House and Garden

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Urbanwildland is a neologism derived from the term Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) in general use by fire fighting agencies at least since the 1980’s and used to codify the expansion of urban development into traditionally wilderness areas which has increasingly brought humans into contact with wildfires. The International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC, 2011) notes that between 1985 and 1994, wildfires destroyed more than 9,000 homes in the United States and goes on to explain that these homes were usually located in areas “where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels”.

It did not require a huge stretch of the imagination to coin the word urbanwildland which rather than being focused on the wildfire issue, describes more generally the frontier beyond exurbia - the edge condition that exists where human development encroaches on erstwhile wilderness areas. It also describes the place where I have chosen to live and make a garden (at least as far as that practice concerns the relationship of the human being to his or her natural surroundings).

The area surrounding human habitation and under the influence of its presence, can never be fully wild since we, as a species, have long lost our place in the wilderness and have constructed, over the last ten thousand years or so, an alternate realm known as civilization. Thus the buffer zone that we inevitably create around our shelters is not wilderness because it has our mark on it, the mark, however unintended, of civilization. As such, this zone has the characteristics of a garden because it not only mediates our remaining connections to the natural world but also physically links us to the infrastructure and appurtenances of civilization, if only via a driveway or a path.

I would suggest that the word is also shadowed by some of the notions that inspired the very first gardens created five thousand years ago in Persia, which were created to symbolize the four Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water and plants. This is true at least to the extent that the interstice between the two contrasting realms of urbanwildland can serve as a meditative or even transcendent space in which can be explored our relationship to the unknown, or spiritual powers of the universe; a space in which these ancient garden elements can be transformed into a powerful symbolic language that has the potential for revelation.

Hence urbanwildland, in both the meaning of the word, in describing a place or an ecological condition, and in this blog, there is license to reference both the wild and the civilized (or urban), as well as, and perhaps most importantly, the point at which (somewhere between the middle ‘n’ and the ‘w’) they come together and, as I have argued, create a garden and, potentially, a place of spiritual repose. In other words, the two sticks, labelled ‘Wild’ and ‘Urban’ when rubbed together have the ability to make fire - the characteristic to which the Wildland-Urban Interface terminology is directed. They can also make, by that same process of friction, and with a similar level of inevitability, a garden - and that is precisely the propensity that I celebrate in my writing.

So, after all these years, I find that I have been writing a Gardening Blog. Just recently I have had Russell Page and his autobiography, The Education of a Gardener, 1962, at my side. While I burble on more or less in real time as my experience of the urbanwildland unfolds, he had the wisdom to write a single career capping book. Doris Lessing wrote of him in her blurb, “Did you know that we have living among us a master gardener as great as any of those of the past?”

In his youth, Page was a follower of Gurdjieff; later he studied Sufism and his work was profoundly influenced by the principles of Islamic design. Just a few pages into his book a reader becomes aware of his uncanny spatial sensitivities: he suggests that every object “sends out vibrations beyond its physical body” and that there is “interplay between objects”. He believes that the artful arrangements of elements can produce a kind of magic, and can thus elevate a garden to being a work of art. Despite his mystical leanings, the bulk of his book lays out the very straightforward principles that inform his design work, which quickly spread from his pre-war work in England to Europe, immediately after the war, and eventually, to major commissions in America.

His book has led me to question the ways in which the few rough acres that surround our house, which consist of a mix of slowly regenerating chaparral, coastal sage scrub and oak meadowland, can be considered a garden, and in what ways the land is marked by ‘civilization’ or, at the very least, human intentionality. There is an easy answer supplied by the title of M. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild, 2013, which deals with all the ways that California’s indigenous people impacted the landscape in their quest to find food and shelter, and while I have indeed been occupied in tending the native landscape (for primarily aesthetic reasons) there have also been, in the intrusive act of placing a house on the landscape, a rearrangement of objects (and their emanations) that fits fully within the Pageian definition of a garden.

He writes, “most houses need anchoring to their setting” and benefit from being sited on a level area of ground. He disparages structures that are perched precariously on a hillside (and certainly not a hilltop) or appear to grow out of vertiginous terrain. He is a designer of great simplicity and common sense. When initially confronted with our newly purchased acreage of mostly sloping, rocky and heavily vegetated land, our first act was to select a site for the house around which the existing plantings, rocks and major trees might plausibly become the bones of its garden.

Half way up the dominant north-south slope, which is cradled between a steep eastern rise of chaparral and a minor, rock-strewn spine scattered with walnuts, mountain mahogany and holly-leafed cherry, we settled on a location just below a stand of oaks that rises out of a rocky bank. Although beguiled by the substantial shade of the oaks which make the mound and its trees corporeal - a giant in the landscape - we were not unaware of the view upon which this arboreal colossus gazed: but our primary attention was rooted to the spot. Page warns of the tyranny of the view in which “one’s interest is torn between the garden pattern with its shapes and colors in the foreground and the excitement of the distant view”. The mounding trees possessed a primal rootedness that spoke to a notion of what our future house could become.

In the nineteenth century a path, Page notes, was customarily built around the perimeter of the house and in his judgement this leaves it “high and dry and destroys any possible relationship between house and garden”. But elsewhere he extols gravel or stone terraces leading from the house out into the garden and the borrowed landscapes beyond. In our situation, ever mindful of living in both the urbanwildland and the Wildland-Urban Interface, there was a requirement to remove the house from the vegetative fuels that comprise our found garden. Thus it sits on an entirely graveled bench – the flat area between cutting and filling the slope. This level area is contained by the new, steeper slopes produced by cutting to the north and filling to the south (which were hydro-seeded with a mix of native grasses and forbs), to the west by the aforementioned spine and to the east by the oak mound. We did follow one of Page’s rules by introducing an element of pattern to the gravel: immediately bordering the house we used ¾” crushed rock and separated by an embedded ipe 2 x 6, finer crushed rock for the field. Paige might have used a mix of split and saw-cut local sandstone which he notes “fits well in a very informal garden”. Our garden is formally ordered only to the extent necessary for circulation and fire protection while retaining most of the informality of the surrounding chaparral. While local sandstone is plentiful, its cutting is now prodigiously expensive.

Page fully understands the elemental, Zorastrian power that water plays in garden design. He writes, ‘water seems to course on the planet’s surface as blood through the body”. Even a contrivance such as a swimming pool can be effective in referencing this fundamental source of energy and life. Formally, a simple rectangle of still water can make a powerful garden boundary. We chose to place our pool three steps above the surrounding terrace, parallel to the house and backed into the up-hill slope. The horizon lies far above it, dancing along the Topatopa bluffs, but the reflective pool water brings the sky down to the ground and integrates it into the other garden elements of water, earth and plants.

There is, after seven years, a seeming inevitability to this composition of gravel, water, oaks, sage-scrub meadows and borrowed views of true chaparral wilderness. As Page writes of one of his creations in Piedmont, “it is, in one sense, a synthesis and a symbol of the nature and essence of the place, its earth and air and water and what I must call the humanities – the house, its period and its builders”.

It is, above all, a garden.

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