Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 30, 2011

Keeping Paris green

Local author explores Parisians' long love affair with their parks and gardens

by Rebecca Wallace

One moment, Palo Alto author Jacqueline Widmar Stewart is lost in thoughts of a medieval garden, with its medicinal herbs and vine-covered trellises, its rose gardens for courtly love.

The next, she's praising contemporary engineering. Train tracks, she reflects, look much better with a park suspended above them.

Both of the green spaces Stewart is thinking about are in Paris, where diverse centuries can be neighbors.

"As with tapestry, park style often reflects the era of creation. A visit to parks around Paris means a trip through time as well as the many enjoyments of space," Stewart writes.

Her new book, "Parks and Gardens in Greater Paris," is 200 pages of time travel. Stewart wove together her love for Paris, the environment and education to create it.

This is the third book for Stewart, a Stanford Law graduate who has focused on writing instead of lawyering for the last decade. She first wrote about five parks near Chicago in "The Glaciers' Treasure Trove: A Field Guide to the Lake Michigan Riviera," then traveled to the country of her grandparents with "Finding Slovenia: A Guide to Old Europe's New Country."

For "Glaciers," Stewart set up her own publishing company, and for "Slovenia," her publisher hired a separate photographer. This is the first time that Stewart's had a book professionally published with her own words and pictures.

Stewart admits photography hasn't always come easily. For "Paris," her publisher — the German publishing company Edition Axel Menges — kept having her go back and reshoot the photos.

"We shot these four times," Stewart says, smiling. "I got to know the parks well."

Making repeated trips to France wasn't a hardship for Stewart and her husband, Blair, a fellow Stanford Law graduate. Stewart also knew that if she had to make the case for the importance of public lands, she had to have eye-catching color photos.

Ultimately, she created a vivid walk through history, with scarlet autumn scenes and bright summer days, rivers and reflecting pools, forests and garden mazes.

"They are such a part of every Parisian's life. They use them as outdoor rooms," Stewart says of the parks, recalling families on Sunday promenades, kids sailing boats, diners in fine park restaurants.

The book begins with a historical overview. France evolves on the page from the forested world of the Roman Empire to a 9th-century place where Charlemagne issued decrees about the sorts of fruit trees to be planted on royal estates. Readers travel to medieval gardens and then to the Tuileries, the landmark park by designer Andre Le Notre that — in a groundbreaking move — was opened to the public in the 17th century.

The 19th-century Second Empire played a major role in development. Stewart writes: "The signature grand green spaces of Paris derive from Napoleon III's plan to improve Parisian life. Planted roadways radiating from circles — known as stars or etoiles — and the grand, wide tree-lined drives of Avenues Foch and Georges Mandel remain as archetypal elements of the style from the era."

Moving forward, Stewart discusses artists Monet and Rodin and their gardens, and then comes into the present, with new parks and ecological practices.

"The number of Paris parks, gardens and squares distributed throughout the city far exceeds four hundred and continues to grow in number," she writes. Then Stewart illustrates this growth with pages and pages of bright color photos, making the book feel like an exhibition catalogue of grassy canvases.

It's hard to find Roman ruins in Paris, but Stewart does include a photo of the (restored) sport arena at the Arenes du Lutece. In the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a 19th-century park built at a former Roman quarry, a temple to the Roman prophetess Sybil sits high on a cliff.

More well-known are the gardens at the Cluny medieval museum, made to recall the Middle Ages with the kitchen, herb, symbolic and rose gardens. Stewart's photo depicts a woman reading in the garden with the Gothic architecture of the museum behind her. Stewart's words hark back to the rise of courtly love: "Medieval parks created a world of fantasy for romantic encounters; enclosed gardens set the stage."

Stewart includes many images of famous sweeping spaces such as the Tuileries, the Chateau de Fontainebleu, Versailles and the Palais Royal. In the verdant Bois de Boulogne woods, Stewart finds a Swiss chalet and a bridge that seems made of curving fairytale branches.

Despite the enchanted scenery of centuries past, Paris is a modern city, and Stewart's photos are ultimately forward-looking. They depict the efforts in the 20th and 21st centuries to preserve open space in and around the capital city.

Some conceal a less picturesque past. The Jardin Atlantique, which opened in 1994, manages to site a meditation garden atop a train station. The park sits on a roof above the Gare Montparnasse, with tennis courts and a fountain.

In the Parc de Bercy, wisteria covers terraces to create peaceful green shade, and a stadium roof is landscaped with grass to blend right in.

One spot tips a hat to the past. In the 19th century, according to the book, the Bercy area used to be a wine-warehousing district, with train cars carrying wine barrels. Now there are grape arbors in the Parc de Bercy, and the wine is flowing again.

Meanwhile, the Parc de la Villette used to be the site of a slaughterhouse. It's an urban playground dreamed up by architect Bernard Tschumi in the 1980s. The place has a public-art spirit, sporting a red folly (a non-functional decoration) that looks like a futuristic factory with a mural of cows. In one of Stewart's most striking photos, a huge silver globe of an Omnimax theater, La Geode, reflects the clouds and sky.

Stewart says she hopes to inspire readers with the spirit of design and environmental mitigation seen in these parks. "I look at the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, and think, 'Why can't we be like the French?'"

She credits Keeble & Shuchat Photography in Palo Alto for much of her photography skill. For years, the people there have helped her buy better camera equipment and encouraged her to take courses at the shop, which she did.

"When I needed to replace my camera some 15 years ago they told me to spend a couple extra dollars and get a great lens — the Carl Zeiss. I couldn't believe how painterly the shots were. Without those photos, I never would have considered writing a book," she said.

When she was choosing the topic for her third book, Paris seemed a natural fit, Stewart said. She and her family have been going to France for 25 years to visit friends, and all speak French. Over the years, Stewart also got to know people who worked in Parisian parks.

"I write to learn, share and remember. We all love Paris in my family," she said. "It's hard to think of a place where you wouldn't want to be more."

What: Palo Alto author Jacqueline Widmar Stewart will give a talk on her book "Parks and Gardens in Greater Paris."

Where: Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Jan. 7, at 3 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free. From 3 to 6 p.m., Books Inc. will donate 20 percent of its total sales to the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation, an organization founded by Stewart that gives micro-grants to teachers in East Palo Alto.

Info: For more about the book, go to http://lexicuspress.com . It is also available at the Stanford Bookstore and Barnes & Noble.

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