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What does your garden mean?

I'm still thinking about the Hortus Palatinus. One thing I love about old gardens is that they were designed to mean, not just to be. It's one of the reasons that gardening was historically considered an intellectual pursuit; a labor of the mind rather than of the flesh.

We've lost more than just the ability to decipher the language of the Hortus Palatinus.

We seem unable to speak the language of meaning in the garden at all anymore.

And even if we did, would anyone understand? When you hear a modern gardener talk about meaning, they are usually speaking of a deeply personal expression; unlikely to be deciphered by a garden visitor or understood in the same way by anyone but them. One exception is the language of memorial, which we still speak. Is that enough? Should there, could there, be a new garden language?

It occurs to me that the symbology inherent in historic gardens was an expression of the importance of symbols in the larger culture, and that in turn was largely a result of illiteracy. Symbols were essential for communication. Might we come full circle in an age where visual imagery is replacing print, and young people feel more connected to the simple language of the graffiti tag, whose forms could easily become a parterre?

It should be remembered as well that the number of plants available to work with in the garden was a tiny fraction of those we have today. If Salomon de Caus had made a garden that was simply about his choice and arrangement of plant varieties, it wouldn't have been very big. Or very interesting. The increase in our plant vocabulary has led to a reduction of our other vocabularies, to a neglect of other purposes, other ideals in the garden.

I rarely see a modern garden that means. I wish I did.

(graffiti via writinginfaith)
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Jim said...

I haven't given symbology in contemporary gardens much thought, I don't even look for it. But I do when I look at classic older gardens. Not to keep harping on Villandry, but there was meaning in every plot and pattern of plantings - a music garden, a maze, the Love garden. The vegetable gardens had crosses worked in throughout, as well as plants that represented the monks that developed the French potager style.

This past summer, as I was laying out what I thought would be a checkerboard pattern of alternating stepable grasses and square pavers, I thought it looked much better at a 45 degree angle - a diamond pattern and ended up laying it out that way. Later, after it was done, I realized I had a diamond pattern in my fruit tree espalier, the lattice work in all my trellises, detail in my shingle pattern on my house and in the copper supports I have for my vegetables to climb on.

This summer I'm going to create my own potager. You've got me inspired to add symbols into the design - as well as to make sure there's a diamond shape in it!

kate said...

Have you read 'The Lost Garden', by Helen Humphreys? The book is set in England in 1941. It is about a women discovering a neglected garde. She discovered three gardens and had to discover what they meant through the choice of flowers. It is a beautiful book - think it is one of my favourite books of gardening.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

A parterre patterned on grafitti - fascinating concept. :^) Another possible reason for the decline in meaning in gardens is globalization. People from many different cultures now mix freely throughout the world, each bringing their own historical interpretation to symbols. For modern gardens to be able to convey meaning, new universal symbols need to become established. Unfortunately, most of the only widely established symbols are connected to corporate advertising - Nike "Swish" garden?

Sandy Carlson said...

This post makes me think of labyrinths. There is one in a neighboring town set at the top of a hill. The setting, the view, and the feel of the earth underfoot are every bit of the experience as the walk. And then there's the symbolism of that walk and the place of Wisdom at the heart of it.

Great post.

(This graffito is under an exit ramp, which was built over an old footpath that crossed a beautiful stream. It's no wonder to me the writers love this place. They take decent care of it, too!)

Claire Splan said...

The idea of gardens with meaning is one of the reasons I've developed an interest in memorial gardens recently. Whether public or private, memorial gardens are loaded with meaning and for that reason they seem to stay with me longer.

I've just begun taking a class in the history of gardening and I'm very happy to have stumbled across your blog. I'm really enjoying it.

Benjamin Vogt said...

This idea of symbol is key to what I see in environmnetla nonfiction eco theology, at least to these things being effective to create environmental awareness. BAsically, it seems to me, there's a call out to make our awareness of the earth be more on an equal level, and more inthe gut emotionally (not logically, that doesn't work, case in point public policy). The act of symbols in writing--or metaphor even--helps create a sort of equality among humans and "others," understanding, seeing the web of life, etc. Anyway, your post got me thinking about that. So much eco lit is harping at us, but helping us experience and learn life.

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