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Clouds over the garden party

War worries intrude at San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, but hope lies in the seeds of a 'little bit of peace.'

March 21, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Quietly, below the planet's sound and fury, the vernal equinox came and went this week. There were daffodils on the street medians here and glints of spring sunshine, reminders that the hours of darkness at this time of year are also being met and battled by hours of light.

At the sprawling Cow Palace, a flower show was in progress. In the parking lot, three Russian-born women were having a tailgate lunch. "One person cannot change a war," observed Victoria Ivanov, a translator, looking down at her cup of coffee. Her two friends nodded. "But one person can plant a seed. You can put something in the ground and make life a little better in the place around you. You can bring that way a little bit of peace."

The exhibition for which they had traveled is notable on the garden show circuit, which in most parts of the nation is a spring rite. The San Francisco Flower & Garden Show is the largest event of its kind in the state, and is said to be a sort of horticultural trendsetter. (Fire pits debuted here as a landscaping fad a few years back.) This year, however, the pilgrimage of those who sought to smell the roses was imbued with deeper thoughts.

"I found myself using a lot of black and dark green this year," Shirley Watts, a landscape designer from the East Bay, offhandedly noticed. Her display -- an avant-garde commingling of foliage and old time-lapse nature films -- featured a bouquet of plexiglass TVs on steel stems framed by computer motherboards and rustling bamboo. On the small screens, roses and gladioli closed and opened, closed and opened. The intent had been a statement on artifice and gardening and Silicon Valley, but on this day, the display just summoned thoughts of other images on TV screens elsewhere.

"Somber colors," Watts said, as baroque music and recorded birdsong filled the event hall. "It just feels like that's how this moment is."

The mood carried. In one display garden, stone sculptures were inscribed with the words of Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-born painter, bringing to mind other ancient cultures and conflicts and costs. "In my art," one read, "I often draw our garden / Can a son forget which soul sires him?" And: "There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth / With a few patches of moss placed here and there / Like fallen clouds."

Another landscaper created a tableau from a more innocent era. "I wanted to make a sort of American 'comfort garden,' " explained Dan Phillips, who stood in front of a yard-sized display. Its centerpiece was a bright Airstream trailer hung with a string of orange lanterns; its backdrop and borders were of native plantings interspersed with fat, fragrant lilacs. People kept getting down on one knee to smell the old-fashioned blossoms, their eyes half-closing as they breathed.

"It's an anxiety-provoking time," said Josephine Elwyn-Jones, who has sold botanical engravings at various flower shows worldwide for 17 years. So far this spring, she said, she had done "Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Seattle, and after this we go to New York for the orchid show and Chicago and Cincinnati." Elwyn-Jones once lived in Boston and now lives in North Wales, and so has experienced this season from both an American and a European perspective. The situation in Iraq "is on everyone's mind, but the subject is generally avoided," she said, "even in New York. Though people do talk to me about what happened on Sept. 11."

Avoiding the subject, however, was not so easy this week, and moments later, in her small booth lined with its parchment prints and antique etchings of irises and palm fronds, a ruddy-faced nursery owner from the Silicon Valley brought it up.

"Does this price include tax?" Donald Laub asked.

"We don't do tax," Elwyn-Jones told the thickset man in the down vest.

"How we gonna win the war without tax?" Laub joshed.

"We pay later," replied the picture seller, who had not supported Tony Blair, only half-joking. "Isn't that it? Buy now and pay later? Isn't that how the saying goes?"

For some, the moment's importance continued to be economic. San Jose landscaper Jon Singley considered himself lucky to still be in business in this difficult year. "I'm incoming president of the California Landscape Contractors Assn.," he said as crowds swarmed around his terraced garden, "and especially in Northern California, a lot of our members are hurting badly right now."

The show's chairman, Seattle garden show impresario Duane Kelly, was counting receipts, which, so far, had not yet been affected by the attack on Iraq. The San Francisco show is the nation's fourth largest, behind Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle, and some 65,000 attendees are expected by the time it ends Sunday. Still, "it's made me plenty nervous," Kelly said.

Out in the crowd, however, the quest was for respite from ugliness and darkness as the fountains burbled and the digitized songbirds warbled and the terse updates came and came for the rest of the world on CNN. Near an ornate treehouse for children, a pile of sidewalk chalk invited graffiti. "Angie rules," and "Jan was here," kids had written.

But on a stone wall, the words "What the World Needs Now Is Love" had been set forth. "Love and Peace," a child's hand had scribbled. "Share," another had scrawled. "Peace." And on the floor, smeared by footprints, was a fragment: "Make Gardens, Not -- " The last word, in light chalk, had been trampled to fine dust and had disappeared.

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