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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

Words Bloom for 'the Green Woman of Laguna'

January 06, 2002|DANA PARSONS

I know there's a metaphor way up here in Hortense Miller's aerie, with its view of Boat Canyon and the Pacific Ocean and perched atop an idyllic world of camellias, roses, asters and begonias.

There just has to be.

Miller isn't about to help me find it, though. We talk about her life of 93 years and the mountainside garden she has maintained for 40 years--with its hundreds of species of flowers--but she won't wax poetic or follow me down any philosophical trails.

Nor will she linger on talk of her reputation as "The Green Woman of Laguna Beach," a title bestowed because of her 2-acre garden that she has bequeathed to the city when she dies.

Surely, I say, there must be some eternal truths in this unique place. She laughs and offers none, then says, "But I think if you want to read eternal truths into things, this is a good place to do it."

She's still sharp as a tack, eclectic, witty, smart and utterly self-effacing about what she's leaving behind. Miller grew up in St. Louis and early on developed a love of nature. As a girl, she'd walk around St. Louis and draw pictures of flowers she would pick.

In 1950, she and her husband, Oscar, left the Midwest for California. In 1959, as her husband was dying of cancer, they moved to this hideaway. "I always wanted to be the mother of a bougainvillea vine," she says.

Her garden has been a longtime stop for local tour groups. In the early 1970s, widowed and without heirs, she told the City Council it could have her small house and huge garden when she died. "To have a garden this big and this old is remarkable, I guess," she says.

She is remarkable too, but seems unaware of it. "My parents died at 73," she says. "Both of them. I thought that's when you're supposed to die, when your mother dies, and I was all ready for it at 73. And here I am at 93, still mucking around."

Essays on Hawks, Insects and Avocados

Hardly. The reason for my visit on this day is that a Dana Point publisher has compiled 120 of Miller's essays, written originally between 1978 and 1998 for the Friends of the Garden newsletter. The resulting book is titled "A Garden in Laguna." And despite Miller's disclaimers--"Thirty-five dollars; that price is atrocious"--the book is a gem of elegance and simplicity.

In "Baby," a 1986 offering about a hawk that Miller took in, she begins, "I first saw her hanging in the air above the road late on a Sunday afternoon. . . . Have you ever had a hawk with serious business on her mind fly at you? I have never known so instantly decisive a creature. Ethelred the Unready was not one of her grandfathers."

They're just little essays, Miller says, meant to give financial backers of the garden's upkeep something to read.

"I'd pick a plant and talk about it," she says. "I'd talk about the blue moon. Or what Boat Canyon was doing or a plant I'd bought."

She won't confess to putting heart and soul in her writings. "I never stewed over them," she says. The book suggests otherwise.

In a 1979 essay on her pet cockatoo, Dody, she writes: "I am ruffling Dody's head and neck feathers, amazed at the intense yellow of the base of each feather. . . . Cockatoos' necks are faintly perfumed. This gives me yet another reason for burying my nose in that yellow radiance. Just be sure before you try it that the cockatoo is friendly. You could lose a nose."

She writes about bobcats and ice plants, insects and avocados. Thumb through the pages and you'll see references to Ring Lardner, Zeus, Hamlet and King Arthur.

It's a book of knowledge and insight. Whether she likes it or not, Miller reveals herself page by page.

I decide to quit pressing her on the point. Instead, we leave the house and walk slowly through the garden that hugs the steep hillside, through the plants and flowers that have helped define her life and will be her eternal gift.

Amid this living, breathing legacy, there's no need for metaphors.

"Nice begonia," she says, pointing.

Farther on . . . "These have the most marvelous flowers. They're called angels' trumpets. Maybe you know them by that name."

Later . . . "This is a Hawaiian hibiscus. Most hibiscus are Chinese, you know."

. . . "This is a Belle of Portugal. It's actually a Chinese rose. Lovely, but mean. You see, when she's young, she has thorns. When she gets older, she does away with them."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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