Archive for September, 2007

a personal parabola

Well. As many long time readers of this blog are aware, there are often long pauses between thoughts at this space. This summer I was unusually preoccupied. With the inevitable months-long preparations for a wedding which finally took place on July 29. Which is sort of an excuse for not gardening or writing about it. BUT, something happened one morning a few days before the wedding, beginning with my reading an article by Alice Rawsthorn about a rather famous English garden, on the estate of the rather famous garden designer and writer Penelope Hobhouse’s son Niall Hobhouse. The article intrigued me as it concerned a bit of a dust up over the razing of an old walled garden on the estate. It was Niall Hobhouse’s idea to bulldoze the site, leaving the wall intact, and invite anyone to submit a design for a new garden; the Hadspen Parabola garden competition has the British gardening world in a tizzy. The controversy became so heated that it piqued the interest of the New York Times (where I read Rawsthorn’s article, published originally in the International Herald Tribune).
The controversy, as Rawsthorn describes it, is not only about scraping a famous garden off the face of the earth but about who can or should design gardens, how garden plans are chosen and who owns the finished product. Garden designers of the kind typically profiled in gardening magazines, and who dominate the field of garden books, have traditionally been independent professionals who create commissioned works for private landowners. Landscape architects, on the other hand, typically design public spaces. Rawsthorn notes that public competitions, a common practice in the design and architecture world, are rare in gardening.
There were some lovely photos of the old Hadspen garden as well as a drawing of a proposed plan, designed by an architectural firm, that envisioned a mass of zig-zag paths covering the hillside garden site. And there was a photograph of the bulldozed site, looking upslope to the old brick wall on the horizon of the hill, and the parabola of bare dirt that was once a garden.
That bare dirt was irresistable. It is the gardener’s curse, and cure. An idea came to me, of course, about how to inhabit that unusual sweep of hillside with it’s old wall limning the curve of the hill. The wall, first of all, is how gardens begin, a “geard” being an old English word for an enclosed space, or yard, for flowers and vegetables. Entering a garden is a kind of journey to a very human place. Even though we think we are there to “see Nature” what we really are seeing is an idealized human self represented by an ordered wilderness. Secondly, gardening is about dirt and Earth. And yet dirt – the source of garden life – is rarely visible in gardens.
So I grabbed my thoughts and sat down at my computer and wrote a garden design. Yes, wrote. I cannot draw. The Hadspen Parabola competition was asking for a design concept and concept was the only thing I had in mind. I had no idea how this idea might get manifested in a patch of dirt in Somerset, on an island far away. The competition entry could contain an explanation of no more than 300 words. That’s about what I had written. In a tinier nutshell, the idea was this:

the existing garden wall, an open meadow, greensward or lawn, and a continuous path or series of paths, one of which leads to and terminates at an excavated well or grotto or quarry in the center of the hillside, placing the wanderer deep beneath the surface of the garden.

The garden concept is called “Imagine Eden” and my explanation included a sort of poetic journey round the garden….

Imagine standing on a hillside looking up and seeing the earth and sky separated by a wall
In the beginning there was the wall and the wall created Eden. The wall limns a parabola, curved in response to the curve of the slope. One steps through the gate and perceives that true nature is now without, but within is the garden.
Imagine an opening in a dark forest, ahead a bright sward illuminated by sunlight
She spied a gate, ajar, amid brambles and wild rose canes, and entered into the garden. Nothing delights the human eye and heart more than a small open space in the dark forest of the mind, a place in the sun to sit and regard the effulgent and the sublime, even a flower.
Imagine a path down which the wanderer will discover soil and the core beneath the garden’s brilliant skin simply by walking into deep earth
The path spirals past the wall and then through the meadow, meanders along groves of shimmering trees and through beds of bright herbs and flowering plants, then descends beneath the soft clods of dirt to the realm of roots and worms and burrowing creatures, and finally to the heart of the earth, conceived in stardust, a mote in the eye of the edgeless universe.

As for the plants and such, I simply added a sentence, “Plants and other garden features, including accessories and appurtenances, typical of garden styles since the Middle Ages should be used freely”.
In order to enter a design, I had to get an anonymous entrant pseydonym, via email, from the website (it’s BAMPOPO, ??). It took me all day to make my printer approximate some European standard paper size (kind of like “legal” but not), get it packaged and addressed, and mailed out to arrive in England by the deadline two days later. I won’t tell you how much the postal fee was.
Last week, I got an email message from the people at Hadspen requesting an electronic version of my design entry for the second round of judging. I have to admit I’m shocked that my crazy idea was read, much less voted on by a panel of judges. But I am pleased that something so untraditional would be considered in the land considered by many gardeners – Americans especially – to be the epitomy of traditional gardening.
And did I mention it was my wedding?