Watching Natalie Bauder skip through her garden, hair flying, light as a sprite, one thing comes to mind: Alice. She's Alice in her own little Wonderland.
Her Wonderland's in Wyndmoor, but it could be anywhere.
Natalie loses herself in it with intensity, as 6-year-olds do, playing with her imaginary friends, Buzzy and Rudy, putting on one-girl shows about nothing at all, and tearing around the spiral path as if she's Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
"The White Rabbit says, 'I'm late, I'm late, I'm late for a date,' " Natalie confides in a sing-song, "and if they're really late, the Queen of Hearts will chop their heads off! Bam!"
The garden was her mother's idea, although her engineer dad, Tim, happily went along. Laura Bauder is a graphic designer and longtime fan of several writers - Dr. Seuss, the pen name for children's book author Theodor Seuss Geisel; Maurice Sendak; and Lewis Carroll, the nom de plume for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865.
Bauder enjoys the intricate illustrations of these childhood classics, their quirkiness and outright silliness. But most of all she loves their openness, their joy around the idea that kids, and grown-ups, are free to "go off into a different world and find these little fantasy places."
Over Natalie's bed, Bauder painted a kite with a favorite Dr. Seuss quote: "I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells."
For the garden, Bauder consulted the brain cells of a couple of designers, who suggested creating "ruins" or a fairy forest. She toyed with the idea of a maze, knot garden, or labyrinth. But nothing rang the bell till she shared her Alice fascination with Matthew Sandy, a designer at Laurel Hill Gardens in Chestnut Hill.
"His eyes got big. He got it," Bauder says.
Sandy, a 2008 graduate of Philadelphia University and a member of its first class of landscape architecture majors, grew up in the woolly outdoors of Michigan's Upper Peninsula thinking he'd be a soccer star some day.
A high school drafting class turned him on to architecture, but in college, he found himself way more interested in what was outside a building than what was inside.
"With my love of plants and nature and appreciation and love that I started having for design, I realized landscape architecture was right for me," says Sandy, who worked at Laurel Hill through college and has now designed about a dozen gardens himself.
Safe to say, none were like Natalie's.
Sandy doesn't remember reading Alice as a child, but he did see the marvelous 1951 Walt Disney movie, one of about 20 film and TV adaptations. He watched scenes from the movie on YouTube and found his imagination piqued by Alice's slow-mo spiraling down the hole.
The garden measures 16 feet by 32 feet. Sandy designed a spiral path of pebbles to mimic Alice's fall. A ribbon of recycled green and amber garden glass symbolizes the river on whose banks Alice and her older sister are lounging at the start of the book.
A boxwood hedge separates the "river" from the plantings, which include wild bleeding heart and wandlike alliums, big-leaf ligularia and jumbo hydrangeas, dramatic hostas, ferns, and a storm-damaged redbud tree. The tree veers to the left and has purplish-red, heart-shaped leaves, giving it an appropriately strange, Wonderland look.
"My big idea around the edge of the spiral is that as the boxwoods grow into each other, they'll be clipped into a squared-off hedge," Sandy explains. "Then we have all these really big, unusual perennial textures behind it and over top of it."
The boxwood will be formal, like Alice's reality. The plants behind it will be "informal and whimsical and out of control, like Wonderland."
Such fun for the designer. "I strive for something different," Sandy says, an alternative to the ubiquitous homeowner menu of rhododendrons, azaleas and dogwood trees with pachysandra and English ivy underneath.
So perhaps we should check in with Natalie later on, to see how reality and fantasy are coexisting in her garden. In time, one part will grow more formal, the other more wild, not unlike the impulses in little girls (and boys) as they grow up.
Exactly like Alice, who for a brief moment inhabited the upside-down world of a Mad Hatter, Mock Turtle and Cheshire cat, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, and a maniacal Queen who so frustrates Alice that she spits out this perfect put-down: "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards."
Like a child growing into her adult self, Alice is 3 inches tall, then 9 feet high, and finally, right-sized, all the while pondering riddles with no solutions, tea parties without end, and clocks set forever at 6.
"Oh, I've had such a curious dream," she concludes with a sigh.
It's a dream Natalie can innocently enjoy, oblivious to the menacing undertones others find in this deceptively simple tale. And in her garden, she does so every day, often with made-up Buzzy and Rudy.
"I'm an only child so I have a lot of imaginary friends," Natalie announces to a visitor.
What if she'd had an older sister? Perhaps she would have sounded like Alice's big sister, who, in the very last paragraph of Carroll's book, sits on the riverbank pondering Alice's wild adventures:
" . . . she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the aftertime, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child life, and the happy summer days."
'Alice' at the Rosenbach
The Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-10 Delancey Place in Center City, has a sizable collection of Lewis Carroll memorabilia, including more than 500 letters and photographs and the author's own copy of the 1865 printing of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Rosenbach is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Sundays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Closed Mondays.
Admission: $10, $8 seniors, $5 students and children. Children under 5 admitted free.
For information, call 215-732-1600 or go to www.rosenbach.org.