[Photo by Mary Zahl]
Mary Zahl, the wife of Paul Zahl (see The Zahl File), is a renowned
designer of gardens — serious, amazing gardens. She was kind enough
to send along this report of a recent trip she made to Charleston, S.
C., revisiting the place where her career and vocation as a garden
designer got kicked into higher gear by a terrible natural disaster:
Last week I was in Charleston, S. C., speaking on garden design to the
Charleston Horticultural Society. It was my first 'official' return to
the garden scene there after leaving in 1992. In my talk, I was
reflecting on twenty years of designing gardens, mostly residential.
What was particularly apt about this timing was that it was in
Charleston that my work in this field took a giant step forward, both
in scope and volume. There was one reason why: Hurricane Hugo came
through the Low Country on September 21, l989, leaving countless
devastated gardens that, in turn, became the jump-start for my career.
Hurricane Hugo was the only real disaster I have lived through. What
affected me the most and lasted the longest was the sheer ugliness of
it all: giant trees uprooted or snapped off, huge piles of debris for
weeks on end, dried up places which had been shady and green, general
chaos everywhere. Even the birds and butterflies disappeared. It was
depressing, and hard to summon the energy that was needed to put life
back on track.
But, as my work meant bringing a little beauty and order into lives
surrounded by ugliness and disorder, my eyes were opened to the
importance of what I was doing. 'Garden design' became more than an
end in itself; with a cleared and freshly planted garden, I saw hope
return and anxiety decrease in those I was helping.
Before this experience, I had struggled with whether or not I was doing
something 'important' with my work. I loved flowers, and loved being
out in the garden, and even helping bring to life something that my
clients could not do for themselves. But it felt like the icing on
life's more serious cake. Through this experience, I had a little
window into the power of art/beauty to feed the soul.
[Photo by Mary Zahl]
It still feeds mine, after all these years. Just strolling through
this garden of Frances and Milton Parker in Beaufort, S. C., last week
(seen in the photos above) took my breath away with its serenity and creative energy, two apparent
opposites. I wanted to sit — for hours if I could — and take it in.
It lives in my mind's eye, just as the paintings we saw this summer at
The Hermitage in St. Petersburg do.
Paul and I were recently watching Warren Beatty's movie Reds. The
struggle of the main character, John Reed, was between his art as a
writer (Ten Days that Shook the World) and his passion to get
involved in the political situation in Russia. His wife begged him to
stay at home and help the revolution by being the writer/artist he was,
but he went abroad to be a part of the action. He died there at a
premature age. I personally wish he had valued his art more.