IN A WILD
It sounds idyllic. A couple of acres on the south side of a mountain jutting out 300' above the Pacific Ocean, with potential views from sunrise to sunset framed in huge spruce trees. We knew, however, as soon as we saw the place, that "gardening" would have to be different from anything we had known.
Broken-topped alders spoke of the 125 mph winter winds lying at wait behind the wispy autumn breeze. Rocky ground surface hinted at the talus slope rocky soils beneath, of the 80 - 120" of rain per year, and of nutrient-leached soils. Existing vegetation warned of tenacious plants with three to six feet of growth per year and invasive blackberries which spread 20' per year wherever sunlight wasn't already captured. Fresh elk droppings told of other inhabitants with whom the place would be shared, and voracious slugs eagerly awaited the introduction of succulent new plants.
The looming 400' cliff behind the property spoke of the landslide instability of volcanic ash clays underlying the soils and the violent earthquakes that visit the region every 300 years as the tectonic plates further below move slowly through their inexorable dances. Scars on tree trunks were souvenirs of the electrifying greetings this first prominence sometimes gives the massive cloud masses moving in from their thousand mile trips over the ocean. Things were not always as peaceful here as on the sunny autumn day we discovered it.
Together these forces strongly determine what is possible and what is desirable here. They limit the community of plants that can be successful within the demanding natural forces. They set a high price on excessive clearing, and on maintaining of "foreign" landscape elements. They also generate a powerful native landscape with its own unique beauty. Life here is strong, not elegant. You learn to live with mud on your shoes, but with a glow in your heart.
Of much of this we would learn later. But it was clear there was power here, and beauty. The pulsings of nature were strong and dramatic enough to break through incrustations of culture and force us to live freshly and to learn deeply and directly from what surrounds us. We decided to let the place lead us, and teach us to observe, learn, and enjoy.
To live here in itself necessitated changes, beyond asking the elk to share one of their bedrooms. Although the site was deftly screened from neighboring properties by topography, further evergreen screening was desirable for privacy as well as for protection from the afternoon summer winds. Low evergreen plantings were needed to keep view corridors open and free of blackberries, alder sprouts, and tunneling mountain beaver. Age, size, and condition of alders indicated they should largely be phased out as soon as replacement climax species could be planted and mature. Twenty years, it looked like, would be needed to accommodate our presence and nestle into a compatible landscape.
Ten years have now passed. The first years were consumed with building the house and learning the land itself. We explored its hollows and outcrops, and sniffed out rocks, trees, and views hidden behind tangles of vegetation. We learned from experience about the native vegetation - what was edible to us and to other inhabitants, and the incredible subtle richness of native plants that the mountain possesses. Grubbing brush taught us what rooted and grew best where, what outsurvived what, and which plant communities prevented the encroachment and growth of others. We learned the local rhythms of the seasons, and of the air, land, and water migrations that follow them. We learned which of our existing plants are depended upon by migrating arctic robbins, hummingbirds, doves and whales and local deer, elk, and mountain beaver.
The elements of landscaping are somewhat special here. Sun, moon, cloud and stars are unusually important. The sun, partially because of its seasonal rarity, is treasured, and outdoor activity spaces need to follow its path. Sunrise and sunset, and their shifts through the seasons, are visible, powerful, and to be lived close to. More uniquely, though, the silhouetting of trees lit though fog, the sparkle of raindrops on thousands of spruce needles at sunset, winter sun reflections off of the ocean, or wind-whipped spray tossing rainbow auras off of crashing waves, give this place an important part of its special magic.
Night is also important. Without the glare of streetlights and city light, the nights are wonderfully dark. Moonrise and set, waves shimmering in the moonlight, tree limbs dark against soft moonlight and fog, and the ever-shifting embrace, haloing and release of moon and cloud make the night a vital part of landscaping.
Sometimes clouds and fog are above us, sometimes below, and sometimes we are within their cushions streaming by with the wind. Summer afternoons are often treated with a "freight-train" of fog pouring around the end or over the top of the mountain. Sunlight breaking through stormclouds transforms ocean, sky, and land with blazing displays of light.
Given these magic tools of landscaping, it is no wonder that traditional landscapes such as flowers pale in significance. Indeed, the native wildflowers are subtle, and by comparison garden hybrids feel coarse, overly obvious in their beauty, and out of place. Looking for conventional beauty in a landscape here may be looking for the wrong thing. Its greater power comes from elsewhere.
The landscape which has taken form around us over the last ten years is not obvious in its design. It is a rearrangement rather than replacement of what was already here, to accommodate our physical needs and enrich our perception of the beauty already around us. It is comprised in part by the opening of distant views, by the clearing of intimate nearby scenes, by the development of trails which take us to what the season, time of day, and weather make special. It has involved the usual clearing and planting of trees, moving of rocks and transplanting ferns, moss, and shrubs. But would you call the result a garden?
A few of our garden opportunities came easily. While waiting to decide what to do with the ground around the house after we grubbed out the brush, a native grass lawn and a rich wildflower meadow grew up on their own! Miner's lettuce and fringecups were succeeded through the season by foxglove, wild hollyhock, Douglas iris, bluestar grass, cat's eyes and a variety of native meadow grasses. While we've let that remain on one side of the house, maintained only by occasional clearing of tree and brush seedlings, we found that flat land is scarce and valuable on a mountainside, particularly with children. Mowing our only flat area produced a "lawn" of native grasses, asters, buttercups and mosses which keeps us from getting totally soaked from dew and rain while coming and going and playing.
Some shaded hillsides have been cleared of shade-weakened elderberry and salmonberry bushes to reveal a fern and rock understory filled in with a seasonal succession of fragrant Tellima "fringe-cups" and siberian miner's lettuce. Sunny areas have been filled in with native salal, a shiny leafed evergreen with berries rivaling blueberries in taste. Downhill, the tops of undisturbed thickets of red elderberry are seasonally covered with blankets of white "ice cream cones" of flowers and clusters of brilliant red berries.
Red and evergreen huckleberries have thrived where competing vegetation is removed, while orange salmonberry, thimbleberry, native blackberry, and cow parsnips fill out the edible discoveries to be found on a walk on the trails. Among the acidic needle droppings beneath the towering spruce trees, wild lily of the valley finds a distinctive niche and association. In damp hollow bottoms, waterleaf, or "ghost star" dominates among the moss covered boulders like a silent and almost invisible fireworks display. Slopes trampled by elk become filled for several seasons with clusters of purple foxglove, while Columbia lily, trillium, Smiths fairy bells, blue-eyed grass, wild hollyhock and other surprises await discovery along the trails.
Some gardens exist in themselves. Others are to be viewed from within a building, or linked to interior spaces or places outside the garden. This garden was planned integrally with the house. The house is placed so that its outside deck projects over the edge of the hill, accentuating the sense of being high above the waves. Windows and outside plantings are planned so that in one seat you look outside in three directions and feel yourself surrounded only by trees. Yet another seat a few feet away sees nothing but ocean, sky and distant hillsides in three directions. A small roofed sitting space allows enjoying being outside even during a quiet rain. A tiny deck outside the bedroom encourages leisurely sunsoaked breakfasts tucked in the midst of a wildflower meadow.
For several years we joked that this place had all we wanted except a mountain stream. Then one winter after a bout of exceptionally heavy rains we woke up one morning to the sound of running water. A short walk to the hollow east of the house revealed a 100' waterfall and a six-foot wide creek pouring from a spring on the cliff face which had been plugged up a number of years ago by a small landslide. It runs only in extreme conditions, which is probably o.k., and the porous ground absorbs most of its flow. But we don't complain.
Our expenditures on landscaping almost two acres have been minimal. Over ten years we've spent only about $100 - for salal and evergreen huckleberry planting stock. Rocks came from on site or gathered nearby. Trees were thinned from naturally seeded areas elsewhere. Trails and clearing were sweat labor. Affordability was not the problem. It was more that what was here was appropriate, and fit, and transforming it dramatically into something else felt wrong. What money could buy didn't fit.
How much the making of this wild garden has transformed my perceptions didn't really become apparent until I returned to visit more conventional gardens in more amenable environments. The design decisions there now seem so often to be without significance and holding little meaning to the viewer. So much color, so much form, so much variety,...so many distractions coming between you and the power of the garden to move your heart. So much attention to the small things, and the big things often forgotten. I yearn to be back in my windswept emptiness, which is yet so full, so full.
There is a pleasure in developing a garden which quietly awaits exploration and discovery rather than stridently calling attention to itself. It contains a peacefulness, a rightness of natural place and association, and a uniqueness of spirit which isn't possible in conventional gardening with domestic materials.
What is here is a rough and wild beauty, and a power that can transform our hearts, enrich our lives, and shake us free from conventional esthetics. I hope that through our actions we have made some parts of that beauty more accessible. From it we have certainly learned better how to be sensitive to the unique spirit and nature of other places and draw upon that special power in the design of their landscaping.
What I've learned of greatest value is what is obvious in the most masterful of Zen gardens. What once needed a bounty of artistic groupings of plants to accomplish, you learn can be done merely with a shadow, or a beam of sunlight. What once took color, form and smell, with greater skill takes only the opening of a way for the spirit of a place to come forth clearly. What once took careful thought and design and work now takes only an attunement and unfolding of something to which we feel our hearts respond.
We forget sometimes that the heart of music arises within silence, and the seed of dance rests in stillness. Once the spirit of place is touched and revealed, it matters not whether the rest of a garden is shadow or filled with the boundless creativity of nature. The soul remains, and it moves our hearts.
It feels, sometimes, like there is nothing special about what we have done - that it is a perfectly obvious way to deal with where we live. It isn't, however, judging by how others approach gardening here. Gardening seems instead to mean getting rid of everything except a blue stripe of ocean across the horizon, then stuffing a lot of gaudy plants around the edges of a grass covered yard, oblivious to the more powerful drama going on about them.
What we've learned can be applied elsewhere, in far richer and more varied forms than we have used. Our "wild garden" is not an exotic wild Oregon mountain garden, but a whole palette of powerful gardening tools that seem totally ignored today. How often do you find articles in gardening magazines on gardens without plants, gardens of light, snow gardens, spirit gardens, moon and star gardens?
Yet I remember a "water garden" we had in Minnesota, where an icicle dripping onto a flooded roof sent a shimmering reflection across the ceiling of our bedroom, keeping us entranced for hours. Later, I saw a somewhat similar one in a Zen restaurant in San Francisco. There is another wonderful garden in Mexico made only with clouds, and gardens in Japan whose power comes solely from shadows or from light filtered or reflected into a tiny space.
In Cobenhaven there is a delightful garden made only of air bubbling up through water. There is an incredible waterfall in Montana of silently dripping sunlit moss. Stockholm has a fantastic underground garden, where sunlight shimmering through the glass bottom of a fountain transforms an otherwise drear space. And sometime I'll tell you about an underground star garden I found in a cave in India. The same tools can create delight anywhere.
Gardens can have far more power to move our hearts.
Music can be made with more than one note.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA