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The Self-Taught Gardener: Friends for life

Unlike the showy annuals and perennials of the warm months, our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala realizes that trees are more than fairweather friends...they are there for the long haul.

As readers of my columns know, I am on the road a lot, usually with my dog Fred in tow. Last week, Fred and I raced across Michigan and lower Canada, then to eastern Long Island where I was scheduled to give a talk, and finally to Brooklyn to see a dear friend who is recovering from an operation.

The impending fall season came upon me throughout the trip, as the low light cast the world outside my windshield with a soft but occasionally blinding glow that called to mind the light of Dutch paintings. It also cast the objects of our winter affection, the woody plants that will inhabit the world as the rest of the landscape goes to sleep, with a wild interplay of shadow, light and silhouette that enlivens the romantic aspect of my mind. As the season starts to cool and gardens head towards senescence, these woody plants help me find poetry in the landscape that emerges.

The museum designed by architect Eero Saarinen at the Cranwell Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Despite our rushed schedule, I saved time in Michigan to tour the grounds of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills and of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate in Gross Point Hills, both just outside Detroit. I was excited to see them both. I love the architecture of Eero Saarinen and had long wanted to see the museum he designed for Cranwell. I also revere the work of Jens Jensen, the landscape architect that the Fords hired to design their estate along Lake St. Clair. Jensen, working there from 1926 to 1932, in many ways captured the essence of the environmentalism that informs garden design today. His use of native plants and iconic, carefully-placed trees created gardens that seemed to have stepped forward from their surrounding environment.

Saarinen’s art museum at Cranbrook Academy of Art has a rectilinear form that sets it in opposition to the allee of horse chestnuts that lead up to it.

Unfortunately, the current condition of both places disappointed me. Each of these iconic spaces deserves to be cared for lovingly, but both seemed to have survived periods of neglect. Although both properties now seem to be getting some much-needed maintenance, the way they survived their inattention taught me something important. Trees can be the most forgiving of plants, but they respond to years of care or seasons of neglect by taking on characteristics unlike those of any other plant. To be sure, the horse chestnuts leading up to the museum at Cranwell had been carefully planted and had seen years of loving attention, but periods of neglect were reflected in their contorted forms. And, like the scars on a wizened old man, their new shapes make them seem like symbols of perseverance and strength with a kind of beauty all of their own. As I looked across the linear modernist lines of Saarinen’s entrance to the museum, the trees now provide a contrast to the straight concrete columns. They are at once vulnerable and strong, and they give the site balance and nuance.

A neglected and broken willow at the Ford Estate adds poetry to an already moving site.

Similarly, at the Ford Estate, the trees had been artfully placed by Jensen to mimic and improve upon nature and the topography of the site. They were intended to highlight the contours of the land, the starkness of the great lake beyond, and the pure sculpture that trees provide in the landscape. Now, their shapes feel at once static and timeless. As they have evolved, they also seemed to be entirely in the moment, their branches dancing to the winds that swept in from the water.

The trees at the Ford Estate were artfully placed to capture the light of the late season and to animate the landscape heading up to the main house.

Newly sensitized to trees by these two visits, I was completely taken by the trees I passed in the rest of my trip. Outside of Toronto the trees seemed to animate and populate a prairie that was otherwise sleepy and subdued, save for the occasional field of goldenrod that seemed to be there only for contrast to the shadows of the trees. And on a morning walk in East Hampton a day later, a wooded roadside of oaks beckoned Fred and me on our walk, their curvaceous forms calling to mind the dancers in a Matisse painting. Unlike the perennials and annuals we go on about throughout the warmer months, trees are more than fairweather friends; they are there for the long haul, through snow, sleet and rain, like the mail carrier, to remind us of the world we inhabit and to give our lives constancy and security.

These oaks in the Springs of East Hampton call to mind the contorted dancers that Matisse celebrates in one of his signature works.
Fred among the oaks in East Hampton, Long Island.

As Fred and I headed to Brooklyn to see our dear friend who is recovering from his operation, we received a text that he had been upstate that weekend, dancing among the trees with a friend’s children to help regain his strength after surgery. As we walked down his street in Boerum Hill, the trees leaned over the streetscape and shimmied with one another as the wind rustled their remaining leaves. I knew then that our friend would find companionship among the trees. Although his period of recuperation and therapy would be challenging, the trees here, just like in upstate New York, would keep him dancing and feeling that the world will move forward, despite any rough moments in the weeks and months ahead.

The trees in Brooklyn will be with my friend all winter long as he recuperates and gains strength. They will be joined by the more fair-weather perennials and annuals as the spring comes on, but will be there for him through thick and thin in the dark days of winter.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.




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