I often wondered why I was so taken by blue and yellow in combination instead of the much stronger pairing of blue and orange. As an artist you would think my eye would be drawn to the contrast, to the balance the latter represents but, no, it’s blue and yellow for me. Last Fall, finally, I got it.
Driving out to the western part of the state on one of those perfect October days, I came over a rise into a sudden sea of white birch displaying that color the poet Christopher Morley called ‘the sauterne of the leaves.’ I realized that’s the image, the one that’s been with me since I was seven and came to live in Maine. That softness, that vague translucence against the crisp backdrop of blue, that’s the picture in my mind’s eye. There are also, of course, memories of brilliant summer suns reflected in the still blue waters of the cove between Lord’s Point and Strawberry Island, and the stripes on the sails of sunfish as they unfurled at high tide to the delight of ten-year-old sailors.
Like everyone else, the landscape I saw growing up informed my design sensibilities as it informed my consciousness. It’s why I prefer the easy, open nature of white pine to the tight formality of spruce, and why I adore the misshapen beauty of pitch pine, gnarled and knotted, to the perfect forms found in manicured landscapes. I am drawn to the perfectly imperfect of Nature, to the image of pine as giant bonsai pruned by wind alone. There is a beauty to that, a ruggedness, a permanence, a grandeur that leaves me bowed in admiration.
I talk a great deal about personal meaning during the course I teach at the University of Southern Maine, encouraging my students to tap into their own internal language to resolve design issues. It makes some of them a little crazy to continually be thrown back to the internal well as I tell them to sit with their problems for a while. They want answers, they want charts and graphs, they want pictures; I want them to give themselves time to figure it out. I’ve taken to disclaiming on the first day, This class may make you uncomfortable.
For me, it would be much easier to resolve the issue for them; the solution is usually sitting right there, and all they have to do is see it. But to my students it’s like staring at the staircases in the M. C. Escher drawing, or the one that starts off as birds and morphs into fish depending on how long you’ve been looking or how much you’ve been drinking. Either way, you see what you see dependent largely upon the eye in your mind. That’s the one with the filter, and that’s the one that demands acknowledgment. I began a project recently where that demand became clear.
It was all about a tree, and a man who supposedly didn’t want to be involved in any of the decisions concerning a landscape renovation. He works like a dog, he says, he trusts his wife, he doesn’t care. That’s fine and dandy, but it never lasts — and it shouldn’t. One of the ways to feel that you genuinely inhabit a property, and aren’t just perched on it, is to have contained within the landscape the plants that evoke a sense of geographic home. You need your version of blue and yellow.
A week or so into the project, I started getting emails from his wife that included “Jim thinks…” or “Jim wants to know…” until finally we got down to brass tacks with “Jim wants.” The thing Jim wanted was a tree, specifically a Kousa dogwood like the one back home. Since I make it a point to honor such memories I immediately put it on the list of trees slated for the front, but I confess to an inward groan. There’s nothing wrong with Kousas, but at this stage of the game they’re just dead boring. They’re mall trees, and by the time a plant is used at the mall you know it’s been everywhere else; does it really need to be in your yard, too? But since I’m the one who rescues common lilac from construction sites, I do not stand in the way ever when someone says, “I remember this, and I want it.” I am, however, not above a slight sleight of hand.
I met them at my favorite nursery, where I had selected five trees that fit the new design: three ‘Tina’ crabapples for the body of the main garden, a weeping cherry for the curved bed, and the Kousa. I had been lucky enough to find, though, a Pagoda dogwood on the lot (as I said, my favorite nursery) and I held it aside until we had discussed the pros and cons of all the other trees. When he saw the Pagoda, Jim fell in love on the spot; it had the familiarity that evoked the dogwood of memory, but was unique enough to feel like his own expression. That little tree gave him the best of both worlds.
There are any number of instances like this, the can’t-stands and the must-haves, and you need to acknowledge them up front, before dime one is spent. The result of not doing so can be devastating. How do I know this? I did a design a few years ago, and the installation was and is absolutely stunning. It’s also a complete failure.
You wouldn’t think that an arc of thirteen yellow magnolias, backed by five clumps of river birch, could possibly be anything but stunning. Stunning in Spring, in bloom before anything else and richly perfumed. Stunning in Fall, when the entire space turns pale gold. Stunning in Winter, when the peeling bark of the river birch is kissed with snow.
The owner sees none of that. All she sees is brown; brown mulch, brown branches, brown everything. She talks about it as though it were dead, and the irony is that these trees replaced a wall of old-growth pine that actually was. In her head, though, green is alive and brown is not green. Despite the hours of conversation that take place before I even begin a design, despite the numerous questions and the photos of the plant materials and the approvals at every stage, we did not arrive at her true mind’s eye. In her head, through that lens, brown is not acceptable, not even if it’s just during dormancy, not even if it gets you to stunning yellow in Spring.
The internal eye is a powerful thing. Recognize it, and use it to your advantage.