The Orris: A Cultural Journal

From Black Thumb to Secret Garden

One New Yorker’s Journey to Nature


I am not a gardener. Before living in urban Massachusetts I grew up in New York City. The red clay that passed as soil in our yard was not only impossible to dig through; it was all but impermeable. Flowers and plants grew, but only with a lot of hard work and persistence.

My humble urban origins aside, my family has a long history of killing house plants. I once had a sickly ivy plant that I bought at my school’s spring fair. I left it with my mother for a week while I went on vacation with my father to Florida. Upon returning it was browned and wilted beyond resuscitation.

I need to reiterate here, I am not a gardener.

However, the lush greenery and itchy eyes that signal the arrival of spring has got me thinking, once again, of my black-thumb roots and of gardens.

For the past week and a half I have been house-sitting for a friend whose house is a stop on our city’s garden tour. “Secret Gardens of Cambridge,” which is sponsored by the Friends of the Cambridge Public Library, explores gardens that thrive in an urban setting.

Originally organized by the award-winning Houghton Mifflin garden editor Frances Tenenbaum, the tour is now in its twelfth year and is the single most important fund-raising event for the Cambridge Public Library. As Susan Twarog, an inaugural organizer notes, “To this day I can’t say why I volunteered to work on the event with Frances, but it is a decision I have never regretted.”

In 2004, Twarog and Tenenbaum co-authored The Secret Gardens of Cambridge. Published by the Friends of the Cambridge Public Library, the book identifies Cambridge’s vibrant gardening community. In spite of, or perhaps because, Cambridge is one of the most densely populated cities in the country, its residents have been creative and playful in their cultivation of green spaces.  Found on rooftops, impromptu green houses, backyards, side-yards, and near railroad tracks, these green spaces are oases in the city of Cambridge.

I’ve been lucky enough to explore one of these gardens on my own, to have an all-access pass to its growth and beauty. My photography explores this one secret garden in great detail.

While I’m still reluctant to try my own hand at gardening, even if there was space in my apartment building’s postage-stamp-sized backyard, I am fascinated by the affective and aesthetic influences of green spaces on humans.* Green space, I’m sure it comes as no surprise, soothes us and makes us happy. It offers a recreational space where we can exercise, socialize, or enjoy solitude.

More and more we see the prominence of green space—through community gardens, edible urban plant classes, walking tours, and recreational spaces—in cities. Repurposed, remediated, re-imagined, these spaces contribute to quality of life and counter the notion that urban spaces are barren, or polluted, and artificial.

While I shot the majority of the photographs in a “secret garden” on the tour, some of the images were shot at the nearby Fresh Pond Reservoir. Located a quarter of a mile from the house and garden where I was staying, Fresh Pond was once a major supplier of ice to faraway places such as Singapore, England and India (Sinclair 1).

Appropriated to supply Cambridge’s water in the late nineteenth century, the Pond fell into disrepair during the 1960’s. Neglected and polluted, the better half of the next fifty years saw a number of attempts to preserve Fresh Pond’s natural ecology, while also maintaining the important infrastructure needs that it served. In 2000, the city of Cambridge, along with residents and consultants, created the Fresh Pond Reservation Master Plan (2). The plan addressed Fresh Pond’s ecological and industrial purposes and introduced a mixed-use proposal that renovated the landscape into a recreational space, an ecological reservation, while maintaining its purpose as the city’s water supply (2).

In Fresh Pond: The History of a Cambridge Landscape (MIT, 2010), Jill Sinclair offers a history of the space’s uses, as well as maps, photographs, and other ephemera. However, perhaps of more interest to this essay is Sinclair’s identification of the underlying desires that natural spaces in urban settings come to embody. Reflective of humanity’s various motivations and desires, “Fresh Pond has been described as a ‘landscape loved to death.’ It evokes fierce loyalty and even fiercer debate” (1). Fresh Pond’s unique history demonstrates how the different purposes green spaces are set to over time reveal the underlying wishes, goals, and philosophies of people. Natural spaces are shaped by people, it is not surprising, but how do natural spaces shape us?

These images are, in part, a loving exploration of the influence of green and natural spaces on humans. Paradoxically, perhaps, these spaces are highly cultivated, designed, and shaped, but to what purpose? To what great lengths do we go to secure our public parks and to create urban oases? How do these spaces affect our bodies and minds even as we shape them to suit our often unclear needs?

Through art I hope to begin to answer these questions. Art helps us to record—if not always to fully explain—subjective experience. I use photography to grapple with the effect that urban oases have on me. My position behind a camera lens affords me enough distance to gain perspective and to meditate on my mediated experience of nature. Like Cambridge’s landscaped gardens, and repurposed landfill, my work is contradictory; it is removed from nature’s immediacy, and steeped in careful and posed study. Yet my exploration of urban oases has led me to conclude that contradiction and artifice play important roles in the construction of these spaces. A garden on a parking garage in Kendall square, the rolling hills of Danehy Park, or a secret garden on a walking tour invite us to look closer, to become creative in our city rambles.

The Secret Gardens of Cambridge Tour will be held this Sunday June 10th, 2012 from 10am to 4pm. Tickets are on sale at all Cambridge  public library branches, as well as select local stores. For details please visit the Cambridge Public Library website.  This event only occurs every other year, so take advantage!

*For an investigation of gardening anxiety, which I can deeply relate to, see this post on Yankee Crafty B*tch. The author writes about her emotions while viewing the perfect and not-so-perfect gardens during the Cambridge Secret Garden Tour.

— Genie Giaimo


Sinclair, Jill. Fresh Pond: The History of a Cambridge Landscape. Cambridge: MIT,

2010. Print.

Tenenbaum, Frances and Susan Twarog. The Secret Gardens of Cambridge. Cambridge:

Friends of the Cambridge Public Library, 2004. Print.



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