Friday, December 24, 2010


Not so long ago, when I was beginning my career as an estate gardener here in the Northwest. I got a job working in a white garden. Every rose, phlox, dogwood, pieris, wisteria and daffodil was white. This was during a time when I hated white. Who knows why?
In retrospect I wish I had been more appreciative. The garden was designed by a locally prominent landscape architect, and was really quite lovely. But when you’re the guy whose pulling shot weed (Cardamine hirsuta)—a white flowered plant by the way—all day and beating back gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) you start craving a little color in your day. I blamed the limited color palette, and the formalist design for my boredom. I was still a young anxious gardener and had not learned to calm my mind for 8 hours of weeding.
But the whole time I was learning something, subliminally.
Now landscape architects are not known for there smart use of plants. And the guy who design that garden was no different. This lovely formalist garden was carved into a bit of Northwest woods and the plants he chose were all wrong. In the shady enclosed garden rooms the phlox suffered terribly from powdery mildew, but instead of reveling in the whiteness of it, like a baker’s dusty apron, my client required me to pick each infected leaf of the plant. Some years there were only flowers left on 3 foot stalks. The ‘Iceberg’ roses, if they had any leaves left on them after plucking all the black spot off, eventually succumbed to the mildew, too. I tried to talk to my client about changing these plants out for something more appropriate, but she paid a lot of money for that garden and wanted it to be as planned. Now, I’ve been called stubborn more than once—luckily mostly by people who love me—but the rigidity of my client made this work feel like slavery. Of course it wasn’t. I was getting paid and for 3 years I religiously picked mildewed leaves, deadheaded browning flowers on the ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ camellias and beat back gooseneck loosestrife. But I also met some of my favorite plants for the first time: Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Cardamine trifolia—a close relative of shot weed— and Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis.
Maybe it’s surrender, like the white flag. Maybe it’s maturity. Or a slowly acquired sophistication. Over the years since I worked in that all white garden I have added, one after another, white flowered plants to my palette. Some of them I absolutely love, can’t be without. Since it’s that time of year for singing, or writing, about favorite things, like “silver white winters that melt into spring”, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite white flowered plants.

Crocus ‘Jeanne d. Arc’

Lily of the Valley
(Convallaria majalis)

Regal Lily
(Lilium regale)

White Clary Sage
(Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’)

Flowering Cherry
Prunus serrulata ‘Mt. Fuji’

English Daisy
(Bellis perennis)

Zinnia ‘Polar Bear’

(Ammi Majus)

Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Last week it flooded in the valley.
A rather benign flood compared to the monster that hit us in January of 2009. This flood would have made most people nervous, but I was strangely comfortable with it. We were ready, everything was out of harm’s way. We blockaded the basement with boards, plastic and sandbags. With a naked Christmas tree in the house and plenty of food, we had dug the last of the potatoes, carrots and beets the week before, we were ready to be trapped for a day or two.
Knowing that everything was in order, it was easy to go into the deep sense of awe that a flood inspires, to be comfortable with 3 feet of water rushing across our property, to be thrown back in geologic time to when this valley was a Lake. And to be reminded how temporal everything is from the flood itself rushing by in a few days to the giant lake that took millennia to drain.
Michael and I had a chance to try out our new canoe. We paddled back to the unnamed lake hidden in the brushy marsh behind our house. It is nearly impossible to reach during the dry season, being so densely overgrown with salmon berry, willow and spiraea. With the high water we slid across the tops of it all, snagging only occasionally. The sun came out as it always does during a flood, after the horrific rains have passed. We skidded across big white clouds reflected in the murky water. We bushwhacked afloat down to the beaver pond and we flew out to the road, then paddled our way home and on to the half submerged drive. We agreed the canoe was a smart purchase, a good fit, right comfortable.
But one thing will never be comfortable: the quality of the water. The gray sludgy swill belches diesel fumes and septic farts as it passes. It is not pretty water. It is downright gruesome. If you fell in you’d be grateful for the hypothermia that took your life quickly. The infections one could get from this opaque soup! Horrifying!

I like water when it’s brisk and sassy. Jumping down a mountain, slapping rocks; spitting, shouting and singing like a bunch of reckless teenagers. It’s ebullience charms. It’s power crowned with snow white froth, like flocking happy gulls. I could go on metaphorically for pages. It’s so alive and enlivening.
They say water kicked up like this creates an abundance of positive ions in the surrounding atmosphere. When we inhale them they produce biochemical reactions that increase the level of the mood chemical serotonin, which helps alleviate depression, relieves stress and boosts day time energy. It is a tonic I take as often as possible, living on the western edge of the Cascade Mountain Range. It’s better than any supplement and just about as good as sunshine, which is scarce right now.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the rhythmic spanking the Pacific gives the western edge of the continent. Nothing compares to the sea foam, salt spray, the briny fishy stink of the beach. And the seemingly limitless expanse of water before you.
This is where those damned flood waters head, out to sea.
Leaving us to slosh through the muck and mire here in the valley, not a positive ion in sight.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I live in a white house. Well, actually I live in a piebald house. Michael and I want to change the color. The splotchy evidence covers the north side like a crazy quilt. Our inability to decide, or was it to agree, on a color lead right into the rainy season. Too late to paint now.
I grew up in a white house, that never changed color. That post-war Cape-Cod-esque house was sided with aluminum. “We never need to paint,” was my mother’s victory cry when she bought the house. Of course years later my step-father went after it with a hose and a brush. Not to change it but to keep it white.
White happens to be the most popular paint color in America, both for interiors and exteriors. Most paint companies have a wider range of whites than any other color. There are even paint companies that produce only white paints. So there are alot of white houses out there.White houses are by far not my favorite. I seems ironic, or at least odd, that I keep landing in white houses. Of course the odds are good.
Back when I was living in that white house on 65th Street in Milwaukee, I took a trip with a school group to our nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., as you know is the home of the most famous white house, the White House. It is also home to innumerable other white buildings. Mostly neoclassical behemoths paying tribute to the birth place of Democracy, Greece. As a 13 year old I had no ideas about politics, history or government. These bone white structures left me cold. I was more interested in the dinosaur bones in the Smithsonian.
Twenty years later I travelled to Greece. I was much more taken with the Byzantine churches and monasteries than the tumbled down Classical World. When I found out that the Acropolis was closed due to strikes, it didn’t mar my visit to Athens at all. I even went to the movies, an American movie, when I was there. Yet each day when I left my hotel I could see the Acropolis between some high rise apartments. Its looming appearance from all over town became enough. Enough all ready. Every where little replicas of the Parthenon for sale, metal, marble and resin replicas. Finally, on my last day in town, when I was in the Agora sampling yet another feta (a very white cheese, I might add) I heard some tourists talking. The acropolis was open. Only for 4 hours that afternoon. No explanation. I was spending way to long in Athens according to the guide books. I was trying not to be a tourist. Sitting in little neighborhood parks just day dreaming. But suddenly I wanted to get caught up in the fury. I ran to the bus, that took me to the base of the hill on which this Unesco World Heritage site stood. I had been being teased and acting disinterested ever since I arrived in Athens. Now that access was granted I was running.
It was late October, I don’t know if the benign weather, the late day sun or the lack of tourists were all that were at play, but the Acropolis was luminous.
I was floored.
It was not only monumental but sublime. All the architecture that had echoed off of it over the millennia seemed a sham. I imagined how celestial this place must have seemed with the wise and newly democratic Greeks wandering about in their seamless white draperies. But wait, that brilliant marble was painted. Garishly so. One scientist even speculates the Parthenon was painted red, white and blue. But at the time none of that knowledge marred the few hours I got to spend in total white rapture.
I was not so lucky when I travelled to India twenty years after that. The day I was going to catch the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, that other monument to white architecture, I came down with a severe case of amoebic dysentery. I barely left my room , let alone the compound of the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

The only white building I would see for that week was this small mosque outside my door. Not the most splendid mosque in the Nizamuddin ghetto of New Delhi it may seem strange the impact it had on me. But it became my clock and calendar, even a barometer, as it’s white dome changed color from sunrise to sunset, carried the shadows of clouds or was plunged into darkness when the electricity was shut off in the neighborhood each night. It became the moon in the night, full with whatever ambient light it could catch. Since I was sleepless I would sit on a little chair outside my door, and in a dehydrated revery watch it rise from the darkness.

White is a very common color for houses of worship as well as homes. Think of the white chapels cluttering the American countryside. In Playa del Carmen, Mexico the steeple of this church raised our eyes from the bubbling colorful commerce of that tourist town, and toward the blue sky. That’s why we came so far south in February after all. Not to shop.

The Shakers did not shrink from painting buildings red, especially workshops and barns. But their dormitories and meeting houses were always a puritanical white. This meeting hall in New Lebanon, New York has the same moon-ascending quality as the little mosque outside my room in Delhi.

I took this picture from the top of the leaning tower on a winter afternoon in Pisa, looking west over the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. This cathedral; along with the other buildings of the Campo dei Miracoli, can blush like a school girl at sunset, but was sullen and ashen as a corpse under the low gray skies of March.

Augustine Hope, the co-author of The Color Compendium writes about the last century, “ I don’t think another century has its own color, but this one does. And that is white. White before this century was a luxury.” When I think of all the refridgerators, not to mention the billion or so other appliances, I can agree, the 20th century is white.White is modern and no one knew that better than the Bauhaus Group. They ushered in a rage for all things white in the early 30s. Maybe a reaction to the gloomy Great Depression? In this apartment house in Berlin the flatness of the white facade and the serious symmetry breaks into joy with the brightly colored door and windows. Once again white responding to its surrounding.

The interior of the entrance hall of the new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum, not far from that 65th Street house where I grew up. This was Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava’s first American project. Bauhaus member Johannes Itten said “form and color are one”, as far as the architecture of Calatrava is concerned I couldn’t agree more. His elegant air born buildings would look foolish in any thing but white.

The Marie-Elisabeth-Lueders-Haus, part of the modern government complex at the center of the reunified Berlin though modern in form has the beauty of ancient marble. The concrete surfaces were coated with a multifunctional scumble, a glaze for concrete and stone.

But all white buildings are not monuments, holy places or government building. More often they are homes. This small white house was built by my step-father and his father back in the 40s. I now belongs to my sister and I can’t imagine it being anything but white.

Even this humble little Mayan hut in Ekbalam, Mexico has a dignifying coat of white paint. Or maybe it’s just a practical heat deflecting coat of white paint.

Then there is home-sweet-home, white as sugar. Where I sleep and eat.
Where I write from.
Where the only monument, the only holy site, the only governance comes from a pale blue sky smeared with white clouds.