Friday, December 3, 2010

Paths of Desire

This is a wonderful book that would make a great gift for any gardener. Here’s my interview with Dominque Browning that ran in the Chicago Tribune a few years back.

Of paths, passions and ponderings

Dominique Browning follows the road less gardened to discover what really matters in her personal landscape

Into each garden, a little turmoil must fall. Disasters happen. There were turf-digging, grub-searching skunks. Marauding teenagers. Obstinate neighbors. Dying trees. And a collapsing retaining wall that eventually crushed a hefty perennial border. Dominique Browning has experienced them all in her garden in Westchester County, N.Y. , and carefully chronicles each in her new book, "Paths of Desire: Passions of a Suburban Gardener" (Scribner, 256 pages, $24).

She observes these mini-tragedies along with ethereal events -- hordes of fireflies ascending after a thunderstorm. Flickering candles casting shadows as birds settle in for the night. And, in the front yard, a small forest of sassafras with leaves that light up the autumn sky.

But this is not just an account of one woman's gardening joys and woes. It is a journey -- sometimes bittersweet -- that slowly reveals the importance of family and friends, lost love and renewal. "We get so caught up in the right plant, right place, we forget what it means to walk or sit in the garden. What do you discover? What is it about?" Browning asks.

Editor in chief of House & Garden magazine for nearly a decade, Browning is not your typical gardener. She keeps no logs of what's been planted where or what should be moved. She spends more time pondering than planting. She says she's hopeless with plant names and disorganized in the garden.

"Sitting and thinking are as valuable a sort of industriousness as kneeling and digging. No one needs to prove, yet again, that a garden is labor intensive," the 48-year-old Browning says. One of the pleasures of her job, she says, is the opportunity to snoop into other people's lives -- through their gardens, kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms and the objects they reveal.

But not long after Browning joined the magazine, her garden was snooped upon -- by someone curious about what she might bring to the magazine's content. The perpetrator slinked around back and discovered Browning's set of aluminum lawn chairs with plastic webbing (they cost 40 bucks at a yard sale and brought back fond childhood memories). The news was promptly blabbed at a hoity-toity dinner party, where it got back to her that the chairs were pronounced, well, tacky. Old. Cheap. A disgrace.

She shrugs it off with a laugh. "You can never say that one style is in good taste or not. Good taste has more to do with how things are put together. Tasteful is when there's unity. Things don't jar. It's interesting and comfortable," Browning says.

A serene place

Her house and garden, which is just shy of a half-acre, are an anomaly. The house sits on a street lined with neatly cropped lawns and tightly pruned shrubs. It's hard to spot, nestled behind the quarter-acre woodland filled with tall, thin sassafras, a thick understory of rhododendron, white-flowering azaleas and English ivy.

"She's left the front yard very wild. There's a beautiful feeling when the wind whistles through the trees," says Stephen Orr, special projects editor at House & Garden. "The main feeling you get is a sense of enclosure and serenity in a very pretty place."

The garden languished along, with Browning, in post-divorce flux, for several years. When the retaining wall finally crushed a row of frothy-flowered tree hydrangeas, Rose of Sharon bushes and perennials, Browning began the slow process of restoration and discovery -- of herself and the garden.

The New Back Bed, as she calls it, now features lavender, hollyhock, phlox, foxglove, mint ("Oh, the mistakes I made," she writes in the book), sedum and daisies. She crammed, moved, tended, lost, yanked and killed a variety of plants. "You can never know what will work until you try it. And there's a value to wandering around and contemplating" before acting, Browning says.
The side yard, called The Wandering Garden, was transformed as more than two dozen declining hemlocks were replaced with flowering shrubs, more evergreens, hostas, Solomon's seal and other wildflowers and a winding path.

In a far intimate corner, two Chinese bronze dragons with ferocious grins -- snapped up when Browning felt the "magnetic rays" of a local consignment shop calling her -- flank two comfortable wood chairs. Layers of viburnum, laurel and hydrangeas front tall evergreens nearby. "It's not fussy. I tend to be informal inside and out. It's a place to relax and think," Browning says.

Steppingstones and mulched trails meander through the yard. They are Desire Paths, as landscape designers sometimes call them, places that draw you along to someplace special.
Perhaps the best parts, Browning says, are the garden's scents, sounds and textures, deciding what to plant where and watching as the garden matures.

Sit a spell

Places to sit and reflect are abundant indoors (there's a couch in the kitchen where her sons prefer to dine a la coffee table) and outside (she dragged a chair around to different spots where she could leisurely muse over the placement of permanent benches, beds, borders and a little Buddha statue). Plastic jungle gyms, uncontrollable eyesores (courtesy of the aesthetically challenged neighbor and his dead Volkswagen bus), all are the stuff of suburbia, she says.

"It's a book I read with a pen in hand, ready to underline the telling phrases that I wished I had written," says Carolyn Ulrich, editor of Chicagoland Gardening magazine. "There are two types of garden books -- those that tell how to do things and those that tell us why we bother. I prefer the latter, which is why I took such pleasure in her book."

A self-proclaimed procrastinator who enjoys nothing more than considering all the possibilities, Browning finally brought in the Helpful Men -- electricians, masons, carpenters, a landscaper, plumbers. They fixed a badly crumbling asphalt driveway (only after she twisted her ankle on the way back from a fancy fete in gown and heels); the century-old concrete retaining wall (which collapsed as she stood before it one morning garbed in a nightgown with coffee cup in hand); and a variety of other calamities.

Browning's journey has taken some 15 years or so and was first revealed in an earlier book, "Around the House and in the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing and Home Improvement" (Scribner, 208 pages, $12).

About time

Contemplating instead of weeding or pruning has its benefits. Some time ago, Browning decided to compartmentalize her life -- work really hard at her job but make sure her weekends were free for family, writing, reading, playing the piano, puttering with perennials or just sitting and watching.

"I realized that my young son was talking to me one day, and I hadn't heard a thing he said. I was losing time with my kids. When I was at work, I was thinking about the kids. And when I was home, I was thinking about work. I was never where I'd need to be."

“What people can learn from her is not the practical or how-to, but an attitude," Ulrich says. "You learn that gardens take time, at least the ones you create yourself and are truly yours."

SNOOP PATROL: What’s on Dominique Browning's nightstand?

Like Dominique Browning, we, too, enjoy the part of our job that gives us entree (and poking-around rights) to people's homes and lives. We enjoy it so much that we have formed our own Snoop Patrol to peek inside medicine cabinets, in really private spaces or under dinnerware for makers and markings. We unveil our crew's first report with our findings from Browning's Westchester, N.Y., home.

1. One thing on your nightstand: A little teddy bear abandoned by one of my children. (It sits next to a stack of books including "Peter Pan," Marie Antoinette's biography and "Great Expectations.")

2. One thing on a living room wall: A sepia photograph of a pristine white bird by Jack Spencer.

3. Something in your house from your childhood: A couple of stuffed animals lying hopelessly somewhere.

4. Three condiments in your refrigerator: Mustard, mustard and horseradish. I love mustard.

5. Three things in your medicine cabinet: Perfumes -- Joy, Chanel No. 5 and Vacances, which means vacation.

6. Where do the dirty dishes go? I hardly ever use the dishwasher and I'm tidy -- I do the dishes right away.

7. Color of your living room sofa: A pale buttery yellow chintz with lilac and blue flowers.

8. Maker of your everyday dinnerware: Stangl.

9. Maker of your fine china: Royal Worcester collected in college (and much more). I have a china fetish.

10. What is the one "thing" you would opt to save from your house: My piano.

© Chicago Tribune and Nina A. Koziol

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