Tag Archives: Marion Brenner

Natural Discourse: Light & Image 2014, an epilogue

Ever wonder when our buildings are going to have the photosensitivity and photoreactivity of plants? Dale Clifford, with his focus on biomimetics applied to architecture, is on the case, investigating the possibility of designing a photoreactive brick inspired by the quadrangular, shade-modulating shape of a cactus. Looking for a tidy description of life on earth? Plant biologist Roger Hangarter has one for you: excited electrons powered by the sun. I’m totally borrowing that, Roger.


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Christian Thornton, Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio

Questions, questions. Can modern glass kilns reduce their energy footprint?
Certainly, by as much as 30 percent, if recycled glass is used and the kilns are run on vegetable oil discarded by local Oaxacan restaurants.

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Cobaea scandens in the Ware Collection of Glass Plants

And what did 19th century university botany departments do when dried specimens were insufficiently detailed for the rigorous study of plant architecture? Find the finest glass artists in the world, of course, German glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, to create glass models with precise, scientific accuracy. Harvard’s Ware Collection of Glass Plants transcends its scientific origins and is now regarded as a prized art collection visited by millions every year.

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Shirley Watts readies the book table sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore.
Clarissa Dalloway may have bought the flowers for her party herself, but the large vase on the book table was, I think, provided by Silverlake Farms.

All these questions and more could only have been answered by another installment of Natural Discourse, the peripatetic series of lectures curated by artist and garden designer Shirley Watts that allows artists and scientists to share their unique perspectives and fields of inquiry into our beloved plant world, which was held Saturday, October 18, 2014, at the LA County Arboretum.

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The auditorium at the LA County Arboretum was the biggest space yet of the three iterations of Natural Discourse, and for that reason I thought it perhaps the most challenging venue thus far.

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But wherever Natural Discourse is located, whether perched in a conservatory-like glass hall atop the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, or in a historic landmark hotel designed by Julia Morgan, or at your local arboretum, the effect is consistently hypnotic. The lights go down, the chattering eventually subsides, and Marion Brenner begins to articulate her relationship to light and its role in obtaining her exquisitely timeless landscape photographs seen on the projection screen. And then you begin to scribble furiously as she explains how she now shoots wirelessly to an iPad to live-proof her work.

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Photo found here

Possibly only at Natural Discourse will you meet an artist concerned with how long it will take an agave bloom to grow and thereby destroy the glass necklace he’s designed and placed on its flowering shoot.
(Christian Thornton of Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio has recorded 8 inches of growth a day.)

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The welcome being given by Richard Schulhof, Director of the LA Arboretum.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Glass Plants, playfully engages with the interactive programming wizardry of John Carpenter.

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Mr. Carpenter’s work asks questions like: Why can’t the fleeting thrill of blowing on a dandelion be prolonged?
(You can view the results of his dandelion inquiry at the link.)
Carpenter’s work may bring to mind the digitally interactive sequences in the movie Minority Report, which he designed.

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I want to personally thank Sue Dadd and James Griffith for providing both food and lodging Friday night.
And thanks also to their charming cat Kabuki, who slept at my feet all night.

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Very early Saturday morning I crept out in jammies and socks to have a private natural discourse with their stunning garden, this time a ravine adjacent to the Folly Bowl.
Talk about excited electrons!

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Photos of Natural Discourse at the LA County Arboretum by MB Maher.

Friday clippings 8/22/14


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At first sight I became enthralled by artist James Griffith’s exquisite, painterly ripostes to the “drill, baby, drill” set — my words, not his. James is much more polite.
By way of a secret alchemy, he utilizes that precious resource from our local La Brea Tar Pits in a uniquely subversive fashion, to cover canvases with delicate, etching-like portraits of species that don’t get a say in our energy politics, such as the humble and familiar crow, bat, mouse, and deer. His work reminds that all species are stuck in this moment together. I love my little tar bat that was last year’s Christmas present.

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James has a new show beginning September 6, 2014, at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station, where you can see the latest members of his tar pit menagerie.

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James is also co-creator with garden designer Sue Dadd of the Folly Bowl, their own personal outdoor amphitheater in which they host a summer-long series of concerts. This coming Saturday’s concert, August 23rd, is described on their Facebook page for The Folly Bowl. If you go, keep an eye out for one of the biggest Agave franzosinii south of the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

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Drawing from the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Plants at Harvard. Collection manager Jenny Brown and glass artist Christian Thornton will be two of the lecturers at Natural Discourse this October 18, 2014.

Another date to save: On October 18, 2014, impresario, artist, and garden designer Shirley Watts, is bringing Natural Discourse: Light & Image to the Los Angeles County Arboretum, which promises to be another amazing day of riveting lectures, this time here in our very own backyard. Shirley assembles together for one day the equivalent of a botanical salon filled with some of the most interesting speakers I’ve been privileged to hear. I wrote about them here and here and here — you can do a blog search for other posts too. Richard Turner, former editor of Pacific Horticulture, had this to say of earlier iterations of Natural Discourse:

The first symposia, held at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, were among the very best days I’ve ever spent sitting and listening to others speak.

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The Ruth Bancroft Garden by Marion Brenner, who will be one of the lecturers at Natural Discourse October 18th, 2014, at Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Garden bloggers in particular won’t want to miss a single pearl of wisdom that falls from legendary landscape photographer Marion Brenner’s lips at this upcoming Natural Discourse: Light & Image.

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Sansevieria ‘Black Gold’ at California Greenhouses

If anyone is tempted to visit the Orange County nurseries I mentioned here, I hope I caught you before you made the trip. You must add to your itinerary California Greenhouses.
Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of Potted, recommended this one to me, and I checked it out earlier this week. It is worth the trip alone.

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Some nurseries, like sports teams, have a “deep bench,” and California Nurseries has one of the deepest around.
Succulents in all sizes, from enormous dragon trees, tree aloes, and Yucca rostrata, to table after table of all the wee ones we love to stuff in pots, and at nearly wholesale prices.
Fantastic section of houseplants too.

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California Greenhouses currently has a couple enormous Aloe capitata var. quartzicola for sale, at least 3-gallon size if not 5.
More than double the size of this Aloe capitata var. quartzicola, photo taken in my garden this June.

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Department of Corrections: This is one of the so-called shrub begonias ‘Paul Hernandez,’ and it’s managed to thrive despite my having the blackest thumb a begonia enthusiast can have. I wish Freud had wondered instead what a begonia wants, because I sure as heck don’t know. I’ve made some comments that reference this gunnera-sized begonia as ‘Gene Daniels,’ so I need to correct that. I don’t think I’ve ever grown ‘Gene Daniels,’ but two begonias named after guys — you can see how I made the mistake. Checking the blog, I see that ‘Paul Hernandez’ dates back to 2011 in my garden, the only begonia I’ve grown with that kind of longevity, so we need to keep his identity straight. Good plants need to be rewarded; the next big pot I buy is going to be for Paul. Judging by the mottled color, I think Paul looks a little hungry. Maybe some fish emulsion?

I’ll close with my favorite quote of the week: “‘At the end of the day,’ Dr. Richard wrote in his diary this summer, ‘the plants are still in need of a drink, and so are we.’”

At least I have that in common with the energetic couple restoring a 250-year-old house in southwest France. There were a couple more epigrammatic, Wilde-worthy quotes in The New York Times article and luscious slideshow, “A Blank Slate With Fig Trees,” including success with houseguests requires “to never see them over breakfast.”

Happy weekend!


Bernard Trainor’s Landprints

Ages and ages ago (last July in fact) a bunch of us garden bloggers visited gardens in Northern California at last summer’s meetup known as the Fling. For the temperate Bay Area, it was an incredibly hot day, and we were all slightly wilted as we trooped into the Testa-Vought garden, designed by Bernard Trainor, where the gracious hosts offered refreshments and bade us to cool our feet in their pool. At that point, we were probably all dangerously close to begging for bathing suits. Not surprisingly, this was a garden I had to be pried from and forcibly scooted back onto the bus by our patient tour organizer, landscape designer Kelly Kilpatrck of Floradora. Amazing how quickly we revert to kindergartenish behavior when there’s a bus involved. Eventually, I did put down my glass of wine and made some lame attempts at photos. What I really wanted was to forget the camera entirely, have another glass of wine, and learn how to play the game of bocce.


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The Testa Vought garden had quite a few Australian plants, like acacia and grevillea, many selected by the owner, who according to Trainor is a hands-on plant devotee.


Never mind any of my other sunstruck photos because there’s a new book out on this designer’s work, “Landprints; The Landscape Designs of Bernard Trainor,” text by Susan Heeger, photography by Jason Liske and Marion Brenner. There’s so many interesting homes on design blogs now, but more often than not my reaction is predictably: How could such exquisite taste be so indifferent to what’s outside the house? For those who consider the landscape a low priority, this book is a primer on how, in the right hands, the landscape design just might change your life.

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Photo on the book’s cover

Mr. Trainor was the speaker at the November meeting of the Southern California Horticultural Society. The Aussie accent is barely perceptible now, but his boyhood spent surfing and sailing the Morningside Peninsula south of Melbourne, where silver banksia (Banksia marginata) presses in on coastal trails, is ultimately what attracted him to the western coast of North America, and specifically another peninsula, the Monterey Peninsula. Many of the following photos accompanied Mr. Trainor’s talk.

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Testa-Vought garden

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The “meadow” pool. After this project, many of his clients are now clamoring for a meadow pool of their own.
What looks like native scrub/chapparal planting is all the work of Trainor, which after settling in is sustained on rainfall alone.

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In this garden, Trainor had to persuade the stone masons that leaving pockets for plants would not destabilize the stairs.

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Though the book predominantly documents properties of extensive acreage, with insistent views of land, forest, ocean and sky, here’s an example of Trainor at work in a small space.

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On the bigger properties, low walls frame views, slow winds, and guide the eye, but are rarely used to completely enclose or isolate one from the surrounding landscape.

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(The next Fling for 2014 heads to Portland!)

Natural Discourse: Culture & Cultivation 10/10/13

What to make of this impulse to create gardens? Most of my ruminations are done leaning on a shovel, or moving a pot inches to the left and wondering why in the world it matters. One of the few constants throughout my life has been making gardens with the single-mindedness of the bowerbird making his bower. Confronted by the idiosyncratic, highly personalized creations of the bowerbird, evolutionary biologists tell us that the bowerbird is, despite all extraordinary outward appearances, simply attracting a mate. So why do I do it, make gardens? Is it all just useless beauty? I fitfully pick up, examine, then put these questions back on an increasingly dusty mental shelf, which is why it’s been so exciting to have Natural Discourse’s co-curator, artist and garden designer Shirley Watts, continue to gather together artists and scientists whose life work is their ceaseless examination of these questions. Natural Discourse provides the unique, multidisciplinary platform for them to tell an eager audience what they’ve discovered — a sold-out audience filled with familiar names such as Saxon Holt, Marion Brenner, Cevan Forristt, Flora Grubb, and Richard Turner.


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Photo: Bower of satin bower bird. David Rothenberg from his book ‘Survival of the Beautiful’


Last Thursday at the Berkeley City Club was a full day of talks by a remarkably diverse group of speakers, each in their own way interested in the “cultivation of appearances,” the “aesthetic imperative,” in Robert Pogue Harrison’s words.

Plant biologist/evangelist and Emmy-award winner Roger Hangarter started off the day placing plants squarely at the fountainhead of all life, and not the inert, sedentary green wallpaper that many see, but surprisingly full of movement and communicative ability via, for example, chemicals. (Some of his heart-stopping time-lapse work can be seen here.)

Margaret Morton, in her photographic studies of the impromptu gardens of New York’s homeless, spoke to the enduring human impulse to make gardens even when basic survival is hardly assured.

Artist Mary Jo McConnell described how she “found a group of artists that live and work in the cloud forests of New Guinea — these artists are birds. The creature that has become McConnell’s obsession, luring her back around the globe, year after year, is known as the Vogelkop Bowerbird.” (Frontline.)

Alice Miceli‘s Chernobyl Project attempts to depict what can’t be seen, the radiation that poisons the abandoned landscape that humans fled after the meltdown of the infamous reactor No. 4. Her astonishingly brave objective is to “create a radiographic series of images of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone depicting the most affected regions…These stunning images are imprinted by the invisible radiation that has contaminated the area since the disaster on 26 April 1986.” Gardens won’t be planted again within a 30-kilometer radius of reactor No. 4 for at least 800 years.

The least image-intensive talk was Prof. Harrison’s, which makes references easier taken out of Thursday’s context. Addressing the inherently bleak, pessimism-inducing view of plants and animals by evolutionary biologists as “survival machines” that “appear in order to survive,” Prof. Harrison calls on witnesses like zoologist Adolf Portmann, in his work “Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals,” to counter that, conversely, perhaps we “survive in order to appear.”

Without denying the role of function, Prof. Harrision finds that Portman’s work points to the “astonishing richness, variety, and sheer superfluity of the forms of animal and plant life on earth, [and] he suggests..that the external appearance of species is not there to promote life processes but, on the contrary, life processes exist in order to enable appearances; that living things do not appear in order to survive but survive in order to appear.”

And, Prof. Harrison continues, if we “do not appear in order to survive, but survive in order to appear, then the first point I’d like to make is that gardening is a human activity that conspires with the inner urge of living genes to appear. Why? Because by working the soil in which plant life takes root, gardening cultivates appearances.” Gardens provide “a special stage that puts into relief the self-display of living things, including ourselves, human beings.”

Prof. Harrison suggested that there must be two truths, or a duplex veritas, to account for both the functionalistic view that evolutionary biology holds regarding the multiplicity of forms and color that surround us, and a mysterious “aesthetic imperative” that colors the tips of hummingbird wings with a gratuitous subtlety and nuance. This is the “sheer abundance of spectacle and appearance” that mesmerizes all who make gardens. “It is indeed as if everything that is alive has an urge to appear,” said Prof. Harrison, and he quoted philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be touched.”

Okay, maybe all the charm and wit gets scrubbed out when I tell it. You just had to be there. Hopefully, there will be more Natural Discourse events to come.