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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the August 18, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Peter Soderman leans a large forearm against the door frame of the old cedar barn. Meditatively he traces the scars of the adz which hewed these timbers four years before Lewis and Clark headed west to explore the Louisiana Purchase. "Two centuries ago," he ponders out loud, "people gathered under this roof. What did they say? What did they think? How did they suffer?"
Soderman wonders about such things. Tall and lanky, he ambles in heavy, unlaced work boots with the air of a thinker. He is not an historian, psychologist, or philosopher - not professionally at least. A self-taught landscape architect, he prefers to see himself as "an ideas catalyst - someone providing templates for others' creations."
A Princeton native, Soderman played football for Princeton High School in the late-1960s, and then attended community college and Florida State prior to a stint as a seminarian. Nothing quite fit, and 15 years ago, realizing that what he really loved was making things grow, he began a career in landscaping. He formed his own Princeton-based company, Bohemian Grove, three years ago.
Soderman's latest template cuts a 15,000 square-foot green swath beneath his mother's window in the center of downtown Princeton. Just take a walk down Witherspoon Street, past the new library, and turn left on Paul Robeson Place. There you will find the garden dubbed Writers Block, a pretty little editing of nature, which invites the combined talents of both Princeton's writing and architectural communities. The community will celebrate its presence this Thursday, August 19, with a networking event at 5 pm for the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. The official grand opening is Saturday, September 11.
"The garden has renewed something from nothing," says Princeton resident Sheldon Sturges, who leads a citizens' group dedicated to revitalizing Princeton's downtown core. "The follies are a quiet place to meditate or converse with others."
Concentric sweeps of tall sweet corn, shorter feed corn, and low colorful zinnias provide the creative canvas. Within this field, 12 teams of architects and writers have been provided a 10 by 12 foot space to erect a "folly" - some clever structure that tangibly blends the author's mind or soul with the builder's art. Acting as the main garden entrance, the 18th century cedar barn, a donation by the Ringoes-based New Jersey Barn Company, sets the mood.
Soderman invites me to walk through the barn - "the vestibule into my field of dreams," as he puts it. Amid the corn, the follies stand in various states of construction with dozens of people laboring throughout. All the work and all the materials are donated. Many of the workers are from Princeton or are trainees from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "Even though American individuality balks at the idea, there is a real beauty in service," remarks Soderman. I notice that among all these busy builders, there blares not one thought-deadening boombox in the background.
We walk to a strange looking wooden wall, which architects Terry Smith and Juliet Richardson and a small crew of volunteers are decorating with a jumble of various odd-shaped plates. They have teamed up with poet Paul Muldoon. During their interviews with him, Muldoon had commented that, "writing is like chemistry and physics. You experiment; mix the right words and sometimes it goes 'Pooof!'" This nugget sparked the idea in Smith and Richardson to experiment with various elements of light and shade on the wall to see if the effect also would go poof. They combine, then combine again. As Mark Twain said, the difference between a good word and the exact right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Ladening their folly with more interest and imagery, Richardson and Smith have taken a page from George Bernard Shaw and have made their wall similar to the playwright's own garden writing shed, even including the rotating base that Shaw's had. Topping off utter folly, the crest resembles an ancient Roman lookout post. Symbolism lurks furtively.
Beside Muldoon's folly sits an odd looking stack of wooden freight pallets placed on edge. Together they form a high wall rigidly guarding a small wooden patio with a rather flimsy lawn chair. The entire fortress keeps nature at bay as much as possible. This offering, created from the imagination of architect M.J. Sagan, is a testament to humorist Fran Leibowitz, titled simply, "Why I hate the outdoors."
Peering into Joyce Carol Oates' structure, one spies an odd piece of sheet metal chained to a swivel, reminiscent of a coal chute and tippling runway. Architect teammate Gil Rampy contacted Oates, listened to her discuss her latest work "Faith of a Writer," and had a brief chat about the project.
Oates, herself an ardent runner who literally creates on her feet, told Rampy about the struggle of the writer, like the laborer, to bring forth product and sew in the thread of meaning. Rampy envisioned an analogy of author and character, placing the soul of each in his setting.
As we continue our tour, Soderman explains some of the uses he hopes for his field of dreams. Perhaps the most important aspect is that Writers Block is mortal. From its beginning with June groundbreaking, it will remain only four months, ending on October 31 with a Halloween closing ceremony. At that point, various follies will be auctioned off, allowing the donors to recoup a piece of their costs, with the remainder donated to selected New Jersey charities.
"I see this as sort of a literary Woodstock," says the garden's author. "It's interesting how many of the people contributing to this creation are of that generation." Soderman, who graduated from Princeton High School in the mid-1960s, envisions Writers Block as an island, filling the spiritual void created by mass consumerism and mass communication.
A noble vision indeed. But behind every man's vision it usually takes a woman or two pushing it all to fruition. Enter project coordinator Dana Lichtstrahl. Having joined the Writers Block team early last spring, Lichtstrahl saw the garden's potential as a stage for not just contemplations, but a myriad of artistic activities.
Herself the author of two books, "Will My Real Family Please Stand Up" and "In Good Company," she fell in with Soderman's plans and brought her own training to bear. Her seven years as a graphic artist for the "Good Morning America" show gave Lichtstrahl a fine feel for presentation and for how to lure participants into events.
To help fill the four-month calendar, Lichtstrahl contacted events expert Hope Van Cleaf who had just finished a long fund raising stint as development assistant at Princeton's YWCA. Together these women have scheduled a host of both recurring and one-time special events that give tangible meaning to Soderman's hope for a spiritual renaissance.
Walking to the far left, Soderman and I pause before a looming pagoda conceived by architects Andrew Outerbridge and Peter Morgan to fulfill the awesome scope of Princeton novelist Peter Benchley's works. Benchley's books, "Jaws," "The Deep," and "The Island," among others, direct his readers to the sweeping power of nature. At the same time, the amazing variety of his works and progressively different angles provide an analogy to nature's endless diversity, discussed in Benchley's essays.
"One night I was looking at a dollar bill," says architect Ron Berlin as he comes to join us. "My eye fell upon the strong pyramid and I began thinking about that symbol." Berlin was teamed with one of his favorite authors, Paul Krugman, Princeton University professor of economics and political commentator for the New York Times Op-ed page. Unable to directly interview Krugman, Berlin took inspiration from the author's political and economic writings.
In studying his dollar, Berlin realized that the pyramid was unfinished, and saw this as a symbol of Krugman's message that we, as a democracy, must ever keep reconfiguring ourselves. The Krugman pyramid comes to life thanks to the efforts of builder Tom Pinneo, who has hand crafted mortise and tenon joints for its frame. Beauty and a message combined.
Amidst all the wooden structures glares the contrasting vision of political philosopher Cornel West and architects Sharon McHugh and John Nastasi. At first view, the shiny metallic silo appears solid and imposing. Upon closer inspection, one discovers an aluminum honeycomb, stretched into an alluring spiral. Interestingly, the honeycomb has been stretched, very carefully, from a 2 1/2-inch cake to its current 27 feet.
West, prolific writer on race relations and the American black experience, reviewed the plans and responded with his thoughts. Together, he and his architect partners sought to blend race relations with architecture. The spiral makes the observer wonder, "am I inside, outside, or just transparent on the surface?" Are the barriers dissolving?
Soderman ticks off the other teams on his fingers: playwright Emily Mann combined with architect Ralph Lerner; Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer and architect Peter Wasem; political writer Paul Sigmund with architect John James Rivera; novelist Chang-rae Lee linked with James Chavel and Chloe Town; and historian James McPherson has been teamed with Kevin Wilkes of the Princeton Design Group, site coordinator of the Writers Block project. As an homage, just outside the garden perimeter stands a tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda erected by Leslie Dowling.
"Not all the writers have taken a personal hand in their projects," notes Soderman. "In fact, many just have just lent their names and some basic thoughts to the project and let the architects run with it. But those who haven't worked with the architects will be both flattered and amazed, I'm sure."
Writers Block has existed in Soderman's mind for nearly a decade. "Princeton has more writers and more architects per capita than any town in the nation," he kept thinking. "There has to be a way to bring them together." Then the venue became free.
For the past eight years, the fenced-in plot behind the Hulfish Street Garage had garnered trash, weeds, and no end of controversy. Borough officials, the Palmer Square Management Corporation, and various builders had warred over the land, reaching no agreement. Soderman and his landscaping company, Bohemian Grove, had already delighted the residents of Princeton with the Herban Garden in the backyard of the Witherspoon Bread Company. It has made an impressive nook for the bakery's outdoor catered events.
"The Momo Brothers really let me totally create on their land, and it gave me credibility in this area," Soderman says, speaking of the owners of the Witherspoon Bread Company.
With this project receiving favorable reviews, last February Soderman approached David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management, asking to temporarily place a garden on the fallow land. Newton loved the idea at once. "He couldn't have been more gracious and helpful. He has given us every access," says Soderman.
"I only agreed to the project," Newton remarks with a chuckle, "with the absolute confidence that it would never get off the ground. But now it has and I am delighted." Shortly before the project began, Newton found himself on a drive up through Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. He remembers lot after lot of ugly trash heaps. "But then, he says, "you would come across one where the community had labored and made something out of it. I recall the cleverness and creativity of these efforts, making beauty out of waste." The idea stuck and Newton's Palmer Square Management Corporation agreed to let Writers Block bloom on its property.
From there, momentum grew. "Kevin Wilkes came riding out of the Sourland Mountains like a white knight in a pickup truck," laughs Soderman. He brought with him the entire volunteer power of the Princeton Design Guild to the project. Wilkes joined Writers Block as site coordinator, which affords him the chance to be everything from construction boss to helping hand. Additionally, Wilkes has teamed up with Civil War writer James McPherson and has created a period battle scene in a folly.
Growing up as a white boy in Georgia, Wilkes felt he was raised with a particularly skewed idea of "The War of Northern Aggression." He attended Princeton University, graduating with an architecture degree in l983, but never found the time to take a class from history professor McPherson. Yet Wilkes has avidly read the historian's works and is continually impressed by his insights.
McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," notes Wilkes, shows just how far a country can go to promote tremendous savagery in the name of freedom and nationhood. The pillared tent of his folly subtly contrasts the industrialized North with the crumbling South - complete with sound effects.
By early April, the energetic Lichtstrahl had signed on, taking the eclectic title of project coordinator. She joined Soderman in making cold calls to the authors, asking if they would like to join the project. "These were all famous and very busy writers," says Soderman. "At first I felt a little like a combination of Rasputin and P.T. Barnum invading these peoples' lives."
But almost all the authors proved remarkably receptive. Lichtstrahl remembers finally getting hold of novelist Peter Benchley and enthusiastically gushing out her entire Writers Block spiel. "All right, Dana, it's okay," said the besieged Benchley. "I'm on board with this. You can stop now." Everyone seemed to love the concept.
Lichtstrahl soon brought Van Cleaf to the team, rounding out the founding four. Landscape architect Alan Goodheart, with Soderman and Wilkes, designed the landscape plan. It was his concept that the outside ring of follies amid corn should hem a weave of flat lawn, providing the feel of strollable space.
"The whole Writers Block is a bizarre scheme that dwells in people's hearts," sums up Lichtstrahl. Somehow, in this garden, every one is an artist and every one is a contributor. Like the many hands that helped raise the garden's aged barn, people have caught the fervor of creativity and perhaps that is as great a gift as any profound thoughts it will inspire.
Sometime in the future, the 15,000 square feet of respite that was Writers Block will be supplanted with 97 luxury townhouses in a development to be called "Palmer Square's Hulfish North." Pouring a concrete footprint over this nurturing garden might strike some as spiritual heresy. But the Soderman, Wilkes, Goodheart, Lichtstrahl, and Van Cleaf team are resolute in their optimism. Art comes in the creation and in the brief enjoying; not in the petrification. After all, who knows what visions the fertile fields of Princeton's talent will bring to life next year?
Writers Block Calendar. Many scheduled events in the garden can be found on the website http://www.princetonwritersblock.com./ Inquiries about unscheduled events can be made to Hope Van Cleaf at email@example.com
Books Abroad, international experts on literacy and health, date to be announced.
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