Patricia’s classroom

This past Thursday my grandmother, Patricia Swerda passed away at the age of 97. Although Alzheimer’s wore away her talents, memories and personality during her last years, she was an amazing artist of the natural world.

She grew up in Texas and became a young army wife just before the Second World War pulled my grandfather into North Africa. When the war ended, she went to him in Vienna, and after postings in Rhode Island, England, California, and Japan, he retired from the army and they settled down in Seattle.

Her first book

It was during her time on Kyushu that she discovered the art of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. She learned, became a sensei, and eventually was the first western woman to become a grand master of the art. Her books on the subject are still available on Amazon.com. She was a lover of beauty in the natural world, but also believed that such beauty could be improved through the thoughtful engagement of the eyes, hands, and heart.

Her gardens

Her gardens

I recall vividly a visit to their home in Redmond, Washington when I was a teenager, astonished by the gardens and the cedar house she had built on a few lush acres, weaving the sights, sounds, textures, and scents  of earth, plant, water, wood, metal, and paper into a kind of horticultural song.


The cedar house in Redmond, WA, 1980s

Safeguard Storage today: behold, the death of beauty

Upon the rampant development of Seattle suburbs, unfortunately, she was forced to sell, and the property became ‘Safeguard Self Storage’. She moved, built a new, smaller garden, and kept teaching.


Giardino Medivale, Università degli Studi di Perugia

So it seemed suitable today to visit some gardens in Perugia. I chose two adjacent gardens, both next to the Basilica San Pietro, where we had gone to a concert some weeks back: The Giardini del Frontone, and the Orto Medievale of the Agronomy School of the Università degli Studi di Perugia. The radar looked grim, the clouds piled up, and I prepared for the kind of rain Patricia had often worked in around the Pacific rim. But it held off, and  I was able to make a pilgrimage in her honor and memory. Here is an annotated photographic journey.


The griffin of Perugia on the war monument guarding the entrance to the Giardini del Frontone


Autumn approaches


Another leaf fallen from the tree


Her home was outdoors


The Medieval Garden is laid out geometrically and allegorically with circles and crosses, surrounding the ‘Tree of Life’. It is a constructed Eden.


“The Circle is a point extended; it is the extension of the Center; of the primordial Point. Symbolically it represents the World in embryo, barely outlined and undifferentiated. In the Circle the Idea (the Point, the Origin) has already been born and the expansion (the Circle, circular Space) already begun, but the variety and diversity of Expression (Forms and Size) has not been achieved. From the center of the circle was born Life, was born the Tree, was born the Tree of Life.”


Low hedges trimmed in the shape of Zodiacal signs surround the Tree. Patricia was born on 10 August.


Plants and flowers significant to medicine and cooking surround the Tree




Four fountains stream from the base of the tree: milk, honey, wine, and oil


The Tree: hollow, yet thriving and fruitful


Late blooms

The botanical garden

The botanical garden


A view towards Assisi from the edge of the garden


A stone with the ancient words of the magic square: SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS


The geometry of the spheres


Avia, requiescas in pace.