Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Color in the Garden: Blue, Redux

All artists (and indeed, according to one New York Times art critic, all cultures) are said to experience their “blue period;” surely Picasso’s remains the iconic expression of monochromatic sobriety and intensity of mood. Gardens, too, may be designed with “blue periods” in mind; I think of Delaware’s Winterthur gardens and the blue phase in mid to late March.

My shade gardens have entered their “blue period:” Corydalis flexuousa (Purple Leaf or Blue Corydalis); Brunnera; blue (or, more technically, indigo) bearded irises; and the lovely blue spikes of ajuga have cast the backyard in a particular hue of contemplation. When I look down upon the gardens from the second floor windows, or when I walk on the stone patio along the ajuga, or stand in front of the bearded irises, I am mesmerized. My eyes affix not upon an incident of color but on a vast swath that links the various beds in a way that minimizes space between parts and accentuates the whole of the gardening experience.
I think of Leonard Bast, the lower class clerk in the Merchant – Ivory film Howards End who, in one scene, traipses through a field of luminescent bluebells as he walks through the night, compelled, as Margaret Schlegel concludes, by “ancestral callings.” Indeed, blue may be the color of Romanticism and of what the German philosophers have called Innerlichkeit; the Merchant-Ivory team thus could not have been more exacting in its direction and production of E.M. Forster’s eponymous masterpiece, able in their infinite wisdom and aptitude to visually depict, not to mention evoke, a very particular mood.

I think of my Aunt Annie, a master gardener in New York, and a story she likes to tell—one that puts me in touch with my own ancestral callings, albeit of a more contemporary sort. When I was six, my father brought me and my brother Todd over to her house for a visit. She was in her garden. Apparently I ran over to her and asked if I could dig in her garden. (She omits what I think must have been her first thought: “Oh my goodness, this 6 year old very well might ruin my garden!”) Without missing a beat, she handed me a trowel and taught me the pleasures of feeling dirt between one’s fingers, of how to loosen the silky-textured roots of tender young plants, and of proper watering techniques. (By the way, she continues to show me how to properly water, and though I want to tell her she has taught me many times, I quietly listen, smile, and allow Aunt Annie’s warmth, knowledge, and nurturing to envelop me as if I were a rare specimen awaiting residence in her award-winning gardens.)

And then I think that her gardens, not mine, are my vision of heaven. (I think all of us fantasize about what heaven should look like, of how we would like to spend eternity.) They remain my standard: not to emulate, mind you, not to revere, but to appreciate. Her gardens spawned my gardening life, however interrupted it became for 2 decades, and her gardens engendered my aesthetics.

And then I wonder if our cultural associations merely compel rather than reflect any pre-existing propensities for melancholy, calm, or introspection supposedly inspired by the color blue. Stated more bluntly, culturally-based color associations condition us, even though as mere, often solipsistic mortals, we like to think that we, as single selves, determine our own reactions and thoughts. For instance, Westerners who wear white at funerals may be as out of place as Asian Indians who don black at a funeral. The introspection I experience as I gaze upon the gardens of 410, awash in a sea of blue, may be real introspection, but the effect of the color has been, culturally speaking, predetermined. Thus it seems that our gardens reflect not simply or even primarily our selves—our aesthetic inclinations, our moods, our desires—but importantly our subjective responses to and absorptions of cultural associations.

And then I think…

In the end, I am convinced that only the color blue and its multiple variations permit us to feel and remember in ways we may usually, consciously avoid.

For blue links the parts, unites the soul, and heals the fractures...

No comments:

Post a Comment