Seconds and Centuries

Back in the years leading up to August 1661 Le Notre used recent mathematical revelations about the angle of incidence equaling the angle of reflection to design a pool at Vaux le Vicomte that perfectly and fully reflected the façade of this very beautiful chateau.

Three hundred and fifty-three years and nine months after the grand-opening later, I stood on the far side of this pond with one of my travel group, waiting for a brief moment when the breeze would die, and I could snap a pic.

It’s an extraordinary poignancy of gardens, this idea that in a landscape coming up to 400 years old, there could be moments of significance that can only be measured in seconds. They call us to seize, validate and value the present – this very minute – in a background that has remained largely unchanged in centuries.

Monet knew this poignancy, as did all the Impressionists, who loved to capture some fleeting effect of light – something everyone else was likely missing – and immortalise it on canvas.


A few of our group went to see Monet’s waterlilies in the Musee de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries in Paris, the evening before visiting his garden at Giverny.  What you see are immense canvasses that represent seconds of transience at various times of the day in Monet’s magical water garden.  When you then visit the garden itself, as we did next morning, you can’t help but try and recapture or re-live that moment.  That someone else noticed the fleeting moment, and pointed towards it (as Monet figuratively did in painting it), inevitably redirects our attention and summons us to match their sense of the almost breathless preciousness of that moment.


Herein also lies the power of the flower: that something so lovely can be so transient, and that if I don’t stop and look NOW, and carefully, then the moment will pass.  We think we’re being clever when we use plants that flower for ages, but often the pleasure they provide is in inverse-proportion to their longevity.


This morning there was a minute, maybe two, when the rays of the rising sun shot absolutely horizontally between the land and a fragile layer of fog hanging overhead.  The east-facing slope on my left was brilliantly side-lit, but the rapidly dispersing fog layer caught and diffused the glow, so that the whole landscape, including my blue-green brassica-filled vegetable garden, was washed in a shadow-less sepia.  I ran and grabbed the camera, snapping away while the auto white-balance continually tried to correct for this confusing yellow tint, removing the very effect I was trying to capture.

The moment passed while I fussed away with technical adjustments.

Next time I need to just stand and watch, and be content to record it in pixels of awe and wonder.


  1. You are so right. Again. Some of the loveliest moments are just that, and best captured in the memory.

    1. Alas a two dimensional image cannot ever recreate being in that place at that very moment. Even if lucky enough to capture the quality of the light we cannot record how we felt in that space, the sounds, the movement and moisture in the air. At best an aide-memoire. I feel most alive at these moments and perhaps attempt to stop the clock with the camera.

  2. I don’t think such moments can even be remembered, not in a significant way–only experienced in the instant of perception.

  3. I think you’re right James. I’ve had many moments in gardens where something about the light and the plants combined just in that instant to create a breathtakingly wonderful moment, but one inherently unphotographable and impossible to remember visually, even though I can easily recall the pleasure of it. Thank you for this inspiration Michael. I can feel a new blog post developing in my head about gardens and sunlight…

  4. It was Cesare Pavese, an Italian poet who died in 1950 who said ” We do not remember days , we remember moments”
    Thankfully light is never still so we can be constantly engaged in a new moment!

  5. Beautifully written, Michael. I love the sentence about the transience of flowers and the inverse proportion of loveliness vs longevity. So true. I think about how much pleasure my Rothschild gloriosa lilies and velvety stapelia flowers give me over a week or two compared with the ho hum-ness of my perennial statice. But of course we need the trusty floral troopers as well. Flowers rock!

  6. […] McCoy wrote an excellent blog post last year about memorable moments in a garden (Seconds and Centuries) which has often inspired me to think about how our understanding of gardens is made up of fleeting […]

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