Allan Gardens: The Art and Beauty of Growing Things

Often we wander along neither seeing nor hearing the beauty of nature all around us.  Color, beyond what can be manufactured and packaged for the artist to apply to canvas, and sound of bird, insect and the earth itself, is around us in abundance but are we still enough to see and hear?  Usually not. Although we try to absorb as much as possible from whatever is around in the natural state, it requires conscious effort to still  the self enough to hear and see.  Our frantic lifestyles are not always conducive to the kind of ‘stilling’ that is required. There are opportunities available, however; we just need to grasp them when we can.

We came from nature, it is part of us. Nature brings us peace, comfort and helps calm us.  We become more gentle and kind, nicer to each other. Studies of human behavior have recognized the correlation between these attributes and nature, and city planners have heeded the recommendations.  Even in our planned and structured communities, regardless of size, one can find moments of stillness in nature.  Within and maintained by the cities are parks and botanical gardens to serve the need of human beings to find that stillness.

Wherever you live or travel there is sure to be something nearby.  City parks often have special gardens or conservatories, usually free (at least to residents) or for a low maintenance fee.  I found one of these in Toronto while attending the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Allan Gardens just happens to be right on the short walk from where I stay to the downtown area where I access subway and theaters.  I don’t spend much time in the park itself as I prefer sitting in and wandering through the conservatory.  The lovely Victorian structure extends into 5 separate greenhouses and covers 16,000 square feet with such “houses” as tropical, cactus, and palm.  Apparently there are seasonal changes but since the film festival is always in September, that’s when I get to see the exhibits.

Here are some of my favorites from the offerings of September, 2010.

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More Street Art

The last post was about a delightful piece of street art, so lifelike that you could almost pet those little dogs.  I want to talk a bit more about street art because we generally have the impression that all graffiti is gang-related or vandalism or both.  I have seen that kind as well and it’s not what I am talking about.  There is street art almost everywhere you go anymore it seems, so here are a few samples of what I’ve seen that I consider to be Art.

sidewalk stencil in Toronto, September 2008

The above stencil was on the sidewalk every few blocks in Toronto.  It seems that someone definitely had an opinion about the United States rationale for the war in Iraq.

Jonathan with The Wall, Berlin July 2008 (Tiff's photo)

The East Side Gallery, the small east side segment of the Berlin Wall along the river, is a perpetual work in progress.  Who knows how many layers deep the art goes.  Some of it is pretty loose, just scribbles (as you can see over the top of the crowded faces) but mixed in are some artistically presented messages — above, voices of the people and below, Peace, Love, and Respect.

Berlin Wall, July 2008 (Tiff's photo)

Chinatown, San Francisco June 2011

The wall of this building is a mixture of advertising and cultural statements. 

The back alley, Toronto, Sept. 2010

This last photo is from a little off-street in Toronto, the walls along the back alley were covered with very well done pop art.  Really beautiful. 

These are only a few samples of what we’ve seen in our travels.  I think we saw more in Berlin than anywhere else. Although there was some scrappy, spray can stuff that didn’t seem like anything more than just something to do, most of it was very well done, had taken time and skill.  Perhaps communities should consider providing walls for budding artists to practice and develop this skill — I’m not sure whether it would cut down on the non-artistic, just-angry-at-the-world graffiti, however, because there will always be those who are expressing themselves at the expense of others. If good, artistic work was encouraged, however, maybe some of these after-dark artists would gain the confidence and support to bring their good works to a productive venue where all can enjoy them.  Just a thought….

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You Guys Wait Right Here…


Walking through San Francisco on a recent trip we saw this wall art on the side of a building, I think it was either a small cafe or a bar.  Whichever, the artist purposely positioned his well-behaved subjects in their patient wait for their companion, leashes wrapped about a pipe extending through the wall.  These little guys look so real, so patient as they sit, waiting, the one looking straight at the viewers, head a bit tilted as though curious as to why we’ve stopped and are looking, the attention of the other being drawn by something happening to his left — car, people, other dogs? One turns instinctively to see what is there and then turns back, feeling just a bit silly because, after all, it’s just a painting.  The artist has carefully extended the sidewalk up onto the wall so his buddies can sit on the sidewalk rather than the rough brick of the wall– very thoughtful.  No artist signature of course, just his little friends…  waiting…      waiting….

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Going to the Mountains – Chinese Poetry

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to Chinese poetry, I’m not a poet, don’t have a degree in English nor am I even a student of the arts other than appreciation.  Chinese poetry, however, I not only enjoy, but can easily visualize, internalize, and don’t try to analyze.  The ancient Chinese poets speak in a way that my heart understands — usually.  The following poem, for example, was written by Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) Ling-yün who lived from 385-433 (that’s a long time ago!) but is easy for my 21st century, semi-urban, wilderness-loving self to recognize.

Gu Kaizhu (344-406) painting

Hsieh was a devout Buddhist, an official (the Duke of Kangle), and a nature poet.  Although he was dismissed, exiled and went to the mountains to live and write, he was civically defiant, and eventually executed.  Would “civic defiance” be considered activism today?  His love and peace in nature and civic defiance are two seemingly incongruous character attributes but who can explain human complexity?  We all have elements of self that skirmish within us.

I selected this particular poem because I recognize myself doing some of what he describes:  the desire to inhabit the mountains, planting the garden and watching it grow and replenish itself, gazing outward yet turning back to the past, the need to share with kindred spirits.  Basically, after everything we do for ourselves, we still need others around us.  Enjoy.

I’ve Put in Gardens South of the Fields, Opened Up a Stream and Planted Trees

Woodcutter and recluse– they inhabit
these mountains for different reasons,

and there are other forms of difference.
You can heal here among these gardens,

sheltered from rank vapors of turmoil,
wilderness clarity calling distant winds.

I ch’i-sited my house on a northern hill,
doors opening out onto a southern river,

ended trips to the well with a new stream
and planted hibiscus in terraced banks.

Now there are flocks of trees at my door
and crowds of mountains at my window,

and I wander thin trails down to fields
or gaze into a distance of towering peaks,

wanting little, never wearing myself out.
It’s rare luck to make yourself such a life,

though like ancient recluse paths, mine
bring longing for the footsteps of friends:

how could I forget them in this exquisite
adoration kindred spirits alone can share?

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Middlemarch – an exercise in love

Middlemarch, a place with lovely people

I’m making it easy on myself today and am reposting a review of this wonderful book that I did for another blog.  The reason I want it on both websites is because Middlemarch is about a place, a place that author George Eliot knew.  Her book is part of the canon of English literature because of her beautiful writing style, her human insight, and many other reasons known to English students.  The purpose of this blog, The Art of Place, is to illustrate and give examples of the impact of art and place on the human being, the human soul.  Middlemarch can have an impact.

Oh, if only we could all see and accept the people around us as Eliot sees her characters, the good folks of Middlemarch. We, the readers, grow to accept and appreciate the flaws and strengths of each member of the community, usually feeling quite alone, as they struggle with their individual challenges. I grew to know these characters, to consider them friends. As I looked into their eyes, focusing on the motes that Eliot unapologetically floated before me, my inner eye cleared and I could see reflected there the beams in my generally used eye.

How should I classify this book?  On which goodreads shelf do I put it?  Do I put it on simply books that I have read? Does it become one of my life-changing books? Was it for sheer enjoyment? Middlemarch can be much more than a mere read for a rainy day or enjoyment for a few undisturbed moments. George Eliot is a master — I guess that’s why this is often required reading in university courses. It should not, however, be required reading only for Humanities or English Literature courses but could be text for Sociology (how to get along with your neighbor), Community Development (how to build strong communities), Personal Finance (live within your means), Political Science (how to disagree without being hateful), and Religion (faith, hope and charity).

Middlemarch is an exercise in love, the kind of love —  one human being for another — that will sustain us as a society.

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A Closer Look

How often do you take time to examine a tree?  I don’t mean just taking in the tree as a whole, but getting right next to it and observing the patterns and colors in the bark.  My time spent working at Bryce Canyon National Park taught me to take a closer look at trees.  Little things add up to a magnificent whole.  Here are some pictures featuring nature’s art in trees.

Totally twisted Ponderosa along Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon

Rain accentuates the colors in the bark on this one near Bryce Point.

Bark beetles can kill trees, but their patterns look nice. Another Ponderosa along the Fairyland Loop.

Beautiful swirls on this one; unfortunately I can't remember what species of tree! This was taken along the East Rim Trail, Zion National Park.

The work of bark beetles on a cottonwood, Zion National Park

See how smooth the ocean has made this driftwood log on Second Beach, Olympic National Park

More driftwood patterns. Driftwood is so picturesque as it has the advantage of the ocean in the sculpting process.

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Light and Place

Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light?  Monet did. Vermeer did.  I believe Vincent did too.  They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness.  Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows cross the cliff face of sandstone or simply to walk parallel with a path of liquid light called the Colorado River. . . .  (Terry Tempest Williams, Red, 141).

Fading light

Light:  illumination, awareness, brightness, giving visibility to our world; our bodies cycle to it, our attention is drawn to it, we use it to artificially change our world, we follow it, are drawn to it like the bugs with whom we share the world; electromagnetic radiation from a god-created source, the world began with light.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day (Genesis 1:1-5).

We use our perceived absence of light metaphorically to describe a state of mind: full of darkness, dark and dreary, dark expression; and the alternative– a brighter day.

Hubble image; Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Richard (Center for Astronomical Research/Observatory of Lyon, France), and J.-P. Kneib (Astrophysical Laboratory of Marseille, France) Acknowledgment: M. Postman (STScI)

Light can be so close that it burns or so far away that it’s source has long ago turned cold.  Light can come from within or be reflected upon.  With light comes awareness (knowledge) as more becomes visible.

Coming light

I want to follow the path of light, follow the movement of light through canyon, forest and city alike,  let light warm me in whatever place I may be.

God is the light of the heavens and the earth.

The smile of God’s light is like a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp in a globe of glass, the globe of glass as if it were a shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree neither of the East nor of the West, its light nearly luminous even if fire did not touch it.

Light upon light! God guides to this light whomever God will: and God gives people examples; and God knows all things (qur’an – 24:35 – al ‘nuur – the light).

Other worlds.... Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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Ed and The Desert

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey is the quintessential wilderness loner with a writing style as raw and blistering as the sun and landscape he describes. He has no patience with nor use for the soft “industrial tourist,” reserving his respect only for those who are willing to throw themselves on the sandstone bosom of Mother Earth with the hope that she will make them her own. This a  must-read for those with a curiosity regarding the value of “wilderness.” 

Desert Solitaire  sits alongside Silent Spring, A Sand County Almanac, and Refuge on the shelf that I call my “Earth Canon.”  I have others on this shelf, the Bible, Mormon scriptures, and other environment/earth awareness books, but these are essential reading for me.  Edward Abbey’s style of writing reminds me of people I grew up around in my small hometown of Cannonville, Utah, as far as his personality goes — solitary, outspoken regarding what he cares about, an “I don’t give a damn what you think of me” attitude.  That’s where the similarities between me and my locals, my downhomers, end.  Ideologically we’re talking oil and water.

South from Bryce Canyon

Abbey has a fierce love of wilderness and the desert, and a deep disdain for any who are there for  the  photo op that they send to all family and friends saying, “Hey, look at me out here in the desert!”  What the photos don’t show is that many don’t get farther away from the road than the car door and can’t get back in to their air conditioning and canned music fast enough.  I think Abbey may have overgeneralized — or at least I hope there aren’t as many with that kind of lack of interest as he seemed to think.  My hope is that those who come, for whatever the reason — give the kids a taste of the great outdoors, wife’s family’s reunion/vacation, “that’s it, you’re gonna find out what real hardship is” — that once here, once in the magnificent desert, that a bit of the beauty seeps inside and changes the person.

Not everyone needs to become an Edward Abbey act-alike.  He didn’t want anyone telling him what to do, just like my home town folks.  I am not sure whether he and I would have gotten along very well, as he would probably consider me too wussy and soft for the desert.  For example, Abbey would drink water straight from the river or from a pothole and the more living things growing in it the better (that means it is safe, not poison!).  I won’t do that — at least unless I will die of thirst otherwise.  He has much to offer, however, as a role model as far as loving and living in and with the earth and its life, both plant and animal.  I offer, as a simple example of his love, his description of the cliff rose:

Cliff Rose

Loveliest of all, however, gay and sweet as a pretty girl, with a fragrance like that of orange blossoms, is the cliffrose, Cowania stansburiana. . . a sturdy shrub with gnarled trunk and twisting branches, growing sometimes to twice a man’s height.  When not in bloom it might not catch your eye; but after the winter snows and a trace of rain in the spring it comes on suddenly and gloriously like a swan, like a maiden, and the shaggy limbs go out of sight behind dense clusters of flowers creamy white or pale yellow, like wild roses, each with its five perfect petals and a golden center.

The man had a virtual love affair with all things wild — cliff rose, toads, quicksand, the rock itself.  Can we love like that?  Can we feel the rock, the wind and smell the subtle fragrance of wilderness?  That is what I want to learn from Edward Abbey, how to love, and how to love with every particle of desert dust that is part of me.

…and by the power of his word man was created of the dust of the earth….”

–Mormon 9:17 (The Book of Mormon)


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A Good Neighbor

Tucked away in the Mission District of San Francisco is a two-room recording studio.  Letters bearing the name Tiny Telephone are falling off the door held open by a bungee cord, but it’s no big deal.  What matters is that the door is open.  Open for artists, open for visitors, open for friends.  The studio is owned by John Vanderslice, affectionately known as JV to friends and fans.  Since 1997, this little studio has provided a casual, quality-sounding, and carcinogen-free recording space for countless bands and musicians.

Should you stop by Tiny Telephone, you’re likely to meet JV or any one of his in-house engineers and get a tour and history of the place.   I received such a tour, along with my mom, brother, and about fifteen other fans, when I visited San Francisco in June.  The purpose for the trip was to see JV perform his most recent album, White Wilderness, with Magik*Magik Orchestra; Tiny Telephone became an unexpected bonus.

There are a lot of good reasons to visit San Francisco but attending a Vanderslice show with Magik*Magik Orchestra doesn’t typically top a tourist’s list of things to see. A collaboration like this, where they perform the entire album, just doesn’t happen often.  In fact, JV suggested this would probably be the only time in the near future it was going to happen.  Having not been to SF before nor (and I hang my head in shame!) attended a Vanderslice show, this seemed a good time to do both.

As expected, the show was outstanding!  Held at the Herbst Theater in downtown SF, with assigned seating and no alcohol or smoking in sight, this was not a typical venue for an Indie rock concert.  But this was not a typical rock concert either, as the set included not only JV (guitars, lead vocals) and Jason Slota (drums, moog, vibes), but also a 30-piece orchestra (conducted by Minna Choi), and a six-woman choir.  Musically, there is a ton I could elaborate on, but this post focuses primarily on JV himself.

As a performing artist, it would be easy for him to put the fans at a distance, to construct some sort of wall between him and the fans.  With JV, however, there are no walls and this is largely why I call him unique.  He is comfortable on and off the stage; he is happy mingling with fans and, as those who have been to his shows can attest, he always ends his concerts with a dance party.  Unfortunately, with this particular venue, “There was no way we could do that here!”   Even with the naturally heightened professional atmosphere that accompanies a large theater and orchestra, JV did not allow that to put distance between us and him.  Typical of every show, he came off the stage at one point and played a song–in this case, “Time To Go” from Emerald City–on the ground floor.  How easy it would be to stay on stage, to not really say anything to the audience, but he thrives on breaking down those barriers because he understands the importance of connecting with his audience.

Cheerful, funny, and cordial, JV did what he could to make the show not just a show, but an experience for every member of the audience.  From his enthusiasm it’s obvious he loves what he does and he wants you as an audience member to enjoy it too.  Getting his autograph after the show took a while, but only because he pretty much insisted on giving everyone their personal moment with him.  That takes tremendous patience and restraint.  Proactive in helping stammering fans to feel comfortable, he also knew when to move on from a good conversation so that the next person could have their time.  He knows it means a lot to fans to have their merchandise signed; he knows it means even more to be able to talk, however briefly, with an artist they like.  I know it means a lot to me and it meant a lot to me when he took a moment to chat.  When he asked me my name and I told him I just wanted his name on my poster, he then asked, “Are you sure?”  “Yes,” I replied, wishing that all the things I had planned in my mind to say to him hadn’t chosen this moment to vanish (yes, I tend to be one of those shy, stammering fans).  So he swirled his Sharpee over my poster and then further customized it with a heart to be “just between us.”

Before the show ended he announced that because some of us had come from out of town, he was going to give a tour of his recording studio the following morning.  Well.  Having driven from Utah, dragging ourselves across the freakish salt flats and seemingly endless Nevada desert, we could certainly spare a couple hours to spend with good company.

Standing in the parking area the morning following the concert, surrounded by metal and concrete warehouses, the distant rush of highway traffic in our ears, we learned that Tiny Telephone is only one part of a small community of artists in this corner of the Mission.  “When we first moved here, we’d hear gunshots over in the park,” said JV, referring to Potrero Del Sol Park visible through a chain-link fence.  The park now includes a skate park, providing kids with a designated place to test their wheels.  Occupying a unique position in the zoning layout, the collection of businesses and residences to which Tiny Telephone belongs has defied city developers and continues to advocate artistic creativity.  By being aware and involved in the neighborhood, in the years JV has run the studio, crime has significantly reduced in the area.  This July there will even be a free concert series in the park.

Tiff, JV, and Jon (photo by Mom with Jon's camera)

From the tour I became even more impressed by JV as a person and to me, Tiny Telephone is a symbol of the influence art can have within a community. There is nothing flashy about Tiny Telephone; like most things, it’s what’s inside that counts.  And what happens inside is because of dedicated people who not only believe in what they’re doing, but who are reaching outside of themselves to make an uplifting difference and help people realize their dreams.  JV and his fellow musicians, engineers, and neighbors know they can’t change the world, but they know they can—and have—made a difference in their corner of it.

Thank you JV, Magik*Magik, and Tiny Telephone.  You’ve reminded me of the power of art, especially music, and the importance of art in one’s community.  Thank you also, JV, for displaying genuine kindness and demonstrating that it’s not just about the artist, it’s about the artist within the community, about uplifting each other, and creating safe and strong environments for everyone, because everyone deserves to have their moment.

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Music on the Plateau

I hope when you visit national parks or monuments you take the time to stop at the visitor’s centers.  All offer books, calendars, t-shirts, hats, etc. tied to the place you are visiting or others nearby. There are also items for kids to stoke their interest in stars, dinosaurs and bugs, hoping that when they return home they’ll still be interested in the natural world. Have you taken the time to put on the headphones and listen to the cds?  I try to pick up a new cd every trip I make.  It is not only good music but it reconnects me to the trip, the place, and the people.

Music often has an identifiable geographical element reflecting the culture and landscape.  The southwest and mountainwest V.Cs. have a strong Native American offering, R. Carlos Nakai and his beautiful flute for example, as well as others who have studied and contributed to the Native American genre.  The V.Cs. also offer music that evokes images and the “feel” of the landscape itself — vistas, canyons, trees and water–through the music itself as well as ambient sounds — birds, wind, leaves and again, water . Turn off any other music you have going right now and click on “Escalante to listen  to this sample from  Peaks, Plateaus & Canyons, produced by Orange Tree Productions, and part of The National Park Series.  Once the audio player begins you can return to this window to finish reading.  From the National Park Series I have also purchased Great Smoky Mountains, The Living Desert, Native Lands, and The Sounds of The Rocky Mountains, all distill  place into sound.

Hiking to Druid Arch, Needles District, Canyonlands N.P.

“Escalante” takes my mind back to the hike to Druid Arch in the Needles District of Canyonlands.  I feel the walking pace, hear the bird calls and can almost smell the cliff rose and sage.  I hope you enjoy the clip and that you listen to the samples for the other cds linked above.  Orange Tree, in the National Park Series, has many others as well, some may be parks that you have visited or in regions where you live.  You can see for yourself how music evokes place.

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