In the early morning mists, a pale frieze of bunch grasses sweeps along the drive animated, in this still air, only by the swoop of the chip-seal roadway as it parallels the fall line of the seasonal stream at the foot of the east ridge. Beyond, in the weed patches left by a century of intermittent ranching and more recently by the land's development as a rural home site, the alien mustard, tocalote (Centaurae militensis), rye, oats and the interloper broame grasses, together with native deerweed, not yet flowering tar weed and tangles of wild cucumber vines, convolvulus, occasionally a stand of toyon, coyote bush, currant, holly leaf cherry, mountain mahogany and laurel sumac form an arrangement (held together in the grey miasma) redolent of the work of the great Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf.
Amongst Oudolf's startling innovations are his practice of ecologically attuned planting schemes, his championing of perennials, his awareness of a plant's natural life-cycle (and his joy in every phase) such that he believes that "a plant is only worth growing if it also looks good when it's dead" and his celebration of mist as an active collaborator in his garden designs. This latter innovative trait extends to a delight in the frost riming of skeletal plants and their seed heads. These aesthetic predilections are amply demonstrated in his assiduous photographing of his work.
His notion of natural planting - the creation of an apparent structural chaos in his invertebrate planting schemes - is an example of high artifice (or even, perhaps, high art). But for those fortunate enough to live in the southern California biome his aesthetic goals can quite simply be subsumed within the real, existing, chaparral plant community. Early summer mists reliably arrive in May and June and soften the margins of and between the natives and create stunning, Oudolfian early morning views of the chaparral and its sage-scrub margins. Along any given track there will be, just now, the perennials Lotus scoparius (Deerweed), buckwheat, any or all of the three sages (white, black and purple), ghostly gnaphalias – all in bloom –the shrubby artemesia, yerba santa and sometimes the red blooming heart leafed Penstemon together with annuals such as clarkia, yellow pincushion (Chaenactis glabriuscula), and phacelia. No planting plan required.
As I look into our back yard to the rise beyond the pool, there is a garden that puts the showy naturalism of Dutch New Wave planting to shame: it is composed mostly of drifts of deerweed and bunch grasses, dotted with sculptural chaparral shrubs and straggly clumps of coyote brush; all that is required is weeding – primarily the invasive tocolote and mustards. To the right, as I look towards the spalled face of the Topatopas, a native walnut that has succumbed to the drought provides a rich tangle of bird perches and stands in graphic silhouette against the sky as an explicit homage to Piet, the patron saint of dead biomass.
I first discovered Oudolf around the year 2000 when a panoramic video of his own garden at Hummelo was featured on his site (sadly, it is no longer available) and I was absolutely stunned by the randomly arranged clipped yews set amidst a meadow of perennials and grasses. I seem to remember that there was a swirling mist featured as well. By that time he was well established as a plantsman in Northern Europe and enjoyed a growing reputation as a garden designer, but was almost completely unknown in this country. For a while I felt that this explosive, transformative talent was my secret. His commission to plant James Corner’s Highline in New York City changed all that.
The Dutch live in an entirely constructed, managed and un-natural landscape – and it has been that way for a very long time. The last stand of natural forest was felled in the 1860’s. The land has also long been riddled with dykes, drains and sluices in an ongoing attempt to hold back the rising waters of the North Sea. In this environment, the lure of un-reconstructed naturalism is intense and Oudolf’s horticultural stylings (he selectively breeds many of his perennials as well as designing their garden settings) are the outward manifestation of a longing for a reconnection with the natural world.
David Abram, in his The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, notes that we are embedded in the matrix of earthly life: that is, we are embedded in the biosphere “experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body” and of which we are entirely a part. Our perceptions are transitive: we see objects in the natural world and they see us. What does it mean then, to exist in an entirely humanly constructed version of the natural world? It means, (it seems to me), that we become solipsistic, consumed with ourselves - the world not a rich stream of data constantly challenging our primacy, but a pale reflection of our own anthropocentrism. It means, ultimately, that we become incapable of caring for other beings -other life-forms - because we are surrounded not by self-willed nature but a domesticated landscape that speaks not of the cosmos, but of our own small, self-serving place in it. The pleasures of the garden are then muted by this echoic mechanism; us looking at a ‘natural’ world edited, composed, bred and finally neutered by us.
Many Americans live in suburban homes surrounded by such botanical ghettos, where well trained plants are sequestered for their sensory delight. Oudolf has taken a step away from this tradition. He demands, in his planting schemes, that we accept the chaos of the natural world and that we take delight in a botanical life cycle where dead flower heads , stalks, and seed heads have intrinsic grace and beauty. He demands too, that we embrace weather as an aesthetic accomplice in our obtaining sensory pleasure from his plantings. Yet there remains an irony in the fact that his gardens remain no more than a simulacrum of wilderness, of wildness, of the chaotic profligacy of the natural world.
He has, in a life lived in the well-ordered, mostly agricultural landscapes of Holland, demanded that we look again at the richness and diversity of plant communities in Europe and in North America (he has a particular passion for the Prairie biome of Ohio) that have, for millennia, developed wayward complexities that are self-sustaining, site specific and possessed of a gravitas entirely lacking in even the finest gardens. Plants in the wild are playing for their very survival, their persistence forever contingent on the quality of soil, the weather and their interaction with the surrounding plant, insect and animal life. Oudolf has gone some way in replicating this intense game of life in his perennial gardens and has, by his acceptance of death and decay within his aesthetic realm, captured some of the spirit of the wild.
Those of us who live at the wildland urban interface can entirely forgo the elaborate conceit of the artificially constructed, sprinklered garden. Yet most choose not to. An Ojai friend explained recently that he had been busy planting a small garden of California natives, expecting, perhaps, to receive my approbation. I did not have the heart to tell him that growing natives is about not planting. It is an entirely extractive process. The soil is brimming with native seeds. Remove the invasives and the locals will inevitably show up.
Practiced assiduously, this will result in a patch of wilderness rich in complexity and capable of an expressive power that extends far beyond the human sphere. Living at the edge of the chaparral wildlands I can experience, as Abrams puts it,
“a vast interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies – supported, that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granitic slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.”