November 4, 2011

On the Threshold.

I have long been fascinated by thresholds.  As a child I'd sneak up to my grandmothers' doorsteps and leave baskets of freshly picked nosegays to celebrate the arrival of spring in the garden.
Years later, as a garden apprentice in California, I'd put on my garden clogs at the bottom of the stairs and ascend to the scented coolness of my neighbors’ garden.
Today, I arrange relics around the front door of my house: clay pots filled with flowers, stones collected from beach walks, cascading flowering vines, and Tibetan bells at the gate.
Whether we're journeying through gardens or through life, we cross thresholds: stopping places where we take stock of what has been and what will become. To thresh in its earliest form meant "to tread or trample." A threshold, then, is literally a piece of timber or stone below the bottom of a door that we "tread" over when we enter a space. Threshold has several figurative meanings as well: an entrance or beginning, the border or limit of a region, and the starting point of any undertaking or journey. Thresholds are places poised in the present, the "nowness" between past and future. They are contemplative intervals, pauses that at the same time suggest boundaries and passages.
What does this have to do with gardens?  Thresholds organize otherwise undifferentiated space, where one realm meets another: the primrose path and the hosta garden, the herb garden and the orchard, the fenced-in front garden and the street, the meadow and the forest. Thresholds allow us to make sense of differences that separate the world of the garden from the world outside.

Crossing a threshold is like being lost in a desert and coming upon an oasis.  At the entrance to this garden, you pause and gape unbelievingly at the riches within. Here you understand the gestalt of the space. You see that this place is not a mirage.
So a threshold is a savoring place.

Without it, we move unimpeded from one extreme to another, bumping up against experiential and spatial dissonances without cease. With it, we have a point of graceful anticipation and delight, a spot in which to slow down and move onward with dignity rather than with haste.

Diagram the thresholds in your own garden. They may be made of pieced or natural stone, wood, or brick, have hedged or masonry "walls" and even a built or openwork "ceiling." In general, four kinds of thresholds can be found in a garden setting: the gateway, the doorstep, the stepping stone, and the viewing threshold.

Adding a gate to the entrance of your property or between one area and another adds clarity and character to your grounds.

Depending upon the design of the house and its place in the landscape, the gate may be rustic or formal, two-or three-dimensional almost a small outdoor room, like a pergola, with benches facing each other. Roses or wisteria, hydrangea or clematis vines might climb over its roof. Pots spilling with flowers might grace the path leading to the gateway, which could be elevated a few steps above street and garden for a better view out and in. From this vantage point you see the house enshrined through the gate posts and take a moment to consider its details. If you're a guest, you can adjust your hat, put on lipstick, or think of your greeting; if you're the proprietor, you can ponder and admire the world you have created.
In the form of a doorstep, a threshold is a way to move from house to landscape and back again. When attached to the house, the doorstep could be a small outdoor room, such as a porch, portal, porte cochere, anteroom, foyer, portico, or vestibule. These elements are not only part of the architecture of your house but also part of the structure of your garden. The doorstep holds the potential for bringing aspects of both house and garden into play. A cottage gardener might grow pillar roses, trumpet, or honeysuckle vines up and over the front door, stuffing plants at the base of the front steps and setting them in pots, both inside and outside the door.

A painter might employ one color for the exterior of the house, another for the landscape elements, and bring them together with new colors found only inside the house. When you throw open the door to your house, is there discord or a continuation of the garden aesthetic?

The villas of the French Riviera, where the climate is congenial, demonstrate well the relationship between inside and out.

Witness the Cote d' Azur's fine villa La Chevre d'Or in Eze. Beach stone patios and terraces ascend in steps to a large, arched doorway that penetrates the stucco facade, uniting the whole.
Sometimes thresholds are tiny moments in time rather than room like intervals. For instance, stepping-stones foot-size flat rocks that keep your shoes from getting muddy form the path. Every once in a while, in a seemingly random pattern, a larger stone interrupts the path's flow. Here you can place two feet, stop, and look up. This stopping stone within the garden becomes a subtle viewing position, a place to let you know where you're going next on the journey.
Farther along the path, you might cross a piece of curbing that forms a sill over which the stepping-stones are set, signaling the realm of the man-made as opposed to the natural. This kind of threshold divides a small space into increments and thereby distends it, making it seem much larger than it is.
Another kind of threshold allows the mind to travel beyond the dimensions of the garden.

A body of water-placed before a distant view underscores and captures the landscape beyond the garden's boundaries.
A hedge, parapet, or low wall becomes a "trimming line."

Even the very barest of thresholds can suggest the median between one extreme of emotion and another. Urban planner Kevin Lynch found that "many people, if asked to describe the ideal house of their fantasy, will sketch one from whose front door one steps onto a lively urban promenade, while at the rear there is only silent countryside."If a single door divides excitement and serenity, he says, the pleasures are sharpened on either side by the thought of what lies beyond. Imagine such disparate images in your garden; imagine the significance of its thresholds!
In the end, it is from your own gateway, doorstep, stopping stone, or viewing threshold that the soul of your garden becomes most apparent.