The boredom imposed by our heavy snow cover is getting on my nerves. I've been planning changes for the spring--adding hornbeam (Carpinus betula) hedges and columns in my mind (above), planting a curved border of alder (Alnus gultinosa) and willow (Salix koriyanagi 'Rubikins') to screen the close-side view of our eight-foot-tall deer fence in an arc extending off the edge of the picture on the right, wondering how alder will take to hard pruning or coppicing (I chose it because it will grow in my extremely wet conditions), planning addition of extensive groundcovers of carex and low grasses. To what end all these plans? Why do I do it? Some practical reasons, certainly. Adding structure to contrast with and contain the wildness (aesthetic improvements), adding mystery by obscuring parts of the view, hiding an unattractive feature. Manipulation of the three-dimensional garden pallet. But this omits other important parts of the garden, at least for me.
A recent post on the Hegarty Webber Partnership blog, highly critical of those who think gardens must have a message, has been nagging at me. First I want to to say I only wish the American gardening scene entertained such a variety of ferment and conflicting attitudes toward gardening as we find in the UK, one aspect of which Lesley and Robert criticize on their blog. On this side of the Atlantic, we have a much more limited range of concerns--the predominant "how-to" approach to just about everything gardening, usually limited to the very practical (how to grow tomatoes, the seven best plants for a sunny border). Or to the politically correct: the native plant garden, the sustainable garden; even some, not up with current trends, want to know how to make an "English garden," whatever that is. In the US, we're very message oriented in a different, much more limited way. Nothing too artsy, nothing too serious, unless you're vegetable gardening, truly a profound undertaking on which the fate of the world apparently depends.
In the UK, the range of discussion is much broader, though they have silliness too. Over there, all of this can become highly personal, emotional, even intellectual, and frankly I find that stimulating. Of course, the UK has gardening personalities in numbers that far outdo us; that adds an entertaining overlay of innuendo, cattiness, and backbiting.
But to return to the nagging thought spurred by the Hegarty Webber blog, I'm considering whether I should feel guilty that I want my garden to have a message, or more correctly, messages. Why do I spend all this time planning changes in the garden? Why do I garden?
I'm reminded of a meeting with several engineers a few years back. We were discussing a proposal for new work when, out of the blue, I said I'd rather be gardening. One engineer asked me, "Do you do flower gardening or vegetable gardening?" I had no answer. I don't define gardening in that way. I answered, "Ornamental gardening," but that really didn't close the gulf of misunderstanding that existed between us. I found it difficult to express my feelings about gardening.
So what have I been doing in creating a new garden in these wet woods over the past five years? I think, first, I've been making a place where I can indulge my delight in plants and the process of plant growth. I, like most gardeners, am profoundly affected by plants and am moved almost to poetry to see them piercing the cold earth, growing, blossoming in spring. You can almost feel it, can't you? The bud swelling imperceptibly, the haze of color tinting the extremities of the trees where they touch the sky.
Then looking at the landscape, seeing the world at that larger scale, where individual plants, the earth itself, blend into a greater whole, a new level of complexity governs. A landscape can evoke pleasurable memories and sensations, or unpleasant ones (think Auschwitz, for example). Landscape is the world in which we live. Of course, our perception of landscape is different to different times and cultures. In 17th century Great Britain, wild and mountainous landscapes were frightening and to be avoided. These are the same mountainous prospects the Romantics taught us to see as sublime. Landscape evokes thoughts of past engagement and travels to near and distant places, routes of travel, maps, the shape of the land, its folds and creases, what that shape suggests as metaphor, and what it says, scientifically speaking, of the ancient past, of geology, and of time, both eons and seconds, constant change, a rivulet that will become a river in thousands of years, the low angle of late sunlight on the trunks of the trees as darkness comes on at end of day. A whole range of sensations, memories, thoughts converge in the experience of a landscape. Some sensual and emotional, some intellectual.
We want to imbue this landscape with meaning as a way of understanding our world. It's easy enough to find glib meaning in the unattractive or outright ugly aspects of landscape, as in a highway strip mall on its way to economic demise, or any of the many aspects of ubiquitous urban sprawl, easy enough to interpret such changes as a sign of social ill or economic failure, perhaps a critique of unfettered capitalism.
As gardeners today, most of us seek out "pretty" aspects of landscape (I ignore for now those "artists" who engage with the un-pretty). Consider the High Line, the new elevated urban park in New York City. This is one interesting example because it was an ambiguous "object" that some liked very much and others wanted to demolish. The High Line is interesting because it changed what many would have considered a waste, derelict industrial structure into a world class park, one that has opened to almost universal approval. On first take, you might think the making of the High Line was an act of redemption, because to some it was not "pretty"; it was an industrial relic. But pretty is a relative thing. To many, including myself, it was a potent symbol and a testament to how nature quickly reclaims the works of man (a little of Ozymandius here: "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"). Does the High Line have a meaning? Certainly. It's an urban pastoral. The abandoned elevated rail structure, simply because it was inaccessible and left alone, made itself into a wild garden through years of self-seeding and protection from disturbance high above the streets. Two men with vision and an organization capable of raising several hundred million dollars has, indeed, "redeemed" the High Line, but that redemption was really the prevention of its demolition and reconstruction as a safe, highly complex, and expensive urban jewel. But the amazing park that has emerged is nothing more than a refinement of what already existed (with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf, no less). So the High Line does have a meaning. But it's an ironic meaning, a retreat from the urban environment that created it, lacking the grittiness of the city in which it was born, elevated safely above the streets, with attendants and guards, with spectacular views, particularly at night, when it's safe as can be, unlike most big city streets. It seems we can find meaning almost everywhere we look.
I locate the garden somewhere between simple love of plants and the complex feelings we can have about landscape. The garden is a middle point, between the microcosm of the individual plant and the macrocosm of the landscape, and by extension the earth, the universe. In part, it's a place of protection, a safe haven, a place where "every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make him afraid." But it's more than that for me, and it failed to be that for many in the past. In fact, it has been the opposite. My garden is in a place where men, and women, witnessed struggle, failure, even genocide. The individual lives that ended on this land, the hopes and fears of the Native Americans who lived here, the hard lives of early white settlers can't be known specifically and in detail, but these people most certainly lived pleasantly and badly, and died, whether of violence, disease or old age, throughout these gently rolling hills. Not to recognize this is almost a desecration of the past. This is a place that has known pain and fear, and it is appropriate that a garden in this place gently remind us of that.
After this lengthy rumination, I must say I agree with much of what Lesley and Robert have to say in their blog post. They criticize those who say a garden must have a message, those who oversimplify in the name of belief, who aren't able to stop and smell the roses. A garden must first of all give pleasure. A crocus in blossom can just be a crocus in blossom. It doesn't have to stand for something else. But of course, it can. Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica, a classic of 20th century American poetry, comes to mind (yes, it really just popped into my head, its ending line). Just substitute the word "garden" for "poem" and you have it:
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean