Tag Archives: words in the landscape

Bosco della Ragnaia: A Garden for the Mind

July 13th, 2020 | 6 Comments »

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. That’s a powerful message in these times. But I believe that a garden can do more.

Bosco della Ragnaia, the garden landscape created near Siena in Italy by Sheppard Craige, soothes the soul and excites the mind. I’ve visited this garden twice and would happily return many times more. For this is a place that offers insights that endure.


This overview of the sunny side of Bosco della Ragnaia illustrates how the garden maker has played with perspective and historic precedence.
This overview of the sunny side of Bosco della Ragnaia illustrates how the garden maker has played with perspective and historic precedence.


A 10-acre plot described by its maker as a woodland park of tall trees, Bosco della Ragnaia is more a work of art than a garden in any traditional sense.  And although it is privately owned, it is open to individuals at no cost, without reservations or advance booking.

Visitors enter the garden along a tree-lined avenue where clay sculptures by the American artist Frances Lansing depict woodland scenes, animals and Sheppard Craige, the garden maker and Lansing’s husband.


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At the end of the path, almost magically, those same visitors move from bright sunlight into deep shade, an abrupt plunge that makes duality, one of the themes of the garden, explicit.

Posts painted in alternate stripes of black and white suggest an antithesis that eliminates any possibility of grey.


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But the absolutist position becomes increasingly nuanced as the garden opens up.


was I

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Is it a fluke that the stone reading Night appears in sunlight and the stone reading Day appears in shadow? Possibly.







But again and again throughout Bosco della Ragnaia, words question our certainties.  Montaigne’s dictum “Que sais-je?” or ‘What do I know?’ makes this explicit.

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Shown again and again in the garden as Pan, the Arcadian god of wild groves, Craige is a playful spirit.


If not here, where?
If not here, where?


He shows us the universe as it is via a large book that opens to mirror the sky above. At the same time he cautions us against thinking we can comprehend nature in its entirety. An upright stone near the entrance is engraved to read

Everywhere you can see part of it

Nowhere can you see all of it.


The German artist Gerhard Richter once wrote a note to himself. “Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty, because it …  shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”

A good garden does the same, and Bosco della Ragnaia is a very good garden. Even while its multiple references demonstrate Craige’s Renaissance sensibilities and familiarity with classical literature, the questioning that underpins it  makes Bosco della Ragnaia very much a garden for today, one where unequivocal certainties are continually unsettled.

Our understanding of nature itself comes under scrutiny through the words of Werner Heisenberg, he of the uncertainty principle.

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Rarely has a garden become rooted in my mind as deeply as Bosco della Ragnaia, and I find myself returning regularly to my photos and my memories to discover new ideas and interpretations, calling into question my own certainties and beliefs.

Recently, Sheppard Cragie was kind enough to send me a copy of a limited edition booklet he produced that tells the story of the garden. Subtitled “When the woods was ruled by Sages,” the text presents the garden in all its complexity. It offers no simple answers or conclusions, but offers choices:

Dunque, or therefore, on one side of the path,


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Invece, or on the other hand, on the opposite.


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And lodged in the opening of both, hard, intractable stones.

Again and again throughout the garden, we are encouraged to think about what we see. To take nothing for granted. To consider our surroundings and how we affect them. In the sunlit side of the garden, three stones laid flat on the ground offer counsel: Not Knowing but Asking; Not Asking but Thinking; not Thinking but Doing.

Sage advice for these days, or for any other.


Try and Try Again

August 18th, 2019 | 15 Comments »
The old saying is a good one: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. There's a meme in the gardening world started by Bonney Lassie at call Tell the Truth Tuesday. Despite my fair share of failures, I've never joined in. But La Seigneurie, one of the newest parts of my Quebec garden, fits the meme all too well. So even if it isn't Tuesday, here's the truth. In early June this year, we seeded a farm field as part of Timelines, the 3 km trail I've developed that explores questions


Words on the Land

July 7th, 2019 | 8 Comments »
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the old saying goes. But sometimes a word says all that needs to be said. Or perhaps, more than a thousand pictures can convey. Words label each section of Timelines, the 2.9 km trail that we are opening to the public for the first time on July 20, as a fund-raiser for the Massawippi Foundation. (You can buy your tickets by clicking here.) Words begin the journey at In Transit/En Route, where signs ask questions   [caption id="attachment_7711" align="alignleft" width="5184"] I deliberately


The Writing is on the Wall

February 1st, 2016 | 18 Comments »
  The writing is on the wall -- not metaphorically but literally.   [caption id="attachment_3465" align="aligncenter" width="3888"] What more is there to say?[/caption]   This latest work of art is a collaboration with my friend and neighbour John Hay. He and I previously collaborated on a mosaic map of Glen Villa and a giant turtle that sits in the Upper Field. More significantly, though, the project is a departure for me. As my granddaughter pointed out, it is the first piece I've conceived that doesn't relate to nature or natural materials in one way


Home Again — and Happy To Be Here

September 21st, 2015 | 6 Comments »
  What a pleasure it is to return to Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec, after three weeks spent visiting gardens in Scotland and England. Seeing so many amazing places there,  I was worried that my own garden would be a disappointment. It wasn't. It isn't. Yes, I can see dozens of things, large and small, that need attention, but to return to a vegetable garden overflowing with produce and a landscape that never fails to delight makes me glad to be home.   [caption id="attachment_2791" align="aligncenter" width="800"] The shrub border