April 12th, 2008
Spring Flingers’ Secret Revealed

The lawn at the David-Peese garden.

The Japanese have a saying, juu-nin to-iro, literally “ten people, ten colors”. Or to put it into less compact English, “Ask ten people a question and you’ll get ten different answers.” What has fascinated me about reading everyone’s Spring Fling posts is seeing something I experienced through other people’s eyes. One of the reasons I read is to learn to see the world through eyes more observant than mine, to think about things that would not have occurred to me alone. And so, to have almost forty different perspectives of a shared experience is revealing. It shows me how subjective the experience of a garden is. How much we take out of another’s garden is strongly related to how much we put into seeing it.

Some people focused on things I never gave a second glance. They peeked into niches and corners I didn’t notice. Others photographed the same grouping and created a striking composition where I just took a simple snapshot. All these eyes help me see what I missed. These different perspectives inform my own experience. Looking at them together I feel like I’m looking through the compound eye of some giant insect, seeing the world in a way I never saw it before.

For all the differences, there are some similarities. There are photos of bluebonnets and other wildflowers, of newly-made friends laughing as they pose with arms around each other. Many people tried to capture the dramatic descent to the pond at the David-Peese garden, or James David’s exotic voodoo lily, or a careful grouping of stones. I smiled in recognition and thought, “Yes. That appealed to me, too.”

However, one common photo on many of the posts seemed strange to me (although I snapped it myself), a shot of James David’s lawn.

For all our talk about tearing out lawns and replacing them with flowers or vegetables, why were we gardeners drawn to lawn. Did the lawn provide a sense of relief, to come up into the air and light after all our winding through the dark and narrow paths filled with exotics on a steep hillside? Did we need a dose of its strong lines and geometry to counteract the exuberant growth of the rest of the garden?

And yet we were drawn into the space only with our eyes. We all photograph it from the outside. Is there something forbidding about the lawn? something that made us all hang back at the entrance as if we were afraid to enter a sacred enclave? Perhaps a lawn as imposing as this one doesn’t need a sign saying “Keep of the Grass”. Or perhaps after admiring the clear swathe with its distinct lines and sharply cut borders, there was nothing to left to pull the gardener into it and we turned our attention elsewhere.

What do you think?

by M Sinclair Stevens

17 Responses to post “Spring Flingers’ Secret Revealed”

  1. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    Us gardeners like to look at lots of different plants I think, and while the view of the lawn vista is appealing there’s no “busy-ness” of other plants in there to interest us.

  2. From Jennifer (New Jersey):

    A well manicured green lawn accents the variety of details (color, texture, shape, size, variety) found in the plant life in gardens.

  3. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    If you go back to my first post about that garden (October 2006), you’ll see that I photographed the lawn too. I remember being drawn to its formal, European lines, which treated it as a geometric carpet of green. As opposed to most lawns I’d seen all my life, this one was a distinct space in its own right, set off with symmetry and stone borders.

    On that visit I did walk into the lawn—all the way to the stone pedestal at the end. But like you, I looked on from the outside on the Spring Fling visit. I guess it reads more like a picture meant to be looked at than as a space to enter.

  4. From Gail (Tennessee):

    Thought provoking MSS, you know I have no memory of setting foot on the grass…interesting, I am pondering that right this moment. It didn’t draw me in. Nor did I take a photograph, but to be honest I was worn out by them, my senses on over load…which is interesting considering that I stopped at this vista last and even tired, it didn’t invite me in to rest.

  5. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens (Indiana):

    Very interesting observations of others’ observations. I took pictures of the lawn from the entrance to that area, too, but didn’t step out onto the grass. Perhaps it was because everywhere else in the garden there were clear paths to walk on and here, a decision had to be made. Was the lawn for looking at or strolling out on? I guess to be respectful and a good guest, I chose not to walk on the grass.

  6. From Julie (Austin):

    My memory may be off, but here goes:

    I recall having that “oops better stand up straight!” feeling on seeing this view. But when I walked out onto the very formal feeling lawn, I noticed that there were vegetables and humble annuals growing in the side beds. Made me chuckle. Kinda like the cackling chickens directly across the great limestone stairs.

    I think here and there these gardeners enjoy puncturing some of the stuffiness and social class “rules” of dignified and opulent landscaping. (After all they are Austinites.) Bravo!

  7. From bill/prairie point:

    I didn’t take a picture of the lawn or go into it. I vaguely wondered about what it might be like to be on the other side, but it was too far away to make me want to go there. There were too many other things to see that were more interesting and I tend to be drawn into small intimate spaces. I thought the lawn was an artifact that took up too much space, and wondered if they actually made some use of it.

  8. From Annie in Austin:

    What an interesting set of questions, MSS!

    In addition to the Fling, I’d been at the David-Pease garden a few years ago, taking no photos on either visit. The two things that I remembered most were this vista with lawn, and how difficult and inconvenient it would be to live there and want to use the lap pool.

    The lawn was still beautiful but the trees at the end have changed a little. I guess this scene’s resemblance to the backgrounds in some old Italian paintings is the attraction for me. I walked through it the last time but this time tried to not get in the way of the photographers.

    I’m trying to remember…once you move forward a few feet wouldn’t the other garden on the side intrude into the photo? For a clean shot would you have to stay behind those terra cotta pots?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  9. From Rachel (Austin):

    Somehow, I missed the lawn altogether. I think I spent my lawn time hanging out with the voodoo lily.

  10. From Kim (Ohio):

    I didn’t see the garden personally, of course, but I think that in general you’ve nailed it in regards to the reasons why it was arresting. Kind of like the matting on a picture, only in reverse… a place for the eye to rest visually, even if it’s not a particularly inviting place to walk.

    Incidentally, all of those reasons (and my own admitted love of laying on the grass to rest) are what convinced me to do an eco-lawn in my backyard instead of just gardening the entire thing. Of course, that might change if I keep finding plants that I just have to add. (Okra, brussels sprouts… some of the plants I keep insisting on fitting in take up lots of real estate.)

  11. From vertie (Austin):

    Interesting questions, MSS. I think the lawn was appealing because of the quiet it offered after all the diversity of the garden. I didn’t take any pictures that day but I looked back through my pictures from the Garden Conservancy tour and I have a photo of that lawn from the other end, looking back toward the house. So I definitely walked on the grass, and I know that last week I walked across it to check out the vegetables. I guess it just depends what interests you.

  12. From Dawn (Austin):

    Good question MSS. I think I dubbed it a “pitch of lawn with a vista”. It was a sort of relief on the eyes after all the closed-in lushness below. I imagined it as a very European type of space of green that might be used for a croquet game or a marquette for a large party.

  13. From Frances (Tennessee):

    I took several photos of this, one from inside the house after Mr. David explained that the window was placed with the middle of the grille lined up with the pot at the end of the vista. Walking around to the lawn and realizing that there were potagers on each side with thoughtful patterns to the plantings there, I was even more impressed with the design of the whole property. There were red and green lettuces ready to eat in one section making a patchwork pattern. So lovely.

  14. From Diana (Austin):

    Fascinating ruminations, MSS! I’m still not sure why we were all drawn to photograph the lawn, except that it was beautiful — the composition and the green of the grass and the trees, like a formal Mediterranean garden. I wouldn’t have one myself, but I found myself appreciating the work and the strength of that particular vista. Thanks for making us think!

  15. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter (Chicagoland):

    To reach that lawn, we had already gone up and down the front garden and then down, around and up. It was the end point, at which point, my feet decided enough was enough. So instead of being drawn out into the lawn, I was drawn to a garden bench nearby in the shade. :^} Even if my feet had been cooperating, there was nothing within the lawn area to make me want to investigate it. There were no tantalizing glimpses of color, nor sounds of running water. I’m one of those weirdos, I’m mean gardeners, who believes that a small bit of lawn is just the thing for setting off plantings.

    Although so many of us took a photo of this vista, if you look carefully you will notice that the photos are not the same. Even within the strictures of this formal composition, we all made individual choices. Vive la difference!

    Exactly! Or to return where we began, “10 people, 10 tastes”…We all had our different reason for being attracted to the lawn. Thanks to everyone for explaining your reasons and satisfying my curiosity. — mss

  16. From Libby:

    Fascinating comments. When I took my digital photo and stood looking at the lawn, Tom Spencer was just leaving. I can’t remember what I said, presumably some blather, but he responded with “I think it’s about the view.”
    And I immediately realized, yes, he’s right. The lawn, the plantings, those upright evergreens were all about framing the sky and the vista of the hills beyond.
    Many posts above used the word “vista”, a more expansive term than “view” that touches upon the uplifting mystery that this open space awakes in us.

  17. From Bonnie, Austin:

    I didn’t feel I could take a step on that lawn without having proper croquet attire on, complete with white straw hat and knickers.

    I immediately thought “croquet”, too but other people saw it as a pitch lawn or a bowling green. — mss