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Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia

Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia

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Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia

5/5 (1 valutazione)
234 pagine
Mar 15, 2011


New to living and gardening in Philadelphia, Sharon White begins a journey through the landscape of the city, past and present, in Vanished Gardens. In prose now as precise and considered as the paths in a parterre, now as flowing and lyrical as an Olmsted vista, White explores Philadelphia's gardens as a part of the city's ecosystem and animates the lives of individual gardeners and naturalists working in the area around her home.

In one section of the book, White tours the gardens of colonial botanist John Bartram; his wife, Ann; and their son, writer and naturalist William. Other chapters focus on Deborah Logan, who kept a record of her life on a large farm in the late eighteenth century, and Mary Gibson Henry, twentieth-century botanist, plant collector, and namesake of the lily Hymenocallis henryae. Throughout White weaves passages from diaries, letters, and memoirs from significant Philadephia gardeners into her own striking prose, transforming each place she examines into a palimpsest of the underlying earth and the human landscapes layered over it.

White gives a surprising portrait of the resilience and richness of the natural world in Philadelphia and of the ways that gardening can connect nature to urban space. She shows that although gardens may vanish forever, the meaning and solace inherent in the act of gardening are always waiting to be discovered anew.

Mar 15, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

SHARON WHITE is the author of a collection of poetry, Bone House. Her memoir, Field Notes: A Geography of Mourning, received the Julia Ward Howe Prize, Honorable Mention, from the Boston Author's Club. Some of her other awards include a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared in many magazines and journals, including Isotope, House Beautiful,Appalachia, Kalliope, and North American Review. She teaches writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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Anteprima del libro

Vanished Gardens - Sharon White




1. Grapefruit

MY FIRST GARDEN WAS TROPICAL. I planted it in my great aunt’s backyard in Florida with dust and rocks and dry thick leaves as big as my hand. Light filtered through grapefruit trees. Banana trees rustled in the warm wind. I played there for hours alone with my dolls. One morning I made a water garden in a small dusty pool bordered with stones. I pretended there were seahorses swimming in the pool. As I played I could smell the sweet sharp fragrance of grapefruit ripe in their rough bright skins. My aunt thought I was unhappy. I was such a quiet little girl content to play near the yellow light of the citrus trees.

Now I live near a wide shallow river on the very edge of the coastal plain that extends north to Philadelphia. I know the sweep of shiny marsh and sandy beach that flows up out of the soft air of Florida to the waters of the river near my house. The sea washes in there, too.

I garden here in a city rich in gardens and rich in the history of gardens. My house sits not far from a place where Thomas Penn grew lime trees in wooden tubs wintered in a greenhouse and summered outside in a pattern of five. When he was in England, his gardener sent him the fruit from his citrus trees. I grow a miniature orange tree with soft little fruit, good for marmalade, in my bedroom in the winter, and when the weather warms I move it outside to the deck.

Sometimes my gardens here are like the first one I concocted when I was nine, more dust and sticks and large leathery leaves than anything else. Some early summers, though, the lilies I grow are as large as grapefruit and as sweet.

All up and down the Schuylkill River near our house are gardens that the wind and rain and years of weather have swept clean. Swatches of land where men or women gardened and then died or moved away leaving their gardens to the elements. We live surrounded by the pieces of gardens long gone to weed or water or pavement. Each day I walk over their bones on my route through the gardens that slope down to the road above the river. I pass ornate fountains hidden under branches, a rectangle of formal garden bordered by boxwood in a thicket behind a large square house that a pirate built for his retirement, brownstone stairs that lead nowhere, a yucca along the edge of the road—the last part of an elaborate pleasure garden—the old battered trunks of huge trees split off at the top, sprouting suckers, roads that wind along the river to gardens sold to graveyards, mausoleums built over soil where the owners once planted rare trees imported from exotic places.

I suppose everyone has ghost gardens in their history even if they don’t think about them all that much. The memory of these cultivated places disturbs me in odd seasons. The tight miniature bud of a snowdrop, a sweep of lawn down to a wild bit of brush, the bare backyard of my grandmother’s apartment, weeds grown up in the corners near the garage, my mother’s long garden on Jillson Circle when I was seven, full of iris—the smell of longing as I walk past the iris in the community garden, fresh, thick, curled purple—and blackeyed susans and small red roses, the sugary taste of a scallion from my uncle’s garden, just after he had peeled the dirt off and dipped it into a handful of sugar for me, my other grandmother’s opium poppies and cinnamon smelling pinks, the only flowers she grew in her clipped backyard.

The more I live in my corner of Philadelphia, the more it seems that the city is an extensive garden, a bit wild in parts. Who gardened here before me in the fertile soil along the river and on the rocky hills of the Piedmont?

2. Boxwood

ONCE THERE WAS A GARDEN HERE where I write, an intricate labyrinth bordered in clipped boxwood, the Labyrinthine Garden. Our house sits on the edge of the vanished labyrinth, part of a pleasure garden open for only a few years in the early nineteenth century. From sometime in the 1820s to 1833 there was a pavilion and a narrow pagoda called the Temple of Confucius, 110 feet high. The pagoda was a tower with a succession of curved spring-green roofs, bells on the tip of each tier. A grassy lawn circled the base of the pagoda. The labyrinth was sunk below the lawn and wound around the pagoda. Visitors walked through the labyrinth to the pagoda at the center. Roses or peonies bloomed against fences of diagonal latticework. In front of the pagoda was a building designed in the Chinese style with its own curved roof and lattice at the windows and a red stable to the east for carriages and horses.

In the late summer heat people came out from town to enjoy the cool garden on a hill above the city. From the tower they had a fine view. The streets then went right up to the river, sloping down from the garden.

In the engraving I looked at yesterday fashionably dressed ladies wore Empire-waist dresses and bonnets like halos around their faces. A child dressed like his father and uncle in a tall hat and a coat with long black tails stood near them. Inside they could expect strawberries and ice cream, amusements and drinks, and a collection of tall leafy trees. Along the road that was Coates Street, now Fairmount, a solitary elm arched away from the garden in the picture. A mansion gone now for two hundred years, the Samson Mansion, stood across from the garden, and down the street on Francis Lane a farm advertised strawberries and ice cream. All the movement was toward the river and the waterworks on a hill west of the garden. All the artifice is inside, hidden behind the first building, green and red and white. You can see the tips of the leafy trees, perhaps a few fir trees or cypresses, and arched canopies of maple, elm, tulip, or sycamore. Along the road the grass is rough, and the lithographer has engraved a few large soft leaves near the elm, mullein perhaps. A boy is running with his arm outstretched, hand held palm up, away from the garden toward the river. Someone is snapping a whip above the ears of his spirited horses. A man is galloping on a slim horse, a carriage is pulling up to the gate.

3. Daffodil

I'M PLANTING DAFFODILS AT DUSK at the edge of the Labyrinthine Garden. Around me people move through the chilled air at five, one leaf or two brushes their shoulders as the yellow leaves float to the pavement. The pruning of light and leaf and heat and flower, of nail, of teeth, of hair, that old repetition of the season closing itself down, begins again. One month and then winter will set itself up to freeze the river, perhaps, and coat the trees’ limbs with ice and fill the deck with snow if we’re lucky. But each bulb is a cliché as I plant, that fat nugget of yellow light or white and salmon or lemon and cream.

As I pull the dirt aside and stuff each bulb into a pocket of soil I see other daffodils and spring bulbs long withered or eaten or dug up. A filbert orchard in Oregon where I once lived by the wild McKenzie River where the daffodils bloomed in bright clumps all March in the constant drizzle of the northwest, or the yellow aconites in England in the park near my flat, the snowdrops lifting their heavy white and green heads to the silvery Oxford light. I planted snowdrops here too, a row in the back patio wedged between the bulbs of Narcissus poeticus and lilies.

I’m planting the bulbs in a new raised bed constructed around one of the elms that border our house and bend over the sidewalk. My husband, Scott, and our neighbor, George, put it together this afternoon and we’ve just filled it with a second bag of compressed bedding soil. I’m putting the bulbs to bed. Patting each crinkly tuber down. Tomorrow I’ll water them in.

The daffodil is a conqueror’s bulb. They weren’t growing here when the first settlers sailed up the river. Or perhaps they were, for Claire Haughton in her book Green Immigrants tells me that when women came over from England in 1619 as wives for the soldiers at Jamestown, they brought daffodil bulbs tucked in their apron pockets with seeds and roots wrapped in moss. Daffodils grew in many other early gardens north and south, and the settlers called them old names like daffydowndilly, hooped skirts, codlins-in-cream, Lenten lilies, and butter-and-eggs.

When his Quaker friend Peter Collinson sent John Bartram, the King’s Botanist and good friend of Benjamin Franklin, double white daffodils from England, Bartram told him they were common in Pennsylvania. The daffodils grew wild in the fields around his garden on the lower Schuylkill River at Kingsessing.

Galen, physician to the Roman legions in the northern frontier during the time of Marcus Aurelius, wrote that the slimy juice of the narcissus would glue together great wounds, cuts, and gashes. He ordered that every soldier should carry bulbs with him as medicine, planting the wild Mediterranean bulbs this way in the north.

I’m hoping that the little squirrel who digs in the pots in the backyard and the edges of the tree boxes will ignore the daffodils. She won’t eat them, I know, but she might mess them up. If I ate them I’d be in trouble. Daffodil sap can irritate your hands. Now, the daffodil is classified as poisonous. Animals stay away from them. Even deer won’t dig them up. If I ate a daffodil shoot and the sweet white bulb, I might experience difficulty in swallowing, as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, trembling and even convulsions. I might die. I’d have problems with other plants in the garden we’ve assembled here if I ate them: the English ivy (I’ve been pulling it up since we moved in) or the holly berries or the foxglove.

Our brick row house, built around 1900, was a candy shop until about twenty years ago. Once a woman sold cigars here. It’s three stories and narrow. The front window is wide and juts out over the sidewalk. We wonder if the old glass might break and shatter. A long window runs the height of the house on the side, many-paned and brittle too. Our door opens from the dining room to the street. If you stood on the sidewalk you could see straight through to the back patio. When I sit at the kitchen counter I can see air through the mail slot. On cold mornings Scott stuffs a rag sock in the opening.

Blessed in odd ways, we live on a corner that attracts trash but catches morning light. Our third floor brushes the branches of the elm like a tree house.

We moved here not long ago after many years living in a small town in Massachusetts. Here the tight blooms of roses glow in their wound paper funnels piled on tables on the sidewalk. Asparagus, slim and green in its box, sits in front of the shuttered stores in the morning.

I cultivate several gardens. Pots on the deck off our bedroom are filled with lavender and rhubarb and roses and herbs. I’ve experimented with tomatoes and baby popcorn and eggplant. Tiny black rats nibbled the tomatoes last summer so I’ve given up on raising vegetables on the deck. Along the side of the house I squeezed a long garden into a planter filled with ivy when we first moved in. Now we have pink lilies and striped daylilies and a clump of white iris that hasn’t bloomed yet and meadow rue and coreopsis and a green columbine I love with delicate yellow stamens. On summer mornings I crush a leaf of cascading lemon thyme or soft lavender and admire a dark purple clematis that grows on a trellis against a long window.

In the little patio off the living room we grow bamboo in pots and exotic elephant ears and pink and yellow foxgloves in a bed along the fence we share with our neighbor. There are two small holly trees that the robins peck clean of their shiny red berries in the winter, and a little pink rose in an elaborate terra cotta pot, like an amphora, fat in the middle and set on a pedestal.

A few blocks from here we have a tiny plot in the community garden where we experiment with pumpkins and gourds and Indian daffodil corn and fancy chard. Right now the garden is filled with zinnias and cosmos, the small orange kind, and the large, heavy heads of sunflowers.

Our neighborhood is north from the center of the city on a hill called Fair Mount on the old maps. When our house was constructed this wasn’t a fashionable part of Philadelphia. Actors and toolmakers built brownstone or brick mansions decorated with stone lions and iron fences on farmland, and soon the brick sidewalks were replaced by shiny stone rectangles, a sign of the new prosperity.

We live on the edge of the grand-sounding Piedmont, the low rocky shelf that extends from the Appalachians and Blue Ridge in the west to the Atlantic coastal plain in the east and south from New York City to Montgomery, Alabama. Colonists settled at the mouth of the major rivers here then sailed up the placid rivers of the Atlantic plain as far as they could to establish trading outposts for goods from the interior. Here the rivers meet the jagged ledges of rocks that are the rivers’ navigable limits. Boatmen called these abrupt falls or rapids the fall line. Wealthy colonists settled along the alluvial lowlands where the soil was rich sandy loam, and less prosperous settlers went inland to the hills where the rolling landscape reminded them of the foothills of southern Europe, the Piedmont.

The soft silty landscape of the coastal plain ends at the fall line at the bottom of our street, where the Schuylkill River once cascaded over the rapids. And like the landscape our lives have come to the border of something new. Stone and sand, uplift and sediment.

Sometimes the river smells familiar—like a small lake in August, fish in the shallows, barely a boat in sight, a slight ripple on the shining surface. When I walk up the hill from the river I see crates of lemons and pomegranates at the corner store, their tight skins caged behind wooden bars.

We’re surrounded by churches—St. Hedwig’s, St. Nicholas, St. Ludwig’s, and St. Francis Xavier. The corner west of us is anchored by a Catholic school. Next to the school stands St. Francis Xavier Church, and down the street a convent where members of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters cultivate their own walled garden at the end of the block and a tiny pair of gardens with giant lilies in the front yard of the Chapel of Divine Love. Sometimes I sit in the quiet chapel as the sisters kneel behind their gold screen and pray, their pink habits spread in a fan around their bent knees.

On Sundays I admire the stained glass windows in the sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier’s, the devotion to Mary. I listen to the sermon. Father Georges reminds me that the physical world is slipping away. I’m not really smelling the sweet sharp taste of the orange I hold up to my nose.

This dusk is indistinct tonight, glowing not with sunset or coming mist, but with pure hazy light that hampers me as I try to figure out where to plant the next bulb. I’ve been feeling hazy all day. I woke early and went off for a walk with a friend who has lived here her whole life.

Was there really a swimming pool under the water? I asked her when we stopped on our walk up the west side of the Schuylkill and looked at the nineteenth-century waterworks still suspended in restoration.

Well, maybe not, but I was little girl, and I looked down from those windows over there and maybe it was an aquarium and my father or mother said ‘Oh look there’s someone swimming.’ Maybe it was just someone looking up from the rooms below. I don’t know.

I’ve been confused today thinking my father was still alive but he’s not. When we first moved here his death caught up to me. As I unpacked my shoes and belts and folded scarves I unpacked thoughts of him stored for a year. It has nothing to do with the season—he died in the summer—or the place—we never came here together. I don’t really think of him any more or less in the fall. Maybe it’s the sense of insubstantial air.

Some day all of this could disappear. Maybe it has already: the crumpled trash, smashed plastic bottles, potato chip bags, torn condoms, Pepsi cans, cigarette boxes, dirty clothes, ripped cups, cigarette ends, foil wrappers, broken branches, fallen leaves—bright yellow, buffed brown—on the bridge as we walk across the river that once flowed to a vast marsh and now winds through the city—the blazing bushes on the edge of the river, shining silver branches, the swimming pool that may not have existed at all, the little girl holding her father’s hand as they looked at the river. Long ago, people lived here at the mouth of the river. The women farming, hoeing their corn and beans and squash with a clamshell hoe, the men hunting for elk and deer and small animals. In the spring they burned the underbrush

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  • (5/5)
    This book was a great find, especially great for winter reading during the recent snow storm. The book combines a discussion of plants that grow in the city with city history. But the book is not nearly as dry as that makes it sound. The book is filled with descriptions of pastoral scenes, descriptions of varieties of plants, of famous gardens of the past, of eccentric gardeners. White's style is especially effective in conveying a sense of connection among people who have gardened and loved gardening in Philadelphia over the last few centuries. She achieves this way of making history come alive by anchoring in her own life experiences. The book reads like a sort of formalized journal that wanders off into the lives of other people. Woven expertly into these contemporary explorations are the stories and exploits of people of the past.When White writes, toward the beginning of the book, "The more I live in my corner of Philadelphia, the more it seems that the city is an extensive garden, a bit wild in parts" (p.4). For someone living in Center City, that is a great eye-opener; beauty and nature are all around us, even in what seems to be the most urban settings. All we have to do is open our eyes and see it, whether it is plants growing in a hidden spot, or a sense of the past and what has come before.