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The Value of Criticism

February 22nd, 2021 | 4 Comments »

Recently an article titled “Gardens Need Criticism” was posted on the garden website Veddw. Written by Veddw’s garden maker Anne Wareham and originally published in Garden Design Journal in 2002, the article prompted me to think about the art of critiquing gardens and the art of receiving critiques.

Last year a well-informed group of landscape architects and designers visited Glen Villa. I invited comments, and at the end of the visit one person quietly made a suggestion about a section of Timelines, the trail I’ve been working on for the last few years.

His comment concerned Mythos. There’s not enough of it, he said. It’s too short. The path doesn’t lead anywhere.

 

Many people walking the trail ignored the sign pointing to Mythos and continued along the main trail.
A sign pointing to Mythos led only a short distance into the woods. Most people walking the trail ignored the sign and continued along the main trail.

 

He was right. A barely visible path led from the main trail into the woods and ended at the small seat you see at the left in the photo below.

 

chapter 6-158

 

I expected walkers to notice that faint path and to follow it to reach the low seat, constructed from corrugated tin with a polished slice of wood on the top. I expected them to sit down and peer into the mirror on the ground in front of them. Slightly tilted, they would see themselves reflected against a backdrop of trees and sky. This, I hoped, would make them think about what it meant to see themselves in this way. At best, it might prompt questions about how we relate to our surroundings, or about vanity, or about self-examination and the search for self-knowledge.

 

Here I see myself photographing my reflection.
Here I see myself photographing my reflection, not to produce an image fit for a glossy magazine but to make myself part of the picture.

 

I based this arrangement on an experience I had when visiting the thought-provoking Italian garden, Il Bosco della Ragnaia. There, in a secluded spot, visitors are invited to look down into a natural depression in the ground, to ask a silent question, and to wait for the oracle to answer. I did as instructed, and received an answer that startled me with its succinct encouragement. At Delphi, some fifty or so years earlier, I did something similar. There the oracle produced a less helpful, typically cryptic response to my question. But the memory of the places and acts remained strong.

When the visitor to Glen Villa suggested that the brief detour I had made wasn’t enough, I knew immediately that he was right. The path didn’t lead anywhere —  physically or intellectually. Mythos was a big idea and I was missing an opportunity to explore it thoroughly.

Over the fall and winter, I began thinking about myths in a more focused way. I thought back to my original motivation for adding the sign itself — which was to offer a choice. People could continue on the main track that led to Orin’s Sugarcamp, where history as we knew and had lived it was memorialized, or they could turn off to experience an alternate way of thinking. If they chose the side path, they would head into a forest that looked and felt ancient, like a place our ancestors might have inhabited, where the beliefs we now label superstitions shaped a different view of the world.

 

Moss, ferns and decaying stumps make up this part of the woods.
Moss, ferns and decaying stumps make up this part of the woods.

 

Since the sign pointing to Mythos came immediately after The Forms, an installation based on the ideas of early Greek philosophers, using Greek mythology as a guide to further explore the idea of Mythos versus Logos seemed an obvious choice. Yet so many of those stories are not female friendly and I did not want to perpetuate the belittling view that demoted Hera, the earth mother, into being merely the spouse of Zeus.

Offering an alternate reading of familiar tales was the project I set myself.  But I knew that I had to build on the familiar — the tale of Medusa turning men to stone, a jealous Athena transforming a young girl who bragged about her weaving into a spider, Narcissus becoming transfixed by his own image.

A spider web fit within the context of the woods so I set out to make one.  Experimenting on a small scale gave me a chance to learn how to make a larger web and to find a good place to put it.

 

A rough sample small enough to carry around helped me choose the right location.
A rough sample small enough to carry around helped me choose the right spot for a big web.

 

A full-sized version is now waiting in the barn. We’ll install it between two trees once the snow has melted.

 

This photo gives an idea of the size of the web. It isn't finished here -- in fact, I was just starting to weave it when I took this photo.
This photo gives an idea of the size of the web. It isn’t finished here — in fact, I was just starting to weave it when I took this photo.

 

Men turned to stone are ready to be placed.

 

One of the seven stone figures I've made over the winter. To me they looks scary. Do you react the same way?
One of the seven stone figures I’ve made over the winter. To me they looks scary. Do they look that way to you?

 

Hera’s column, made from corrugated tin, is ready to be installed on top of a hill. Its elevated position is a testament to Hera’s importance and the letters that will appear at its base spell out a command that is also a play on words and the sounds they make.

 

The column to Hera and to the sounds that nature produces will go roughly where the four-wheel vehicle is.
The column to Hera will be installed roughly where the four-wheel vehicle is.

 

I’ve moved the mirror and column that the visitor criticiqued to a spot near the end of this section of Timelines, shortly before the kilometre-long path rejoins the original trail. At the junction I’ll erect a sign with the word Logos and an arrow pointing towards Orin’s Sugarcamp.

 

This may not be the final location but it is in roughly the right spot.
This may not be the final location for the oracle mirror but I like the implications of ending Mythos with self-examination, however interpreted.

 

Taking the place of the mirror and column at the beginning of Mythos is a rock shaped like an arrowhead pointing upwards. I’m not sure why this feels so appropriate — perhaps it is simply the beauty of the rock itself, and how perfectly it is positioned, at the start of a natural procession of trees that leads into the distance, an unplanted counterpart to the planted rows of crabapple trees that form La Grande Allée.

 

Talk about serendipity! What looks like a base for a sculpture was a rock actually in that exact spot.
Talk about serendipity! What looks like a base for a sculpture was a rock we found in that exact spot.

 

It’s possible that I would have developed Mythos without the helpful critique that the observant visitor made. It’s equally possibly that I wouldn’t. I accepted the criticism in the spirit it was given; I took it to heart because it came from an educated and experienced individual whose judgement I trusted. I thank him. Timelines is better for it.

The Past as Prelude

February 1st, 2021 | 1 Comment »
untitled (12 of 15)
The great English landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe got it right. What's past is past. But while it is over and done with, the past can't be ignored. Instead, Jellicoe said, we should "ponder on the past not as the past but as a pointer to the future." In troubled political times, this sounds like good advice.  It's equally good advice when applied to the land. When I began to work on the garden at Glen Villa some twenty years ago, history was the principle that guided me and it continues to be a powerful element,

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Goals and Resolutions

January 7th, 2021 | 10 Comments »
Chinook Sunrise is from the  Canadian-developed 49th Parallel series of roses.
In January last year, I laid out six garden goals for the year ahead, never believing I'd be able to achieve them all. I put them on paper nonetheless to give myself something to aim for and, to my surprise, I find that over the last twelve months I completed five of the six. This may be due to Covid-related restrictions that kept me closer to home, or it may be because I was intent on using the time well, but regardless of why, I'm pleased with what I managed to do. So, what

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Ruins and Recoveries

December 30th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
A triumphal arch, Roman style, was part of the landscape at Painshill, an early 18th century garden in England.
What can we say about 2020? Queen Elizabeth's Annus Horribilis comes to mind. So does the subject of ruin -- personal and business ruin, political ruin and the final ruin, death, which came this year for hundreds of thousands of people, more than we imagined possible when the pandemic began. But, Janus-like, ruins have a positive as well as a negative face. It may seem contradictory but history and the evidence of my own eyes tell me that to contemplate ruins is to contemplate the future as well as the past.

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Tree Hugging for Tree Huggers

December 21st, 2020 | 16 Comments »
Seen at the botanical garden in Sydney, Australia
Do you know when the phrase 'tree hugger' was coined? I didn't, so I looked it up. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the term dates from 1965. Other words coined that year: jet lag, mini dress, pop art, teach-in, doo-wop and time traveller. Reading these words, I felt like a time traveller myself. In part this is because those words are so familiar now but also because the connotations of 'tree hugger' have changed so much. In 1965,  tree hugger was a derogatory term. Not so today.

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Continuum, Continued

November 23rd, 2020 | 4 Comments »
untitled (7 of 7)
Over the last few weeks, while the weather was remarkably kind, I've continued to work on an extension to Timelines, the trail that explores ideas about memory, history and our relationship to the land. I wrote about the initial work on Continuum in my last blog post, almost a month ago.  Since then, lots has happened. We added a wonderful tree trunk bench alongside the stream, right next to the old lid from a sap bucket that was used, who knows how many years ago, when maple syrup was being made at Orin's Sugarcamp.

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Continuum

October 27th, 2020 | 12 Comments »
This is how the rock looked in 2013, before I started on the trail extension.
"There is often a huge difference between an idea and its realization. Ideas must be put to the test. That's why we make things, otherwise they would be no more than ideas." Andy Goldsworthy's words ring true for me. I have more ideas than I can realize, certainly more than I can act on in my lifetime.  Folders splitting at the seams contain scribbled thoughts and doodles, pages torn from magazines, projects detailed but never executed. So when I begin to translate an idea into the reality that Goldsworthy speaks

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Autumn Leaves

October 12th, 2020 | 11 Comments »
The Forms are one installation on Timelines, the trail at Glen Villa that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land.
Walking through the woods recently, I passed this installation, called The Forms.   [caption id="attachment_9253" align="aligncenter" width="3728"] The Forms represent the basic building blocks of the constructed world. They are one part of Timelines, the trail at Glen Villa that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land.[/caption]   The colours of the plexiglass shapes stood out from the muted tones around them, attracting me like a magnet. Closer, I noticed leaves scattered on top of them, some haphazardly, some artfully arranged.     The contrast in colours atop

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Autumn Colour Brings Joy

October 6th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
The colour of this sourgum is quite different from the one next to it -- this one a fruit salad of peach and apricot, the other a fire of red-hot apple.
The autumn colours seem particularly intense this year at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Leaves started to turn earlier than usual and the height of the season has almost come and gone. But what a season it has been! It started early, when a small horse chestnut tree (Aesculus pavia) began to turn.   [caption id="attachment_9230" align="aligncenter" width="2541"] This photo was taken in mid-September[/caption]   It continued as the sourgum trees (Nyssa sylvatica) nearby began to change colour. First one tree caught fire ...   [caption id="attachment_9228" align="aligncenter"

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Visitors at Glen Villa

September 29th, 2020 | 11 Comments »
The team from NIP Paysage stand beside Bridge Ascending, a sculpture by Quebec artists Louise Doucet and Satoshi Saito.
Last week was very unusual -- after a summer of isolation, living inside a family-only bubble, two groups of visitors came to tour Glen Villa. One group came from NIP Paysage, a landscape architecture firm in Montreal whose name reflects its approach to every project it undertakes. To understand, you need to know that NIP is the French acronym for a PIN, or Personal Identification Number. So, as its website states, "NIP aims to reveal the true character of the environments upon which it intervenes." I first met two of the principals

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