Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sophy Moody and the Friend of Man

The palm, vast in species and range as it is, has in turn encouraged a sizable literature devoted to its unique qualities. While many outstanding horticultural studies and landscape guides treat the palm, one book stands out among all, Sophy Moody's 1864 monograph The Palm Tree, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in Edinburgh.

Part a cultural history of palm trees, part Biblical typology, part economic inventory, Moody's book undertakes to celebrate the palm, as she puts it, as "Servant of God and Friend of Man." This translates as commentary on the palm as religious symbol and literary trope as well as discussion of its botanical qualities, geographical situation, and practical uses.

It is a book for general readers, Moody explains in her preface. Of her efforts, she writes, "She wishes simply to unfold one green leaf from Nature's glorious book, and to tempt them on, perhaps, to explore for themselves the countless wonders of the vegetable world."

The temptation worked on me. The Palm Tree provides a fascinating look at palms through a complex mid-Victorian lens.

Of its author, I have so far been able to learn very little. Sophy Moody authored at least two other works: What is Your Name: A Popular Account of the Meanings and Derivations of Christian Names, published in 1863 and The Fairy Tree; or, Stories from Far and Near, published in 1872. The former seems to be a kind of Victorian baby name book, while the later is a vaguely Kiplingesque romp around the Raj for young people.

There are many other things that can be said about The Palm Tree, and I will probably say a few of them later.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Palm and the Arcades

My friends who teach photography on the college level tell me that we might as well start referring to all pre-digital photography as produced by “historical processes.” That’s fine with me.

I’m reminded why when I look at Los Angeles, Portrait of a City (2009), a photographic history of LA collecting some 500 images, some newly discovered in archives, museums, and private collections, some by well-known photographers such as Julius Shulman, Garry Winogrand, William Claxton, and others.

Edited by cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann and including essays by historian Kevin Starr and literature scholar David Ulin, Los Angeles, Portrait of a City deploys images to layer this space of urban surfaces with time and context.

Photographs may be close to the prototype of Walter Benjamin’s mechanically reproducible art as described in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It is true, of course, that time, wear, and loss tend to reattach to historical photographs the primitive awe and reverence Benjamin associates with the experience of unique works of art.

Today I’m more interested in how the chronological distance of historical photographs revision and bestrange our familiar places--among other effects, how they can show us built objects in relationship with natural ones.

In this anonymous photograph from the 1890s, a native Washingtonia filifera fan palm foregrounds the San Fernando mission. The columnar trunk of the palm and the arc of its crown are echoed in the colonnade of the mission.

Making sense of that sounds like a good “Arcades Project.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Great Park: Believing in Design

I read with interest the recent LA Times article on Orange County’s Great Park project (“A Soaring Vision or Just Hot Air” 10/1/09,0,6540980.story). I think soaring vision. In an era too often characterized by diminished expectations, landscape designer Ken Smith’s plans for the Great Park represent the best of our instincts to plan ambitiously for the future while borrowing a sense of scale and precedent from the past.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Great Park, proposed as a repurposing of the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corp Air Station between I-5 and Irvine Boulevard, will be a billion dollar project to make over 1347 acres of runways, hangers, and other former military buildings into parkscape.

The project is so large that Smith has assembled a team of landscape architects, the Great Park Design Studio, to fill in his vision.

The legacy of park designers like Joseph Paxton, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Fredrick Law Olmsted, seems somehow alive in the Great Park concept.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First there is form, then limit

In his 1958 Creative Gardens, James Rose writes: "I have found it helpful to think of a garden as sculpture, not sculpture in the sense of an ordinary object to be viewed. But sculpture that is large enough and perforated enough to walk through. And open enough to present no barrier to movement, and broken enough to guide the experience, which is essentially a communion with the sky."

While they are certainly more than ordinary objects, as objects palms--with all their vivid structural presence and often unexpected asymmetry--certainly achieve the sculptural. In the built landscape, they also participate in and contribute to Rose's sense of sculptural space, defining permeable vertical limits with line but also texture. Some communion with the sky is by corrugation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Palms for Southern California

Those interested in palms can find a wealth of published information that will help them better understand these remarkable plants. Focusing on plant identification can be a fun and useful way to start. Our staff has been enjoying Geoff Stein's Palms for Southern California: A Quick Reference Guide.

As the subtitle suggests, Stein's guide does not go into the detail that more exhaustive texts on palms explore. Instead it provides a quick overview of each plant, with information on common and botanical names; morphology of trunk, leaves and canopy spread; growing preferences like water needs, sun exposure, temperature and hardiness, and dry heat. It also characterizes availability, status in the wild, and native habitat, and rates each palm for ease of cultivation. Stein also provides a silhouette sketch of each palm that gives a good idea of basic form. Stein's intricate line drawings of several notable palms make an attractive cover design.

Palms for Southern California is available through the Palm Society of Southern California. At Ellis Farms it is one of our go-to reference books.