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178 nonfiction Alexis Schaitkin Living Relics 179 There is bamboo in the water. There are azaleas, too, and lilies and lupine. There are weeping willows and alders, ginkgos and poplars and Japanese quinces, hollies and irises and two wooden walking bridges, one of them dripping in pale purple wisteria. The water does not move. The garden rests on its surface; the lily pads scattered across the pond— slick and deep green, bleached yellow and brown in spots, darkened to a rich mauve in others, and tinged along the edges with black rot—are the only obstructions to this perfect feat of reflection. They send tangled roots down to the bottom of the pond. Upcurled edges reveal bright undersides. The lily pads congregate in piles, sliding over one another so that some rise up out of the water: the tranquil tectonics of the water garden. Resting atop these piles, the raisons d’être of the entire garden, the delicate white, pink, and yellow blooms of the water lilies preen in the afternoon sun. The surrounding trees, which grow toward the pond to receive more light, seem to be bowing in reverence. This is perhaps the most famous water garden in the world. Here, in the small town of Giverny, France, Claude Monet painted the water lily canvases that became icons of the impressionist movement. But 130 years ago, this place did not exist. Where the water garden sits today, the Ru, a tributary of a tributary of the Seine, ebbed by instead. There were no sparkling reflections of exotic flora, no regal lilies. There was movement, flow, and cool clean water. At the brook’s edge, cows drank and women did their laundry. Giverny was an agricultural village of just three hundred, not much changed since Gallo-Roman times, when it was known as Warnacum. There was a school for the village children , a charity bureau, five bars, and little else. Then, in 1883, Claude Monet and his family moved to Giverny. Over the next forty-three years, he expanded his property and remade it in the image of his art. He converted the barn into a studio, redesigned the formal front-yard garden, which he named the Clos Normand, and diverted the Ru to build his lily pond. The sleepy town became a flourishing artist’s colony and a respite for some of the most prominent French figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Mary Cassatt, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro all spent time here. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was a friend of Monet’s and a regular visitor. Writers Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé, Octave Mirbeau, and Marcel Proust all made pilgrimages to Giverny. 180 ecotone When Monet died the town grew quiet again. Relatives inherited the property in succession, but during World War II it was badly damaged by the bombings in Normandy. The gardens lay fallow for decades. Then, in 1977, Gérald Van der Kemp, the former curator of Versailles, began fund-raising for the property’s restoration. Three years later the restored house and gardens opened to the public. Today they receive half a million visitors per year. I am one of them. Sort of. For the month of June, I will hold the rank of volunteer gardener under the auspices of La Fondation Claude Monet, along with five others from around the world. Blair, my housemate here, is the only other American. For a month, we will all occupy a strange intermediary position in this small town, at once guests and workers, visitors and residents, admirers and creators. My interest in Monet’s garden began when, as a child, I received a copy of the picture book Linnea in Monet’s Garden. Linnea, a round, happy, apple-cheeked girl in a black-and-white smock and a straw hat, travels to Giverny, where she gets lost among the flowers and stands triumphantly on one of the water garden’s Japanese footbridges. On some pages of the book, Monet’s paintings are arranged side by side with photographs of the same locations in the gardens, as if to say, This painted world really exists. On...


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