After my first day in The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, I met the spectacular site’s designer, Charles Jencks. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Did you meet my Medusa? Did she turn you to stone?” Seeing my confusion, he went on, “well, what were some of your favorite things in the garden?”
That question was also difficult to answer, but on reflection, I said that I had liked the tree root systems used as displays, and was especially impressed with a very large set of roots, in a field next to some stumps. They resembled ones I’d seen in Chinese gardens in Suzhou, so we discussed Chinese stone appreciation for some time, after which he drew me a map so I could meet Medusa the next day, and told me that it was gift from Richard Rosenblum, a sculptor whose collection of Chinese stones and art has been shown in many museums.
I had a good laugh at my own expense when I discovered that the tree roots I had liked and the Medusa were one and the same. I stood marveling at the roots winding around the trunk and branches like snakes, at the stones caught in tangled branches, and the overall appearance of a striding figure.
I walked closer, took several close-ups of various parts of the piece towering 15 feet above me. It was only when I touched it that I realized, with a shock and burst of laughter, that the Medusa was in fact a sculpture, a bronze cast Rosenblum had done. Rosenblum’s own interest in Chinese scholars’ rocks was driven the “flip between nature and culture” they embody, the “profound surprise” provoked by seeing natural objects turn into cultural things and back again (Rosenblum, Art of the Natural World, 3).
In one stunned moment, I was turned to stone: Charles Jencks had realized that I mistook the roots for a natural object, asked me if I’d encountered the Medusa, and then sent me back to look at what I had not actually seen.