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Beyond the Emperor’s Dream

I have a friend named Frank who is going blind from diabetes and is trying to absorb as much of the world that he can before darkness closes in.

He inhales the sunsets that paint the skies and fixes in memory the rainbows that arced the city when El Nino was romping through our weather.

Colors are almost as important to Frank as faces. He wants to remember what red is like and blue and green, and he wants to imprint the deep, rich glow of gold in the shadows of his receding light.

He’s been a friend since college, and I can’t imagine him spending the rest of his life without sight. I think about him a lot and sometimes I close my eyes for long periods of time trying to imagine what his world will be like.

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That’s really not possible, I know, because one can’t evoke the kinds of emotions that accompany permanent blindness. I can open my eyes again in an instant and everything is still there, but when Frank loses his sight completely the world he knows will be gone.

This has been on my mind lately because I’ve been thinking about L.A.'s gardens. The flowers of the city have never been more abundant and their colors never brighter due to the drenchings of spring.

If this is Frank’s last summer of sight, at least it’s a good one. Wildflowers splash the hillsides like jewels scattered among the drying weeds, and patches of glory adorn even the most modest of yards.

This is, indeed, a year to remember.

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I don’t have to go far to look at gardens because my wife has a beauty. Flowers bloom around a small pond and in clusters between winding pathways, along split rail fences and under oak trees older than Moses.

Ferns flourish in damp, cool places, colors explode in the fiery glow of bright sunlight and the perfume of night-blooming jasmine flavors the warm, sweet minutes of lingering twilights.

Gardening is no casual undertaking. We have a photograph on the wall with a quote that says, “Gardeners, I think, dream bigger dreams than emperors.”

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My wife’s dream is to plant our entire yard, almost an acre, with colors as bright as heaven, thereby creating a kingdom of serenity able to absorb and dispel the most troubled thoughts.

Everybody ought to have a garden, a place to exhale and unwind, but if you don’t have one, go to the big Central Garden at the Getty and lose yourself in the dream that artist Bob Irwin has created.

To call it simply a garden is to call a Monet painting a picture. Superlatives are required here. Passion is necessary. This truly is beyond an emperor’s dream, beyond the size of any canvas, all the hues of nature compressed into a single vibrant entity.

Richard Naranjo, the Getty’s manager of grounds and gardens, took me around one day, walking the pathways, listening to the varied sounds of a brook cascading down a hillside, absorbing the iridescent colors.

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“It’s the tranquillity that matters,” he said to me as we strolled past rows of sycamore trees, geraniums, bougainvillea and plants from around the world I’ll never be able to name. “This is a gentle place. . . .”

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Gardens evoke a spiritual quality by their union between earth and sky, and no place is more spiritual than a garden I’m not at liberty to describe.

It’s a secret garden in a literal sense. You have to have a key to get in and most people will never see it. If you’re inclined toward meditation, that’s the place for it, amid flowers and gleaming altars made of precious stones and in corners under arches that filter summer’s heat.

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I’ve already said more than I’m supposed to because when you accept the key you pledge yourself to secrecy. Now I guess I face the possibility that my key will glow briefly, fly upward, then vanish like a wizard’s wand.

But that’s all right. Everyone has a secret garden, a place that exists in bright corners of memory or imagination where winter never comes and colors never fade.

That’s what Frank is creating. His will be a permanent garden to stroll through all the days of his life, reflecting back on the chromatic tones that he implants now in the glow of summer’s fire.

There will be no darkness in that gentle place, only the eternal light that dreams and gardens provide when they are beyond an emperor’s capacity to understand. What a place that will be.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com


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