Last year, Michael Gordon, a gardener in New Hampshire, wrote about a book called Go With Me: 50 Steps to Landscape Thinking. In his blog post he described how he used the book to enrich a tour he was leading through gardens in England.
His description intrigued me and I immediately ordered the book on line. No luck — it was out of print. I searched various used book outlets. Again, nothing. Finally, almost a year after beginning the search, I got hold of a copy.
Reading this tiny handbook made the long wait worthwhile.
The landscape architect Thomas Oles, author of Go With Me: 50 Steps to Landscape Thinking, describes the book as “a tool for … students, and all those who share their curiosity about landscape.”
The title, Go With Me, is a literal translation of the Latin term vademecum, used to describe a handbook you carry with you as a reference or guidebook, the sort of small book you put in your pocket and keep with you at all times. (Like my I-phone, you mean, a friend said when I described it. Thus do times change.) Divided into five sections — sensing, reasoning, showing, changing and testing — its fifty entries encourage the student or the general reader to probe their ideas and experiences of landscape more deeply.
What intrigued me in Michael Gordon’s blog post was the way he had used the book as he led his group through some English gardens I know quite well. At Stourhead, using Oles’s words, he encouraged participants to look up, “to lift your eyes above the horizon. Look into the branches above, then to the sky beyond. Crane your neck, hold it there until you swoon. Plunge upward, add this to your knowing of the place.”
At other gardens, Gordon asked members of the group to draw, to transgress, to unpack the map. Ten exercises In ten days. Apparently, the group loved it.
This week, as I am leading a small group through gardens in Italy, I’ll be following Michael Gordon’s lead and using Oles’s Vademecum as my guide. I’m curious to see how these exercises in perception influence the way the group sees and experiences places that are rooted in history and ideas. Will they work as well in Italian gardens as they did in English ones? Some gardens lend themselves more easily to the idea than others. Some groups may be more enthusiastic. More amenable.
Oles’s book focuses on landscape rather than garden, but the two share many similarities. Gardens, like landscapes, are not ways of seeing but ways of being: “the sum total of actions that people and groups undertake to build and shape their environment. … a set of social relationships unfolding and changing in time …”
Social relationships are a big part of a garden tour — of any group that spends extended periods of time together. The relations of people travelling together also unfold and change over time. Sometimes in superficial ways, sometimes in ways more profound.
Two quotations that Oles included as chapter headings spoke strongly to me. The first, for the section on Reasoning, is from Arnold Schopenhauer. (I disregard the non gender-neutral language.)
“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
Even more inducive of self-examination are these words from the section on Testing, from Anais Nin.
“We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
I am testing myself, and challenging the group to test themselves as well. As Oles writes, landscapes — and by extension, gardens — are “made and maintained by actors with varying degrees of power.” Which means, inevitably, that they have political and ethical ramifications. Visiting beautiful places, it is easy to ignore this, to admire only the shiny surface or to criticize only the weeds underfoot.
This experiment in landscape thinking may be a flop. It may be a huge success. I’m willing to take the risk. Because beneath the surface, the soil is richer.