Every once in a while, even as I struggle to get through just the basic maintenance in my garden, I yearn to create something special, something magical in my yard--something with motion and sound that sparks imagination and ignites long-forgotten fantasies. I know it stems from memories of the garden of my childhood. Our home's previous owner left his mark in the back yard in the form of a moss-covered hill topped with a castle and ribboned with a stone-lined brook that ran down the hill into a moat-like fishpond below. It was a feature that appealed to both children and adults; everyone, it seemed, experienced a moment of kid-like fascination when standing before that small world tucked under a redwood tree at the back of the yard.
I don't remember having that kind of experience again until yesterday when I visited the Golden Gate Express Garden Railway at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. This second annual exhibit, created with the help of the Bay Area Garden Railway Society, transforms a collection of plants and a motley assortment of recycled materials into a miniature version of the city of San Francisco, complete with a four-car train and a cable car, each running on its own track.
Every iconic structure in San Francisco is there, from the Golden Gate Bridge with moving cars, to the Transamerica Pyramid and Lombard Street. The Ferry Building, constructed of corks and cutlery, is front and center. A row of colorful Victorian homes made of cereal boxes lines a hill, and mah-jong tiles and motherboards re-create Chinatown's Dragon-Crest Gate.
But this is a micro-world to experience, not just look at. Lights flash, bells clang, the ball-park crowd cheers. And twice a day, at 11:15 and 4:15, the ultimate San Francisco phenomenon occurs--the fog rolls in.
I try to imagine the attention to detail that garden railway devotees must invest in the creation and maintenance of little worlds like this. Beyond the tracks and the structures, every rock and plant is hand-picked and placed just so. Sound effects are recorded. Lights are programmed and timed. If regular gardening requires continual patience, what must a garden railway demand of its creator?
I doubt I'll ever know firsthand; I don't see a garden railway springing up in my own back yard any time soon. But for a little while yesterday I got to enjoy the magic and the wonder and remember that the smallest details that we bend to observe are the ones that can transport us the farthest.
The Second Annual Golden Gate Express Garden Railway exhibit at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park runs through April 18, 2010. The Conservatory is closed on New Year's Day, but otherwise open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:oo a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last entry at 4:30). Click here for details.