Border art

Much Ado about Nothing

My friend, the film-maker Tony Girardin, sent me a photo he took a few days ago when crossing the border between Vancouver and Seattle. He thought I might like it.

And I do. A lot.

At first I couldn’t figure it out. Was it a drawing? A painting? No, a sculpture, Tony said. A quick on-line search and I discovered that the swarm of bees flying away from that enormous empty space are welded steel rods. Non Sign II, by the Seattle artist and architect collaborative called Lead Pencil Studio, is a billboard advertising nothing.  Or rather, announcing the condition of the atmosphere. When Tony crossed the border, the rods outlined a patch of clear blue sky. On another day, who knows what the sky would show? The bee/rods would fly away, regardless.


Border art
Photo courtesy of Tony Girardin. Tony’s current film, the award-winning Marinoni,  is about an Italian-Canadian bicyclist who sets out to break a world speed record at the age of 80. It’s a real winner. Be sure to see it if you have the chance.


What that sign says about commerce and the environment is one thing. For me, seeing a sign that is a non sign got me thinking about the impact of empty space and what it says about ‘nothing,’ and about how easy it is to overlook emptiness and what it signifies.

Some ‘nothings,’ like insect tracks or holes pecked on tree trunks, reflect what happened in the past. But simultaneously they suggest what will happen in the future.  How long can a tree like this survive?


How long will a tree like this survive? Was it a downy woodpecker that made this grid-like design?
So far, only the bark has been affected. Was it a downy woodpecker that made this grid-like design? Bird-lovers, give me the answer, please.


Sometimes we humans create the emptiness. Last year we had to remove sections of an old oak tree. The dead wood was dangerous. It had to go. But seeing how unnatural the chopped off ends appear, I feel regret and a bit of shame. Couldn’t we have done a better job? Something more aesthetically pleasing?


I'm hoping that the leaves will cover the stubby ends and allow the tree to show off its natural beauty.
I’m hoping that the leaves will cover the stubby ends and allow the tree to show off its natural beauty.


On the positive side, an empty space opens up possibilities. The gap between the bits and pieces that make up this nest allows us to see through to the blue sky beyond. The delicate tracery suggests fragility but the nest survived at least one winter, maybe more. Who knows how long it will hang there?


What creature made this nest?
What creature made this nest? I don’t think it was a paper wasp but then what? or who? Was it some kind of bird?


A sack of frog eggs attached to a twig under water is far from empty but it is a possibility that soon will become actual.


That white blob is the sack of frog eggs.
That white blob is the sack that holds the frog eggs. The eggs themselves are the tiny black spots inside it.


The tadpoles swimming in sunny water nearby attest to that.


Can you make out the tadpoles? Another month or so and they will be tiny frogs.
Those black specks are the tadpoles. In a surprisingly short time, they will lose their tails and turn into frogs.


Billboards attract the eye away from the landscape that surrounds them. A billboard that is a non sign, simply a patch of sky, says something about how we can look without seeing.

That’s a big problem in many situations. In garden design, leaving ‘breathing room’ creates a counterbalance that is particularly important in a garden where a lot is going on. At Hidcote, the garden created by Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote Bartrim, Gloucestershire, the grass allée is an essential counterbalance to the complexity of the plantings and overall design.


Hedges define the long path that leads towards open country fields.
Hedges define the long path that leads towards open country fields.


So many of us feel the urge — the need? — to fill every available space in our gardens. Maybe we are better off leaving empty space, creating the nothingness that allows our minds to relax, to go beyond the swarm of busy-ness to other possibilities and other dreams.

Do you make room for ‘nothing’ in your garden? Do you need to make more? Or would you rather fill every available space?

In next week’s blog post (assuming all goes according to plan), I’ll be writing about a woodland space that at this time of year is full to the brim of something beautiful. And tasty. Any guesses about what it is?






  • Kate

    The nest is an oriole’s nest.

    What a wonderful sculpture, the “bees” swarming around the non-sign. Yes, I do use and value negative space in my garden. I’ve been to very cluttered, filled-up gardens and they are claustrophobic. I’ve converted a lot of lawn to garden beds, but I leave a swath for the sheer openness of it.

    • siteandinsight

      Kate, thanks for identifying the nest. Looking at images of other oriole nests on line, I think mine must be quite old. It definitely looks threadbare. As for open space, I think the hardest thing is getting the balance between the open and filled spaces to feel right.

  • Maybe you could just say that empty space has the purpose of providing a space, divider, under construction or just keep people like me guessing of what is to come? Less is more!

    • siteandinsight

      Sometimes less is more, until too little isn’t enough. Glad to know I can keep you guessing.

  • My lawn functions as negative space and nothingness. It gives the eyes a quiet space to rest and balances all the business around it. The bark damage was caused by sapsuckers. They damaged one of my viburnums so heavily I had to prune several major branches that had died.

    • siteandinsight

      My big lawn does the same thing, Tammy. One of things that worries me is that in converting the lawn to meadow I will lose that quiet space.

      Thanks for identifying the grid-like holes. Looking on line I see now that the bird I thought was a downy woodpecker is actually a sapsucker. I’m happy to learn something new.

  • Jason

    I am definitely one of the gardeners with an impulse to fill up empty space – something I was doing this morning. But we do need to keep some lawn around to provide a counterpoint to the bursting beds.

    • siteandinsight

      At last, an honest gardener! I know I want to have every plant I can grow, and then some… which is why I’m letting the lawn go to meadow this year. Hope your morning was productive, and that another space is now full to the brim.