Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Woodland shadows

 Midway through life's journey, I found myself lost in a dark wood.
- Inferno, Dante Alighieri

"Woodland was once the predominant vegetation on much of the earth's landmass. In clearing so much for agriculture and settlement, the human race has created conditions much more to our liking, for we have an ambiguous relationship with trees and woodland. There is something primeval about mature woodland; it is a habitat in which we wonder at the majesty and diversity of nature, but at the same time do not feel quite at home. It is almost as if there is an aspect of the collective unconscious that makes us feel on edge when surrounded by trees."
- from Natural Garden Style, Noel Kingsbury

My garden, in an open clearing surrounded completely by a wall of trees, isn't always a comforting place to be. Though it's a bright sunny site, particularly in the morning, and a peaceful woodland setting, with the sound of the Lockatong Creek clearly audible at most times of year, I sometimes feel a sense of unease, particularly when alone -- an emotional undertone that colors the experience of being in the garden, a subtle feeling, one that is simply a part of being in this place. There are certainly moments of beauty, of peace, delight, and the miraculous sense of constant change as the wet prairie plants grow with amazing rapidity, continuously changing the profile of the garden, its colors and textures, as the seasons advance. But that feeling of unease always returns, lingering in the background.

"On edge when surrounded by trees" - Kingsbury puts it so simply. The woodland surrounding my garden is so tight and close, with trees leaning out over the edge of the garden, that the open savannah-like garden area always feels a little too closed in--threatened, if you will--by the forest, so eager to retake the land, to make it into forest again. To return it to its natural state, at least what would be its natural state in this climate, geological setting, and time.

Kingsbury's quotation points to one very  common experience of humans to woodland, and I think we all can relate to this feeling, walking through a forest, sometimes stumbling through tangles of undergrowth, sometimes walking smooth paths through grand halls of majestic trees, then suddenly breaking into the sunlight of an open glade. That is a welcome, a pleasant, and a safe feeling. On a deeper, more symbolic level, the forest can come to represent a host of meanings to us - in Dante's case, a condition of being spiritually "lost," unable to find the right path, the way to safety. These are such common reactions to the experience of woodland and forest, and such long-established conceits in our culture, literature and arts, that it seems almost willful to focus only on the beauty and fragility and peace of the woodland experience when, frankly, the woods can frighten us. Consider Hansel and Gretel.

There is something quintessentially American about this too, at least in this place. As my own  ancestors moved, with each generation, from east to west during the early settlement of this continent (or "taking" of this land, one might more accurately say), they repeated a pattern of settlement that became a motif of western migration, moving into new land, clearing the land of trees first of all, for safety and for utility, to make farming possible, to create pastureland for animals, to create visibility so danger could be seen from a distance. One could ask why the emotions that accompanied this experience are not entirely appropriate to an American garden. At least this is one common historical context, one we can play with, or play against, as we explore the making of a garden.

I relate this unease with the forest, as Kingsbury points out, to something almost like a collective unconscious, but also to a deeply buried, and unresolved, habit of thought, a deep fear of the unknown and unknowable, and the need to find safety in control, to what has become a flight in our current culture into the superficial, something that has taken as one of its prime symbols the American suburban lawn, a smooth, featureless surface of green with no purpose whatever, other than to say, "Don't fear me, don't think I'm different, I'm like you, I'm no threat." Perhaps I exaggerate, or overstate the case, but I do believe there is a truth here too.

This Sunday morning, with the bright sunlight streaming down onto the snow, lighting the white cover deep into the forest, as my thoughts turn to spring, plants emerging from their dank, wet dormancy, the tall wirey flowering stems of the Darmera peltata and hybrid Petasites that will rise in a few weeks (among the earliest clear signs winter is over), to again starting work in the garden, the planting to come, I'm still aware of the looming woods and a sense of a presence, an immanence, out there, invisible, but felt.

 Awakening Filipendula rubra 'Venusta', irises, Rudbeckia maxima in spring - life 
bursting forth against a background of dark wood.

This isn't to say I don't enjoy the garden, that I don't find meaning in the annual struggle with the challenges it sends my way, the planning to give it a form that is appropriate to this wooded place while also setting it clearly apart as a cultivated garden, naturalistic though it may appear, that I don't find it "beautiful" at times, though beautiful with a significance beyond simple ornament and diversion.

The high today is predicted to be 55F, the warmest day in weeks, the snow is melting, at last, and though there are as yet few signs of real spring, I know the brightness and warmth are starting changes that will bring renewal.The garden largely cares for itself because it is planted appropriate to this place, to use that overused word, it is sustainable, continually looking forward to future springs, yet in careful balance with its past, historically, culturally, and psychologically recalling what came before, the idea of being lost and alone, of fear and suffering, then suddenly breaking into the sunlit clearing.

On edge when surrounded by trees, indeed. Where to go from here?


  1. James,
    That was a very moving essay. Looking to the past, the meaning and/or purpose of the garden seems very clear. I often wonder what exactly is the purpose of the garden in the early twenty-first century and how should my own garden reflect the time and place that I live in. I try to be thoughtful and keep moving forward hoping I will learn where to go next.

  2. What a beatiful and thought-inspiring essay, James. The development of a garden from a clearing is logical and natural, especially here in the US where trees grow so amazingly tall. As a Scandinavian, I've always loved trees even very near the house, something that has been common there for a long time. After moving to Seattle I felt for the first time overwhelmed and almost a bit scared by the huge trees here; they seemed to loom over me filling the sky, and when storms come, they are downright dangerous. Still, it is sad to see them all being cut down, which seems to be the case all too often; I have no empathy for the empty, shaved lawn-only gardens of so many suburbs here. There should be something left of the original nature even in the suburbs; how can we otherwise tie the gardens to their environment?

  3. I found this a very interesting post. I can relate to the feelings you describe of being in a wood. I have been to places and found myself alone and surrounded by trees, maybe swaying in a gentle breeze and it does create a certain emotion in you, a certain unease

  4. Michael,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I don't really understand "purpose" within the context of garden, unless we're talking of vegetable gardening, but that may be my blind spot - one of many I'm sure. I think the garden should be appropriate to its place and conditions regardless of the century, though I think you're getting at some new approach to the garden appropriate to our time. That seems a difficult challenge, one unfortunately beyond my ability to think at this late hour.

  5. Intercontinental Gardner,
    Those shaved lawns are, I'm afraid, an emblem of loss of any understanding or connection with nature. A fitting symbol for the state of the earth and the rapacious nature of the human race.

    I take it that you don't have such large trees in Scandinavia? I've only been to Iceland, where the trees were, of course, quite small.

  6. patientgardener,
    Thank you for confirming my feelings about being in the woods. They can spook you at times, not invariably, not all the time, but they can create that feeling of unease.

  7. Perhaps our feelings for open, park-like space developed where we became human, in the Great Rift Valley. We like the openess, but want the occasional tree to climb, evading predators. It could all be buried, down in some remote strand of DNA.

  8. Yes, Les, that's a theory I'd like to believe. It explains feelings that run deep, and that we have ample evidence of. So far, only a theory, unproven, but still it's an explanation has a practical meaning for us. Even if we're not sure of the cause, we know the pleasure of coming on that clearing in the woods.

  9. I do recognise the sense of unease you describe. My aunt lived for many years in Rye in New Hampshire. Her garden had been carved out of the forest and had just that mixture of beauty and occasional unspoken threat. Now I have a friend here in Wales whose garden is up against a dark conifer forest high up on the Denbigh moors. That too unsettles me: the sense that you could be approached without knowing anyone was there. Up here I have the view. It may be hard to grow things but you would have to try pretty damned hard to creep up on me!

  10. And what a view you have, judging from the photo at the top of your blog! I'm learning to adjust to the unsettling aspects of my situation, and to see positive attributes in it--a window into the past. And rich symbolic value.

  11. I liked this post! I think there is a lot about us being also animals. I have a two year old girl so I often get to see Bambi... it shows this so clear in the movie: the deer go to graze in the prairie, but the male dear is looking at them from the woods, where he is hidden but at the same time see all the scene. The group is exposed, but also near the woods to where they can go and take refuge if the male deer scream.
    What I mean: the woods can be frightening some times because you know you can be seen without seeing, but also provides "contention" (I hope that is an english word... sorry, but I mean to feel surrounded with a feeling of comfort), a place where to hide for protection.

  12. Great to hear from you, Amalia. Yes, that's it. The woods can be a refuge and a source of danger. Interesting that you point out we may have these ambiguous feelings because, like the deer, we are animals. Indeed, our "memory" of these places, and the emotions associated with them, may be so old that they have their origins far back, before we even evolved to be human. I'm not sure what you mean by "contention" but the word in English may be "contentment."

    For some reason, your message also reminds me that "woodland edge" is one of the very clearly defined plant habitats, one given considerable attention in Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl's classic work, Perennials and their Garden Habitats. I think there's a lesson there for me--somewhere.



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