Saturday, October 13, 2012

Faulkner's place

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer 
than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

- Light in August, 1932

In this opening passage to Light in August, William Faulkner is drawing a distinction between the lasting effects of early memories formed before language and self-conscious "knowing" exist. I doubt Faulkner thought much about gardens, except as symbol or literary device, but his recognition of the power of early memory to shape an individual has bearing, for me, on the nature of emotional response, and by extension, on emotional response to the garden. I have my own inarticulate memories.

On a recent sad visit to Oxford, Mississippi, I visited Faulkner's home, not to see the house, but to walk the grounds which, especially near sunset, have a tranquility and quietness any garden might hope for.

Spacious grounds

The garden is very simple--sky, space, trees, derelict remnant of a long lost rose garden, lines of ragged privet hedges. In years past, I might have doubted whether this place could properly be called a garden, but now know it can.

Vacant brick-lined beds mark the old rose garden, now moss covered in the deep shadow of trees, evoking thoughts of time past, layers upon layers of cultures mostly forgotten. Like a palimpsest, the substance is wiped away, but the outlines remain.

Rose garden

These scattered bricks make a profoundly evocative garden that far surpasses any actual rose garden that might have existed in this place.

The old, straight cedars (Juniperus virginiana) measure off the large space, giving sense of scale ...

House through trees

... and they frame the sky. Light and sky are, in fact, a central theme of this happenstance garden. Everywhere you walk the sky opens through apertures in the trees, and light floods in, making dark shadows appear even darker ...

Sky encircled by trees

... and the effects of low sunlight at this late hour and this late season are everywhere apparent. Just look at the chiaroscuro-like quality of these images ...

House, circa 1840

Privet hedge

Culturally, the subjects of the images take us back beyond the rose garden to even earlier times, suggested by the modest house of a beloved black servant ...

Another life, another race, another story

... and to an even older time when this land was inhabited by native people who had no concept of ownership of the land ... and even further back, to wilderness itself.

Ancient grape vine

It's fitting that our exit should be not through some wrought gate or formal entryway, but by an almost invisible path through a tangled green hedgerow.

Hedgerow path to the car park

"He ranged the summer woods now, green with gloom, if anything actually dimmer than they had been in November’s gray dissolution, where even at noon the sun fell only in windless dappling upon the earth...

- The Bear


  1. That 'rose garden' is extraordinary. The organization that runs the house and grounds has shown so much sensitivity in not restoring it to flowers or any other kind of planting.

    1. I think I've made occasional visits to Faulkner's place for about 40 years and I'm very happy that with changes in ownership (to the University of Mississippi) the caretakers and planners have continued to treat the land with a very light hand. The privet hedges have actually improved, without becoming beautiful manicured hedges, and the rose garden has grown more moss. Let's hope this approach continues.

  2. I love abandoned gardens, they have a special feel about them so magical. I suspect if you had been in England some well meaning heritage trust would have reinstated the rose garden etc and something would have been lost.

    1. Your post reminds me of Dan Pearson's description of the overgrown garden he so loved in his childhood. I practically grew up in the cemetery in Canton, Mississippi, which really does resemble Faulkner's garden (damp, bricks, moss). Let's hope no one tries to plant petunias or marigolds.

  3. What an organic walk through the garden, I can almost hear mother nature patiently taking back what belongs to her... very beautiful.

    1. The house is surrounded by 29 acres of pristine woodland. Only four of them are "manicured" (i.e., mowed). It's wonderful to watch the line between the wild and the minimally cultivated.

  4. This was a moving post. I'm a big fan of Faulkner. Yoknapatawpha was such a real place to me. It felt so much like the small town in Alabama my family is from. But the most endearing aspect of Faulkner to me is--and this post touched on this beautifully--his ability to make the landscape be a character in itself.

    Whether it is pictures of your garden or travels in the south, I love following your journey to find the emotional core of a garden or a place. I can think of no worthier crusade. We are all enriched for it.

    1. Thomas, you make a very important point. Faulkner does make the landscape a character, or something even larger than character. When he describes the land, he's doing something much deeper than giving a visual description. Of course! He created Yoknapatawpha County, with its own landscape, people, and history.

  5. Thanks for giving us the tour and for your beautiful photos! I'm basking in the moods and quiet of the place.
    Best wishes,

    1. And thank you. As a 67-year-old gardener, I'm always interested in exploring "low maintenance" gardens.

  6. Were the trees planted around Faulkners time. He never had the opportunity to appreciate them as you or have other mature trees expired through the decades and been replaced?

    The grounds look a very quiet place, perhaps perfect at a sad time.

  7. Many of the trees were there and quite large when I first saw the place in the early 1970s. Faulkner died, I think, in 1962, so he would have lived with mature trees. In checking, I find Juniperus virginia live 150 to 200 years, so these probably date from the time the house was built before the Civil War.

    A perfect place to walk in a sad time. It evokes sadness, I think, though that may just be my melancholy sensibility.

  8. James, this visit to William Faulkner's garden, as it is, as it's been allowed to continue ( without great maintenance ) evokes a reality for me that says much more than a "re-creation" would have.
    I like that there are remnants of the past, not a way, this takes me back to the many pasts more than a concoction would have.
    I like gardens that aren't striving to be something, where you feel you've inadvertently stumbled backwards, into the past, where they didn't do makeovers.

  9. Faisal, I agree with you completely. There are sometimes scheduled tours of the house and grounds, but it's completely open to anyone who wants to visit from dawn to dusk (no tours required). And the lack of any explanatory signs is a blessing. The landscape speaks quietly, and if not always clearly, you can easily find explanations in published or Internet sources. Reminds me of the unimproved St. Andrews Bower.

    1. Oh yes, St Andrews Bower. It still exists, if at some distance. Perhaps, before too long, I'll be able to publish something meaningful about it!



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