Night Garden: A Summer Project
If my mother could, she would live in her garden like one of the many blooms. Throughout the summer months she can always be found there, talking to her flowers. Now that she is sick, I want to collect and save some of the garden’s loveliness for her — and for you.
What I’ve loved most about making things, since I was very little, is giving them away as gifts. I’ve been wanting to get closer to that again, and yet also support myself financially in this practice better. This project is an opportunity to explore that.
This summer I am photographing the garden after dark, and hope this yields images both strange and beautiful.
How can you join in? If you wish, you may buy shares in Night Garden @ $50.00 each (plus shipping). For one or more shares you will receive several e-post-cards over the course of the summer and later, a Collector’s print. Images will be museum quality, archival pigment prints, signed and dated, and selected by me. Your participation will help finance and also drive this project. I’ll give you, in return, new work priced to connect with a larger community, but hopefully something even more meaningful.
- 1 share = an 8×10″ print (Print A)
- 2 shares = a 11×14″ print (a different image, Print B)
- 3 shares = Print A & Print B
- 20 shares = a unique edition of five 11×14” images, hand-selected by you (via studio visit or Internet) and presented in a Collector’s box
I will be donating 10% of proceeds to research on BRCA, the cancer gene* that is so devastating to so many woman and some men, (and shared by my mother, with ovarian cancer, and by several other members of my family).
If you’d like to participate, but don’t want shares at this time, you can sign up to receive the e-post-cards I will be sending to all participants. Project shares will close September 15, 2012, with the idea of presenting the work later in a larger way.
Please join me in the Night Garden this summer. Thank you!
*BRCA is a gene mutation that produces hereditary breast-ovarian cancer. Those with BRCA have it an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and an up to 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer. As of yet, there is no screening for ovarian cancer in the early stages, and it has a very low survival rate if caught late. Breast cancers, in those with BRCA, grow faster, recur more often, and are less successful with cancer treatments than in those without the mutation. The only real prevention for those with BRCA is prophylactic hysterectomy and mastectomy. If you wish to learn more about BRCA, you can read about it at cancer.gov.
Bellflowers and Birches, 4 AM
“Well you’d better hurry, you’re going to miss the peonies!” are my mother’s remarks when I call to tell her I’m excited to come up to the cottage. One week later, having just arrived, she plops a glass of water down in front of me. There is one, slightly tired, pink peony standing in the water. “There you go,” she says matter of factly and walks away.
The garden is in full bloom. In all its glory, it runs in sections by the stone path leading to the house, and down by the lake there is a patch of wild flowers. I am not a gardener. I know only a few of the plants: honeysuckle, daylilies, lambs-ear, daisy… but my mother knows all their common and latin names. I tell her of my plans to photograph the garden after dark this summer and she listens. “Better get going,” she says cheerfully, “They say a garden only lasts as long as its gardener.”
A year and a half ago my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Two surgeries later (a hysterectomy +) and on her second set of chemo she is doing well, considering the odds. But when I arrive she is waylaid by chemo, good for a day and then, nauseous and vomiting. We eat dinner as a family outside and she sits with us sipping only water.
Daytime I run around chasing children in the heat and sun. At night the darkness envelops this house and I don’t feel like going outside. I am so bone-tired it feels like an impossible task, to take out my various cameras and begin photographing. I think of the garden outside, the night garden, and wonder what lies ahead.
4:00 a.m. – One of my boys has set my clock alarm to “ON”.
From my bedroom window the lake glows, partly obscured by pines. I can hear, though my husband loves to say it’s a Canadian cliché, the loons calling. If sleep won’t have me, the garden will.
Although it’s the middle of July the air is freezing. It’s so cold it’s as though I’m standing next to my Brooklyn air conditioner. A strong wind is up and my moonlight exposures are long, between 3 and 30 seconds. I take half a dozen photographs of the same patch of garden down by the lake, beside two white birches. Here is my first photograph of the night garden – just for you…
Hello again, from the night garden. I’ve been thinking about you… I hope you’re sleeping well. I hope you’re eating market vegetables. I hope, if you’re gardening, that you have a tiny opera at work in the earth.
For me, there is an intense sweetness to this summer, an exquisite kind of loveliness; the lake air, raspberries on the vine, suncreen, bandaids, grilled meats, chinese checkers and battleship, books left open on tables, damp towels, hummingbirds, the forest leaves rustling… I am acutely aware of time passing, of isolated moments with my mother, as though watching clips from a film. Phrases about the garden stay with me all day instead of simply evaporating (or being ignored).
this is a shasta daisy,
this one is monkshood or akanitum (she spells it out),
nepeta or candy cat,
I’ve planted some chives – they’ll have to be watered every day…
the honeysuckle is starting over here,
this purple is astillby,
ladies mantle, bachelor’s buttons,
daylilies – you know they only last one day, each flower…
well this one, forget about it. it doesn’t open at night.
Mum’s PA levels are down which means the cancer is shrinking. The chemo is again working its cruel magic. We all celebrate (whoohoo). My sister’s email reads: Mom’s PA number is down to 500, from 5,000 3 wks ago (and 30,000 when she started her treatments). This number, 500, is the PA level she started at when first diagnosed over a year and a half ago. I can’t remember if it that was post surgery, but at that time it was considered high.
Night with its many luminous moons. Night of flying insects, moths, mosquitoes, cricket song. Sun’s shadown. Dusk and midnight. Lightening night with cracks splitting the air, electric. Night shadows on the lawn, slanting orange. Darkest night under cloud cover, new moon. Night lily blooming ochre, yellow, medusa, white.
The night seemed ominous at first glance. I was tentative. Now, after a few weeks, it is more of a friend. The dark pines, the jungle of ferns, the new baby grass and soft earth like putty underfoot… Come and visit. Come out and play!
My very first roles of film come back from the lab wildly underexposed. (There’s such a learning curve to this night work.) With a little magic I am able to salvage this image for you. I’ll call it, Stars.
My mother is doing well, in the big picture. There have been some things this summer, like one of her kidneys is enlarged. But she is here. She is making the most of her days. When she has energy she is in the garden, or in the kitchen making caramel flans. Most of the time I don’t even feel sick, she says. But her platelets are down again, and still dropping so she will not have this week’s scheduled chemo.
When I started this work I didn’t want it to be sad. I wanted to unveil the quiet, night-shrouded loveliness (if I could magic it with my rough tools) of the garden and its sloping grounds.
Why don’t we celebrate
Life can make you sad
Come-on let’s drive ourselves mad…
I am writing this on my aunt Judy’s birthday (now posting it some days later). She was my mother’s sister, and like my mother, she was diagnosed two years ago with advanced stages of ovarian cancer (and with the BRCA cancer gene).
She passed away in the palliative care unit at L’Hopital Notre Dame on July 14, one week into this project. I saw her there on her last night, asleep, still wearing her gold necklaces, surrounded by her four children and three grandchildren. Today she would have been 65. She and my mother had had a falling out many years ago, but she was like a second mother to me, as a child. The subject of her passing has been delicate, and also, unlike my mother who is very open, Judy did not want anyone to know that she was sick.
It’s been raining the last two nights in the garden. The flowers are pelucid, drenched, the deadheads have a mulched look, drippy, slippery, squishy, ready to drop to the earth. My friend Jane comes to visit and exclaims, It’s so sexy! The garden in this rain! Look at how sexy this flower is! I get it, but I don’t see that. I just see life, in all its stages. Life in bud, life in bloom, life a little tired with the weight of rain, life fallen to the ground, sweet and delicate and still.
After the funeral, I was out in the garden photographing one night with one of my aunt’s four children, Emmanuel. He’s a doctor and new father and loves photography. We spent a few hours walking around while I made long exposures and showed him some of the ways I’ve been working at night, using a pen-sized flashlight to literally paint in the parts of a flower. At one point he said – Stand still and I’ll document you, and set my camera for a one-minute exposure. Wait – I said – I have a better idea… and I turned on my flashlight. The following photograph is the image we captured.
I’d like to dedicate it to my aunt, who left this world this summer with so much courage.
Happy Birthday, Judith –
with love, from the night garden.
That Summer Feeling
Hello from the garden where summer’s wearing her last few sundresses, and where night is falling one hour earlier than when we arrived.
When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…
The time is here for one more year
That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you
One day in your life.
In so many ways, this summer has been idyllic summer. It feels like stolen time. My boys run barefoot all summer. A dead mouse is found during a scavenger hunt, a jam jar fashioned as a home for a grasshopper. Emmet learns not to be afraid of minnows and how to swim. My mother with her soft skin and calm is the backdrop to all of this, often in bed under covers resting, or playing “Double” Solitaire with August. Or, she’s in her garden weeding, working, untangling the wild honeysuckle. Though this year, not so much in the garden.You know, you’ve got to tell me where you want to photograph each night so I can get that part of the garden ready for you.
It’s true, she’s not at work in the garden as much this year, but she likes to direct, Did you see this over here, make sure you photograph it tonight. Or – Make sure you get this one, it won’t be here tomorrow…
Today she’s at the hospital. Her creatinine is high. The tumor is pushing on one kidney, impeding it. She’s had a double J stent in all summer but it isn’t doing its job. There was ecoli in her urine so she’s on antibiotics. She is being looked after well; the doctor’s say this is all very standard. This week she had chemo number four, five hours of magnesium and was hydrated through an IV. When I talk to her on the phone she says, I’m glad I brought a good book.
I never hear her complain.
I want to stop time, slow it down, put it in a little box or a glass jar, like my insect-catching, eight-year old son. I’m trying to hold it in my hands in this rough impossible way but, of course, I can’t. It slips through my fingers like lake water.
Hello from the garden,
If I think about it, there’s always been a sort of gardening mania for my mum, though she’s so relaxed in life that I’d say it manifests, at times, more as a gardening fog. In the evening, during the summer, she may forget to say goodnight, stating as she leaves the room, Ok, I’m going outside to tuck in my flowers… She is part of various garden clubs and volunteer gardens that she works on all year, fundraising for different charities with dried flower crafts, or her own photo-flower cards. Her many shelves of gardening books include: The New Greener Thumb, Garden Guide for Canadians, The Complete Book of Compost, Topiary Basics, Tottering in my Garden, Lawns and Ground Covers, Microwaved Pressed Flowers, and Dig.
This past week my mother’s been in the city, in and out of the hospital. The doctors have placed new spells on her, their own brand of witchcraft, to even out the bumps, renew her body, speed it forward on a path to strength, give it pause from cancer’s relentless bulldozing. She’s drinking herbal tea like mad (she tells me), watching movies, reading, spending time with my father.
When I call on the phone, she says in her cheery voice, I can’t wait to get up to the garden. It will be so nice to be up there again. There’ll be some Astors out. My dad, who is on the other line, adds, And we’ve just had a very good omen. Mum got her new passport. Renewable in 2017!
In the cottage kitchen there’s a gardening calendar, The Farmer’s Almanac, with only two notes all summer in my mother’s hand; the date of my Aunt’s funeral and a garden tour she didn’t take because she wasn’t feeling up to it. A calendar marks time in the usual way, but this one has helpful hints too – If the bee’s in the flower there won’t be a shower. Or, For best flavor, dig up your horseradish during a full moon. This month of August there are two full moons: August 1, and August 31 – a true blue moon.
For this, your fifth postcard, I have two images taken during the full moon. You can see how this patch of wildflowers (above) is so well lit. It’s just kissed with moonlight. Photographing by full moon is just like photographing by sunlight (because you can actually SEE), only 1000 better.
The second photograph, for obvious reasons, I’m calling, Many Moons.
Hello again from the garden,
This little garden. Here simply to shine.
Summer’s end. It comes all of a sudden on the wind. Crisp air and cold nights and the lake temperature drops. The day-lilies are all shriveling up.
My mother points out a fall flower. I forget its name. She may stay up here for a few more weeks.
She is feeling better than ever, she is feeling wonderful. She has more energy now than she’s had since spring.
She says, her garden, she’s always said, is just like a symphony.
I still find new things. A brand new symphony each night.
I make shadows on the house with plants. I could go with that for a long time.
I could write words in the air for a long time: mother, blue moon (for the two moons of August), cradle, heart.
I could chart the night above the garden, the movement of the moon across the sky, the stars on clear nights sparking tails.
The dew (on my camera-back during long exposures).
The toys left on the grass, the tools.
A moth in the flowers, this inky darkness. So many moths, in my face, in my hair, but all summer I don’t capture one.
I haven’t photographed the red berries. (No blueberries this year – too dry?)
I want to curl up inside this thicket of stems, take pictures up close, down low to the smoky ground.
The pinhole cap, unused, new digital timer not even out of its box.
It feels like there’s so much more to do. Stitch together panoramas.
My old close-up lenses…
A three-sixty of the garden –
The night is young, still.
Night Garden Update
Hello night gardeners,
September has been ushered in and, hopefully, some cooler weather…
I want to thank you, sincerely, for participating in Night Garden. I’ve had so many wonderful emails about the project and well wishes for my mother. It’s been so enjoyable to have had a dialogue back and forth with some of you. I’ve really loved that.
Some of Night Garden will be shown as part of Traywick Contemporary’s 15th Anniversary Exhibition, in Berkeley this October. And October is also when I will be mailing you your share(s) of the garden – your print(s)!
I’ve decided to switch things up from my original plan. I will pull 3 or 4 images from the postcards and let you select the print you like most, once the project closes. Everyone has a different favorite image! Stay tuned…
I will be donating 10% of proceeds to research on BRCA (hereditary breast/ovarian cancer). I’m thrilled to say, the project has reached 151 shares! Thanks again for your gorgeous support.
Enjoy the last ripe summer berries and see you in the garden…
Putting the Garden to Bed for Winter
Dear Night Gardeners,
Oh, the garden… The end of this phase of the project, small summer hourglass where each grain of sand is an exposure, an envelope of light.
This summer project ended, aptly, on a new moon, Sept 15 – not because of the sky’s absolute darkness, but because each new moon, of course, signals a new beginning.
How happy I’ve been, working away outside at night (my children – my parents – tucked in bed), with sometimes no light or little light, getting bitten by mosquitoes, startled by groundhogs or red squirrels in the bushes, too warm under a plaid 80s anorak with many pockets for my tools. The moon, always a different moon, new, gibbous, or full, waxing and waning over the course of the summer. The sky always a different sky, mottled with cloud, heavy with rain, or clear with stars and stars into the billions. The sky, a big bucket dumping down gifts on certain nights, light light light. Otherwise, me, stumbling with cameras and tripods and a pretty useless light meter, using guesswork, counting steamboats in my head, sometimes 400 or more. The lake, a constant presence, subdued, glowing, its immediate, breathtaking quiet, save for the loons (or what my cousin swore were coyotes) and the shrill of crickets. And always, the thickness of night, unskirtable, something to revel in.
And now. Now the garden will be put to bed. My mother, perhaps Andre instead – she is tired – will do the work of chopping the stems down, composting the debris, and then some weeding. Not the Russian Sage – she won’t do that till Spring when it sends out new shoots, then you can cut it back, or the Honeysuckle. Now there are only a few fall Asters, the yellow flower outside her bedroom window (whatever it is), and Hollyhock, almost finished. Then chop chop chop, she says.
This week my mother will have her blood tested again. These tests read her platelets and other things, the general level of cancer in her body, the number we hope will go down out of the tens of thousands into the hundreds, and into the tens. So far it has been going down with each chemo, but there are no guarantees. She has already had two big surgeries and a grueling round of chemo last year, where that number sank to seventeen or something, lower than the number in healthy, cancer-free bodies.
“Oh look at the garden! It’s just so – bloomish!” my mum would say this summer when she arrived back from her city hospital trips.
Bloomish. Yes she is. Amazingly resilient, and bloomish. She gets knocked back with interventions and poisons and then flourishes again.
I’m proud of her. I’m learning a lot from her about the things no one ever talks about, the things no one ever tells you. She is just managing this whole horrible cancer thing with such grace.
August just turned 8 and has announced that the meaning of life is to be happy. Emmet (age 3) probably thinks it has something to do with sugar. I’ll bet, for my mother, it has something at least to do with what you can do with a patch of earth. That and family – and friends, of course. All of you. You who cheer her on from the sidelines, or who, by reading these words, send well wishes her way. It’s nice to know you, to have you there. It really does make a difference. Thank you. I’m very excited to move on to the next phase now, making your print(s) and sending them to you.
For your last postcard from the garden I have two photographs. The first one, the one of the moon, looks as though I’ve used some digital trickery. But I haven’t. The camera moved during the exposure, nothing more, making this image. It’s for my mum. To thank her. For everything, really, though especially for giving me permission to make this work, to “expose” her during this difficult time. But this image of the moon can also be for your mother, too, if you’d like. Some of you have written in to say you also have a mother or someone close who is sick. Sick or well, I’m happy to share. The moon is for sharing, primarily.
The second photograph I’m putting out there, though I don’t think it’s the best photograph from the summer. But when I look at it I can’t help but think of my mother, of her palpably, corporeally. I think of her skin, glowing.
Right now, my mother seems so healthy. So well. So happy. So permanent. So soft. She’s just like she’s always been, only softer, a little quieter too, reading, resting. But also, very beautiful with her silver hair and luminous skin. I keep thinking about her skin. It this secret thing I love about her. It’s hard to describe – but it is just soft, really soft, hairless, smooth, and no one I know has skin like hers.
Hello garden friends. Some of you know will already know the reason for this note.
My mother’s health declined suddenly in the fall and she was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital on December 3rd, where she spent more than two months being cared for by an exceptional team of nurses and doctors. She died this February 16th at 3:20 in the morning with my sister and I holding her hands. She was greatly loved and will be greatly missed.
During her spirited dance with cancer my mother was very brave, and in two and a half years I never once saw her complain or look badly upon her situation. We were very lucky to have been together as a family for long parts of the past three months. I feel very privileged to have had this parting gift, my mother’s courage and grace, and many long hours spent chatting, joking and lounging, surrounded by family and loved ones.
The funeral was held in Montreal at the Outremont Chapel on the mountain, Friday February 22. As my oldest friend, who is very funny, texted “I think it was the best funeral I’ve ever been to – sounds weird but it was – people stayed and stayed and there was such a great feeling. It was perfect…”
Thank you, once again, for helping to make Night Garden such a success. My mother loved the whole project, and her hospital room in the women’s pavilion was decorated with family photos and Night Garden prints. Some of her last words were how much she loved those photographs, so you will know how much this collaboration meant to her.
Last week I was walking in the rain with Emmet (4 years) and he was holding an umbrella and he grumbled, “I can’t see you, mum!” and I answered, “You don’t have to see me, silly, I’m holding your hand.” I miss my mum in ways I can’t put into words. But that is a little how it is with death, now, in the good moments. I can’t see her, but it feels like she is there all the same, holding my hand.
Take care, and love,