Palm Springs – Presidential Hospitality, and being scalped by Indians

The presidential hospitality came from the Annenbergs’ Sunnylands estate, which has hosted summits between American presidents and other world leaders. More of that later. The less than hospitable welcome came on our visit to reservation land on the edge of Palm Springs. OK, so we weren’t actually scalped – I was using poetic licence. Although our supply of cash took a significant haircut.

I was actually nervous about using the term ‘Indian’, as I’ve been told it isn’t politically correct. But it’s used on the website of the ‘Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians’, so I guess I shouldn’t get into hot water. Just as well, as the reference to all those old (politically incorrect) Westerns wouldn’t have worked as well with ‘Indigenous Americans’ or ‘First Nations people’.

So what’s my gripe with the indigenous peoples of the Palm Springs environs? Well, being keen walkers, when in Palm Springs last month we were keen to do a hike (as our American cousins call any walks that involve anything other than smooth tarmac). We selected a trail a short distance out of town, up Mount San Jacinto. Unfortunately, due to rain the previous night (how unlucky were we – it hardly ever rains in Palm Springs!) that trail was temporarily closed. We were directed to another, which was still open.

We parked the car, and then headed up to the start of the walk (hike), where we had to join a queue. For a walk! (I mean hike). I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before. We queued for 20 minutes to get to the counter, where we had to pay a fee. To do a walk! (I mean hike). The fee for the one we’d planned to do was $8. For this one, it was $12.50 each. For a walk! (I mean hike). Eventually, we got to walk (I mean hike) the trail. All 1.5km of it (I believe that was there and back). It was a nice little walk, up to a nice little waterfall. Except, it was like Oxford Street on a Saturday morning. So we queued for 20 minutes, and payed 50 bucks, all for the privilege of a 30 minute walk (I mean hike!) through crowds of people.

Now, I have two problems with this. The first is the price. I understand that walking (I mean hiking… sorry – is this becoming annoying?) trails need to be maintained. But how much work is involved in cutting back a few branches or consolidating an eroded path now and then? For not too much more than what we paid, in the UK you can spend the whole day at Chatsworth, looking around the huge mansion, finely manicured gardens, and large areas of parkland. Imagine how much all that must cost to maintain – you can really see what your entry fee is paying for.

The second problem is more to do with freedom – the basic human right to exist. Centuries ago, in the UK, there was such a thing as common land. And then the enclosures began, and the wealthy annexed the land and denied access to the common people. Later, in the 20th century, we finally won the ‘right to roam’. It doesn’t get us in everywhere, and most of the land is still owned by a few wealthy individuals (apparently half of England is owned by 1% of the population), but there are large areas of what we call wild land (even though it isn’t truly wild) where we can pretty much roam freely.

There’s a principle here, espoused by people such as Marion Shoard, in her book ‘This Land is Our Land’; that the countryside shouldn’t be fenced off from the people. We shouldn’t be restricted to towns and cities, and to the narrow corridors of tarmac that join them, just because we aren’t fortunate enough to have been born into the right family, or to have made a fortune. We’re free-born animals, and we should have the freedom to move about freely in the natural environment. To quote Billy Bragg: ‘this land was made a common treasury for everyone to share’ (I take issue with the word’ made’, but I appreciate the sentiment). This land is our land!

You’ll say, of course, that I was only a visitor, that it isn’t actually my land, because I don’t live there. But those who do live there have to pay too. And in what kind of a land is it customary to fleece (or scalp – I’m mixing my metaphors) visitors, rather than offer them hospitality? And in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world?

Now, I know that their ancestors were violently displaced by invading Europeans. But I’d say that what happened in the past, many generations ago between ancestors of different sets of people to whom I have no relation, isn’t my responsibility. I’m more interested in the here and now. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your ancestry, it’s the poor who are denied opportunity. Always. To me, it doesn’t make any difference who owns a tract of land. It might be someone who received it, down the line, from a distant bloodthirsty ancestor who invaded a country and took it by force (such as the Duke of Westminster). It might be owned by someone who made a fortune through their own business activities, or those of their ancestors, whether from coal, steel, or slavery, and who used it to take possession of the countryside. Or it might be a group who claim possession by virtue of the fact that their ancestors once lived there, before being displaced and treated most cruelly. Whoever they are, and however they came by the land, if they deny access to open countryside, or demand a fee for access (particularly such a high one) then they’re tyrants who are denying the common people a basic human right.

All that land sitting there doing nothing, and they only give us access to a few short trails, and charge us a fortune for the privilege! Reading between the lines, I get the impression that if you know your way around you can find trails to walk without having to pay. But in Donald Trump’s ‘we don’t dial 911’ USA, poking around where you might not be welcome could be a dangerous business. As a visitor, I suppose you could say it comes down to hospitality. The mean-spirited hospitality of the Agua Calientes can be contrasted with the generosity of the Annenberg family, who own the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs. I’ll tell you about my visit there in my next post, for which I promise lots of beautiful photographs, and far fewer words…

The waterfall and pool – heavily cropped to avoid the large crowd of people gathered around the waters edge.

text and photographs © Graham Wright (although the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians will probably expect royalties)

Ness and Eucryphia

The weekend before last I visited Ness Botanic Gardens, on the first dull and cool day in a very long time. Though the grass was brown here and there, the lawns were in better condition than in most places, so they must have had more rain than many other parts of the country. Some of the plants were suffering as a result of the drought – quite a few heathers had died for instance – but the gardens were looking surprisingly good. In the herbaceous borders there was a nice mix of grasses and perennials.
One of the highlights, for me, was a plant you don’t see much. I remember seeing a specimen of Eucryphia on previous visits, and I was glad to round a corner and see it still there, still flourishing, and in full flower. The first time I saw this tree I was amazed. Imagine a rose bush smothered in flowers. Now imagine it grown to the size of a small tree. Eucryphia flowers give roses a good run for their money (although they don’t have much scent, and unlike some roses, they have a limited flowering period). It makes a good, upright tree, so it can be used in a limited space; in a small garden it won’t outgrow its welcome. Many species are evergreen too, so you still have the leaves over the winter.
Mary Agnes Eames – isn’t she a beauty?!

How many trees can you think of that give such a wonderful show of flowers?

One problem is that most Eucryphias prefer an acidic soil, but there is one variety – Eucryphia nymansensis, which will grow in neutral soil. My faulty memory had me thinking this was the specimen Ness have, but in fact it’s Eucryphia glutinosa ‘Mary Agnes Evans’. My RHS book tells me that unlike most Eucryphias, glutinosas are deciduous, but on the plus side, they do have good autumn colour.
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Bodnant in the rain…

Bodnant is a National Trust garden in the foothills of Snowdonia, just a few miles south of Llandudno, on the North Wales coast. Its location lends it a very special character, with the heavily contoured landscape making for a very dynamic garden, with plenty of spectacular views both within the gardens, and beyond. Being in Snowdonia, it gets plenty of rainfall, which keeps it lush and verdant. And the soil is acidic, which means the gardens can support a range of plants that would struggle elsewhere – particularly Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias.
It had been some years since I last saw Bodnant – far too long – so it was a particular pleasure to visit the gardens again, with family, over the bank holiday weekend. Continue reading

Garden Visit – National Botanic Garden of Wales

On a cold, frosty and windy Sunday in January I got up and set off early (well, early for me) for the National Botanic Garden of Wales, near Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire (https://botanicgarden.wales/). I’ve visited the gardens before, but never at this time of year, and I have to admit to wondering whether there would be enough of interest to merit braving the icy wind. Once there however, it didn’t take me long to forget my doubts.

It’s true that most of the perennial plants, as is this case in all gardens, had shrunk back into the ground, not to be seen again until the spring. And the deciduous trees and shrubs were devoid of leaves. But there’s something marvellous about seeing a garden stripped back to it’s structural elements; particularly a garden that is so extensive, varied, and beautifully laid out as this one. And despite the cold, the day was perfect; bright and sunny, with the winter light from the sun low in the sky making the water in the fountains and rills sparkle and shine. Backlit, and constantly moving in the breeze, the many species and varieties of decorative grasses that flow through the gardens were dynamic and bright. Continue reading

Gardens of Spain

With the summer gone, the sun ever lower in the sky, the days shortening, and our British gardens becoming ever more damp, from rain and from dew, ever more cold and forlorn, I was very fortunate to escape to Andalucia last week. Blue skies and 34 degrees centigrade really did feel like an escape.
Oranges ripening on the trees – the joys of a hot climate!
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Great Dixter

Anyone who’s interested in gardening will have heard of Great Dixter. But despite having seen the gardens on various television shows, and read about them in magazines, I’d never taken notice of where they are. And so, when I picked up a leaflet earlier this week, while having a few days away in East Sussex, it came as a complete surprise to find that I was only twenty minutes away from Great Dixter. Obviously, I had to go, even though it had to be a shorter visit than I would have liked. Sadly there wasn’t time to look around the house, but the garden was the main priority.

The first thing that struck me about the place was it’s rusticity. You enter along a path that leads up to the front door. Flanked by orchard trees set in wildflower meadows, it reminded me of the illustration of Kelmscott Manor on the frontispiece of William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’. It’s a classic Arts & Crafts look. Despite the garden’s frequent appearances in the media, the only part that I recognised was the front of the house – I remember an article showing the gardeners very carefully composing the many pots that are clustered around the front door. Arrangements of pots are a big feature of Great Dixter, along with narrow paths and wildflower meadows. I particularly liked an arrangement of plants in the exotic garden, and when I got closer I was surprised (and impressed) to see that the Gunnera was in a pot.

I liked all the long grass. It’s good for wildlife, good for the environment (no temptation to resort to chemicals to keep the lawns green and weed free) and it looks good too – it makes a good contrast with the formality of the topiary hedging. The long border was looking good too.


The Long Border

But though I very much enjoyed looking around the gardens, I was a little underwhelmed, considering all the hype they get. Christopher Lloyd (who created the garden and is no longer with us) was apparently known not to mind the odd weed or two, and this ethos has been continued under the current administration. The gardens are an interesting mix of the formal and the informal. But informality often slips into a lack of order, and occasionally descends into full-blown chaos. You can see this in the photo of what I think is the high garden. It’s a mass of plants, without much contrast or, at this time of year, much in the way of flower.

Maybe at some point this garden will explode with colour – I don’t know because I struggled to identify individual plants from the confused mass of mid-green.

In the sunk garden, disorder gave way to a rather careless health and safety disaster waiting to happen, with a self-seeded, eight foot tall Euphorbia sprawling across a narrow path. It was impossible to get past without brushing against and breaking leaves, and that sap is nasty stuff, particularly if it gets in your eyes or your mouth. I’ve known people who have ended up in A & E.

Having said all that, it is a very special place. I like to see plants labelled, so that I can identify the ones I don’t know, but labels can make a garden look like a collection of exhibits, rather than a garden. At Great Dixter there are no plant labels, but any disappointment you  might feel over this will surely be forgotten the moment you walk into the nursery area. So many gardens have plant sales areas with a small range of standard garden centre fare, usually bought in from Holland, that bears little relation to the plants in the garden. But the nursery at Great Dixter is amazing, with a fantastic selection of plants, many of which are grown in the gardens. With only a few exceptions, the stock was all very healthy, and the prices were quite reasonable too. You pay for them in a fantastic old barn, busy with various potting activities, and with a doorway that can’t be more than four feet high.

The estate consists of a collection of ancient buildings – the fifteenth century house, an oast house, and various barns (one of which was being thatched while we were there) – which make a fantastically picturesque architectural environment around which to build a garden. It would, I think, be a wonderful place to work, and with all of the gardeners working away, it looked, not like a recreation of a medieval idyll – it looked like the real thing.

And so, despite my criticisms, I’d love to go back. Great Dixter is beautiful, and perhaps unique, with an amazing atmosphere. If you ever get the chance to visit, I can thoroughly recommend it.