As I sit and type this, I wonder what type of spring weather you are having at the moment. From here, it seems that the East Coast of the U.S. has been buried under many snow storms this winter, something I don’t get to experience living here in Madrid, and to be honest, I do miss it. The only snow I see is the view of the snow capped mountains from the terrace, which is a wonderful sight but is not enough for me. So, with arrival of spring here already, a group of friends and I decided to seek wildflowers in those same mountains, near a very small village called Patones de Arriba, just a short drive outside of Madrid.
The almond trees are the first to flower here and from afar they seemed to be the only plants in bloom, lighting up the rocky hillsides. The olive groves we passed through were sometimes the perfect backdrop to the white blossoms, a picturesque scene of the beginning of a Mediterranean spring.
Trudging further up the loose and stony paths, higher up into the mountain, the flora changed from open grassy areas to a shrubby layer of Cistus and large areas of the faint blue blooms of Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. It’s a funny sight when when you see your herbs all grown up. For a short while there was a light snowstorm which felt like I was in a dream, similar to when Dorothy was in the field of red poppies in the Wizard of Oz. It was a beautifully surreal moment. Then there was a glimpse of gold, near the base of a Rosemary shrub. I was shocked at finding Narcissus and it was in bloom!! This is my first time I have seen Narcissus in the wild. Since hunting for wildflowers in Israel, when I found my first wild tulip, it has always been a goal to find Narcissus but never succeeded. Either it was too late or I only found the remaining greens swollen with seed. So this was an exciting moment for me, another wildflower off the list. These Narcissus were Narcissus pallidulus and were usually were found in small groups here and there, never in large swathes, only a cluster 1-3 plants in an area. After that moment of discovering them, I saw them growing near the Rosemary seen throughout the hillside. Now I hope to find more types of Narcissus throughout other parts of Spain. Seeing these in there natural state makes their more common showy cultivars currently growing on my terrace, seem so brash and vulgar now. I look forward to more plant excursions like this in the future and will keep you updated on any new finds. Hope this finds you well and with spring at your doorstep, finally… Speak soon my friend- James
It was difficult to decide which image to use for this weeks edition of Tuesday’s Terrace so I gave you options. This vertigo inducing view is one of my favorite vistas in Valencia, Spain. This is an honest slice of Spanish life with each terrace as individual as any of us. Often I sit staring out at these terraces as if I am watching a film, no different to Rear Window by Hitchcock, except this version has Spanish subtitles. – James
Like a light at the end of the tunnel, this weeks Tuesday’s Terrace leads our eyes towards Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain. This colored pencil sketch, with its sun drenched palms, gives us hope that spring and warmth is just around the corner. A much needed perspective. – James
Have a seat my friends, I would like to play a short and curious game this week with you with a topic that applies to both art and horticulture. I am curious about this fever that might affect or plague others as much as it affects myself and a few friends I know, the art of collecting. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure they say and oftentimes it has been the justification for purchasing something shiny and bright that my eyes have rested upon.
There have been periods in my life where I sought out certain things only to later on move on to something else though not necessarily ceasing the cultivation of the prior collection either. As a very young child I used to collect stamps because one of my adult family members suggested it, they could have ‘value’ they said, but I grew bored of them. I quickly moved on to stickers because they were brighter and more fun than their serious counterparts, I mean the stamps couldn’t even be used because they would be null and void in value. Fast forward to when I was about 13 and I started collecting furniture (I still do), acquiring so many pieces that it would be necessary to stack tables on top of tables in my bedroom, eventually stopping because my parents made me. Some habits are hard to die and recently I disbanded a collection of interesting though not always comfortable chairs, selling them off when I moved out of the U.S. It was sad to see them go, but I moved on to other things.
Notebooks are another downfall and can always be justified for some reason, such as writing garden notes, or for museum and gallery visits, which eventually hold all my tickets from said places. They are perfect for whipping out and sketching too. I have stacks, though small pocket sized ones are my favorite. That colorful stack above is one of my favorites, which each notebook consisting of a different paper texture. (I know, I know, I like paper too so it’s a double whammy). In front of those notebooks is a skull, another (sigh) ongoing collection that is sadly tucked away in boxes in New York. I would like to clarify though that I find skulls and bones to be objects of beauty and are only added to the collection when they are found on the ground in their natural environments. Often friends come across them too and thus find their way into my collection. Some people get weirded out by that collection but I see it as nothing but beauty and am amazed how each species can be so different. They are perfect specimens to draw and sketch.
A few years ago, while I was traveling abroad, I started collecting ceramics and pottery from the different countries I visited. Currently this collection includes pieces from the U.S., England, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. This is another easily justifiable collection, since I am a gardener and these sculptural vessels can be appreciated with or without floral arrangements. Are you buying it? By far the best country to collect these pieces were in the Netherlands where there seems to be an abundance of exceptional pieces. Each piece has a memory attached to it and deep down it is the reason why I do it. Now whenever I travel, local ceramics are the prize of choice to take back home.
The last collection I have started is slabs of marble and stone for no other purpose except for its beauty. The veins and color of these pieces are astounding and I realize as I type this, they are a more polished version of the stones and gems that I collected as a child. But enough, as I realize now I might sound like a hoarder, and that I am not, though I might have a problem. Most of my collections are purely collected for the aesthetic reasons or for memories attached, to each their own. But look at them…..
Everybody collects something, some for investment and others for enjoyment. But I want to know what you collect. Maybe it was something that started when you were younger with one piece that motivated you until it snowballed out of control? Is there a collection you are proud of? You might collect plants, art, or something else. This is where my curiosity comes into play. I would like you to share with us a good snapshot of your prized collection, no matter how large or small it may be. I want to know more about you, the reader. What is your poison?
You can send it by one of two ways:
email us, using the subject line Collecting and tell us a few words about it. Emails should be sent to: plinth.et.al(at)gmail.com
or if you are on instagram, just take a shot and upload it, using #plinthetal so it can be found. In a few weeks I will put together a roundup of some of the collections you, our readers, have built. (with permission of course) I look forward to seeing who and what is out there.
We are expanding our reaches. Are any of our readers on instagram? If you are there, let us know (james.mc.grath) & (EHSU2003), we would love to follow you and see what you are up to. It could make for some interesting future collaborations. – James
Food brings back nostalgic thoughts for all of us, returning often to favorite recipes as a way to relive good times gone by. When living in Jerusalem, a very beautiful friend made delicious bread for me one time. She made it look so easy, whipping everything together without the aid of a recipe and done only by memory. The smell of it baking will make you salivate, but just wait til you taste it….. This was in 2009, and it is the only bread I make to this day, and never ever have I seen someone try it and stop at only one piece. It is easy to make, but plan ahead, because it can take a few hours to rise (something that has had me serving dinner to my guests late more than once). My recipe is written in an old notebook that has its fair share of ingredient smudges all over Einav’s Black Olive and Rosemary Bread. Still warm, dipped in olive oil, sprinkled with a little bit of sea salt, and washed down with a glass of white wine is a good start to a nice meal with friends.
The flavors are typical to the Mediterranean diet, pepper, garlic, rosemary and olive oil. In an effort to share it the same way I received it, I have written it exactly as it was told to me that first night I tried it. Enjoy. – James
Einav’s Bread– Jerusalem, Israel, 2009
-1-2 teaspoons of yeast (warm water/bit of sugar)
-1 ½ cups of milk (maybe a little less), warm but don’t boil
-In a bowl, mix: – ¼ of a cup of olive oil
-2 tablespoons of sugar
– ½ or 1 tablespoon of salt
– black pepper
(add any spices you would like at this time, Zatar, thyme, etc.)
-Mix warm milk in to the bowl and stir
-Cut up one clove of garlic and add to bowl
-Let yeast mixture rise and once grown add to mixture
-Add 2 cups of flour
-Mix flour and yeast together little by little to get the right consistency
* This is when you add your olives and rosemary (or anything else like nuts, etc.)
-Mix dough in bowl with hands while adding more flour if necessary as you go
-Transfer to a large clean bowl and let sit for one hour (to rise)
-After 1 hour and risen, punch the dough and knead a bit
-Let rise 1 more hour
-Do this 3x
-Arrange on try, let sit one hour (this is the 3rd time)
-Put on toppings (extra rosemary, etc.)
-Preheat oven to 150-170 degrees and cook for 15 minutes
In reading your last letter (Frosty Nights and Tropical Warmth), I left 2014 feeling good and with a smile on my face and I agree with you regarding Plinth et al. and how far it has come. We have encountered a lot of interesting people and opportunities since starting this project and I hope this year will be just as good, with more interviews and projects in the works already. We seem to be off to a good start though and I am eager to hear about and see images of your trip to Taiwan, a place I have never been but always dreamed of traveling to. The change in weather, food and people must have been a welcome change from the freezing cold temperatures of Pennsylvania. But while you were off exploring beautiful places, I was having an adventure of my own. Somewhere between the 25th of December and the 1st of January, I changed apartments in Madrid and I will never think, again in my life, that this is an appropriate time of year to change houses… My biggest concern with moving had to do with my plants and it pleases me to say that no plant was left behind and there was only one broken pot of Sansevieria cylindrica upon arrival, now safely replanted and recovering.
There was not enough space (or light) for all of my plants in the last apartment but I am ecstatic about having a larger terrace at my new place. My mind is already racing with ideas and my sketchbook has become active again. Of course I decided it is a must to grow some of the standard Mediterranean fare, such as a fig tree, a lemon tree, rosemary and Punica granatum. In my mind the terrace is already running out of space with all the other things I will acquire at the nurseries too as the list in my notebook grows much longer each time I step outside to ponder ideas.
The terrace (with attached apartment) is on the 10th floor, the highest I’ve ever lived, and it has unobstructed views over the city towards the Sierra mountains, which are currently snow capped. Seeing this view is like having one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside, which works well for me. While there is not much to see out there on the terrace yet, except for green tips of emerging bulbs in containers, I did find a gecko living on the terrace, whom I am now trying to over winter with some of my plants in a protected spot, my first official pet. Seeing the city from this vantage point up high puts it into perspective for me how different things were when I arrived a little over a year ago. Never did I think I would be in this situation, living among palms and working in a flower shop, and speaking spanish, but it is a treat, a real pleasure now that I have adjusted. Spain and I are an odd pair but one that works, similar to this combination of cyperus and Colorado blue spruce I recently saw in a courtyard garden. I just might try this one out on the terrace too…. Speak soon my friend. – J
I know who you are but can you introduce yourself to those who might not?
I’m Preston Montague, and I describe myself as an artist who designs experiences in the landscape. Horticulture is one of the tools I use to make them happen.
For those that don’t know, can you share a bit of your background?
I developed a passion for the natural world while growing up in the foothills of Virginia and now work as an artist, educator, and landscape designer. I learned to express myself as a child through the visual arts and focused mostly on drawing the landforms, plants, and animals of the Shenandoah Valley. I was introduced to gardening in my 20’s while pursuing a degree in painting. At the time my gardening friends were interior designers, punks, and Quakers. They taught me that a gardener aught to have a sense of taste, a suspicion of convention, and an interest in social responsibility. Since those formative gardening years I’ve attained degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture, and have begun a career in landscape design. Though the latter takes up a lot of my bandwidth, I also make time to teach botanical illustration and environmental awareness. I like to think that so many of our ills and woes come from a lack of meaningful, physical contact with nature. Encouraging contact with nature, particularly through the exploration of art, design, and gardening, helps me understand myself and has turned me into a proselytizer for the outdoors. I recognize nature’s ability to moderate the dangerous gift of digital life, and I advocate for an equal investment in one’s visceral contact with the biotic world.
Can you recall your first gardening memory?
One of my most treasured gardening memories has to be my first designed landscape. When I was six, I had a place under a dogwood tree where I played with Star Wars figures. I transformed that little space into an alien planet by digging craters in the blood‐red soil and transplanting cedar seedlings from the surrounding forest along their edges. I often dragged the hose to the spot and filled the craters with water, making frothy lakes that somewhat resembled Yoda’s home planet. During these intergalactic episodes, snacks were inevitably dropped and left to compost as well as leaves brought in to bury characters that had died. I haven’t visited the spot in twenty years, but I’m sure there’s a handsome cedar growing there that benefited from the enrichment of soil and a child’s imagination. Perhaps Chewbacca is still there too half‐embedded in that tree.
What about the first time you were captivated by a piece of Art or a color?
I’m really bad at convention. As an approach to life it has never really worked for me. I remember being very suspicious of convention early on when I learned that boys weren’t supposed to like pink. I remember making a big deal about pink being my favorite color one time at a birthday party. I explained the many outstanding qualities of the color to the other boys, but they weren’t convinced. I’d like to think I was fighting the good fight for critical thinking, but I was probably just enjoying being contrary.
You first became a painter and then, later, turned to horticulture. In what way was this progression beneficial, how do you feel the former help shape the latter?
I was raised a painter. Though I was technically gifted, I didn’t feel like my early work said anything more than, “hey, isn’t this pretty.” When I left school I was deeply self-conscious about that and hesitated to paint for fear of only being able to produce beautiful one-liners.
Looking back, I realize that I was always depicting the gorgeousness of the landscape or some natural phenomena from a distance. Horticulture forced me to zoom in and understand not only the large processes of nature, but the minute ones as well. With new insight into the machinations of nature, I felt like my work had more to add to the conversation. Horticulture gave my artwork a much bigger vocabulary. Conversely, art training informed my landscape design and this reciprocal relationship between art and horticulture caused both to grow and bloom.
In creating a space of your own, in what order of importance do you place the following design principles from a visual standpoint. Color, shape, texture, space, form, scale/proportion. What is the foremost important principle to you in descending order to the least?
Shape, form, scale/proportion
When painting, what subjects catch your eye most?
Light has a funny way of creating relationships between things. It zooms in from the sky at… well, the speed of light I suppose. The photons crash into things without any artistic sensibility and we create meaning from the interplay of forms, colors, and textures that then bounce against our retinas. It’s extraordinary our ability as humans to abstract this phenomenon into stories and elicit a desired response. As a visual artist, I’m most interested in light as a subject.
When painting a landscape, what must it possess or what qualities are necessary for it to become your subject?
With any painting, landscape or otherwise, the subject(s) must inspire an emotional response in me. Additionally, communicating that feeling must also be appropriate through painting. If painting is the wrong language, I just take a photograph or log the experience in my journal.
You have an incredible talent for botanical Illustration and I love looking at the work you create. What is the Old North Alphabet and what prompted you to create this series?
Thank you, James. The Old North Alphabet is a series of 26 botanical illustrations featuring plants historically native to North Carolina that have traditionally been used for food or medicine (view here). Loosely shaped into the first letter of their common name, each plant exhibits its seasonality as well as associated animals and insects. I draw the plants from life, usually scouting them out with friends first and then camping by them for a weekend. Spending that sort of time with a plant in the wild yields surprise encounters with wildlife that often find their way into the illustrations.
The Old North Alphabet is part of a larger initiative designed to foster environmental awareness and natural science literacy through art and storytelling. The project emerged out of a budding interest in ethnobotany, which is the study of relationships between humans and plants. As an aspiring landscape architect primarily interested in how plants shape places and experiences, ethnobotany (particularly the folklore of plants) provides me some insight into how plants have historically impacted our imaginations. Evoking the imagination is my primary goal in landscape design, and is a priority largely inspired by my background as an artist.
Drawing and painting in plein air come with its own set of variables, so when you find a particular plant that you do want to sit and sketch, do you have a process, routine or formula that that you have found over time works best for you? Certain materials that you prefer to work with?
Many of the plants I draw require stable, mature environments to thrive in and simply aren’t found in the urban and suburban places I choose to live. Because of this circumstance, I usually have to travel long distances and into rather tough terrain to find specimens. Hiking into these environments and setting up a studio can be very challenging, so I choose colored pencils as a medium because of their portability and resistance to rain and humidity.
Before I embark on my journey I do loads of research on the plant as well as some preliminary sketches from photographs to become familiar with the plant’s structure and habits. Rarely do I find a specimen exhibiting a range of seasonal characteristics, so I try and catch them at some sort of peak (flowering, fall color, etc.) and work the composition around that moment. Drawing the specimen en plein air can be like a performance. You have to be in the “now” and ready to react to all sorts of surprises as nature rarely allows for an entire day without some sort of weather-related interruption. Often I’ll bring a stack of photographs gathered from books and the Internet to help guide my drawing. But, I rely on the plant in situ to provide me with the story.
There are many images in my head in my head when you talk about these surprise encounters you have had while working on your illustrations. Can you share a favorite memorable experience you like to revisit in your mind from time to time?
When I first began the project, I envisioned it as a very strict, academic study of plant structures. But, as I began drawing the plants from life I realized that each specimen had layers upon layers of structures that related to one another and to the environment in which they grew. Isolating a plant from its surrounding environment soon began to feel artificial, fundamentalist, and less engaging. So, I began considering the addition of companion plants, or even the visualization of invisible forces like wind and time. But, as I was sitting beside a mountain stream drawing Yellowroot and considering how to relate my subjects to their surrounding environment, a chance encounter happened.
After four hours of quiet drawing I had become essentially invisible and at one with the forest and the stream. The clouds broke and the pounding sunlight summoned a swarm of metallic-green damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) to the scene. With complete disregard to my presence they began to chase one another in dizzying patterns, the males stopping occasionally to slowly flap their wings in a contrived manner that resembled bicep-flexing. At one point a damselfly alighted on my drawing, had a “gun show” moment, then turned to me as if to say, “C’mon dude, wake up. There’s more to life than just plants.” A few moments passed and the clouds returned, swallowing the sun and shutting down the disco that had suddenly erupted around me. In that moment I realized that I was doing a disservice to the project’s narrative by illustrating plants in a vacuum. The point of the project is not the subjugation of plants with an interesting stories. Instead, this is a project about the evolving relationship between people and plants.
In regards to ethnobotany, can you share with us a plant that has interesting folklore and a surprising story to tell?
The project involves a great deal of storytelling, and one of my favorite stories is about the mysterious indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). Indian pipes emerge from the forest floor as translucent, scaly fingers with a characteristic bend that resembles Native American peace pipes. Often confused with fungi, these plants are actually related to azaleas. Indian pipes are parasitic and get their food not from sunlight as most plants do, but from the roots of Beech trees. This strategy limits their range to that of their host, but allows them to grow in dark, understory conditions that other plants might not be able to survive. Because they feed on surplus nutrients from the Beech, indian pipes do not need to grow branches and leaves, further separating them from their more familiar relatives. The part of the plant you see is actually the flower, and has historically been harvested as an ointment for eye infections. The Cherokee believed them to grow in a place where a quarrel happened and a peace pipe smoked before a resolution over the disagreement was made. Wild, right?!
Gardens public or private, what inspires you?
I am most inspired now by landscapes where man’s intervention is reduced to suggestion and whose experiences are too powerful, too complicated, and too nuanced to have been designed in CAD. Nature, take the wheel (or in this case, the mouse). My favorite garden is a 10,000‐acre granite bowl in the southern mountains of North Carolina called Panthertown Valley. The generous precipitation and temperate climate of the area makes plant life in the valley explode with the diversity of a tropical rainforest. The terrain is equally diverse, leaping from squishy lowland bogs to soaring granite cliffs in a matter of yards. Panthertown is a nature mirrorball. The diversity of Panthertown’s terrain yields a wide range of experiences, and has a rhythm between them quick enough to compete with the highstimulus circus of digital life. Because of these factors, I consider Panthertown on par with the greatest of the world’s botanical gardens. Though considered by most to be “wild,” Panthertown is a garden. It is just as planned and cultivated as any other environment in North Carolina (the world, for that matter). But, the only traces of man are the odd trail marker and footbridge. Otherwise, the garden is left to evolve on its own and exhibit the great, ever‐solving math equation I believe nature to be.
You are left alone on an island and can choose one plant and one piece of art to keep with you, what would you choose?
I’d be content to spend my time on a deserted island whistling and growing strawberries.
Your dream project, what would that be?
My dream project is my career: working to improve public health through art, environmental education, and landscape design.
Do you have specific sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?
I like to express myself creatively in the outdoors. The truths there seem somehow truthier, and nature’s indifference to my little version of reality gives me the freedom to just “be.” That’s a powerful state, and from “being” I find the encouragement and inspiration to risk self‐expression.
If you wanted your work, both your art and in horticulture, to accomplish one thing as you continue your inspiring career, what would message or goal would that be?
Hmm… an enduring legacy, let’s see… I’d like to say, “…help people live healthier lives through education and increased activity outdoors.” Honestly though, all my work may simply be motivated by an inner ten-year-old trying to encourage people to love nature more so they’ll come poke around the forests and creeks with me.
Leave us with a quote you admire often..
I have a running list of quotes in my journal that I could share, but perhaps the most important one to me at the moment is a popular meme making rounds on the Internet that reads, “Old ways won’t open new doors.” I’ve scrawled this on the inside of my front door recently so that I read it every time I leave the house. I haven’t heard any feedback on it from guests yet, but the UPS man said it made me look crazy. “Crazy for change,” I told him.