I set out for the Terrace of Crispness on an August afternoon. Traffic slunk along the BQE. A haze hung over the Manhattan skyline. My skin stuck to the car seat. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, I had my doubts that anything crisp could sustain itself against the limpness of the day.
To judge by the map on the SIBG website, the Chinese Scholar’s Garden offers a feast for the senses, comprising, among other attractions, a “Tea House of Hearing Pines” and a “Billowing Pine Court,” a “Cool Jade Pavilion or Pavilion of Chilly Green,” a “Gurgling Rock Bridge,” and a “Meandering Cloud Wall.” But on this afternoon, the pines were silent and still; the jade pavilion was lukewarm at best; the gurgling rock bridge offered only a trickle; and there were no clouds to meander across walls.
I held out hope for the Terrace of Crispness, traipsing through the garden’s tunnels, walkways, and courtyards. Then I stepped onto an octagonal balcony that jutted over a pond. A breeze wafted across a small marble table at the center. I noticed a sign mounted on one of the walls: “Moon Viewing Pavilion Terrace of Crispness” (and, in smaller letters, “Bell Atlantic”). I immediately began parsing the space for signs of the crispness I’d traveled so far to experience. Perhaps the sharp angles of the half-octagonal pavilion? The tangy aroma of the Austrian pine tree shading one side? The chipper susurrations of the waterfall? My search felt a little forced. Perhaps the crispness was best observed during moon viewings, as the sign implied. I imagined standing at the edge of the terrace on a clear night, the moonlight limning the distant willow branches and filtering through the latticework, sending milky shadows swimming across the peaked roof.
Unfortunately, the garden isn’t open at night, so the complete experience will have to remain in the imagination. But isn’t that a fitting place, in a way, for a tiny corner of this immense city in which one might still discover a moment of crispness at a bend in a garden path on an August afternoon?