Ruth Bancroft’s legacy garden in Walnut Creek, California is a small plot of land full of wonders. Ruth Bancroft’s family had a farm in Walnut Creek; she was attracted to a rosette-shaped succulent, and this grew into a fascination with succulents, cacti, and numerous other drought – tolerant plants. The result is a fantasy garden of growing greenery, some of which looks as though it originated on another planet.
Despite years in the general area, and having heard about the Ruth Bancroft Garden, it took a family wedding to draw me there. Now I’m eager to go again with visiting friends.
It’s spring, folks! You’re going to see some gardens!
I spent Earth Day with friends, making a rather neglected park more beautiful by pulling weeds and trimming invasive plants. I hadn’t planned on doing anything to mark the day, but my friend Tao invited me to join her and her partner in a work project sponsored by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project of San Jose.
The location was Iris Chang Park, shoehorned between a huge apartment block and culverted Coyote Creek. It was established to honor Iris Chang, the brilliant young author of “The Rape of Nanjing” and other histories of the Chinese experience, which opened to much community fanfare in November of 2020. But during the lockdown months care and maintenance fell behind, and the nettles and dandelions had grown almost as tall and profuse as the native grasses originally designed for the landscape.
The park offers a simple strolling path past a cenotaph telling about Iris Chang, a large circular sculpture evoking traditional Chinese artifacts, and several markers and low walls with quotes from Chang’s work. In April, irises planted by Chang’s parents were in bloom in several beds.
So we set to work. A couple of hours later, with a dozen people busy, we had accumulated quite a collection of refuse bags, and the park is ready for its closeup – a May 1 event to mark the anniversary of Chang’s death. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!
I get the post card. I am on call for jury duty for a week. The new procedure is to sign in at noon and 5 pm to find out whether I am on call to appear the next morning or afternoon.
For four days I dodge the bullet. I manage a blood donation, a Book Club meeting, and a friend’s Anniversary Party, and then the notice appears: “Your report date is 4/22/22.” Following is other information about where to park, where to report, how to check in.
I make it easily to the parking garage, up two floors to the pedestrian bridge, and then the signage ran out. I start for the nearest building – nope, that’s the jail. In the other direction – yes, the Superior Court. Through the bag scan and the metal detector, up to the second floor, where i wait in line for the sign-in kiosks, directed by a friendly young man evidently used to handling clueless questions from silver haired ladies.
I balk at the sign in kiosk, clearly labeled “Step 2” and “Step 3”.
“Where’s Step One?”
The young man shakes his head. “We’re re-vamping the system. Gotta change those signs.” I scan my juror postcard, he kindly takes my parking ticket for validation (saving himself several other clueless questions, I’m sure.)
Into the jury room, full of people scanning their cell phones or filling out forms. What are these forms? Did I miss something? I ask. No, that’s for after you’ve been assigned to a jury. The form looks like it goes on forever. And only one chair in the entire room has a desk arm.
I am on Panel 47B. An announcement comes. 47B is called to the third floor.
We are seated in the courtroom. We rise for the judge, a young-ish woman with brown hair flowing over her robe. We rise to swear to do our best. The defendant and his attorney rise and take off their masks to greet the prospective jurors. They both sport conservative suits and ties. The defendant, a large, square shouldered guy, smiles at us – he has perfect teeth. A charmer. The DA also rises maskless, a woman in an un-challenging beige suit.
The judge read the charges against the defendant: six counts of sexual aggression, forcible rape, sodomy….
I haven’t thought about it for years. When I was eleven years old, my father out of town, my mother at a meeting, she arranged for me to go to and from my dancing class via taxi. The driver had dark curly hair and a pock-marked face. Molestation is the word we have for it now. No rape, but still mystifying and terrifying to my young self.
The judge said “This trial will probably last for five weeks. If you can plead a hardship, you may be excused.” She read the reasons which would justify hardship. Being uncomfortable with the subject matter is no excuse.
Happily, my husband and I have a long-deferred travel planned, which is non-refundable. I have been allowed a deferral until mid-summer. I’m hoping that my civic duty at that time will involve only some financial malfeasance, and will evoke no nightmares.
The entrance to the garden opens to a walkway lined on either side with bronze busts of notables, framed by (on my visit) luxuriant azaleas. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how the notables were picked. Texas historical figures such as explorer Cabeza de Vaca or Sam Houston are expected, but why the president of Chile? and why Robert Burns?
The centerpiece of the garden is a tumulus with a pathway spiraling upward to give you a view of the whole garden as well as the Houston skyline rising beyond. There is no marker to tell you who might be buried beneath this ceremonial mound, but it is precisely reminiscent of burial mounds in China, along the Mississippi, and in Britain.
The pathway is lined with shrubbery and ivy-covered walls. It seems to be a desirable habitat for lizards: I spotted six skittering away from me on my way up, in different shades of yellow, gold, and red. (California lizards are so dull and dirt-colored.) A fountain at the top of the tumulus sends water down a pebble -lined incline to a pond at the bottom; the pathway skips across the stream several times on narrow bridges. The effect is cooling, which is good, as there is no source of shade other than the ivy walls.
At the top of the tumulus are three benches inscribed somewhat cryptically: “In terms of one year, plant a seed. In terms of ten years, plant a tree. In terms of one hundred years, teach the people.” And, one could add, “In terms of one hour, have a seat!”
The rest of the Centennial Garden is still a work in progress. The beginning of a traditional rose garden is visible, but the bushes on my visit were neither labeled nor blooming. Eventually there will be benches shaded by blooming arbors, but not yet.
There is also a family garden, colorful during my visit with lush kale in many shaded of green, magenta, and yellow, and showcasing flowers, vegetables, and fruits which can be grown successfully in the Houston area.
I was charmed to find a Little Free Library conveniently positioned next to a picnic area in the Family Garden, offering books for children, but with a garden theme.
The Centennial Gardens are located within Hermann Park, also home of the Houston Zoo, a lake with paddle boats, and other family attractions. But the Gardens feel quite removed from the more commercial recreations also available in Hermann Park, and provice a lovely place for a quiet walk alone, or a walk-and-talk with friends.