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  • Jennifer Jewell


Valley Oaks in the Canyon.

California native fiddleneck. Butte County, Ca; March 2021.

On April 1st I had the great pleasure and unique experience of presenting for The Garden Conservancy about Under Western Skies, Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast (Timber Press, May 11, 2021).

The greatest pleasure was in how different this 'talk' was from so many of the talks I give - all of which I love - but which are often done in relative isolation (especially during Covid). Me talking at people instead of with people.

There is a time and place for that as well, a usefulness, but for this event the majority of my talking was done with Roderick Wyllie of Surface Design, Inc., a design firm in which he is a founding principle with his partner in life and work, James Lord. Roderick's design work for Lands End Lookout, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is one of the 40 gardened places included in Under Western Skies.

Given what I spend most of my time doing (the Cultivating Place radio program and podcast), it felt so GOOD to be in conversation with Roderick about land, about design, and especially about the role and voice of the many layers of a physical place being integral to his design work. As he said in our interview the book, he wants his gardens to help people "know where they are in the world."

As I like to say - our gardens are personal memoirs and documents - love letters, praise songs and prayers in action. But taken as whole collective, they also legible as moral and political documents - statements on who we are and where we are by what they do and do not express, or include.

On Friday April 2nd, friend and sister-gardener MaryAnn Newcomer (whose gardens are also featured in the book) texted me and Caitlin to say: "I heard your Garden Conservancy conversation with Roderick and I was sitting there nodding like a madwoman and thinking: The lesson is the place, the PLACE is the lesson."

A white shooting-star: Primula clevelandii

I like that: The lesson is the place. And I agree, PLACE is certainly where most of our garden lessons begin, whether we know and recognize it or not.

As I write in the introduction to UWS, in many ways our gardens are oases against the wider world - and they always have been - consider the ancient walled gardens of Persia, of Central and South America. They are ballast, steadying us, masking the chaos, disorder, and stress of daily life, they strive to protect us from 'starvation' and the 'dangers' of the 'wild' beyond. And in many cases the wild beyond in rural or urban environments includes very real dangers. Our gardens help us to forget the world.

But in other ways, our gardens bring the world to us and are directly inspired by the wider world’s cultures, concerns, passions, and fashions - and crises and calamities.

The Indigenous cultures and world views of North America are, and were historically, deliberate, conscientious, and judicious cultivators and managers of landscapes in varying degrees for food, utility, medicine, and ritualistic plants, as well as for water, fire, and game conservation. This is not a romanticized notion - this was reality and necessity and the lessons born of coevolution with places over long periods of time. More and more the scope of these truths are being deciphered in carbon readings from tree rings and lake beds, and our own current environmental crises.

When Europeans first started inhabiting and gardening on this continent, the gesture was often one of control and an attempt to allay fears about survival in the face of so much 'wild' and we're close to protecting ourselves so well that we've utterly destroyed that 'wild' at our own peril. So blinded by our own protections, we have lost our way.

Today many gardens the world over strive to draw on the natural beauty of the physical places in which they exist and to serve as oases for wild plants and animals, too. They highlight our commitment to the survival of these very wild things we have now come to love.

Staghorn sumac in winter dress, photo by Seabrooke Leckie, all rights reserved.

Male carpenter bee warming himself on the back side of a daffodil - March 2, 2021.

To my mind and experience, most gardens are a three-part alchemy between the riches and constraints of the natural and/or cultural history of the place, the individual creativity and personality of the gardener, and the gardening culture in which both the garden and the gardener exist.

Each garden is a composed weaving of these threads, whether intentionally or subconsciously. In some gardens the warp or weft might be the thicker or thinner strand, leading to a different final effect. Look down my front-lawn-proud suburban street in a summer-dry environment and you will see gardens in which the gardening hegemony is the dominant strand. There are always lessons to be absorbed in observing how any garden’s twining, animating forces are weighted. Again in my experience, when any of the threads is overdeveloped (the aforementioned lawn culture), it leads to an impoverishing of the others - to the detriment of the whole.

But those gardens which harmoniously interweave the three narrative and aesthetic strands in dynamic and interdependent conversation with one another are the ones that leave me with a visceral and visionary impression. You can hear and see and feel the geology, topography and weather moving through the place, you can hear and read the lives of the plants and animals of the place, you can see and experience the stories of the humans in this place - past and present - sometimes in even just very small signifiers.

As Roderick remarked in our conversation on April 1st, there should be enough metaphoric and philosophical room in any garden that you can "lose yourself - to the sky, the breeze or birdsong, to your own daydreams....every garden should have room to daydream." To see Caitlin's photos of Roderick's design results at Lands End Lookout from Under Western Skies, scroll down to final gallery!

And in such gardened places with respectful room for all of these animating forces, we actually find ourselves. And our garden love letters become compass roses - rich with direction - pointing us to where we are, making visible all who live there with us, and where we want to be heading - together. These are the kinds of gardens and gardeners you will find explored in Under Western Skies - the beauty and meaning of them melded together insightfully in the photographs of Caitlin Atkinson, who conceived of the book project.

Caitlin and I will be in conversation together at several upcoming events - signing books and chatting with people IN PERSON even in a few of them. Check out the dates - maybe there's one near you:




and the Cultivating Place Team

PS: If you cannot make any of our upcoming events - you can always preorder your very own copy of Under Western Skies (no matter what skies you garden under) signed by both me and Caitlin right here:



(just click the live link that is the green title of each program to get to the audio file and listen in....)





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Me. Bio photo by Eddie Altrete 2019.


1 Comment

Maria Espino
Maria Espino
Apr 03, 2021

congratulations on your collaboration of such a book. I look forward to giving it a read with all the beautiful writing you do. I love that you capture all sides of gardening, something not easily done from different perspectives. Hurray!!!

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