Sunday, June 22, 2008

And now for something cool

Los Angeles holds some refuges from the summer heat, and we were lucky that we found one today. We enjoyed the day with friends in their incredible garden, on a shady terrace close enough to the coast that the heat was tempered by ocean air. Beyond the terrace, a pond featured amethyst-colored water lilies and a magnificent specimen of Nelumbo lutens, the American Lotus.

The pink lotus, or Nelumbo nucifera, is a divine symbol in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Brahma and Vishnu are often shown holding its flowers, or sitting upon its leaves. It is said that wherever the Buddha treads, lotuses grow in his footsteps.

The pure beauty of the lotus blossom, rising as it does from roots in the mud, is celebrated in Chinese and Indian poetry.
In nineteenth century England, Tennyson - after Homer - wrote of the Lotos-Eaters. Odysseus's men land on an island and eat the plant offered by the islanders.* They lapse into a dreamy stupor, and just like many who come to Los Angeles and experience personal change, they vow to remain in the land where "it seemed always afternoon", where
"With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream...
hear each other's whisper'd speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach."
Not for nothing is Hollywood known as Lotusland. Like the Lotos-Eaters, people come here hoping for stardom, which to many might be the modern equivalent of living
"On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl'd
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl'd
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
Where they smile in secret..."
I'm not sure Tennyson would recognize his Lotos-eaters in the languid denizens of Malibu, lounging in cabanas sipping cocktails and hearing each other's whisper'd speech through their Bluetooth devices.

And here in Los Angeles, unlike the Gods, even Lotos-eaters aren't immune from
"...earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns..."

A different Lotusland can be found near Santa Barbara in Montecito. This 37 acre garden was created by Ganna Walska, a Russian singer, in 1941. Walska was an eccentric person with eclectic interests like spiritualism, Ouija boards, and various other mystical schools of thought. Her opera career, which was promoted by her wealthy second husband, is said to have inspired the character of Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane's wretchedly untalented mistress in Citizen Kane - her singing was that bad!

After Walska's initial plan to create a monastic retreat called "Tibetland" didn't work out, she named the garden Lotusland after the pink sacred lotus in her water garden. The garden is just as fantastic as anything Kublai Khan or Kane might have had - a living clock made from succulents and topiary; a garden planted with entirely blue plants and flowers; giant clam shells fountains and glittering chunks of geodes and abalone shells lining the paths.

But let's not get carried away with lotus eating, shall we? enough of drug culture, strange cults, and half-baked mysticism!

We are contemplating the American lotus - a more down-to-earth and altogether more wholesome plant.

Our friends' garden was no place for mild-eyed melancholy and decadent lotus-eaters - it rang with the sounds of five toddlers banging on drums, vroom-vroomming toy cars, and tipping baskets of toys off the railing into the rosemary bushes below.

One little boy took his mother's hand and walked to the side of the pond, intent on the goldfish swimming within. The white blossom of the lotus was as high as his head. His mother and I each put our noses to it and sniffed. The scent was faint, barely detectable, but pure, sweet and beautiful.

"Lotus on four sides and willows on three,
Half a pool of autumn water reflects a hill.
Distant fragrance is all the more delicate and fresh."

Zhou Dunyi (1017 - 1073 AD), Song dynasty

*The lotus eaten by Odysseus's crew is thought to be Nymphae caerulea - the Egyptian blue water lily - and is said to have psychoactive properties.


JCK said...

Sounds like you found a little slice of nirvana today!

Love the pictures and quotes, etc.

Mrs. G. said...

Incredible garden is right. Beautiful.

KathyR said...

Ah, if only it was "whispered speech."

Lovely place.

Was it cooler?!