Thursday, November 17, 2011


or Avenues In

The thing with roads is, they go all sorts of places.  When you're out for a day's adventure and decide to find out where a quirky little back street takes you, that plunge into possibility can be a lot of fun.  Addictive, too—curiosity to find out what comes next can keep you going farther and farther and farther.  When you have a particular destination in mind, though, and a deadline to meet, and you accidentally end up on a byroad that goes who knows where...well, really, that can still be fun.  But you probably won't reach your destination on time.  You're just as likely to end up nowhere in particular, hoping you can retrace your route, or wandering around lost for a while, because roads go all sorts of places, and who knows where those places are?

I was sitting on the patio a while ago enjoying the little vignette below—the gentle arcs of the grasses and the way the sun tickled their edges, the peekaboo effect of the farther grass behind the trunks of the desert olive tree, the warmth and roundness of the terra cotta pot (still home to a black widow spider, alas), and the irrepressible blooms of 'Wild Thing' autumn sage in the corner.

It made me aware of the garden more generally as a series of vignettes in the late-autumn light.   The sun has settled in the south, and now when it moseys on up toward noon in its stiff, arthritic, cool-season way, instead of illuminating the whole garden from above, its low angle creates a succession of spotlit moments.

A vignette can be a self-contained scene, or it can be an avenue into something bigger.  Take vignettes in a book:  the fancy lettering or scrollwork or small illustrations at the beginning of a chapter are charming on their own, but they also lead you into the writing. They entice you to read further, to find out what comes next—to follow a road that might go all sorts of places, possibly a long way from your starting point.

In that sense, a garden vignette is a bit of theater, suggesting some action happening just out of sight off-stage.  Maybe it leads you to wonder what's on the far side of the grasses, or what the rest of the tree looks like, or how this little patch fits into the whole. As a piece of mental theater, this post led me down even more distant avenues:  the outdoors seen only in the bits and pieces of time that the shorter days allow; the Grand Canyon under partly cloudy skies, where one vignette after another appears as the sun spotlights one "temple" or throne or monument among the others.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, October 2009
I. M. Pei's ultra-modern, mountain-shaped hyperbolic parabaloid in 1970's Denver, just down the road from historic Second Empire-style architecture—glimpses of bygone or futuristic worlds seen through double-decker bus windows.  The Christmas window vignettes at Neusteter's department store when I was little, where mechanical figures in winter scenes caroled or threw snowballs or made toys over and over and over.  The distance between the worlds outside and inside the windows, bridged only by imagination.  Bloggers, giving their readers a window onto their worlds; blog posts as vignettes—a brightly colored succession of spotlit moments. 

The scenery along these byroads was great, but eventually I'd find myself at a loss, wondering, "Now where do I go?"  Because once you've wandered into a vignette, once you've decided that it isn't a self-contained tableau but an avenue into something else, once you've plunged into the world of imagination behind the window scenes or started reading the chapter, there are so many roads to choose from.  They can take you all sorts of places, most of them delightful, but that doesn't mean that you know where you are when you've arrived, or how to get back to your starting point—that small scene of sunlight and grass and late-autumn warmth, and the single word vignette.

You certainly won't be able to sum up the journey in a tidy, one-sentence clincher...


  1. Great post. I loved taking this side road with you.

  2. One of my favourite words Stacy. I have a post in draft with that very title but as yet no content... When we're out and we have time we always take the road we don't know or sometimes what I call the scenic route. Far more interesting to explore...

  3. The best garden designs are often those with accidental side trips. Being willing to do something that wasn't in the original plan.

  4. Thanks, Holley--it's always good to have you along.

    It's a wonderful one, isn't it, Janet? I do that, too, sometimes--start a draft with a thread of an idea and then fill in the content as it takes shape (assuming that it does). I'm looking forward to reading your post. And three cheers for those days when we have a chance to go "off-piste."

    Karen, I've been thinking about your comment and laughing ruefully at how much comfort levels play a part in one's willingness to take those accidental side trips. Give me any road with fewer than four lanes, and I'm happy to ad lib, but I don't yet feel confident enough to do that in the garden. Some day I'll understand these southwestern plants, and then it's no holds barred...

  5. After an evening of blog vignettes from my G Reader, my head is a kaleidoscope.

  6. You mean there's no future for garden blog vignettes as tweets?! I always enjoy your spotlit moments ...