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Tuesday, 19 November 2008
Holiday Train Show at The New York Botanical Garden

It's that time of year again. The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden will open on Sunday, 23 November and run through Sunday, 11 January 2009. Run is the operative word, as trains clickety-clack over tracks winding by more than 140 buildings that replicate in miniature actual New York City structures. Except that rather than masonry and steel these are built from pods and cones and leaves and seeds and twigs. Branches are the structural material for bridges that cross overhead. Twinkling holiday lights adorn them, and also Norfolk Island pines and other trees that grow in the conservatory. Miniature cyclamen, Christmas cactus, and kalenchoe in bloom, feathery little selaginella, and other dainty plants landscape the scenery.

Piers bricked in bark support the overhead trestle,
even appear to support the Enid Haupt Conservatory itself.

Bridges arch overhead, carrying trains through lush green treetop canopy.

Photograph Credit Paul Glattstein 2008

All this magic and whimsy is courtesy of Paul Busse of Applied Imagination
Working from photographs of the different buildings, sand, glue and tile grout is used
for stone facades, and all sorts of botanical bits and pieces add texture and detail.

The closer you look, the more there is to see, layer after layer of detail.

This is the busy season. Last week in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Botanic Garden, this week at the New York Botanical Garden, and Paul leaves tonight for Chicago where his crew is already at work. It's a hectic schedule but one that does not seem to faze this smiling, gentle man.

I asked where and how this all started, how a landscape architect found himself turning what others would discard into the compost bin into whimsical, imaginative fantasies that appeal to children, and to the child in adults too. It was sometime in the 1980s, he said, at the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati , Ohio. He made a couple of buildings from bits and pieces of bark, seed pods, other found plant material, all rather crude. That was the kernel that swelled and sprouted and grew into a tradition I, for one, look forward to year after year.

The buildings return, year after year. New York Botanical Garden has the space to store the structures from one year to the next. Applied Imagination cares for those from the Washington, D.C. display, where the U.S. Botanic Garden has no space to store the fanciful buildings. The display is always different as juxtaposition, rearrangement, new additions change the display. And this year it seems to me that the display is exceptionally fine.

At breakdown, when show is over Paul always looks for more material for the next season, for example collecting a large jar full of eucalyptus pods from trees in NYBG's conservatory. He's taught a class for children at the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania. The foundation for the children's buildings were cardboard milk cartons cut in half as base for house. The "stuff" was attached using a glue gun at low temperature setting for safety reasons.

For Applied Imagination's structures the glue is a temporary attachment, as Paul thinks it is the urethane that really preserves them. They set each new building in large container and just pour it on, lifting the building, turning, pour urethane over it again and again. A large building can absorb a half-gallon. Note that this is the UV resistant marine urethane that's used on boats, not the polyurethane you might use to finish a hardwood floor. Paul likes that it dries with an amber cast that he feels gives an pleasant, antique effect. He's trying a new water-soluble urethane that dries clear.

Whatever, he and his crew are making a city of magic. There's Rockefeller Center

And St. Patrick's cathedral

Slabs of cedar logs become a cliff-like palisade with a small house perched atop it.

There's the Metropolitan Museum of Art

and in a fractal play of scale, the Enid Haupt Conservatory inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory.

A fanciful twisty bridge contrived from lengths of vine once would around a tree
support the tracks for a monarch butterfly car that blurrily flutters by.

A cityscape of brownstone townhouses.

Two engineers intently oil the wheels of boxcar, keeping all the trains running smoothly.

Come visit. Marvel at the imagination, enjoy the fantasy.
Order your tickets, come with a friend, bring the family.
If you've never come before, come for the first time
to a place where fairies play with trains.

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