An Oasis in the Desert
Posted on July 22, 2016
The air has that particular taste to it, high and dry, hung with dust and humming with possibilities. As a native of Albuquerque every time I come home I am enchanted anew and inspired–but most of all know on a cellular level that I am home. One thing that makes Albuquerque unique is the palette–the contrasts of the hot light & desert with the swath of green that the Rio Grande rips through the city. I head for a long run along the riverbank wanting to experience the contrasts of light and nature for myself. The metronome rhythm of my feet on the trail and the beauty of the surroundings take me to another world. I am temporarily suspended from the pressures I face in my life. I let my mind wander as I take my regular paths, but today I realize how surprising and different this familiar landscape always looks. It is part of the appeal of this “Land of Enchantment”— ever shifting and morphing landscapes and light create surprises and inspire exploration. As a cure for lack of inspiration or to unleash creativity, I prescribe to anyone who is open to the idea the strong medicine of the Bosque trails overlooking the glistening Rio Grande.
The Rio Grand wanders through the city at it’s whim, but in the city itself contains a historic triangle that connects Albuquerque’s Old Town, Downtown, and the Botanic Garden. Today I start in Old Town, it’s gate implying the shifting sky and nature I experienced earlier on my run, to learn more about New Mexico’s rich and storied past. The city dates back to 1706 when the “Villa de Albuquerque” was founded by the Spanish as the principal settlement of the Rio Abajo. Today, Old Town retains flavors of the farming and ranching communities that slowly emerged along the Camino Real.
At the convergence of the Railroads in 1880, the train depot bypassed Old Town deciding to station itself two miles east. This became the cities principal commercial district and home of the iconic and allegedly haunted Kimo Theatre. Route 66 brought you right to the Kimo, and vistors flocked to it for it’s various entertainments and possibly to leave an offering for the spirit of a young boy who was killed in a water heater explosion for his good favor.
Like a theater that seems to be turned inside out–completing the triangle that links Old Town and Downtown–is the Botanical Gardens. Unlike the natural majesty of the river, the Botanical gardens are a curated experience of intertwining trails, colorful landmarks, and alternating vistas. This controlled natural experience is designed to evoke an experience from it’s inhabitants as well as taking them away from the real world and into a world designed and imagined.
Thinking about a world imagined, I immediately think about the children’s garden at the Botanical. Guarded by a huge mythical dragon and two fortified towers a child’s greatest follies come to life as they shrink to the size of an ant and navigate in and out of a giant garden full of enormous carrots, underground mole caves, and a pumpkin full of seeds and guts for all to feel!
Throughout history there has been an idea that the Underworld could be reached through certain caves and caverns. In landscape design, we often create some kind of threshold that alerts guests that they are entering another world–if not physically then signaling a shift in perception.
At the Botanical, I pass under a different kind of portal in the Ceremonial Garden. Overarching clematis, wisteria and climbing roses intertwine with a rigid wooden frame, delivering sweet relief from the overhead sun. The architectures skeletal structure mimics natural forms and provides an immediate perspective of the garden like the aisles of a basilica. The fragrant aroma of rosemary, lavender and pomegranate drifts happily through the air.
The heart of the Botanical seems to be the Festival Green. As is often the center of garden design, this green is next to an organically formed pond that allows visitors to play with the ducks and cool off in the refreshing water breeze. The Festival Green acts as an easy departure point to the variety of gardens, trails and landmarks that you can discover in much the same manner as the pavilions, bridges and grottos of an English Garden.
The micro world of the Japanese Garden achieves picturesque effects by the placement of arching bamboo bridges, majestic pagoda structures, koi pond, and bonsai trees. Whether you find serenity in the waterfall overlooking the Zen garden, or delight upon discovering a new element at every meandering turn, the Japanese Garden provides a mystical, even spiritual, nod to another world while being totally natural with the landscape as it is made with native materials, animals and plants.
Throughout the park, there are ties back to Spain’s artistic influence on New Mexico–“azulejos” tile benches, geometric fountains, and wall decorations. One such fountain was designed and dedicated by Shel Neymark. It’s possible to see where the artist may have looked for inspiration by checking out Antonio Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain.
Due to the water-starved climate of the southwest, the majority of the park is xeriscaped with various low-water intake plants native to the region. Many of these plants can be seen along your everyday ditch bank in the north and south valley’s that run parallel to the mountains in Albuquerque; however, the Botanic Park designers idealize this notion of the desert landscape, and prove that stone paths, colorful sagebrush, and blooming cacti can be just as refreshing a sight and water dependent foliage.
At the very edge of the park is the renowned “Rio Grande Heritage Farm”. The award-winning building is a re-creation of a 1930s era farmstead, built passively from adobe and wood. It recreates the orchard, farm, and hay field that one would have experienced if they had lived in this age. The culture and historical background of this space is what makes this garden so special. It speaks to the people of days past, and in a sense, helps to connect people through the ancient bond of time.
Spending time at the Garden, I ponder what Frederick Law Olmsted would say about its park from a design perspective. In his essay, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Olmsted outlines a number of economic, pragmatic, medical, and social reasons for why it was critical that America’s growing cities plan for and accommodate the design of parks from the very start. He contended that “provisions may indeed be made expressly for recreation, with certainty that if convenient, they will be resorted to”.
Olmsted faced much adversity for his park designs in his day. Although Central Park has grown to be one of America’s favorites, its creation required much creativity and convincing back in the 1850s. Above all, Olmsted strove to design spaces that would counteract the artificiality of the city and the stress of urban life. In Olmsted’s 1870 speech, he said “the idea of the park itself must always be upper-most in the eye of the beholder.” He sincerely wished to encourage healthy living and extend the benefits of the great outdoors to all. I think on my Rio Grande river run and am grateful of this green space away from the city and desert.
When I reflect on the landscape that I grew up surrounded by, I am reminded of my grandpa’s strong hands from working the land around the homestead he built, my aunt’s cure-all remedies from locally grown herbs, and the rejuvenating energy I get from running the Bosque trails in the Rio Grande Valley. New Mexico tourism bureau may say it best, but what I know when I am home is that I am as carved and formed by it’s landscape as the mountains themselves.
“Experiences here are authentic, whether from the cultures that have lived here for centuries, the landscape that offers variety found nowhere else, or the people who are genuine and friendly… We need only to find the place outside that matches the spirit inside. The dream landscape equal to the inner spiritscape.”