Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock"

This is the first in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. It’s a story of intense commitment to carrying out a creative vision no matter how challenging the process.

Aesthetic Shock

I started out as a freelance writer, writing primarily about landscape architecture and gardening. I have loved poetry since childhood, but I always had this thought running through my head: “Poetry is the hardest thing in the world; I’m going nowhere near it.”

One day twenty years ago, I turned a page in a magazine and saw a photograph of an amazing garden. It was an aesthetic shock. I felt physically jolted. I knew instantaneously that I would do whatever was required to stand in that garden.

I had long believed that our most essential experience of place or space is about shelter and view. Now I think the maker of the garden, landscape architect Isabelle Greene, had triggered my almost paranormal experience through an exquisite manipulation of those two elements. The garden sits in a tight canyon; a series of freeform terraces step down the hill.

I thought that if I could just stand in that garden, I would understand it.

 The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

Within 24 hours I’d called Isabelle Greene at her Santa Barbara office. Too shy to say, “I’ve had an aesthetic shock,” I presented myself as a garden writer and explained that I was writing books for Chronicle Books on garden design and used that as an excuse to ask if I could come see her work.

She asked why I was writing gardening books. I said I wanted to teach ordinary gardeners what professional landscape architects know about space. I’d taken a lot of landscape architecture classes at UC Berkeley Extension and had read a lot about  the philosophy of space. She said she didn’t think this was something that could be taught. And she wasn’t compelled enough by my story to meet me or let me see the famous garden she had made for Carol Valentine, in Montecito.

Years later, when I told her the truth, she said, My god, if you’d just said so, I would have gotten you into that garden immediately. So I had shot myself in the foot by not being honest.

Access to the Garden

Each year for the next four years, while I was writing other books in the Chronicle garden design series, I called her assistant and asked if I could come down and see some gardens and maybe meet with Isabelle. I was always told, “She’s busy, but you’re welcome to come see some of her work.”

In Year Four, I called the assistant as usual. This time I suggested that if Isabelle had a favorite restaurant, I’d be happy to take her to dinner. That approach broke through! I went down there and we met for dinner. Within five minutes we were talking about line and form and whose work we loved. It was immediately obvious that we were both crazy about landscape.

 Hazel White

Hazel White

She explained to me that the inspiration for the Valentine garden—her most famous creation—came from aerial views of the California landscape. She was particularly interested in the straight lines of fields and how they get interrupted by a creek or a river or foothills. She was interested in that meeting of a strong, human-made line against a natural line. The garden photograph I’d seen had the most extraordinary resonance with aerial photos of landscapes. But in the view in the photograph, you’re actually only looking down thirty feet. Isabelle had manipulated the scale such that the viewer sees terraces that are large in themselves, but are a miniaturization of the much larger landscape you’d see from a plane.

She finally arranged for me to see the garden.

All those years, I had been confident that once I was standing there I would know the particular power of that garden. I thought back then that I could pretty much understand and write about any landscape architecture using a set of concepts I’d become familiar with. I had been quite successful doing so, getting my work published in the London Telegraph Sunday magazine and so on.

Standing in the garden, I felt a strange alertness, a fizziness in my nervous system—yet I couldn’t figure out what was producing the effect. It would be a long time before I was capable of writing anything sufficient about this garden.

Next installment: "A Pretty Big Failure"