Saturday, June 5, 2010

The urban forest for the trees

Not far from where I live is a stretch of sidewalk that has been reduced to one narrow path by a garden encroaching from both sides. The corner house doesn't have much room for a large garden, so they've taken over the strip along the curb and packed in as many plants as possible. The garden rarely gets trimmed back, so at points you have to duck and dodge to avoid the branches and leaves. I could easily walk on the other side of the street, but I always head for this mini-forest on purpose, even crossing over out of my way to get the chance to walk through and admire the plants and see what's in bloom.

The garden gets a little out of control, and it's probably in violation of some city code, but I think it's fantastic. The gardeners picked some wonderful plants, mostly California natives: towering matilija poppies looking like fried eggs on stilts, scrub oaks, flannelbush, fragrant purple sages, ragged bonsai-like manzanitas.

Matilija poppies

Cleveland sage

Landscape architects would probably shudder at the overcrowding and lack of consistent vision, but the wildness of the garden is what makes it so wonderful. It's a small gift to the world from the gardeners: for a half of a city block you're on a forest path buzzing with happy bees.

Tree mallow in bloom

I walked this way yesterday, leaning into a large bunchgrass to let a woman and her small children by coming the other way. She paused briefly to say thanks, but then she frowned. "This garden" she said, shaking her head in disapproval, "I can't believe they let it get like this."

"Really?" I asked, coming to the defense of the plants and the planters, "I like it. I think it's beautiful what they've done."

"These people are just so inconsiderate. They come and go by the back entrance and never even walk on this part of the sidewalk. They don't know how much of a nuisance it is to people with kids and strollers." The kids had toddled ahead, happily grazing their hands along the plants as they walked.

"I suppose..." I said, trying but mostly failing to see it from her perspective. "To me it's like a mini-forest in the middle of the city."

She didn't buy it; she shrugged and continued in the other direction.

It seemed a funny thing to get upset about, especially in the springtime with all of the flowers in bloom, and no one was forcing her to walk down that side of the street. I can see her point to a degree, in fact I recall once getting angry at an overhanging Japanese maple that I walked into mid-sneeze: how dare it be right in my path at that very moment? Stupid tree. But if she had just looked down at the wonder in her kids' faces as they strolled along this path through a towering gallery of plants many times their height, I think she would have quickly cast aside her gripes and seen the forest for the trees.

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