Monday, July 25, 2011

For the Love of Nature

I was reading the latest issue of National Geographic, who's cover story is about 'The Wildest Place in North America.  I have sea kayaked a couple of times in this breathtaking part of the world off the coast of British Columbia in Canada.  It is a land of temperate rain forest, dense with vegetation and teeming with wild life.  We saw numerous Orca Whales, dolphins, bears, deer, and bald eagles all thriving in a clean and relatively unspoiled environment.  And then there was the 24 hour fishing day, where trawlers fired on each other staking out territory as they stripped the waters of most of its salmon population in a frightening display of man's gluttony.  They chuck their garbage overboard, which washes up on the shores of otherwise pristine islands.  Such is the way of man.
Alberta's Boreal Forest

The NG article talks about the relationship of the First Nations people with the natural environment, people who have inhabited the land for hundreds of generations.  The following article is called 'Pipeline through Paradise', about the proposed Northern Gateway Oil and Condensate Pipeline which at a cost of 5.8 billion dollars would pump oil and natural gas from the oil sands region of Alberta to a yet to be built oil tanker port on what is now a pristine fiord in British Columbia.  Huge tankers would navigate their way up narrow fiords to this port to take the oil and liquified natural gas to the burgeoning markets of China.  All of the First Nation Tribes who live in this region oppose the pipeline.  Canada wants to become a global player in the oil game, as the estimated petroleum reserves in the oils sands is estimated to be second only to Saudi Arabia's reserves.  In order to extract the petroleum from the sands, unfathomably huge swaths of once pristine boreal forest are being strip mined, literally thousands of square miles.  The once wild Athabasca River is being tapped for the enormous quantity of water that is needed to extract the oil from the sands.  The carbon emissions of the process is huge as well.  So, in order to keep us on the road, we are literally destroying our planet, turning the the wild in to a toxic wasteland.  Cannons fire off over the giant lakes of poison effluent to keep flocks of migrating geese from landing on them, where they would soon die, and they do.
An image from the March 2009 National Geographic article on Canadian Oil
Sands, photo by Peter Essick

The next article in the magazine is about robot technology, creating machines to fold our clothes and clean our houses and serve and entertain us.  There is technology to create robot pets to keep us company.  What was startling about the juxtaposition of these articles is that we are destroying nature in order to create a world where we don't need or care about nature any more.  These robots require a lot of energy to design and produce, and rare metals and gold for their circuitry that come from strip mines. The World gets hotter and more miserable and people of means stay inside more and watch TV (or someday play with their robot dog) in a climate controlled environment that requires vast energy reserves.  Thus there is an increased need for the extraction that causes appalling environmental degradation.  There seems to be no stopping us.

Just today on July 26th, 2011 there is a headline stating that "Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is blasting as "radical" a Republican proposal to open up more than 50 million acres of public lands to logging and other development."  The proposal would open up an area the size of Wyoming to resource extraction, much of it now designated as wilderness.  The extraction would be done by large corporations who now fund the election campaigns of the politicians who are making these proposals.  So what has been protected, a small percentage of public lands, is under fire to be pillaged.  As we continue to require the resources of 3 or 4 Earths to maintain our American lifestyle, I imagine that in our lifetime this will actually happen.

So, in reaction to what is going on, I am proposing a personal counterbalance.  We talk a lot about being green these days, as if it were some hip trend.  Can Americans seriously think we are being green?  It has to be a reality based thing that plays in to our very lifestyle if it is going to be real.

I have always picked up garbage on my street.  I also pick up litter when I am walking to the store, or if I stop while traveling I will pick up the area where I park.  In my lifetime I have probably picked up a ton or more of garbage.  The garbage gets there because people don't seem to care.  The Earth is a waste basket and nature is supposed to just suck it up.  But after I pass through, the planet gets cleaner.  I sort and recycle the waste.  I compost my food scraps.  I rarely eat meat. I grow a lot of my food.  I buy my food in bulk and reuse my bags over and over and over, including the plastic produce bags.  So my solid waste contribution is probably 10% of the American norm.   It isn't that hard to do, it just requires thought and concern.  Imagine what a 90% reduction in solid waste would mean.

I still have an impact on the Earth that is far from good for it.  I still drive, though I ride my bicycle when ever I can.  An estimated 16% of Portlanders commute to downtown on bicycles.  It is a step in the right direction.  I garden organically.  I try to buy from sustainable sources and support local agriculture.  That means I don't shop at Costco.  When I have garden tours at my home, I don't use plastic cups and paper plates.  The food tastes and looks better, and I'm not sending off another bag of garbage to the landfill, which happens to be 150 miles away.  They are filling a valley in Eastern Oregon.  Seattle ships its garbage in barges up the Columbia River to that same landfill.  Honolulu may ship their trash from Hawaii there as well.  So we need a pipeline that puts pristine coastline and imminent risk of catastrophic degradation so that our garbage can be shipped over huge distances.  We need to change the way we live, now, really.

There is a music festival near the Oregon coast that charges $10 for every empty seat in cars that arrive, thus encouraging people to carpool.  They require that you bring your own plate and silverware to use at the food stalls, and there is a dishwashing station, so there are no disposable cups and plates and plastic forks.  It is visionary and conscious and innovative and should be a precedent.  We are such a disposable society.  Starbucks serves all of their beverages in disposable containers, even if you are drinking it there.    Stryofoam takes thousands of years to decompose (into what?).  It was banned in Portland 20 years ago and that ban extends to 100 cities in the U.S. today.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an island of floating debris twice the size of Texas trapped by ocean currents.  Tests done of minnows in the cleanest most remote parts of the oceans found that they contained bits of broken down plastic.  You eat garbage every time you eat fish.  There are no organic fish in the sea anymore.  It is a tragedy.

Jackhammering a driveway
When I consult on a garden I always try to be realistic about what the impact will be on the planet.  Decks and fences need a lot of wood.  The wood rots and in 25 years needs to be replaced.  Ipe, a tropical hardwood from Brazil is popular now, but believe me, it is not sustainable or environmental or green in any way, no matter what you hear.  Neither is teak.  They had to cut down the native forest to plant the plantation teak.  I propose building with scrap steel for fences and trellises.  They last so much longer and are quite beautiful.  Stone and gravel is quarried, which is devastating to the landscape.  Some stone needs to be shipped great distances.  Gravel is dredged from rivers.  All this stuff should be treated with reverence as it is a gift from the Earth.  It needs to be used well to honor that gift, with minimal waste.  I've recycled many tons of concrete we've pulled up on site back in to the gardens.  My garden is built of stone collected from the wild so there was no quarrying.  It takes longer and is more work, but in the end it is far more powerful stuff to contemplate than being purely decorative.

Recycled slabs of concrete create a path in a now permeable driveway

I am preaching, but it is out of love for this planet.  I know first hand as a connoisseur of nature, that it is the most amazing system imaginable.  It functions at the pinnacle of potential.  It is magical and nurturing and breathtaking.  Our gardens can maybe brush the surface, or if we indulge on a shamanistic level become a profound stage for nature to play out its magnificent symbiosis, connecting to the universe back to its very beginnings, and maximizing on its ultimate potential, and taking us along for the ride.

The best part of being cleaner and more conscious for me is that my quality of life is so much better.  Disposable plastic cups and silverware have no class.  Neither does heavily processed food.  We eat like gourmets here.  The food is healthy and delicious and so fresh.  We eat it on lovely plates that I wash by hand afterwards.  No Costco platters of old processed food served here.  The garden is gorgeous, better than any luxury resort hotel.  There is no heated swimming pool, but rather a hot bath in a claw foot tub.  There is no tropical hardwood deck, no lawn and thus no mow and blow service.  We lie on carpets on the round gravel patio.  Nature loves to hang out here too, so at times I feel like Snow White.  Fa la la la la.  It gives me the energy and compassion to want to pick up after other people, to make the world more beautiful and wonderful to inhabit.  It is not inspired by greed, it is inspired by a desire for true beauty.   If we all incorporated that ideal in to our daily lives, then the fate of the World might just be that much brighter.  Lets actively try to give something back to nature, cultivate and nourish it, make it flourish, and flourish along with it.  We certainly need it, and it needs our respect in return.  Thanks for listening, Jeffrey
Blue Jay on fountain, Smith Garrett garden, San Francisco

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An article on my work in the New York Times

This article was written by Kate Murphy from the New York Times after interviews while I was working on the garden of Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub in Los Angeles in the fall of 2009.  It was published in the Home and Garden section on Christmas Eve of that year.  After watching me work for part of 3 days, she titled the article 'Turning Every Stone for a Perfect Fit' because that is what I do all day when I am building a mosaic.  Every stone is selected by hand and only those that have the proper shape and color are used.  People don't usually realize what that means until they watch me work for a long time.  I found a lot more than two dozen pebbles in that 400 pounds.  She journalistically exaggerates.  I don't use a slurry of concrete either, but rather Type 'S' Mortar, which is commonly used to lay bricks and stone.  The price of $100 to $300 a square foot is rather exaggerated as well.  Wouldn't that be nice (for me).

The main error in the article was the statement that I have a two year waiting list.  I am virtually unemployed at present, which seems odd considering what I am capable of doing.  If there is an eccentric, spiritual, artistic person of means out there who wants me to build them the most fabulous garden imaginable... the stuff of dreams, my services are available.

Click on the upper right hand corner to skip the ad that appears first when linking to the article.

Enjoy, Jeffrey

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building my Paradise Garden

Pool, Fountains, and Niche Wall in my garden
In 1998 I bought the house next door, what had been for over a decade a Crack House.  The house had a violent and disturbing history that could be worthy of a Quentin Tarentino movie.  Previous to my purchasing the house, it sat boarded up and vacant for two years after a drive by shooting, a rotting carcass of years of abuse.  I filled a full size dumpster cleaning out the house and another clearing out the garbage from the back yard that had accumulated over many years without garbage service.  Once the slate was clean, I began the transformation of a hellish space in to a heavenly one.
The Crack House Garden before

Recycling concrete in to the 'May wall'
It took 7 years to renovate the house in a loving and artistic manner and it and the garden are still a work in progress after 12 years.  First of all I took down the fences that had separated me from the mountain of debris and pitbulls for so many years.  I built a connecting stone path between the houses and laid a 3/4 inch round rock patio in order to have a clean space to work outside. The first phase of the garden was a kind of extreme make over so that it would be pleasant to inhabit in the short term.  But my eventual goals were far more involved for this small space.  Being only 18 by 33 feet, I needed to use every square inch of space to pack in a lust for plant collecting and stone.  I wanted to have two levels in the garden to give it depth and raise the height to screen out an unattractive house just 3 feet from the rear property line.  So I built a 2 foot high wall along the back and pebble mosaiced the cap of the wall.  Then, over the following month of May I started what I call the ‘May Wall’.  On May day, or Beltane, I made a small native American Medicine Wheel on the wall cap with stones I had collected from around the West Coast of the U.S, with many stones coming from Southern Oregon.  In the center of the wall is a rectangular indentation where I placed a clawfoot bathtub for taking hot baths in the garden.  I incorporated pieces of carved sandstone I had collected and shipped back from 3 winter trips to the state of Rajasthan in India.  I completed that section of the wall on the last day of May.  The cap of the wall is like a gallery of favorites, many of them inherited from my grandparents, who had a small rock shop and cut and polished stones.
Wall cap with small medicine wheel,  Coleus, Begonia

The 'May Wall', Bed over the clawfoot tub, and steel trellis hung with temple bells

Blue Jay on Granite Lotus Bowl
This garden has a strong influence from the 6 winters  I spent in India from 1994-99.  My first exposure to hand carving stone was in South India in the ancient town of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu.  Prototypes for centuries of Hindu temple design originated here, carved in situ from granite outcrops during the reign of the Pallava Kingdom from the 7th to 9th Century.  Granite is a hard, igneous stone and requires great patience to sculpt.  Today, hundreds of craftsmen continue to painstakingly render architectural components and religious imagery in a lineage handed down over 1500 years.  I designed stone bowls during a month long stay that I have kept because they are quite precious and unique, and to me, quite sacred.  They are perfectly round, with no flat base to rest on, but are so precisely balanced that they return to level.  A stylized lotus blossom is carved in the bottom of each one.  The concept is that by attaining perfect balance, one transcends the mirror on the surface of the water that reflects the illusion of reality, so that one can see the lotus, a representation of pure conciousness.
Stone columns in a yard in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

The following 4 winters I traveled part of the time in the Indian state of Rajasthan.  I visited most of the major centers for culture in the state, each having its own defensible walls and palace for the ruling maharaja.  Most buildings in Rajasthan are build of elaborately carved sandstone.  When exploring places like the Amber Fort outside Jaipur I was struck by the romantic beauty of the architecture, in particular in the harem quarters and gardens.  In the city of Jodhpur, I found architectural salvage in piles behind warehouses where furniture is manufactured using recycled wood and metal from old buildings.  Often buried by sandstorms and brush, I excavated some pieces nearly lost to time.  Over the course of 3 winters I shipped selected pieces back to Oregon via Mumbai, Singapore, and Los Angeles, where they were sent by train to Portland.  I built a display garden in an abandoned lot next to a cabinet maker’s shop nearby where I could unpack the crates and have sales.  Many pieces were damaged in transit and my hopes of selling them to clients to incorporate in to their gardens dwindled.
Loading my purchases

When I bought the house next door I moved all of the pieces in to the basement of that house so that I could focus all of my energy on bringing the dwelling back from ruin.  I completed the May Wall and constructed a high concrete block wall on the east property line.  The garden is essentially a series of simple rectangles.  The seat height wall runs the length of the garden with a planting bed behind it.  Plastic bamboo barrier attached to the rear wall contains a strip of Phyllostachys nigra ‘Boryana’, a lovely form of black bamboo with greenish culms spotted with brown.  Transplanting large clumps from a bamboo farm made for instant gratification.  The bamboo is by far the most labor intensive plant in my garden and its use should never be taken lightly.

At the base of the block wall, connected to the May wall, I built a raised rectangular pool.  This is some of the finest stone work I have ever done.  The pool is lined inside and out with wonderful pieces I collected from beaches on Puget Sound in Washington and elsewhere.  The cap is veined with tumbled tiles and stones from the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires.  The pool and May Wall buttress the high wall that I would later cover with Rajasthani stone window arches and panels, creating niches for a collection of bronze Buddhas and Hindu figures I collected from trips to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and.Myanmar.  The stonework here is incredibly tight, with absolutely no mortar showing.  Stones were carefully selected for their individual beauty and then arranged for a perfect fit.  The look reminds me of the way the stones fit together on the beaches and rivers I collected them on.  I built in a network of flexible copper tubes to attach to pumps for fountain jets that flow in to the pond and from the wall in to a bowl at ground level.
Cap of the Pool Wall

Thai Buddha and Sandstone Lotus panel

Diver Fountain
After the pool was finished I started to mock up what I call the Niche Wall.  I’m glad I didn’t sell the carved pieces that I used in the wall because I sincerely doubt that I could ever replace them today, and they really are treasure to work with.  The window frames mostly have a scalloped border that alludes to a flower or lotus blossom form.  Carved floral motifs depict gardens of paradise.  In between and behind the frames are vertical stone mosaics of special stones I spent years gathering, many arranged like fans.  The look reflects the influence of Islamic buildings around the world, from the Mughal palaces and tombs of India, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul to Persian shrines in Iran, or Koranic schools in Morocco blended with the natural world of the Pacific Northwest where I live.  Each niche has a cut sandstone platform base creating a flat altar in which I create vignettes with special objects and statuary.  At night I light Moroccan lanterns and votive candles for a magical effect.   On special occasions I make marigold garlands to hang around the necks of some of the Buddhas.

Carved sandstone bracket in the niche wall

The garden is luxuriant and fabulous to inhabit.  When it is raining the stones become richer in color.  Moss has created tiny gardens where moisture collects like you would see on cliff faces in the wild.  I lay Oriental carpets and piles of pillows on the round gravel patio on dry days for reclining and beholding the beauty of the space, and set up a bed on boards laid over the bathtub.  Raspberries and figs and Asian Pears hang with fruit in the summer.  Jasmine and peppermint scents the air.  Trickling fountains symbolizing divine artesian springs calm the mind.  Birds flit about, hummingbirds sip nectar, and my fancy tailed goldfish drift amongst colored glass floats in the pool.  It truly is heaven on Earth, a place I can grow old and be happy taking hot baths to soothe my aching body after so many years of hard labor.  Champagne Sunday brunches in the garden have become the stuff of legend and often last until evening. 
Champagne Sundays

I think that because I am such a vagabond of spirit, I needed to create someplace divine to lure me back home again every year.  And it works.
Tree of Life Mosaic with Petrified Wood branches behind a Thai Buddha with Marigold Garland

Goldfish and Glass Floats in the Pool