Hartley Magazine

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Living in a glass house

There’s been a couple of snow flurries, but the days are early-spring-balmy and the soil dusty, plants equally so.  It’s a glasshouse moment for sure–watering and fussing over the greenery that lives outdoors in summer, and indoors during winter. So I’ll keep this brief out of necessity, as I’m hard pressed to turn my mind to garden matters when all I do is worry that I won’t have a garden to write about when this harsh winter drought is over. I do however have something important to relate:

Amaryllis with vividly colored blooms and strong shapes are easily defined by those with limited sight. Even the sculptural strap-like leaves that emerge post flowering are a bonus. Waxed wrapped bulbs also remove any need to aim a watering can.

Greenhouses, conservatories, any sort of shelter that lets the sun shine in is a gardener’s delight; a fact brought home to me by a friend whose outdoor garden is her joy, and her indoor garden her salvation during the dark gloom the settles early over our daylight-saved days. Kathleen is one of an estimated 11 million Americans currently afflicted by dry macular degeneration; a number set to double by 2050. Over the past few years as her central vision has deteriorated, her eyesight has shrunk to shadows, shapes, and bright colors only somewhat visible in the periphery of her sight, and then only in sunshine or bright artificial light. The center of her vision is a foggy, indiscernible blur. “It’s no good coming to visit on a dull day — I won’t be able to see your face.”

A vignette composed of a succulent and an aroid: easy-care, low-maintenance plants that are living sculptures in a home filled with art.

Kathleen, however, is a tiger-gardener, never giving up and tending each plant group inside her house with the obsessive love she lavishes on her outdoor garden, willing things to thrive, finding — and sharing — the joy she finds in horticulture. Her garden (and her deep commitment to fostering the arts in Colorado) keeps her connected to her community and holds at bay the isolation that’s often a side effect of the gradual onset of blindness.

Mid-century architecture blurred the line between indoor and outdoor living. And in this case it allows Kathleen to live in her garden year-round.

Kathleen’s house seems made for this purpose; one of several in my neighborhood designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Ingraham and her husband as the firm, Ingraham & Ingraham. Referencing Wright’s Usonian designs for living, the mid-century modern house seems made of glass, floating over its surrounding meadow like a great, glittery ship.

The lower living area is set alight by bright sunlight and a grate filled with a multi-textured collection of easy-care houseplants.

Macular degeneration has no cure, yet as Kathleen noted when she participated in trials geared to finding a way to slow the progress sufferers’ sight loss, little real progress has been made; as she learned from the specialists she worked with, research is ongoing, but funding is tight compared to other chronic diseases, despite macular degeneration being one of the leading causes of blindness in the U.S. and the world.

©Text and photos Ethne Clarke, 2022

For reliable information about macular degeneration visit the website of American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF).

To learn about some current research on macular degeneration, read this article.