Sunday Opinion: Bel’occhio

My first exposure to Thomas Hobbs and his partner Brent Beattie was an article in the July-August 2003 issue of Gardens Illustrated.  The article featured their extraordinary nursery, Southlands, located in Vancouver.  One shockingly beautiful, full page black and white photograph of their century old English glasshouse full of tropical plants-I have never forgotten this photograph by Arthur Meehan.  I subsequently read every word of the essay, and remembered.  The 1.5 acre nursery seemed beautifully laid out, and stocked with an astonishing range of beautifully grown plants, and great looking pots and urns of every description.  I do think Gardens Illustrated is the finest garden magazine in print on the planet-I have every issue, and I reread them regularly.  Their interest in Southlands-better than well deserved.  I aspired to the Hobbs/Beattie eye for beauty many years ago; I am happy to report that Southlands is still there, thriving.

Rob usually takes a holiday in the winter; just a few weeks ago he went to British Columbia.  He made his first personal visit to Southlands. He tells me the nursery was packed with people-people who are passionate about gardens, and people who need beauty to live.  Though the Gardens Illustrated article was published 8 years ago, his photographs confirm that their committment to their place has not waned one bit.  How I envied him his visit.

Rob brought me a copy of Thomas Hobbs’ book, The Jewel Box Garden, not knowing I had bought a copy the year it came out in 2004.  My library could easily stand 2 copies of this book-it is that good.  Over the past few days, I have reread the book, given Rob’s visit.  This reading is different than the first.  The first time around, I was captivated by his use of tropical plants in pots.  Phormiums, agaves, bananas-his gestures were bold.  How he used plants made his point of view eminently clear.  Make every square inch of your garden beautiful-why not?    I admire any designer who has great confidence in their eye.  The confidence to construct a coherent world-down to the last preposition of their language.  Such is the sensibility that characterizes Thomas Hobbs.

This reading, I was struck by how well he writes.  I was also much more tuned into his writing about bel’occio. Bel’occio is an Italian word which literally translates as “beautiful eye”.  He makes no bones about the importance of an eye, a life that demands beauty.  “Not everyone recieved the bel’occio gene.  Those of us who did are the lucky ones”.  I have been thinking about this for a few days.  There are plenty of things I see in the landscape that are not beautiful.  I have no plans to create a forum to address that-I keep those thoughts to myself.  I am not a critic, I am a landscape and garden designer. 

 Sometimes I see things that in my opinion are outrageously ugly-but I try to resist putting my camera or my words to that.  Routinely I see popular ideas about the environment bandied about- without any demonstrably firm foundation in science.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion-I have no need to wade into that.  My idea for my life-create something beautiful. Talk about, illustrate, engender, participate in, felicitate, stand up for the beauty that a love of nature can endow.  My camera, my words, my design-these pursuits are fueled by my energy.  I have some rules about what I put my energy to.  I am interested in the natural beauty of nature, and in creating beautiful places, beautiful gardens, beautiful landscapes-beautiful moments.  My energy is governed by the demands of my bel’occio gene.  I think this is a good use of my life.

No one gardens because it is easy and fun.  No one plants and cares for a landscape because they have nothing else to do. No one puts their hands in the dirt without passion.  Growing plants from seed, growing vegetables to eat, planting pots or perennial gardens, designing and planting landscapes, -all of this is a natural result of the bel’occhio gene. Many thanks, Thomas Hobbs, for explaining this so eloquently.

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