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​Recessional and Rant for John Bartram



Ever since his commission, an elaborate sundial, was delivered there, Randall has been eager to visit the Blain Mansion, so large and imposing that some call it a villa, others a castle. Since they do not own an automobile, he and May borrow a jalopy to make the trip.  The winding road that takes them to the top of the hill nearly dizzies them.  And then they are in front of a home so large, so imposing that crossing the threshold into the front hall is the only way to bring them back to scale again.

Their host greets them with hand outstretched.  Randall bows, and May curtsies.  “Walk,” says Mr. Blain.  “Through the house, into the gardens.  Refreshments after you’ve explored.”

The downstairs rooms are commanding, one after another, each window winking an amazing view of garden, salt marsh, or the Atlantic Ocean a half mile away, reached by way of a magnificent, terraced promenade.  Those swells of grass, lined by lindens, ash and pine, are fronted by statuary.  They exit the patio door. 
“Let’s walk,” says May, nearly skipping off the patio onto the back lawn.  “So blue, so perfect,” she says of the ocean.

Randall turns to face the house.  Above each window, in an arched alcove, the head of a Roman emperor looks down on them.  May takes his arm, and turns him toward the ocean.  “Can you imagine living with such a view?” she asks.  “Each and every day?”

“An emperor’s view, certainly,” says Randall.

On the promenade, they pass the first statue, their feet sinking into manicured grass.  They act as guides, each to the other. 
“Adam, before the Fall,” Randall points.

“And Eve,” says May.  “And now Eve with snake.”

“Adam with apple.  Bitten.  And Adam’s apple.  Did you notice his smooth throat in the first statue?”

“Such detail,” says May.  “What planning.  What adornment.  And we’re here.  Invited because of your clever sundial.”

They leave the statuary and stand above the ocean.  To one side of them a walled garden invites, roses espaliered, hostas flowering purple and white, violet and cream.  Pink astilbe is planted in rows, almost like hedge, framing triangles of deep purple petunias.  In the middle, a fountain.  Randall walks toward the nymph, nearly human size, water streaming in an arc from her uplifted hand.

“Such beauty,” May says.

Randall walks to the other side of the promenade, where a circular garden forces them to walk a labyrinthine path to the middle, past hydrangeas, lavender, summersweet, and anemones, through arches of wisteria and moonseed, clematis and St. John’s Wort.  In the center of this garden, Randall’s sundial notes not only the time of day on its flat disc, but also, in an elaborate circling spire above, the position of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth.

“Such a clever device,” says May.  “I’m proud of you.”  She pats Randall’s arm. 

The dial shadows five o’clock, and they will be expected at the mansion above.  They turn to see it in the distance, timeless and stately.

“From inside the villa,” Randall says, “everything outside calls for attention.  The ocean, the walkway, the garden.  Nature, shaped and unshaped, invites you to walk outside in its majesty.”

“And so we did,” says May.

“But it’s a trick,” says Randall.  “Look there,” and he points at the mansion:  the tiled roof, the perfect symmetry of its architecture, the statues at the corners of the porch, the sculpted gargoyles, the grape-vined marble of the facings, the copper down spouts that turn to sea creatures at the base of the walls.  “That’s why Blain wants us out here.  To turn, finally, and admire him.  To look up.  To see how small we are.  We are invited to make that processional walk, our eyes to the ocean.  Our eyes to the garden.  But once we’re out here, it is all recessional.  We recede into the distance, we are made to feel small, given such grandeur.  That’s what Blain wants.”

“He has much to admire,” says May, “including your sundial.”  She takes Randall’s hand.

They walk the long recessional up to the mansion, where Blain awaits them on the patio.

“I hope you are well-pleased with the gardens,” Blain says.  “I hope I have set your sundial where it belongs, in the center of the circles.  A stunning piece.”

Randall bows slightly.  “You have placed me rather well,” he says.  He takes the champagne offered him by a servant, drinks it rather too quickly.  “I am well placed,” he says again.

“Look at the ocean,” May says to Randall and Mr. Blain.  “So blue.  So perfect.”

“Indeed,” says Blain.  “One never tires of such beauty.”

Randall reaches for a second flute of champagne.



So you’re in his Philadelphia garden, expecting an eye-popping tour, because, after all, John Bartram is one of your heroes, and you’ve traveled halfway across the United States to visit his eight-acre garden on 45 acres of sacred ground on the Schuylkill River, the plot from which he shipped so many American plants to England, practically turning that island’s landscape into a miniature America, with magnolia, birch, hawthorne, pine and oak, allowing the wealthy British to “paint” their landscapes with fall foliage for the first time, and Bartram, ever humble, hardly ever paid, toiling to promote American botany, all botany gaining from his persistent exploration, cataloging, classifying, cultivating of dozens and dozens of new species he discovered, and you’ve read that the oldest Gingko tree in the United States (still a sapling when Bartram died in 1777), as well as Franklinia trees, named for his friend Benjamin Franklin, and not seen in the wild since 1803, are both in Bartram’s Garden and you’re hoping the tour will explain the complexities of Bartram’s life, his passion for plants, his fight for freedom—not from England, but from the wars that would stop the shipments of plants to Europe and from England and France to Philadelphia—because he is already free and independent and active, and you want to see the signs of that activity, like the facsimile of the broadsheet catalog, America’s first botanical offerings, printed in 1783, a 22-by-17-inch sheet of paper with almost 220 “trees, shrubs, and herbacious plants,” which you imagine will make carnate the past, as will the plots of plants, maintained year after year, in spite of illness, age, war and weather, and you have brought your camera and your tape recorder with plans to stay as close to the tour guide as possible, and you enter the garden, maintained by a private society of friends, and the gift shop is closed and no tours are being given this month, and the place is weed-strewn, and unmown, and you remember reading what George Washington said during a visit in 1787, when he found the working garden to be “not laid off with much taste,” but now even the signage is spoiled by rain and mold and you realize that your plans are as difficult to execute as his were, and like him, you can accept that, and you talk your rant into your microphone and you take pictures of what you think is the oldest Gingko, and the Franklinia, and you leave, saddened but knowing that there are books, the same books that lured you halfway across the country, and you will read them, the pictures you’ve taken at your side, and you will donate to the private society and hope that someday soon John Bartram’s garden will be the place that it never was but in your own overzealous imagination.
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