For several years now, I’ve talked and written about how living with ambiguity is an integral part of the creative process. My book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, touches upon this subject in more detail.
I want to share a personal story with you that once again reminded me that learning to live with uncertainty is an emotional strength, a muscle to be flexed in order to experience a more meaningful and creative life.
When I started contemplating a complete renovation of my garden in the suburbs of Philadelphia several years ago, it took over a year for my vision to germinate and the design to take shape. The execution of the plan took another 6 months. I literally walked my property and/or sat gazing out the window every day; observing, contemplating, observing, dreaming and observing again. Throughout this span of time, I intermittently experienced bouts of frustration and questioned my ability to solve this puzzle. But somewhere from deep within, I knew the answer would come to me when I least expected it. And it did; just by glancing at the front cover of an old House and Gardens Magazine with a Gertrude Jekyll garden on it. The solution was literally before my eyes; to build two long retaining stone walls on different levels which would create a series of garden rooms and flowing pathways leading from one garden to another. Brilliant; yet so simple.
Twenty years later, on the day that I sold my home, I went into every room, stood for a minute and thought about all of the living that had taken place in this structure for the past 25 years. As the saying goes ‘If only these walls could talk’. But the garden; that was a whole other story. I breathed deeply as the tears came streaming down my cheeks, saying goodbye to each garden area; stopping, touching and talking to some very dear old specimens with whom I felt a deep bond.
When I decided to move to Tel Aviv, I was clear that I had to have a roof top garden. I had always thought that my next garden would be an urban one, something like a small shaded rectangular yard coming off of the French doors in the back of my townhouse in center city Philadelphia where I would be able to try my hand at a smaller scale of gardening. But a twist in plans can often prove to be an unexpected gift. The search for an apt. to my liking in Tel Aviv turned out to be nearly impossible. Realtors looked at me like I was crazy, especially considering my budget. But miracles do happen. A young, aggressive realtor brought me to a bi-level apt. in a very small building (3 tenants). The best news was that it had not just one large roof top but two. It was too good to be true. And this is where I live today.
Last spring, I began to tentatively play around with different plant material, the majority quite different from what I planted in my gardens back East; it was the first time in my life that I was gardening in a climate that I wasn’t familiar with. I had done some research, visited and worked in a few gardens and saw what was indigenous to the area; but I just wasn’t sure about what to do on the rooftops. I no longer had a piece of land as my muse. Nothing grabbed me. All I saw was rooftops, streets and other apartments. I was lost. I tried to let the Genius Loci speak to me. So much for that.
Thank goodness that I had previous experience in learning to live with uncertainty and not rushing to make a decision in the garden and life; it kept me going last summer when I killed as much plant material as I grew. I felt like I was a beginning gardener all over again; in fact, I was. Buddhism talks about Beginners Mind. My ego struggled with this concept but my soul knew it to be true. When gardening friends from abroad started asking me for pictures of my new Mediterranean garden, I vaguely answered with ‘I’m working on it’ or ‘Nothing yet..I’m learning’.
I made it through last summer; having experienced the least amount of rain on record in Israel’s history. As I worked with the plants on the rooftop, without consciously knowing it, I was starting to think of the rooftops, blue sky and a slice of the Hayarkon River (sandwiched in between apartment buildings) as my backdrop. The creative process was beginning to emerge from its cocoon. When I went to the garden center last month, without making a list, I knew as I walked down the aisle the plant material I planned on using in designing what I hope to be a drought proof garden. The process was easy; keep it simple, buy plenty of one specimen (repetition, repetition) and limit selections to those that can handle the dry and blazing hot summers here, especially on a rooftop.
I’m finally back into my creative mode; planting, combining, moving things around, making lists of what I forgot to buy, researching new ideas and observing. Each morning and evening, I observe. I take pictures from all angles. I imagine. I’m still learning how to position containers to give more of a feel of borders. But best of all, I’m feeling free to experiment, unfettered with expectations or results. I am playing with great abandon!
And once again, an inspiration has come from an unexpected source; in the form of a photo that I’ve kept on file from a GGW contributor, Steve Silk. Little did I know that this photo of Steve’s winding, lush container walkway would facilitate me in making a design leap from thinking of my rooftop design as one border with the eating and seating area on the opposite side to a garden with 2 borders and the seating area on the perpendicular. Will it take shape? I don’t know; when the onslaught of rain stops, I’ll find out. Another significant inspiration has come from an urban garden that I visited last spring in Holland; Harry Pierik‘s who is a very talented garden designer. He has recently become a contributor at GGW. His first post A Hidden Paradise In The City offers a taste of his garden from fall into winter.
Something else I’ve learned throughout this process of downsizing; the ability to be fluid and flexible in my perceptions about garden making. Going from a macro to a micro space has given me a new and refreshing sense of beauty. Because I’m no longer spending much of my time designing in order to create spectacular sweeping views from a distance, I have the leisure to focus on the micro; the enormity of a mass of nasturtiums that are cascading over a Gardener’s Supply Grow Bag, the colors and shapes of its flowers or how they look when their faces are turned down due a pounding rain or late afternoon sun. The few red tulips in a container that were in bloom a few weeks ago gave me as much pleasure as the mass of red, orange, purple and pink tulips that showed their faces in my Philly garden each spring.
Being a pianist since childhood, I grew up listening to the greats of that era; Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, to name a few. When these masters entered the autumn of their professional lives, rather than focusing on the complex, voracious works of composers such as Rachmaninoff, they returned to the simpler pieces of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Schumann sonatas, etudes and fugues. It seems as if they yearned to create, experience and achieve the closest that they could possibly get to perfection with these compositions after decades of practicing and performing. This is something that they wouldn’t have even thought about or could imagine doing as young fledgling artists on the cusp of becoming world renowned musicians.
Perhaps because I’m a baby boomer, I can relate to the theme of returning to simplicity as an art form. Regardless of age though, I believe that everyone has a unique way of perceiving beauty that germinates from deep within our souls. Although gardening magazines and books can offer a plethora of excellent information and inspiration, it is up to each of us to make a conscious decision to create a garden and life that represents who we are at any given moment in time; and to respect and revel in it.