The Solace of Vacant Spaces
AN INTERVIEW WITH
“But that doesn’t begin to hint at the wealth of variety and ingenuity to be discovered in the world’s follies. Many of them are used, many of them are finished, some of them were even built with one eye on the balance sheet what links them all is a joyous unpredictability.”
Gwyn Headly and Wim Meulenkamp
Long ago, on the Island of Crete, a Minotaur, born of a queen and a bull, dwelled in a labyrinth, a maze, which twisted and turned into the darkness. According to the myth, there was only one way in, and those who reached the center never returned. They were doomed to be devoured by a creature that was half bull and half man.
But an older form of the myth tells us that the pilgrimage through the labyrinth is actually an ancient ritual where the seeker makes a journey to the center of his or her soul and has the opportunity to achieve enlightenment, because the semi-divine Minotaur, the child of the moon goddess and a king, represents our deepest selves.
I think about this story as I sit in a lush vegetable garden near Princeton’s Palmer Square on a blazing-hot summer afternoon with the garden’s designer, Peter Soderman, landscaper, thinker, and creator of Quark Park Sculpture Garden. Soderman and architect Kevin Wilkes’s latest project has drawn scientists, sculptors, landscapers, and architects in a collaborative effort to transform an empty lot into a new kind of garden, a labyrinth devoted to science.
“I’ve been reading about labyrinths,” says Soderman, as he describes his latest creative project with internationally-acclaimed scientists, including Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar in the field of molecular biology; Freeman Dyson, Nobel Prize-winner and Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study; and Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University, and an expert in how memories are stored in the brain.
Soderman, who owns Bohemian Grove Landscaping Company, and his partners, Kevin Wilkes, and landscape architect Alan Goodheart, may have come up with a clever title for their project, Quark Park, but the name perfectly fits their vision.
“We can’t see a quark,” says Soderman. “And yet it exists.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about a quark a particle of an atom is how closely it mirrors the mind and drive of Soderman. He is right. We can’t see quarks, but scientific calculations and end results tell us that quarks are real, much as Soderman’s first collaborative project between writers, artists and designers, the award-winning Writer’s Block, showed a community what could happen when twelve artists and twelve designers teamed up to create a one-of-a-kind garden that offered solace and intellectual enrichment.
On a hot summer afternoon in a vegetable garden with a striking focal point, a cement sculpture by sculptor Robert Cannon an open hand spilling herbs and flowers from its joints Soderman talks about his life, his vision, and an extraordinary community that made Quark Park possible.
WRR: Why build gardens?
The idea of a garden is to create a social renaissance through plants and social contact. People can walk through a garden, stroll, maybe meet each other for the first time.
WRR: Why is a garden able to draw even the most hardened skeptic within its boundaries?
I think it’s very simple. If you build a garden, people will come because the visual impact first and foremost seduces them. It speaks to the botany of desire. I always do one thing in my garden. I put a fake snake near the doorway. And when people walk into the garden, they see that snake. Just for a moment, they think it’s real. It puts them into the fight or flight mode. They get that little shot of adrenaline, which has just increased their sensory acuity, causing their wide-angle focus to open up. And then they’re ready to see what’s around them.
WRR: How did you come up with the concept for your first collaborative effort, Writers Block?
I was working in the Caribbean about three years ago and I was building these small cottages and we were putting them into a wagon train circle, a folly of sorts. And I thought to myself what if I went back to my hometown, which has more writers per capita than any city in America, and what if I brought twelve writers and architects together and had them collaborate in a garden and build follies.
And I thought, what if we celebrate this as part of our town’s culture? When I came home, I called Paul Muldoon. I knew him slightly through his wife, the writer Jean Hanff Korelitz. I cold called Toni Morrison and John McPhee, but Muldoon was the catalyst. There always is a catalyst, and you wait to find him or her.
Once our project gained Muldoon’s support, Joyce Carol Oates, Cornell West, and Fran Lebowitz, came on board. Suddenly, we had credibility and people wanted to be part of it. It’s like going to a bank and creating value through the eyes of a lender, only we created value in the eyes of the community by recruiting intellectual celebrities.
WRR: Why would authors want to do this?
First of all, most of the writers weren’t interested. They thought I wanted something from them, and most of them said no. I’m not sure what it was that changed their minds, perhaps because of Muldoon or that the garden was a temporary thing.
Quark Park is a temporary garden as well. In six months, the garden will be gone and condominiums will take its place. And that’s good for two reasons. One, this garden can be compared to a comedian telling his or her best joke and getting off stage when the audience still wants more. The other point is it creates a kind of nostalgia for what it was, and who you were when you created it.
You don’t ask for permission to do these kinds of projects; you beg for permission until you get it. There are not a lot of risk takers in this town, but once they see what you’re doing, many of them change their minds.
WRR: Did the writers like the project?
WRR: Why are you working with scientists this time?
Science and art, I can’t think of bigger enigmas. The New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column last December called “The Hubris of the Humanities” in which he talks about our culture’s profound illiteracy in science. Kristof rightly says that the relativity of science has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people. And I thought, well, fifty scientists who live in Princeton have actually won the Nobel Prize. How extraordinary for one town’s culture, and it’s germinating right in front of me. It was the right time for Mr. Wilkes and me to start building a garden.
And, as the biomass of Quark Park ascends into the stratosphere, it’s clear that something magical is happening. We’ve just put up Tracey Shor’s folly, which shows two sides of the hippocampus, one for a woman and one for a man, and just by walking through it you can learn something about the nature of the brain and how a man’s brain and a woman’s brain function differently. Perhaps walking through the garden will change a kid’s life, but we can’t know how until it’s built. Now, the garden almost looks like an erudite rest stop on New Jersey Turnpike.
WRR: You are very connected to the Princeton community.
I spent a few years in California and threw myself into the pursuit of Christianity. Alan Watts, who was an Anglican Bishop and expert in Zen Buddhism ironically facilitated my getting involved in farming. One of the most profound things he said was this: We don’t come into this world alone. We come out of the world alone the same way a leaf comes out of tree, and then we go back into the earth.
And that’s good medicine for someone who thinks he deserves to go to hell.
WRR: What changed for you?
In the early eighties I moved to Fort Lauderdale and became an ocean lifeguard. Most of the lifeguards were great athletes. Some had been college swimmers, and others were Vietnam Vets. It was quite an aquatic fraternity.
There’s an Italian proverb that says, “Summer is the mother of the poor.” And it always seemed to me that there was a mass migration of northerners who brought their drinking problems, marital dysfunction, and their trailers to Florida. I was run over by a drunk driver going sixty miles per inebriated hour. I recovered in South Florida and fled.
Soon thereafter, I became a lifeguard at 21st Street Beach in Avalon, New Jersey. I joined the rowing team and lived in a house with seven vegetarian lifeguards who were devotees of a Guru named Maharaji. We were very disciplined because we were there to compete as athletes. But in that small lifeguard community, a guy named Bruce Holt introduced me to eastern philosophy. I was very skeptical of it all, but at the same time I was conducting a spiritual inquiry. I’m still skeptical about everything, including the guru, and the inquiry continues.
WRR: When did you get the idea for these kinds of projects in public spaces?
I became interested in public spaces because they have more pedestrian traffic. You can affect more people in a public garden than you can in the backyard. I don’t have any professional training or landscape degrees, but I guess you might say I’m a botanical autodidact. I don’t know how it happens. But sometimes I will pull over when I’m driving on the road, “roll up on it as they say,” get out of the car, walk on to a piece of land, and take a walk around. It’s almost as if the land is talking to me.
And one of the things I think is interesting about New Jersey, the Garden State, is that it’s also the state where you might need to have a garden. Let’s face it; this is Jersey. We’re talking Pulaski Skyway, Pine Barrens, Jersey Devil. You might not need the solace of a garden in Idaho or Wyoming with all that big sky. But back east people hunker down like the low cloud cover. Gretel Ehrlich wrote about the land’s power in her book Solace of Open Spaces. In Wyoming, you don’t need a garden; it’s better to just keep walking. And yet, to see urban decay only makes one long for beauty in a different way.
The other thing is that the area around Princeton has great soil and six months of garden purgatory when people can’t wait to get outside and redefine their “Innisfree”, where they can, as William Butler Yeats says, “have some peace there,” away from the vulgarity of our industrial state. So I think the garden has more power here. It’s almost like Japan, which is so crowded. Not only is New Jersey the most densely populated state in the nation, it also has the highest per capita income. If New Jersey were a country it would be the wealthiest country in the world.
WRR: You continually return to the soil for your ideas.
Ultimately I see myself as a man who works the soil. I use my labor to create a community out of the soil and out of the culture. Culture comes from agriculture. Everything that comes out of the ground is what culture becomes. The grass roots movement is an example. You can grow a tomato. You can grow a pumpkin, or you can grow a cult following.
Anyone who’s in touch with the earth understands that all things come from the ground except the sun and the rain. I don’t make anything grow, but I know how and when to put anything into the ground, and how to cultivate them. And all that Kevin Wilkes and I have done in Princeton, really, is to tap into the intellectual capital here, and nurture it in our garden.
WRR: The site is ambitious and the materials are expensive. How did you raise the money?
Everyone working on the project is pro bono. But we raised money to create the infrastructure and we’ll be as frugal as we can be. This is an August/September/October garden, which will come down a little after Halloween. We’re hoping the shock waves go out into the universe and we’ll get the funding to reinvent the garden somewhere else.
WRR: How did you get so many notable scientists to sign on for the project?
We already had credibility in the community when we built Writer’s Block. We went to David Dobkin, Dean of Faculty at Princeton, and on a snowy day we humbly asked him if he would select twelve scientists who would be interested in interacting with this community. And that required twelve scientists who don’t want to hide behind the ivy.
Most scientists are obscure to the public. Many of us don’t understand their science or what they are contributing to our lives. In a way, this is their fifteen minutes of fame in the eyes of a public. And the scientists are having a good time.
WRR: Have they worked on the designs?
They’ve had a hand in the designs. But it’s interesting to see someone who lives in academia working with a landscaper or architect who lives in the soil. People who work in the private sector tend to make decisions quickly, while academics live in a world of ideas. The confluence of people who live in two different time orientations is what makes this project interesting.
WRR: You’ve put a lot of effort into Quark Park. Do you feel it’s worth it for only three months?
Yes, because the idea of science and art in a labyrinth is not going away. So hopefully when this is taken down, we will do it somewhere else.
WRR: When Quark Park is no longer gracing Palmer Square, what will you do next in Princeton?
We have a plan to take another vacant and forgettable space and turn it into an auditory art gallery called Poet’s Alley, with an interesting component of language. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet, but I do know where. I don’t know whether it would be Paul Muldoon as a narrator, or whether you’d walk in and you’d feel like you’re in a cocktail party and people are speaking to each other in these angelic tongues of poetry.
I know what the landscape design is going to be as well. It will be based on John Keats’s tombstone, which says, “Here lies One Whose name is writ in Water.”
We’re going to build a stone sluice and carve poems into stone three inches beneath a rushing stream of water, which will be down lit at night by lights. That’s my idea. We want to make it feel like you’ve entered an early nineteenth century alley in Dublin.
It’s just an idea, but I think it will work. I know it will work. And if we get some funding, we’ll build it.
Celebrating the mysteries of science and art, Quark Park is a collaboration of Princeton-area visionaries, scientists, artists, and architects including Templeton-prize winner, Freeman Dyson. Over the coming months, Wild River Review will be running a series of interviews with many of the players in this one-of-a-kind sculpture garden...