VIEW V. VIGNETTE

As I write this, the sun is just beginning to rise. The city still is quite dark, but that gorgeous band of mango at the edge of the horizon has faded to peach and the sky, already, is quite remarkably blue. It’s an odd place for a gardener to live, to be perched in the air instead of nestled into the ground, but it’s a killer view.

I herniated a disc in my lower back four days after moving in, and I remember one of the EMT’s asking me why on earth I had moved into the top floor of a building with no elevator, given that my back was bad even before the disc blew. He looked at me like I had three heads when I said, But look at the city, and I guess if I were carting someone down the narrow, steep stairs of an old Federal building I might not have seen the rationale, either, but I tell you this vista alters my perspective, and it alters the way I do land design.

I design now for the long shot, for the image that enlarges both the view and the viewer. I want an almost visible line from here to there, to have the world open at my feet. I want grandeur, I want majesty, I want the absolute elegance of nature to stand front and center and say, This is how it’s done.

A clump of white birch shimmering in the pale moon of a winter night is a sight to behold, and I want it from every conceivable vantage point. I was so desperate for it on one of the first properties I designed that the moment I got the contract I cleared away a full hedge of juniper Chinensis, a unspeakably ugly hedge that blocked the view, from every room in the house, of the smashing wet meadow that lay beyond. The previous owner had planted it and allowed it to grow ridiculously large, and I say ridiculous because it’s nonsense to pay top dollar for a property whose beauty you literally can’t see. That’s years of summer sunsets gone, and the waves of caramel that reed grasses become in autumn, and that very clump of white birch standing guard in winter.

I took the image of that wet meadow with me when I did a project last summer on the bay side of a small island just offshore, a serene and restful site with a languid, liquid view. And once again, a view you couldn’t see unless you were on the deck, or seated in the wicker chair on the enclosed porch, or having coffee at the kitchen table. Despite a wall of windows, that scene was blocked from every other aspect of the house by the trunks of two massive oaks planted perhaps ten feet from the house and an old maple near the water’s edge.

I begged, I actually begged, for the removal at least one of the oaks, citing the long, cold winter and the need to dream of distant things. I looked at the baby grand in the corner of the living room and said, Shouldn’t the view be equally grand? I reminded the husband that his wife had wanted this for some time and that when wives are kept happy, husbands are kept happy. Nothing worked; those damned oaks are there to this day, and it kills me because the site is an absolute dream. I want the eye to drift outward, to settle on the gentle water, to rise and fall with the tide. Not to be smacked by a tree.

Or to be stunned by a shrub or a wall or, frankly, anything that obstructs my view of what lies beyond. I’m not saying that every single feature of a property should be seen from every angle; coming upon something unexpected is delightful. I am saying that a partial screening of the view is seductive, and entices me onward; a full screening stops me in my tracks. The moment you stop the forward motion — of the view or of the viewer — you lose the sale.

There’s a small mountain nearby that has become an annual trek for me, something I do for myself on every birthday. I have coffee with friends and then I climb a mountain, mostly because for a long time I couldn’t. After the disc blew there was surgery and physical therapy and medication and more pain than I’d care to remember, and the only thing I wanted was to walk up the north trail of this little mountain.

It took forever and I didn’t even make it to the top that first year, but I did make it to my favorite lookout point. It’s a huge outcropping of granite that hangs above the treetops toward a view of… absolutely nothing. No roads, no cars, no houses, nothing to disturb the one-to-one connection of person to nature, of spirit to universe. It’s hardly grand and not even remotely canyon-like, but it does the trick.

The trick is to look up, and out, and give the eye a sight to see over there. The feet will follow because the viewer will be pulled toward the view, but more importantly the mind will follow. This is your chance to change someone’s point of view, literally and figuratively; to see something that you see, to provide perspective. It’s also your chance to provide the viewer an opportunity to be introspective, to go inside herself when she goes inside your garden.

No vignette, however charming, can have that power because a vignette is a still life. A view is life, stilled.
c.2004

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