The background of this landscape is the San Gabriel Mountains. And the silver-white sliver of buildings in the middle ground is part of the small town of La Canada/Flintridge (population 20,447 as of 2016). If you have been following my blog you may have noticed that when I plop down to paint at the Descanso Garden I almost always turn right out of the main entrance and head straight for the rose garden. As you can see, I have changed my ways. Lately, I have been circling the garden on paths from left to right and then right to left—settling down anywhere but the rose garden to paint. I found this spot completely by accident, during one of my wanderings to the left of the main entrance. The trail to this view is not featured on their website or map of the grounds. It feels like a wonderful secret place that I have found and it’s almost like no one knows it’s there. Here you can sit up high on a flat piece of granite and look through layers of lovely oaks to the San Gabriel’s off in the distance. I can’t see anyone down below as the trees hide me from view. I can hear voices, but thankfully I can’t really make out what anyone is saying. It’s pretty wonderful and a perfect place for me, even if I don’t take out my sketchpad.
Oh, I still go to the rose garden, but only to stop briefly when a tart little rose is just too beautiful to pass by and I bend in to smell something wonderful. In fact, I have noticed that our summer heat intensifies the heady perfume given off by most of the Descanso roses. (Well I guess there is one good thing about the intense summer heat we have been experiencing.) But even though there are colorful clusters and single stems of wonderfully scented flowers all around I have decided that I am just not comfortable sitting there for any extended period of time right now.
Of course there is a story…The other day I was sitting comfortably and painting under the shade of a tree in the rose garden. A group of three moms, with three strollers, wandered by and then stopped at a nearby patch of lawn. They laid out their blankets and visited with each other while attending to their tiny infants. All seemed fine and I continued to paint. But soon, the women got quiet, save one. She had begun a grizzly and suspense-filled tale of the recent experience of giving birth to her youngest child via Cesarean. I was trying not too listen, but it was hard to avoid her description of the trauma for both the mom and baby leading up to the unexpected surgery—complete with her description of the individual organs that needed to be set aside so the doctor could reach in and get the baby out. What she was saying was way too personal for a public place, but she shared every gritty detail with great gusto. After a few minutes of this I found myself hurrying to finish my watercolor so I could leave. I’d had enough. Just as I put the last hurried bit of color on the page and was standing to let everything dry, she finally finished her story (with thankfully a happy ending for both mom and baby). Then it got really quiet and I heard the other mom’s muffled voices say something about needing to get home. So, they all gathered their baby items, babies, and left. I know if I had been one of the silent moms I would have been planning for the moment she took a breath so I could leave too. Yikes! So, I slowed down my planned flight, finished up and packed my bag. But I think the universe was trying to give me one last “beware of people (or new mothers) in the Descanso Rose Garden” message because on my way out I came across a dirty diaper on the grass. I’m not kidding! The next time I went to the Descanso I looked for a new hangout, away from just about everyone—especially new moms with strollers who looked like they had a tale to tell, or maybe just hadn’t quite gotten the hang of diapers. I’ve said it before, but I just don’t know if I really like people.
I saw my doctor the other day and somehow we got to talking about our mutual need to be away from people at times. (I didn’t tell him about the talkative “baby momma” at the Descanso…) But he had a lot to say about such feelings of being too near to others that kind of resonated with me. He described early humans as nomads, wandering around in their small family group looking for something to hunt or gather. There just weren’t a lot of people yet and there was always somewhere else to go without running into anyone you didn’t know. Even though I think I like the idea of having almost no one around (especially when there are way too many people at the beach). I get it. Even though I love the idea of walking a lonely strand of sand without seeing a single soul, there really isn’t anything romantic about being nomadic. It must have been tough, taking great effort to live and thrive in such a world. I guess life got a little easier when some of these same nomads learned to domesticate animals and farm—slowing their need to move around so much. But my doctor said that he thought humans were still basically nomads, with some deep primitive need to move on, move to someplace new. He likened it to the early settlers in North America who were moving westward, looking for something unspoiled and new. But there really isn’t anywhere new to move anymore. We’ve gone as far west as you can. We mused that some think it’s time to move off the planet into outer space. We both laughed and decided that living on Mars would be a terrible idea. I reminded him that there were no oak trees on any other planet, so space would definitely be “out” for me. He mentioned that he had recently become a grandpa and I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.
On my way home from the doctor’s office I thought of a wonderful story I had heard on the radio a long time ago, about very early human nomads. I don’t remember the “radio” guy’s credentials, but I think he was an anthropologist… Anyway, he started out by saying that our human brains haven’t really changed much since the days of the Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. He didn’t go into great detail about the actual size or shape of those early human brains, but focused on their possible cognitive abilities (e.g. memory, attention etc) as it related to those early family units roaming around together. I distinctly remember him saying that such an early person probably knew, or remembered, a total of 50 people. That’s all he or she would ever encounter. That would include those in his or her actual group, and maybe the members of another group they might come across every so often. Seeing/knowing/remembering only 50 people in my “year in/year out” life seem like a manageable number for my 21st century nomad Neanderthal-like brain. I’m not sure if early Homo sapiens, or Neanderthals, had names, or if they even talked to each other. I can’t even tell you how many different people I have seen in my life, but it’s way more than 50. Bet you can’t either. I do find it amusing that I probably have 50 plus random facts that I can call up at a moment’s notice, but have been known to forget someone I have just met, even when they are standing right in front of me.
I just finished reading “The Enchanted April,” by Elizabeth Von Armin (1922). The premise of the book is very appropriate for this story. It’s about four English women looking to escape their “dreary” lives for various reasons. They don’t know each other, but are brought together by chance when they rent a medieval Italian castle for a month in April. I particularly like how one of the characters, Lady Caroline, ardently looked for a secret place to hide out while at the castle. Ms. Von Armin describes it as “…a little place jutting out from the great wall, a kind of excrescence, or loop, no doubt used in the old distrustful days for observation, where it was possible to sit really unseen…” And if that was not enough to keep her out of sight Ms. Von Armin adds a “thick clump of daphne” that grows in just the right place to further block any intruder’s view. So, Lady Caroline claimed that spot as her “hidy hole.” The hilarious twist to her wanting to be unseen is the fact that she liked to sit there and smoke, but her puffs of cigarette smoke obviously gave away her location to anyone coming even near to that spot. Of course this kind of information makes me wonder if she really wanted to hide away and be left alone. I think there are probably a lot of “I want to be left alone” pretenders out there (Greta Garbo, Grand Hotel, 1932). Just sayin.’
Final note about my secret spot at the Descanso
I took my son to this very spot the other day. He thought it pretty special too, but without any prompting he noted that the view would be better if there were no buildings. I had thought that very thing when I did the watercolor, and almost left them out. It made me smile to think that he is definitely a chip off the old anti-social nomadic Californian block. That’s a relief!