Archives for October 2010

Unfinished Sculptures

My last Sunday opinion post I entirely owe to Nanne-she made me think long and hard about the relationship of imagination to precision.  Unbeknownst to her, she waded headlong into one of my stuck spots.  I had this idea to make models of gardens I doubted anyone would ask me to build.  Who knows where that idea came from, but when I have an idea, I try to play along. Fine so far.  After clumsily trying to build them out of foam core, Buck waved my story off, and  asked for drawings.  Pretty soon, basswood in thicknesses between 1/16th and 1/32nd of an inch and in varying widths, began arriving via UPS. 

He wanted to build the models on a birch plywood base, finished on its four edges with molding.  They could be set flat on a table, or floor-or hung on a wall.  This construction reminded him of the slide wire potentiometers he collects.  As you are probably a gardener, and not a collector of old scientific instruments, I will elaborate.  Buck collects vintage instruments which were used to measure voltage; he thinks they are beautiful objects.  Many of them were finely finished and presented in mohogany cabinets or cases; his office wall is covered with them. Some instruments were part of university laboratories.  Some were commissioned for industry.  To the last, they are very finely calibrated scientific instruments which were extremely expensive to purchase in their day.  He buys those the looks of which interest him, takes them apart, cleans and restores them.    

These instruments interested me when I saw them, but they did not enchant.  Years later, I understand and appreciate his enchantment.  There was some astonishingly imaginative person who designed and made a beautiful object which would in addition precisely measure volts.  Very precisely.  My garden models, and his love for old scientific instruments-an interesting mix.  My drawings were about to be transformed from lines into shapes.   Each model he painstakingly reproduced in basswood, from my drawings. His bench-littered with pieces of wood light enough and thin enough to float.  They are clearly not landscapes-they are sculptures.   There are four unfinished sculptures to date, each 24″ by 36″. 

He fussed and fretted about the construction-much like I do, when I have a landscape project underway.  When I am at home gardening, and have a problem or a full blown impasse, I back up, and fix myself a lemonade.  When I am working, I fuss and fret, and fret a little more.  It does not help to fix a lemonade, or go home. I have to stick with it. It could be a video about how Buck constructed these models is of vastly more interest than the sculptures themselves.  Why? I am having trouble trying to figure out where to take his work next.  

I imagine a landscape as a three dimensional sculpture.  Everything about that sculpture occupies me like an army.  Buck’s questions about the models-the eventual heights, distances and spaces-much like what I think about every day. But his precise questions regarding the length, width, depth, and height of elements in these sculptures forced me to think less about landscape and more about my intentions.      

A property needing landscape can be forgiving of what you have not accounted for in a drawing. A big idea may leave out that space or this corner.  This might make a landscape renovation more difficult than a landscape starting from scratch.  Buck’s wood sculptures I would not need to keep alive. They need to be brought to a visual life.  

While Buck is absorbed constructing these sculptures, I have time to panic.  What will I do to finish them, once he is done? What will go in all those spaces?   

Two of the four sculptures have been done for 5 months.  I have been scheming to provide an imaginative  finish worthy of his precise effort.  As much as I would like to have an answer, nothing is coming-yet. I had originally planned to fill my hedges with reindeer moss in different colors.  Now I am not so sure.  I could fill them with various sized wood spheres, stained the same mahogany color as the geometric shapes.  I could stain the interiors of the spaces, and do nothing more.  I could fill the shapes with seeds or dyed wool roving .     

 If you have ever made a change in a garden only to see that choice go on to change how you see everything around it, you will see my dilemma.  Gardeners have to go on, and live with their choices. This tree over that tree.  This perennial over a world of other perennials.  This groundcover instead of that. There are so many plants from which to choose-all of them different, many with merit.  All of this leads me to think about those treasured moments in my own garden which were much more about accident than by design.  That chance nicotiana seeding and growing up in the gravel walk.   

I got involved with these models by design. It is looking like I may finish them by accident.

Telegraph Road

Some landscape projects invove a lot of tearing up and moving around.  This 19th century home is situated a long way from the street.  The original gravel driveway was in a deteriorated state, in large measure due to the fact that it followed the existing contours of the land.  This put parts of the drive under water in a hard rain. A road needs a proper base, and grading such that rain water runs off.    

If you live anywhere near me, I am sure you have been privy to a landscape construction site of staggering proportion.  The demolition and rebuilding of miles worth of Telegraph Road has been going on for months.  Telegraph is a major north-south thoroughfare; I may travel on it 6 times on a busy day.  I am not alone in this-thousands of trucks, cars and buses use it to swiftly get from one place to another.  The heavy volume of traffic and the Michigan winters have taken their toll; no one denies there was a need to rebuild.    

The volume of trucks hauling away old road and hauling in new materials is equally staggering.  Construction vehicles, excavators, bulldozers are cordoned off from from the two lanes still open to traffic by thousands of orange cones.  Crossovers are open one day, and closed the next. It is a massive project, producing a massive disruption to the people who work and shop in the area, and the businesses who rely on the road to provide simple access.  This is a go for broke project that can make a quick trip north  seem like an off-road rally.   

My client’s project seems so benign and modest by comparison, but the concepts are the same.  A road needs engineering.  It needs to be easily maneuverable.  It needs to drain.  It needs compacting to withstand the weight of vehicles in all kinds of weather.  In this case, some 10 inches of base was required to get the drive to drain.  Many hundred of yards of soil were required to bring the ground up around the new drive. 

I have tried to be good natured about being brought to a dead stop time and time again.  I have had more than enough time to put my truck in park, and take photographs. I cannot deny that it has been an interesting process to watch.  The concrete of the old road being pulverized by a massive machine equipped with a battering ram that makes the ground shake.  The numerous giant trucks whose only job all day long is to haul away debris.  The giant concrete drain tiles littering the dirtscape.  The hundreds of people running machines-how does such a huge project get coordinated?  I have tried to view mile after mile of the most God awful mess imaginable as landscape theatre.  It really does seem like what usually zips by me in a few minutes has become a full length feature. This particular day I was stuck at a crossover for at least 4 lights, while some machinery and trucks got moved around. 

The man shoulder deep in a giant trench is communicating with the excavator operator via hand signals-the deafening noise precluded any talk.  The stoppage of traffic behind me starts to stretch out.  Once the truck in front of me backs into his slot, I make my escape at the Quarton Road cross over.   

This man in the pit has nerve if nothing else.  I would not be so comfortable, downhill from a machine of this size.  I love pushing dirt around as much as the next gardener, but is earthwork on an astonishing scale.  The following day, the Quarton Road crossover is closed.  This puts me miles out of my way; I hate having to go south to go north.  Just as I think I am home free, A tree trimming crew has eastbound Quarton closed.  To the north, Lone Pine is closed all the way to Cranbrook Road-a new road, drainage system and bridge is in progress.  I am forced further south.  I am 25 minutes later getting to the job than I planned for.  

I will confess I have traded in my fascination for the project for a fascination with how to avoid it.  Woodward Avenue runs parallel to Telegraph; I have clear sailing all the way north to Orchard Lake Road.  Once I drive under the Phoenix Center in Pontiac, I am but a short distance from the shop. Middlebelt Road runs north and south on the west side of Telegraph.  It is a smaller road, but traffic moves along briskly.  I feel bad for all of the businesses located along Telegraph; the contruction is so extensive and visually confusing. 


The very last straw??  MDOT  closed the exit ramp  from Telegraph onto Orchard Lake to any driver coming north three weeks ago. The detours that would permit my clients to get to me are poorly marked.  The best bet; continue north on Telegraph and go under the Orchard Lake Bridge.  The very next crossover will take you to the southbound exit off Telegraph.  In three weeks, I am just seeing the first moves made to rebuild it.  Can you hear me sigh?   We can help you navigate if you need it; I think we are worth a little travel trouble.

Sunday Opinion: Rob Overseas

As I write, Rob is winging his way towards Europe. He sent me this photograph from his seat on the plane as the sun was rising behind the curvature of the earth-breathtaking.  The plan-a two week buying trip that will include antique shows, and visits to dealers in garden ornament with whom we have long standing relationships.  He has not shopped for Detroit Garden Works in Europe for a few years-I have my reasons. The purchase price of any garden ornament in another country is only the beginning of what it costs to have that object in the shop.  Rob has to fly over; he needs food and lodging every day.  Anything he purchases needs to be collected, stored for a time, maybe crated for shipping,  get shipped to New York or Montreal, loaded onto a train for Detroit, cleared through US customs via a custom’s broker, trucked to the shop, and unloaded.  Everything that gets unloaded needs to be uncrated and inspected.  All of the crating and packing material needs disposal.  This is an arduous and expensive process.  Furthermore, the currency exchange rate has not been so friendly the last few years. One year I had a container devanned in Norfolk Va.  US Customs randomly picks containers arriving from Europe to be completely unloaded, and inspected.  The expense incurred by this “devanning”-mine.  In the process of offloading, and reloading, I had many objects damaged by fork lift forks, and careless repacking. Though I insure my European shipments, it took 2 years to negotiate a settlement for a fraction of the worth of the damaged load.  Every time I shop overseas, I hope for smooth sailing over the ocean, and a lucky number in customs. We concentrated on shopping the US the past few years, with good results. But no matter the origin, that unique mix of antique, vintage and one of a kind objects is what makes the shop an experience unlike any other.  Rob goes to a lot of time and trouble to insure that should you walk through the door, the odds you will find something you have not seen before are good. The odds of finding something that will delight or enchant your gardening self are very good. The only routine he observes is the change of the seasons.  To that end,  Rob is on his way back to Europe to shop.

Rob’s first scouting trip to Europe for me was in 1993. I wanted a shop devoted to interesting objects for gardens in the worst way, and for a long time.  What was available to me locally to place in a landscape or garden-not so swell. Rob had a winter ski trip he had planned to Austria; to this I added a two week trip through France and Italy.  Just to look around, and see what was available.  To meet whomever he could who shared that interest in garden ornament.  How excited we were about the arrival of 2 pallets of French pottery from the Poterie de Biot, and two pallets of Italian terra cotta from Mital- hilarious. I sold every one of those pots to landscape and garden clients.  Three years later, when I bought the building that would become Detroit Garden Works, he had a plan in place for shopping and shipping from overseas. 

That plan has changed dramatically in the past 18 years.  No longer does he haul around articles from European design publications and travel guides in a briefcase. Monica and Jenny joined forces to produce a map detailing his intended stops- courtesy of Google Earth.  A GPS gizmo called a Garmin into which he downloaded country maps and travel guides will get him where he wants to go efficiently and predictably.  Gone are the days of winging his way through the Alps trying to find France.      

Many of the relationships he made years ago are still in place.  Though he will be seeing friends he has not seen in a long time, I am quite sure there will be new people, new places-the unexpected. The Monday morning update-he’s busy shopping some place he has never been before.

At A Glance: Early October