Beyond the Garden Gate (June 3, 1998)

One of my first memories is of a huge Victorian on McAllister Street near Fillmore in San Francisco where my family lived in 1944. The rambling old house had been hurriedly partitioned off into apartments which were rented to the influx of war workers, among them my father who had a job at Hunter’s Point loading submarines. He brought home C-rations complete with tissue paper amusements imprinted with tiny horses which he set off in a “race” to the other end of the paper by igniting the paper’s serrated lines with the end of his cigarette. Next door was a lively family of Okies whose junior members pounded on me whenever I toddled out the door unescorted. There was an old carriage house in the spacious back yard — a back yard large enough to qualify as grounds, perhaps — and someone still maintained the gardens. I liked the gardens best of all in this neighborhood we’d describe these days as being “in transition.” We transitioned out of there as fast as we could, in fact.

A half century and many thousands of poundings later, my sister treated me to a Sunday tour of five Ross gardens opened to the paying public to raise money for the “Fine Arts Progam at Ross School.” The Ross School, someone on the tour told me, is the “highest achieving school in the state.” It’s also just about the richest. Why the town had to resort to fundraisers to buy trumpets wasn’t clear, but at $30 a pop for a look at five “secret gardens,” Ross’s lucky children should have enough instruments to last them the next ten generations.

We waited in a long, amiable line at tour base camp, the Marin Art&Garden Center while the tour drivers mastered the route between the five stops. They were a hastily-assembled crew of several non-English-speaking immigrants from south of the border, two homegrown psychopaths and several ordinary working people picking up extra dough to cover the bills. The two crazy drivers, I learned later, hurtled up wrong driveways and into dead end lanes, cursing each navigational error, their passengers rattling around in the vans like bowling balls in a box car.

As we boarded our van, we were each handed a neat little booklet whose first page warned us against smoking, or peeking in the windows of the haute bourgeoisie premises we would be visiting, or taking pictures, or slurping down food and drink while we strolled the garden paths. It must have been quite worrisome to the manor owners to have god knows who roaming through their backyards, but they could at least try to keep some basic order among the slobs unleashed on them for charitable purposes. I didn’t see much in the way of slob material, but I can tell you that there were plenty of acquisitive little eyes shooting hungry magpie-like looks at all the costly stuff lying around these pretentious little places.

There was only one real garden on the tour and it was the smallest and by far the best. The lady who owned the place obviously worked on it herself. It had the sequestered loveliness a secret garden has got to have to achieve its “secret” feel. The lady of the house had spent many hours on her garden which, at first look, seemed to be a random collection of plants stuffed haphazardly onto every foot of ground, but when you stepped back to take her plan in as a whole, every plant seemed to be on exactly the right inch, the overall space arranged harmoniously in perfect plant rhymes.

The other four gardens were the work of landscape architects who’d been handed a big wad of dough and a crew of Mexicans to get the terraces dug and the petunias in the pots however the designer wanted to do it. These gardens didn’t look as if anyone ever visited them, much less placed plants in a way pleasing to them.

The tour pamphlet went on about how the latter day Gatsbys who owned the homes had “conceptualized the whole as a painting, composed of a series of soul-satisfying elements, well set in a dream of beauty.” But four of the five were too new for soul to have set in, and the dream of beauty seemed less like a dream of beauty than feckless efforts to out do some other lion of consumption.

One display promised “English charm, California style,” which put me on red alert, never having personally experienced the former and extremely wary of the latter.

But the fifth garden and the house in the middle of it was a sort of landscape metaphor for the times. Imagine Hearst Castle stuffed onto three-quarters of an acre. At the driveway entrance were two bush “bunnies,” the topiary equivalent of lawn trolls. Then there was a custom made iron fence partially covered with a wisteria vine, nullifying the workmanship of the fence. Above the pool was the house, a smallish two-story job of no particular style which looked out on all the Bay Area. The library opened out on a swimming pool, but close up, peering through the huge glass sliding drawers, I could see floor-to-ceiling shelves of books surrounding a pool table. A pool table. A pool table in a library. A pool table in a library opening onto a swimming pool.

The three-quarters of the hilltop acre were precisely terraced and strewn with carefully tended rose bushes and an array of costly gew gaws placed everywhere but for no reason, it seemed, other than to demonstrate that Mr. Magic Money could afford them. There were top dollar cast iron and concrete carved benches placed to maximize the ten million dollar view, but without a single enhancing creature comfort like a cushion which might encourage one to linger. At one interval a tiny herb garden was precisely laid out, each newly-planted savory marked by a hand-crafted stake in the form of a rabbit, rabbits being the only recurring totem on the place, and one indicating nobody is home in any sense of the term. Nearby, a pleasant but wary middleaged woman stood by a small aviary pointing to a nest where she said some finch eggs were about to hatch, as if only a fool would walk on by before the miracle of birth had occurred. In the entrance way of the house, a bad abstract was on display, complete with track lighting to bring out every ugly, tedious ripple in the thing. Abstracts intimidate us all into silence: if we say it’s the screaming shits, a millionaire like the guy who owned this one is likely to come right back with, “Well, of course it’s a Pollock.” Like he knows Pollock from a Polack. But he does know it’s good because it costs good.

When I told my friend Rusty Norvell about the garden tour, and how sad it was to see people squandering a lot of money on space they obviously didn’t spend any time in, he told me a story from his Navy days in Japan during the early 50’s.

“My wife had just sold a travel book,” Rusty remembered, “and so with some of the proceeds, we travelled to the remote rural studio of Hamada, perhaps the world’s preeminent potterer. Although we had come to buy, there was little for sale. Hamada had just had a showing and had sold most of his recent work. We bought a few items, but we were sorely disappointed. As we stood in front of his house, looking out over his extensive grounds, I was struck by one of the most beautiful Hamada pieces I’d ever seen. In terms of shape, it looked like a huge milk crock, the kind that took up a good part of the bottom of our farm’s ice box back in Oklahoma. But the colors of the “crock” were something else. It was a magnificent storm of greens and browns that blended right in with the surrounding green and brown vegetation. It was half filled with water. Matter-of-factly I said to Hamada-san, ‘I think I’d like to buy that.’ He nodded appreciatively. Finally, I asked, ‘How much would you take?’

“He nodded agreeably again. ‘Oh, I can’t sell that.’

“I said something crass like, ‘I could give you a good price.’ Just at that point, one of his geese waddled over and took a drink from the beautiful art work.

“Hamada-san smiled. I said, ‘You’re just using it for the geese to drink out of?’

“That’s why I can’t sell it,” he said.

“But I just had to have this piece to take back to the States. But Hamada-san just had to have a yard, some geese, a drinking bowl, his house, his sky in complete harmony. And so we took our leave, knowing more than when we had arrived.”

I took my leave of Ross’s secret garden tour thinking, “If we’ve got to have a ruling class, can’t we at least require that they all go back to school to learn how to do it?”

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