People fall in love with New Orleans for lots of reasons. For gourmands, it’s the plethora of great restaurants. For those who are bad at math, it’s the gigantic and gaudy Harrah’s Casino that looms over Canal Street. For horny frat boys, it’s piss- and vomit-stained Bourbon Street. For architecture buffs, it’s, well, the whole damn city, but particularly the French Quarter. For those who like the nightlife better with a dollop of mystery, it’s the undercurrent of Haitian vodou that courses through the above-ground cemeteries and dimly lit backstreets.
For me, it’s the gardens.
Now, I’ll never be a horticulturist. I have trouble remembering the names of basic, everyday flowers, much less the fragrant and exotic varieties found in the Crescent City. Hell, I managed to kill a cactus. But I love gardens of all kinds. I love breathing in the wild, luscious aromas. I love the ways sunlight radiates off of, and through, petals and stems. The riot of color and buzzing insects thrills me.
More than anything, I love the idea of a garden. A garden is a space designed specifically to cultivate wild, lush, verdant life. It takes the jungle and the forest, and attempts to control it, providing a contained environment in which city dwellers can traipse, and linger.
In The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray writes:
Art is by definition a process of stylization; and what it stylizes is experience. What it objectifies, embodies, abstracts, expresses, and symbolizes is a sense of life. Accordingly, what is represented in the music, dance, painting, sculpture, literature, and architecture of a given group of people in a particular time, place, and circumstance is a conception of the essential nature and purpose of human existence. More specifically, an art style is the assimilation in terms of which a given community, folk, or communion of faith embodies its basic attitudes toward experience.
Gardens, as much as food and jazz, radiate the sense of life in New Orleans. The city has also mixed together ethnicity, race, and ideology in ways that are bewildering to other parts of America. And even to New Orleans citizens—ask ten residents the definition of “Creole,” and you’ll get ten different answers, and yet “Creole” is a defining element of the city. Cultures there have blended together until the lines between them are blurred irrevocably. The city, perhaps more than any other in America, embodies Murray’s concept of the Omni-American, of each and every American as a cultural mulatto, from the landing of Columbus’s ships to the present day. The concept is writ large in New Orleans, and broadcast best through its gardens.
Gardens are where the city’s personality is best expressed. Because if gardens are places where vibrant colors come together, accentuate each other, and cross-blend into unmanageable hybrids, they are also places where smell is paramount. New Orleans is a city of smells, of sewage and muskiness from the Mississippi River, of overpowering perfumes in the French Market, of sweat and piss and horseshit, of spices and succulent meats and fresh fish, of chicory-flecked coffee and buttery croissants, and of—more than anything—flowers and pollen. All these smells commingle. As many years as I’ve lived in Jackson and Dallas, I don’t associate either city with aromas. It’s not that they don’t have smells, but New Orleans has a specific smell. It’s a smelly city, in a way that most others are not.
So it makes sense that the most obvious attractions of New Orleans—food and gardens—are those that are most pungent. New Orleans folk have articulated and stylized their experiences in the most appropriate ways imaginable.
Like most human enterprises, gardens are mad, fruitless attempts to control nature, to stylize it, to make it over with a human face. But you can’t control nature. The best you can do is contain it.
It’s part of my nature to be melancholy. I don’t like this about myself, but there it is. At the end of last October, I found myself depressed. My job was wearing me down. I didn’t, and still don’t, have a girlfriend. I worried about money and my perpetual lack of it. Depression, as Tom Robbins points out, is the most extreme form of self-absorption, and I needed desperately to step outside of myself. I needed to take a bird’s-eye view of my behavior and take stock of my head, so that I could pull up the weeds—contain myself—before they smothered everything.
So, at work on the last Thursday afternoon of the month, I decided to take the next day off from work, and head to New Orleans. I spent a few hours looking up cheap things to do and good restaurants in which I could eat, made a reservation at a dingy hotel off Poydras, packed a book and a day’s worth of clothes and toiletries, and tore down I-55 to the Crescent City.
The destination was Longue View, a garden estate on the city’s outskirts. The house itself is impressive—tall, huge, filled with minor paintings by major artists, with rugs and dark tapestries—but it’s the exterior I’m interested in. (We’re switching to present tense here because the experience is so vivid to me that I can imagine it’s happening right now. Also, I hope against hope that the estate still exists.) I come upon Longue View secretly. It’s hidden amidst a green tent of trees, and the road leading up to it quickly turns from pavement to gravel. I rest at a small white shack.
Inside, a man says admission is $10. I pay the fee, get a sticker tapped onto the pocket of my t-shirt, get a free pamphlet, and drive around to the smallish parking lot. The parking lot’s full, but I hardly see anyone other than gardeners until I take the house tour. I step out of my car, and immediately there are wondrous aromas, like honey and cooking spices and a woman’s skin all mixed together. It’s sexier than Emma Bovary’s boudoir, more enticing than a W.M. Spackman sentence.
But it’s also hot, still, at the end of October. I’m sweating by the time I’ve walked the unattended children’s garden, and take my first gasp at the actual house. Despite the glistening white fountain, the cul-de-sac that encircles a space larger than a small house, the swaying branches that swing shadows and sparkles on the grass, the house itself doesn’t loom. It’s not imposing. All around it are gardens, small, gorgeous, and delightfully untidy.
It’s the size that’s so inviting. Each of the six gardens is small and intimate, with delicate and almost unnoticeable touches that only become visible if you stop to rest. A stair-step fountain dribbles green water onto stones that are copper-colored and smooth as buttermilk. The water sneaks through violets and tall grasses—if you’re not careful, you might not see this fountain at all. Another garden features prickly, brown plants as tall as me, and thick with bees. The tops of each of these ugly stems have the most attractive, beautiful blossoms on them. A woman kneels nonchalantly amidst the thorns and flying stingers, pruning errant branches. She smiles at me. Hell, if she can wade through this, so can I. I walk through, perhaps too quickly, but slowly enough to notice how great it is to be engulfed in petals that are at eye level.
A pond is blanketed by lily pads and dragonflies; it’s laced by purple and bright blue flowers. At one end of it, there’s a gazebo, shadowy and with peeling green paint. I read some of Colette’s Break of Day there, for 30 minutes; no one else came by.
The quietude is startling. Sure, there’s the occasional shudder of an airplane far overhead. Insects chirp madly. But people are scarce, and the trees overwhelm so much that I can pretend that I’m inside, in a house in which the walls happen to be bark and leaf. A quiet house.
Out in the open, there’s a thin rectangular, still pool of water. Potted plants are lined alongside it, along with small metal fountains. A young gay couple videotapes the clouds reflecting on the water. Right next to the house, there’s an intimate rose garden and immaculately cut hedges. It’s not so large as to intimidate, or to make me think that the gardeners just threw together a helluva lot of flowers indiscriminately. Rather, the Longue View gardens are tiny and precise, as well-considered in their use of space as Japanese gardens.
The estate is by no means the largest garden I’ve been to but, other than the Edwards Gardens in Toronto, it’s the most beautiful and most controlled. I stayed there for over two hours. I sucked in air so deeply that I probably inhaled small bugs. I’m not a praying man, but I pray I can go back there some day.