Hortus Conclusus:the Margaret Garden

Margaret Garden
Margaret Garden

Not long ago, I stole a big slice of time from my painting to work on a garden. This happened just after my mother’s death. She had involved me in her love for outdoor work from earliest childhood – helping me made a vegetable plot, letting me pick out my own flowers for a tiny bed edged with a border of oyster shells. But, as an adult, a need to jealously guard my painting time made each spring blossom as seductive and threatening as a Siren’s song. When I finally gave in to my desire to construct a garden it became a refuge from sadness, a protection, and the best means for me to invoke my mother, Margaret.

Looking out from the pergola
Looking out from the pergola

What I began to understand was that gardens, like any art form, exist in a in a realm of their own, somehow estranged from everyday life. They may imitate or represent natural phenomenon but they are anything but natural.This is dramatically true of the gardens that inspired me, the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden you see in miniatures painted by monks in monasteries, friars who also tended the plants of the cloister. One idealized tree becomes the symbol for all trees; several blades of grass, three strokes of a fine brush, alternate with single flowers, delicately rendered, to represent all flowers, every detail intensified in luminous tempera and gold. At last a sort of frame is invented, a shape suggesting mass, meaning protection, a wall high enough to exclude the landscape and horizon…the materialization of an escape from the real world.

Pergola
Pergola

The hortus conclusus is an introspective garden, a metaphysical room with a sky for a ceiling. Because of its scale, the room shows each treasure – even the smallest detail – to great advantage. Fruits and vegetables seem more colorful, brighter and larger than they do outside. Fleeting sounds and fragrances get captured within: bees humming around the pear blossoms, the first drops of a spring shower in the fountain, the peppery scent of the marigold. The room itself remains constant, a foil for continuous changes in color and form as fruits and vegetables mature.

Frankie in the Garden
Frankie in the Garden

Puttering is a good word for describing what you do in this kind of garden.  A good deal of time is spent wandering, hovering, and performing chores in a movement that looks random.  A little pruning here, some tying back there, strawberries to pick, a bit of weeding, a new bug to identify – then back to pruning.  And even when you aren’t at work, your mind is puttering, moving from one thought to another and back again.

Garden Gate
Garden Gate

This way of thinking, this mind – puttering, is good for a painter…and different in kind than the intellectual exercise required by the classical Italian garden. In this space there are no meanings to be revealed, no narrative to accompany your path, no prospective views; everything is visible at once. Here time is not linear; it is cyclical having no beginning and no end. The hour of the day, the season, the weather – what you observe today are only temporary installations.

Bench in Margaret Garden
Bench in Margaret Garden

I pass by my studio, a hay barn, trying not to look in the door at the half finished painting on my easel, waiting for a rainy day.  Right now, except for winter salads and some black cabbage, the orto seems to be resting…but already the earth is beginning to stir and life goes on. We have to sort out our seeds and organize the beds. There are certain rules. For example the tomatoes like being near the onions and the marigolds. It’s time to plan a nice new structure for the beans to climb and another one for the tomatoes. The squash will enjoy clinging to a south wall and the beans will like the plot where the tomatoes grew last summer.