The intimate garden: Creating gardens of power and meaning
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
At one time or another we have all been touched by a place. It may have happened when you rounded a corner of a trail that revealed a grand vista in the Rocky Mountains. Or perhaps you remember being moved by a hidden alcove in a Mexican cathedral, lit by votive candles. Many non-native Austinites, like me, can certainly relate to where we were when we fell in love with this place, perhaps after a dip in the shockingly cool waters of Barton Springs Pool. We remember these places because at some deep level their spirit satisfies our desires. As humans, we need the embrace of place, and, in a world that is increasingly being filled with the generic, it may be up to us to create special places of our own.
For many of us, our gardens are the places that offer us the sense of connection we long for. My garden gives me a place where I can get my hands dirty, to literally embrace the cycles of the earth, but I also think of it as a canvas where I am shaping my emotional or spiritual future. I say this because my design choices—opening up a view here, or narrowing a path there—actually impact the way that I, or visitors, will respond to the spaces on a deep level. For example, a garden room hidden from view may elicit surprise and curiosity from guests when they first discover it; and its sense of isolation may invite them to spend a few quiet moments meditating on the unexpected twists and turns of life.
A good garden design technique is to inventory the kinds of emotional reactions you long for and then to match your desires with garden places that will open your spirit to those kinds of experiences. My favorite garden book, The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, by Julie Moir Messervy, uses a similar method of exploring the possibilities of creating garden spaces that work on us in an intimate fashion. In her book, Messervy explores what she calls “archetypal landscapes,” spaces that are universally evocative and meaningful to humanity. When I first read her descriptions of these archetypal places, I couldn’t help but think back to my own encounters with similar places and how powerfully my life had been shaped by them.
I do not have enough space here to explore each of the archetypes described by Messervy, but, I’ll share a few of her observations because I think you will find them useful, especially if you share my conviction (or obsession) that the garden path is actually a pilgrimage route.
Messervy starts her exploration of landscapes by diving into the sea—the archetypal symbol for everyone’s first landscape, the womb. In Messervy’s words, this is the landscape of “withinness” or “immersion.” In our gardens this can be expressed by a water feature, or perhaps by a great sweep of grass, or a dense thicket of bamboo. This is for those of us who seek to be “engulfed” or who long for the softness and solace that water offers our senses.
Another archetype described by Messervy has a particular resonance with me: the cave. She argues that humans love and respond to “nooks and crannies.” She says “berths, burrows, and hollows feel like our elemental home.” In my garden, which I have named Possumhaw Hollow, I have created my own cave, a circle of native Possumhaw Hollies that one day will cover a favorite sitting area in the garden. I look forward to the day when I can peer out on the world from my private little space surrounded by branches laden with bright red berries.
Another or Messervy’s archetypes is the island, which is a symbol of “awayness from the world.” Even if we have never experienced a true island, the word is loaded with significance. To Messervy, islands “represent safe and secret havens” and can be represented in the landscape by “a large specimen tree surrounded by lawn, a platform in the middle of a forest, a picnic blanket in a field.” These clearly defined spots center us and offer a sense of retreat.
Messervy explores other archetypes: the harbor, the mountain, the promontory, and the sky, and relates each to our own garden spaces. It is up to us to choose which kinds of spaces we will create and how we will interpret them, but you will be surprised how often your guests will respond as you do to your islands and seas.
This search for the intimate is, I believe, related to our search for the sacred. The following story is excerpted from another book, The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture, by Anthony Lawlor. It illustrates just how intimate a garden can be when it is invested with love and meaning:
“The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu built a teahouse on the side of a hill overlooking the sea. Three guests were invited to the inaugural tea ceremony. Hearing about the beautiful site, they expected to find a structure that took advantage of the wonderful view. After arriving at the garden gate, they were perplexed to discover a grove of trees had been planted that obstructed the panorama. Before entering the teahouse, the guests followed the traditional custom of purifying their hands and mouths at the stone basin near the entry. Stooping to draw water with a bamboo ladle, they noticed an opening in the trees that provided a vision of the sparkling sea. In that humble position they awakened to the relationship between the cool liquid in the ladle and the ocean in the distance, between their individuality and the ocean of life.”
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