9th August, 2016
It is over and I could weep.
I have admired the work of Piet Oudolf from a distance for a long time and dreamt of visiting his own garden near Hummelo in the Netherlands, but had thought it impossible. Some years ago I was stopped in my tracks by a neuropathic pain in my sciatic nerve that was made worse by an accident and then worse again following surgery.
This is not a normal pain because it never ceases and feels like permanent scalding all the way down the affected limb to the toes. So I had thought my travelling days were over because I wouldn’t be able to cope with the physical demands of life lived at an intense pace and on a very tight schedule but then I began writing about the experience of pain in a journal and that helped me process the feelings. I also sought help from a pain psychologist and the medical team, led by Professor Bob Large at The Auckland Regional Pain Centre and they helped me learn how to live, or to co-exist alongside the pain, how to be non-reactive in the Buddhist way. The pain is a challenge, yes, but not a catastrophe. It just is That is all.
The sky this morning was overcast and beautiful, in the way it can only be in Europe, where the clouds are more tonal and seem to have greater depth. Earlier in the week the weather report had promised sun but today it said, ‘rain starting at 11am,’ the very hour of the opening of Piet Oudolf’s garden. After a short consultation, perhaps we should visit a castle first and find shelter inside, away from the rain? We decided to go directly to the garden.
Our route took us through all the shades of green on the colour wheel, through pastoral scenery —fields, cattle, horses galloping - farmhouses and castles constructed out of beige-pink brick with dark brown shutters at the windows. My son-in-law drove, quite fast, in the Audi, down lanes one car wide, the grassy verges high. Trees formed high arches overhead. In the north island of New Zealand we have one green tunnel on the way to Rotorua and it is dense with native ferns, but here in the Netherlands, the tunnels are slender tree trunks and lacy canopies that go on forever, with slot openings to view a large secret house and sometimes a wider gap revealing farmland and villages where houses sit right on the road. For one moment I was reminded of Canterbury and the leafier parts near Lake Ellesmere where the land is very fertile but this landscape has canals bisecting the fields at close intervals, making the pastures even more lush, and castles.
From the road you can’t see Piet Oudolf’s garden, near Hummelo, and could sweep by and not notice it. The entry is down a driveway bordered by his signature deep, high hedges. As we pulled into the park a woman, wearing pale leaf green, cotton flared pants, crossed the drive and was waiting when we got out of the car. “Are you Piet Oudolf’s wife?’ I asked, recognising her from the articles in Gardens Illustrated. ‘Ya, ya,’ she said. ‘You’re a lucky thing,’ I commented. To which she laughed ruefully. ‘After fifty years of marriage!’ she pulled a face, and yet I could see she was very proud of him. She left us then, abruptly, to explore at our own pace.
We were the first visitors to the garden on this morning and the soft rain it slowed right down and stopped as we walked in. Today my mind was alert and clear, and the sneaky vertigo was in abeyance. All I needed to watch out for was my impulse to photograph too much, using my iphone. For this experience I wanted to be very slow and still and Zen.
How to describe the first view of his garden floating gently like a mirage, seen through a wide portal in the hedging. The enchantment it stopped me in my tracks. The sound coming from somewhere inside me was a sigh, an exhalation of breath.
I will probably have to go back and edit this prose. I know some of the romantic hyperbole will have to go. But how? The garden extracts an extravagant response because Piet Oudolf’s canvas is more than Monet’s waterlilies at Giverny, more than Vincent Van Gogh’s turquoise landscapes at Arles, more than Pissarro’s pastel compositions of the French countryside, more than Theo Van Doesburg splashes of bright colour, more than Mark Rothko, or Helen Frankenthaler, or Gretchen Albrecht’s stained canvases, more than any painter I can think of, except perhaps Odion Redon for the mystical, dreamlike atmosphere. The garden is arranged in swathes that magnify and recede, a soft sliding of planes and colour plates, each zone artfully balanced to create an effect of au naturel when really it is nature enhanced. A garden that shimmers and trembles in the pale purple light.
It felt obtrusive to walk through the ethereal atmosphere despite the pathways in wide circles admitting easy entry. I didn't want to trample on the spirit of the flowers, they each had a gentle aura that was palpable, a life force emanating from the petals and the smell of phlox mixed with the light aniseed scent of bronze fennel was delicate and sweet. The quality of the garden made me think of a Hildegard of Bingen recording called A Feather on the Breath of God so I proceeded on tiptoe. The flowers were recognisable, the bronze-red flower-heads of helenium, the frothy petals of flox in four different tones; white, soft pink, deeper pink, purple, the spires of veronicastrum virginicum; blue, purple blue, lavender, cream, the faces threading up the hollyhocks; pale lemon, the spiky hot pink stars with bronze pinhead at the centre of Echinacea, the yellow-gold of bronze fennel, the maroon dots of sanguisorba, the lavender and lilac of the old-fashioned geraniums Roxanne, Johnson’s blue and then the many prairie grasses that spray like perfect fountains.
The hedging in this garden, with its imperfect rectangles provides a perfect foil for the overflowing plant forms. One yew hedge is a big wide circle on a green lawn. In a garden nearer the modern house, the designer has arranged the plants in rows, with narrow apertures just wide enough for a person to walk down and study the plants in close-up, bumping into bees and spiders and butterflies on the way. That’s another effect of being in Piet Oudolf’s garden. He makes you stop and look closely at every facet of a plant form including the pale purple feathers of the grass seed heads.
It was very hard to leave this garden knowing I would never return. The brief visit made me aware of how ephemeral a human life is. I stole through the hedge for one last viewing, this time in the rain, to absorb the miracle and say thank you to Piet and to nature and to the single spark of life eons ago that set off the process of cell replication that led to the radiance of this garden today. Taking one last gulp of the mystery with tears in my eyes and on my cheeks I turned on my heel and walked away.