Qualifications for a good Gardener

Le Potager du Roi à Versailles

"He should be neither too Old, nor too Young, Vigorous and Active, of good Capacity and Experience, of known Diligence and Honesty, of good Nature and Affability; and no doubt but thefe Qualifications will recommend him to any Perfon of Quality."
Jean de la Quintinie, Instruction pour les Jardins Fruitiers et Potagers, translated by George London and Henry Wise, 1699.

Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, the creator of Louis XIV's Potager du Roi, was trained as a lawyer. He discovered his vocation as a gardener during a trip to Italy and abandoned his law career upon his return to France. His masterpiece, the Potager du Roi, took 5 years to complete and was designated a historic monument in France in 1921. Upon de la Quintinie's death in 1688, Louis XIV reportedly told his widow, "Madame, nous avons fait une grande perte que nous ne pourrons jamais réparer." His book, a compendium of his experience and reflections on gardening, was published two years after his death, and through various translations, became a classic reference on the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. In his requirements for a good gardener, I reckon I qualify to be one, as I hope to be one day - simply a good gardener.

Last day of August

Today is the last day of August. In a week, Lily will head back to school. The air this morning, with a discernible chill, already feels autumnal. Acorns have suddenly appeared on the sidewalk, and the leaves on my purple sandcherry tree have started to fall. I like these moments in between the seasons. While summer lingers on, autumn has started to make its presence felt, turning flowers into seeds. 


I heart NY

Brooklyn Bridge Park today

It's the end of August and I am having an "I heart NY" moment.

Places vs. Design

"... in photographs what gives a sense of place is a reference to change (and sometimes to loss) and to time passing. Take a photograph that does not give that sense of change, and the subject of the picture will be seen as simply design, not place."
Cervin Robinson

In my work, I am asked to photograph design, but in my heart, I am always more interested in photographing places. Once in a while, but not often enough, I manage to sneak in something more of the place than its design. I would like to do this more often, and it occurred to me recently that I can, by changing the way I work. To put it in another way, I have to change what I do for work.


Late Summer

This is what the garden looks like in the last weeks of August, as summer goes through its last gasps before surrendering to the encroaching autumn. It's a bit schizophrenic, with signs of summer full on in parts and the unmistakable  hues of autumn showing up elsewhere in the garden. The crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), which used to be impossible to grow here on the northeast but now show up in almost every sunny corner of Brooklyn - a definite sign of global warming - are blooming gloriously. The hum of the cicadas is almost deafening. The bees are still feasting on the nectar of whatever blooms there are. But the roses look tired and shabby from the incessant heat, most of the blossoms having turned into plump and juicy rose hips. The hydrangeas are almost completely faded, their petals wearing wafer thin, all the better to look at with the light through them. But just when everything looks utterly exhausted in the garden, Japanese anemones are starting to bloom, showing off their magnificently delicate flowers. Nothing else can compete with them. And so they will deliver us into September, when the nights will be cooler, the sun will rise later, and soon we'll have to put on sweaters.


The roof terrace at the Met

Roxy Paine, Maelstrom

One of my favorite places in New York City is the roof terrace at the Met. Yesterday Lily and I spent a wonderful afternoon at the museum looking at Egyptian artifacts since we had read about ancient Egypt in our history book. I realized how incredibly privileged we are to be able to do just that, actually to see the things we had read about, and to criss-cross through time as we wandered from the ancient Egypt section to the 19th-century America pavilion, then back to Medieval Europe. For a break, we went up to the roof terrace and completely went wild for Roxy Paine's monumental sculpture, which took up most of the space. A mass of entangled stainless steel resembling roots of an ancient tree, the work suits the space perfectly, mirroring just the mix of nature and the industrial city that makes up the spectacular view from the terrace. It was so strangely beautiful, a vast improvement over the last installation, the Jeff Koons dog.



Paris, 1994

"A book signing is a manifestation of an urge to recover something that we, as a culture, fear losing — namely the hand of the artist in the age of mechanical (and digital) reproduction. Now more than ever it seems that we want to get close to creativity: to hear the voice and see the skin and experience the physical presence of the person who made something that we deem to be meaningful. Is this because so much of our lives now is mediated through a screen?"
Adam Harrison Levy

Reading Levy's musings on books, prompted by his experience of getting his copy of William Klein's Contacts signed by its author, made me think about my own love for books. Although I do much of my reading online these days, I have always loved the physicality and the tactile quality of books. My books have strips of paper, anything I happen to find close at hand, stuck into them to mark some interesting passage. I always know where on the page to find a favorite quote. Picking up an old book always brings back memories of when I last read it, sometimes in some far away places. The closest I ever came to having a personal library was when I lived alone in a small studio on Mulberry Street. The first thing I did upon moving in was to ask my friend George to build long book shelves lining an entire wall. I loved being able to see all my books in a glance. I am not a snob about books. I am not too bothered about first editions when a second or third edition copy is far more economical. I like certain books for their covers, but most of the time I like them for what is contained in between the covers. The idea of buying books by the yard, as some decorators do, to fill up a room makes me slightly nauseated. Throughout history, people have always had strong opinions about what books one should have in one's library. In 17th century England, the diarist Samuel Pepys thought a gentleman should own exactly 3,000 books while at the same time in Germany, the philosopher mathematician  Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz owned only books by nine writers, all from ancient Greece and Rome. On his travels, Napoleon had a field library with "40 books about religion, 40 of epics, 60 of poetry, 100 novels, 60 histories, and some historical memoirs." My tiny library was far more modest, but it was the most treasured thing I owned, and just seeing the books everyday brought to my mind vast reservoirs of stories, opinions, and knowledge over time. Luc Sante arranges his literature shelves in chronological order,  "a landscape of hills and ridges and switchbacks marked off by dates, like a cartoon by Saul Steinberg, here rendered almost literal, so that I can see as well as feel the 19th century turning into the 20th, the prewar cascading into the postwar, the spines gradually becoming brighter as the present day approaches."
In 1994, I lived in Paris and spent much of my time in the apartment pictured above. It belonged to my friend Ruwen Ogien, a philosopher who taught at the Sorbonne. In this books-strewn study, Doughy (pronounced Doug-ie), as he is known by friends, writes his books on philosophy in long hand on school-lined paper, carefully cutting and pasting the pages to assemble the final manuscripts. The books are not arranged in any particular order; all had to be accessible at any moment. There was a constant stream of new books, and the threat of running out of space was never far away. It was my favorite room in all of Paris, as much for the presence of Doughy as the books.


Shelter Island

Having lived a mostly peripatetic life, I like the idea of being able to return to a place over and over again. In the last 10 years, I've made a point of going to Shelter Island every summer, if only for a couple of days. It's a gentle place, with calm clear beaches hugging verdant hills. Crescent Beach is one of my favorite places to swim, especially early in the morning, when the sun is just peeking over the hill. We just spent two glorious days there. I swam in the morning, my hands scooping up the silky water in a rhythmic pattern, my body dissolving into the sea. Above me, puffy white clouds drifted lazily in a crystal blue sky. The world melted away, leaving me with nothing but the sea, the trees on the hill, and the sky overhead.


The Sea II

"All the most interesting things in the world take place where the sea meets the land and you're between those two states of mind. On that border zone, you're neither one nor the other, you're both."
J.G. Ballard

I love the sea. I was born by the sea, and it is inextricably part of my being. As Ken Worpole wrote in an essay on tidal pools, "it is often at the border between land and sea - often when we are children - that we first have intimations of our own insignificance, as well as a countervailing sense of an irreducible self." My mind keeps returning to the image of  the connecting line between land and sea, like the connecting tissue between past and present, ever shifting, one not distinct from the other, just like the last  line in T. S.Eliot's poem East Coker, "In my end is my beginning." I am forever poised on that line, being between two states of mind, becoming a new self but never fully shedding the former one.



"Capitalism makes networks. It doesn't make communities. Imagination makes communities."
Robert Hass

I am reading about Robert Hass, who was the US Poet Laureate from 1994-97. His tenure as poet laureate was marked by active efforts to infuse imagination into the public realm and to broaden support for literacy, poetry, and education. His own poetry is an expression of lifelong concerns: "a close attention to the natural world, a sense of self developed in relation to the landscape, and an acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human."

I like the following poem for just that awareness of both beauty and pain.

In California in the early Spring,
There are pale yellow mornings,
When the mist burns slowly into day
The air stings like Autumn,
clarifies like pain-
Well, I have dreamed this coast myself.

Summer Picnics

Despite the unpromising weather, we managed to have a picnic by the river with Vanessa, Simon and John. Just as the sun set, the clouds parted and we were bathed in a golden light for a moment, just in time for a pre-birthday celebration for Alice, who is turning 6 tomorrow. I still remember clearly the day she was born and we babysat her older sister Lucy while her parents were in the hospital. And here she is, a beauty and a charmer.


Thom Yorke Poster

This poster was part of the advertising campaign for the Grammys a  while back, all portraits of musicians done with names of albums and songs. It was my favorite of the series. I loved seeing the image and looked for it in different places around town. The sight of it cheered me up during those cold and grey winter days, especially whenever I emerged from the grubby subway to find Yorke's enigmatic face nudging me on my way. It seems so long ago.


My urban farmer

Lily finished her urban farming program at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Friday. She really enjoyed working on her plot, harvesting the vegetables, which she proudly brought home everyday. I still have to find a recipe for tomatillos that she harvested. She keeps asking me when I was going to cook them. Apart from providing us with fresh vegetables for a month, the program also made Lily a more adventurous eater. She's learned to like kale, swiss chard, and raw carrots. We should all be urban farmers.