Monday, August 1, 2011

Seattle is hot, hot, hot

The sun had decided to make an appearance on the first day of our tour, and by the morning of Saturday - Day 2 - the Seattle news channels were forecasting a fine summer weekend. Not only did this confound the nay-sayers at home in the UK ("Going to Seattle? Better take an umbrella, huhr, huhr"), it also allowed us to appreciate fully the view from the first garden on the day's itinerary.

Great, isn't it? It was quite a long time before we could tear ourselves away and look at the garden. The little dark smudge on the horizon, below, is downtown Seattle.

The Eppings built their house themselves, about eight years ago, on a steep corner site. This not only gave them the spectacular views, but allowed them to take full advantage of light and space. A path gently sloped up round the side of the garden with strategically placed focal points - a water feature, a bench, a set of steps. It wasn't steep, but if you did run out of breath, there was always something that you could stop to admire.

I liked their use of containers - this one almost looks as if the plants in it have dripped onto the earth below.

I had serious hakonechloa envy when I saw these huge clumps of Japanese forest grass. So many plants in Seattle look as if they're on steroids; these were very different from the meagre fronds in my garden.

I liked the stone head, on the right, with its dreadlocks of trailing succulent, and the focal point that led you into the woodland part of the garden. The garden looks so well-established, it's difficult to think that it's only been here for a few years.

Here's that view again. Sorry, couldn't resist. Another feature I found irresistible, but failed to take a picture, were the glass urns from which the Eppings served us iced tea and pink lemonade. They were exactly the right kind of garden hosts - kind and welcoming and patient. As, indeed, were all the people we encountered in Seattle.

The next garden on the list was the Lanes' garden, a complete contrast. Here, a woodland garden wrapped itself around the house on three sides. The site was about an acre, but by cultivating right up to the road and creating various areas within the garden, the owners had made it seem much larger.

I liked the gunnera leaf fountain on this formal pool. I think I would have been tempted to plant gunnera beside it, but it's such a monster of a plant, perhaps it would have been out of scale.

Great birdhouse tree...

And another water feature, this time in a sunny clearing...

And another one...

One of the most impressive things about the Lane garden however, which I didn't photograph, was the outdoor kitchen, which you can just see in the background of this picture. It was paved with huge tiles made of concrete stained the colour of redwood, and the Lanes very kindly let us have lunch there. There was ample room for all 70 of us.

After stuffing our faces and feasting our eyes, we made our way to the Bellevue Botanical Gardens, where the first thing I saw was a garter snake. I hate snakes. When I was a child, I couldn't even look at a picture of a snake in a book - and I didn't take a picture of this one either, because my hands were shaking too much (much to the amusement of my American friends).
Indeed, I didn't take many pictures at all at Bellevue because I was too busy buying a sun hat in the gift shop. Yes, you heard that right - a sun hat. I'd packed wet weather gear, but nothing to wear if it got hot. And as you can see from the pictures below, it was getting very hot indeed.
The Americans seem to do really good straw sun hats. I bought my favourite gardening hat in Florida and I've come to the conclusion that if you want a hat for wearing in the sun, it's best to buy one in a climate that sees a lot of sunshine. Both this one and the Florida one are crushable, too, so you can ram them in a suitcase.

Hat on head, it was time for the final item on the day's itinerary - the Olympic Sculpture Park, part of the Seattle Art Museum. I'd come across a new word in Seattle: docent. I think it's a German word, but in the States it typically means someone who leads a tour - around a gallery or museum, for example - and is usually a volunteer. I'd quickly learned to head for the docent with the loudest voice and the feistiest personality since they will a, probably tell funny stories, and b, you can hear what they say.
The sculpture park docent was brilliant. She gave us a quick history of the park (it's called Olympic after the mountain range you can see in the distance, by the way, not the Games) and a tour of the major sculptures.

This is one of the first things you see at the sculpture park - this is Split, by American sculptor Roxy Paine. Stainless steel trees are Paine's "thing", as it were, posing the question: "What is nature, what is art?" A perfect philosophical debate for garden bloggers. Check this out too.

The sculpture park is extremely popular with wedding parties, who go there to be photographed and even have receptions there. I loved the way this bride's veil formed a soft, floating counterpart to the monolithic concrete structure. But if you don't want to keep dodging out of the way of wedding photographers, don't visit on Saturday afternoon.

Father and Son, by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, who died last year. It was funded by a legacy from Stu Smailes, a former executive of Safeco, the US insurance group. He gave $1m to the city of Seattle on condition it purchased a piece of public art that included realistic, lifesize nude male figures. Apparently, he was very keen on Ancient Greek sculpture and the male nude in art. At this point, Barbara muttered behind me: "But we won't go there," which gave me the giggles. One of the figures is obscured by the fountain while the other is on show. Only when the fountains change once an hour can you see both figures stretching out their arms to each other.

Alexander Calder's monumental The Eagle. I loved the way it framed the Space Needle in the distance, but if you look at it from the other side, it almost seems on the point of taking flight above the ocean.

Bunyon's Chess, by Mark di Suvero, who uses found objects in his work. It looks like the skeleton of a sailing ship, with its mast-like structure and heavy timbers.

Louise Nevelson also used found objects in her work. If you pull up this picture and look at the piece lying on the ground, you can see that the middle section is composed of document holders - the sort that you can buy in stationery stores to hold magazines or papers. This is called Sky Landscape I.

I love the way the plants and the sky are reflected in this sculpture, so that you're not quite sure what is there and what isn't there. This is Perre's Ventaglio III by Beverly Pepper.

In a park built on a monolithic scale, you need a really huge piece to maintain the impact. I think we were all impressed by Wake, by Richard Serra, which unrolls like a series of giant waves as you reach the lowest level of the park. At first glance, it looks like an enormous steel wall. Only as you get closer do you realise that it is separate components.

The structures suggest the hulls of ships - appropriately for a port city - and one of the machines used in their manufacture was once used for French nuclear submarines.

The surface of the weatherproof steel varies according to whether it faces the prevailing wind or rain. Those facing the ocean look almost like leopard-skin, while the other side of the structure is more streaky and linear. Seen from a distance, they look like a convoy of smokestacks - there's something rather menacing and purposeful about them.
But then we Flingers probably looked rather menacing and purposeful too.