Tuesday 30 April 2013

Musings, Ramblings and reflections

A Garden with a Tale to Tell?

 Most of us are familiar with the notion of the garden being a restful place, a space we can unwind in, breathe out and relax. It does not have to be a garden as grandiose as at Versailles Palace or as horticulturally sophisticated as say, Hidcote Manor. Even a scruffy suburban back garden plot with a fine crop of bright yellow dandelion flowers amid the tall grasses of an overgrown lawn can have a soothing effect on a world weary spirit. All garden traditions have sprouted from a common idea, that is the garden originates from the idea of the garden representing an ideal place, a paradise. The word ‘paradise’ itself is derived from the Persian, pairidaeza , meaning ‘garden’. The pairidaeza formed a precinct a temple, the space surrounding a temple, through which one walked to arrive at the temple itself. In this way the garden was a means of preparing the visitor to enter the temple. From that notion we can get the idea that the garden was a means of affecting or changing a person’s perspective.

The use of symbolism in the garden also has a long history. The Romans for example created gardens that contained displays of topiary ranging from representations of temples and their attendant gods, to complex depictions of military victories. The Islamic garden is a formal space divided by narrow water rills into quarters, representing the four cardinal points of the compass. Hence the garden was seen as a representation of the world we live in. The Chinese also developed the use of symbolism to a high degree of sophistication, where rocks implied mountain peaks, and garden pavilions evoked poetical references.

Huangshan Mts, Anhui province, China

 The Japanese too employed symbolism freely in the development of their garden tradition. Here, revered scenic landscapes were re-created in garden settings, in Zen temple gardens rock arrangements evoked images of turtle and cranes (the ornithological variety!),

Paradise garden, Ryogen-in, Kyoto

and raked patterns of sand and gravel transformed themselves into images of flowing water. In Georgian England gardens became ‘Elysian fields’ abounding with classical references amidst the grottoes and temples. The gardens were created to say a great deal about the nature and character their creators and owners.

I think this is a greatly underused facility of the garden today that deserves to be explored more deeply. For example a few years ago I created a garden for a spa in California,

Ox Herder garden, Osmosis Spa, California

 where a Buddhist parable (‘The Ox and the OxHerder garden at Osmosis Spa in Sonoma county) woven into the fabric of the garden, as the viewer progresses around the garden the ten stages of the parable are set out before them. Another garden I created in Spalding, Lincs, was based around a japanese folk tale Momotaro, or ‘The Peach Seed Boy’,

The elderly couple who discover the peach, depicted by two tall stones, Momotaro garden, Lincs

The 'bad guys' lair

a stirring tale of a battle between good and evil forces (the good guys win in the end!). At the Kaetsu Centre in Cambridge, an educational establishment founded by a Japanese philantrophic family there are several small garden areas created with members of theJapanese Garden Society, each has a ‘story’ to tell; one section is a simple rock arrangement representing the Kaetsu Foundation founders,

Founder's Garden, Kaetsu Centre, Cambs

another section represents the Chōshū Five (five young Japanese who were sent to study at imperial College, London in 1863, two of whom became important political figures in Japan),

Chōshū Five garden

 and yet another part of the garden represents the symbolic interconnection of two island states.

Interior trayscape representing island states

My own passion in creating gardens is to borrow ideas and inspiration from Japan where I studied garden making. There is nothing particular in creating narrative gardens that implies they have to be derived from that tradition. Land artists have been doing similar things for a number of years. Also there is nothing to prevent someone from introducing more personal elements of a narrative into part of a garden. The use of symbolic elements is simply a way of utilising the capacity of a garden to engage in a dialogue with the person who experiences it. The garden remains a garden, it will always be a place where we can seek solace, pleasure and contentment, though by exploring its expressive potential in this way we can allow it to reach out further and in so doing engage us in a deeper, even more intriguing manner.