful read then and it is more delightful now. Ms. Perenyi, the book jacket told us, was the daughter of a career Navy man and a novelist and was born in 1918. She married a Hungarian Baron when she was 19 and lived with him at his castle until World War II forced them to flee, never to return (it became a collective when that part of Hungary was annexed by the Soviet Union after the war.) She later became managing editor of Mademoiselle Magazine, and wrote book reviews for the New York Review of Books. She admits in the introduction that she is no horticulturalist, but says that sooner or later every writer who gardens ends up writing a book on gardening, if for no other reason than to pass along their experiences, knowledge, and opinions. (And of course, like the best garden writers she is opinionated, abhorring this and delighting in that. We would have it no other way.)

If the book were not so delightful, the best part of it would be the picture on the back cover, (above, click to enlarge) showing this, well, woman who does not disresemble the phrase 'tough old broad,' with a drink in one hand and a butt in the other (my kind of gal) more or less collapsed on a bench in her lovely New England garden. The book itself is full of allusions, classical and modern, and references to all sorts of other things. It is sophisticated without being pretentious, opinionated without being strident, and well-written without being pompous-- a reminder of how many of our books used to be before the dumbing down of America began. It assumes a certain body of knowledge that reading people had back in the day. Alphabetically arranged by category, I will quote one such entry here, entitled Night, to give a flavor of this delightful book:
"A garden, however familiar, is another place on a summer night...There are, to begin with, peculiar noises, faint rustlings whose source may be revealed by a flashlight picking up a pair of frozen green eyes. Or the drumming of katydids. Or a sound that occurs in August in a corner of my garden and is answered in the one across the street. In both cases, someone seems to be hard at word on a typewriter: clackety-clackety-clack. Answer: clackety-clack. What on earth are they? Not locusts or cicadas, which have a different sound. The most bizarre and least likely explanation yet offered me is that they are raccoons. Raccoons? "Well,' said the man who told me this, 'that's what my cousin who owns the garage out on Route 1 says, and they're all over the back of his place.' Why not, when you come to think of it? Perhaps, in lieu of the chimpanzees who one day will write Hamlet if the laws of probability are allowed to operate long enough, raccoons are hammering away at The Theory of the Leisure Class somewhere in my shrubbery.
"Scents are stronger at night. Everybody knows that but not that they are also different. Faint whiffs of sweetness in nicotiana and clethra acquire a dose of pepper after midnight-- when, on the other hand, carnations, at their most powerful at dusk, seem to go to sleep and stop smelling. But the biggest change is that of proportion and texture produced by seeing things in black and white. My first experience of this phenomenon wasn't in a garden, or at night, but in Rome in broad daylight in the company of a friend who is color-blind. I had always known this about him and never grasped the significance until the day I stupidly said something about the apricot glow of Roman palaces. 'You forget,' he said gently, 'I don't see that. I don't know what you mean.' The words were more than an embarrassment, they were a revelation, for he was the subtlest of observers, who had often pointed out to me details and refinements in paintings and architecture, and even plants, which-- blinded in my own way by color-- I had missed. Thereafter, I observed things with different and in some ways better-informed eyes, and I haven't forgotten the lesson.
"To see things in black and white is to see the basics, and I would now recommend to any designer of gardens that he go out and look at his work by the light of the moon. He may well see that a certain bush is too large for the space it occupies, another too small, that the placement of a flower bed needs adjusting. Above all, he will be more conscious of the importance of form. Strolling among the ruins of the Palatine, my color-blind friend had again and again identified the wild flowers growing there by their shapes, pointing out to me especially the beauty of the acanthus, so loved by the Greeks they made it the capital of the Corinthian order, and reminding me that Piny made beds of acanthus alone, not for the flowers but for the leaves.
"The Impressionists saw nature as color swimming in light, but in most of the world's great gardens color has counted for very little. Masses of brilliant flowers and shrubs are a modern idea and not necessarily a good one. Subtract the color from a garden and it can prove to be an ill-planned scramble. One way to find out is to walk around it on a summer night. But not, please, with the aid of floodlights. No matter how skillfully carried out, I abhor the introduction of electricity into a garden. Lighted pools, false dawns among the shrubs are to me both ugly and vulgar. (No, I don't like son et lumiere either: The Parthenon bathed in lavender is a horrid sight.) A path or a driveway may need to be discreetly lighted to keep people from breaking their necks, and hurricane lamps on a deck where one is dining are more than permissible. I love an old fashioned Japanese paper lantern suck with a candle and hung in a tree like a moon. A spotlight trained on a fountain, no. A garden at night should be itself- a place at rest, a haven for creatures, and for me too when I want to lie in my hammock in the dark."
Thus spaketh the Perenyi. I can't entirely agree with her, from a practical point of view, on the lighting of gardens at night, though from a theoretical one I can certainly sympathize and concur: the garden at night should let in the night and be as sacred. But many of the clients that I made gardens for didn't see their gardens often enough by day, being away from home at work-- and, too, especially here in New England where summer's lease etc etc, I wanted them to treat the garden as an outdoor room, a space they could be in and fully enjoy. But my lighting was always subtle-- not a floodlight on the garden pond, but rather one up-light on the birch tree standing at the head of the pond, and thus the reflection of the birch in the pond lit the whole garden in a shimmering, quavery way without detracting from the soulful and numinous ooze of the night. Or, these wonderful old antique lamps I found, shaped like Aladin's and each containing a candle. They hung from wrought iron stands and each lamp was colored with different glass. They were really lovely, spaced here and there behind and among things. I hope the night creatures didn't object.
I was surprised when I Googled her (which always sounds, from strictly an onomatopoeic view, invasive and vaguely predatory) to find that she is still alive, and still listed in the phonebook in Stonington, CT. I am writing a letter to her even as we speak, and would love to visit her place, and her. But I suppose 10,000 others would like to do the same. Maybe we'll share a butt on her bench.


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