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?