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A Novel Approach

One Writer Finds His Muse in His Own Backyard

September 22, 1996|Leon Whiteson | Leon Whiteson is a Los Angeles-based writer and architecture critic. This essay was adapted from his latest book, "A Garden Story," which will be published in paperback by Mercury House next month

One early spring morning, when the words of the novel I was writing seemed to be withering on the vine, I drifted out into the backyard of the house my wife, Aviva, and I had recently purchased in Hollywood. Back then, in 1988, the yard was a barren, neglected rectangle, 40 feet wide and 60 feet deep, with a guest house and its patio in the southeast corner.

To distract my mind, I took out a pad and idly began to draw a plan of the yard. While I sketched, it occurred to me that the garden I might make there could be a kind of "green" novel--the horticultural parallel of the novel I was trying to produce in my typewriter.

In this green novel, the shape of the yard and the placement of the few existing trees suggested chapters in a verdant plot. Clusters of shrubs and bushes could be thought of as paragraphs; single plants, as sentences or phrases. I fancied that each plant would have its own way of expressing itself--stems, stalks, leaves and flowers, rate of growth, potential size and presence--and that all of these themes could be woven together harmoniously.

I didn't immediately follow up on this idea. But while visiting a Highland Avenue hardware store one hot afternoon, my nose was captivated by the ripe, mingled fragrances of plants in the nursery. The intense smell triggered a nostalgia for the Mediterranean where I'd once lived, calling to mind rocky Greek hillsides crowded with red anemones and parched Spanish fields sweetened by wild narcissus after spring rains.

I was hooked. I filled my car with plants and rushed home to put them in the ground. The yard's hard soil resisted my spade at first, but I persisted, caught up in a passion to create. Sweating in the sun, covered in dirt and mud, I was thrilled by the prospect of filling the boundaries of my blank yard with lush green text.

Once begun, the garden tale seemed to write itself, each chapter finding its own balance of light and shade, density and transparency, color and nuance. Within a year or so, the narrative assumed an organic shape, dictated by the layout of the yard and the character of the dozens of plants I bought from nurseries and at farmers' markets. I gardened every day after the hours I spent struggling to cultivate my words, and it soon became clear that the vegetation I was nurturing had a power no mere verbiage could match.

Along the way, I began to add non-organic details to the garden. At local yard sales, I found such treasures as a dressmaker's cane dummy and a couple of plaited-straw shrimp traps from Malaysia. On a foray into Baja California, I discovered a clay pot shaped like a Mexican burro. A Christmas gift of a little red wooden engine and carriages was emptied of its candies and nailed to the timber balustrade beside the deck steps. Like vivid words or phrases, the train and burro enriched the texture of the story and led me to the high point in the garden's history--the creation of a totem pole.

The totem pole's principal figure was a foot-high, ceramic Buddha that my wife had bought on a trip to Bali. The Buddha sat at the bottom of the pole, which was actually a branch trimmed from my avocado tree. Above him, I put a life-like snake, considered sacred to Aesculapius, the healer, and capped the pole with a black stone owl honoring Minerva, goddess of wisdom. In this way, I hoped to invite the protection of a host of mythical powers.

Eight years have flashed by, and my yard has become an engrossing green book I've written on the earth, a complex yarn whose delights I rediscover every day at sunrise, when the dawn lights up the edge of the Hollywood sky.

When I enter the garden's leafy embrace, rich scents prickle my nostrils and set the small hairs tingling on my nape. The leaves make me shiver as I brush by, their dew licking my bare arms with cool tongues. Goose bumps prickle my skin as I tune my ear to bees, hummingbirds and blue jays. I know this story so well now, yet it always startles and excites me with fresh nuances.

Golden green light seeps through the cathedral vault formed by a lattice of Cape honeysuckle stems. A young mockingbird, its throat swollen with song, trills and crackles in the bright morning air. The lingering sweetness of night-blooming jessamine, which perfumed the previous evening with the fragrance of Arabian nights, is cut by the raunchy musk of angel's trumpet and the musty odor of a rockrose bush watered by the splashing of a fountain. These are the smells of the earth waking up to the day.

A profound sense of peace floods me as I move through these verdant pages. Over the years, the garden's dynamic equilibrium between growth and decay, clarity and density, memory and experience, metaphor and fact seeped into my bones. Making my garden has taught me that delight and despair move through the seasons of one's life in a constant cycle of renewal.

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