Monday, October 11, 2010

ThinkinGardens: a Makeover

When I received an email notice this morning, I was reminded of the value of the redesigned ThinkinGardens website--a collection of essays, reviews, letters, and other writings about the significance of gardens in our world. The site has had a makeover that provides a much clearer overview of its content and far easier access to information of interest to readers. It's much easier to navigate. I recommend you try it out if you have an interest in the potential of gardens to be more than mere ornamental decorations or lifestyle amenities. Perhaps you're among those who want to see gardens returned to the kind of central position in cultural discourse that has prevailed in other times.

When I received email notice of the following essay by Mary Keen, I was reminded of how well the redesigned ThinkinGardens site works. It can even notify you of new content. Try it out. You will definitely find a UK orientation in most of the content, but ThinkinGardens is actively reaching out to other countries and cultures. Become a part of it.

I quote the Mary Keen article in full below (though I don't necessarily agree with it in all details), just to give a glimpse of the kind of thought-provoking thinking about gardens you will find at ThinkinGardens.

Otherworldly Gardens by Mary Keen

October 11, 2010

An occasional series discussing what makes a good garden. This piece is one of two by Mary Keen. The second part, ‘The practicalities of making a garden’  will be published shortly.

Photographs by Charles Hawes

Part One of ‘My favourite gardens and why they work.’

Writing about the emotions induced by gardens can be difficult. What I mean by ‘Otherwordly’ is not in the garden is a lovesome thing God wot category. For me, good gardens are places where human time stands still and you start to feel that there is something going on under the surface. If that doesn’t happen – if the garden doesn’t communicate some deep emotional message – then all the flowers and trickery are pointless. I want to find a way of getting people to see that what we see – the real tree or flower in real time or space – has a parallel and more important existence behind it. This isn’t an intellectual exercise – it’s about instinct.
I think children are aware of this and that we lose it with age. As a child, I was sent away to tiny school at a house where the resident children had outgrown their governess. It was an old fashioned place under the Berkshire Downs. I was eight, and as a dare one summer morning I let myself out of the house to run round the garden before we were supposed to get up. In the kitchen garden the paths were lined with pinks (‘Mrs Sinkins’ probably); the smell and sense of being alone in this ordered place, where everything seemed to be waiting for the sun, made me stop. I picked a pink to prove the dare was done and then I hung about, thinking about how the garden had a life of its own. How it went on breathing the scent of flowers, even when there was no one there to enjoy them. The lingering, the stopping is important – after all, don’t we want to be in the place where the daily worries and preoccupations stop? I am interested in what opens the inner eye that children have, that makes you aware of what matters. Gardens are good at that.

I have been wondering if there is some universal factor in any art form which never fails to stir the soul, to open the inner eye. Is it truthfulness? I didn’t say truth because I wanted to avoid the cliché of beauty is truth. But I actually do mean truth. It can also be called unity of purpose, being true to the whole concept, the idea of what you are doing or making. Of getting the feel of what a place is about. The question to ask is, ‘what is here that is true, that is underneath the superficial things? What is here that matters?’

Once, I was driving through Windsor and the traffic was jammed so I made a detour and found myself at a place I hadn’t been to before. It looked intriguing, so I stopped the car and climbed the steps and only when I reached the top did I realise I had chanced on Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Runnymede memorial to President John F Kennedy, in Berkshire. The theory of association, much loved by 18th century garden makers demanded that you knew about Virgil or the paintings of Claude in order to trigger a reaction. Places that can communicate their story without anyone having to learn a language first, seem to me more powerful. If Runnymede can speak of death and memory to the uninitiated passer-by – if it could summon me from the car to experience something out of the ordinary – then that for me is a sign of ‘otherwordliness’.

The garden at Portrack House, (also known as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation) in Scotland, has been much discussed  and pictured, but the serpentine curves and mounds that Maggie Keswick Jencks made as she was dying (long before the fractal geometry add-ons) offer a similar flash of the transcendent. This is not memory so much as a reminder of what is true. (Memory can lead to the nostalgia trap, which is dire.) A reminder is real. It tells you what matters. And if you think about it, birth and death are perhaps the only otherwordly things that touch, that awake most people.

I went this summer to Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus at Boughton, Northamptonshire, in the rain and not in the best mood. When I asked Dan Pearson why some places held no magic (like the Alhambra for me) he suggested that it was important to be in the right frame of mind. At Boughton I wasn’t, but there are effects that transcend moods, weather and traffic jams – and Kim’s Orpheus, like Jellicoe’s Runnymede, was one of these. It is a place where you are hauled across the dividing line between the mundane and the spirit world, and you are confronted by your image and what lies below that, inside yourself. It is that power, that ability to possess your imagination, like Wordsworth’s sounding cataract, that seems to be the essence of any great work.

Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives, Cornwall, is another place where I feel connected to something otherworldly. In what is a really small garden, she made mass, space and light matter and in it her sculptures are an overwhelming presence. But one also feels a sense of the woman who thought about man’ s position in the landscape and with the way humans relate to nature. In her garden, the sculptures are humbling. Before I went, I didn’t even think I liked Barbara Hepworth, but like Runnymede and the Orpheus pool, her garden opened my inner eyes.

The Paul Nash painting of the Vernal Equinox is not about death, but life. It shows how spring transforms winter twigs. We never see it, but it is there. Nash makes it the miracle that it is and reminds us that we have forgotten. Nash, like Maggie Keswick Jencks, was dying. He was living on borrowed time and bottled air when he painted it. How often are we aware of the seasons changing and time passing in a garden? Renewal is one of the things that is implicit in nature.

I tried to stop thinking about Wordsworth when I was preparing this paper, but I kept colliding with him. He is the arch priest of otherwordliness, of seeing nature as a separate and intensely powerful entity. ‘The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion‘, he wrote. Like Wordsworth, I want places to possess me. I don’t want to look at a place; I want to be in it. Being possessed to the point of being out of your ordinary mind is where the best places take us. I get it by – or preferably in – the sea, and at dawn/dusk in my garden.
Wordsworth believed that ordinary people were transformed into poets when they reacted to landscape – he called them ‘silent poets’. There are some things which cannot be put into words. I believe that the best gardens, like many landscapes, can deliver the emotional charge which makes silent poets of us all.

Mary Keen - garden designer and writer

Comment? Email:


  1. James,
    I have been following ThinkGardens since I found out about it on your blog. There are far too few places where there is such stimulating garden dialogue. Thanks for reminding me. I just put myself on the email list. If I remember correctly, you have a nice essay in there as well.

  2. I've never heard of this, but I'll check it out.

  3. Michael,
    The email feature is a nice one. I like being reached out to.

  4. I've never heard about this either, but am definitely going to check it out...really interesting article.

  5. Scott,
    For me gardens are very much about emotion. I certainly agree with that. More than emotion, certainly, but about emotion. If you search around the ThinkinGardens site, I think you'll find things of interest to you.

  6. James,
    Thank you so much for putting this up on your site and recommending thinkingardens to your readers.

    You are quite right that we do wish to represent the thoughts and ideas, and hear serious discussion about gardens, from as wide a range of people and places as possible.

    We are proud to have several pieces from the US, including yours and if anyone else has a piece they think would be suitable, please get in touch with me. You can say the unsayable on thinkingardens!

  7. I'm so happy ThinkinGardens has updated their website - thanks for the notice! To be honest, I gave it up before because it was just too difficult to navigate and there was no good way to track new postings. By the way, I would be very curious to know which details of Mary Keen's essay you might not agree with? As you commented in your response to Scott, is it that good gardens are about more than just emotion?

  8. Anne,
    The real winning feature for me is getting an email when a new article, review or whatever is added to the site. That brings me in in an active way. And of course the changes make it so much easier to navigate. I hope readership and participation grows as a result.

  9. Garden Wanderer,
    You ask me what I don't agree with. I think I misspoke. My disagreement may simply have been a misunderstanding of terms. The following sentence bothered me: "I want to find a way of getting people to see that what we see – the real tree or flower in real time or space – has a parallel and more important existence behind it." At first, I thought Mary Keen was talking about some Platonic ideal, which isn't at all what I feel about gardens. But after re-reading her article, I now understand she's talking about another level of meaning and feeling behind or beyond the physical surface of things. So I, after all, see no disagreement. True, I don't believe gardens are only about emotion, but I don't think Ms. Keen is saying that either. Aren't words ambiguous?

  10. Thanks for this James. I have read a number of things on thinkingardens. I don't always agree but I am always interested. I haven't been recently enough to know the website has been redesigned but will definitely go back!

  11. elizabethm,
    How timely. I got an email just this morning announcing a new article by Tim Richardson, who always brings a breath of fresh air to any discussion. The new email notice feature is great!



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