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alhambra garden fountains roses

Here is the thing about revisiting a place after 14 years: sometimes it feels less familiar than you expected.

I knew that much of our Spain trip, this time, would feel new. I’d never been to Sevilla, never flown straight to Madrid and then Málaga from the U.S., never been to this part of Spain with my husband. Even the neighborhood of Granada where we stayed, the steep cobblestoned streets of the Albayzín, was entirely unknown to me. I expected – even anticipated – dozens of new experiences, new memories.

But I was also expecting something else: the shock of recognition that often comes when you step back onto the ground of a place you have loved.

I am no stranger to this feeling: I’ve had it happen in London, in Washington, D.C., in Prince Edward Island and San Diego and always, always, in Oxford. I am a person who remembers, and I remembered loving Granada, on my first visit there. So I hoped, even expected, it would feel familiar.

And, at first, it didn’t.

I kept waiting to turn down a side street or step into a restaurant or happen upon a square, to glimpse the roofline of a building or the sweep of a view and remember something. And at first – though, as I said, we were staying in a different location and doing new things – I didn’t feel it at all.

I’d glanced through my old photos, the week before we left. I kept remembering snippets of the time I’d spent in Granada with Kyle and Jenny, Elizabeth and Marcela. I remembered a sun-drenched hostel kitchen with saltillo tile on the floor and stacks of toast for breakfast. I remembered tapas and sangria at La Bella y La Bestia. I remembered a group trip to La Alhambra. But I couldn’t make any of it fit with the city I was seeing before me. The architecture matched, but none of it looked like anything I’d seen before.

On our second day in Granada, J and I hiked down and across the Rio Darro, up the opposite hill, to La Alhambra. We had a perfect view of this ancient Moorish palace from our apartment terrace, and I remembered it – palaces, gardens, fountains – as absolutely stunning. And it is. But most of it felt unfamiliar: the labyrinthine garden paths, the intricate tile and plasterwork in the palaces, the views from countless arched windows, the roses. (That last was definitely new: my first visit to La Alhambra was in March, so different plants were in bloom at that time of year.)

We walked on, and I snapped dozens of pictures, but felt sadder and sadder that I couldn’t remember any of it. I’m no longer that girl, twenty years old and wide-eyed, who came to Spain on a whim and a prayer, but she’s still a part of me. I wanted so badly to find some glimpse of her, and I wondered what it meant that I couldn’t.

Near the end of our tour, we walked through the Generalife gardens, which are lush this time of year: tall cedars and red nasturtiums, vivid sweet peas and green arching hedges, so many roses in every color. We wandered into one last palace courtyard, and I all but literally stopped in my tracks because it finally hit me: I was here.

alhambra garden 2004 fountains

The twin fountains on either side of a long, narrow reflecting pool; the whitewashed building at the opposite end; the light and color and feel of the place, even though (as I have said) it was long ago in a different season. I almost started crying, because it was finally true: I remember this.

Suddenly, I could glimpse my friends, or thought I could, out of the corner of my eye. Marcela, squinting into the sun and taking pictures; Elizabeth, with her backpack and sunglasses. Jenny, with her T-shirt sleeves rolled up, and Kyle, gesturing toward every view and saying, with a smile, “Qué linda, no?” (Linda means beautiful, and he was right every time.)

We lingered a few minutes and I snapped half a dozen pictures. Later I would compare them side by side with the one I’d saved from my first trip to La Alhambra, to confirm: this was the place. But I didn’t need to look at the old photo. I knew in my bones that I’d been here before.

The city did not magically unfold itself in memory after that. I only caught a few other glimpses of our first trip, mostly through smells and tastes instead of other sights. But La Alhambra was one of the reasons I fell in love with Granada, one reason I’d insisted to J that we go there this time. So it seems fitting that it was the place where past and present clicked together.

k j alhambra garden granada roses

Just for a moment, I stood in both at once: the adventure I went on as a college student and the life I’ve built as a grown and married woman. The first-time traveler, clueless and eager, and the more seasoned one who’s still searching for something in every place she goes.

I’m no longer that girl, as I said; nor should I be, after nearly a decade and a half. I’ve grown beyond her in many ways, but I still carry her with me. It felt good, and somehow right, to meet her again in a garden and a city we both loved. I breathed a bit easier for the rest of the trip, after that.

More Spain photos and stories to come.

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crocuses rock light flowerbed

It begins with the snowdrops: shy and white, pushing their way through the frozen ground when the snow melts just enough to let them through. Then the crocuses – those tiny, fierce fighters, deep purple and lavender and sometimes bright gold.

yellow crocuses open

The forsythia come next – “fountains of pale gold,” as L.M. Montgomery wrote – then the daffodils, slender green stems lit like candles at the ends. The hellebores arrive around the same time, creamy white petals giving way to earthy green. Then the hyacinths and scilla, carpeting the still-bare ground with blue and pink and white.

scilla flowers blue

The green stems of tulips start to uncurl, and they bob their vivid heads in flowerbeds and gardens. At nearly the same time, the magnolias unfurl their lipstick-pink buds, and the lilacs appear, filling the air with their delicate scent. The lilies of the valley hide under their broad green leaves, till suddenly – seemingly all at once – the tiny bells burst forth.

lily of the valley flowers

For several years now, I’ve been marking time by flowers here in Cambridge.

It’s both a reliable pleasure and an unexpected delight: every winter I start watching, paying particular attention to a few spots I know well. The air smells like snow and then damp earth and, eventually, the tang of mulch; the trees fuzz over with buds and then leaf out seemingly overnight. Every year I wonder if it will really happen again. And every year, somehow, it does.

red white striped tulips

The season unfolds in a slightly different rhythm at my beloved florist’s shop: amaryllis and anemones, daffodils and ranunculus, buckets of vivid tulips and early peonies. The lilies and sunflowers have already appeared there, though they’re not blooming in the flowerbeds yet. And this year, I’ve been growing flowers in my kitchen: first paperwhites, then geraniums.

wisteria light

Outside, right now, there are wisteria and columbines, the last of the cherry blossoms and dogwoods, the first spikes of tall purple iris. I’ve spotted a couple of budding yellow roses. And all my friends who garden seem to be on peony watch, according to Instagram.

There are many ways to mark time, of course: the alarm clock, the calendar with its dates and boxes, the annual rhythm of the academic year. We are heading into summer, which means the slow season for classes and events, though some things never stop entirely. But as we wrap up another semester, the outdoors is bursting into glorious green life: bellflowers and dandelions, azaleas and wild geraniums, rhododendrons and violets and so many others I can’t name.

violets

It’s almost too much, this abundance, after months of barren brown earth and bare branches. My eyes can hardly take it in; my soul feels sated, full of color, and at the same time it craves more. It is both ephemeral and lasting, this pageant of color and light: it changes daily, weekly, but it makes a living tapestry that endures.

pink azalea flowers

By now it’s a rhythm that lives deep in my body, my fingers thrumming with the awareness of new life, new growth. It is at once a universal and a particular kind of glory: it happens every spring, but it’s still a wonder.

Soon the calendar will flip to June, and the lilacs will go over, to be replaced by roses and peonies, rhododendron and mountain laurel. I’ll be watching for columbines in every color, for iris in purple and white and gold, for poppies and jasmine and honeysuckle, for other delights I don’t know about yet.

You can’t schedule meetings by flowers, maybe, but I’ll be happily marking time by them, all summer long.

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sunflowers tory row cambridge blue sky

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sunflowers rockport tall

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

sunflowers d2 cambridge

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

sunflowers blue vase table

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

—Mary Oliver

I came across this poem in Oliver’s gorgeous collection Blue Iris, which I read, savored and lingered over for weeks this spring. It has stayed with me through a long, hot, crowded summer, especially as the sunflowers began to bloom here in Boston and Cambridge. Some of its lines resonated right away; others have come back to me during difficult or lonely days.

sunflowers darwins cambridge

I love sunflowers: their bright faces and sturdy stalks, their cheery yellow petals, the way they peek over fences and surprise me. There are vases of them – on both my desk at work and my kitchen table – as I type this.

In some ways, I also am a sunflower: I am shy, but want to be friends. I always do my best to seek out the light, though I recognize, increasingly, that “the long work of turning [our] lives into a celebration is not easy.”

perennial sunflowers rockport

I am grateful, this week and in this whole season, for these bright faces peeking out around so many corners. Like all the flowers I love, they offer beauty and hope in a world where we badly need both.

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yellow daisies

As Kathleen Kelly famously said, daisies are the friendliest flower. And Lorelai Gilmore – who believes in going big – once expressed a desire for a thousand yellow daisies.

white daisies garden

I’m not sure if my friend Bob’s garden has a thousand yellow daisies, but it is bursting with gorgeous flowers, and spending a little time there this week was pure heaven.

yellow daisies garden

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image.jpegI’m already in love with the roses this summer.

image.jpeg

But I found even more of them, in so many gorgeous colors, to admire yesterday.

image.jpeg

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roses crimson

The seeds Dickon and Mary had planted grew as if fairies had tended them.

roses apricot sunlight

Satiny poppies of all tints danced in the breeze by the score, gaily defying flowers which had lived in the garden for years and which it might be confessed seemed rather to wonder how such new people had got there.

poppies red longfellow house garden

And the roses—the roses!

roses pink library

Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades—they came alive day by day, hour by hour.

climbing roses purple door

Fair fresh leaves, and buds—and buds—tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.

rosebud honeysuckle pink flowers

I keep thinking of these lines from The Secret Garden as I walk around Cambridge, stopping to sniff roses and snap pictures and marvel at the colors. Summer has arrived and I am reveling in it, naming its glories: poppies, iris, peonies, columbines, honeysuckle, trees in full vivid green leaf.

I don’t know the names of everything I see, but as Mary Oliver says, “one doesn’t need to know the names to feel the presences.” I do know the roses, though, and their sweet scent and rich, velvety colors are a delight both familiar and new.

budding rose

I carried pink roses at my wedding, nine summers ago, and I picked wild roses on my grandparents’ farm as a child. My florist’s shop has buckets of them right now, in every color of the rainbow. But I love seeing them along the sidewalks too, nodding their heads in the breeze. They are “sweetness pure and simple” (Mary Oliver again), and they are saving my life these days.

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orange-tulips-public-garden

“I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace.

red tulips boston public garden

“Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun?

multicolored-tulips-willow

“I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face.”

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and her German Garden

yellow-tulips-light

It is tulip season in the Boston Public Garden, and I took these photos one night last week, when I wandered down there after work.

white tulips boston public garden

I agree completely with von Arnim about tulips, and am loving every glimpse of their graceful heads, bobbing on tall, slender stalks. (And that spring light is simply glorious.)

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