Rhapsody of Roses
An artist's garden in Lafayette inspires an elegant book of photographs and musings
Carolyn parker lives in a cottage on a quiet, leafy street in Lafayette, and as she tours her modest corner lot, her gaze takes in what has been and what could be. The split-rail fence and spiky junipers were dug up and carted off years ago. The towering Deodor cedar is gone, too, and so is its shadow. But in the corner once lost to shade, she can imagine the roses that might someday bloom in warm spring sun.
Yes, more roses. Already there are so many that she’s lost count—200, she shrugs, maybe 300. After two decades of dreaming and hard labor, she has transformed this little plot of suburban earth into a wonderland of climbers and hybrid teas, English and old wild roses. But this garden, so natural and graceful, always has room for more.
“Every rose has its own story,” Parker says. And in R Is for Rose, a book of her photographs and reflections released last October by Horticulture Books, she tells 26 of those stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. She grew the roses in her garden, then arranged and photographed them in her home.
The text is knowledgeable and passionate, a rumination that moves easily from the practical process of growing roses to their mystery and spirituality. The images are luminous. Her lens finds the rose’s innermost sensuousness: the dainty, youthful, ivory petals of ‘Kathleen’; the drunken pale-pink cascades of ‘Cécile Brünner’; the erotic languor of ‘Oklahoma’, with blood-red blooms nearly spent.
As a child in Oregon, Parker regretted that her family didn’t have much of a garden. From an early age, her creativity was instead devoted to fashion design. She and a partner had a successful women’s fashion design studio in New York, but even then, roses were sometimes appliquéd onto her creations. On moving to the Lafayette cottage in 1984, she and her husband—Leroy, an artist and professor at San Jose State University—found three rose bushes in the yard. As they raised their daughters, Oneita and Anna, they began to raise roses, too.
After Parker and her partner closed their studio in 1989, she turned her energy more fully to roses and gardens. She began to photograph her arrangements, just as she’d shot her clothing designs.
In time, her well-composted soil yielded a rose cottage industry. In 1995, Harry N. Abrams Inc. published her first book, The Poetry of Roses. Today, the pale pink front room of her cottage serves as her photo studio. Her website, www.rosesfromatoz.com, offers lectures and garden-planning services.
Parker’s work shares the sensibility of poets like Rumi and Rilke, who wrote so profoundly of roses. It’s not that she writes in rhyme or verse—she doesn’t. But she looks deeply for the subtle rhythms of nature as conveyed in light, in pattern, even in thorns. She listens for the story that each rose has to tell.
Out in her garden, Parker directs a visitor to a bush that climbs a south-facing fence in her side yard. The roses are small and simple, each with five white petals and hips like orange-red berries. In R Is for Rose, this is rose X—‘Madame X’ is how it was sold to her years ago. She has since learned that the name is wrong, and that this is Rosa multiflora, a famous old species from Asia.
If it seems unspectacular from a distance, look closely. “It’s a wild rose,” she says. “This was probably on the earth before we were. In the warm months, bees swarm this one.” Look more closely, at the burst of yellow stamens at the heart of each flower. “I feel that the stamens are like the sun,” she says. “I feel that they’re at the center of me, in a way.”
Later, over tea in her studio, Parker acknowledges that so much attention lavished on roses could be seen as self-indulgent. But so could the work of any artist. She gardens for the joy of it, and for the joy it brings to her family, her friends, and the young children who attend the school across the street, and for everyone grasping for meaning and a moment of peace in the post-9/11 world.
“Here’s what I think about life,” she says. “Objects on earth, whether a house or a diamond or a flower—they represent something, they hold the meaning of something. And that’s true of roses. Each holds a soul, a heart, the sun. I think they’re a mirror of ourselves.”
In the commercial sense, Valentine’s Day makes February a blockbuster month for roses. But store-bought flowers, arranged predictably with baby’s breath and fern, bring Parker little joy. Her own garden at this time of year is dormant; she prunes the bushes in January. It looks “terrible,” she admits, and yet, in the rain and chill of winter, the bushes are mustering their fertility for the season to come.
“When you first experience that look, you think the garden will never come back to life,” Parker says. “But part of the thrill for me is the anticipation. That’s my favorite time, just before everything blooms.”
Late in February, the first green shoots will sprout from the cane. The climber ‘Rouletii’ will have its first magenta blossoms in March. “And April,” she sighs, “April is beauty beyond compare. In the spring, it is a paradise here.”
Edward W. Lempinen is a freelance writer living in Pleasant Hill. Carolyn Parker will appear at the Walnut Creek Barnes & Noble on February 5 from 2 to 5 p.m.