Sunday, February 17, 2008
My garden is in the first ridge of hills above the Delaware River, on a slope above the Lokatong Creek, a rocky stream tumbling down the three miles to the river.
This land has been inhabited for thousands of years. Over a much longer period, the landscape has been shaped by geologic processes, erosion and the other effects of weather, and by the animals and plants that have lived on it. People too have shaped it. This was the home of the Lenni Lenape Indians before European settlement; they very probably hunted the forests that surround my garden and camped along the Lokatong Creek just below our house. Then European hunters, and later, settlers came, learned to live with the Lenni Lenape - William Penn wrote of them with respect, even as he took their land. Eventually the new people exterminated the Lenni Lenape, built stone houses we still live in over 200 years later, cleared fields for farming, making the ubiquitous stone rows I see in the forest around my garden, built mills along the creeks for grinding grain. Soldiers of the American Revolution traveled throughout these hills, starved, sought shelter here, were part of Washington's crossing of the Delaware about 20 miles to the south. In the 19th century, descendants of the European settlers introduced new cultural artifacts of the early industrial revolution, constructing canals along both sides of the Delaware as need for commerce and better transportation grew, and using the water to power their factories. Then the steam engine and railroad turned those vital industries into history. And the industrial revolution moved to other places.
I'm trying to make a garden that is appropriate to this place - that acknowledges the geology and forces that shaped the land, its layers of history, the cultural landscape shaped by human beings, ecological processes, and native plants and animals. How can a garden be affected by such history and cultural change? I'm exploring this concept in a book of essays, Vista: the culture and politics of gardens, edited by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury. Two essays in particular resonate with my desire to make a garden appropriate to its place: Psychotopia by Tim Richardson, which attempts to reinterpret "sense of place" in new terms, and NYC WTC 9/11: The Healing Gardens of Paradise Lost by Lorna McNeur, which explores some of the symbolic and cultural issues surrounding the transformation of Manhattan's landscape before and after 9/11.
Today few people can conceive of gardening as serious work. The very thought is absurd to most Americans, where a perfect lawn and attractive foundation plantings reduce the concept of garden to tidiness, practicality, and self satisfaction.