Reflections on “Windcliff”

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I don’t remember how old I was when my father helped me start a stamp collection.  Maybe six?  My father was a foreign news editor for Newsweek magazine and as such, he received lots of letters and packages from abroad.  He would save the stamps from this correspondence and bring them home to me and my sisters.  I remember a couple of sessions of gluing these brightly colored bits of paper into an album, but the hobby never really took.  I felt no drive to fill that album’s pages; I lack some fundamental collector’s instinct.

That’s why, no doubt, I am having difficulty with Daniel Hinkley’s new book, Windcliff.  I received a review copy from the publisher, Timber Press, this past week, and I’ve been delving into its 280 pages.  I’m appreciating the prose – Hinkley is a talented writer.  Likewise, the photographs by Claire Takacs are insightful and beautiful.  So far, so good.  The problem is that I don’t understand why Hinkley would want to create the kind of landscape he did, a sort of cheek by jowl menagerie of exotic plants.  The individual plant portraits in the book, both verbal and photographic, are often alluring.  But the broader shots, when Takacs or Hinkley pulls back for a panorama, more typically strike me as cluttered.  Skillfully arranged, certainly, but cluttered.

Scenic or cluttered? It depends on the viewer…

Hinkley, who has made many plant-collecting expeditions himself, gardens within a vigorous and well respected tradition.  Think of the great plant collectors of 19th century and early 20th century England such as Frank Kingdon-Ward and Ernest “Chinese” Wilson, and the many famous gardens that their clients and their successors have created.  My reaction to all of these is respect for the expertise but bafflement about the motivation.

The gardens that speak to me, that I find most powerful, rely on simpler materials disposed to interact with and complement the landscape and setting.  The classical gardens of Italy and Japan come immediately to mind.  On a more contemporary note, I find much to admire in the current school of “ecological gardeners” who strive to work within a local flora and ecosystem while also making the landscape comfortable and beautiful for its human inhabitants.  Such duets with nature offer a sense of being rooted in place that I find viscerally appealing and exciting.

Many people I know and respect disagree with me in this matter.  For them, I suspect, reading Windcliff is going to be a great pleasure.  I will persist in my own effort, and perhaps I will better understand the collector’s impulse by the time I turn the last page.

 

 

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

5 COMMENTS

  1. I agree. I understand the people who collect plants by genus or by rarity but I am not one of them. For one thing, it’s usually too expensive, especially if the newly acquired plant dies! And I’m also too much of a generalist in everything so my gardens reflect that. I’m glad there are “specialists”, though, since they create places where one can see hundreds of roses or irises or species geraniums or conifers near each other. But I don’t think I’ll buy the book. Sorry.

  2. My father helped me start a stamp collection too – and I really must dig it out and see what is there. Perhaps the funds to build a greenhouse! Plants as collected (but associated) objects work for me when it comes to ‘the collector garden,’ but it certainly takes skill to do that – more often they are prizes only, grown to survive, not thrive — and they fail to thrill. I have not been to Windcliff but I would have imagined it to be a skillfully displayed collection – you have piqued my interest and I will have to order the book. Dan Hinkley is an excellent writer and I enjoy checking in on his blog. – MW

      • They often work fine as pollinators. It’s the ‘hosts for insect larval stage’ that gets shorted it there aren’t enough natives.

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