Monday, March 31, 2014

April is the Cruelest Month

"Primavera" Eugenio Gignous 

"April is the cruelest month . . . "

writes the poet. That line has confused me for years. Is it cruel? April is the springiest month, when elementary school teachers paste tulips and yellow galoshes to bulletin boards, and little old ladies dress up for church looking like pastel Easter eggs.

But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally "it opens everything" may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees. I have been thinking about openings lately as I contemplate the seeds growing in every window sill. Annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs splay across every surface of my house. Today I ate my cereal with a tray of zinnias and three naranjillas. For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants. We enter this world in an act of violence, as if to test our mettle and prove our worthiness to cross the threshold.


April is the most lavish month . . .

"Fr├╝hling in Worpswede" Hans am Ende, 1900
March left us with mulch and daffodils. April starts with mostly bare ground and the few cherished heralds of spring, but ends cloaked in a gaudy quilt of greens. Chartreuse, viridian, lime, olive, jade, and celadon foam and froth across the ground. The poverty of March yields the extravagance of April.

Even the old, dying maple next to the church parsonage has engaged in a fit of fecundity. The tree blasts an armada of twirling, papery helicopters into the parsonage garden. A mini forest of maples has erupted in the garden, making it difficult for me to tell my annual seedlings from the young trees. They say plants approaching death often go to flower, a last effort at immortality. I look to the knobby old tree and then to his sea of babies. I'm not sure I have the heart to weed them.


April is the maddest month . . .

February stirred in me a restlessness to get outside and start digging in the dirt; by April, I am consumed with a howling lunacy. For weeks, the only planterly life I've seen are the seedlings in my window sill. Now April spews life in every form, across every surface. The eye has no place to rest. I move around the garden like an ant, delirious and distraught by the riotous explosion of leaf and limb.

April is the month for madness. We mark the first of April by acting like fools. In France, the "days of April" (journees d'avril) refers to a series of violent insurrections against the government in 1834. In England, they mark St. Mark's Eve (April 24) by sitting on the church porch to watch the ghosts of those who will die this year pass.

This month I am a fool, a rioter, a ghost. I enter into the garden and find not asylum, but bedlam; not harmony, but cacophony. The desperation of winter has blossomed into the desire of spring, and I pass the murderous tulips with a suspicious eye.


Originally published, April 2010

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Muscota Marsh Park: A Lucid View of Troubled Waters

From left, a current day aerial photo of the site for Muscota Marsh Park; a graphic recreation of the site in ancient times; a 2012 designer’s rendering. Sources: Photo and illustration by Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric W. Sanderson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2009; designer’s rendering by James Corner Field Operations

This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season.  First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.  

In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates.  Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment.    -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design


Time + Space = Place

Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.

The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch.  They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna. 

Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet.  The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.  The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.

This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design.  But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees. 

What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here? 

From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line

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