Category Archives: Quotations

Ruins and Recoveries

December 30th, 2020 | 4 Comments »

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.

At Painshill, an early 18th century English garden, the eccentric owner Charles Hamilton constructed a Mausoleum in the form of a ruined Roman triumphal arch. Passing through this ‘arch of death,’  as he called it, contemporary visitors would emerge on the sunny banks of the River Mole, where they would see Hamilton’s newly constructed waterwheel, a revolutionary device that generated electric power and offered a forecast of what the future would bring.


A triumphal arch, Roman style, was part of the landscape at Painshill, an early 18th century garden in England.
The Mausoleum has lost the top of its triumphal arch but the side columns remain.


In the late 1970s, the American cultural geographer J.B. Jackson wrote a thought-provoking  essay called “The Necessity for Ruins.” He argued that ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and in words with strong religious connotations wrote that “the old order has to die before there can be a born-again landscape.”


A ruined building, part of Alcatraz, stands as a reminder of the prison that used to be.
Now a tourist attraction, the island prison Alcatraz fits Jackson’s definition of a born-again landscape. Or at least one that has been re-purposed.


Ruins appeal to us like haunted houses do, attracting us almost against our wills. Their empty spaces, once filled with doors or windows, are  magnets for the imagination, and we fill those spaces with our own fantasies, with dreams of what was, or what might have been, or what one day may be.


The empty windows in this wall at La Torrecchia in southern Italy offer glimpses onto a countryside that is in the process of change.
The empty windows in this wall at the private garden La Torrecchia in southern Italy offer glimpses onto a verdant countryside in the process of becoming less verdant.


Romantic fantasies are part of the appeal. The Italian garden Ninfa, so redolent of the glories of bygone days, mixes the sour air of moldering walls with the powerfully sweet scent of lilacs and roses.


The arched bridge at Ninfa is probably the most photographed spot in the whole garden.
Ninfa has been called the most romantic garden in the world. The arched bridge is probably the most photographed spot in the whole garden, and the green tint in the water is part of its appeal.


But too much sweetness spoils the broth. To exert their full impact, ruins need a whiff of decay.


A temple at Siem Reap in Cambodia casts its spell when approached in silence.
A temple at Siem Reap in Cambodia casts a spell which is particularly strong when approached in silence.


As Sir George Sitwell noted in his book, On the Making of Gardens, ruins where the patina of moss and age have been removed lose their appeal. The stillness of old Italian gardens, with their air of “neglect, desolation and solitude,” makes breathing almost too great an effort. We become unmoored, drifting in and out of time.

“Sleep and forgetfulness brood over the garden, and everywhere from sombre alley and moss-grown stair there rises a faint sweet fragrance of decay.”


An uneven staircase leads up the hillside at Villa Cetinale.
An overgrown staircase, the Scala Santa, leads up the hillside at the Italian Villa Cetinale to the hermitage at the top.


Vegetation that is out of control adds to the appeal of a ruin, its growth suggesting that even in the most inhospitable circumstances, life will assert itself.


Rampant growth characterizes almost every ruin in Cambodia. The fig trees threaten to swallow the roof of this temple.
Rampant growth characterizes almost every ruin in Cambodia. The fig trees here threaten to swallow the roof of this temple.


The combination of fecund nature and crumbling edifice conforms to the Christian doctrine that makes the death and decay of the individual a necessary prelude to resurrection.  The skull beneath the skin and other allusive momemto mori are often seen in European churches and churchyards. Rarely are they as explicit, though, as the inscription that accompanies the skeleton below.


All you that do this place pass bye

Remember death for you must dye.

As you are now even so was I

And as I am so shall you be

Thomas Gooding here do staye

Wayting for God’s judgement daye. 


This unusual tombstone is in the cathedral at Norwich, Dngland.
This unforgettable tombstone is in the cathedral at Norwich, England.


Where, in the ruins of bodies and buildings, do we find today’s equivalent of Charles Hamilton’s water wheel? Where do we look for a future that promises recovery rather than ruin? Not for me in the contemplation of death or in the re-purposing that transformed Alcatraz from prison to tourist attraction. Not in the romantic dreams that speak to young girls’ hearts or in the political forces that have caused so much unnecessary suffering and pain. Hope seems to lie only in the natural world and its relentless tenacity. It alone seems capable of overcoming the follies we humans perpetrate — and let’s acknowledge it, we committed plenty of those in 2020.

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias speaks to the futility of aspiration. If worldly power can crumble, leaving only trunkless legs and a shattered visage, what is the point? The poppies that sprout from stone walls, the trees that split boulders, the weeds that emerge from cracks in the sidewalk, even the bare and boundless sand that stretches far away: they promise that the world will continue, with us or without.


batch 2 (4 of 44)
Poppies are near indestructible flowers, a promise that life goes on, regardless of our stupidities.


I take heart from those poppies and from initials carved into tree trunks. Looking at the photo below, you may wonder why Andy felt the need to deface a tree in order to mark his presence. Was he the one who carved the hearts on the branch? Who knows, and who cares? His name, along with those hearts and the scrawls that were difficult to read when I saw them a decade ago, will be indecipherable soon, if they aren’t already.  The tree will grow around them, obliterating the past in favour of its future health.


Andy's name will slowly disappear from this tree trunk in West Australia.
Andy’s name will slowly disappear from this tree trunk in West Australia.


I ask myself if anything good will come from this ruin of a year. Perhaps we will become kinder to one another. Perhaps more of us will realize that to take care of ourselves, we must also take care of others. Perhaps we won’t. But I hope that we will.

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.



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


Bosco della Ragnaia: A Garden for the Mind

July 13th, 2020 | 6 Comments »
This overview of the sunny side of Bosco della Ragnaia illustrates how the garden maker has played with perspective and historic precedence.
Gardens and the peace they can bring are much on my mind today, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow.  It is a fact that gardens can heal the body as well as the mind. Research from around the world tells us that even brief contacts with nature are beneficial, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress as effectively as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. Almost any reconnection with nature has a powerful physical and mental healing effect, even something as simple as weeding a flower bed.


Plus ça change…

April 9th, 2019 | 11 Comments »
April 1, 2016 (1 of 1)
This winter feels interminable. Surely in earlier years daffodils have been blooming by now, snowdrops long gone. Well, no. It's true that in some years snowdrops have appeared by this date.   [caption id="attachment_7384" align="aligncenter" width="1353"] These snowdrops were shivering in the cold on April 1, 2016.[/caption]   Crocus have bloomed.   [caption id="attachment_7387" align="aligncenter" width="3648"] These crocus were lighting up the hillside on April 4, 2010.[/caption]   Pulmonaria have added their touch of colour.   [caption id="attachment_7394" align="aligncenter" width="2384"] This pulmonaria or lungwort was blooming on April 4, 2010.[/caption]


Listening to Winter

January 30th, 2019 | 8 Comments »
The Abenaki were the original inhabitants of the Eastern Townships of Quebec. This part of my installation, Abenaki Walking, shows the period after the arrival of Europeans, when barbed wire impeded the movement of Abenaki across the land.
On a winter day when temperatures throughout Mid and Eastern North America are plummetting, it is difficult not to project human emotions onto the landscape.  How can winter be so cruel and miserable? A poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens suggests we should think more objectively about what we see outside our door. The Snow Man One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice,


Topiary for the Holidays

December 14th, 2018 | 8 Comments »
Each bird is slightly different, and each has its own personality.
Do Christmas trees qualify as topiary? We never think of them as such but they fit the definition -- the Oxford dictionary calls topiary the "art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes." And surely Christmas trees don't grow naturally into the perfect cones commonly seen but have been pruned and clipped to shape them.   [caption id="attachment_5888" align="aligncenter" width="2099"] This cone-shaped spruce tree is attached to the chimney stack at Glen Villa. It hangs right outside our front door.[/caption]   As a young gardener, I disliked topiary, thinking that it was a distortion


As the Garden Turns

April 22nd, 2018 | 12 Comments »
This garden in the Eastern Townships has a splendid view out over the countryside.
Does your garden turn its face to the world or does it veil it off?  The difference says a lot, about you and the style of your garden -- and about the spirit of the times. Recently I spoke to several groups about how to get the most out of garden visits.  Learning to Look: the Art of Garden Observation considers what it takes to really see a garden. A handout for the talk asks some key questions, starting with the garden's context.  How does it relate to the world around it? Is it open to its surroundings or closed off? Topography


Veddw House Garden

May 22nd, 2017 | 18 Comments »
These hedges were tiny when planted. Very tiny --
 about ankle high. Getting the proportions right must have been a nightmare.
  I'm in England now, about to start on a ten-day garden tour. With my co-host Julia Guest of Travel Concepts in Vancouver, I will take a small group of women to the southwest of England.  But before hitting the road, let me whet your appetite with a review of an extraordinary garden I visited pre-tour. Veddw is the garden of Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes. Located in Wales, just across the border from England in an area of outstanding natural beauty, Veddw pays homage to its surroundings in ways that show respect


A Doorstep for Orin’s Sugarcamp

December 12th, 2016 | 15 Comments »
Jacques and Ken are skilled workers who can operate almost any piece of equipment, even under difficult conditions.
On the weekend we installed the granite slab that marks the 'front door' of Orin's Sugarcamp, my latest art installation at Glen Villa. (You can read about the project here.) Doing this was tricky. It involved transporting an 800-pound slab of rock across a snowy field and a partially frozen stream on the back of an open wagon. That takes skill, particularly since the snow is very slippery right now. But Jacques Gosselin and Ken Kelso, the talented men who work for me at Glen Villa, managed the job with ease.   [caption id="attachment_4767" align="aligncenter" width="1000"]