Category: Material Culture
Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home
By Jill Nokes, with Pat Jasper. 2008. Austin: University of Texas Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0-292-71679-7 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe, Indiana University
[Review length: 808 words • Review posted on October 1, 2008]
Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home is an exploration of the spaces surrounding the homes of individuals and families in Texas. Jill Nokes, a horticulturist, brings her expertise in plants, bioregions, and cultivation to bear on her close observation of landscape manipulations. Through examinations of twenty different locations, Nokes addresses many of the questions that arise from studies of place, including issues of identity, aesthetics, community, and collaboration. To these she brings her specific knowledge of topics such as native plant species, climate, and hybridization and explains them competently and comprehensibly to the layperson.
Early on, Nokes declares her lack of folklore background and credits Pat Jasper's folklore training and participation during the early stages of the project as "shaping the initial ideas and interpretations about what we were seeing" (xiv). This disclosure goes far to explain and excuse the fact that the book is replete with thick description but notably light on analysis. Nokes also consciously elects not to be pedantic about terminology, preferring instead to use the words "yard" and "garden" interchangeably. This is a wise choice, since the spaces she explores range from saints' niches in side yards to flower beds to a "Cathedral of Junk" (chapter 15) that could easily be confounded by intricacies of terminology and classification.
Two introductory chapters provide an overview of the types of inquiry currently being made into linkages of place, identity, and memory and explain this project's scope. These are useful framing devices for the descriptions that follow, and it is only too bad that there is no corresponding summarizing chapter to help alleviate the rather abrupt feeling of the book's ending. The places Nokes highlights are, she says, mostly overlooked. She tells the stories of these little-known places through a series of twenty vignettes, each of which occupies a standalone chapter of approximately five to seven pages in the book. A full-page, full-color portrait of each featured individual or family helps to personalize the reading experience. These, and the other photographs taken by Krista Whitson and the garden owners themselves, are a crucial part of conveying the stories. One could only wish that there were even more and, in some instances, larger photos.
The linked themes of welcome and hospitality resonate throughout the book. Accordingly, the voices of the space makers feature prominently to help explain and interpret their creations for the audience. The author clearly enjoys these encounters and finds beauty in the collectors’ gardens, assemblages of found objects, and precision of painstakingly planned windbreaks alike. Of a windbreak in Deaf Smith County, Nokes writes, "The dense foliage of the cedars shields the stroller from the bright open fields outside, while the branches of the honey locust on the inside reach across the empty row to touch tip to tip, forming a delicate canopy. Here and there through the cedars you can glimpse the wide-open fields. There is nothing like this long straight grove anywhere else in sight" (130). Such descriptions enable a feeling of familiarity with the landscapes.
My primary criticism of this book regards its organization. The handmade places Nokes includes lend themselves to a variety of groupings and interpretations. Geographic region is used to order some of these profiles, while type of garden links others. Small introductory chapters providing background information occasionally precede these groupings. But apparently not all entries fall into these selected categories, so several receive no introduction. There is also often no indication when one is moving from one category to another. At times this is disorienting, particularly for a reader unfamiliar with Texas geography
As Betty Sue Flowers notes in her foreword, "Only a master listener could have elicited these stories, none of them obvious from looking at the gardens themselves" (xi). The stories in this book are replete with human interest and shared with great respect and care, avoiding the characterization of these spaces as anomalies or mere amusements. Nokes' extensive training and experience give her insight into what is required to create a windbreak on the Texas plains or to successfully create a new variety of daylily, and she conveys this information to readers without being overwhelmingly technical. Yet she also provides the individuals who collected the rocks, built the birdhouses, painted the walkways, and planted the cacti plenty of opportunity to speak.
Gardeners and readers fond of Texas are likely to find particular points of interest in this book, but the topics are also enjoyable for a wider audience and provide a pleasant foray into many types of, and motivations for, landscape manipulation. In the end this is an inspiring testament to the vision, physical labor, and ongoing dedication necessary for enacting lasting physical change upon one's surroundings. Even readers who do not choose to make changes in their own environments are likely to begin looking more closely at the changes made by others.